The HSRC and open access to scholarly journal articles

Traditionally, journals have been sold on a subscription basis to academic institutions. This meant that only researchers in institutions that could afford to pay the subscription charges were able to read journal articles. But a revolution is taking place with the introduction of open access publishing, writes ALISON BULLEN.

Even though the internet has changed how we conduct and share research, and potentially increased the global reach of scholarly communication, it has not resulted in significant reduction in costs of journals. This is in part because the bulk of the cost of producing academic journals lies in the peer-review process and other costs not related to the printing and distribution of journals

The advent of the internet has therefore not resulted in wider distribution of scholarly work, but rather an expansion of the deep or hidden web where material is available but only at a price, and these high costs, along with patchy internet access in many developing countries have only served to widen the gap between northern and southern hemisphere countries.

However, pressure from the ‘open access’ movement and a general move towards seeing knowledge as for the common good rather than having proprietary value, has forced scholarly journal publishers to explore new business models which make research more available while still allowing them to recoup their costs. There has also been pressure from donor organisations and governments who are increasingly demanding that there be open access to articles that report on research that is funded by public monies.

A number of different models have emerged:

  • Full open access – open access journals such as South African Medical Journal and the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition (note that both of these journals are published by professional associations and not commercial publishers).
  • Open access after an embargo of 12 months – for example AIDS, which is published by Aidsonline.
  • 'Author pays’ option, where the publisher charges authors (or their institutions) a fee which allows others free access to that specific article through the publisher's website; fees can go up to € 3 000 per article.
  • Free access to pre-prints (articles before the peer-review process) or post-prints (articles after the peer-review process) that can be loaded onto an institutional or personal website, or institutional repository, either immediately or after an embargo period decided by the publisher.

While publishers search for sustainable business models, institutions such as the HSRC find themselves in a situation where it sometimes pays twice for an article: the library pays to purchase a subscription to a journal, and then the institution pays the ‘author pays’ fee to the journal publisher to allow others to access the journal article without cost.

The Information Services unit of the HSRC pays a substantial amount per annum for access to scholarly journals from a range of publishers. And even though these are the reduced fees negotiated by the South African Library and Information Consortium (SANLiC), of which the HSRC is a member, the cost of paying additional fees for others to access our research is something we can ill afford.

Why pay for open access?

So why pay these ‘author pays’ fees? Elsewhere in this issue you will see various articles based on research done by the HSRC and published in various open access journals. This article was one of the top ten downloads from Aids Care in 2010. This is a remarkable achievement considering that the journal ranks 12th out of 33 journals indexed by Thompson Reuters in the social sciences, biomedical category, with an impact factor (average number of citations to articles published in a specific journal in a given year) of 1,539 in 2010.

The fact that the ‘author pays’ fee was paid for this article so that it could be available for free to anyone with internet access greatly increased its exposure and furthered the impact of the research.

A list of the main publishers and journals and their policies on open access can be found at

More information on open access is available on and

Author: Alison Bullen, Research Use and Impact Assessment programme, HSRC.