How to make your own work open access

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  • I first wrote these notes as an online handout for a talk at the Berkman Klein Center on October 23, 2012, and have kept them up to date since then. —Peter Suber.
    • These notes focus on open access to peer-reviewed research articles and their unrefereed preprints. They do not cover books, theses and dissertations, conference presentations, datasets, courseware, audio, video, multimedia, or source code. But I might add pages on other categories over time. The live audience for the talk consisted of Harvard people, which explains the occasional Harvard reference. But the sources cited will be useful for scholars anywhere. The full title of the talk was, How to Make Your Research Open Access (Whether You're at Harvard or Not).
    • Now that I've got the notes online, I welcome suggestions.
    • This handout should be more useful than my slides from the talk. I keep it up to date, link to the sites I mention, and use complete sentences. But FYI, here are the slides.
    • Also see Chapter 10 ("Self-help") of my book, Open Access (MIT Press, 2012), and the updates to Chapter 10. The book is itself OA.

Publish in an OA journal ("gold" OA)

  • As you consider different OA journals, bear in mind that some will be high in quality, impact, and prestige. Some will be low. In this respect, OA journals are like conventional, non-OA journals.
    • Some will use liberal open licenses, like CC-BY. Some will use more restrictive open licenses like CC-BY-NC or CC-BY-NC-ND. Some will offer only gratis access without open licenses, that is, they will be free of charge for reading but publish under all-rights-reserved copyrights.
    • Some will charge publication fees (also called article processing charges or APCs), and some will not.
  • If the best journal for your purposes charges a publication fee (also called an article processing charge or APC), see whether your funder or employer will pay it.
    • Funders or employers are often willing to pay, making it unnecessary for authors to pay out of pocket. See my summary of the data on this question.
    • There's no complete list of funders willing to pay publication fees on behalf of grantees. But see the incomplete list from BioMed Central, or the larger incomplete list from Nature Research. If the article you want to publish is based on funded research, check with your funding agency directly.
    • Many universities are willing to pay publication fees on behalf of faculty.
    • If you're worried about paying fees out of pocket, here's some background to help you estimate the odds. Although charging publication fees is the best-known business model for peer-reviewed OA journals, it's not the most common. Only about 30% of peer-reviewed OA journals overall charge publication fees (update, update). When OA journals do charge fees, the fees are often paid by the author's employer or funder, not by the author out of pocket. Employer or funder support is more likely in the global north than in the global south. For more detail, see my summary of the studies on the funding for APCs.
    • While a minority of peer-reviewed OA journals charge author-side fees, about half the articles published in peer-reviewed OA journals are published in the fee-based journals. For more detail, see my summary of the studies on this question (updates to p. 170 of my 2012 book).
    • Many journals charging APCs offer fee waivers or discounts for authors facing economic hardship. Before you pay a full fee out out of pocket, check your journal's position this point.
    • If you want to see how a given journal's fee compares with others, and how it correlates with the journal's impact or influence, see FlourishOA.
    • If you want to know whether certain OA journals charge publication fees, without visiting many separate journal web sites, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) will tell you. If the journal is not listed in the DOAJ, then reconsider whether it's the right journal for you. For more, see the next entry on assessing the quality of an unknown journal.
  • If you find an otherwise promising OA journal in your field, but have never heard of it, investigate it. Network with trusted colleagues to do so.
    • Find the names of the editors and members of the editorial board. Do you recognize and respect them?
    • Above all, read a good sample of its papers. Are they good, by your own standards? Would you be proud or embarrassed to be associated with them?
    • Is the journal listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)? If so, then either trust the journal or deepen your investigation. Read more here, here, or here about the DOAJ efforts to weed out untrustworthy journals.
    • Also follow the progress of the Academic Journal Predatory Checking System (AJPCS), Bona Fide Journals, Cabell's, JournalGuide, JournalReviewer, Open Access Journal Finder, Peer Review Evaluation (PRE), Predatory Reports, Quality Open Access Market (QOAM), Responsible Journals, SciRev, and Think-Check-Submit. All these services are trying different ways to solve the same problem. Also see Transpose for details on the editorial and peer-review policies at a given journal.
    • Don't assume that unknown journals are weak. Low profile does not imply low quality, especially when journals are new, and the average OA journal is significantly newer than the average conventional journal. New journals, OA and non-OA, face the vicious circle of needing excellent submissions to generate reputation, and needing reputation to attract excellent submissions. Don't fault a journal for being only partway through the process of escaping this circle. Look to its quality alone, as far as you can determine it. Even journals excellent from birth need time to develop a reputation in proportion to their quality. When an honest, new, and little-known journal is struggling for visibility, you can help it escape the circle by submitting some of your best work. In the words of Harvard's Faculty Advisory Council on the Library (April 2012), "move prestige to open access."
    • Is the publisher a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA)? OASPA has a good code of conduct and set of membership criteria requiring peer review, requiring disclosure of a journal's vetting process, fees, and ownership, and prohibiting spam to solicit papers or members of editorial boards. Also see the DOAJ Principles of Transparency. Some honest, high-quality OA publishers do not yet belong to OASPA, and some honest, high-quality OA journals are not yet listed in the DOAJ. But we should encourage them to apply. If your investigation of a particular journal doesn't turn up evidence that you trust one way or another, then follow the rule to avoid publishers who aren't members of OASPA and journals that aren't listed in the DOAJ. Don't hesitate to tell them that you are doing so. That will give them an incentive to join, and live up to their professional standards.
      • Similarly, if institutions must decide which OA journals to support, they could require OASPA membership and/or DOAJ listing, and say so on a public web page. (This is the approach we take with the Harvard HOPE Fund.) That will strengthen the incentive for OA publishers and journals to live up to the standards set by OASPA and DOAJ.
    • Related but requiring more effort: Assess the journal under the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing issued jointly by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME).
    • If an unknown OA journal solicits your work, or invites you to join the editorial board, then you could reply that you'll consider it when the publisher joins OASPA and the journal is listed in the DOAJ.
  • When you find a suitable OA journal, then submit your manuscript, just as you would to a conventional journal.
  • If you don't find a suitable OA journal, check again when you publish your next paper. Things are changing fast.
    • But don't conclude that you can't yet make your article OA. If you don't make it gold OA (through an OA journal), you can publish it in a non-OA journal make the peer-reviewed manuscript green OA (through an OA repository). For details, see the section on green OA, below.

