Monday, February 25, 2013

Opening Access to Academia

Unofficial open access logo
Originally created by
Public Library of Science
A few months ago, I needed to supply a writing sample for a fellowship application. I thought that I had just the thing: an article published earlier that year that showed my interest and abilities in subjects directly related to the fellowship. The problem was, as I soon found, that I had no presentable digital copy of the article. Yes, I did have a pre-publication word processor document with all the relevant text, and yes, I did have hard copies from the publisher--but I had no digital version of the article in its final, formatted, published form. I also did not have access to the journal through my institution. The only way to obtain a digital version of my own work in its final, published form was to email the publisher asking for special access to it.

I write all of this not only to complain but also to point out how odd academic writing, intellectual rights, and access can be. This issue is nothing new, and it is certainly part of a much larger conversation about the shifting tectonic plates of the academic publishing landscape. In my predicament, I faced two questions: 1) Why didn't I have more direct access to my own work in its final (digital) form? 2) How could I have more power to digitally disseminate my own work? In response to my first question, fortunately, the publisher helped me in my plight; of course, rather than granting me access to the journal, the publisher liaison emailed me a pdf document of the article because, the correspondent claimed, it was simpler than other options. This still does not answer my bigger question. In response to my second question, I am glad for, where I can post my published work for those without access otherwise (my profile here).

As my example shows, the answers to questions about intellectual rights and public access in academic publishing do not come easily. In addressing such questions, I am also glad for groups such as Open Access Now and Creative Commons (just a few among many).

Last Friday, the tectonic plates of the academic publishing landscape shifted, as the USA's Office of Science and Technology Policy released the following news:
OSTP Director John Holdren has directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research.
The full policy memorandum may be read here.

This was, for a number of reasons, good news, not least of which is the fact that these issues are gaining public attention and support. Perhaps my own (albeit minor) predicament would not have been particularly helped by these first steps for the government's push toward open access. But this is, at least, a good start.


Historian on the Edge said...

Careful what you wish for. Look what is happening in the UK.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Why wouldn't we want open access?

Historian on the Edge said...

Because in the UK the government has done this by passing the cost of open access from the publisher to the published, which comes out at several thousand quid per article. So, now if you want to be published in a journal you'll have to find the money to cover the cost. Which may mean that departments/universities only publish their 'stars', or 'strategically' only publish in certain areas, or that only people with project funding to cover publication costs get published, etc. As a result a whole raft of dubious journals has sprung up to try and make money out of this. The government makes noises about only counting work so published in future research assessments; universities may only count work so published for promotion purposes. Etc etc etc. Check here for a more informed and eloquent set of reservations:

Historian on the Edge said...

I say 'several thousand'. The model assumed £1450 per article but most people think that's significantly on the low side.

Brandon W. Hawk said...

Historian, you raise some important potential problems to consider as academic publishing pushes ahead toward open access--especially as governmental oversight is increasingly involved. I am sure that governmental, political, and financial aspects of these shifts all raise a host of complications. As you remind us, it's good to keep in mind alternative perspectives on these shifts, as well as potential challenges to what we (as academics) really want to see come to fruition. There are, after all, many possible paths toward open access to pursue, not all of them optimal, beneficial, or even desired (like the one you suggest occurring in the UK). I have no doubt that your warnings are only one facet of possible negative consequences that certain policies on open access could raise.

As hopeful as my post was, I am not unaware that--as with many other shifts occurring in academia in terms of digital culture--there are certainly potentials for negative consequences. Nevertheless, I also have hope that these negative consequences are being considered as part of a larger discussion unfolding right now, in both academic and public spheres. In fact, I would be open and grateful to others sharing some of these hazards as responses to this post. I think that the only productive way forward is to address the potential for both positive and negative outcomes of open access initiatives. In my mind, doing so is the only responsible approach.

Historian on the Edge said...

