Open Access Primer: Issues and Resources

by Mark Williams


The Open Access publishing model has both matured and struggled over the last decade. The nature of how people produce and distribute information is changing and the world of academic publishing is no exception.  Proponents of Open Access (OA) advocate the movement’s ability to deliver scholarly research more efficiently and to a broader audience than ever before.  Open Access also offers a potential alternative to the rising subscription costs associated with traditional publishers, making it appealing to librarians and academic administrators. Opponents raise questions about the quality of research and peer-review being done in OA publications (particularly in self-identified open access journals.) There are also concerns of profits being taken from traditional publishers and questions about copyright ownership.

There is also confusion over what exactly OA is. “Open” is a word often invoked to describe a variety of ideologically aligned, but separate movements, such as Open Source, Open Data and Open Government. These movements share a common thread of the internet and the opportunities it provides to exchange information freely and more efficiently.  However, these ideas are also distinct, often having very different goals. Muddling the terminology associated with each of them leads to misunderstandings and in some cases resistance. This article aims to serve as a brief, but not exhaustive, primer on Open Access, along with a discussion of a few issues contributing to the confusion of the campaign’s goals. Finally, the article includes Open Access information resources available for authors, librarians and other interested parties.


Open Access generally refers to two distinct models known as “green” and “gold.” Gold OA consists of journals that are published as Open Access where all articles are available for free, generally without an embargo period. (Suber, 2012) With Gold OA, the author usually retains the copyright or has some kind of shared ownership with a publisher that enables them to  freely share their work on other platforms.  An example of a Gold OA publisher is the Public Library of Science (Science, 2012) which acts as both a publisher and advocacy group for OA.

Green OA, often called the “self-archiving” method, is where authors or librarians deposit published works into freely a viewable electronic archive, such as an institutional repository.  Unlike Gold OA, Green OA materials are often featured in journals from a traditional publishing company first, and appear in the repository after an embargo period or only as a pre-print version of the paper. Perhaps the most prominent example of Green OA is the repository established by the National Institutes of Health, which through federal legislation required all NIH-funded research articles to be deposited into its PubMed Central repository and made publicly available within 12 months of the date of publication. Green OA is commonly found at universities, where repositories are established to promote and preserve faculty scholarship. One example is Harvard’s DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard) page, which features submissions by faculty from a variety of departments as well as thesis and dissertation submissions.

Green OA has the most potential to conflict with copyright law because of restrictive licensing agreements often required by traditional publishers.  This can lead to challenges for librarians attempting to build repositories that archive backlogs of publications spanning several years. Licensing agreements for recent publications can ascertained with relative ease, either by inquiring with the faculty themselves or through a copyright clearance site. However for works published further in the past, this process can become difficult. Faculty may no longer be available to quickly confirm the license status of the work or, depending on the discipline, the journal’s archiving policy maybe be ambiguous or non-existent. Often these restrictions can lead to an outright exclusion of a work.

Perhaps most troubling for Open Access advocates is the misconception that it violates or conflicts with current copyright law. It does not. Open Access is actually about the proactive advocacy of copyright. It seeks to help authors find ways to either retain their copyrights entirely, or to craft licenses and addendums that allow them to retain republishing rights.  Some of these licensing resources are referenced later in the article.



Much of the confusion and resistance to OA stems from the belief that it works in opposition to copyright law, when in fact the opposite is true(Suber, 2012).  OA advocates author education of under copyright and how creators can negotiate to retain or license their rights rather than sign them away.

Under U.S. Code  (17 U.S.C § 106) copyright vests in the creator at the time the work is completed – or in the case of an author- the moment it has been written down. The simplicity of this arrangement is often the very source of the confusion. There is no need to register the copyright (though it is advisable) or take any other steps to have exclusive rights over the creation. It simply belongs to the creator until it is given away. Yet many authors do not realize this, or are ambivalent about its consequences. Unsurprisingly, many traditional academic publishers require authors to sign away these rights as a condition of publication whether the author is aware of it or not.

Simply advising academic authors to retain their copyrights when seeking to publisher their work is easier said than done. More often than not, the bargaining leverage between creator and publisher is unbalanced, and the author, seeking to publish his or her work in the most prestigious and influential forums possible, will sign away their rights without reservation. Given the competition for tenure and professional prestige, this position is understandable, and is a major obstacle for OA to overcome.

Attaining prestige is difficult for Gold OA journals, which are new on the scene and viewed as having less rigorous peer-review. However, there is strong evidence based on citation impact studies, that the scholarly influence of OA journals (particularly in the sciences) are competitive with their traditional counterparts (Gargouri et al., 2010).

