The key takeaways from this article are:

  1. Open access journals are journals whose articles are available and reusable worldwide free of charge and without restrictions immediately on publication.
  2. Most open access journals do not charge their authors for publishing articles. In other cases, the so-called author-pays model is common.
  3. The content published in open access journals is searchable in the usual databases and search engines – the Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE) specialises in open access content.

Open Access Journals

Open access journals are journals whose articles are available and reusable worldwide free of charge and without restrictions immediately on publication. As a rule, contributions in journals that meet this definition are published under a Creative Commons licence granted by the authors. The publishers of these journals are granted only a non-exclusive right of use by the authors. Open access journals are the primary medium for what is known as gold open access.

Through gold open access, articles achieve the widest possible dissemination and are available to and reusable by scholars and scientists and all other interested parties as fast as possible. In this way, the visibility of research results is enhanced and their citation frequency is often increased (Piwowar et al., 2018).

Comparison with Closed-Access Journals

In terms of quality, there is no difference between open access and closed access (i.e., subscription-based) journals. As is the norm in the case of scholarly journals, manuscripts undergo a quality assurance procedure – mostly peer review – before publication. In the context of open science and the idea of a transparent scientific process, some open access journals even go one step further and offer open peer review. By making the identities of all participants open, quality assurance becomes a community process, thereby ensuring constructive criticism. Moreover, the free availability of the full texts has the advantage of making it easier to detect plagiarism and errors. Where customary in the discipline in question, some open access journals occasionally also practise a form of editorial review.

The main difference between open and closed access journals lies in the free availability and reusability of the former and in the way they are funded. In the case of traditional closed access (subscription-based) journals, the readers, or their institutions and scholarly libraries, pay high fees for access to the articles. Open access publications, by contrast, can be used free of charge. Hence, funding must take place via a different channel. The so-called author-pays model, where authors pay article processing charges (APCs) to publish their contributions, is very widespread. However, the majority of open access journals do not charge APCs (Morrison, 2018). Rather, they are funded by professional societies, scientific institutions or library consortia, or through volunteer work.

By now, many closed access journals offer authors the option of paying a high fee to make individual contributions freely available. The publishers of these so-called hybrid journals thus generate additional revenues without there being a corresponding decrease in subscription prices. Because of this so-called “double dipping” on the part of publishers, hybrid open access is quite controversial. Via transformative agreements with commercial publishers – for example, those negotiated by the German initiative Projekt DEAL – the costs of these hybrid APCs are increasingly being covered in a contractually specified amount by library consortia with the aim of transforming the hybrid journals into open access journals in the long run.

Green open access can also be provided to publications in closed access journals by making them available free of charge in repositories. Under German copyright law (UrhG), scientific contributions published in conventional journals may, under certain conditions, be self-archived in a repository. 

The Journal Impact Factor, a metric for the citation frequency of articles published in a given journal, is published in the Journal Citation Reports; it also covers open access journals. However, the misuse of the Impact Factor to evaluate outputs of scholarly research has been strongly criticised (see the Declaration on Research Assessment, DORA). So-called “altmetrics” have emerged as an alternative to the traditional bibliometric indicators. They capture the diverse reactions to a scholarly publication on the Web.

Finding Content from Open Access Journals

The content published in open access journals is indexed in many locations and is searchable in the usual databases and search engines. The Bielefeld Academic Search Engine (BASE) specialises in open access content. In journal and article databases, filter options offer the possibility of limiting the search to open access content. This is the case, for example, in the Electronic Journals Library (the option “freely available”) or in the Web of Science. In addition, open access content can also be easily found using the popular search engines, for example Google Scholar. A useful open source tool for finding open access versions of scholarly publications is Unpaywall, which is available as a browser extension for Firefox and Chrome (Piwowar et al., 2018).

The central database for open access journals is theDirectory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), which can also be searched by field. The introductions to open access in specific disciplines on are also a good starting point.

Practice tip: Setting up an open access journal

Do you see a need for a new journal in your field, and would you like to publish it as an open access journal? Many open access journals are set up by scholars and scientists. Because there are now a large number of options from a discipline-specific, technical, and financial perspective, we would recommend, as a first step, that you talk to the open access experts at your institution. Many institutions offer their researchers the possibility of supporting the creation and management of independent open access journals, for example, via the software application Open Journal Systems (OJS). One example is the TIB – Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology and University Library, which operates a publication platform, TIB Open Publishing, on which open access journals can be hosted with OJS. Although open to all fields, the focus is on the technical sciences and the natural sciences.

In addition, there are also a number of open access publishers – and also conventional publishers, which are increasingly switching to open access publications – under whose umbrella you could set up your journal. We recommend that you take a look at our discipline-specific pages to see which publishers in your field already have open access offerings.

The conversion of subscription-based scholarly journals to open access journals in accordance with the principle of science-led publishing is supported by the Fair Open Access Alliance, among others.