Open Access: Tearing down the paywall is hard work

There’s been some bad blood between scientific publishers and their suppliers and customers. Scientists pay to have their work published. Readers, in turn, pay to read this work, often through the library of their research institution. The demand for open access - free access to everybody’s research findings - has largely been met, though not always in the way that proponents had in mind. But what is closed and open access’ And which factors play a role? On the occasion of Open Access Week, we present an overview of everything you need to know.

Say you’re a scientist. Your lab experiment was a success or you’ve just excavated an ancient treasure. You can now jump out of the bathtub like Archimedes, walk out of the house naked and shout ’Eureka!’ from the top of your lungs. But only writing brings immortality... So the official way to announce scientific news is publishing. (Which, by the way, Archimedes did as well.) So researchers spend a lot of time writing: they write books or articles in scientific journals. Online or in print, or a bit of both.

Say you’re another scientist and you’d like to read the findings of your colleague. In most cases, this means you’ll have to pay: to buy your colleague’s book or to get a subscription to a journal so that you can consult the article. Makes sense. After all, we also pay for online access to some newspaper articles or for the latest Harry Potter edition. But when we’re talking science, the topic of paywalls is a bit more complex: most research is conducted with taxpayers’ money, yet the results aren’t open to each and every one of these taxpayers.

In the past couple of years, a growing number of people have started arguing in favour of open access: this means that every reader has access to research results - online, all around the world, for free. That sounds more simple than it actually is. On the occasion of Open Access Week , we present an overview: what are the new initiatives and who are the key players’ We also give a crash course in open access lingo on the side. But first things first: how did things work in the past?

Let’s take a step back. If a scientist chooses the old-school publication model, the reader pays for access. What’s wrong with that? A lot has to do with how a publication comes about. Let’s walk a mile in a researcher’s shoes.

1. KU Leuven clinical psychologist Julia is collaborating on a research project with some of her colleagues. About two years into the project, she writes a scientific paper (i.e., an article) in English to present the results.

2. Julia submits her paper to a prestigious journal. This journal is owned by a publisher - Elsevier or Springer, for instance.

3. The main editor of this journal is Bruce, a professor of clinical psychology at a university abroad. Bruce does not get paid for his work for the journal. Bruce combs through the article, decides whether it may be worth publishing, and sends it to peer reviewers from two other universities, Ludo and Iris. Peer review simply means that the work is reviewed by colleagues or peers. 

4. Professor Ludo and postdoctoral researcher Iris review the paper. They don’t get paid either. They send their remarks to main editor Bruce.

5. Julia has to rewrite her paper several times after receiving feedback via Bruce. But, finally, good news: the paper gets published! 

6. Julia immediately receives an invoice. Normally, authors don’t have to pay to publish their work. But they do if they want ’extras’. Since Julia feels that the graphs in her article need some bright colours, she has to cough up $1,500.

7. Julia also has to sign an agreement with the journal, stating that she gives up her rights - copyright - to the journal. This mostly has to do with the reproduction of text and illustrations. For instance, if someone wants to use a piece of text or an illustration in another publication, they have to ask permission from the publisher of the journal. By the way, Julia also has to do this herself if she wants to reuse her own work.

8. The publisher arranges the layout of the paper, has it converted into PDF format and published online. If the journal also has a printed version, the article will be included in there as well.

9. Now that the paper is online, Julia would like to see the result. As a reader, she would now normally be confronted with a paywall. Luckily, her university library pays annual subscription fees to a number of journals. This includes the journal that Julia has published in and she can access it from the university network.

This traditional system of publishing is called closed access. Readers pay for access, in many cases via the library of the research institution where they work. But this paywall promotes inequality: scientists at less wealthy research institutions are left out because their institution doesn’t have the means to pay for as many journal subscriptions. Interested non-scientists - journalists, companies, policy-makers - also usually don’t have access.

The fact that scientific knowledge is behind a paywall is also a disadvantage for scientists-authors themselves. If Julia’s paper were to be available online for free, more people would read it and other scientists would quote her work more often. And that’s exactly what Julia wants: she wants her work to have an impact in her field. And, not unimportantly: her own chances of promotion depend on the number of citations she gets, among other things.

Knowledge being kept locked away is one issue, the financial side of things is another. Libraries have to pay increasingly high fees for subscriptions to scientific journals and books - as much as ¤8,000,000 per year at the KU Leuven Libraries, for instance.

Furthermore, research institutions actually pay twice. Once through their library and a second time through the unpaid work of their researchers. Because it’s Julia who is writing and Bruce, Ludo and Iris who are revising and editing. The investment of the publisher, by contrast, seems fairly limited - especially in the case of articles, less so in the case of books. An online platform, the layout, promotion and archiving obviously require expertise, logistics and infrastructure. But is the profit-margins-to-actual-costs ratio always reasonable, many wonder?