University-sponsored institutional repositories are increasingly offering authors tools to negotiate license agreements that allow for self-archiving. The most notable standard for this model is from Creative Commons, a non-profit started by academic Lawrence Lessig and others aiming to expand how creative works can be legally shared.  Creative Commons’ aims are important to OA, but even more crucial are its copyright licensing formats which allow creators to retain rights while still sharing their work. For example, The Idaho Librarian employs a Creative Commons Attribution license that grants broad sharing and distribution rights to authors. It should be noted that there is considerable criticism of Creative Commons’ licenses and whether they actually help or confuse the copyright conversation. Regardless, Creative Commons plays an important role in OA publishing and authors rights in the United States and abroad.

Harvard, MIT and several other leading academic institutions have issued university-wide Open Access mandates, and numbers are increasing (Howard, 2011). Though universally referred to as “mandates” these agreements allow faculty to opt in to a university-drafted license granting the institution a non-exclusive right to distribute articles for non-commercial purposes such as an institutional repository. Using Harvard as an example, such policies mimic the template required by The National Institutes of Health including a rights-retaining license and an archiving requirement in NIH’s PubMed repository. With powerful institutions providing more bargaining leverage, the balance of power between authors and publishers is becoming more even, with more authors able to negotiate rights to redistribute their work.


There are two ideologically opposed Congressional bills in various stages of development that address open access mandates for journal articles containing federally-funded research. The first is the Research Works Act which would have reversed The National Institutes of Health’s Open Access policy. (“Research Works Act,” 2011-2012)The bill was successfully thwarted in February, 2012 after a large protest (Kakaes, 2012). However similar bills have been pushed by the publishing industry in the past and likely will be again.          The second bill is the Federal Research Public Access Act which would take the NIH policy and expand it to the 11 U.S. government agencies with annual research budgets over of $100 million. This bill has also has also appeared in past Congressional sessions and though it is effectively tabled as the 112 Congress comes to a close, it is also candidate for reintroduction when the 113th session convenes in January. These two conflicting bills and their histories, while significant in themselves, are important the larger context in that they demonstrate the battle for Open Access legitimacy.


Open Access, being open, is a subject that lends itself to a multitude of credible free information resources. Besides OA journals themselves, there are a wealth of informative sites covering OA news and developments.

Open Access Overview (

Harvard Open Access Project Director Peter Suber’s Open Access information page includes a comprehensive overview with particular focus on copyright. Suber explains that if properly done, Open Access should work within existing copyright systems. The site advocates OA and the author’s point of view should be placed in that context. Suber also recently released an excellent book simply titled Open Access which covers and expands on much of his writings on OA.

Directory of Open Access Journals (

The Directory of Open Access Journals, operated by Lund University in Sweden. DOAJ is both a directory and a portal to information framing the issues surrounding OA. Their information page links to other important free resources that should be accessed when starting the research process on OA topics.

Social Science Research Network (SSRN) ( )

Social Science Research Network is one of the premier academic repositories in the world, claiming over 179,000 authors since 1992 and over 380,000 papers and abstracts in its e-library. SSRN features original OA research journals as well as pre-prints of forthcoming articles in other journals, though these are primarily in the fields of law and economics.


The Association of Research Libraries’ Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition or SPARCis a prominent professional advocacy group for OA. Like other resources mentioned, it keeps track of OA news and developments, but does so with an academic-library focus.

Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication Policies (

Harvard was one of the first institutions to take up a university-wide OA policy. Its Office of Scholarly Communication provides a Frequently Asked Questions section page on OA and provides the previously mentioned model policy statement with accompanying annotations to further explain its provisions(Shieber, 2010). The model policy is typical of what many institutions are adopting and is an excellent starting point for universities looking to adopt an OA mandate.


Open Access is part of a larger potential paradigm shift affecting how people produce, access and share information. Despite obstacles and questions, the trend of openly sharing academic information is slowly gaining acceptance at the faculty, institutional and publisher levels.  Continued author education and advocacy of copyright and licensing issues can bring more academic scholarship to public sphere in the same way PubMed has done for government-funded medical research.  Additionally, opposing Congressional efforts attempting to  either eliminate or expand the National Institutes of Health OA policy will also help determine when and if OA can ever grow into universally accepted way to publish scholarly works.  The resources featured provide a gateway to the world of Open Access, demonstrating that while there is much work to do, much has already been done. The momentum of the Internet has already established a culture that values the free and efficient exchange of information. One way or another, the world of academic scholarship will increasingly be a part of it.

Mark Williams is an MLIS candidate at Wayne State University. He works as a research and circulation desk assistant at the University of Idaho College of Law Library.


Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Larivière, V., Gingras, Y., Carr, L., Brody, T., & Harnad, S. (2010). Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLoS ONE, 5(10), e13636. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013636

Howard, J. (2011). Universities Join Together to Support Open-Access Policies. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Kakaes, K. (2012). Scientists’ Victory Over the Research Works Act Is Like the SOPA Defeat. Slate. Retrieved from

Research Works Act, H.R. 3699, U.S. House of Representatives (2011-2012).

Science, P. L. O. (2012), from

Shieber, S. M. (2010). A Model-Open Access Policy: Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication.

Suber, P. (2012). Open Access Overview, from


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