What is open access?

Open access literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. This stands in direct opposition to the traditional method of publishing scholarly research, which is slow, expensive, and ill-suited to collaboration and discovery. Traditional scholarly publishing is often hidden behind technical, legal, or financial barriers or paywalls, even when it is publicly funded.

Open access literature is still produced by a publisher and is often peer-reviewed, just like all other scholarly literature. Providing your videos, journal articles, images/figures, research data, software code, and other scholarly output through open access means that your work becomes more widely available, more easily cited and built upon, and that your contributions to your field of research are more findable and usable by other scholars.


"Open Access Explained!" by Piled Higher and Deeper (PHD Comics), licensed CC-BY 4.0

Levels of Open Access

Some common terms you may see when looking at open access publications:

Green OA: This is the "self-archiving" route to OA. Depending on the contract terms you have signed with your publisher, you as an author of a scholarly publication can deposit a copy of that publication into an open access repository. In addition to publication in a traditional scholarly journal, you may be able to deposit a pre-print or post-print copy of your article into an open access repository or on your personal website.

Gold OA: This is publisher-level open access. You write a paper and submit it to a journal in the usual way, and the publisher makes the article freely available upon publication with no additional effort on your part. Some journals are entirely OA (they do this for every article) and some publish under a hybrid model (some articles in an issue will be available OA and some will not). Some OA publishers will charge an Article Processing Charge (APC) in order to publish an article OA - this fee is often paid by a funding institution or a university, but is sometimes paid directly by the author. (Note: Not every publisher that charges an APC is predatory, but some may be. A list of resources about predatory publishing can be found here: Predatory Journals WebQuest.

Gratis OA: Gratis OA means open access materials that are free to read, but that still have copyright/licensing restrictions. This means you will need to investigate further to find out if you are able to re-use, re-mix, or re-distribute the work, and that usually these rights will be restricted. You may also see this referred to as "weak OA."

Libre OA: Libre OA are open access materials that are free not only to read but also to use. These are materials that you can freely photocopy and share with your students in class, for example. (Note that you cannot always legally do this with Gratis OA materials or library subscription materials!) These materials are typically free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. You may also see this referred to as "strong OA."

Where to find OA or learn more?

There are many discipline-specific as well as multidisciplinary OA journals and repositories. Some examples are:

  • Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ): A searchable directory of open access journals across all disciplines. This directory is professional vetted - if a journal appears in DOAJ, that is a strong sign that it is likely a legitimate journal and not a predatory one.
  • Public Library of Science (PLoS): PLoS is one of the oldest and most well-established open access publishers across the sciences. They are comprised of a number of different journals including PLOS Biology, PLOS One, and PLOS Pathogens.
  • HathiTrust: A partnership of academic and research institutions offering millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world.
  • Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR): A global directory of academic open access repositories.
  • Knowledge Unlatched (KU): Offers free access to scholarly content for every reader across the world.
  • CORE: A search engine aggregating the world's open access research papers.
  • CORE Humanities Commons: A division of CORE and the Humanities Commons, this search engine focuses specifically on OA materials in the humanities disciplines.
  • CC Search: Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization devoted to providing a legal licensing structure for open content. Their search engine finds open material (text, images, video) across a number of different open repositories (Wikimedia Commons, Flickr, SoundCloud, Europeana).

There are many, many more open access resources available. If you need help finding more information or have any questions, please contact Shanna Hollich.

What is OER?

OER are educational materials that can be freely downloaded, edited, and shared to better serve all students. OER materials include the rights to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute their content. This is important - it means that if you decide to use an OER textbook for your class, you are not stuck with the text as is. You have full legal rights to copy that work, edit it, adapt it for use in your specific class with your specific students, and redistribute it as you see fit. This provides you much more power and flexibility than you would have with a traditionally-published textbook.

Library subscription resources, such as e-books, are free for you to read as long as you remain a member of the Wilson community. But you do not have the legal right to copy or redistribute those materials, or to edit and revise them as you see fit. This is an important distinction to make, as the video below explains in more detail.


"Library Subscription Resources vs. OER" by Shanna Hollich, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

Why use OER?

In April 2018, NPR reported on a recent study performed by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab that found that 36 percent of American college students report being food insecure. Another 36 percent of college students report being housing insecure. A full 9 percent of college students are reportedly homeless. And the cost of a college education is only going up, vastly outpacing the rate of inflation. Scholarships and other forms of financial aid often cover tuition costs only and do not necessarily account for student fees, housing costs, or the cost of textbooks and other necessary school supplies. If a student is faced with a choice between purchasing a $100 textbook or paying for groceries, electricity, or rent, it is no surprise which one they will choose.

Fewer than half of your students will have their textbook purchased and in hand on the first day of class. Almost a third of your students will never purchase the textbook for your class, instead relying on borrowing copies from friends, pirating versions found online, or using outdated previous editions of the book that can be found inexpensively at used book retailers. Without the textbook, these students often struggle to compete academically.

