As of January 1, 2013, CIHR-funded researchers will be required to make their peer-reviewed publications accessible at no cost within 12 months of publication – at the latest.

The newly minted and poorly publicized CIHR Open Access Policy, which acts retroactively to research funded since 2008, will change the nature of scientific publishing in Canada. Governments across the globe have noticed the beneficial effects of open access publication and begun to institute appropriate policy changes. Funding agencies in the United States, Canada, Japan, Brazil, China, the United Kingdom and many more have all replaced open access guidelines with policies that enforce the mandatory publication of research articles in open access repositories or journals(1). The rationale for this new approach is apparent; the policies will increase both the reach and access of scientific literature to the public, scientific, and business communities while concurrently increasing the citations and relative impact of the funded research.

The eventual goal of all publicly funded research is to benefit the public, through discovery and innovation. Open access publishing aligns with this principle and allows research to be quickly and effectively disseminated to public, academic, and business sectors. Although there have been rumblings of displeasure in the subscription-based publication model for decades, it was the development and growth of the internet that finally spurred and propelled these ideas. Online access essentially abolished the need for physical publication requirements. As a result, the last 13 years has seen an inexorable rise of both open access journals and free-to-access article repositories, particularly in the life sciences.

The first concrete open access publishers in the biomedical and life sciences began to take shape in the beginning of this millennium. Founded in 2000, UK based BioMed Central was one of the first online only open access publishers. As a testament to the advantages and success of open access publishing, BioMed Central now carries over 240 journals. At the same time that BioMed central was beginning to put down roots, researchers Harold Varmus of the National Cancer Institute, Patrick Brown of Stanford University, and Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkley began a campaign to reform publishing in the United States. In a now infamous open letter signed by over 34,000 researchers across 180 countries, the scientists asked for:

“the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form.”

By signing the letter, the researchers also pledged to:

“… publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights.”

Drawing momentum from this initiative, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) was founded in 2001 as a non-profit advocacy group and eventual publisher of open access journals. Over the last decade, open access publishing has begun to take hold of the scientific community as awareness has increased and attitudes towards commercial and outdated subscription publications have shifted. The reality is that the vast majority of articles are now searched and accessed solely online. A 2010 study of over 27,000 articles published between 2002 and 2006 revealed that open access articles published in the same journal and in the same year were cited more often than their subscription-based counterparts. The authors of the study attribute these findings to a “quality advantage” of open access articles. It seems that the simple act of making an article openly available also increased its impact, regardless of the content. Traditional publication groups, 11 years later, are beginning to finally realize the benefits and even the necessity of open access. On January 6, 2011 Nature announced the launch of its very first open access journal, Scientific Reports. As of 2011, open access articles represented 17% of all scientific publications (See Box 1).

Box 1. In 2000, there were approximately 750 open access journals and 20,000 free-to-access articles. By 2011, the number of journals climbed to 6,700 with 340,000 published articles representing close to 17% of all scientific publications. Life Sciences research articles represent the lion’s share of free-to-access publication. A quick glance through the directory of open access journals ( reveals that the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom represent the largest contributors of open access journals. In the category of allergy and immunology, there are currently 39 open access journals across the globe.
Box 1. In 2000, there were approximately 750 open access journals and 20,000 free-to-access articles. By 2011, the number of journals climbed to 6,700 with 340,000 published articles representing close to 17% of all scientific publications. Life Sciences research articles represent the lion’s share of free-to-access publication. A quick glance through the directory of open access journals ( reveals that the United States, Brazil, and the United Kingdom represent the largest contributors of open access journals. In the category of allergy and immunology, there are currently 39 open access journals across the globe.

There are two basic types of open access publications, green and gold. Green publications represent a non-commercial self-archiving of articles in institutional databases such as PubMed Central. Articles in green databases are deposited directly by the authors and repositories are maintained by government bodies. Green repositories accept all pre-edited manuscripts, post-edited and reviewed manuscripts, and publisher’s version manuscripts (identical in formatting and layout). Green open access articles tend to be peer-reviewed and edited by commercial journals and then deposited into an institutional repository by the authors prior to print publication. Gold publications represent either traditional print journals which offer open access for an additional cost (Nature Immunology) or immediate open access journals (Nature Scientific Reports).

The CIHR policy is clear. Starting in 2013, any research published using CIHR funds, awarded since 2008, must be made freely accessible within 12 months of publication either in repositories (green) or open access journals (gold). The CIHR open access policy also applies to bioinformatics data including: genomic data, DNA sequences, protein structures, protein sequences, and so forth. Researchers will be required to deposit the data in the appropriate public databases such as GenBank.

But it gets complicated. The onus on making the publication available to the public lies solely with the authors. This starts to get complex as commercial journals have different copyright policies. In general, when an article is submitted and published by a journal, authors surrender all ownership of the material to the journal. Usually, exceptions are given for the use of figures and data in presentations and written works presented by the original author, provided that the journal is properly referenced. However, copyright policy implies that any reproduction of the publisher’s version (with formatting and layout) is considered illegal. This means that authors cannot deposit the final version of their articles into green open access repositories such as PubMed Central Canada (PMC Canada) or in newsletters, magazines, and any other non-profit resources. In some cases, authors are allowed to deposit post-refereed but not publisher version articles into databases.

