Can Open Access (OA) Save Us?[i]

Just about every time I open a journal or read a blog online, I see something about e-books saving newspapers and magazines.  Both magazines and newspapers–and really all scholalry communication–are going the way of all flesh, we’re told, but e-book reading may provide a stay of execution, however short that may be.  It got me to thinking if there might be something else that would provide a similar Dies Irae  proroguement for

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Open Access

scholarly communication in general.  That’s when it occurred to me it could well be open access (OA), or at least as I envision it here.

Now, before many of you quit reading with a dismissive, “Been there, tried that, saw it fail,” let me hasten to add three things. Yes, open access isn’t new.  And yes, it has been tried before.  But no, I don’t think this possible solution has seen much light of day, if at all.

Open access came about, of course, as one alternative to the exorbitant cost of scholarly materials.  Periodical literature, as any librarian knows, has increased over the years at a rate that outstrips the inflationary cost of just about everything, including healthcare.  Sadly, there appears to be no relief from these costs, either, even as libraries are struggling to find a way, not so much to maintain subscriptions, but to sustain their very existence!  Increased costs routinely run 7%-9% annually, with individual journals costing as much as compact cars, literally. For example, the combined cost to the “family” of five Tetrahedron Journals is $41,360.  Most journal publishers know libraries have little recourse to paying these high prices and so charge them two, three and even four times what individual subscriptions to the same journals might cost.  Aggregate databases, while offering a panoply of journals, do so only at mind-boggling (as well as mind-numbing) costs, ranging from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s quite true that open access isn’t new.  OA has been around a long time, at least a decade, and it has been tried in various ways.  It’s also true that OA hasn’t been very successful so far.  By definition, open access archives and/or journals do not generally provide scholarly vetting (peer review) but do allow free access via the open Internet to whatever materials are made available.  Open access usually allows for free downloading, printing, copying and distribution, only requiring that users attribute any materials correctly.   Open access bypasses the costly nature of access to scholarly publishing and/or scholarly communication conventionally conceived by making this access available on the open Web.  Open access archives and/or repositories can be journal-driven, discipline- driven, or a chrestomathy, if you will, an omnimum gatherum of scholarly content.  Peter Suber has provided the best overview of open access, and of a detailed discussion of the history and ongoing activity and its subsequent evolution. 

Suber refers to what he calls the BBB definition of open access, or definitions provided by Budapest (2002), Bethesda (2003), and  Berlin (2003) statements.  This refers to the three named entities whose definitions proved the most influential to the evolution and recognition of OA as a means of providing access to scholarly materials at greatly reduced prices.  While all three have various granular differences, overall they say the same thing, viz., that the author of the scholarly content will not restrict access (printing, downloading, distributing, etc.) to that material, so long as attribution is properly made.  And herein are both the merits and defects of OA.  Consent to the OA restrictions is made through Creative Commons licensing .   More on that below.

Out of desperation, open access began to appear, slowly at first.  Today,  it has become more routine to see various OA offerings.  A number of celebrated open access initiatives have appeared in the last decade or so.  SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) “is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system.  Developed by the Association of Research Libraries, SPARC has become a catalyst for change. Its pragmatic focus is to stimulate the emergence of new scholarly communication models that expand the dissemination of scholarly research and reduce financial pressures on libraries.”  While perhaps the most visible by virtue of being one of the first, SPARC is not entirely free (there are no free lunches, mind you).  Its support, in addition to various foundations, comes from members’ annual dues.  Still, it does fall into the general category of open access because it does provide access to scholarly communication at a lower cost than high-priced subscriptions through conventional publishers. 

While not a publisher itself, SPARC endorses various peer-reviewed journals that seek to provide lower cost access to scholarly content.  It also has come out in support of the Confederation of Open Access Repositories .  COAR is a nonprofit group launched in 2009 that promotes research through open access repositories.  COAR is more European than American, but membership is open to any not-for-profit higher education institutions.  COAR, like SPARC, supports itself through grants and membership dues.

Other organizations and groups abound, but the point of all of them is the same.  COPE, the Compact for Open Access Publishing Equityis a group that seeks to establish a stable funding mechanism for journals that wish to pursue open access.  SPARC, CCL and Wellcome are two of about a half-dozen organizations supporting the effort.  Institutions may join and pay membership fees or dues.  Through some mechanism like the Creative Commons license, users are able to share research, bypassing publishers whose intent is, of course, to make money.  While I am a strong entrepreneurial proponent, some publishers have taken this to extremes and publish very costly academic journals.  The cost of academic research is so high now that it threatens to undo all of us.  Through these various groups and Creative Commons licensing we have a way to share information via open access to, maintain publishing tenure and promotion standards, and to provide low-cost scholarly communication, all the while contributing to the body of important academic research.

