#OpenAccessWeek2020: Open Access articles and teaching

The current situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it the (even more) urgent need to provide online access to journal articles and books.  This is not always easy or possible to do via subscriptions, and it is certainly not always affordable.  It makes it more important than ever that we look to those high-quality resources that are openly available and consider how these can be utilised successfully for teaching purposes. 

There is a true wealth of (legally obtainable) openly accessible journal articles, conference papers, book chapters and other resources available to you.  It does need to be said, that to know one open access (OA) article is not to know them all.  There are a number of differences that, at first glance, you may find concerning or off-putting.  Depending upon the specific publisher and journal policies, and the licence agreement signed by the author there will be differences in the version available, how long after publication the full text is available to access, and what you can do with the text once you do get access to it.  We will look at some of these issues in more detail, in the hope that open access papers will become some of the most useful resources in your teaching.

What is meant by “open access”?

Open access means that a resource (e.g. an article, a book chapter, a thesis) is, at the very least, freely available for anyone with an internet connection to read.  To be truly open access, this should not just be a temporary arrangement and you should always be able to access that work.  You may see that some journals will label papers as “free access” – be aware that this access could end at any point, however. 

To be truly open access, a resource should be free to re-use as well as to read.

See, for example, SPARC Europe’s definition of open access (https://sparceurope.org/what-we-do/open-access/what-is-open-access/)

See, for example, SPARC Europe’s definition of open access:

Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access is the needed modern update for the communication of research that fully utilises the Internet for what it was originally built to do—accelerate research.

SPARC Europe: What is Open Access?

There are different types of open access and the two most commonly referred to (in policies and on publisher webpages) are gold open access and green open access. You can find out more about these on our Open Research guide here.

How can I find open access resources

How you search for an item may depend upon whether you wish to find open access content on a particular subject or find an open access version of an article that you are already aware of.

Academic Databases

Databases such as Web of Science do allow you to conduct a search and then you can filter your results on whether the content is available “open access”.

You will potentially find both green and gold articles this way and links may be provided to content available from repositories.

Google Scholar

Google Scholar  also provides you with details of different “versions” of an article. 

One of these versions could be an open access copy although it can sometimes be more difficult to spot which it is and you may need to click on a few options before you find what you are looking for. You can also install and use for free Google Scholar Button which can simplify access to versions found in Google Scholar.

Unpaywall and Connexions

Unpaywall (and OA Button) are other examples of services which aim to make open access content more discoverable. Both Unpaywall and OA Button offer free browser plugins similar which allow you to identify open access versions of papers you otherwise cannot access.

We have more information on these tool son our Research Skills Guide, or an example of Unpaywall’s browser plug-in in action below:

We have also this week implemented an unpaywall add-on to our connexions service, so that if you search for and try to find an article from Library Discover or many other of our services, you may also see some open access versions identified by Unpaywall there.

Sherpa and OA Repositories

Articles or books that has been published gold open access will be accessible from the publisher’s website.  If you know which institution a person was working at when they published the research then you could try their institutional repository directly (a directory of open access repositories can be found at https://v2.sherpa.ac.uk/opendoar/).

What does an open access article or chapter look like?

Depending upon what the author chooses to make open access (and what the publisher may permit) you may find that the version that is available open access is:

  • the submitted version (pre-peer-review)
  • the accepted version (version that has been through peer review and has any changed incorporated but has not yet gone through type-setting and layout by the publisher)
  • the final, published ‘version of record’

You can view an example record in our own repository here, which has both the author accepted manuscript and final version of record available.

If directing your students to anything other than the version of record, you may want to forewarn them about what they will see when they follow the link you provide. 

With the accepted manuscript, the text is usually the same as or very similar to the published version. You will be best placed to know whether this is the case in your particular discipline or for journals that you may have published in yourself. The accepted manuscript may need more of a description for your students – so they know what to expect and how to read it most effectively. Some AAMs, for example, may have all of the images or figures together at the end of the article or they may be available in files completely separate to the main body of text. Students may need some reassurances about look and feel of what they are being asked to read, as it may look very different to the published version they are more used to. 

Can I make use of an open access article as soon as it has been published?

Not all open access articles are the same.  Along with differences in how an article or book chapter may look, there may also be a delay of a number of months following publication before you can get your hands (or eyes) on the open content.

If there is a delay then this is referred to as an embargo period, usually demanded by the publisher, and the length of the embargo will vary from journal to journal.

If the output details are found in a repository and the item has been published you should see a date by which the file will be opened up and made accessible to all. 

Take a look at this record from DRO.  The file is embargoed until 6th July 2021 – 12 months after its first online publication date.

Can I download an open access article and provide the file for my students?

Open access outputs that have been made accessible via institutional repositories are very likely to have had any publisher policies on redistribution rigorously checked. But, just because an article has been legally added to a repository it does not automatically mean that it can then be downloaded from that repository and uploaded to another online system or further distributed to others.

Many open access articles, especially those published gold open access, will be assigned a licence which details how that article can be re-used.  The most common suite of licences are called the Creative Commons licences

If an article has been assigned a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence then you know that you can re-distribute this item, howsoever you choose, as long as you provide full attribution when doing so. 

Other licences state that you can only re-use items for non-commercial purposes.  Copyright owners interpret what is “non-commercial” in different ways so it isn’t as easy to know what you can then do with the output.  Accepted manuscripts from a journal published by Elsevier have to be assigned a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND licence).  This is the strictest of all of the licences but they have stated that an item with this licence could be downloaded and added to a reading pack (as long as the pack is not sold).  Other publishers have made it clear that they will not allow items to be distributed in this way – even with that same licence assigned to a work.

So, if in doubt (and the article does not have a CC BY licence or a clear statement saying it can be downloaded and used for the purpose you wish to use it for) you should provide a link to the reading for your students to access for their own personal use. 

(Ed – it is worth noting that Plan S’ Rights Retention Strategy seeks to enable authors to retain rights allowing them to make their published research available with clear rights and permissions on re-use.)

How to reference an open access article

When referencing open access works and what you have read is the accepted manuscript (rather than the final published version) you may find the following advice useful from Dr Richard Pears (author of Cite them right: The essential referencing guide):

I would follow the principle of cite what you saw, so if this is the version in the repository I would give the item URL in the repository so that the reader can see the version you have cited.


Lastly, there are long-lasting benefits for your students in educating them about open access content from an early point in their studies. 

These benefits include:

  • Equipping them with the skills to locate these resources (Ed – check out our Research Skills Guide as well!)
  • The opportunity to introduce them to the different stages of academic publication
  • Guiding students to help them recognise different forms and versions of published and unpublished scholarly research, which may not always look like a polished, typeset piece of work they may be more familiar with, as scholarly communication and online access in many disciplines evolves.
  • Providing them with an understanding of how the open access versions they find can then be re-used, in the context of copyright and the costs of scholarly publishing.

This will mean that once they have graduated they will still be able to access quality research for their lifelong professional development and will not find themselves stuck behind paywalls that appear because they are no longer part of a university. 

If you have any questions or you would like any further advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch with the Open Access Team

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