As an example, the Journal of Immunology allows authors to directly deposit post-referee (data and figures) articles into institutional repositories (PMC Canada). To make the final publisher’s version open access, authors can pay an additional $3,000 on top of other article processing fees to have their article published under a Creative Commons License. This license grants open access to the article allowing for the free reproduction and distribution of the material. Thanks in part to the recent policy changes in the United States and Canada, the Journal of Immunology has adapted its policy to make all articles open access within 12 months of publications, starting on March 29, 2011. Compare this to Nature Immunology, which holds an initial 6 month embargo on the deposit of any post-referee articles. Authors can still submit articles that have not been peer-reviewed into green databases. Once again, authors have the ability to make their publications open access for an additional exorbitant fee of between $3,000-4,000 but unlike the Journal of Immunology, the work will not eventually become accessible. The burden lies with the researcher to make the work accessible(2).

Adherence to this new policy will be evaluated at the end of the granting period. Refusal to obey the policy constitutes a breach in CIHR granting agreement with varied recourse ranging from a letter of concern to a ban from future CIHR funding opportunities.

Some naysayers have argued that open access is not a sustainable publishing model. They claim that large administrative costs associated with selecting, editing, and publishing scientific work are not recovered. However, it has been estimated that profits of major publishers like Nature and Elsevier are between 20-30%. Even more damning is that the cost of subscriptions and publication to institutions and individual researchers has far outpaced inflation in the last decade. It seems that scientific publication is a major business, but it doesn’t need to be. For PLoS, publishing is a non-profit endeavor. The costs of publication are subsidized in combination from advertising, federal funding, and private grants. To their credit, PLoS even offers publication vouchers to researchers unable to cover expenses and in 2011 spent $2.5 million on this initiative. Some open access journals, like Allergology International, have no article processing fees and recuperate costs solely through donations and sponsoring societies. Open access publishing challenges the traditional business model of publication and both authors and funders benefit from the process.

CIHR has finally recognized these benefits and the new policy is a step in the right direction. Open access is constructive to the scientific process. It allows for the free transmission and replication of scientific results. Findings can be shared and uploaded onto websites, presented, and non-commercially shared without prior written approval. In the end, open access increases article impact factor and citations, and this benefits both CIHR and authors alike.

1. For a detailed list of all funding agencies and their open access policies visit
2. For more information on re-publishing restrictions for different journals visit

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Yuriy Baglaenko

Founding Editor
Yuriy is a 4th year PhD student studying the suppression of autoimmunity at the University of Toronto. He is an avid musician with an at-home amateur recording studio and a mediocre intramural volleyball player.
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5 thoughts on “Open Access – Improving the Availability of Scientific Literature for All

  1. Another negative aspect of the high cost for access to conventional medical and scientific journals is that some institutions will simply cancel their subscriptions in order to save money. There is a letter in the current issue of Nature from a Greek scientist whose institute recently cancelled subscriptions to several journals. This leaves researchers in the dark, unable to find out what advances are being made by their colleagues. This unawareness of the field will surely lead to the meagre research finds they do have being spend unwisely.

    The cost of access hurts institutes in places like Greece, where governmental spending on science is being slashed. It also hurts researchers in countries with fledgling scientific research communities, who lack the critical mass that most North American and European universities enjoy.

  2. Thanks for your comment Janet. That’s a very good point.

    When I was doing the research for this article, I discovered that it is near impossible to find the actual costs that libraries pay for subscriptions to publishers. These large subscriptions are negotiated independently between universities and publishers, meaning that pricing in not standardized and likely higher on a per student basis for smaller universities. Another problem with the current model. But it’s slowly changing with mandated open access.

  3. Although I am totally for open access, there are a couple of contentious issues. Allow me to play the devil’s advocate:

    -Green publications are great, but papers deposited under databases such as PubMed Central (PMC) are directly accessed from these databases. This diverts traffic from publisher’s websites, which means a loss in advertising revenue. PLoS estimates a 22% loss of traffic to PMC!

    -Gold based open access clearly negates a reader’s fee, instead placing the burden of publication on the author. This hugely impacts research-intensive institutions. For example, Harvard Medical School argues that to gold-publish all 10,000+ publications they produce per year would cost $13.5 million (at $1,350/article). This trumps the $3.75 million they pay for serial access annually. Further to this, readers who can pay such as pharmaceutical companies, are away laughing!

  4. Thanks Eric,

    Great points. Where did you hunt down 3.75 million for serial access annually? I had trouble finding these statistics, especially when it came to profit margins.

    To your points, I am of the opinion that publishing scientific literature should not be a for-profit business. Additional costs for making articles open access are absurd. What are you paying for? The release of your own material by the publisher to the world. This is why I support green publications, even if they do draw revenue from non-profit open access sources.

    Secondly, in my opinion, Harvard should pay that 13.5 million, considering how much money they receive annually from the public in support of their research. Its a small price to pay and I think its their obligation to make that information available to everyone.

    1. Yuriy,

      I agree, publishing should not be a 30% profit game. That said there will always be a cost for publishing. In the past this was primarily printing and distribution, now it is server hosting, domain registration, website maintenance…e.t.c. Further to this, to ensure quality editing and reviewing take place (i.e., to ensure a certain scientific standard in publication), there must be a cost involved. I realize primary reviewing is free, but a scientifically literate person is required to make a decision based on these reviews. This is often a paid position.

      The question is, who should bear this cost? In an opt-in open access model, journals must charge an additional fee to the author who wishes to publish openly. If there is no fee, all authors would opt-in for open access leading to a loss in journal subscriptions!

      I see the period we are going through now as a transition period in which open-access will become the norm. Aside from the big three (Cell, Science, Nature), how can any of the traditional journals survive given the current success of open-access?

      The Feb 28th edition of NEJM had an excellent series arguing both sides of open access:

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