Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Open Access? Make It So

By Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA (Books of the Past) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lin Kristensen [CC-BY-2.0] 
via Wikimedia Commons

By Alison Norwood

There’s an episode in Star Trek where Captain Picard has a copy of a printed book, opened reverently, under a glass case. In his future, printed books are rare. And therefore precious.

In our own real-world future printed books will probably be equally as rare, but whatever physical way a book manifests itself – on paper or an electronic screen – it is the content which is the most precious component.

Which is why, say the advocates of Open Access, content should always be available to everyone, everywhere, for good or evil. Immediate access
to online material can enhance more quickly the progress of medical science (for instance), with the concomitant risk of research work being
copied unacknowledged or passed-off as someone else’s.

DFID’s announcement, earlier this year, that their funded projects must be Open Access (OA) by 2014 has focused the minds of those previously pondering OA practicalities.

What do we want? – Open Access! – When do we want it? – Now!

It could be really simple.

To post articles into an institutional repository, such as IDS’ OpenDocs, satisfies the immediate need to get research online and available. But to also publish in a respected academic journal – whether an established ‘print’ one or a newer platform specifically created for OA – is a more considered process.

To transition from the known peer review quality-control channels to new models should be straightforward and would be essential to ensure citations – keep the peer review system in place so that the submitted article version to a journal is the most rigorous that it can be and then, at that point, focus on the most prestigious or most far-reaching OA vehicle, dependant on the author’s priorities.

And their funding. Currently, we are still in a financially-driven publishing industry, so if the reader is no longer expected to pay for their books and journals, then the author has to pay to publish instead. How they source that funding is the current dilemma, ideally with publication written into research outputs from the start of a project. Even the most basic forms of OA publishing will need time and funds for the quality-control basics covering the services of copy-editors, designers and the lack of royalties.

The rise in numbers of OA academic journals over recent years proves the appetite for spreading research as widely as possible. The era of communication and accountability is upon us, with academic writing moving beyond a few elite bookshelves. Subsidising academic books for research has gone on for years, with some authors more evangelical and practical about this than others; now there seems general widespread willingness for author- or institutional-subsidy, or at least the theory of it. Worldwide economic recession conditions, and emphasis from funders for successful outcomes to research projects, concentrates attention on the kind of content that will in future be published from scant financing to spread across all social science disciplines.

Some OA advocates suggest moving away from ‘traditional’ publisher journal models to an in-house approach, but it should be remembered that the basic advantage that an established big-name publishing house brings to the deal is their marketing reach. Without that, if an article sits in OpenDocs and there are no resources to advertise it, who will know it is there?

Debates around OA will continue no doubt, but the move towards it seems inexorable, and a challenge that everyone concerned with publishing academic research is going to have to find their own best solutions.

Does "everything online" make for accessible research?

The OA ideology is sound – research freely available to all at one click – but at this time we need to consider carefully the transition from old ‘profit’ models to new ‘altruistic’ ones at a realistic level. It should for instance be remembered that as much as developing countries have mobile phone access and/or limited internet access, it may still be more feasible for a while longer to keep producing those precious printed copies for that particular market. Not as museum pieces in glass cages, but continuing as a useful resource.

This is a time of big shake-up for the publishing world, but it will be resolved, and perhaps in the future we may look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Alison Norwood is Production Editor in the Central Communications team at the Institute of Development Studies