A researcher’s complete guide to open access papers

Finding quality scientific research can be hard, even in the Information Age when almost anything can be found online. Open access papers make the research process just that little bit easier.

This blog will provide researchers with a full overview of what open access is, the advantages of open access resources, what to look out for when publishing open access papers, as well as the different types of open access available.

What is open access?

Open access (OA) is the name for free, digital, full-text scientific and academic material made available online. As defined by Creative Commons, open access papers are “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”1

How did open access develop?

The 1990s saw the beginning of the open access movement brought on by the widespread availability of the internet, although researchers in physics and computer scientists had been self-archiving work on the internet long before this method of publication was officially named ‘open access’.

Open access capitalized on the burgeoning amount of emerging digital technologies and trends to make the discovery of research easier and to increase its subsequent impact. Open access ensured that researchers’ work would benefit from widespread distribution, as well as allowing researchers to advance their work more quickly and students to enrich their learning without restriction.

Researchers and students in developing countries that may not have access to subscription journals also benefit greatly from open access resources. This ensures that academics from around the world are able to contribute to world-class research.1

What are the advantages of making papers open access?

By making their material open access, authors are able to enjoy a broad readership and increased circulation and citation of their work.1 Researchers are able to enhance their own academic work and advance their studies by easily accessing and distributing key research papers related to their area of study. Being able to make links and research across the different sciences, for example, also greatly improves research and discovery in a great number of academic disciplines.

How unpaywall integration increases accessibility of scholarly material

Web of Science has Unpaywall data integrated into the database. Unpaywall, a non-profit project by Impactstory aims to make scholarly material more accessible, gathers open access content from over 50,000 journals and legal open access repositories, including those run by universities, governments, and scholarly societies.2 For each DOI, Unpaywall has a record of any open access versions of the paper that exist online.

Researchers using Web of Science are able to access millions of peer-reviewed open access papers through integrating Unpaywall with their own database. This integration “substantially increase[s] discoverability and access” to trustworthy open access material and enables researchers to progress in their area of study with ease.3

The different types of open access

There are five main types of open access: Green, Bronze, Gold, Platinum or Diamond, and Hybrid. These different types of open access describe five different ways to make academic work freely available online.

Open access papers sometimes have lenient copyright and licensing restrictions depending on the open access route they have been published through, allowing anyone on the internet to read, download, copy and distribute material within reasonable use.

Derivative work can also be produced using some open access papers, providing the original author is credited. Creative Commons licenses help you share scholarly material legally online with standardized copyright licenses. Below is a brief explanation of the different Creative Commons licenses available.

Creative Commons licenses

There are six main types of Creative Commons license:4

  • Attribution (CC-BY)
  • Attribution ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)
  • Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)
  • Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND).

Each of these licenses use different combinations of the following four license conditions:

Attribution (BY)

Every Creative Commons license requires anyone using your work to credit you in the way you see fit. Their credit cannot suggest that you have endorsed their use of your work. People using your work who do not wish to credit you must get permission from you before using it.

ShareAlike (SA)

You allow other people to use, copy, share, show and change your work if they share any modified versions of your work under the same conditions that you originally shared it. Permission must be sought from you if users wish to share it under different conditions.

NonCommercial (NC)

You allow other people to copy, share, show and change your work, unless you have chosen NoDerivatives, in which case no modifications can be made without your permission. Other people can use your work for any purpose other than commercial uses, unless permission has been given.

NoDerivatives (ND)

The NoDerivatives condition allows others to copy, share and show original copies of your work. No changes to your work may be made unless you give prior permission.

The different Creative Commons licenses and their specific combinations of license conditions are explained in full below.

Attribution (CC BY)

This is the most lenient of Creative Commons licenses, and allows users to share, edit and build on your work, even for commercial uses. Users must credit you if they wish to use your work.

Attribution ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

Users can share, edit and build on your work, including for commercial purposes. All derivative works created from your work must also be shared under the Attribution ShareAlike license.

Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND)

Credit must be given to you when your work is used. Anyone using your work may use your work for any purpose, but it cannot be changed from its original form.

Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC)

Your work can be edited and built upon for non-commercial purposes. Any derivative works created from your work must credit you as the original author. Users of your work do not have to use the same CC BY-NC license for their derivative works.

Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA)

Users can edit and build upon your work for non-commercial purposes. They must credit you as the author and any derivative works must use the same license as the original work.

Attribution-Non-Commercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

This is the most restrictive Creative Commons license. Your work cannot be changed in any way, and users must credit you if they download and share your work. Commercial use is not allowed with this license.

What are the differences between Green, Bronze, Gold, Platinum or Diamond and Hybrid open access?

Green open access

Green open access makes the author responsible for making an article freely available and archiving it, whether it is archived by sharing it through an institution’s repository, a personal website, or another public archive.

Some versions of Green OA papers may not have been copyedited, but may have been peer reviewed.

Pre-publication Green refers to the version of your work before it has been submitted to a journal, and is sometimes called the pre-print version.

