Open Access – Why I’m Passionate About it

Banner for Open Access WeekAs it is over a year since I started this blog, it is timely that I return to the reason why I started writing online.  On my “About” page I wrote:

During my time at university I noticed how much historical knowledge is generated in the academy but is difficult for the general public to access.  I have written essays arguing that it is  important that historians share their learning with the public and engage the public in historical enquiry… This blog is part of my commitment to share what I have learned…

This is what open access is about.  It is about unlocking the valuable learning that has accumulated in academic journals and freely sharing it with everyone.  In Australia the taxpayer funds most research, yet the taxpayer has to pay again if they want to read about the research they have financed.  This is unjust.  Likewise the academic who does the research and writes it up often is severely restricted in how they share their work.  They also review and edit articles for these journals but do not receive payment from the publisher for this.  The taxpayer funds the time that academics spend doing this. The journal then sells the research back to the taxpayer, to the academic and to university libraries and pockets the profit.  This does not make sense!

So what are we paying for when we subscribe to an academic journal?  Essentially it is for the printing the journal, layout and distribution.  Increasingly though, people are satisfied with accessing journals online and don’t need or want the hard copy.  Layout and electronic distribution are valuable but the plethora of online publications from blogs to open access journals demonstrate that this can be done easily with not much financial outlay.

Why do academic journals which operate behind paywalls continue to exist?  Universities require academic staff to be published regularly in academic journals, especially those journals which are more highly regarded.  Unfortunately the more prestigious journals that academics seek to be published in are the ones that operate behind a pay-wall.  Because of their terms of employment it is difficult for academics to stop submitting to these journals, particularly those academics at the beginning of their careers.  And so the cycle continues…

If the open access issue is to be addressed it has to be done by universities.  Recently there have been encouraging signs of change on this front.  Princeton, Harvard and MIT have all adopted policies requiring staff to retain some form of copyright that will allow these universities to make the articles freely accessible to the public.  MIT, University of California (Berkeley) and others are making their courses freely available online.  In Australia, Queensland University of Technology and the Australian National University have a policy requiring academics to retain copyright in order to make articles freely available.  The University of Southern Queensland has made courses available online.

I had a look at the open access policy of the University of Sydney.  I was struck by one paragraph in particular:

In establishing this policy the University acknowledges the continuing role and contribution of the publishing industry to the dissemination of quality research outcomes. The commitment to open access should not be regarded as a threat or an explicit attack on traditional publishing but part of an inevitable change in the communication of scholarly endeavour.

Then in the next section the policy says that the University will:

Encourage and assist staff to retain the copyright of their work and not assign exclusive rights to any third-party – the exclusivity of publication rights is a constraint on the research process.

Any relinquishment of copyright by academic journals would surely affect their bottom line.  Why pay for an article when it is freely available online?  The University is quite right to acknowledge the contribution that publishers of academic journals have made to the dissemination of knowledge but like record labels, newspapers and book publishers the new online environment forces these traditional businesses to transform or disappear.  Operating as they always have is not an option.

There is another factor that bears on the issue of open access.  Academic societies, such as the Religious History Society, are funded through the sale of journals. Publishers of academic journals facilitate the collection of subscriptions for academic societies and this money helps societies fund conferences and their basic costs of operation.  This is valuable, but by supporting this model academic societies are effectively preventing their members from disseminating their research as widely as they could.  We should be encouraging intellectual discourse outside the academy as well as within.  Journals will share articles that they think are particularly newsworthy with the media, but journalists, bloggers and other interested people outside the academy should be able to freely search and find any academic article and comment on it.  Readers of online media should be able to refer to the original article on which the commentary is based.

Academic societies are run by overworked academics.  It is easier to follow the traditional ways of doing things than inventing new methods.  However, they need to make some hard decisions because one way or another this issue will force them to change.  I suppose that it comes down to the members.  Currently many societies include subscription to the society’s journal in their membership fees.  Will members be prepared to pay the same fees for membership when they can freely access the journal online?  I would, but would others?  The trouble is that people love free things, but generally free things cost someone something to produce.  How will academic societies and associations continue to function in an open access environment?

I am feeling optimistic that the current barriers which limit access to academic journals will be swept away.  More and more is freely available online.  Academic articles in the arts and humanities which are freely accessible online can be found through the search engine Jurn.  Academic articles can be often found by looking up the profile and publication lists of academics on their university websites. They can also be found through repositories maintained by universities online such as one of my favourites, University of Queensland’s UQ eSpace.  I am sure that you will have come across other sources of open access articles and journals.

Am I being overly optimistic about the prospects of open access?  Have I been fair and covered all the important angles on this issue? Feel free to share your comments.

Further reading

There has been so much written on this topic.  Here’s a small selection to get you started:

    • George Monbiot, ‘Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist’, The Guardian, 29/8/2011.  This is a well argued and extensively referenced article that covers most of the basic issues – well worth reading.
    • ‘Academic Journal Debate’, The Conversation.  This website provides a forum for academics to share their knowledge and converse with the general public.  This week they are running a series on open access.  I have linked to some of their articles above – watch out for more.
    • ‘Open Access:  don’t sign your rights away’, University of Sydney.  This unassuming blog has some interesting links about open access.
    • ‘Open Access Week’:  This is the site that has helped initiate Open Access Week and has motivated me to write about open access this week.  They link to some interesting blog posts on this issue.

There are a lot of other very well written and interesting articles/posts that have been written on this issue.  Feel free to share your favourites via a comment!

3 thoughts on “Open Access – Why I’m Passionate About it

  1. If the information is not for free, I don’t get it, as a rule. If a book interests me I try to buy. This was very useful when researching on line, family history. Off hand I search again for ”Whilom Wilderness” by Muriel Clampett, my dad’s first cousin who lived in Victoria Au. but I may have bought the last available book, second hand library one. Still what information I gleaned from it has kept me searching for more ‘distant’ relatives & ancestors.


  2. I agree completely. Two further points:
    Another tricky issue is access to the Ancestry databases, not just for family historians, but for historians generally. It’s costly to subscribe, but on the other hand, without Ancestry, we wouldn’t have nearly so much material digitized. But their relationship with archives can be a bit troubling at times.

    And a small point – did you know that the academic journal business model was largely developed by the late and unlamented Robert Maxwell, who made his first millions through Pergamon Press? I talk about it briefly here –
    Although it’s true that a lot of journals are produced on a shoestring, there are also profitable companies like Springer Verlag creaming off a lot from unpaid academic labour.


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