Broadly defined, open access makes scholarly materials accessible to users at no cost. More specifically, the term is used to describe a model of scholarly communication in which users may freely view, download, copy, and print scholarly articles, books, conference proceedings, squibs, and so forth. Such a model is in stark contrast to existing models of scholarly communication in that many of the most widely-used peer-reviewed journals are accessible to libraries primarily through expensive bulk package plans, forcing libraries to pay top-dollar for the resources their faculties require. In so doing, libraries add to their collections a number of rarely-used journals of minimal impact and value simply because they were bundled in with the journals they could not do without: a model not unlike those provided by the local cable company – i.e., if one wants the Food Network, one is also saddled with the Golf Channel.

In actuality, there are a number of different models of open access that adhere more or less to the principle of providing scholarly materials free of charge. Tenopir (2004) explains that open access:

"includes many publication and distribution schemes. E-journals that are published, distributed electronically, and subsidized by universities, government agencies, and volunteer organizations are the most common. In addition, collections of separate articles or research reports could fit the definition, including e-print servers such as arXiv.org, institutional repositories, and author web pages." (p. 33)

The numerous models of open access may typically be categorized under one of the two rubrics proposed by open access champion, Steven Harnad. In the "gold" open access model, materials are freely and immediately provided in universally accessible electronic journals. The "green" open access model might be seen as an intermediate phase between current fee-based access models and the gold model, in which authors continue to publish in journals, whether they be print-based or electronic, but deposit copies, perhaps pre-prints, into an institutional or subject repository (Crawford, 2005b).

There are thus many forms that open access publications may take, each having its own costs and benefits. What they share is the very general principle which is poignantly stated by Harnad; "the objective of open access is to maximize research impact by maximizing research access." While the benefits are many and clear, the issue of cost is one that has to be agreed upon.

Open access publishing typically implies that the user is able to freely access scholarly materials because the price of publication has been assumed by another party, usually the author of the material, the author's institution, or the grant which funded the research (Tenopir, 2004). One can see that open access publication is not, therefore, a completely cost-free endeavor. Indeed, the costs have merely been shifted from the consumers of information to the producers, or those who fund them (Wren, 2005), which applies equally to both the gold and green models of open access.

It is observed in this paper that all flavors and forms of open access impact the roles filled by academic libraries, but it is worth noting that these may vary. For instance, while the green model of open access will undoubtedly benefit scholars by globally providing scholarly material at no cost, with no access restrictions, other benefits such as budget relief may not be realized (Crawford, 2005b). In fact, it may strain budgets that are already being stretched by commercial journals.

The scope of this paper is limited to academic libraries primarily because of the close relationship they have with university faculties, i.e., those who both contribute the most to scholarly journals, and have strong needs for access to same. Many of the impacts discussed in this paper might also apply to public, school, and special libraries, but the scope is limited due to the proximity academic libraries have to the world of scholarly communication.

It is not the intention of the author to paint a simple, rosy picture of the issues surrounding open access, nor to advocate a radical, wholesale shift thereto. Rather, it is suggested only that the issues surrounding open access be brought out into the open and discussed. While there are reasons academic libraries might be cautious about modifying the ways they support scholarly communication, there are myriad reasons to consider how they might best serve their communities with open access.

… Read the paper in its entirety.