Celebrating and Questioning Open Access Week

Today at my university, the Scholar’s Lab held a talk on Open Access with Madelyn Wessel, Associate General Counsel and Dr. Brian Pusser, Curry School of Education. The talk was in celebration of Open Access Week (Oct 18-24), and served as a follow up conversation to the open access resolution passed by our Faculty Senate.

What is Open Access?

According to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), open access is the creation free, unrestricted, on-line access to scholarly publications in order to foster collaboration, teaching and learning, and the public good. The open access movement has come out of academic and research library coalitions such as SPARC in reaction to the capabilities of on-line content sharing and the simultaneous consolidation of the publishing industry. Though information wants to be free, the costs of purchasing journal subscriptions is outpacing inflation by 10-12% annually. Institutions are shedding access to journals by the hundreds each year. Librarians warn that this situation is not economically sustainable and point out its conflict with technological opportunities for knowledge sharing.

Open access is also becoming a requirement of federal grant agencies and private foundations which demand public access to the final products of funded research. NIH recipients, for example, participate in PubMed Central. About 60% of publishers currently allow authors to retain the rights to participate in such repositories.

The Faculty Senate’s Resolution

Over 30 colleges and universities have passed open access mandates as a requirement of employment. Here, the Senate created a non-mandatory system in which faculty may opt to participate in a digital repository. This digital repository would include pre-publication drafts of articles accepted for publication in scholarly journals to be made available one year after they have been published. The resolution was a compromise that allowed for the creation of a repository, but did not require participation as a requirement of employment.

In the debates leading up to the resolution, faculty asked important questions about the future of knowledge sharing. Many faculty are convinced that something needs to change, but not all agree on the form that open access should take.

Challenges of Open Access

Two of the main concerns for faculty were the tenure process and academic freedom. Open access, if taken to its ideal end of providing free, unrestricted, on-line access to scholarly publications, could alter existing systems of status and recognition derived from the restricted print access provided by the publishing industry. Those on the tenure track worry that their work will not be properly evaluated. Across the board, faculty shared concerns about how quality will be vetted. Open access could also harm the publishing industry. The publishing industry adds value to scholarly work in the form of editorial, distributional, and promotional resources. For some professional societies, publications also provide necessary revenue to support the field. Faculty wonder whether universities are able and willing to replace these resources while retaining a commitment to academic freedom in light of current economic pressures on higher education.

Opportunities for Open Access

The clearest opportunities are those laid out by the Open Access movement – lowering costs and facilitating the sharing of knowledge among faculty, students, and the interested public. Additionally, Wessel points out, scholars will also retain more personal rights to their own work.

However, these benefits don’t entirely outweigh the faculty’s concerns, particularly in a time of financial and technological uncertainty. How will publication be funded? How can we ensure the quality of the work that is distributed? Are we are contributing to the death of the publishing industry? Should we care about the fate of the publishing industry? These questions remain open in the academic publishing industry just as they do in the music and newspaper industries.

I believe risk and uncertainty can be opportunities for creativity and progress. I look forward to learning more about Open Access and encourage other scholars to take the time to educate themselves on the costs and benefits, to participate in the digital repository, and to add their voices to the dialogue. If we consciously engage, as so many academic faculty and librarians have done over the past few years, we can direct the future of knowledge sharing.