top of page

Thing 6 Open Access and Open Research

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

Richard White, Manager for Copyright & Open Access at the University of Otago

Eagle attacking two emus
Giant Haast's eagle attacking New Zealand moa (Art: John Megahan)

Why begin this Thing with a picture of the Haast’s Eagle, the largest known eagle to have ever existed? Perhaps it’s a metaphor for sharp-taloned publishing mega-corporations preying on poor, flightless Moa-researchers? No! First, it’s a cool picture and, second, it was first published in an open access research article in PLoS in 2005. A quick reverse image search on Google shows its footprint (talon-print?) on around 1000 pages on the Internet, from Wikipedia, to Science education sites, to museum sites, to online newspapers, to hundreds of references on Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit, and National Geographic. (Note that for the last example I couldn’t read the associated article because it required a subscription). This doesn’t include the countless science education videos I’ve personally seen it in, like an adapted version in a video by PBS Eons with nearly 1 million views.

In Thing 6 we will focus on copyright, ownership and permissions. That can all get complex, understanding who owns what and what you might need permission to use. On one level, Open access (OA) is about making work available with licences that are not “all rights reserved” so that anyone can access, copy, adapt, translate, build upon it, etc. This is the legal basis that enables something broader, more of a philosophy about how to think about the way we work in academia: not open access but open research.

Increasingly we are seeing funding agencies and governments mandate that the work they fund is open access. This is a policy-driven approach to affect the systems and ecosystems based on the principle “the public paid for it so they should be able to read about the results and use them.” At that policy level things are developing fast but in this Thing we will keep our focus on you as individual researchers.

Thinking about it from this point of view, at its heart open research is about:

● making my work inclusive rather than exclusive. When my work is not behind a paywall, it can be used by government agencies, policy makers, the media, businesses, innovators, the general public, practitioners, and teachers and researchers from schools or institutions that can’t afford subscriptions;

● including marginalised communities or groups, whether this is sub-groups within my own community or people in developing countries;

● being transparent, so my work can be freely critiqued and tested for reproducibility; and

● increasing and broadening the people who read my work, and thus enhancing the potential for impact and to be cited, not to mention potentially improving it and developing it in ways I did not envisage.

It’s not rocket science to suggest that, all things being equal, making your work accessible will mean more people read it; more people reading it will mean more researchers using and citing it; making it reusable will increase its impact even more. The research backs this up and it’s generally accepted that, all things being equal, making your work open leads to increased citations (see this article for example).

It’s online so it’s open access! …right??

Making your work free-to-read is one step on the way to open research but it’s just a start. Let’s look at a couple of examples that demonstrate different approaches.

  1. The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Centre has been a central repository of authoritative data in the Covid-19 pandemic. If you look at the footer of their pages you will see “ Copyright © 2021 by Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. All rights reserved.” We’ll look at this when we explore copyright in Thing 21, but this means: I can access the site through my browser; I can use their stats or maps for my own research; I can potentially reproduce them if I am reporting or critiquing them in some way; but because it is all rights reserved I couldn’t copy their resources in other ways. I don’t have access to the underlying data to analyse it myself for things they haven’t been interested in or to combine with other datasets.

  2. Contrast that with this article: Porcher, S. Response2covid19, a dataset of governments’ responses to COVID-19 all around the world. Sci Data 7, 423 (2020). It’s an article that has a Creative Commons Attribution-only licence that describes an open dataset hosted in a GitHub repository, reusable by anyone. I can use the article in teaching without payment; I can analyse the data and write up my own analyses and reports. (Copyright nerd note: if you’re wondering how news agencies are using the Johns Hopkins charts and such, fair dealing provides for news reporting as a permitted use; it’s not because it’s free-to-read on the web).

These are large-scale examples. But the same applies to anything: if I was writing about my research on a massive, extinct New Zealand eagle that was big enough to take down one of the largest birds that has ever existed then I could illustrate my writing with the awesome picture published in an OA journal at the top of this Thing without seeking permission. I couldn’t use this picture because it is commercially-licensed. They’re both online but only one can be used without seeking permission or paying a fee.

It’s important to say both approaches are fine: any artist or creator has the right to choose how their work may be accessed and used. We will all know examples within our own research organisations where intellectual property is regarded as very valuable and tightly controlled, whether that’s a patentable drug formula or years of data collected by a major study. In the context of research, however, the point is that open approaches are designed to speed up the use of resources by others, which in turn increases readership, citations and the advancement of knowledge.

The machinery behind OA: open access licences

There are many different flavours of open access licence but the most common ones you will see in the context of research are those provided by Creative Commons.

Task 1: Watch a 5-minute video on how Creative Commons licences work, “Creative Commons Kiwi

This 23 Things site has a Creative Commons licence – and in fact this blog contains elements based on a previous 23 Things that had an open licence made by completely different people. We don’t have to work out who to ask for permission or if any of our uses would be covered by the exceptions mentioned above: permission has been given ahead of time by the creators using an open access licence.

Task 2: Locate the licence information for this blog on this page. (Hint: check for terms on the home page). Follow the link to the Creative Commons licence in question and read what that licence permits.

