What is an Open Access Journal? 9 Important Things to Know

Table of Contents

In essence, what is an open access journal?

An open access journal is an online, peer-reviewed academic journal that provides users free, unrestricted access to download, read, and distribute its contents.

In recent years, the open access journal publishing model has gained traction worldwide and continues to grow.

This article defines an open access journal and discusses several common questions about it. It includes the business models, benefits, and publishing options.  

1. What is an Open Access Journal?

An open access journal is an academic journal that publishes scholarly papers and makes the content available for access, download, reading, and distribution without charging subscription fees.

People commonly refer to open access journals as “free journals” since users do not have to pay to read or use their contents. In the general context, it is somehow correct.

But technically, most open access journals use Creative Commons licenses, which are public licenses that allow content usage and impose certain restrictions, if any. Such restrictions may include attribution, modifications, and non-commercialization.

Open access journals are growing in popularity and are well respected in academia.

Major databases such as the Directory of Open Access Publishing have begun focusing on indexing and promoting high-quality open access journals. More established databases have also followed suit.

The presence of established databases in promoting open access journals is an important validation and recognition of open research.

What is an open access journal?

2. Open Access Journals vs. Traditional Journals

In the traditional journal publishing model, accessing and reading journal articles require you to either the following:

  • Access through your university or library subscription. As a personal user, you do not need to pay since you enjoy the benefits of an institutional subscription. But you should also know those institutions’ subscription fees are not cheap and can run to millions of dollars in yearly fees. Access to good academic journals requires a serious investment.
  • You pay a fee for a specific article you are accessing. The download fee can range from USD 10 to USD 100 (or even a wider range). Generally, piecemeal charging (individual download fees) is cheaper, but you have to pay using your pocket (you can also pay and claim from the institution if they allow you).

Users can only access the journal article abstracts without paying for access. It is unhelpful if the work contains important discoveries or data to help other researchers expand their scientific investigations and research.

3. The Issue With Traditional Journal Publishing

Based on the earlier explanation, we can now understand that a paywall stands between users and the journal content in the traditional journal publishing model.

These users could be students, researchers, and academics who need to access the content to read and use it for their research, teaching, or learning purposes.

If a student or researcher does not have an institutional subscription to the journal and can’t afford to pay for the access fee themselves, they are deprived of research exposure. Hence, the paywall becomes a barrier to research expansion.

What we must also understand is that in research and academia:

  • Many research works are enabled by government funding (which goes through universities, research centers, and funding agencies). The money from the government is mostly public funding from taxpayers like us to promote scientific research and discoveries.
  • A crucial output from research is publications. A famous line in the academic world is: publish or perish. Important, ground-breaking research works are often published in journals.

Ideally, research works and publications supported by public funding should be freely available.

So, charging fees to access journal content seems counterintuitive.


It seems a little unfair and unjust if the research works funded by public money cannot be accessed and read freely. It prevents users from doing their “civic duty” to promote academic development simply because they cannot access or afford journal content.

Therefore, the traditional business model has an inherent flaw. It does not allow access to the content unless users pay for access. 

Academic publishers—mainly for-profit academic publishers—allegedly benefited from the traditional journal publishing model by charging exorbitant fees to universities and libraries. Some commercial publishers reportedly make 40% profits off selling journal subscriptions.

4. The History of Open Access Journals

Open access was born out of necessity, with one aim: to promote the free and open distribution of research work to the public.

In 2002, the Budapest Open Access Initiative was launched, which our organization (a scholarly publisher) later adopted to ttransform our academic journals into open access models.

Among others, the Budapest Open Access Initiative aims to take advantage of the advent of Internet access and widen the distribution of research publications without restrictions.

With the open access “movement” gaining popularity, small publishers began migrating to open access journals.

The surge in open access journals was later seen when the Public Library of Science (PLOS), based in San Francisco, California, began launching a series of open access journals. 

Backed by a massive USD10 million grant, PLOS Biology was launched in 2003, followed by PLOS Medicine (2004) and PLOS One (2006).

A stronger commitment towards open access journals appeared in 2018 with the establishment of Plan S, launched by a consortium of international funders led by the European Commission.

Plan S calls for an immediate transition to open access publishing, and it has been adopted as a transformative initiative to make open access mandatory across all scientific publications funded by public money in Europe beginning in 2021.

5. How Do Journals Make Money With Open Access?

Now, you would wonder, since open access journals no longer charge subscription fees for access, how do publishers make money? Or, in simpler terms, how do journal publishers sustain operations?

How journals make money with open access

There are a couple of ways.

First, many publishers running open-access journals impose article processing charges (APC) on authors. The APC is charged only when the manuscript is acceptable for publication in the journal.

Different publishers charge different processing charges. A good range estimate is USD300-USD4,000. Yes, the amount can vastly differ depending on the journal’s status, impact, and which databases the journal is indexed.

