Open Access: To share or not to share, that is the question

Writing for Research called this week for ‘all academic books to go digital’. While I admit to some book fetishism (as described in the post) nonetheless I agree with this sentiment. At the heart of this issue, as I see it, is accessibility – a crucial part of education. In addition to the importance of open access to books as a means of disseminating research, this post considers the meaning of open access and the potential it offers for journal articles too.

Open Access

Open access is the unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly work. A simple enough idea, but there are qualitative differences in just how open access is. Gratis open access provides free online access, but libre open access allows additional rights.

Academics are encouraged by their institutions to make their research openly accessible. For journal articles, this can occur two ways. First, by ‘gold’ open access ie publishing in an open access journal; and secondly through ‘green’ open access. This involves uploading works to online repositories. While this is a great initiative, it can be limited by licensing arrangements with commercial publishers.

For Australian lawyers, a useful illustration of open access is Austlii (or its counterparts in other jurisdictions). Case law and legislation is freely available on this site. The limitations however are that courts and the widely used Australian Guide to Legal Citation require citations to refer to authorised reports. These are only available through commercial publishers that are not open access. Instead, they require an expensive subscription.

In Australia, university law journals tend to be open access and many are available through Austlii. The Melbourne University Law Review has even started an advance access policy involving online publication of its articles as soon they are ready and before the print and final online edition, as has the QUT Law Review. In contrast, proprietary law journals are not open at all. In fact for many proprietary Australian law journals, it is not even possible to find the table of contents of a journal without a journal subscription. In terms of accessibility, this is a major drawback for authors and for users.

What Needs to Change?

The first observation is that law journals could make their tables of contents and abstracts available. There are two implications of keeping these behind a paywall. The first is that people without a subscription don’t even know they exist. This leaves authors’ research hidden on the web and researchers none the wiser as to its existence. This is hardly a good outcome for publicly funded research nor for the enhancement of knowledge in our discipline.

The first image below is a screen shot of a google search of an article in the Journal of Transformative Education, published by a commercial publisher. Note how the titles and abstracts are available via Google.

Google search showing abstracts

In contrast, see this screen shot of the results of a Google search for the Australian Property Law Journal. It is simply a product description.

Google APLJ

The second implication of the paywall is that for academics, impact factors derived under altmetrics systems are not available for material behind a paywall. While altmetrics is only emerging as a relevant indicator in higher education, legal scholars publishing in such journals paywall will be left behind their humanities and science colleagues.

Making table of contents and abstracts available is only a small step towards open access. The objections to open access include financial concerns and prestige, including ‘quality’ and the reviewing process. Wikipedia has a neat overview of the issues with funding. Prestige however is a cultural issue in higher education, fueled by static funding models that work against open access and tend to reward the status quo.

The so-called gold-standard of reviewing for example, is challenged by online collaborative processes facilitated by social media. Focus on the ranking of journals likewise represents a static and perhaps analogue mode of thinking about research ‘quality’. The advent of alternative metrics, linked to an open access digital publishing environment, can offer viable means by which to measure ‘quality’ and impact in lieu of the old guard print media.

What Should I Do?

It’s hard for an academic to take a stand, when caught in the web of institutional imperatives. But I think there is room to take a principled approach to open access and still toe the old corporate line. The first step is to take stock of your own practice, and to engage in some of the thinking around open access.

I would call for leading by example. Preferring open access wherever possible. Engaging actively in institutional repositories. Engaging colleagues in the project. For those who sit on editorial committees, promote the ideals of open access and see how you can push the agenda within your own sphere of influence.

When reviewing or publishing, quiz the publisher on their policy of open access and make sure that publishers are aware that this is an issue. Similarly, engage with library staff in your own institution to find out what the universities are doing about promoting open access.

Finally, when prescribing materials for students, consider the impact on them of the accessibility of research materials. And so we return to the theme of the Writing by Research piece this week.

If the monograph is not dead, but alive and disseminated better than ever before in refereed ebook form with supporting blogs and Twitter feed, then the big book thesis too revives.

The same can be said for our other works, including journal articles. But it will take a collective commitment for this to happen.

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