Open access simply means that an article (or textbook, or data set, etc.) is freely available for anyone to read without paying for it. The cost for universities to purchase access to articles from traditional publishers has skyrocketed in the last few decades, so only the richest institutions are able to purchase access to certain research. This is bad for researchers, who may not be able to afford all of the relevant research in their areas; authors, who can’t distribute their work as widely as they would otherwise and so get cited less often; universities, who have to pay more and more money for the same or fewer journals; and clinical practitioners and the general public who often don’t have access to them at all.
Open access has become the trend in scholarly publishing to combat this. A lot of funders of social science research now require that research be made open access.
Some open access journals are high quality and have a peer review process that all articles go through. On the other hand, predatory journals have taken advantage of the push for open access and so have given open access a bad reputation in certain areas. However, if you’re checking things like how many times and article is cited and the journal’s impact factor, you’ll know something is fishy with that publication.
A journal will tell you that they are open access on their website.
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