No doubt you’ve heard or at least benefitted from the Open Access movement in publishing. Open Access, or OA, is the practice of making scholarly research, book chapters, journal articles, and other professional content available online and free of charge. Designed to give unrestricted access to published work for the common good, OA is typically defined by degrees — Gratis open access, where full access is provided completely free of charge; and Libre open access, where content is delivered free of charge and other usage privileges may be applied.
Beyond this designation of type, OA can be provided to readers in two ways: through Green or Gold open access. In Green open access, authors first publish their work and self-archive later through a publically-accessible website. With Gold open access, an author’s work is published directly through an open access journal to provide immediate and unrestricted access to the work. Gold OA usually carries a funding fee that’s paid by the author or by the institution the author works for.
In our information-driven society, OA has paved the way for easy distribution and sharing of content. And with so much information available at our fingertips, we’ve almost come to expect that any and all information, including scholarly research, be delivered free of charge and without subscription fees, tolls, or pay-per-view charges.
The Benefits of Open Access
Predictably, the arguments in favor of open access all center around three key areas: visibility, usage, and impact. For researchers, journals, and institutions alike, open access typically means more readers and more readers mean broader discussion and citation of the work. For nations that fund research through public money, OA can mean a better return on investment — something that’s getting greater scrutiny than ever before in our post-recession economies.
Speaking more broadly, proponents of OA assert that easier and faster dissemination of scholarly research without financial “gate-keeping” benefits society as a whole. This argument links open access with open source coding and the general sharable content approach which have become hallmarks of our digital world. It blurs the lines between public and private good to make a compelling point — allowing unrestricted access to information advances scientific research, medical breakthroughs, pharmacological treatments, and serves as both an incubator and a driver for the innovations of tomorrow.
The Challenges of Open Access
For higher education, the assumption that all content is free can be difficult to support financially, ethically, or educationally. Scholarly journals depend on subscription fees to cover overhead costs such as staff, technology, marketing, and printing expenses. With open access, the traditional revenue stream is challenged.
Likewise, though it could be argued that learning is its own reward, the time, energy, and insight required to create, publish, and review original work seems like it should be worth something for the researchers and writers that do it. The heavy investments that these professionals make in their educations lay the foundation for the work they do and there are few other fields where unlimited access to any product is provided to a consumer without some sort of charge.
Though there’s no clear consensus between professional journals or institutions of higher education on the topic, a 2012 report from the UK encourages all journals to embrace an open access model. The Finch Report is endorsed by the government of Britain and calls for nothing short of the complete elimination of subscription fees and the adoption of a model where the authors or publishers pay a publishing fee. In the US, this approach is moderated a bit by linking open access to those projects which are supported (at least in part) by tax-payers through federally-funded grants and other programs.
No matter on which side of the issue you land, the conversation and debate about open access will continue. As publishing is reshaped by digital and mobile media, the standards, pay structure, and copyright processes will each need to evolve. Like most industries today, scholarly research desperately needs creative solutions that work across disciplines for the benefit of researchers and writers, peer reviewers, funders, publishers, and readers.
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