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Open Access and Climate Research: Transformations in the Publication Landscape Over Time

The impact of climate research depends on its discoverability and accessibility. UNESCO promotes and supports open access (OA) and believes that unrestricted knowledge flow is important for innovation, socio-economic development, and meeting sustainability challenges. The thrust for OA is particularly strong for publications arising from publicly funded research. OA publishing is rapidly gaining momentum thanks to national and institutional OA mandates. Scholarly publishers must ensure compliance with public access and transformative requirements of funding bodies and institutions globally.

The importance of OA is increasingly being recognized for the rapid dissemination of critical research on topics such as climate change. Climate justice includes unfettered access to climate research publications across boundaries of any kind. Among people disproportionately affected by climate change (e.g., researchers in low-income countries that are highly prone to rising sea levels) are also those who cannot afford to access critical work behind expensive paywalls. Thus, a large part of vital scientific research remains out of reach of universities and institutions with limited funding. Even the general public, with no institutional affiliation, is denied important information.

Open access (OA) holds the key to these problems, ensuring that critical scholarly information is not the privy of limited sections who can afford access. OA allows researchers and citizens with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge to contribute to and benefit from climate information. Thus, OA is becoming increasingly necessary for the rapid dissemination of critical research on climate change.

 This article examines trends in climate science literature and takes a look at how OA is gradually transforming the publishing landscape in this field. 

Trends in climate science literature

Climate research straddles the natural sciences (physical sciences: environmental science, meteorology, oceanography, renewable energy, etc.; life sciences: agriculture, public health, etc.) and social and political sciences (sociology, international relations, political science, environmental law, etc.).

Climate research appears in journals dedicated to the abovementioned subdisciplines, as well as in multidisciplinary journals. Many journals publish papers from different research fields, and some overlaps are expected. This section will provide a brief overview of trends from the natural and social sciences with a focus on the overall intellectual landscape of climate research.

Climate research publication trends by subdiscipline

Scientific publications with climate change as the main theme and on different aspects of climate change have been rising rapidly (by over six-fold between 2005 and 2014).1 One study reported a doubling of such literature every 5–6 years.2

Research related to continental biomass and climate modeling dominate research papers under climate change. However, climate change research has become a major focus in disciplines beyond the natural sciences. Engineeringand social sciences have been showing strong field-specific increase. Research outputs on adaptation, mitigation, risks, and vulnerability have seen a jump since 2005. In fact, research on vulnerability and adaptation represent a sizeable proportion of “very important papers” (high citation impact).

Climate research publication trends by region

Regionally, existing climate change research is dominated by the Global North.1,2 The US publishes the most papers on “climate action” and “climate change in agriculture and related fields,” followed by the UK and Germany.3,4 The top-ranking countries producing highly cited papers on climate research are the US, Australia, and the UK. Among 100 most highly cited climate science papers of 2016–2020, covering over 1,300 authors, 90% tended to include at least one researcher from these three countries.5 Meanwhile, among members of the Global South, China is increasing its presence phenomenally.

Climate research publication trends in terms of OA

The proportion of OA scholarly literature has increased across all disciplines.6 This is the case for climate research too, where the number of total publications, as well as the proportion of them being OA, has increased rapidly.7 Across disciplines, however, differential adoption patterns are observed.6 Medical and health-related research fields lead with the highest percentage of OA publication levels. Physics, mathematics and earth and space sciences follow closely, and next are the social sciences.

On comparing average numbers of articles published between fully OA, hybrid and non-OA journals using the tool, one can see that among journals relevant to climate research (broadly, in the categories of agriculture, earth and planetary sciences, environmental science, and social science), the leading model is Hybrid OA, followed by fully OA. Non-OA journals tend to comprise the lowest percentage for these disciplines. Multidisciplinary journals show the highest OA percentage as they include the large megajournals. Note that a lot of climate research might be appearing in such journals as well.

Severin et al.6 note that many commercial publishers and academic societies are reluctant or slow to adapt to a fully OA model because of potential loss of revenue in switching from a subscription model to an APC model, as well as a perceived loss of prestige. Meanwhile, authors largely support OA publishing, but when it comes to choosing a journal, their chief selection criteria are journal reputation, impact factors, and quality and speed of peer review rather than OA.6

Climate research publication trends in terms of OA and OA models

Severin et al.6 reviewed several bibliometric studies that assessed OA publishing patterns across disciplines and found the most prevalent OA model to be Green OA, followed by Gold OA. In the many of the natural sciences, a large share of scholars publish through Green OA, followed by Bronze OA, Gold OA, and Hybrid OA. One study8 noted a favorable leap in the number of high-impact Platinum (or Diamond) OA journals (no APCs). Many academics might choose to publish in good-quality Platinum OA journals to conserve research funds.

