Open Access Values Are Older Than You Think

Open access scholarly publishing is accelerating globally, with the Directory of Open Access Journals containing over 19,000 journals and over 8.9 million articles. Despite such figures, there are still a lot of misunderstandings about open access values.

The history of academic research is linked to technological advances in the pursuit of generating and disseminating knowledge internationally. As such, open access represents an evolution of the traditional academic publishing model.

Here, we’ll show how open access values are academic values by tracing the history of academia up to now. To understand this, we must begin with Ancient Greece and Egypt.

Olive groves and libraries

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 in the 4th century B.C.E. Basically, the area was dedicated to generating knowledge through dialogue and exchange.

While there’s plenty of evidence that many libraries exist in the ancient world, such as the Library of Ashurbanipal, academic research was further developed as an international endeavour through institutions like the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. It was arguably the first library to have an international scope.

Creating libraries involved gathering and copying out texts on diverse topics. These included various national and religious texts and translations, writings on medicine and mathematics, and studies of Earth. Estimations of the number of books at the Library of Alexandria vary between 200,000 and 700,000.

Libraries and academic repositories are demonstrably important for accessibility, the preservation of knowledge, and as a reflection of historical ideas.

Centres of learning

Scholars from Europe, Africa, and Asia would travel to the Library of Alexandria to report their own findings and gather new information to deliver to their home countries. Thus, academic research in the ancient period had, by this point, taken on an international and collaborative quality.

Already, elements of open access values can be seen in the dissemination of knowledge in ancient times. But first, let’s see how the printing press revolutionized academic research similar to how open access would centuries later.

The printing revolution

In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg built upon recent industrial innovations to construct a machine that could rapidly produce pages of text. The Gutenberg Press involved arranging the necessary letters on a matrix, coating them in ink, and lowering them onto paper.

Thus, the Gutenberg Press enabled the mass printing of texts reporting new observations, experiments, and discoveries. New information could travel to the reader, rather than the reader having to travel to specific locations like universities or libraries.

First scientific journals

As a result, arguably the first scientific journal, Journal des sçavans, began in 1665.

The journal outlined its aim “to treat everything that was susceptible of interest to a man of culture in Europe”. Practically, this involved, among other things, book reviews and recordings of new observations, experiments, and discoveries in physics, chemistry, the arts, mathematics, and anatomy.

The traditional academic research model

Scientific journals grew rapidly in the nineteenth century. Beginning with about 100 titles worldwide, by the end of the century, “the number of science periodicals grew to an estimated 10,000”.

The basic model for scholarly communication remained mostly unchanged until the mid-20th century. This included subscription to journals, which would often be discipline orientated and feature articles and reviews. Academics depended on printers and publishers to produce copies and spread their work to readers.

However, towards the end of the 20th century, subscription costs for publications rose much faster than inflation. The “serials crisis” meant libraries could not afford all the publications they wanted. The average price of academic journals increased by 226% between 1986 and 2001 alone.

This conflicted with aspirations in academic research for wide distribution and accessibility, as vital research was behind expensive paywalls.

The digital revolution

A few decades earlier, the first large-scale computer network, the ARPANET, was developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency. By 1969, the network enabled messaging between sites and, 4 years later, 30 academic, military, and research institutions were connected from North America and Europe. Thus, the Internet was originally invented to accelerate research by connecting scholars.

The network enabled them to share resources between sites and work towards a common aim despite being in different locations. Arguably, the first practice of open access values occurred on the ARPANET.

Project Gutenberg

In 1971, Michael S. Hart, a student at Illinois, was given the chance to use a mainframe that was connected to the ARPANET. On it, he decided to type up the Declaration of Independence. This was the first e-version of a printed document shared to an online network.

Thus, this represented a revolution in knowledge sharing much like the first mass-printed books: texts could be made available for free to anyone with access to the network.

New potential

As far back as Ancient Greece, academia revolved around establishing centres of learning that scholars could access and spread the fruits of internationally.

Book printing sped up the spreading of knowledge and helped in establishing more centres of learning across the globe. However, this meant academics were dependent on printers and publishers.

Using the ARPANET, and subsequently the Internet, such a centre could be accessible anywhere, at any time, and by anyone with a computer, thus removing many of the barriers to information. Moreover, it was a way for academics to share their work free from the increasingly expensive subscription-based print model.

Online academic research

There were a few early practitioners of open access values in academia that paved the way. Here are three key examples.

The Public-Access Computer Systems Review

In 1989, the University of Houston Libraries created the PACS Review as an experiment with the new electronic medium. It emulated the style, format, and content of printed journals, but distributed it, at first, via email. The journal’s audience was librarians and those interested in computing applied to the needs of library users.


In 1991, the first free scientific online archive, arXiv, went online. It began as an email list for physics preprints. But, to reduce the number of emails, arXiv became a central online repository. This means researchers can self-archive their results and receive feedback quickly. Research can then be used and built upon instantly and for free.

In 2022, arXiv reached two million papers.


In 1996, there were less than 40 e-journals of any kind. MDPI, in collaboration with Springer Verlag, created Molecules, one of the first electronic chemistry journals. MDPI was first established to enable the deposit and exchange of rare molecular and biomolecular research samples. Materials aimed to support this by documenting the chemicals in the MDPI collection.

Since then, it has consistently been the leading open access publication in Organic Chemistry. It’s expanded to include over 25 sections and, in 2019, it published its 20,000th paper.

See our article “MDPI and Open Access” for more information about how MDPI grew from an archive for chemical samples to be the largest open access publisher.

Open access values

These three examples used the Internet to share information for free online.

The Internet reduced the costs of, increased access to, and sped up the publishing of academic research. Given that academic research has always strived towards collaboration and knowledge sharing, these are all benefits, and open access is simply the culmination of these ideas in practice.

If you want to learn further details about open access, see our article “Key Moments in the history of Open Access”.

Basically, open access values are not a break from tradition. They are a natural evolution of academic values enabled by technology. The Library of Alexandria was a centre of knowledge in the ancient period, but now, this centre is accessible anywhere and at any time. All that’s left is ensuring that it is accessible to anyone, which open access aims to do.