I've set out more detail on my blog:

I think that as a principle, open access is great - obviously - but I am worried that as soon as the government gets involved it gets complex. Remember too that our horrible conservative government is generally more left-wing than the Democrats and you'll understand why I worry for you!

thirteenthcenturyengland said...

Seems silly that you don't get electronic access to your own work as one of the perks of authorship. (Like in the olden days when an author would receive a pack of 10 or so 'reprints' to be handed out to grateful graduate students or academics in distant lands who wrote begging for a copy... I know this because one of my first 'real' jobs as a teenager was answering the requests my father received for copies of his medical research papers from far-flung corners of the world.)
Nevertheless, I second Historian on the Edge's cautionary note. While Open Access sounds like the kind of ethical no-brainer that everyone ought to be on board with naturally, it comes with lots of conditions - most particularly when it comes attached to government/funding body policies - and not all of them are likely to be beneficial to the discipline in the long term. Just one example of this in Australia which has arisen in discussion recently is whether small professional associations (which is what they almost always are over here, given the size of the academic community) that publish scholarly journals will be able to continue their professional work (running conferences, disbursing travel grants, subsidising membership for unwaged/students etc.) if they cannot count on income from journal and/or article sales online. And that is not even to begin the argument about whether it is likely to have an impact in the quality stakes...

tenthmedieval said...

I come back to this as I'm trying to catch up with my Internet backlog, and it occurs to me to observe a couple of extra things. Firstly, from an Anglophone perspective it seems as if no-one has worked out how to make this pay. This is especially true, I suspect, because most science publishing is international enough that it needs to go through Anglophone publishers who are doing the same thing now as music labels started doing when Napster and its kindred started becoming a thing, which is to try and come up with models in which people pay for what they might otherwise expect for free, and understandably this isn't really gaining much ground. I actually don't myself see how academic journal publishing can continue to be profitable and professional for much longer, and I fear for either the limited access or the extra unpaid workload that unfold from either horn of that dilemma being excised.

But secondly, and much on my mind at the moment as my current university affiliation and library access comes to an end, is that this must seem a very odd debate if you work habitually in another European language. If you work in French, Persée is slowly accumulating pretty much every French-language humanities journal it can, all online for free, and the BNF's Gallica site, awkward to use though it still is, continues to improve both accessibility and contents, as if this were an obvious thing for a premier public library to do. In Spanish the situation isn't quite so advanced but the CSIC has the last five years of all its journals, which is to say, an awful lot of the major Spanish ones in the humanities, online for free, and longer runs of some of them; it seems as if filespace is the issue there, not copyright. The University of Rioja's Dialnet service, which has for a long time been the most complete indexing service for Spanish-language academic publication, is also slowly incorporating full-text links wherever possible. And, which it's not often I get to say this and it genuinely be true, Catalonia is exemplary here, with Revistes catalanes amb accés obert having full digitised runs of almost every journal I can think of still publishing in Catalonia and several not. There's a couple of German services I could mention which are looking like turning into the German Persée. I don't know of anything Italian but that's probably just because it's my least able Romance language aside from Romanian (where my ability is zero), and I certainly can't speak for any further east, but I wouldn't rule it out. A lot of these journals and publications are coming from learned academies or university publishing houses who seem to see this as part of their mission, but by no means all. I assume that some measure of state or European Union money is behind this because that's just axiomatically a worthwhile thing to do with state money in these countries. Both the USA and UK seem to be trying to do the same thing without spending any extra money, as do the academic publishers. I don't myself understand how it's being done in any of these cases but I do think it's important to notice that outside Anglophonia the circle has apparently been repeatedly squared without much difficulty.

Brandon W. Hawk said...

Jonathan, thanks for your thoughts. It is good to look at the whole issue in perspective, and it is good to know about the non-Anglophone trends. Your comments also bring this all back to questions of how governments are involved, and how different certain stances on education and academic enterprise can be.

Coincidentally, after fully reading and thinking about your comment this morning, I also saw a link to another academic's blog post raising questions similar to those in my own first post. Here it is: The Digital Victorianist's "Open Access: The $2,950 Book Review"