As an embryonic researcher, I am following the debate about open access with some interest. Within academic publishing, open access means free access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. Open access is facilitated by the internet and by the resultant change in reading habits and use of databases.
As observed by Renear and Palmer, during the last 30 years scientists have almost doubled the number of scientific papers read per year. Meanwhile, the time spent reading each article has decreased from 48 minutes to just over 30 minutes (Renear and Palmer, 2009). So, reading habits are changing – no longer do researchers traipse to the library to pore over heavy volumes of various journals. Instead, much of journal reading is done online, encouraged by the use of excellent citation managers and biblographic databases, as discussed in my previous blog post Using Referencing Software. Is open access the way to support this evolution and encourage rigorous, broad and extended research?
Benefits of Open Access
Open access enables the general public to engage with current research. Access to the evidence supporting political and scientific argument in the form of research articles is key. One of the most positive examples of this is the case of Jack Andraka, a boy who used Google Scholar to access journal articles. Aged 15, Jack used his research to develop an early test for pancreatic cancer that allegedly has the potential to save many lives. This story may or may not be true, given the dearth of peer-reviewed papers around the discovery. However, the truth of this one story does not reduce possibilities for new and unexpected disoveries. Open access can potentially encourage a wider audience and so elicit different perspectives and insights.
Members of the public have the right to have access to the research that, in many cases, is funded by their taxes. This right is accepted and even explicitly promoted by ethical boards such as BERA, whose guidelines state that “researchers have a responsibility to seek to make public the results of their research for the benefits of educational professionals, policy makers and a wider public understanding of educational policy and practice” (2011, p.10). Public understanding is a goal of research and so public availability of research articles is the right of the public and the responsibility of the research community.
University libraries cannot possibly subscribe to every journal out there. Equally, researchers, especially poverty-stricken postgraduates such as myself, cannot pay for all the articles within their sphere of interest that are published outside their library’s subscriptions. Perhaps that article, although investigating from a different perspective or within a different context or epistemology, could inspire and improve the quality of my research. The ability to reference and build upon other’s research is one of the major motivations for open access.
Challenges of Open Access
Perhaps the major potential drawback to open access is that of funding. If the financial burden of publishing is shifted from the reader to the research community, money may be diverted from funding research to funding publication. Some stakeholders argue that this is potentially more devastating in fields with lower funding such as many of the social sciences (Meadows, 2014). However, given the prohibitive costs universities already pay in subscription fees, this deficit may not cause such a shortfall as predicted.
Another potential drawback is the possible reduction of reliability. Universities have a vested interest in their faculty being published and so it is argued that internal peer-review may be less rigorous than that conducted by independent publishers. This may indeed be true, if for no other reason than it is harder to critically review someone that you know and admire (especially if they sit further up the career ladder). Anonymity is not possible in the same way as for traditional peer-review. However, a potential alternative is that of crowd-sourcing peer review, such as that described by Cohen (2010). Crowd-sourcing would retain anonymity, encourage breadth of reviewers and of commentary. A parallel can be seen in fan fiction sites and other creative writing web platforms – critical commentary is encouraged and (often) acted upon. So, while there is a danger to independent review by encouraging open access, there are alternatives that can promote independence, breadth and interaction with non-traditional reviewers.
I leave you with a final thought – I have butted heads with one or two teachers about making resources such as worksheets available on iTunes U, TES and the like. Their argument is that they put a lot of time into their resources and why should anyone else be able to waltz in and use them? Is the quality of their teaching is in any way diminished by sharing resources? No. What excellent resources or ideas have they gained from other teachers’ sharing? Lots. I feel the same way towards academic research as I do towards teaching practice and resources. No man is an island, entire of himself – we need to share and grow as a community rather than working as isolated individuals.
BERA (2011) Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research. Available at: http://www.bera.ac.uk/publications/Ethical%20Guidelines [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014]
Cohen, P (2010) Scholars Test Web Alternative to Peer Review Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/24/arts/24peer.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0 [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014]
Meadows, A. (2014) A Brighter Future for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences?. The scholarly kitchen, [blog] 2nd January, Available at: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/01/02/a-brighter-future-for-the-arts-humanities-and-social-sciences/ [Accessed: 2 Jan 2014].
Renear, A. H., & Palmer, C. L. (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science, 325(5942), 828–832. doi:10.1126/science.1157784
- Elsevier Announces the Launch of Open Access Journal (prnewswire.com)
- Scientists Ambivalent About Open Access (news.sciencemag.org)
- Open Access the key to ivory towers (smh.com.au)
- Open Access (hebs1616.wordpress.com)