In this paper, we locate open access in the South African higher education research context where it is, distinctively, not shaped by the policy frameworks that are profoundly changing research dissemination behaviour in other parts of the world. We define open access and account for its rise by two quite different routes. We then present a case study of journal publishing at one South African university to identify existing journal publishing practices in terms of open access. This case provides the springboard for considering the implications – both positive and negative – of global open access trends for South African – and other – research and researchers. We argue that academics’ engagement with open access and scholarly communication debates is in their interests as global networked researchers whose virtual identities and online scholarship are now a critical aspect of their professional engagement.