By specific journal, journals with the highest citation rates and h-indexes in the field of climate action according to one report were Nature Climate Change and Global Environmental Change,4 both Hybrid OA journals (Gold OA and subscription options). Best performing journals in terms of citations and average citation per article in climate change in agriculture and related fields3 were also Hybrid OA journals, e.g., Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Forest Ecology and Management, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. Of these, only the latter highlighted that it is “transformative.” In an exploration of the literature on “climate” and “climate change/global warming/climate emergency” from 1910 to 2020, prolific journals were PLOS ONE (fully OA megajournal) and Science of the Total Environment (a Hybrid, transformative journal) for applied areas of research. Nature was found to be the most prominent and high-impact multidisciplinary journal.

Differences in citation patterns of OA vs. non-OA research

Studies comparing citations of OA and non-OA articles have often indicated some form of advantage, in terms of citation or at least views and downloads and other measures of visibility and impact (reviewed by Langham-Putrow et al.)9. Of note, studies addressing multiple disciplines tend to be associated with OA citation advantage. No study appears to have addressed citation advantage for climate research in particular, but it is reasonable to assume some level of benefits of better visibility for OA papers on climate research.

What publishers can do to make climate research widely available

In the interest of increasing the dissemination and impact of their work, timely communication to the community and lower time to publication are imperative. Let’s look at ways by which scholarly publishers can seek to have climate research published OA immediately.

Push for open science

In an era conducive to open science, publishers should provide clear data sharing policies: sharing data, code, databases, software, and research results, including null and negative results.

Minimize time till dissemination

Green OA allows for immediate readability without embargo. Publishers should support preprinting, repository submission, and submission to open publishing platforms (where peer review happens directly on the platform; authors need not submit to a journal).

Focus on better representation

Considering the heavy skewing of climate research in favor of the Global North, journals must ensure editorial boards with diversity, equity, and inclusion. Such editors will be cognizant of limitations faced by authors from diverse or marginalized backgrounds.

Further, journals should offer language support for English-as-a-foreign language authors.

Favorable APC options

For authors from resource-limited countries, the funding of APCs is a major concern. If the funding body does not support APCs, researchers can submit to only journals that their institutes have subscriptions to. Another unfortunate fallout of the inability to pay APCs is resorting to fraudulent journals that charge low fees but do not provide proper editorial and peer review services.

In what may be seen as a double whammy, this restriction to subscription-based journals leads to lower visibility of their work, particularly in the regions they belong to (because the content is behind a paywall). This vicious cycle worsens the problem of exclusion from contributing to and benefiting from groundbreaking research.

Publishers need to increase support with APC waivers, discounts, vouchers, etc., for authors from low- and middle-income countries. The process to claim such benefits must be made easily navigable and smooth. In addition, more publishers and societies should bring out APC-free platinum/diamond OA journals.

It is imperative to make climate research as accessible as possible. Publishers must do their bit to bridge the North–South divide in climate literature.


In recent memory, publishers rallied around when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling immediate and free sharing of COVID-related research for all. Not many research areas have as direct an impact on the public as climate change does. And the effects are intensifying as we speak. The theme of OA week 2022 (24–30 October) is timely. A week after OA week concludes, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) is set to take off. This is a watershed moment for climate action and climate justice not just for researchers and the public but also for scholarly publishers, who should lead the way in fostering universal, fair, and unrestricted access to rigorous, peer-reviewed climate research.

Figure 1. While researching material for this article, several paywalled articles could not be accessed by the author. Therefore, the papers used for this article were open access or archived versions.


1. Santos, R.M., Bakhshoodeh, R. Climate change/global warming/climate emergency versus general climate research: comparative bibliometric trends of publications. Heliyon 7(11):E08219 (2021)

2. Haunschild, R., Bornmann, L., Marx, W. Climate change research in view of bibliometrics. PLOS ONE 11(7):e0160393 (2016)

3. Aleixandre-Benavent, R., Aleixandre-Tudó, J.L., Castelló-Cogollos, L. Aleixandre, J.L. Trends in scientific research on climate change in agriculture and forestry subject areas (2005–2014). Journal of Cleaner Production 147:406–418 (2017)

4. Das, B.K., Pandya, M., Chaudhari, S.P., Bhatt, A. Trivedi, D. Global research trends and network visualization on climate action: A bibliometric study. Library Philosophy and Practice 5818 (2021)

5. Tandon, A. Analysis: The lack of diversity in climate-science research. Carbon Brief (2021)

6. Severin, A., Egger, M., Eve, M.P., Hürlimann, D. Discipline-specific open access publishing practices and barriers to change: an evidence-based review. F1000Research 7:1925 (2020)

7. Tai, T.C., Robinson, J.P.W. Enhancing Climate change research with open science. Frontiers in Environmental Science 6:115 (2018)

8. Pearce, J.M. The rise of platinum open access journals with both impact factors and zero article processing charges. Knowledge 2:209–224 (2022)

9. Langham-Putrow, A., Bakker, C., Riegelman, A. Is the open access citation advantage real? A systematic review of the citation of open access and subscription-based articles. 2021 PLOS ONE 16:e0253129 (2021)

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