Community over Commercialization: Understanding Open Access at Carolina 

October 27, 2023

By Collin Drummond 

Drummond is the graduate assistant in the University Libraries’ Office of Scholarly Communications and an M.S.L.S. candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science. 

This year’s Open Access Week theme is “Community over Commercialization.” The theme encourages discussion of which approaches to open scholarship prioritize the best interests of the public and the academic community. It’s a problem that the University Libraries takes seriously. 

Open access publications are free to read for anyone with an internet connection. When Carolina researchers can publish open access, the resources they create are freely available to doctors, patients, researchers, students and many others, whether or not they can afford to pay for books or journal subscriptions. 

For many years, the University Libraries has promoted open access to scholarly research. In 2022, researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill published about 10,000 scholarly articles, chapters, books and other works. About 58% are open access. This is not a small thing. We are proud of the numerous insights and discoveries our researchers have provided to the world. 

The path to open access is not always smooth, however. Ten-year trends illustrate both the progress Carolina has made, and the obstacles that make moving toward greater access challenging. 

Graph showing the percentage of articles by Carolina researchers published in each open access category from 2012 to 2022. The graph shows an increase in Hybrid and Gold open access publications over time, a relatively steady percentage of Green and Bronze open access publications over time and a decrease in closed access articles over time. However in 2022, the number of closed access articles is higher than in recent years, and the number of bronze and green open access articles is lower.

You don’t have to look too closely at the graph above to see a shift in 2022. For ten years, the percentage of closed publications decreased as more of Carolina’s research became open access. In 2022, however, the percentage of closed publications returned to pre-2012 levels. 

Why did this happen? For the most part, the answer comes down to two of the “colors” of open access: bronze and green. 

Open access publishing can be divided into several categories: 

  • “Hybrid” or “Gold” means that publications are permanently open access. Researchers usually have to pay a fee for their work to be published this way.
  • “Bronze” means that the work is currently open access, but there is no open license – in other words, there is no guarantee it will stay open (many articles about Covid-19 were temporarily opened this way). Publishers benefit from bronze open access because they maintain control over access.
  • “Green” means that the official version of the work is subscription-only, but the author has “self-archived” some version of it in an open access repository, such as the Carolina Digital Repository. Some publishers don’t allow this at all, while others either prohibit authors from posting the final peer-reviewed version, or only allow self-archiving a year after publication (because this one-year “embargo” is quite common, it is likely that 100-200 more closed articles will turn to green by the end of 2023).   

While our hybrid and gold open access research continued to make modest gains, both bronze and green open access dropped noticeably. This could be due to the control publishers hold over bronze and green open access articles. With bronze articles, publishers can flip a switch and turn back progress with minimal repercussions. With green articles, researchers not only have to publish their article a second time, but they also must keep track of the details of their contract to make sure they can self-archive without legal action from the publisher. 

Our newest agreement with SAGE Publishing helps address these challenges. It covers the cost of open access publishing charges in all SAGE Choice and SAGE Gold Open Access Journals when a Carolina researcher is the corresponding author. There are no caps on the number of articles that can be funded each year. This makes it easier for researchers to publish gold or hybrid, ensuring their work will stay open access. 

Unlike previous deals in which we pre-paid for a specific number of open access articles, this agreement includes unlimited open access publishing when the corresponding author is affiliated with UNC-Chapel Hill. For every open access article we publish with SAGE, the average cost per article will go down. The more open access, the better the deal. In short, our new agreement takes the commercial aspects of hybrid and bronze open access out of the picture and incentivizes open access publishing. 

Naturally, the Scholarly Communications Office is always investigating other avenues for promoting open access to scholarly research. Our newest agreement with SAGE is still not our end goal, but it is a big step in the right direction and a model we look forward to continuing with other publishers. 

We encourage all UNC-affiliated researchers to take advantage of it. If you are planning to publish soon, check out this list of Sage journals to see if there are any that might be a good fit for your research. With your help, we can regain lost ground and continue to create a world where everyone has access to high-quality scholarly research.