Post-publication Green refers to the final draft of your work that has been accepted for publication by a journal, before it has been copyedited, typeset, and proofread. It is also referred to as the post-print version.

The publisher will keep a copy of the full, peer reviewed version of your work, which is called the Version of Record (VOR) and readers can access these reviewed, full-text versions of the paper for a fee. This version is not Green open access, but alternative versions such as the pre-publication and post-publication version can be accessed under Green open access.

The rights for re-use may be limited with Green OA, and access to Green open access papers may be limited by a publisher embargo period. An embargo period is when access to scholarly articles is not open to readers who have not paid for access. Different journals may have different embargo periods, so it is important to find out if the journal you have chosen to publish with will apply one to your work.

Bronze open access

No open access fee is paid for Bronze open access, with the publisher choosing to make material freely available online.5

Publishers are entitled to revoke open access rights to Bronze materials at any time, leading some to debate whether this is in line with true open access criteria.

Gold open access

Gold open access means the publisher is responsible for making the published academic material freely available online. Gold open access papers mean that the Version of Record is published and made freely available online. A Creative Commons license will be applied to Gold open access papers in most cases. The Version of Record will be the final, peer reviewed paper.

Gold OA will not charge readers to access a paper, instead often charging an article processing charge (APC) to cover the publishing and distribution costs, for which the author isn’t always responsible. An institution or funder may pay the APC.

A key benefit of Gold open access publishing is that as the author, you will retain copyright over your work under a Creative Commons license. The full, unrestricted reuse of published work, providing the original author is cited, is allowed with Gold OA.

Platinum and Diamond open access

In the Platinum and Diamond open access model, authors, institutions, and funders do not pay open access fees, and material is made free to read online. The publisher will pay any fees applied during the publication process. Platinum and Diamond open access models are popular with university presses that account for publishing costs in their budgets.

Hybrid open access

Hybrid open access is a mixed model that publishes both Hybrid and subscription content. It allows authors to pay an article publication charge and publish specific work as Gold open access papers.

As an author, you can benefit from Hybrid open access because it allows you to publish with trusted journals. Authors often are more concerned about which journal is best to publish with than which business model (i.e subscription or open access) journals use.

This can help a journal transition to operating on an open access business model as it will increase the amount of open access content its community is publishing.

Despite these advantages, Hybrid open access is not without its critics. One issue cited is ‘double dipping’, where publishers charge libraries twice for the same content.

With a number of charges being applied to the publication process, it’s important to know what fees apply to making your work open access, and who is responsible for paying them.

What are the costs involved with open access?

There are a huge number of journals to submit academic work to, and it can be hard to know which journal is right for your work. Along with the wide number of journals, there are also a variety of fees that authors may need to pay in order to publish their work.

If you are the author of a paper, you may have to pay the fees yourself, or your research funder or institution may pay the fees in part or in full for you. A 2011 report showed that open access publication fees were only paid with personal funding in 12% of cases, with funders paying in 59% of cases, and universities in 24% of cases.6

APCs, also known as publication fees, are applied by many open access journals to account for peer reviewing and editorial costs, and to make material available in both open access journals or hybrid journals. There are still journals that do not apply APCs, but these charges are the most common way journals generate their income.

Luckily, as an author you may not always have to pay the full fees themselves when publishing your work. For instance, some libraries offer deals to publishers charging reduced rate fees if they publish your work in specific open access journals. This means you may be able to save money on APCs when submitting your papers to these peer reviewed journals.

In some cases, charges may be lifted due to financial hardship or due to the economic status of an author’s geographic location. If you do not have funding for APCs, ask the journal’s editorial team for their waiver policy.

Checking whether the Directory of Open Access Journals (commonly known as DOAJ) lists the journal you would like to be published in is recommended.

Where can I find open access journals?

There are a number of online tools that can help you source OA papers, and below are just a few.

  • Web of Science allows you to discover world-class research literature from specially selected, high-quality journals, and users can easily access millions of peer-reviewed open access articles. You can also use Kopernio, a free browser plugin featured in Web of Science to get one click access to your PDF faster using open access alternatives when the PDF you are looking for is not available via your existing institutional subscription.
  • Directory of Open Access Journals is a community-built directory that provides access to peer reviewed journals.
  • PubMed Central is run by the National Institute of Health and is a full-text archive of biomedical and life sciences journals, which increases visibility of scholarly material.
  • Think.Check.Submit. is an international, cross-sector initiative offering tools and resources to help you identify trustworthy journals for your research.
  • ROAD allows you to search for OA papers by name, subject, or ISSN number.


To ensure you can make the most of open access publishing, it is important to understand what options are available to you, the different stages in the open access publication process, and how this may influence where and how you make your work available for a wide readership online.

There are a number of different types of open access publishing with differences in copyright licenses, embargo periods, and how many versions of your work will be available online. Open access allows scientific papers to be made freely available online so that authors can distribute their work more widely and researchers can access quality, often peer reviewed work for free, advancing discovery and improving education worldwide.

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