Deposit in an OA repository ("green" OA)

  • If there isn't an OA repository in your institution or field, then consider a universal repository such as Zenodo or GitHub.
    • You could also post your work to your personal web site or home page. But repositories are better long-term solutions because they take steps toward digital preservation and provide persistent URLs. In addition, they're better indexed by search engines, and will continue to hold your work and make it OA after you change jobs or die.
    • Non-profit OA repositories are also a better choice than for-profit sites like and ResearchGate. See the well-written arguments by the U of California (December 2015, link), Kathleen Fitzpatrick (October 2015, link), Sarah Bond (January 2017, link), and Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra (June 2020, link).
  • Start with your new works and deposit them as you finish them. As you find time, deposit your older works retroactively.
    • When you deposit new works, deposit at the time of acceptance. That's when you have the peer-reviewed manuscript in hand (before you lose track of it) and that's when you're still thinking about widening access to your new work (before you become preoccupied by your next project).
    • To be explicit on a point many people miss: When you make new work OA, it can be green or gold (OA through repositories or journals), at your choice. But when you want to make older work OA, it's usually too late for gold OA but never too late for green OA.
  • Most of the time, you may lawfully make your article OA through a repository even if you published it in a non-OA journal. There are two reasons why. (For more details on each, see the section on Permissions and copyright below.)
    1. First, most non-OA publishers give standing permission for green OA.
    2. Second, research institutions can adopt rights-retention OA policies to assure permission for green OA even in cases where publishers don't already give standing permission.
    • Unfortunately the two facts above are among the best-kept secrets of OA, and must compete against some of the most widespread misunderstandings about OA, for example, that all OA is gold OA, that publishing in a non-OA journal forecloses the possibility of OA, that the relevant rights always belong to publishers, and that non-OA publishers are doing nothing to adapt to an OA world or accommodate authors who want OA.
    • Important conclusion, especially for early-career researchers: Some OA journals are among the top journals in their fields, whether we measure this status by citations, altmetrics, downloads, or reputation. This set of OA journals grows with time. But some hiring, promotion, and tenure committees don't yet recognize any OA journals among the top journals in their field. If that's your situation (given your field and your committee), and if you need the imprimatur of a "top journal" for your career, then don't conclude that there's a tradeoff between OA and your career. At worst there's only a tradeoff between gold OA and your career. Don't forget the green OA option and don't fail to take advantage of it. Publish in the best journal that will accept your work, even if it's not OA. (The OA movement needs you to be hired, promoted, and tenured so that you can fight for OA from the inside.) If the journal isn't OA, then deposit the peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository at the time of acceptance or publication.

