November 21, 2017

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This feature article is part of our Open Access in Action series, sponsored by Dove Press, which tracks the evolution of important open access (OA) issues through a library lens by presenting regular original articles, video interviews, news, and perspectives. To learn more about how librarians like you are driving practice across the lifestyle of open access, be sure to visit Open Access in Action.

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Whither (and Whether) OA?

Rick AndersonWe’ve now been discussing, advocating for, and arguing about open access for something like twenty years. (The first formal declaration on the topic was issued in 2002, but OA has been a subject of serious discussion in the scholarly-communication world since at least the mid-1990s.)

An awful lot has changed since the turn of the 21st century, even though the underlying issues have remained roughly the same: we still see library budget constraints and journal prices heading towards cataclysmic collision—even if that collision, as imminent as it always seems to be, keeps receding in front of us. To many of us it still seems intuitively obvious that the public has a moral right of access to scholarly publications arising from publicly-supported research—even as we struggle to figure out how to account for the costs that occur between the conclusion of the research itself and the delivery of a peer-reviewed, edited, typeset, and formatted article based on it (not to mention the costs of ongoing curation). And to many, there is constant frustration over the way that commercial publishers have managed to coopt OA and use it as just one more highly effective revenue-generating mechanism.

Then there’s the problem of bad actors entering the marketplace. One of the predominant funding models for OA is the article-processing charge (or APC), which underwrites free dissemination by front-loading the costs of publishing and laying them on the author rather than the reader. It’s a model that has much to recommend it and that is used honestly and productively by many different publishers. It’s also a model that, by its very nature, invites abuse by predatory and deceptive publishers offering unwary (or unscrupulous) authors the publishing equivalent of a diploma mill for their articles.

Amid all of this foment and complexity, the scholarly and scientific authors whose work is at issue have remained—for the most part—silent, and have not always been consulted. To a real degree, this may be because they’re not much interested and have ignored repeated invitations to get involved. It’s also because to many if not most of them, the toll-access system seems to work just fine. If they’re employed by colleges and universities there’s a very good chance that they have institutional access to most of the published research they need and have long-established back channels to what isn’t already licensed for them. For the most part they don’t much care about making sure the whole world has access to their work, because the primary audience for their work already has access to it. When librarians tell them that the system is broken, they often respond with puzzlement—and sometimes they respond more strongly than that, particularly if they believe the librarian in question is trying to upend a system that has given them prestigious publishing venues and opportunities to serve on editorial boards, not to mention provided benefits like affordable conference registration fees (underwritten by journal subscription fees).

What all of this means is that outside of the library profession, questions about the future of OA may appear much more complicated than they look to us in libraries. Because we often see the desirability of OA as a foregone conclusion, our tendency is to ask “whither” questions like “What particular flavor of OA would be best?” and “How should OA be funded?” and “How can we best help faculty to see that supporting OA is in their best interest?” But while we’re asking ourselves those “whither” questions, the researchers whose work we are discussing are often thinking at the “whether” level, asking themselves questions like “Is universal OA a desirable goal?” and “Does OA provide benefits that are proportionate to its costs?” and “Would involvement with OA really help me in my career?” When, that is, they’re thinking about OA at all—and most of the time they’re thinking about other stuff instead.

Faced with “whether” questions when we would much rather be dealing with “whither” questions, we may find ourselves tempted to respond with frustration or even condescension: why can’t these benighted faculty members see the obvious benefits of OA? Why do they want to continue supporting a manifestly unjust and inefficient publishing regime? Why are they so selfish and shortsighted?

Speaking personally, I find that I tend to make terrible decisions when I’m thinking that way. When I find myself starting to wonder at the irrationality and foolishness of those who don’t see things as I do, my natural tendency is to harangue them—but when I indulge that tendency, I always regret it. Invariably, I find that I’d do better to step back and take a breath. That’s probably good advice to all of us as we work towards reform of the scholarly-communication ecosystem.

Open Access In Action

Rick Anderson About Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson (rick.anderson@utah.edu) is Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. He serves on numerous editorial and advisory boards and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog. He currently serves as president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and a collection of his essays titled Libraries, Leadership, and Scholarly Communication was published this year by ALA Editions.

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