A Concise History of Open Access

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Open access publishing has transformed the landscape of academic research and scholarship over the past few decades. As it gains traction globally, it is crucial to understand the history of open access and its growing impact.

Open access provides free online access to scholarly research. This model differs from traditional publishing, where readers or institutions must pay subscriptions to access content. Proponents argue open access facilitates the spread of knowledge by removing price barriers. It also helps researchers by increasing the visibility and readership of their work.

This concise history outlines the origins of open access, key milestones, and innovations. It aims to highlight the significance of open access in expanding access to vital research and enabling collaboration. Understanding this evolution sheds light on the current state of open access and future directions.

The Growing Popularity of Open Access

Over the past two decades, open access has gone from a fringe idea to a mainstream model. Thousands of open access journals now exist across disciplines. Major funding agencies mandate open access to research they sponsor. According to estimates, more than 50% of newly published articles are open access.

This growth shows the power of open knowledge sharing. Global collaboration and innovation thrive when ideas can spread freely. As more researchers and institutions embrace open access, its potential expands.

The Impact of Open Access

Studies show open access increases citation rates and media attention for articles. It also expands readership beyond academics, allowing the public to access cutting-edge research. This supports scientific advancement and medical breakthroughs.

Wider access facilitates text and data mining of content. It also aids machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) development. These benefits demonstrate the transformative impact of open knowledge sharing across disciplines and sectors.

Open access empowers researchers and democratizes knowledge. This history outlines its emergence and the push to make research accessible.

Understanding Open Access

Open access refers to the free, unrestricted online access to scholarly research. Unlike traditional publishing models that charge subscription fees to access content, open access makes research papers and articles available to anyone with an internet connection. This has revolutionized the way scholars communicate and share knowledge across the globe.

A key difference between open access and traditional publishing is that the former grants free distribution rights, allowing others to reuse, republish, and translate works as needed. Traditional publishers usually retain exclusive rights, restricting access only to paying subscribers.

There are several benefits of open access for researchers and the public:

  • Increased visibility and readership for authors.
  • Faster dissemination of knowledge without access barriers.
  • Greater social and economic returns on public investments in research.
  • Democratization of information, especially for developing countries.

The open access movement aims to make scholarly works available to all who wish to read or build upon them. This promotes scientific collaboration and public engagement with research globally.

Growth of Open Access Journals

In the early 2000s, new open access journals like PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine launched using author-pays models. This demonstrated that high-quality peer review could be maintained while providing free access.

Currently, there is a significant number of open access journals available globally. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a key resource for accessing these publications, lists over 15,000 peer-reviewed open access journals.

Regarding geographical distribution, the United States leads in the number of open access papers, followed by China, the United Kingdom, and Germany, among others. However, it’s worth noting that most open access articles are written by authors in high-income countries, with low-income countries significantly underrepresented.

Importance of Widespread Dissemination

A key goal of open access is to maximize the impact of research through widespread dissemination. Freely available work is more easily discovered, read, applied, and built upon in scientific progress.

The Early History of Open Access

The open access movement traces its origins back to the late 20th century when the Internet began transforming the world of academic publishing and scholarly communication.

Frustrated by the high cost of academic journals and the limited reach of subscription-based publishing, pioneering researchers started exploring alternative models for sharing their work freely online.

ArxiV: A Pioneer in Open Access

One of the first significant events in the history of open access was the founding of arXiv in 1991.

Created as a preprint server for physicists to share manuscripts before formal publication, arXiv enabled free global access to research previously only circulated in closed circles. This demonstrated the transformative potential of the Internet for scholarly dissemination.

ArXiv was established by physicist Paul Ginsparg at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It began as a preprint server for the physics community, specifically high-energy physics, and it was initially known as the “Los Alamos E-Print Archive.” The idea was to provide an electronic platform where researchers could share their manuscripts before they were formally peer-reviewed and published.

The development of arXiv marked a significant shift in scholarly communication. Before its inception, researchers in fields like physics shared preprints or preliminary versions of their work through mail or at conferences. This process was slow and limited the distribution of knowledge. With arXiv, researchers could instantly disseminate their findings to colleagues around the world, accelerating the pace of scientific discovery.

In 2001, arXiv’s operations moved to Cornell University, where it remains today. The platform expanded to include other disciplines, such as mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering and systems science, and economics.

By providing a free, open-access platform for researchers to share their findings, arXiv played a crucial role in democratizing access to scientific knowledge. It set the stage for the broader open access movement, which seeks to make research freely available to all.

Today, arXiv hosts over a million scholarly articles and is a vital resource for researchers worldwide. The success of arXiv has inspired the creation of other discipline-specific preprint servers, further expanding the reach of open access.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, key advocates began promoting open access through new journals and repositories. Organizations like the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) campaigned for open access, raising awareness of the problems with traditional publishing. They argued that taxpayer-funded research should be freely available to the public.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative

The Budapest Open Access Initiative was another pivotal event in the history of the open access movement. It took place in 2002 in Budapest, Hungary, under the sponsorship of the Open Society Institute, an organization founded by philanthropist George Soros.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative brought together a diverse group of participants, including researchers, librarians, publishers, and representatives from scientific societies and universities worldwide. The purpose of the meeting was to address the growing challenges posed by the traditional model of scholarly publishing, particularly the high costs of accessing academic journals and the resulting barriers to the dissemination of research.