Permissions (copyright)

  • No matter which path you choose ("gold" or "green" OA), the journal or repository will need permission to make your work OA. But permission from whom? The answer depends on what happened to the rights in your article after you wrote it.
  • When you write a new article, you are the copyright holder. You needn't apply for a copyright or register the work. It's automatic. If you haven't already transferred rights to others, then permission for OA comes from you.
    • You may authorize publication in an OA journal (gold OA). Just sign the publishing contract.
    • You may authorize OA through a repository (green OA) for an unpublished manuscript or preprint. Just make the deposit. If you're looking for a suitable repository, see the Directory of Open Access Preprint Repositories. However, if your article has already been published, then you have likely transferred all or some rights to a publisher. Hence, see next.
  • If you want to deposit a published article in a repository, and make it OA, then the repository will need permission from the relevant rightsholder.
    • If you retained key rights when you published (desirable but still rare), then you may authorize OA through a repository on your own. You needn't consult or involve the publisher.
    • If you transferred key rights to the publisher (undesirable but still common), then you will need the publisher's permission.
    • However, most conventional or non-OA publishers give standing permission for author-initiated green OA.
      • To see whether your journal or publisher gives this kind of standing permission, read your publishing agreement. Or look up the journal or publisher in the SHERPA RoMEO database.
    • If your journal or publisher does not give standing permission for green OA, then try one of these strategies.
      • Ask for permission. Many publishers who don't give standing permission will agree to case-by-case requests.
      • Use an author addendum. An author addendum is a proposed modification to the publishing agreement, written by a lawyer, giving the author the right to authorize OA (and sometimes other rights as well). Because it's only a proposed modification, publishers may accept it or reject it.
      • Work for a rights-retention OA policy at your institution. (More on this below.)
  • Permission to deposit an article in an OA repository often depends on the version you plan to deposit.
    • For example, most publishers who give standing permission for green OA permit deposit of the version approved by peer review (sometimes called the accepted author manuscript or AAM), but not the published edition (sometimes called the version of record or VOR).
      • Symmetrically, most university and funder OA policies are satisfied by deposit of the AAM, and don't require deposit of the VOR.
    • If you have permission to deposit the AAM, and not the VOR, then you'll need to put your hands on the AAM. This may sound easy, since you're the author. But it might be the single largest obstacle to green OA. Sometimes it's objectively hard, and sometimes authors merely think it's hard and decide they can't be bothered.
      • Tip for the future: Whenever you publish a new article, always keep the AAM and deposit it in an OA repository at the time of acceptance.
      • If you have permission to deposit the VOR, then you can always get a copy from the journal web site.
      • SHERPA maintains a shorter list of publishers who give standing permission for authors to deposit the VOR.
    • If you have permission to deposit the AAM, but don't have the AAM itself, then see the Open Access Button instructions on how to fetch the AAM from your publisher's version-control system. Right now these instructions apply only to authors, but in the future they might include instructions for those acting on behalf of authors, such as librarians, administrative assistants, research assistants, and student workers.
  • For standing permission to make your future articles OA without depending on publishers for that permission, work for a rights-retention OA policy at your institution.
    • The first wave university rights retention OA policies are sometimes called "Harvard-style" policies, after the first Harvard OA policy in 2008. While the number keeps growing, today there are also many rights-retention OA policies that do not follow the Harvard model. See the crowd-sourced Open Access Directory list of university rights-retention OA policies, which aims to capture rights-retention policies regardless of their method or approach.
    • The Harvard Open Access Project (HOAP) can help you with a policy at your institution. Also see the HOAP guide to good practices for university OA policies, which focuses on Harvard-style rights-retention policies. (Disclosure: I write and edit the guide with Stuart Shieber.)
    • When authors are covered by a rights-retention OA policy, then they may lawfully make their work OA...
      • even when they publish in a non-OA journal,
      • even when the non-OA journal does not give standing permission for green OA, and
      • even when faculty members have not negotiated special access terms or permissions with their publishers.
  • Also note that there are many ways to retain rights even if your institution has not adopted a rights-retention policy.

Translations of this handout

This handout is also available in French (November 2017), German (October 2017), Greek (September 2013), Indonesian (October 2017), and Spanish (January 2014). I welcome other translations.