Tuesday 8 May 2012

The open access debate

DATABASE at Postmasters, March 2009 by Michael Mandiberg / CC BY-SA

All taxpayer-funded academic research to be made freely available online for anyone to read

Makes sense, doesn’t it. However this news headline only applies to the UK. And it’s not available just yet…

Last week some very interesting news was announced – the British government is partnering with Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales to create a platform for all taxpayer-funded scholarly output to be published on for free. Regardless of whether the research is also published in a subscription journal. 

As someone who works daily with people searching for information, open access developments are something I follow with a great deal of interest. Have you been following the discussion around open access publishing

Recently there has been a lot of criticism about the cost and accessibility of scholarly journals. Concerned rumblings have been gaining momentum around the blogosphere and in the media.

As one academic recently wrote: 
Academic publishing is in the midst of an upheaval. The internet has transformed the ability to disseminate knowledge, a capacity once exclusive to publishers. Despite this, the exorbitant profit margins of academic publishers – who often do not pay their authors, editors and reviewers – continue to grow unchecked while library budgets shrink as a percentage of university spending.

This is a problem.

The journal pricing debacle 

There are two main areas of concern that are coming up over and over again in this debate.  Firstly, institutions such as universities are being required to pay ever increasing (and some say unfairly exorbitant) prices for online access to journals. High profile journals are often sold in packages by major publishers – leading to libraries purchasing many titles that they would otherwise not have bought in order to get access to required journals. And it’s not just small libraries who are finding journal purchase to be prohibitively expensive. One of the world’s wealthiest universities is also having trouble. Last month, Harvard University’s Faculty Advisory Council posted a memorandum on the Harvard website stating: 
We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.
They go on to suggest that academics publish papers in open access journals (known as ‘gold’ open access), and ensure their papers are submitted to the Harvard open-access repository (known as ‘green’ open access). 

Harvard are not the only ones who are concerned. Early this year a group of academics started a boycott of Elsevier (who publish more than 2,000 research journals) on the Cost of Knowledge website. So far over 11,000 researchers have signed up. They cite exorbitantly high subscription prices, the practice of ‘bundling’ popular journals with unpopular ones, and Elsevier’s support of efforts such as SOPA, PIPA, and the now defunct Research Works Act (efforts that aim to restrict free exchange of information) as reasons for the boycott.  

Publicly-funded research results should be in the public domain

The second area of concern (and one that resonates strongly with me) is that research that has been funded by taxpayers money - whether here in Australia or in countries anywhere around the world - should be freely available in the public domain. There is nothing more frustrating than reading an article in a newspaper that refers to some research or new idea you are interested in, only to be confronted with a paywall when trying to read the original work.

A recent informal survey of Australian journalists regarding whether they actually read the research they’re reporting on had some interesting results. “A few journalists who bravely admitted their ‘always’ was probably more of an ‘almost always’ highlighted a lack of availability of the paper as the major limiting factor.” 

While those of us who have affiliations with institutions such as universities generally have access to a wide range of electronic journal subscriptions, I don’t believe that access to research should be restricted only to those individuals who are located within the borders of these institutions. To assume that research and new ideas are purely the domain of academia and other similar institutions who can afford (or not, according to Harvard) access goes against all of my ‘Librarianship is about helping people access information’ ideals. And it also seems very outdated in this internet age. As Time magazine points out in a recent article on the subject of journal cost:
This is troubling for a number of reasons. First, in an age where the public can browse nearly 4 million articles for free on Wikipedia, a curious person looking to read up on the latest scientific research can expect to spend nearly $30 to $40 for a single paper from publishers such as Elsevier and Springer.

So what can be done about this? Clearly, open access journals are one solution. However, publishing in open access journals may not always be possible. This is where open access repositories come in.

The article mentioned above goes on to discuss arXiv.org – an open access repository started in 1991 by Paul Ginsparg at Los Alamos National Laboratory to host papers in the field of high-energy particle physics. It’s now based out of Cornell University and receives nearly 75,000 new submissions every year – all freely available for anyone to read.

And there’s another benefit that Time also reports on:
In a paper written late last year, Ginsparg pointed out the benefits of this model, saying it “had an immediate impact on physicists in less developed countries, who reported feeling finally in the loop, both for timely receipt of research ideas and for equitable reading of their own contributions”.
Happily, when I went to track down Ginsparg’s original paper to read more of what he though on the subject, it was easy to find via Google Scholar and the arXiv.org open access repository. For anyone who’s interested, the title is It was twenty years ago today...  I’ll leave you to do the rest. 

A national open access repository?

So, back to the exciting development announced last week. Imagine - a national (or even - one day - an international?) open access repository where publicly funded research and articles resulting from that research were required to be placed. Possible? The UK government certainly thinks so. Take this optimistic quote published in the Guardian last week from the UK Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts:
Giving people the right to roam freely over publicly funded research will usher in a new era of academic discovery and collaboration, and will put the UK at the very forefront of open research.
Will we see something similar in Australia? Already the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) require publications from research they fund be placed in the public domain within 12 months. But a national open access repository? I’ll leave you to read up on that. Let me know what you think. 

Here’s a start. And an interesting read for anyone who wants to know some of the other side of this discussion.

A final note: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Usually.

Of course there is a cost involved in publishing, and this has to be met somewhere along the line. Open access journals use a range of models to ensure that costs are met, and profits are made. These range from publishing fees borne by the author (or their institution or funder) to subsidies from academic institutions, government departments, or similar bodies. This does lead to the interesting argument about who should fund author publishing fees for open access journals: the academic’s department, or the library who would otherwise be paying journal subscription rates? But that’s a debate for another day...

With thanks to Cheryl Hamill for the regular links sent to the list aliaHEALTH on this topic.

- Sarah Fearnley

Sarah is an Events Officer for the ALIA Sydney Committee. She works at the University of Western Sydney Library. Her substantive position is as a Digital Librarian; however she is currently on secondment as a Liaison Librarian.  All opinions expressed are her own.


Open Access – some useful links 

DOAJ-- Directory of Open Access Journals

OpenDOAR– Directory of Open Access Repositories

Directory of Open Access Books (DOAB) is launched - 13 April 2012

Further Reading

By Guy Rundle | Crikey, 3 May 2012

Speech by David Willetts, UK Minister for Universities and Science to the Publishers Association annual general meeting, London | 2 May, 2012

By Michael Eisen | 24

By Alok Jha | Guardian, 9 April 2012

By George Monbiot | Guardian, 29 August 2011

By Danny Kingsley | The Conversation, 3 August 2011

For those who are really interested in this topic, here is a recently published, freely available ebook:
Edited by Melanie Dulong de Rosnay & Juan Carlos De Martin | March 2012

1 comment:

  1. I think that the key to lowering publishing costs lies in figuring out exactly at what point the value added by publishers is superfluous....peer-review is essential, however, referees are rarely paid...maybe we just pay for association with the name splashed on the front of the zine?