Going deeper, some publishers offer Gold and Green open access models.

What are Gold open access and Green open access?

Gold open access means that authors pay premium APC when their manuscript is accepted for publication in open access. The fees are on the higher end of the APC spectrum.

On the other hand, the Green open access model allows authors to self-archive their manuscripts after an embargo period (usually six months). 

The Green open access model charges lower processing charges than Gold open access, but authors must wait before research can be made fully free to the public.

Some publishers make good revenues using the Gold and Green open access models.

Last week, I attended a Frankfurt Book Fair 2021 presentation by a Europe-based academic publisher. I was quite surprised that they generated over €5 million in yearly revenues running several open access journals.

They also showed me they make more than €10K for each journal article published on average!

Second, some open access journals charge nominal submission fees to all authors (as opposed to high fees for accepted articles) submitting their journal manuscripts. The problem with this model is that rejected authors will be unhappy because they have paid fees to submit.

Third, some open access journals rely on institutional funding, endowment, and contributions from public or private agencies. My organization is one of those receiving yearly funds from the university.

However, this model is risky and not sustainable in the long run. 

Publishers can no longer rely on the institutional budget as university funding has been suffering from cuts every year. In our case, operational funding has been slashed for five continuous years.

Therefore, we have initiated the motion to impose the APC charge on the authors. 

Since we are a not-for-profit university publisher, we will charge fees at the lower end of the range. The immediate goal is to sustain the operation.

6. How Many Open Access Journals Are Out There?

The Directory of Access Journals indexes more than 17,000 open-access journals, and the number continues to grow at a rate of 25%- 30% annually.

This large number represents between 45% and 55% of the total number of academic journals published globally. I am confident that most academic journals will adopt open access publishing in the next few years.

Finding the right open access journals to publish, therefore, should not be very difficult. However, researchers should conduct due diligence to identify suitable journals for publishing their research works.

7. What Are the Benefits of Open Access Journals?

Many academic journals have transitioned from the traditional journal publishing model to open access due to many benefits. These advantages include making research more accessible and accelerating the dissemination of research work. 

When you publish your research, you want as many people as possible to reach your work. The absence of a subscription paywall will maximize your publication exposure. And this is where open access can be a great call. 

The more people see your publication, the more likely your work will be cited. Subsequently, the more citations your publication gets, the more impact your research will have. Everyone will be happy.

Another advantage of open access journals is that they give research a level playing field.


Countries with less financial resources (e.g., developing countries) can provide their researchers global access to important, ground-breaking research work.

As a result, more scientific discoveries and academic discourses are stimulated.

8. Disadvantages of Open Access Journals

Despite the inherent benefits, open access journals are also exposed to shortcomings.

One of the biggest problems in journal publishing is the rise of predatory journals. Predatory journals are those “scholarly journals” that publish low-quality manuscripts for a fee without following the scholarly publishing standards.

Predatory journals hardly practice peer review. They normally operate for-profit and will prey on researchers who need fast publications. The practice of predatory journal publishing hinders research progress and wastes research resources.

Predatory journal publishing in open access journals

In addition, open access journals can suffer from publishing hoaxes, plagiarism cases, and data fabrication (though the issues also plague the traditional journal publishing model).

In recent years, several high-profile scientific literature publications have turned out to be fake or fabricated. Unscrupulous academic publishers published such articles with no peer review process whatsoever.

High APC charges imposed by publishers discourage many researchers from publishing their works in open access journals. Not many academics can afford to pay USD 3,000 to get their work published in reputable open access journals.

9. What is the Future of Open Access Journals?

Open access journals will grow in importance and adaptation. More and more countries are mulling over making open access compulsory in journal publishing.

As such, open access journals will become the dominant model in academic publishing. And as a result, more scientific research and discoveries can be easily accessed by everyone worldwide.

While open access journals are projected to increase in numbers, the revenue-generation models in open access may continue to evolve.

Recently, a PLOS representative presented a case study indicating that PLOS journals are looking to revamp their charging model and mechanism. Instead of charging fees to authors, they are looking to charge participating libraries while maintaining the journals’ open access policy.

In time, we will see more and different approaches in open access revenue generation models too.

Concluding Remark

An open access journal provides unrestricted online, peer-reviewed academic content. You can download, read, and share journal articles freely. The many benefits of open access journals have made them a preferred and dominant model in academic publishing and research. More academics are shifting their research works from the traditional journal publishing model into open access.

Moreover, governments are beginning to pay attention to the importance of open access publishing. 

Presently, open access journals are big in Europe and North America, and they will only get bigger and influence the other continents, including Asia and Africa. In years to come, more regulations on compulsory open access research and publications will come into place. 

However, as we have learned, open access journals are not without shortcomings. Other than high APC charges, predatory journals continue to pose academic risks.

However, I remain positive that open access journals will continue to grow in numbers, popularity, and impact, whatever challenges and shortcomings.

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