Open Access: The Story so Far

Note: This article is intended to provide some background on open access publication and recent developments that affect scholarly publishing programs. GSA Council is currently weighing options for how GSA can position its publication program in this new environment, and information on that plan will be disseminated as it becomes available. (Published in GSA Today, September 2014, p. 60.)

The ability to gain access to scientific literature varies by who you are and where you work, so your reaction to the phrase “open access” is likely to vary as well. Faculty members at large research universities often have seamless access to thousands of papers via their libraries’ collections, while those at smaller schools may have a more limited choice of books and journals. Researchers outside of academia may have subscriptions through employers or professional societies, or they may use pay-per-view options as needed. Others may have access only by direct appeal to authors or publishers.

As a reader, if you can get what you need when you need it, without barriers or hardship, you are unlikely to think too much about open access. As a researcher, you may be concerned about open access only when your funding sources have a say in how you publish your results, or you may equate papers that are freely available as having a better chance at citation.

But all indicators point to changes ahead for every researcher, reader, institution, and publisher as open access initiatives and mandates continue to transform scholarly publishing.

The open access movement began on more than one front, and it gained momentum as the Internet made more and more resources available online. But even before the idea that “online = free” became a common expectation, many researchers wanted their research to be openly available without barriers such as required subscriptions or paywalls.

In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative first defined the term open access, and other initiatives followed ( In 2003, a group of individuals from academia, publishing, professional societies, libraries, and government agencies released the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing in order to define and support the concept of open access (

Universities, facing ever-tightening library budgets and ever-growing subscription prices, objected to what they felt was “paying twice” for research—once to support the research and researchers and again to buy the resulting papers back through subscriptions for their libraries.

In the political realm, a growing number of people began to support the idea that research funded by taxes should be freely available to the tax-paying public.

The publishing community at large initially lobbied against government mandates for open access, resulting in some publishers being portrayed as greedy and ignoring the public good. Examples were made of larger commercial publishers who “bundle” journal subscriptions, forcing libraries to buy large packages at what was perceived to be outrageous prices.

Society publishers quickly realized that tricky times lay ahead. It seemed that all publishers, large and small, commercial and nonprofit, were being swept into the same pile. And by this time, many professional, nonprofit societies had come to rely on publication revenue to fund other projects and programs—research grants, educational programs, professional development, public policy efforts, and so on.

After years of debate and delays, open access mandates started to make headway, initially in the realm of health and medicine.

Canadian and European funding agencies were among the first to propose and then mandate open access publication or institutional repositories for publicly funded research. (The Canadian Institutes of Health Research adopted an open access self-archiving policy in 2007; the UK-based Wellcome Trust developed policies starting in 2003.)

In the United States, the Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health was put in place in 2008. It requires all investigators who are funded by the NIH to submit electronic versions of their final peer-reviewed manuscripts to the National Library of Medicine’s publicly available PubMed Central no later than 12 months after the official date of publication.

For GSA publications, a key turning point was the passage of the Research Councils UK mandate, which went into effect 1 April 2013 for any submitted papers which resulted from research wholly or partially funded by the RCUK. (The seven UK Research Councils are: Arts & Humanities Research Council; Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council; Economic & Social Research Council; Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council; Medical Research Council; Natural Environment Research Council; and Science & Technology Facilities Council). With a percentage of authors submitting papers to GSA getting funding from, for example, the NERC, the “someday” open access mandate became real.

GSA has, in fact, offered an open access option since 2008. The article processing charge was (and is) $2,500 and started with Geology. In 2013, GSA adopted an open access policy that accommodates the Research Councils UK mandate that went into effect April 2013. (See the policy at

The next big public mandate appears to be coming from the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, which on 22 February 2013 released a directive requiring federal agencies with $100 million or more in research and development funding to submit draft open access policies by 22 August 2013 ( As of this writing, the result of that directive has not yet been released.

Further reading: (maintained by the Copyright Clearance Center) (published by the Society for Scholarly Publishing)
GSA Council’s decisions regarding open access
GSA Council’s latest plans for GSA