Navigating Open Access

By Richard Black|November 7, 2014|Research|5 comments

There are probably lots of candidates for the title ‘most talked about but least understood’ challenge facing researchers in UK universities, but surely ‘Open Access’ is high amongst these.  For some, the question may simply be ‘what is Open Access?’; more likely the question is ‘why?’, or perhaps ‘why should I pay an article processing charge to publish my work when my Library is still paying a subscription to the same journal?’.

None of these questions sets a discussion about Open Access off on a very good footing, but they are all legitimate questions. In turn, I don’t pretend to be an expert on Open Access, but I have been asking myself these questions – and more – as SOAS comes to grips with new requirements on Open Access that go with public research funding.  For there are indeed new requirements – both in terms of core funding from HEFCE (so-called ‘QR’ funding, distributed through the REF); or research grant funding from research councils such as ESRC and AHRC.

New requirements on Open Access

Let’s start with the new requirements.  Put simply, they are:

  • Journal articles submitted to the 2020 REF with an acceptance date of 1 April 2016 or later will have to be available as open access – either ‘gold’ or ‘green’ with a maximum embargo date of 24 months after acceptance for all SOAS disciplines (essentially the arts and humanities and social sciences).  That means choosing a journal that accepts this option, and also implementing it, by uploading the article onto the School’s e-repository, SOAS research online.
  • Research council grant applications will have to contain a publication strategy that includes articles to be published as ‘gold’ open access – i.e. freely downloadable from the point of publication.  The cost of this will have to be paid by the School, although we have received a modest grant from HEFCE to cover these payments.

The full HEFCE guidance for the REF can be found here.  And embargo periods for journals can be found here.

So what is Open Access? 

As the above suggests, it comes in two forms – ‘green’ and ‘gold’.

In the case of ‘gold’, you pay an ‘Article Processing Charge’ up front to the journal, and in return, your article will be freely available for anyone to download on the publisher’s website.  You will also need to deposit the article on SOAS  Research Online; and you have to pay anywhere between £500 and £2,000 to the journal, with better journals generally charging more (although this is not a hard and fast rule).

For example, if you wanted to publish a gold open access article in the excellent China Quarterly, a SOAS journal published by Cambridge University Press, you’d need to pay £1,695 to CUP for this.  Interestingly, nobody has yet done so, and so there are no articles currently available on the CQ website free of charge.

The alternative is ‘green’.  Here, you don’t have to pay anything to the publisher.  However, you do need to take action yourself to make the article freely available, and different journals have different rules around what you can do and when.

To take China Quarterly again, they will allow you to publish the ‘Accepted Version’ – that is the version before final editing and typesetting – on your own personal website or SOAS Research Online at any point after acceptance. But to fulfill HEFCE requirements, you will need to do the latter (i.e. place it on an institutional repository) within three months of acceptance, or the article will not qualify for submission to the REF.

Why Open Access?

HEFCE and RCUK requirements are all very well, and instrumentally, they provide a good enough reason to pay attention to open access publishing.  But beyond this requirement, what is the point?  In particular, what is the point from the perspective of arts and humanities and social sciences?

From my own personal background, open access is simply a good thing.  Having worked for a number of years across Africa, and more recently in Asia with academic colleagues and co-authors who have not had access to the same journals as I have – simply because their libraries could not afford the subscriptions – open access holds out the possibility of a more equitable relationship with overseas collaborators.

That is not to say that access to journals in poorer countries in Africa and Asia cannot be achieved by other means.  One of the first negotiations I ever had with collaborators in a DFID-funded research centre on migration and poverty was about whether the University of Ghana could use project funds to allow access of its researchers to J-STOR (it could), and whether all overseas researchers could have full electronic access to our own library (that was more difficult, due to licensing restrictions, but we found a way to do this for at least more senior collaborators).

Some journals also have special initiatives for researchers based in poorer countries.  An example is the Journal of Qur’anic Studies, also edited at SOAS, where the publisher, Edinburgh University Press, makes all of its journals freely available to institutions within 35 Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries through its ‘Developing Country Initiative’.

