Open Access: What is it about?

Aaron Swartz’s recent suicide has sparked discussion all over the internet, with much of it to do with his  strong belief in the moral imperative of sharing scholarship and making it accessible to all. There’s a certain strong raw attraction towards this idea, however, it’s practicality is far from a simple matter. It’s a rather complicated and nuanced question that needs more serious discussion along with the impassioned cries. I found myself in one of these discussions, (sparked by Shashank Kumar and Tara Van Ho) and thought I’d share some thoughts along with some relevant points that arose in that discussion. We focused on the problems of access to scholarship today as well as the viability of the recommendations such as those of the Finch Report (available here) on Open Access that the UK Government has recently adopted. (warning: long post) 

Perfectly summed up by GB Shaw.
Calligraphy  by Itti
First, the problem: 
Quoting from Swartz, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” And indeed, it is tremendous power. If we lived in a world where information served as currency, every transaction would lead to everyone becoming richer, and one can only imagine what a globalised ‘idea economy’ would have led to. Idealistic or not, it is unfortunate that this is not our reality. Instead we have a series of proxies which we rely on to encourage, generate and spread this information; and these proxies are far from ideal, leaving several distortions in their wake. 

Attaching property rights as commonly understood to information has serious repercussions  Information, being a public good, is most beneficial when shared. This sharing also allows for organic and exponential growth due to the ever expanding baseline of knowledge that everyone is given access to when an idea is thrown into this pool. Thus, any restriction on this knowledge sharing should normatively be allowed only if there is an appropriate justification. So the question is: Does (temporarily) restricting the spread of scholarship encourage the overall growth of scholarship? Given that (a) the incentives are directed towards publishing companies instead of scholars,  and (b) that the common perception is that these publishing companies add sub-proportionate value to the whole process, scholars and researchers world over are starting to demand a release from the restriction privileges that the publication companies are given. 

Today the crisis in academic scholarship, to be stated simply is that scholarship is not being shared as widely as it could and should be. With the internet, for the first time, there is a super cheap mode of dissemination of scholarship that could make information available to all with an internet connection. Traditionally, publishers have held this role of disseminators, as it was beyond the means of authors to do so themselves. And of course, they also add certain value by organising scholarship as well as providing an idea of the quality of the work.

However, the value that they do not add includes actually reviewing the work (which is done by other researchers peer-reviewing for free) and funding the research being published (often publicly funded – but not subsequently available to the public). Authors provide their scholarship to the journals either for free or by paying a charge to get published. Journals then sell these collected works primarily to libraries/institutes (back to where it came from!), or per piece, to individuals at very high rates. This is despite the rapid transition that many journals have done by jumping on to the digital platform. One would think that this would lead to a drop in prices but this is apparently not the case. The prices remain on par with the former print prices. While introducing an online version doesn’t mean online costs don’t exist, or that the print prices disappear, it would appear to me that there should be some (substantial) difference in price as some costs have surely gone disappeared. 

In terms of effects on the world of academics: this generally means that those with access to large resources are the ones who can get access to more scholarship. In turn, this means that these are the ones with more opportunities to produce more scholarship. More funding occurs. Cycle repeats. 

What is being discussed the most though, is simply that scholarship is being restricted by journals and sold at artificial prices at the cost of scholarship. As per the Economist: “Elsevier, the biggest publisher of journals with almost 2,000 titles, cruised through the recession. Last year it made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion—an operating-profit margin of 36%.” And this, even while Harvard is saying that it can’t afford journal prices

Any hope for this to change?

When one has the requisite resources to buy into these journal subscriptions, one tends to go about his work. When one does not have the requisite resources to buy into these resources, one tends to spend their efforts trying to get hold of what they can manage. So, who spends their efforts at changing this?

Traditionally, this cycle of those with resources continuing to receive more resources, would mean that those without voices, continue to not receive a voice – which they need to even to complain about not having a voice! However, a few factors seem to have combined to start changing this. 

1. With developing countries taking a larger presence on the international stage, large institutes within them, while poor with respect to the large institutes in the developed world, have increasingly been able to communicate their concerns through their governments in the international discussions involving access to knowledge. 
2. Terrific activism by those who have understood the possibilities unleashed with the internet. 
3. The internet has had a remarkable democratization effect, providing individuals all over the world an opportunity to make their voice heard and to hear other voices. Many of these voices have tended to combine under the loosely defined leadership roles played by the above mentioned activists, giving both louder voices. 
4. No doubt, the falling budgets in the developed countries due to the fiscal crisis have sensitized them to prices as well. 

Problems are being raised. And more importantly, they are being given attention and possibilities of solutions to these are being explored. 

Now what? What is the Open Access movement and can it help?

Open Access scholarship is scholarly literature that is provided via the internet and is unrestricted, allowing anyone to access it. In other words, Open Access journals are ones that are not operated based on the reader-pays or subscription-funded model. As for how they are funded – there is active debate regarding the most optimal method. The more popular demand side models include the Article Processing Charge (APC) model, the Advertisement/Sponsorship backed model and the subsidy based models. The more popular supply side models include implementing fees based on (a) Use over a certain free-floor, (b) the supply of literature in convenient formats, and (c) for additional value added. There’s a great guide to several supply side as well as demand side revenue generation mechanisms for Open Access scholarship that’s been made available by SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) here. 

The UK govt has notably dived into the Open Access movement with its acceptance of the recommendations of the Finch Report (available here). It plans on making (wholly or partially) publicly funded research available for free public access from mid 2013 by implementing a mixture of ‘Green OA self-archiving’ and ‘Gold OA’ Publishing. Green OA self archiving involves the researchers publishing their research in any journal but also making a post print version of the article available in an appropriate repository without restrictions for non-commercial use within 6 months of publication. The recommendations make clear though, that it is strongly preferable authors take the Gold OA route. If the author chooses to go the Gold OA route, he must submit his article in a compliant journal using a Creative Commons non-commercial reuse license. The Research Council of UK (RCUK) will provide funds to institutions for the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs). The policy also states that all these peer reviewed papers must include details of the funding that went into it as well as how to access the underlying research materials. 

This sounds very public friendly and would be very beneficial for accessing publicly funded scholarship. There could be possible problems following this model though, especially for countries like India. It would appear that until a sufficiently large amount of scholarship has gone open access, they will have to continue to pay for library subscriptions as well, thus doubling spending on both supply and demand side. This may especially be the case if other governments do not pursue Open Access with equal enthusiasm. There are other implementation questions that arise though. On what basis will the govt decide what scholarship to provide APCs for? Will they allot quotas to institutes? If so, this is bound to be problematic as issues of division within the institute, as well as issues of how much each institute gets will arise. Will they simply fund everything? This may be too expensive a proposition. Perhaps the journals could be ranked by a team of experts and only articles selected in journals of a certain quality would be funded? 

There are bound to be plenty of questions and issues which arise while branching out from the traditional model of publication.  However, I certainly view it as a very positive step for global scholarship that the issue of access to scholarship is being taken seriously enough to experiment with new and innovative Open Access models. 

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