Mi cash flow, su cash flow

And although, in theory, only the reader pays with closed access, the reality is often very different. Authors sometimes have to break into their own research budget or their own resources for extra ’perks’ - think of Julia’s coloured graphs, but also extra pages or a mention on the front page. And if you’re out of luck, you work in a field such as economics where authors have to pay a standard submission fee to even be able to submit an article. If you have to rewrite your paper several times, you pay a submission fee for each new version. And all without the slightest guarantee that the article will actually be accepted and published. If we add up all publication costs of all research units at KU Leuven, we get a total of at least ¤500,000 every year.

Conclusion: What many people find distasteful about closed access is that knowledge is kept behind a paywall and that some publishers are paid multiple times. Logically, there’s a lot of criticism and protest, ranging from avoiding the paywall to a broad array of open access initiatives.

Wherever there’s a paywall, people will find ways to avoid it. This is true for online music, films or football matches, but also for scientific publications. Did you know that science has its own pirate site? Sci-Hub was founded by a student from Kazakhstan who was sick and tired of paying for papers. The site currently has over 70 million articles and papers, all ready to be illegally downloaded. Publisher Elsevier was not amused and sued the website in 2015 for violation of copyright. Sci-Hub lost its domain name and has been changing web addresses on a regular basis since then. 

Those of us who like to keep it legal can also ask for a copy of the publication from the author. The copyright regulation of publishers usually allows authors to distribute a copy of their work directly to colleagues. This can be done via email or via a social network site for scientists and researchers, such as ResearchGate  and Academia. Just like Facebook, these are commercial platforms where you have open and closed groups with the possibility of starting a private conversation with someone. As a scientist, you can use these groups to announce new research. Without including the PDF, of course, or you’ll have the publisher’s legal office to deal with. But the interested reader has free access to the private chat button to ask you for a copy.

Green open access

But these are just quick fixes to avoid closed access. So what about open access, where readers have free access’ There’s the repositories circuit: the digital archives where scientists make their publications available for free. This is called green open access. The repository is managed by the research institution of the author - KU Leuven has LIRIAS , for instance - or by a funding institution, such as Zenodo  of the European Commission. The repositories organised by field are called preprint servers. Here, the archetypal example is arXiv.

The trick with green open access is the following: if the publisher doesn’t allow you to post the final version of your publication, you post an earlier version. This can be the version before peer review (the preprint), or the accepted version without layout (the postprint). The publishers tolerate the existence of repositories, although they want to control which repository and which version. They also set an embargo to be respected before a preor postprint can be posted. 

So, green open access offers the reader a free version. For the scientists themselves, however, this solution is far from ideal: in their eyes, a preor postprint is nothing more than a draft. Moreover, having to archive themselves means extra work for the authors on top of the regular publication process.

Gold open access

So, on to the real thing: gold open access. In this case, scientific authors publish their work with a publisher who immediately puts the final version of their article or book online for free. The big advantage is that scientists quickly reach more readers from all over the world. And this translates into more citations, an important detail in their resume.

But not all that glitters is gold. This system entails that the publishers no longer get revenue from readers’ subscriptions. So, the author has to pay an author fee. This can be done in two ways: either this fee is only meant to cover the costs - non-profit gold open access - or there’s an additional profit margin - for-profit gold open access. It’s this latter category that has seen a sharp increase in recent years. Librarians, who were among the first to advocate open access, now have to witness how the open access fees for researchers are increasing, as used to be the case for subscriptions. A booming business - no wonder new gold open access journals are shooting up like mushrooms.

Hybrid open access

In the meantime, many closed access publishers have switched to a hybrid model. This system is widely used by large multinationals in the publishing world. It means that the author can choose to make the publication closed or open access to readers. If scientists choose open access, they pay an open access fee of about ¤2,000 to ¤3,000 per article. But this free access only applies to individual articles. Libraries still have to pay for an annual subscription. These publishers are double dipping: they play a double game and get money from both authors and readers.

In the early years, advocates for open access were hoping that the hybrid model would be a transitional phase, eventually leading to the elimination of the closed access system. This has not been the case. After all, hybrid open access entails few risks and provides extra income for a publisher. In some scientific fields, open access has become an extra cost, on top of existing publication costs.


Open access - green, gold or hybrid - has become commonplace. As a result, the invoice has shifted from reader to author. Many people are wondering if this also means that the inequality has shifted. Where closed access discriminated the less wealthy readers, open access now discriminates the less wealthy scientists. The chances of writing a book or being able to publish an article in an expensive top journal are now reduced if the researchers are not able to get their hands on external resources.

The institutions providing these funds, such as the European Commission or the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) are starting to demand open access as a condition for funding: the researchers have to make sure that their research results will be publicly available. This policy has led to a financial arms race. Researchers ask for more budget to be able to afford open access. And the commercial players have smelled money. Their price can even increase a bit more if the funding institutions continue to pay anyway.

Offsetting deals and boycotts

In that case, it’s best to negotiate a better deal with the publishers, some say. Various university consortia abroad have already tried closing an offsetting deal. This means that the costs of the library and the publication costs of scientist are combined in a single contract. This has resulted in a fierce legal battle. In Sweden and Germany, the negotiations between the consortia of research institutions and publishers broke down and libraries no longer have access to articles.

