The open access premise

Making sure everyone has a piece of the (knowledge) pie

Image credit: Hugo Aitken on Unsplash

Imagine that you buy a bushel of apples from your local supermarket and then bake an apple pie following your friend’s instructions. Now imagine that your friend will only let you eat the pie if you pay her.

Something similar takes place in the traditional journal article publication system. At a certain point, if you want to download a copy of your published article for yourself or to share with colleagues, you or your institution needs to pay the company that helped you publish it.

Open access aims to give everyone a piece of the pie by making scholarly information available for free and without restrictions to anyone who wants to read it.

How are journal articles typically published?

Academics and other researchers are paid for their work by universities or research institutes. They distribute their research findings in journals which they submit articles to. The submitted articles are then reviewed by colleagues in their field (peer review) before being published in a journal by a publishing company. After publication, the researcher’s university or institute has to pay license fees or journal subscription costs so that the researcher and any other members of the institution can access the article. That means that at a publicly-funded university, tax dollars pay for both the researchers’ work and the publishing company’s licensing or subscription fees, but the normal taxpayer would still not be able to view the article.

Of course, publishing companies charge subscription fees since they need to be able to cover the costs of publication. Publishers have had and continue to have an important role in the academic publication process; they select articles, locate reviewers, aggregate journal copies, and print and distribute journal issues.

The open access publication process works a bit differently. Instead of receiving money through subscription fees, the publisher will usually be paid in advance by the authors who receive a budget from their universities or research institutes for publishing articles. This is known as an article processing charge, or APC. The published article is then made freely accessible online for anyone who wants to read it.

How is the traditional model of publishing changing?

The Internet has had a major impact on how journal articles are used. Many disciplines now work primarily with digital versions of articles accessed directly from databases or publisher websites. For these disciplines, the traditional print issue is something of the past. No longer do researchers flip through the latest issues of the most important journals in their field. Instead, they use targeted search terms to locate relevant articles. As a result, you now see library space that used to be reserved for print journal collections making way for group workspaces.

You might expect that the transformation of printed journal articles to online-only articles would mean a more efficient and cost-effective publication process. If an article is only needed in electronic format, a publishing company’s printing and distribution steps are no longer necessary. Authors can also directly distribute research results by posting them online. Distribution can be a lot cheaper, since uploading to preprint servers such as arXiv and other institutional servers is free.

However, publisher fees have not decreased as a result of these changes. One reason is the concentration of important journals among a few large companies. Researchers naturally want to publish their articles in the most prestigious journals in their fields. Especially among early-career academics, it’s advantageous to publish in a journal with a high impact factor. Publication in a leading journal can pave the way to more grant money, collaboration opportunities, or even a tenure-track position.

This demand has made it possible for journals to increase their prices, since researchers not only want to publish in such journals, they also want to read what their peers have published in them. They expect that the libraries at their universities will provide access to them.

However, such price increases come at a time when many library budgets have stagnated or are declining. This discrepancy has led to what’s now known as the serials crisis.

For a number of years, universities around the world have been fighting back against what they view as unfair terms. For example, the publishing company Elsevier is now being boycotted by certain universities and research institutes who have chosen not to renew their subscriptions and who will no longer provide access to articles published by Elsevier. One recent and widely publicized case was the University of California system’s termination of its subscription in February 2019.

Journals and grant agencies have followed the universities’ examples. One journal editorial board resigned from Elsevier and then started its own open access journal in protest. Some grant agencies now require researchers to publish results in open-access publications. There are also initiatives to encourage this, such as Plan S, a Europe-based initiative that also includes The Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Journal publishers naturally have a different view and see their price increases as necessary. According to Elsevier, prices for subscriptions are dependent on a number of factors besides journal quality. These include publication processes, usage, volume, and competition.

Downloading open access articles to your reference management software

Since open access articles are freely available by their very nature, you can download them directly using the link in your reference management software. If you search for a number of articles at once using Citavi’s Find full text feature, it will search Unpaywall and the Directory of Open Access Journals in addition to other services. Zotero, another reference management program, also searches for freely available journal articles using Unpaywall.

Depending on your subject area, you may be able to find a large number of open access articles or none at all. For example, the Life Sciences use open access to a much larger extent than the Humanities. This means that you may not always be able to just rely on open access articles for a research project.

To access traditionally published articles that your university has subscribed to, you’ll have the best luck if you are in your campus network. When working off-campus, it’s good to use a VPN connection to your university network if your university provides such access.

Alternatively, you can access licensed full-text articles using EZproxy, OpenURL, or HAN. In Citavi’s options window, you can enter the corresponding information under “Tools” > “Options” > “RSS/OpenURL”. If you don’t see your institution in the list, ask your librarian for the connection URL. While not all institutions offer these services, many do.

Even when connected to your university network, there may be some articles that aren’t available for full-text download. If you really need a copy of an article, check your library’s webpage to see if you can order it through interlibrary loan.

Using one of these three methods ensures that you’ll still be able to get a piece of the (knowledge) pie, even if an article isn’t open access.


What do you think about the open access model? What’s your opinion about Elsevier? We look forward to hearing your opinion on our Facebook page.


For Further Reading:

Information platform Open Access:




Created by: Jana Behrendt – Published on: 4/9/2019

About Jana Behrendt

Jana Behrendt, a librarian by training, is deeply interested in everything related to personal information management. However, she does not read as much as you would expect from a librarian. She loves hiking in the Swiss Alps – as long as she doesn’t have to look down.

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