Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The benefits of Open Access

In today’s Guardian, George Monbiot discusses academic publishing, specifically the exorbitant costs of accessing peer-reviewed research and the blatant profiteering of the publishers. In academic libraries, this has been known for years as the ‘serials crisis’: it's the fact that libraries need subscriptions to journals and rising costs mean that, as Monbiot points out, journal subscriptions now take up 65% of university libraries’ budgets. As well as the idea of large-scale digital libraries à la the National Digital Library – “a single global archive of academic literature and data” – Monbiot discusses Open Access publishing as a possible solution. 

Open Access publishing basically involves making access to research data and scholarly literature less restricted. Universities and academics can do this in a couple of ways: Green Open Access involves putting research in openly accessible institutional repositories; Gold Open Access involves publishing in specialist open access journals. Fundamentally, Open Access publishing cuts through the limitations placed on academic research. 

Academic research and scientific research are currently constrained by the requirements of society. There are financial restrictions such as those imposed by academic publishers and there are legal restrictions such as copyright law. Both of these can prevent scholars from accessing materials or working with them in new ways. These financial or legal constraints are often opposed to the spirit of research: to the Enlightenment ideals of sharing knowledge in an atmosphere of open creativity; to the communities of scholars working together and sharing information to further human progress. There is no reason for limitations in research: the only constraint should be the limits of imagination. 

Open Access logo from Wikimedia Commons
Open Access publishing cuts through the financial and legal Gordian Knot. Green Open Access presents research free via institutional repositories and digital libraries; Gold Open Access gets the money for publication from non-consumer sources. Open Access can also cut through the legal requirements usually through Creative Commons licensing: in The Power of Open, Mark Patterson of Public Library of Science refers to Creative Commons licensing as “an integral part of the success of open access publishing...” 

And Open Access has benefits other than those immediate, practical ones. Arguably more important is the atmosphere of openness and mutual co-operation that Open Access publishing encourages. This links to the parallel movements of Open Data and Open Content. A spirit of openness and sharing of information is conducive to creative and intelligent output. It can free academic research from the suspicion and competition of the commercial sector and encourage researchers to consider themselves as part of a community working together for the greater good. 

As well as the qualitative impact on atmosphere and good feeling, an open atmosphere can quantitatively improve research. Studies from 2001, 2006, and 2010 (see below) have shown that articles published as Open Access have a citation impact advantage: they are cited more often by other researchers and so more people see the results of the scholars’ hard work.

Stevan Harnad, a big voice in Open Access, believes that university libraries and particularly institutional repositories can maintain and encourage this atmosphere. It’s vital that libraries and repositories recognise the importance of Open Access and work as much as possible to encourage this open atmosphere to create strong and productive scholarly communities in our universities and to dismantle the rampant and damaging capitalism of the academic publishing industry.

Lawrence, S., 2001. Free online availability substantially increases a paper’s impact, Nature, 31 May 2001.

Eysenbach, G., 2006. Citation Advantage of Open Access Articles, PLoS Biology, 4 (5).

Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S., 2010. Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE, 5 (10).

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