Key Moments in the History of Open Access

Open access is the new paradigm for academic publishing. In 2020, it outperformed subscription-based publishing for the first time. This signalled a major shift in academic research and the history of open access, so it’s worth understanding how this occurred.

In this article, we’ll look at what open access is, its history, and its core values.

The benefits of publishing open access include gaining more citations and a greater impact, reaching a wider audience, advancing scientific innovation, retaining copyright, and increasing the potential of collaboration and recognition. Furthermore, open access can help institutions like universities and research agencies in low- and middle-income countries by removing any price barriers to academic research.

But what is open access and how does it boast such advantages?

What is open access?

Simply, open access refers to a publishing model for scholarly research that makes information immediately available to readers at no cost that is free to reuse for scholarly purposes.

There are a few different colour-coded types of open access:

  • Gold: This refers to publishing in a fully open access scholarly journal. There tends to be an Article Processing Charge (APC) for authors submitting work, which will be explained below. The Directory of Open Access Journals features a list of gold open access journals.
  • Green: This involves depositing research into a subject-based or institutional repository. This is also known as self-archiving.
  • Diamond: Work published in this form is freely available to readers and has no APC.
  • Hybrid: Some traditional subscription-based journals offer authors the option to publish their submitted work in an open access form for a fee.

Fewer restrictions in licensing and copyright

The Creative Commons License, outlined in 2002, was instrumental to enabling open access. This license clarifies traditional copyright law to enable creators to “make their works available for copying, modification, and redistribution”. This protects open access publishers, authors, and those who want to engage with the work by outlining the conditions of use.

Open access is changing the academic publishing landscape. To some, it’s the norm. For others, it seems like a radical break from tradition. To understand the history of open access, it’s worth going back to before the term was coined in 2002—even as far back as ancient Greece and Egypt.

Early principles and practice

The term academic comes from Akadēmia, the olive groves that Plato and his followers would gather in to deliver lectures, conduct research, and participate in discussions.

Such areas to collect and exchange information evolved into centres like the Library of Alexandria and, much later, the first recognised universities in Europe, including the University of Paris. Other ancient libraries include the Library of Ashurbanipal, a trove of information from the Assyrian Empire that was excavated beginning in the 19th century in Iraq.

These institutions preserved knowledge for visitors to disseminate and practice in countries across the world. Therefore, academia can be considered international and collaborative, aspiring towards the common aim of developing knowledge. Technological developments have only helped to advance the dissemination of academic research on a wider scale.

Technological revolutions

Our article “Open Access is Older Than You Think” looks at how open access is a continuation of the values of academia, rather than a break from tradition.

Interestingly, the article makes a parallel between the Gutenberg Press and the Internet.

The Gutenberg Press revolutionised the dissemination of information by enabling the mass printing of new observations, experiments, and discoveries. Writing could travel to the reader, rather than the reader having to travel to specific universities or libraries to access texts. From this, over the course of 300 years, scientific journals adopted subscription-based models.

The emergence of the Internet in the 20th century then presented an opportunity for an even wider, more accessible, and faster way of disseminating information. This is where the history of open access begins. The article highlights an early non-academic example of open access, Project Gutenberg, and three academic examples, arXiv, The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, and Molecules.

Academia has always harnessed technology to pursue its fundamental aim of generating and disseminating knowledge internationally. As such, open access is the natural evolution of the traditional academic publishing model.

The landmark initiative

Members of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), led by the Open Society Institute, coined the term “open access” in 2002. This Initiative highlighted the radical changes brought on by the Internet and drew from the “old tradition” of scholarly research. From this, the BOAI aspires to establish a “foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge”.

Our article “Looking Back at the Budapest Open Access Initiative” examines the BOAI and how it has evolved since its initial conception.

Open access values

The BOAI defines open access as “free availability on the public internet”, allowing users to read, distribute, and cite work without restrictions. It proposes two aims: to follow the practice of self-archiving (green OA), and to launch open access journals (gold OA).

Thus, the first BOAI meeting aimed to “foster change on a systematic level”, rather than focusing on individual journals. This was an ambitious aim: they were aiming to change an $8 billion industry. With open access overtaking subscription-based publishing in 2020, this Initiative’s importance for the history of open access cannot be understated.

The same article examines how further initiatives and declarations supported it, despite the backlash from the publishing industry.

The largest publisher of open access articles

MDPI makes all its research immediately available worldwide, giving readers free and unlimited access to the full text of all published articles.

It didn’t begin as a publisher, though, as highlighted in our article “MDPI and Open Access”, which looks at the company’s history in relation to that of open access.

MDPI and the history of open access

The abbreviation MDPI initially stood for ‘Molecular Diversity Preservation International’. This was a non-profit institute for promoting and preserving the diversity of chemical compound samples. It was founded in Basel, Switzerland, in 1996.

To support this project, MDPI launched a journal entitled Molecules, which was one of the first electronic journals on chemistry. The journal was free to read, meaning MDPI was practising open access before the term was coined. Over the next 4 years, MDPI launched new journals including the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Entropy, and Sensors. In 2006, MDPI professionalised and standardised its editorial handling of manuscripts across all journals, embracing a fully open access policy.

In 2008, MDPI repurposed its acronym into ‘Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute’, as the open access policy was further clarified, a Creative Commons license adopted, and more journals were planned.

Now, MDPI has over 400 journals, and it published 295,046 articles in 2022 alone. It continues to grow and expand, but how does its open access model work?

How open access works

MDPI journals are gold open access. This means that authors pay an Author Processing Charge (APC) to publish articles that are fully open access.

Because readers do not pay anything to access the material, the APC covers the costs of the editorial process. Here is a basic overview of the typical publishing process:

  • Pre-check: This consists of a technical pre-check by the Editorial Office and an editorial pre-check by an academic editor.
  • Peer review: An MDPI staff member coordinates the review process. This is single-blind for most journals and double-blind for others. At least two review reports are collected for each submitted article.
  • Revision: If only minor or major revisions are recommended, the MDPI staff request the author revise the paper. Revised papers may or may not be sent for review again.
  • Editor decision: The academic editor makes acceptance decisions.
  • Production: MDPI’s in-house teams perform language editing, copy editing, and formatting.

After this, MDPI publishes the papers online as fully open access. To learn more about why publishing open access costs money, read our article, “Why Does Open Access Cost Money”.

Open access is the new paradigm

The sudden growth and reshaping of academic publishing make open access seem like a break from tradition. But really, it’s a continuation. Open access uses technological developments, i.e., the Internet, to update the communication of research. Accordingly, it’s the natural evolution of academia, which has always aspired to pursue the development of common knowledge at the international level.

Thus, open access is ideal for tackling global challenges such as climate change and cancer research that require urgent attention. It makes vital information accessible to all readers and researchers and brings together scholars from across the world.

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