4 October 02011

What's holding Open Access publishing back?

OpenPush.jpgAs a small business working in knowledge-intensive, research-driven areas, I've got first-hand experience of the frustrations caused by mainstream research publishing: you find a research paper that looks useful, but it costs $30 to read the 15 pages if you haven't got some kind of institutional subscription. These costs keep going up, and even institutions are having to look critically at what they can afford, in what is known as the serials crisis. Recently George Monbiot stirred up a small storm by drawing attention to this — see one angry reaction, for example.

The Open Access movement in academia has been working for decades to overcome the kinds of problems I experience. As the name suggests, Open Access is committed to all research publications (and sometimes data too) being freely available to anyone for the public good. Momentum has grown in recent years as online tools have made the editorial and distribution functions of publishing much more agile. Nevertheless, there's still a sense among many Open Access advocates that progress is stalling, or at least not nearly as rapid as it might be.

At the start of the summer I was commissioned, along with Seb Schmoller and Nicky Ferguson, to do a quick piece of work to understand why Open Access was not sweeping all before it. Given the short deadlines, the brief we were given was tightly focused: after a brief literature review, we spoke only to researchers in chemistry and economics.

This constraint was frustrating in one or two senses. Palpably, of course, our literature search was less comprehensive than it would have been had Open Access been the rule rather than the exception. But at least that didn't prevent me finding Gale Moore's survey of faculty awareness and attitudes towards Open Access at the University of Toronto. I was struck there by her observations:

While scholars are central, they are only one part of a scholarly communication ecosystem that includes publishers, librarians, university administrators as well as scholarly societies, associations, funding agencies and others. Today, as the economic, social and cultural landscape is being transformed by the turn to the digital that is evident in phrases such as the networked information society or the digital economy, it is timely to ask how does this turn affect scholars and other members of the scholarly communication ecosystem on which so much depends. How aware are scholars of the opportunities and challenges posed by the digital, networked environment in which they are situated, and the implications for their activities and those of others in the system? Are they aware of how the activities of others in the ecosystem affect them? [my emphasis]

"Scholarly communication ecosystem" — there's that word again. Now here's the real frustration. Despite this acknowledgement of the wider context of research publication, almost all the research on how to spread Open Access — including Moore's and our own — seems to focus on researchers and not on the other players in the ecosystem.

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