Friday, 25 October 2013

Open Access futures?

by Rachel Playforth

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

I’ve heard this Gandhi quote applied to open access advocacy before, and the Open Access Futures conference I attended yesterday was an interesting indicator of where we are in that process.

Is it a good sign that the open access community feels able to argue endlessly about ‘Green’ or ‘Gold’ and the fine detail of Creative Commons licenses? Have we won the war and all that remains is to quibble over the spoils? Or have the commercial journal publishers turned out to be the real winners, yet again, while we fight each other over the correct pronunciation/transcription of ‘CC By’?

By making themselves major players in the open access market and (to be fair, often constructively) engaging in the debate, publishers have cleverly deflected attention from the unpalatable fact which accelerated the OA issue into public consciousness in the first place: their grossly inflated profit margins (close to 40% in some cases[1]) and the resulting ‘serials crisis’ that threatened the ability of libraries to perform their core function of providing information.

These profit margins have not decreased, as far as I can tell, but we seem to have tacitly agreed to stop mentioning them while publishers convince us that they care about open access.

In fact, so powerful is the publishing lobby that a huge part of the open access discussion now centres around protecting these very profits (embargo periods, a free APC market, etc). Should we accept this and work to find pragmatic solutions in what we’re told is a ‘transition’ period – or is it really just a transition from one source of income for publishers to another? Has the radical potential of open access been squandered? What would real disruptive change look like?

The conference did offer some hope that change on a grander scale is happening, mainly through the passion and energy of young academics who take the DIY approach - with a sensibility borrowed from hacker culture and open source technology. They are creating new platforms for scholarship that don’t just fill a gap for researchers priced out of the commercial OA market, but take disciplines in new directions and question the whole process of academic publishing. See eLife, Alluvium, the Open Library of Humanities.
Is grey literature the next frontier for Open Access?
Image is CC0 licensed

Other areas are also opening up outside academic institutions, with charities, independent institutes,
government agencies and NGOs not only benefiting from open access content, but creating their own. In most cases there is nothing to stop these organisations from making their publications freely available, and indeed many have been doing so through websites and self-publishing for years, but by adopting the norms and principles of open access we can share our content so much more effectively. Free from the stranglehold of commercial publishers, I believe that grey literature of all kinds is the next big unexplored area for open access.

A recent Thesis Whisperer blog post explored the frustrations of a researcher on the distance we still have to go, but by developing our institutional repository and working with international partners on exposing their own grey literature through open access, IDS is heading in the right direction.

[1] Of goats and headaches’, The Economist, 26 May 2011 

Other blogs by Rachel on Impact and Learning: