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Delayed open-access journals are traditional subscription-based journals that provide open access or free access upon the elapse of an embargo period following the initial publication date (with the embargo length varying from a few months to two or more years). A journal subscription or an individual article purchase fee would be required to access the materials before this embargo period ends. Some delayed open-access journals also deposit their publications in open repositories when the author is bound by an (immediate or delayed) open-access mandate.

Many scholarly society journals have adopted the delayed access model. While this increases access to scholarly research literature for many, libraries that do continue subscriptions under this model end up paying for access to a "rolling file" of the most recent material during its embargo period. The wide range in embargo lengths—and the fact that open access is both defined and intended as the state of immediate access – limits the meaningfulness of classifying journals as "delayed open-access" journals.

While paper and microform formats of these journals may be published too, the open access applies only to their electronic versions. Hence such journals are not included in the lists of fully open-access journals, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).[1] In some cases, the free access to back issues of the journal is provided as a courtesy by the publisher; in other cases it follows from a legal agreement between the publishers and the authors, or their institutions, as in the above-mentioned case of a delayed open access mandate.

The rationale for the access delay is to provide eventual access to the general public while still providing incentive to researchers—and especially research libraries—to sustain the subscriptions that cover the costs of publication. The marginal costs of distributing an electronic journal to additional users are trivial in comparison to distributing printed copies of the publication. Delayed access publishers will spend little or no additional funds while marketing their publications to a broader population than those with personal subscriptions or those affiliated with institutions that have institutional subscriptions or other forms of institutional access. The rationale assumes that researchers will want the most recent papers in their subject immediately on publication, so their institutions will pay the necessary subscription or article purchase fees to access those articles. The rationale further assumes that students and others affiliated with smaller non-research institutions do not generally need to see the article as quickly as researchers, as they are likely to be using it for a term paper or similar project, rather than for original research. If libraries serving smaller colleges cannot afford subscriptions to the journal, researchers at such institutions are expected to use interlibrary loan services or direct purchases to access articles needed for their research.

While the delayed open-access model does increase access to scholarly research literature for many users, it still requires libraries and scholars to continue subscribing for immediate access to the most recent material during the embargo period. Although it may seem ironic that in the online era immediate access to research continues to be denied to those who need it most (researchers) if their institutions cannot afford to pay for it, researchers do have the option of providing open access to their own published research immediately, by self-archiving it in their institutional repositories, as a growing number of research institutions and research funders are now beginning to require researchers to do via an open-access mandate.

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