Yet, this scenario doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue, according to the advocates of open access. If the libraries no longer have to pay these high subscription fees, a lot of money becomes available for investments in existing non-profit gold open access initiatives, or for starting their own. Various consortia of libraries publish their own open access journal. And for green open access, there are examples of funders, such as the Wellcome Trust, who also offer peer review via their repository. With such a brand name, researchers simply don’t need a journal any more.

So, a lot of things are moving. To increase the pressure on multinational publishers, some researchers are asked to boycott them: stop working as a member of a review council or as a peer reviewer for the commercial lot. And what about the scientists themselves’ They each have their own idea of the situation. This gives a distorted image that we will discuss in the next part.

Not all researchers will recognise their own situation in the debate on closed or open access. A lot has to do with the publication market in their niche. Book and journal publishers cover a whole range of areas, after all: from small to big, from non-profit to commercial. The existing criticism usually focuses on the big five - Reed-Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage. Together, they publish over half of the peer-reviewed journals. The journals in their portfolio mostly work with the hybrid open access model. But these big players are not active in all domains: they have little interest in religious studies, arts and philosophy, for instance. 

There are also quite a few small publishers who are only active in a small niche. Some of them can be as commercially savvy as the big players. For other smaller players, it’s a bit more easy-going. 

Market share

For some non-profit publishers, substance trumps commerce. We’re talking about self-sustaining university publishers, consortia of libraries or associations of academics who have taken it upon themselves to start publishing their own open access journals and books. Not surprisingly, these initiatives mostly have a prominent role in fields where the big players have a small market share. In the arts, for instance, there’s a lot less competition than in sociology or psychology, where the big five publish nearly 70% of the articles.

And then there are the books, which are usually somewhat forgotten in the open access discussion. Books are not equally important in all fields: for a historian’s career, it’s important to write his or her own monograph, but for the biomedical scientist, only articles in the specialised journals matter. The market for open access books - e-books by default - gained momentum a bit later due to the higher costs compared to an article. In this case, we’re usually talking about authors who have the funding or a scholarship at their disposal to pay for this book processing charge. But since an author benefits from many more services from the publisher when writing a book, it seems there is less discussion about the money.

With so many differences in market structure, the publication costs per domain also differ quite substantially. Whereas a linguist would be shocked to have to pay for a closed access publication as an author, other are seeing every step of the production process become commercialised: a submission fee to submit, a fee for a quicker peer review. Even publishing a reaction to someone else’s article can cost you money. 

Publication culture

In every field, the unwritten rules of publication determine whether open access is an issue. Engineers mostly publish via conferences and are less focused on publishing in journals. And computer scientists, in particular, are not bothered by the publishers; they were already posting their papers online before publishers had even heard of the internet. But not all scientists have this luxury.

In theory, most researchers support the open access principle. In reality, however, the decision to publish open access often revolves around funding, chances of promotion, and target audience. Money is the biggest hurdle; the open access fee is often an extra cost and is not taken into account in the research budget. So, sometimes, it comes down to a choice: can we pay an open access fee or do we use the money to go to a conference? Open access isn’t a must for those people who want to reach a very small section of highly specialised colleagues. They just assume that these colleagues will find a way to get their hands on the publication. Finally, there’s the assessment of researchers. This is based on publications in top journals that result in a lot of citations. And these journals are often the big players with a closed or hybrid model. It’s all very well to have these nice alternatives in gold or green open access, but scientists are wondering whether the assessment criteria will also be adjusted.

In other words, the switch to open access is happening at different speeds in different research institutions. Of course, libraries are big supporters. They pay through the nose for annual subscriptions to closed access publications. The level of enthusiasm among the researchers varies from very low to incredibly high. This division works to the advantage of the publishers who want to maintain the status quo. That doesn’t mean that nothing is moving, however. The (academic) world is paying particular attention to how the research institutions who terminated their contract with a publisher are doing. And they seem to be doing okay.

A group of national research funds from various European countries announced Plan S in September 2018: by 2020, all research they fund should appear in an open access journal or platform. The Belgian players - Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) and Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) - have yet to decide whether or not they will join. To be continued, no doubt.

KU Leuven is a long-standing supporter of a number of international open access initiatives, such as the Open Library of Humanities. The university also supports green open access via LIRIAS and, since March 2018, there’s also the Fair Open Access Fund.


LIRIAS is the academic database of the KU Leuven Association. Here, researchers can enter their publications; not just a description, but also a version of the publication itself and possible related data files. Researchers can decide what is private, what is only available for colleagues through the intranet, or what is completely accessible to the public. As such, LIRIAS can be used as a reporting tool within the organisation, but also as a repository for green open access. The platform is managed by the Research Coordination Office (DOC), KU Leuven Libraries, and countless local administrators. There’s also a Policy Research Centre on Open Access. This helps researchers sift through contracts from publishers to ensure that the legally allowed version of the publication is publicly available.

Fair Open Access Fund

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