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Open Access: An Introduction: How do I find and use open access resources?

This guide explains the concept and importance of Open Access, and offers advice on how to get involved.

Searching for open access resources

Lego explorer figure.

For the purposes of this guide, we consider three broad categories of open access resource: research outputs, educational materials, and other creative works.

Research outputs - These are the products of academic research, and can be found most frequently in repositories and on publisher databases.

  • "Repositories" include institutional ones (like OpenAIR for RGU), centralised ones (like arXiv) and subject-specific ones (like PubMed Central or Europe PubMed Central for medical research). If you are looking for work by a specific researcher, then you can go directly to their institution's website to locate the repository. If you are looking to browse more generally, then you can identify suitable repositories on the Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR). Additionally, Google Scholar can provide a way of searching for content across repositories, since it pulls information and links from multiple open sources. However, the downside is that it is not possible to limit your search results to open access material only.
  • "Data repositories" refer to those repositories which exclusively store research data. There are lists of subject-specific data repositories in the Registry of Research Data Repositories and the Open Access Directory. An example of a centralised and multidisciplinary data repository is FigShare.
  • "Publisher databases" means those databases which hold the collected archives of specific publishers. If the publishers produce a mixture of open access- and traditional subscription-based content, then the databases will clearly distinguish which results are open access; examples of these are ScienceDirect for Elsevier, or SpringerLink for Springer. Alternatively, some databases only hold open access content; for example, the University of Edinburgh Open Journals database. There are also the Directory of Open Access Journals and the Directory of Open Access Books, which can help to identify suitable journals or monographs if you are looking to browse.

Educational materials - These are resources developed to help in instruction and teaching, and can be found in repositories of open educational resources (OER).

  • An increasing number of universities are now providing OER repositories, in addition to their institutional repositories for research outputs; examples include the University of Edinburgh's Open.Ed and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology OpenCourseWare. There are also centralised databases of OERs, of which one of the most well-used is the OER Commons.

Other creative works - All sorts of things are openly accessible. Some examples of creative material that can be reused are artistic works, like photography, film and music.

  • The key thing to look for is material which has been made available under a Creative Commons license (see here for more information on these). A convenient way of searching for these is to use the Creative Commons Search, which directs your search query to another website (like YouTube, SoundCloud or Flickr) and automatically filters the results to show only those with open licenses. You can also search these websites directly; examples for the three already mentioned are given below.


Other creative works: examples

YouTube is a very well-known video and audio content hosting platform. A large amount of the media on YouTube is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license. You can filter search results by feature "Creative Commons" to limit your results only to those videos that are openly available for reuse. Any YouTube video associated with a Creative Commons license mentions this in the description under the video window:

"Creative Commons" feature filter

Screenshot showing Creative Commons filter on YouTube search.

"Creative Commons" tag in video description

Screenshot showing Creative Commons license in YouTube video description.

SoundCloud is a music and audio content hosting platform, on which creators upload their works and make them freely accessible to the public. While a lot of the content is only for listening to and sharing, many items are made available under a more open Creative Commons license, which enables others to reuse and adapt the original work, sometimes even commercially. To filter results by Creative Commons licenses, select "Tracks" in the left-hand menu and then click the © symbol under "Filter results" to bring up a list of options. Content under a Creative Commons license will display this in the description:

Filtering results by license

Screenshot of SoundCloud, showing Creative Commons filter options.

"Creative Commons" tag in item description

Screenshot of SoundCloud, showing Creative Commons license in item description.

Flickr is a photography and graphics sharing platform, with a large number of images being made available under open licenses. Results can be filtered by different kinds of license very easily and individual image pages display Creative Commons license icons, showing under what conditions the content can be used:

Filter results by license type

Screenshot of Flickr, showing ability to filter by license type.

"Creative Commons" icons on image pages

Screenshot of Flickr, showing Creative Commons icons on image pages.

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Using open access resources

Open access resources can be used like any other kind of source material, though it's important to know what the restrictions are. These will be determined by the type of license and are often indicated with icons:

  • "Attribution" - BY (attribution) icon. - As usually the case when using material created by someone else, this restriction requires you to give appropriate credit when (re)using an open access resource. This includes cases where you have adapted the original work, as you must still state the source of the original.
  • "Share alike" - SA (share alike) icon. - Some licenses permit you to adapt the original work, as long as you distribute your adaptation under the same license.
  • "Non-commercial" - NC (non-commercial) icon. - Some licenses permit some form of reuse as long is it is not for commercial gain. This means that you cannot use the work for advertising or in some form of publication that will be sold elsewhere.
  • "No derivatives" - ND (no derivatives) icon. - Some licenses permit you to copy or share the original work, but prohibit any adaptation of the original. This means that, if you want to use the resource, you must do so without making any changes to the content.