The outcome of the meeting was the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration, which was publicly released in February 2002. This document defined open access as:

“free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.”

The Budapest Open Access Initiative proposed two strategies for achieving open access:

1. Self-archiving: Researchers deposit their peer-reviewed journal articles in open electronic archives known as repositories to make them freely accessible to everyone.

2. Open Access Journals: Journals will not charge for article access. Instead, they will cover their costs through alternative means such as publication charges to authors, grants, or institutional support.

The impact of the Budapest Open Access Initiative on the open access movement was profound. It provided a clear definition of open access and a roadmap for achieving it, guiding the efforts of researchers, institutions, funders, and governments worldwide. Since the Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration, the number of open access journals and repositories has grown exponentially.

The initiative also led to further declarations in support of open access, such as the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing in 2003 and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in 2003.

The Bethesda Statement

The following year, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute hosted a meeting that produced the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing. It made specific recommendations for open access, such as depositing works in open electronic archives. This statement further legitimized the open access movement.

Pioneers established the philosophical, practical, and ethical foundations for open access through these early initiatives. Their vision and advocacy launched a movement that would dramatically transform academic publishing in the following decades.

Berlin Declaration on Open Access

The Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities is a major international statement on open access. It was developed by the Max Planck Society in Germany and presented at a conference in Berlin in October 2003.

The declaration builds upon previous initiatives, such as the Budapest Open Access Initiative and the Bethesda Statement on open access publishing. The Berlin Declaration defines open access contributions as including original scientific research results, raw data and metadata, source materials, digital representations of pictorial and graphical materials, and scholarly multimedia material.

The declaration states that the internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scholarly knowledge and cultural heritage. It promotes the internet as a functional instrument for a global scientific knowledge base and human reflection, providing an unprecedented public good by facilitating free access to comprehensive human knowledge.

The Berlin Declaration on Open Access encourages researchers and cultural heritage custodians to provide all stakeholders with open access to their work. It also calls on policymakers to support open access initiatives and recognize open access as part of their mission. Additionally, it advocates for publishers to facilitate open access by developing appropriate business models.

To implement the Berlin Declaration, its signatories committed to:

  1. Encouraging researchers to publish their work according to the principles of open access.
  2. Encouraging the holders of cultural heritage to support open access by providing their resources on the internet.
  3. Developing strategies to enhance quality assurance and good scientific practice.
  4. Advocating that open access publication be recognized in promotion and tenure evaluations.
  5. Advocating the intrinsic merit of contributions to an open access infrastructure by all researchers.
  6. Encouraging cooperation between research institutions, policymakers, funding bodies, libraries, and publishers.

Hundreds of research institutions, libraries, archives, museums, funding agencies, and governments worldwide have signed the Berlin Declaration on Open Access. These signatories commit to developing and implementing open access policies, infrastructure, and strategies in their institutions.

The Open Access Movement Gains Momentum

In the early 2000s, the open access movement began to gain significant momentum. More open access journals were launched during this period to allow researchers to publish without paywalls. Key examples include PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine, established in 2003 and quickly became influential open access journals.

Repositories also proliferated, often created by universities to house their researchers’ preprints, post-prints, and other scholarly works. By 2005, over 300 open access repositories had been set up worldwide, providing free access to a growing body of literature.

Several interrelated technological advances drove this growth in open access content. The rise of high-speed Internet made it easier to access literature online. New tools and software facilitated the creation of open access journals and repositories.

Notably, major research funding agencies also started promoting open access publishing. In 2008, the National Institutes of Health implemented a public access policy requiring all NIH-funded research to be made openly accessible within 12 months of publication. Other organizations soon followed with similar policies.

Many governments also enacted open access policies and mandates. In 2012, the UK’s Research Councils adopted an open access mandate requiring all funded research to be made openly available. Australia and the EU adopted similar open access policies for publicly funded research.

These initiatives significantly expanded the volume of literature that was freely available. The open access movement had successfully gained momentum, driven by key stakeholders across academia, government, and research funding bodies.

Evolving Models of Open Access

As the open access movement gained momentum, different models of open access publishing emerged. These models represent various strategies for making research freely available.

The three main types are Gold, Green, and hybrid models.

Gold Open Access

Gold open access is a model where an article is immediately provided in open access mode as published. In this model, the author, their institution, or their funding body pays an Article Processing Charges (APCs) to the publisher upon acceptance. The APCs cover the cost of publication, including peer review, editorial work, and online hosting and archiving.

The published articles are then freely available for anyone to read, download, and share. They are typically licensed under terms allowing reuse, such as the Creative Commons license. Examples of gold open access journals include PLOS One and BioMed Central.

