Open access means making peer reviewed works freely available in digital form, so that anyone with internet access can use them, without financial, legal or technical barriers. It allows users to download, copy, print and distribute works, without the need to ask for permission or to pay.
To the mark the eighth annual Open Access Week, we asked what readers wanted to know about the initiative.
Why do we need open access? How can I use it? Is it better for the sciences or the humanities?
Lucy Montgomery: Open access is a powerful mechanism for widening access to knowledge and for increasing the impact of research beyond universities. Because it makes peer-reviewed scholarship free at the point of use, open access helps ensure people who need knowledge can access it, even if they can’t afford to pay for it.
Patients scouring the internet for the latest information about rare medical conditions, scholars in the developing world, and practitioners who want to apply evidence-based research to challenges they face every day, are just a few examples of groups who benefit from open access.
The global shift to open access is being driven by a consensus that the public has a right to access publicly funded research outputs. Closed publishing models rely on recovering the costs of publishing research by selling access to it. This made sense in a print-dominated world, when the marginal costs associated with making and distributing physical copies of books and journals was high; it makes much less sense in digital landscapes where the costs of making additional copies of a work once it’s been published are very low.
Once a work has been made open access, it’s free for anyone in the world to read or download. This is a boon for anyone who has ever been frustrated by a pay wall, for teachers looking for resources that can be shared easily with students, and for scholars who hope their work will contribute to a wider body of knowledge.
Although open access has been faster to take off in the sciences, it also has important benefits for scholars working in the humanities: helping authors to share their work with the communities that they write both for and about, and making knowledge and ideas available to new audiences.
How can journals meet the costs of editing, typesetting, proofreading, website construction and management if they move from subscriptions to open access?
Keyan Tomaselli: One of the key blind spots in open access discussions is the cost it poses to publishers. Journals that are not funded by foundations or universities are financially vulnerable in an open access environment unless they start charging for publishing articles. This is because their “permissions income stream”, which are paid to journals through national copyright agencies when their articles are reproduced in student course packs, will dry up.
In this model, the burden of payment will shift from reader or library payment for downloads or subscriptions, to author or institution for articles to be published. The assumption that open access is free – after data charges are paid – is wrong because though readers can access articles for free, authors and their institutions will end up paying so journals can recoup their costs. Data charges relate to the cost of internet access and downloading.
Too often one forgets that such accessing of the internet has cost implications too. And then there are journal post-production costs, including online platform hosting, marketing, discoverability, and archiving, among other things.
Open scholarship includes open notebook, open data and open review as well as open access. What are more systematic and rigorous treatments of open scholarship?
Danny Kingsley: There’s an increasing amount of research and discussion about open scholarship about integrity and researcher support; research management; assumptions and challenges; and about how we capture what’s being produced in repositories.
But although the nature of research is changing profoundly, the current system still only rewards and recognises traditional publication. Opening up scholarship has multiple benefits: research claims can be verified, work doesn’t have to be repeated to recreate the data, and data can be analysed from other perspectives.
It’s now possible to put a digital “stamp” on different scholarly outputs, called digital object identifiers (or DOIs). This means a researcher can be cited when another uses their work, and receive recognition.
By having an “open process” in research, we can put digital stamps on all aspects of research, such as progress in thinking through an online discussion paper, for instance; new techniques; and approaches and experiments. These can themselves be cited and therefore rewarded, rather than only recognising traditional published outputs.
How do we ensure research published under open access continues to have a system of rigorous quality checks, such as peer review, that can cope with the enormous load of research looking for publication?
James Bradley: We can’t ensure rigorous peer review of research will be undertaken under open access. Not only that, we know for sure that the explosion of open access journals has allowed for the publication of not just bogus work, but also work that’s irrelevant or useless for scientific or the whole academic enterprise.
How do we know this? For starters, there was an infamous sting in late 2013 that revealed a nonsensical piece of research was accepted for publication by a large number of open access journals. Then, there’s the research showing the huge numbers of “predatory” journals, which are basically in it for the money. The academic or the academic’s institution pays for publication and the piece gets in, regardless of quality. That’s why so many researchers often get emails from start-up journals soliciting our work — for a fee. It’s all about profit.
To mitigate this situation, there’s the Directory of Open Access Journals, which is supposed to act as quality control. If you make it on to the list, then you are supposed to be reputable. But some of the journals that have made it to the list are, in fact, “predatory”.
But it’s false to assume that all research that makes it into a front-rank publication is great or that all work in pay-for-publication journals is junk. The peer review system has always had flaws. Ultimately, there’s another form of quality control that transcends peer review and lies in the after-life of a publication — the opinion of your peers.
And this can, to some extent, be measured by metrics through citation databases. But it’s also reflected in the status and reputation accorded by your peers. It was ever thus, and most definitely remains the best form of quality control.
To what extent does this issue go beyond the machinations of open access versus the nuances of what’s free and not free, to the problem of the role of the university in a world where capitalism and the internet frame much of what we do?
Tom Cochrane: Open access has three points of origin. These, in no particular order, are the interests of the researcher in greater exposure and readership; the distorted economics of the price of scholarly communication (as distinct from the true cost of academic publishing); and the fact that the internet has made open access possible in the first place.
As the debate about open access has matured, it has also become clear that greater openness can also provide protection against research fraud or dishonesty. Openness in access to research outputs, research data and research processes, enhances replication capability, and allows review.
Open access has no particular correlation or causal relationship with the broader role of universities, other than to improve the efficiency and integrity of research and to increase the likelihood of greater integration with their various communities. It’s certainly true that we wouldn’t have seen it develop without the internet and, as such, the movement is another case of innovation and disruption of legacy models.
Where are we getting with the movement, year to year? How much concrete progress has there been as opposed to awareness raising?
Virginia Babour: There’s no doubt that the open access has come a long way. There are now mandates for open access in many countries and institutions globally.
These mandates vary in what they require. Some, like the one in the United Kingdom, are primarily supported through publication in open access journals. Others, like Australia’s funding councils’ mandates, are via deposition of an author’s research in university repositories.
There’s also been an explosion of different technologies around open access, including new ideas on what can be published - just parts of articles, such as figures, fir instance – and new models for publishing open access books.
Finally, the infrastructure to support open access is developing with licenses for publishing, which lay out clearly how articles can be used. And identifiers for people and documents (even parts of documents), so there can be better linking of scholarly literature.
Open access is an evolving ecosystem. There will be different models to fit different specialities and probably different countries. But that’s fine if it works.