There are other licences you might come across, especially if you’re looking at data (e.g. CC0) or software (e.g. GNU Public Licence) but there’s too many to go into here. Whichever one you come across there is likely to be very good information available on the web as to what they mean.

“Open access is a good thing but the journals just aren’t as high-quality as traditional journals – and it’s so expensive”

When open access journals first started becoming more prevalent in the 2000s – and yes Physicists and Mathematicians, I know you’ve been doing open access since the advent of the Internet via – open access attracted a lot of negative attention due to the unethical practices of predatory publishers. These were outfits that pretended to have peer review and editorial standards but in fact just charged you a fee to publish your article pretty much as you’d sent it to them in the first place. As hopefully everyone has realised by 2021, the quality of a publication has nothing to do with its business model. There are OA journals whose publications are of lower quality and/or impact, just as there as the same for non-open journals. There are some brilliant journals that charge nothing for publication or for access. Put this idea of Open Access=Low Quality out of your mind and just assess any publication venue on its merits. Think, Check, Submit provides a simple checklist that’s useful for this.

Cost can genuinely be an issue for researchers. APCs (Article Processing Charge) were introduced by publishers as a way of making work open access, much to the chagrin of researchers. Of course, publishing has always cost money, it’s just that researchers started noticing this because they were being asked to pay, instead of publishers charging subscriptions. You should know at least that that APCs can be charged either for publication an all-open publication, where all articles attract an APC and all are open, or in a subscription publication where you can opt to pay a fee to have your particular piece of work made open (known as Hybrid journals). For Hybrid publications obviously you can choose not to pay, meaning cost isn’t an issue; however for all-open publications if you’re an independent researcher or one from a developing country having to pay an APC may bar you from publishing in places you want to. If you fall into these categories you should check out a publisher’s policy on APC waivers. But cost can be a barrier to researchers in any country if their institution or department doesn’t support the payment of APCs. A current trend at the time of writing is that we’re seeing more funders both mandating open access outputs from work they fund but also offering financial support for this; we’re also seeing publishers and universities moving to a different kind of subscription deal where libraries still pay the licence fees but this comes with a certain number of ‘free’ APCs (i.e. free to researchers, not actually free). This is a new area and of course has the potential effect that your publications might be channelled into certain publishers with whom your library has a deal.

But APCs are not the only way to make your work open. Many people are using pre-prints now (this has exploded in health disciplines due to the pandemic); more and more we are seeing people share more than just chapters or articles, making data, software, notes, tools, videos, etc. available. In some publications peer review is open now, in the interests of transparency and rewarding people for their review work.

And if you take one thing away from this Thing it should be that most publishers allow you to deposit an accepted manuscript version of research outputs in your institutional research repository. This usually has an embargo period but not always.

Task 3: if you have published in a journal that is paywalled, go to the Sherpa/Romeo database to check on the publisher’s policy. Type in the name of the journal and it will tell you if/when you can deposit an accepted manuscript. (They have help videos).

At my own organisation we have found that, while 47% of our research is free-to-read, if we deposited everything we could put in our research repository then 90% of our research outputs could be open). Many of you can probably make your prior publications open access – check out Sherpa/Romeo and talk to your library!

The future of open access

For the first 20 years or so, debates about open access have focused pretty much on how traditional means of publication could be transposed into a digital, free-to-read medium. Think: paper replaced by PDFs. As you’re hopefully grasping from the above things are changing fast. Obviously there are some things that need to be protected, where private or sensitive things are involved, but a current catch-cry that rings true for many is that we should be striving to make our work “as open as possible but as closed as necessary.”

Exploring further

● Some would say we have already moved past “open access” as being a useful concept and that we should be thinking more along the lines proposed by the F.A.I.R. principles, that is research should be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable. Read more here:

● Go to Change the indicator drop down on the left to ‘Open Access’. This gives you a list of universities with the proportion of work that is open access for each. Find your own organisation and see how it compares. (Mine is ranked 561 in the world for openness at 47%. Some have over 90%!).

● Swansea University have guidance and support on publishing and open access

● The Surrey Reproducibility Society is a PGR-led group devoted to open science and transparency in research.

Two women in Matching Clothes.  Photo by Houcine Ncib on Unsplash
Tabatha wasn't much impressed with Layla's appeal to Creative Commons when they turned up at the office party in the same outfit.

332 views4 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
Unknown member
Apr 01, 2022

What is most interesting here is how to balance between making your research fully accessible and necessarily restricted! Although I have the 0CC format is potentially beneficial, I doubt the risk(s) it might bring by having the research fully available for editing, as far as I got it right.


Unknown member
Mar 31, 2022

I managed to find a number of relevant videos by searching for 'Creative Commons Kiwi within Vimeo

mike rose
mike rose
Apr 04, 2022
Replying to

Thanks Jeanette! Hope that helps Shiraani; I'll update the link in the blog...


Unknown member
Mar 29, 2022

I couldn't access the 5-min video Creative Commons Kiwi

bottom of page