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Open Access, or Copyright as a Barrier to Access for Scholarly Work

Once the Internet became established as a communications network for virtually all academic institutions during the last decades of the 20th century, it became clear that scholarly information could be sent almost instantaneously across the network by those who produced it to those who needed to read it. After consideration of the growing phenomenon over the 1980s and 1990s, Earlham College professor Peter Suber created this definition of “open access”:
“Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder.

Commercial publishers for the most part accept scholarly material for publication either for free from the author or they may charge the author fees for publishing, such as in the case of so called page charges. Page charges may range from $100 for each page of the article to $2000 for color illustrations or other special page features. Commercial publishers usually require the author to give them the copyright for the material, then they charge royalty fees, subscription fees or other access charges for those who wish to read or otherwise use the material in order to make their profit. The restrictions and prices imposed by commercial publishers of scholarly materials can be a difficult barrier to access for those who need to read or use the materials. Commercial publishers may also provide free access to users of the material, not require the author to assign copyright to them, and instead charge the author substantive fees to have the material published. This open access offering by publishers is called the “author pays” model. The fees may be equivalent to the amount the publisher may expect to otherwise make from subscriptions or pay-per-use models and may be as high as $2500 for a journal article.

Many see the barriers created by copyright as destructive developments for the scholarly community, noting that if an individual scholar is not able to read all the scholarship in their field due to price restrictions or interlibrary lending restrictions, their scholarship suffers as a consequence. If one can only have access to 80% of what exists in that scholarly field, what is the quality of one’s scholarship? These are troubling issues in the current scholarly communication system.

Because the internet provides many alternatives to commercial publishing for scholars, it is possible to distribute scholarly materials at no cost to the user other than the costs involved in getting access to an internet connection. There are now thousands of free scholarly journals. This free access for users is the open access alternative, and more scholars are taking advantage of it because of the barrier-free access it provides to their work and the subsequent higher impact. When the material is available without copyright restrictions, fees and subscription charges for access, data is beginning to show that the material is used more frequently than copyright-restricted material. By using open access distribution methods, scholars implicitly give permission for use of material free of charge and copies can be made and distributed by whoever wishes to do so without individual permission by the author. Some open access publications are restricted somewhat by Creative Commons licenses that may require use to also include attribution for the original author, or may require that each use also be open access.

The open access alternative is so attractive for so many different reasons that many funding agencies now require scholarly authors to publish the results of their projects in open access venues and the faculties of many institutions are declaring through resolutions that they will publish only in open access venues.

For more information and discussion regarding open access, see the Simmons College Open Access wiki.

Blog post created by Lorre Smith