But these special initiatives aside, surely it is reasonable more broadly that publicly funded research should be available free of charge to the public?  Certainly DFID think so, and not only allow, but effectively require open access publishing charges to be budgeted for, so that research they fund can be immediately available, through the best journals, to all in society, whether they are researchers or not, and whether they are in poor or rich countries.

Similarly, although the UK research councils – ESRC and AHRC for example – do not allow Article Processing Charges to be included in a research grant budget, they do provide SOAS and other institutions with a budget to pay these charges for work funded by them.   More information about this is on our website.

Why pay twice?

That brings me to my last point.  Even if funders like DFID, ESRC and AHRC do make funding for Article Processing Charges available to researchers, it is a bit galling to be asked to pay these charges up front, but then for our Library still to have to pay the same subscription for these journals.

This so-called ‘double dipping’ is a matter that UK Librarians are concerned about, and looking into options to solve.  One option is to negotiate a discount on journals where a significant volume of article processing charges have already been paid, although this is not easy in an era when many journal subscriptions are ‘bundled’ by publishers into packages where a library may not even need a particular journal, but receives it as part of a package.

Of course, one reason for maintaining ‘double dipping’ is that nobody is sure if the system of open access will fully take off, and publishers – wishing to protect their margins – are wary of moving to a new funding system that might make them less money.  But it is not just publishers that have a stake here – the owners of journals also make money from them.

And beyond the particular interest of private owners of journals, it is worth noting that journal ownership is important for most learned societies, for whom journals often make a significant proportion of their income; and for SOAS, which owns three journals published by Cambridge University Press that also generate a not-insignificant income.

That makes it particularly important for us at SOAS to get our heads around Open Access.  In that spirit, I’d welcome comments and posts on this blog that might get that conversation going.

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  1. You state that with gold OA, authors must pay an APC. However, the majority of OA titles listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) do not charge APCs. (See also myth #2: That said, it *is* the case that traditionally published journals almost always charge APCs for their OA options (referred to as “hybrid OA”). And typically, these fees are much higher than those charged by pure gold OA journals.

    More generally, if you have not already read Peter Suber’s book, Open Access, you can access the text (along with lots of updates!) via his wiki at A shorter, but also very useful resource is his “How to Make Your Own Work Open Access” at

    For a discipline-specific focus, I recently launched a blog to help forced migration researchers learn how to more easily “navigate OA”:

    1. Hi Elisa, you are quite right to point out that many pure OA journals either do not charge fees at all, or charge quite low fees – indeed Geo, the journal for which I’m on the editorial board, charges a much lower fee than, say, CQ. I guess the issue for these journals is two fold – first, without charging fees at all, how do you make sure you produce a high quality product; and second, even if you do charge a fee, how do you build up an academic reputation? I know that in some subjects, this just doesn’t matter – increasingly the trend in subjects like Physics or Maths, the idea is just to get material out there, and it will be judged by whether it lasts without being challenged, and/or by whether it is cited. But in the humanities, and significant parts of the social sciences, it just doesn’t work like that. If you are publishing in Jaina studies, you just aren’t going to get a lot of citations (or probably not). But that doesn’t make the work intrinsically uninteresting, and getting your work into a journal with the best possible reputation, through a clear and rigorous peer review system, is one of the things that marks that work out as excellent.

      Anyway, it will be interesting to see how these ‘pure’ OA journals develop – my advice to anyone thinking of publishing in them is look carefully at their editorial policy, what kind of peer review they use, and who else is publishing there (and indeed who is on the editorial board). For younger scholars in particular, publishing your work in the wrong place can make the difference between it being read, and not being read.

  2. I forgot to mention in the blog my own membership of the editorial board of Geo, a new Open Access journal that is being published by the Royal Geographical Society. There are a number of other interesting initiatives like this – such as Modern Languages Online, where Rossella Ferrari and Grace Koh (both of SOAS) are on the Editorial Board.

  3. Open Access has also found its way to China, but so far not for scholars in the humanities. In a recent article for The Conversation I speculated about the reasons for this: .

  4. Open access IS a good thing – but there is more to this than ensuring academics at other institutions have access to journals. For me open access is an important step in the democratisation of knowledge – so that individuals in all countries, whether as concerned citizens, patients, amateur art historians or simply seekers after knowledge, are able to read the latest academic research and use it in their lives.

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