Focus
April 13, 2007

Public knowledge

Open access publishing pushes scholarship into the public realm, advocates say

by Caitlin Crawshaw
Librarian Denise Koufogiannakis says open access relates to the central tenets of librarianship.
Librarian Denise Koufogiannakis says open access
relates to the central tenets of librarianship.

While 'publish or perish' is a familiar refrain on campus, the dissemination of published research isn't usually front of mind for academics. But a leading advocate of open access scholarship says it ought to be.

"We're so focused on publishing that we think it's an end in itself. That is, if I get it in a journal, my job is done, and that's it. I move on to the next article," said Dr. John Willinsky, a professor of literacy and technology at the University of British Columbia who spoke at the University of Alberta in March.

But published articles can be tricky to access by other researchers and the public, as online academic journals charge hefty subscription fees. As a result, the work produced in publicly funded academic institutions is often not easily accessible by the public it's meant to serve.

This is why Willinsky is an advocate for open access publishing, a movement which works to eliminate the barriers between published research and readers. The movement began in the 1990s and is a product of the creation of the Internet and growing concerns about rising prices of journal subscriptions, which have caused universities to reduce their access to scholarly publications.

The open access phenomenon is relatively new, "but the common spirit of open access science or increasing the circulation of knowledge is a constant for research and scholarship so there's an old and a new element," said Willinsky. "In some ways you might say we're just taking advantage of a new technology to increase what we've always been about."

The concept is fairly simple, although it's difficult to categorize open access versus non-open access publishers, says Willinsky. While some new journals are being created to be entirely open access (accessible for no charge to the reader, but sometimes with a small cost to the authors), others are experimenting with degrees of open access. Some journals, for instance, keep new research papers subscription-only for a set period of time, before releasing it publicly. Others have allowed developing nations with a certain per-capita income to access their journals at low or no cost.

And some publishers give the author of a paper the option to attach a copy to their own website or to deposit it in an open access institutional repository a practice known as 'self-archiving.'

Willinsky says that if every professor self-archived, 80 - 90 per cent of knowledge could be open access, up from the 15 - 20 per cent that's currently available.

Professors, faculty members and grad students "haven't quite caught on to that idea," said Willinsky, despite the fact that it's in their best interest. Open access technology has the potential to increase a professor's citations by 50 - 250 per cent, depending on the discipline.

"It could do wonders for faculty members in terms of their impact, their readership, their citation count, but it hasn't become part of the scholarly culture," said Willinsky.

However, he is optimistic, particularly because research funding agencies are catching on. The Canadian Institutes for Health Research, for instance, will likely mandate open access publishing within the year and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council is now offering funding for open access journals for the first time although publishers are rallying against these measures.

For Dr. Alice Nakamura, a management science professor in the School of Business, open access is a welcome trend.

"The reputation of an individual researcher, of their department, of their faculty and their university, is best served by getting it out there, so their work is cited as much as possible," she said.

After all, an academic's work is far less likely to be cited when it's only accessible by subscription. Even when an individual article can be accessed online for a fee, the process is too involved for many people.

"From the point of view of an author, I don't want my paper tied up in that arrangement, because what I know from my own behaviour, is that when I'm working on a paper and maybe I have a deadline for getting it in, which is maybe the next day, am I really going to spend 25 minutes of my time trying to figure out how the heck I can get to see this paper? Most likely, unless it's really, really important, I'm going to forget about that paper and go work with someone else's paper on the topic."

Nakamura thinks open access publishing is a welcome correction to rising subscription prices and the control commercial presses have had over material created by universities.

"The irony is that the (cost of) technology has come way down, but if you go over to the book store and look at the prices of the text books that the students have, or you look at the prices the university libraries are charged for the main journals, they've gone up," said Nakamura, the former president of the Canadian Economics Association, which publishes the Canadian Journal of Economics.

"So how is it that you've got a situation where the technology has made it steadily cheaper, and the intellectual input is not paid for by the presses, but the prices have gone way up?"

According to Denise Koufogiannakis, a collections and acquisitions co-ordinator with U of A Libraries, the library and many academic libraries across North America have found ways to deal with rising subscription costs. One strategy has been to buy subscriptions to journals as a consortium. However, the sheer volume of journals available has meant that the library can't subscribe to every one, and that students and researchers don't have access to all of the knowledge available.

U of A Libraries is involved in many open access initiatives. It is a member of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system.

The library also subscribes to numerous open access online journals, which offers a discount to U of A authors publishing therein. Additionally, it provides a number of publishing services, including managing an institutional repository and hosting Open access e-journals, using the Open Journal Systems software.

OJS is a journal management and publishing system developed by the Public Knowledge Project, which Willinsky began in 1998. The advocacy group works to promote Open access publishing around the world and strongly supports academic publishing in Africa.

Koufogiannakis figures that open access publishing is ultimately central to the philosophies behind scholarship and librarianship.

"For librarians, it's just a natural thing to support open access, because for us, access to information is the key tenet of our profession, it's really what we do. We want to see that scholarly information is available to researchers and students."