Does Open Access Mean Free?

When you log into an Open Access journal, you can read documents and research findings to your heart’s content. You can even go to any number of other Open Access publications to find yet more content. And the best part? None of this costs any money: no subscription, no credit card payments, nothing. So, it must be free, right?

Well, the answer isn’t actually that simple.

First, let’s take a step back and look at the traditional publishing model. This process puts the cost of publishing on the reader. Both you, me, and many others pay a subscription fee to the journal. In doing so, we collectively cover the costs of publishing in exchange for the privilege of reading their content, either online or (gasp!) in print.

Source: Nature

Whether for right or for wrong, subscribing to a journal and reading their ads pays for everything that goes into that article. Of course, this includes paying authors and editors but it also covers everything from the janitorial staff who works at the journal’s office to the budget for in-meeting snacks. There is an incredible machine behind publishing journals and, until the Open Access movement began to take root, it was a well-oiled machine.

In fact, 2017 revenues from English language journals tipped the scales at $9.9 billion, while books raked in $3.2 billion. (source) Given these large revenues that cover such a multitude of costs, is it realistic to expect all of these costs and revenues will suddenly disappear? Could the publishing world ever become a Shangri-La of free access to information?

The answer is a resounding no. Absolutely not. Here’s what the Open Access movement is actually doing.

The Costs of Open Access

In a word, Open Access relocates the cost of publishing from the reader to the author. Authors typically pay between USD $2,000 and $3,000 to publish an article in an Open Access journal. Since the reader doesn’t have to pay for it anymore, it seems free. What we need to realize, however, is that there’s merely a shift in who pays for it. We still need to pay the janitors and buy muffins for the meetings; the only difference is who fronts the bill.

Open Access materials may be free to read but they are certainly not free to publish. To cover these costs, publishers are looking to a variety of funding methods. Some Open Access journals receive direct or indirect funding from institutions like hospitals, universities, museums, laboratories, research centers, hospitals, foundations, and government agencies. Others receive revenue streams from either paid publications or other products. Perhaps they offer a certain amount of Open Access materials and offer a subscription for additional premium content. Another business model relies on advertising revenue, similar to tech companies like Facebook and Google. Yet others rely on crowdfunding or volunteer efforts to curate, edit, and publish Open Access content.

The problem with this is that it skews what content is available to the public. It creates an inherent bias: only well-funded research is published. This puts more power in the hands of multinational corporations, universities with large endowments, and similar wealthy organizations. The danger is that these privileged viewpoints have a disproportional effect on the discourse. They can fund and publish research that supports their agendas, giving them a louder voice than smaller competitors.

Despite these issues, organizations are finding creative ways to enable Open Access publishing. They are looking to alternative revenue streams, requesting grants from accredited, nonpartial organizations, and playing to their strengths. Wikipedia, for instance, is an Open Access publication that is still paid for by its readership. Though we don’t have to pay a monthly subscription fee to access Wikipedia articles, the site relies on donations big and small to keep the lights on and the servers running. This model taps into the ethos of the Open Access movement: it relies on funds and information freely given rather than a coerced exchange.


There is an age-old adage that certainly applies here: nothing in life is free. There is no such thing as free academic research or scholarly publication. Though the reader may not have to pay to access the material, the publisher still has a bevy of costs to pay in order to provide that material.

That money has to come from somewhere. Open Access means that we’re simply moving the costs around a bit. The authors and publishers have to pay upfront costs to publish their work. Altogether, this brings a unique set of challenges and benefits, and organizations are gradually adapting to this new landscape. In the future, we can expect to see new business models evolve to keep pace with the growing demand for Open Access literature.