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Thoughts on Open Access

November 22nd, 2009 by Maura A. Smale · No Comments

Last month for Open Access Week our library hosted a program on OA scholarly journal publishing for faculty, complete with spiffy orange buttons (suitable for Halloween wearing, too!). It was a great discussion, but since I’ve written about it elsewhere I won’t repeat it here.

I’ve found myself mulling over open access off and on ever since. Most of the time when I think about OA publishing it’s about academic journals, but of course publishing’s not a monolith. There are lots of materials relevant to academic work that are published in traditional ways, and there will likely be different models needed to successfully convert them to OA.

Scholarly Journals:
Discussion about journals seems to make up most of the conversation about open access scholarly publishing, and in some ways it’s the easiest transformation to imagine. Partly that’s because there are already longstanding examples of well-respected, peer-reviewed OA scholarly journals (yes, First Monday, I’m looking at you). But I also think that the economics of scholarly journal publishing favor open access in the long run. It’s an old saw that bears repeating: as scholars, we are compensated by our institutions for responsibilities that include performing original research (often funded by grants which we must work to acquire), writing up and disseminating the results of that research, and serving as peer-reviewers and editors of scholarly journals. In the traditional publishing model we then give our copyright away to the publishers, who sell those journals back to our libraries. Our institutions pay twice for the results of our research.

There are a number of different funding models for open access scholarly journals. University and college presses or libraries can host journals using the free and open source Open Journal Systems. Journals might also charge author fees; researchers can apply for grant funding to defray the fees or institutions can subsidize these costs for their faculty. Many open access journals are currently published using one of these models, and I’m sure the number will only increase.

Textbooks:
Open access textbooks are a little trickier, though I’m a big proponent of them for a variety of reasons. Textbooks are incredibly expensive, both for students and for libraries. We buy a fair number of textbooks in my library and it’s so frustrating to have to get new editions every few years which may not even be all that different from the old editions (but of course we have to buy the edition that faculty are using).

Open access textbook/course material repositories are springing up all over the internet recently, definitely a positive development. I know that many faculty write textbooks and derive some income from them. But I think there’s more to be gained by sharing our curricular materials, especially at public universities. Freely-available textbook modules could be peer reviewed, and the community of researchers could discuss and refine them. I think the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources says it best: “When educators pool their expertise to create a culture of shared knowledge, everyone benefits.”

Scholarly Monographs:
Many of the same publication issues for textbooks also apply to scholarly books, especially in that researchers do profit from their sale. But many monographs don’t have a huge print run, and university and other scholarly presses have felt the squeeze of tightened budgets recently, too.

A hybrid print/digital model might be a good strategy for scholarly monographs. Earlier this year the University of Michigan and the Open Humanities Press announced a partnership to publish a series of scholarly monographs. Digital versions of the books will be freely available online, but paperback versions will also be available for sale. Recent advances in print-on-demand technology makes this distribution model much more feasible than previously.

Ultimately I’m in favor of open access for most academic materials. As a researcher, I’m eager for lots of other scholars to read my work. As a public employee, I’m sensitive to the fact that taxpayer money helps pay my salary. And as a teacher, I’d like my students to have access to a wide range of quality information from many sources. Open access publishing encourages the dissemination of scholarship to the widest possible audience, to the great benefit of researchers, students, and the public.

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