But is Creative Common licensing workable?  It appears so.  Founded in 2001, Creative Common licensing released its first set of licenses in 2002.  By 2009, over 350 million had been issued.  While some readers might think that only “has beens” and “never wases” use Creative Commons licensing, history proves them wrong.  Familiar entities using CCL are Flickr, Google,  the Public Library of Science, Whitehouse.gov,  and most recently, Wikipedia

So, we have a history of open access, a wheel that has already been invented through which to share scholarly communication.  We have a means through which it may be properly attributed via Creative Commons licensing.  We also have a history of the process working more or less well enough to perpetuate itself, if only barely, for about a decade.  But one piece is missing if open access is really to provide any salvation from the high cost of scholarly communication.  Right now only the largest of educational institutions (or only institutions with robust funding) are able to make open access work.  What is needed is a funding mechanism that makes it easier for small to medium-sized higher educational institutions to get in on the act.  Various organizations and groups like COPE and SPARC are trying to make that happen, but what is really needed is an infusion of large amounts of funding.

While technically speaking, anyone with access to the Web can do this, it really isn’t practical without some organizing software that may make sharing easy and “publishing” easier still.  Institutional Repository software allows for that, but that kind of software isn’t cheap.  Granted, freeware like D-Space is available.  But such software requires some very heavy lifting from IT departments, exactly what small to medium-sized institutions do not have to spare.  With funding help to purchase out-of-the-box software, we may well be able to reach the proverbial “tipping point.”  Granted, some IT oversight will be needed but not as much, and many libraries could manage it through their systems librarians.

This is just the sort of idea that begs the funding of Google, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the  Ithaka-Mellon, or some other technology titan, or a combination of them.  Sure, some public and private money is available, and enterprising libraries have found it.  But we need a privatized version of something like the old Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA, later Library Services and Technology Act) ,–say a three-year start-up– for this to work on the scale that it must for all to benefit equally.  Why three years?  Most IR software is purchased on a subscription basis.  The three-year start-up allows time for institutions to fold the cost into their current budgets with a proven track record of the software doing what it claims it can do.  Three-year start-up funding would allow institutions to assign oversight of the repository to an internal entity. 

 I can think of no better oversight entity than the library since it is, after all, about information and shared knowledge.  With funding like that in place, libraries could arrange the repository in such a manner that would allow various levels of participation, secure the Creative Commons licensing,  and organize—read catalog—the available resources in an easy-to-find and manageable way.  With large, medium and small institutions contributing to scholarly communication, the pressure would be effectively applied to publishers to reduce pricing substantially or get left out altogether (as they are about to be with digital textbook publishing).  I also imagine that the large-scale participation would in many ways legitimize the process for tenure and promotion purposes, if that remains a key ingredient in higher education in the future .

If these benefits were not enough, open access repositories also allow for more on-campus collaboration that simply cannot be done via the Web without it.  For example, a math professor might log on and discover that a professor in art and design is painting fractals.  They two might work together to create an interactive presentation.  Students, too, would be able to see what faculty are working on and offer assistance on projects that truly interest them.  It strikes me as a win-win equation.

Lastly, this addition would vastly improve the chances of bringing to reality Robert Darnton’s National Digital Library (NDL) .  Darnton views the NDL as a “digital  equivalent of the Library of Congress.”  But it can’t happen without OA, or rather I should say it won’t happen as easily and quickly without it, if it happens at all.  Imagine the shared resources of all the world’s academic institutions online and at one’s fingertips!  Some will argue that the quality of such offerings would be small compared to its vast size, but I would argue that they haven’t spent much time in academic publications already in print.  I would further argue that it would at least rival what’s been printed, and quite possibly be much better. (Darnton’s “The Library–Three Jeremiads” is another recent musing on OA and its possible benefits.)

Can open access save us?  I think it can, but it’s going to require something like this program—if not this exactly–to make it work.  Without it, academics will remain the indentured servants of the publishing world, while academic libraries will be held hostage to the high prices of the publishers of scholary communication.


[i] Published here, with modifications and corrections, and in Against the Grain.

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