A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access
by Peter Suber, Director, Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication
(Suber, Peter, 2004, A Very Brief Introduction to Open Access, available online at: http://legacy.earlham.edu/%7Epeters/fos/brief.htm; accessed 9/28/16.)
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. In most fields, scholarly journals do not pay authors, who can therefore consent to OA without losing revenue. In this respect scholars and scientists are very differently situated from most musicians and movie-makers, and controversies about OA to music and movies do not carry over to research literature.
OA is entirely compatible with peer review, and all the major OA initiatives for scientific and scholarly literature insist on its importance. Just as authors of journal articles donate their labor, so do most journal editors and referees participating in peer review.
OA literature is not free to produce, even if it is less expensive to produce than conventionally published literature. The question is not whether scholarly literature can be made costless, but whether there are better ways to pay the bills than by charging readers and creating access barriers. Business models for paying the bills depend on how OA is delivered.
There are two primary vehicles for delivering OA to research articles: OA journals and OA archives or repositories.
OA journals perform peer review and then make the approved contents freely available to the world. Their expenses consist of peer review, manuscript preparation, and server space. OA journals pay their bills very much the way broadcast television and radio stations do: those with an interest in disseminating the content pay the production costs upfront so that access can be free of charge for everyone with the right equipment. Sometimes this means that journals have a subsidy from the hosting university or professional society. Sometimes it means that journals charge a processing fee on accepted articles, to be paid by the author or the author's sponsor (employer, funding agency). OA journals that charge processing fees usually waive them in cases of economic hardship. OA journals with institutional subsidies tend to charge no processing fees. OA journals can get by on lower subsidies or fees if they have income from other publications, advertising, priced add-ons, or auxiliary services. Some institutions and consortia arrange fee discounts. Some OA publishers waive the fee for all researchers affiliated with institutions that have purchased an annual membership. There's a lot of room for creativity in finding ways to pay the costs of a peer-reviewed OA journal, and we're far from having exhausted our cleverness and imagination.
OA archives or repositories do not perform peer review, but simply make their contents freely available to the world. They may contain unrefereed preprints, refereed postprints, or both. Archives may belong to institutions, such as universities and laboratories, or disciplines, such as physics and economics. Authors may archive their preprints without anyone else's permission, and a majority of journals already permit authors to archive their postprints. When archives comply with the metadata harvesting protocol of the Open Archives Initiative, then they are interoperable and users can find their contents without knowing which archives exist, where they are located, or what they contain. There is now open-source software for building and maintaining OAI-compliant archives and worldwide momentum for using it.
For more information on Open Access, see Peter Suber's book - Open Access (Cambridge, MA: MIT University Press, 2012) that is freely available online!
"We engage and invest in research in order to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery, encourage innovation, enrich education, and stimulate the economy — to improve the public good. Communication of the results of research is an essential component of the research process; research can only advance by sharing the results, and the value of an investment in research is only maximized through wide use of its results. Yet, too often, because of cost barriers or use restrictions, research results are not available to the full community of potential users. The Internet gives us the opportunity to bring this crucial information to a worldwide audience at virtually no marginal cost, and allows us to use it in new, innovative ways. This has resulted in a call for a new framework to allow research results to be more easily accessed and used — the call for Open Access." (from SPARC OA Factsheet, available at: http://sparcopen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/SPARC-Open-Access-Factsheet.pdf; accessed 9/28/16).
You may have come across the terms Gold Open Access or Green Open Access when learning about Open Access. Here is a quick definition of those terms: