The Important Differences between Free and Open Access Publications

More than 10 years after Open Access publishing became widely available, lack of awareness persists concerning its potential to reduce waste, as does confusion over the difference between Open and Free Access

Among the important topics that Paul Glasziou and colleagues address in the Waste in Research Lancet Series:

the key issue of access to published knowledge receives little mention.

Reducing waste from incomplete or unusable reports of biomedical research

the waste in research Lancet series
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Research publication can both communicate and miscommunicate. Unless research is adequately reported, the time and resources invested in the conduct of research is wasted. Reporting guidelines such as CONSORT, STARD, PRISMA, and ARRIVE aim to improve the quality of research reports, but all are much less adopted and adhered to than they should be. Adequate reports of research should clearly describe which questions were addressed and why, what was done, what was shown, and what the findings mean. However, substantial failures occur in each of these elements. For example, studies of published trial reports showed that the poor description of interventions meant that 40-89% were non-replicable; comparisons of protocols with publications showed that most studies had at least one primary outcome changed, introduced, or omitted; and investigators of new trials rarely set their findings in the context of a systematic review, and cited a very small and biased selection of previous relevant trials. Although best documented in reports of controlled trials, inadequate reporting occurs in all types of studies-animal and other preclinical studies, diagnostic studies, epidemiological studies, clinical prediction research, surveys, and qualitative studies. In this report, and in the Series more generally, we point to a waste at all stages in medical research. Although a more nuanced understanding of the complex systems involved in the conduct, writing, and publication of research is desirable, some immediate action can be taken to improve the reporting of research. Evidence for some recommendations is clear: change the current system of research rewards and regulations to encourage better and more complete reporting, and fund the development and maintenance of infrastructure to support better reporting, linkage, and archiving of all elements of research. However, the high amount of waste also warrants future investment in the monitoring of and research into reporting of research, and active implementation of the findings to ensure that research reports better address the needs of the range of research users.

The Important Differences between Free Access Publications and Open Access Publications

Sir Iain Chalmers
Sir Iain Chalmers

by Ginny Barbour, Medicine Editorial Director, PLOS Medicine

” More than 10 years after Open Access publishing became widely available, lack of awareness persists concerning its potential to reduce waste, as does confusion over the difference between open and free access. Sir Iain Chalmers inadvertently highlighted this in his tweet about the series. We thought it would be useful to clarify the differences illustrated by this example.

Free access means: the article is free to read; it may not be reused (including translated) without permission; authors and readers may be charged for copying the article, and authors may be prohibited from posting their article on an institutional server. “Free” rights may be withdrawn at any time by the publisher, as occurred with the QUOROM paper on reporting of meta-analyses Moher D, 1999. This was published in the Lancet in 1999, was originally made free but was subsequently placed behind a paywall (but which since the time of the writing and submission – and rejection – of this comment to the Lancet has become freely available again, with no indication if it is a permanent state).

Open Access is defined as: free, immediate access online; unrestricted distribution and re-use rights in perpetuity for humans and technological applications; author(s) retains rights to attribution; papers are immediately deposited in a public online archive, such as PubMed Central. These principles, backed up by internationally accepted licenses from Creative Commons, means in practice that anything published Open Access can be read and reused in perpetuity by both humans and machines.

The Lancet Series is “Copyright © 2014 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved”. At the time of publication it was necessary to login to read the articles. It is, therefore, free, not Open Access.
We hope that future articles in this important endeavour will address the need for open, not just free, access, and will themselves be Open Access. “


  • NCBI PMID: 24411647 Lancet. 2014 Jan 8; 383(9913):267-76. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62228-X. Epub 2014 Jan 8.
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2 thoughts on “The Important Differences between Free and Open Access Publications”

  1. Thanks Ginny, It would clarify communications and understanding if everyone could agree on the definition of “free” and “open” access, and the definitions above are what I understand by the terms. The definition of open access in Wikipedia (arguably the single most important open-access resource worldwide) ironically adds to the confusion by saying: “Open access comes in two degrees: gratis open access, which is online access free of charge, and libre open access, which is online access free of charge and with some additional usage rights.

    It might be interesting to try editing the Wikipedia entry to remove this confusion. I’ll try this in a few days once readers of DES Daughter have had a chance to review the existing definition. Best wishes, Neil Pakenham-Walsh – Healthcare Information For All

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