Open Access to Research Publications: Accessing Research Online by Emily Nunn

Have you ever looked for an academic research article online? A clinical trial for a new drug, for instance, evidence for the effects of climate change, or a study into the experiences of young LGBTQ people attending secondary school? If you study or work at a university, you may take access to this research for granted, but if not, you will often encounter a “paywall”; a screen that asks you to sign in to read further, or to pay a one-off charge.

Open Access symbol


This is because the article you’re looking for is published in an academic journal which makes its money by charging people to access its content. The journal’s main customers are universities and other big organisations, who pay an annual subscription (often through their library budget), so that all their staff, students or members can access the journal by signing in with their institutional login. Anyone without this type of login has to pay upfront to access a single article.


Academic journals used to be published in hard-copy, and made available in academic libraries. The internet has changed all that – offering the potential for research articles to be published online, and accessed by anyone with an internet connection.

Open Access Peter Suber MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series
Click To Download Open Access Peter Suber MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series


However, the subscription system means that many articles are still not available to those who aren’t part of a university. Academic publishers do very well out of the situation – a large percentage of all scholarly articles are published by five big profit-making companies (Lariviere, Haustein & Mongeon, 2015).


The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era
Click To Download The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era by Lariviere, Haustein & Mongeon, 2015

Open Access

Sometimes, however, you will find that you will be able to access the full text of the article without having to sign in. This is because the article has been made Open Access (OA). Advocates of open access believe that research should be freely available online, instead of hidden behind paywalls. There are a few different ways of making articles OA.


There are journals which are completely open access (you can find a list of them in the Directory of Open Access Journals). Some of these journals charge authors what’s known as an Article Processing Charge to make their articles open access, and these can be very expensive. The charge wouldn’t usually be paid by the authors themselves, but by their university, or whoever is funding their research project.


This system has been criticised, seen as a way for publishing companies to embrace open access whilst still maintaining their profits, and excluding those that can’t pay (Lawson, Sanders & Smith, 2015). Not all OA journals charge for publication, however; and universities and libraries are constantly exploring new ways to fund them.


Commodification of the Information Profession A Critique of Higher Education Under Neoliberalism by Lawson Sanders and Smith
Commodification of the Information Profession A Critique of Higher Education Under Download Neoliberalism by Lawson Sanders and Smith


Other articles are published in a traditional, closed access journal, but the author uploads a copy into a repository (a database of research articles from a specific institution, or for a particular subject area). If you search on Google Scholar, have a look on the right-hand side of your search results – if a pdf is available in a repository it is listed next to the main result. It’s important to be aware that these articles may be ‘preprints’; and have not necessarily undergone academic peer review.


Still more articles are shared by academics on sites such as or ResearchGate. These are social media platforms for academics. Academics are supposed to make sure that their publishers allow them to do this, but in practice they don’t always know or care, and academic publishers have been known to issue “take down” notices to ask them to remove articles from these sites.


If you are someone without a subscription, you may also have found other ways to access articles – asking friends with subscriptions to provide you with a pdf, for instance, or searching one of a number of sites which provide unauthorised access to copyrighted work.


Open Access outside the academy: a social justice issue?

The Budapest Open Access Initiative, signed in 2002, sees the open distribution of scholarly literature as a ‘public good,’ stating that:


“removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge.”


Since then, there have been many people making the case that open access to research might benefit members of the public, as well as practitioners, policy makers, activists, and journalists (See Eve, 2016; Willinsky, 2006, and

The Access Principle The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John Willinsky
The Access Principle Click to Download The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John Willinsky


However, thinking about access ‘outside the academy,’ opens up a whole new set of questions, especially when you’re claiming that OA is an issue of ‘social justice’ (have a look at April Hathcock’s blog post for more about this).

  • How do people know what research is available, and how to get to it?
  • How do people use the research in their day to day lives?
  • Do people agree with the research they read? How can they express their disagreement?
  • How do people know whether to trust the research they read?
  • Do people have trouble understanding research literature? Is the language used exclusionary?
  • Should ‘taxpayers’ outside the university have the power to hold researchers to account for the work their taxes are funding?
  • Is access to read the literature enough? Should real ‘open access’ mean that more people (especially those from marginalised populations) are able to contribute to the ideas discussed in academic literature, and how do we make sure that those voices are listened to? (See Inefuku & Roh, 2016)

My Project

For my own PhD research, I’m interested in interviewing people who have had experience accessing/reading academic research from ‘outside the academy’, especially people who don’t have subscription access. I’m particularly interested in people who have accessed research about health/medicine, or about education/pedagogy. You might have accessed it for work, or for personal reasons.


I’d like to know about your experiences, and your opinions on some of the things I’ve talked about in this article. If you are interested in taking part in the project, there is more information about it here, and you can get in touch with me at [email protected].


A note on the citations: All the academic literature I’ve cited here is open access. You will notice that a couple of the texts are full monographs – making monographs OA is less common than journal articles, but as academic books are also prohibitively expensive, it’s important that there are initiatives exploring how best to do this.


I believe that linking to OA articles/books from websites, blogs or newspaper articles is one good way of drawing attention to research and allowing people to read the full text for themselves. However, I also believe that not all valuable academic writing is found in journal articles and books, and therefore also cite blogs that I find useful and interesting, and which help to inform my thinking.