Green Open Access

Green open access, also known as self-archiving, is a model where authors publish in any journal and then self-archive a version of the article for free public use in their institutional repository, in a central repository (like PubMed Central), or on some other open access website.

In this scenario, the publisher maintains the copyright of the published work, and the version made freely available might be a preprint or a postprint. A preprint is the author’s original manuscript, and a postprint is the manuscript after peer review.

Some publishers permit the self-archiving of the publisher’s PDF version, while others do not. The embargo period, during which access to the research is restricted, can apply in green open access.

Hybrid Open Access

Hybrid open access is a model offered by some traditional publishers where authors can make their articles open access in subscription journals by paying an APC. This model is termed “hybrid” because it combines elements of both traditional (subscription) and open access publishing models in the same journal.

In a hybrid open access model, some articles in the journal are locked behind a paywall (accessible only to subscribers or for individual purchase). In contrast, others are made freely available (usually those for which the APC has been paid). Critics argue that this leads to ‘double-dipping,’ where publishers receive income twice – once through subscriptions and once through APCs.

These three models represent different strategies for achieving the goals of the open access movement. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and the choice between them often depends on factors such as the author’s funding situation, institutional policies, discipline norms, and the specific goals of the research project.

Challenges and Controversies

While the open access movement has made significant strides in making research more accessible, it has not been without its critics and challenges. Some of the major concerns surrounding open access include:

Quality Control

Some critics argue that open access journals and repositories lack adequate quality control and peer review compared to traditional subscription publications. They contend that this could lead to subpar or unreliable research dissemination.

Advocates counter that many open access journals implement rigorous peer review and editorial processes on par with prestigious subscription journals.


There are ongoing concerns about the long-term sustainability of open access models. Since most open access publications do not charge subscription fees, they must cover costs through other means like author processing charges.

Some worry this could limit participation from authors with insufficient funding. Nonprofit publishers also face sustainability challenges without subscription revenue.

Publisher Opposition

Many commercial publishers have resisted open access initiatives, threatening their subscription income. This has led to heated debates between open knowledge advocates and profit-driven publishers. Publishers have lobbied against open access policies and negotiated hardline with institutions.

Addressing Challenges

Despite these challenges, efforts are underway to strengthen open access. Preprint repositories allow authors to share early research freely. Funders and institutions are providing open access publishing funds.

History of open access

Hybrid models allow authors to pay to make articles open in subscription journals. The open access community continues working to improve standards and long-term viability.

Innovations and Future Directions

The open access movement continues to evolve, with new and innovative models emerging further to increase the accessibility and impact of scholarly research.

One such model is using preprints – manuscripts that are shared publicly before undergoing formal peer review. Preprint servers like arXiv and bioRxiv have become popular ways for researchers to disseminate their findings and get early feedback from colleagues quickly.

There is also a growing emphasis on open data and materials sharing. Researchers are encouraged to make the data underlying their publications freely available in open repositories. This enables others to validate and build on published findings. Some journals also require authors to share materials like customized codes, reagents, and cell lines used in their studies.

Online tools and platforms are facilitating the culture of open science and collaboration. Services like SciHub and ResearchGate provide pirated articles and enable collaboration between academics. However, these have also raised concerns about copyright infringement, sustainability of publishers, and research evaluation metrics.

Open peer review is being experimented with as an alternative to traditional closed review processes. Here, reviews are published alongside the final paper, enabling more transparency and accountability. However, uptake has been gradual as reviewers may hesitate to provide frank feedback openly.

There are also ongoing efforts to promote open access through new policies and initiatives. Funding agencies increasingly mandate open access dissemination of funded research.

Governments are developing open access policies – beginning 2020, the EU demanded immediate open access to publicly funded research by 2020. Global collaborations like cOAlition S also champion full and immediate open access to scientific publications.

While challenges remain, the open access movement has momentum and is making progress in increasing the accessibility and impact of scholarly research. With continued efforts and innovation, open access will hopefully become the norm in academic publishing.


Looking at the history of open access, the movement has fundamentally transformed the landscape of academic publishing, making a significant impact on research dissemination and knowledge sharing.

By providing free, unrestricted access to scholarly research, open access has democratized information, breaking down barriers to knowledge and facilitating global scientific collaboration. Despite challenges such as quality control, sustainability, and publisher opposition, the movement continues to evolve and innovate, with an increasing number of stakeholders embracing its principles.

From the pioneering efforts of arXiv to the declarations of Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin, the history of open access is marked by milestones that have progressively expanded the reach of scholarly communication. As more open access journals emerge and repositories grow, the movement continues to gain momentum, backed by supportive policies from funders and governments.

Innovations like preprints, open data, and open peer review are pushing the boundaries of what open access can achieve. These developments not only make research outputs more accessible but also promote transparency and reproducibility in science. While there is still work to be done, particularly in addressing issues of equity and sustainability, the future of open access looks promising.

The open access history and movement represent a profound shift toward a more inclusive and collaborative model of knowledge production and dissemination. It embodies the ethos of a global scientific community striving to share its findings widely and freely. As we look forward, it is clear that open access will continue to play a pivotal role in shaping the future of scholarly communication and research.

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