Aside from the issue of cost, using OER gives you more control over your course content. With open resources, you have the power and ability to edit them freely and revise and remix them with other materials to make something tailored directly to your needs. You could even collaborate with your students to write additional course content or improve already existing content. And you aren't tied to a specific publisher or specific ancillary content.


"Why OER?" by The Council of Chief State School Officers, licensed CC-BY 4.0

How to find OER

There are number of OER repositories and search engines available, such as:

  • Open Textbook Library: The Open Textbook Network (OTN) provides over 500 open textbooks across 25 disciplines including Business/Accounting, Psychology, Sociology, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Education, Art, Philosophy, History, and more. A majority of the textbooks in the Open Textbook Library have been peer-reviewed by faculty at a wide range of institutions.
  • MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW): This is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content and is one of the oldest OER repositories in existence.
  • Archive.org: Archive.org's library of OER and university lectures. Searches across multiple repositories.
  • OpenStax: Provides free, peer-reviewed, openly licensed educational content. Many of the OpenStax textbooks include open ancillary content as well (tests, quizzes, homework assignments).
  • OASIS: Openly Available Sources Integrated Search (OASIS) is a search tool developed by SUNY Geneseo to make the discovery of open content easier. Currently searches from over 60 sources and contains over 160,000 records.
  • Open Education Consortium: OER search engine in collaboration with MERLOT.
  • MERLOT: Provides access to curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools, led by an international community of educators, learners, and researchers.
  • OER Commons: A public digital library of open educational resources.
  • Metafinder: The George Mason University OER Metafinder - simultaneous real-time search for OER content from a number of different repositories, including the Digital Public Library of America, OAOpen.org, the New York Public Library Collections, Project Gutenberg, and the World Digital Library, among others.

This is just a small fraction of the resources available. For help finding OER, contact Shanna Hollich.

Adapting OER


"Adapting OER" by Shanna Hollich, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

There may be grant funding available to help you with the adoption and adaption of OER materials for your courses. Contact Shanna Hollich for more information about these types of opportunities.

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people understand and exercise their copyright and intellectual property rights and to provide tools that make it easier to do so. Most of the open access and OER materials that you will find are able to be openly used and shared because of Creative Commons licenses.


"The Story of Creative Commons" by Shanna Hollich, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

Creative Commons Licenses

Creative Commons licenses do not replace copyright; they work with copyright in order to help you extend and exercise intellectual property rights. There are six different types of CC licenses that allow you to choose the set of conditions you would like to apply to your work. The Creative Commons website has a "Choose a License" tool that will walk you through the process of determining which license is appropriate for your work.


"Anatomy of a CC License" by Shanna Hollich, licensed CC-BY-SA 4.0

Author Rights and Contracts

Many publishing agreements will ask you to sign over more of your rights than are really necessary for publication. Depending on the agreement, you may find yourself unable to freely share your work with others, unable to re-use portions of your own work in future work in other publications, or even prohibited from printing your own articles to use in your own classes. Very often, once you sign an agreement to publish your article in a scholarly journal, you are no longer the copyright holder for your own work because you have signed away your rights. Carefully scrutinize all publishing contracts and don't be afraid to negotiate them - they are able to be changed and this is a standard part of the process.

SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, provides some basic information about your rights as an author on their Author Rights page.

Two other important resources to help you retain your rights as an author are:

  1. Scholar's Copyright Addendum Engine: This website will help you generate a PDF form that you can attach to any publishing agreement or contract to ensure that you retain certain rights.
  2. Authors Alliance/Creative Commons Termination of Transfer Tool: This is a tool that can help you regain control of your work when you've already signed away your rights. If you have already entered into a licensing agreement that prohibits you from openly sharing or otherwise re-releasing your work, the information on this website can help you terminate those licensing arrangements and get your rights to your work back with you, where they belong.


You Know What You Write, But Do You Know Your Rights? from Jill Cirasella licensed CC-BY 4.0

You may not realize it, but librarians are often specifically trained in issues regarding copyright, licensing, academic publishing, and scholarly communication. Shanna Hollich is certified by Creative Commons as a copyright expert and can help you read, understand, and negotiate your publishing contracts, as well as help you learn more about the area of scholarly communication and academic publishing in general, and how your field of research and your work can fit into that larger arena.

More Information

You of course can contact any of the librarians at Wilson to help answer your questions about open access, OER, and copyright. The organizations linked below also contain helpful information.

  • SPARC: SPARC is a global coalition committed to making open the default choice for research and education. Their primary areas of focus are open access, open data, and open education. Their website provides resources, projects, policy documents, and impact stories to demonstrate what open is and why it matters.
  • Open Textbook Network: Run out of the University of Minnesota's Center for Open Education, OTN is a global alliance of higher education institutions committed to improving access, affordability, and academic success through the use of open textbooks.
  • Affordable Learning PA: This is a state-wide initiative started in 2018 by the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium, Inc. The long-term goal of the project is to support a robust OER community among Pennsylvania campuses. Wilson College is directly involved in this initiative as a Campus Partner.