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 free, unrestricted access for users 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 what an open access journal is and discusses several common questions about open access journals. These include the business models, benefits of open access journals, and how you can publish in open access journals.  

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, read 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 the contents. In the general context, it is somehow correct.

But technically, most open access journals use the 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. And more established databases also have been following suit.

The presence of established databases in promoting open access journals is an important validation and recognition to 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 institution 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 amount to anything from USD10 to USD100 (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).

Without paying for access, all users can get are the journal article’s abstracts, which are not very useful if the work contains important discoveries or data that can help other researchers expand their scientific investigations and research works.

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.

Academic | What is an open access journal?

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

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

Ideally, research works and publications supported by public funding in the first place should be made available freely to the public.

So, charging fees to access journal content seems counterintuitive.


It seems it is 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 since it does not allow access to the content unless they pay for access. 

Academic publishers—mainly commercial academic publishers—allegedly benefited from the traditional journal publishing model by charging exorbitant fees to universities and libraries. Some commercial publishers reportedly make a 40% profit margin 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 in turning 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.

Explosion 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 this has been adopted as a transformative initiative towards making open access mandatory across all scientific publications funded by public money in Europe beginning 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 a simpler term, how do journal publishers sustain operation?

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) to 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 the manuscript is accepted for publication in open access. The fees will be 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). 

Green open access model charges lower processing charges compared to 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 and was quite surprised to learn that they generated over €5 million in yearly revenues running several open access journals.

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

Second, some open access journals charge small submission fees to all authors (as opposed to high fees for accepted articles) submitting their journal manuscripts. The fees are nominal, but the problem with the submission fee model is that rejected authors will be unhappy since they have paid fees in submitting.

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.

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

Publishers can no longer rely on institutional budget as funding to universities have 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. 

For a start, since we are a not-for-profit university publisher, we will be charging fees in the lower end of the range. The immediate goal is to sustain the operation.

6. How many open access journals are out there?

There are currently more than 17,000 open access journals indexed by the Directory of Access Journals. The number continues to grow at a rate of 25%-30% annually.

The large number represents anywhere between 45% and 55% of the total 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 make the appropriate due diligence to identify suitable journals for publishing their research works.

7. What are the benefits of open access journals?

Due to many benefits, many academic journals have transitioned from the traditional journal publishing model to open access. 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 can get cited. Subsequently, the more citations your publication gets, the more impact your research will be. Everybody will be happy.

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


Countries with access to 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. What are the 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 publications in the scientific literature have turned out to be fake or fabricated articles. Unscrupulous academic publishers published such articles with no peer review process whatsoever.

High APC charges imposed by publishers also discourage many researchers from publishing their works in open access journals. Not many academics can afford to pay USD3,000 or so 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 instead 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 for you to benefit from. 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. And in years to come, more regulations pertaining the 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 risks to academia.

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