Sunday, February 13, 2011

Open to access

But are you also open to provide accessibility?

In the last few years the open access movement has grown stronger. This is a debate specially close to the heart of those who deeply believe knowledge is supposed to be shared and its advancement is related to the practice of opening up their ideas to a wider public. I’d also argue that it is about reaching the audiences the research focuses on and targets at. Some call it public and community engagement. Be that it may, it should be open too!
Further on that thought, I also believe that openness of research is more than putting a couple of peer reviewed papers online for easy download. Although that is already a major step and one that all researchers should be pushing forward, if it’s real impact we seek, then we need be looking beyond the citation metrics! We should be looking at making a difference both within our discipline and society. That, as Sarah Bodell so rightly hints at, involves us to revisit what we consider to be our professional obligation both before our professional bodies and the communities they are supposed to serve.

Although the Open Access Movement is still not a practice of the masses, I believe it has acquired status beyond ‘an ideal’. It is slowly penetrating academic practice. Now, we just need to make it widely and formally accepted. Yes, you read me. Despite all the institutional open access mandates across the world, I still don’t see it encouraging a real shift in practice, i.e., in terms of how academic publications are approached. Most repositories store bibliographical references of articles published in closed journals, instead of instigating researchers to publish in open access journals. I sometimes wonder how much of this is not free publicity for paid journals?! That’s the game we currently play. We want to implement a new idea (open access) in a rather traditionalist, elite-led frame. Something will have to give. So far, the old structure has not shaken. ...well, not enough to instigate a serious change in people’s epistemology of practice. (As I write this a new question arises to me which partly links with my current research: how many of the open access advocates see sharing, discussion and joint construction of knowledge as a key element of their practice? And how much of that philosophy is supported by the way we measure research?... are we really measuring research or the reputation of the places in which it is published?...)

One would think that given the current global economical climate the opportunity would be easy to spot, but I’m afraid to say that this is (still) not the case. I have high hopes - especially with the new communication channels available online -, but they still haven’t been fully materialised. There are forces that move against them. I feel those forces have more to do with tradition and reputation than with real impact!

Especially, in professional and applied sciences such as the case of health, education, environmental studies, social work, etc, what’s more important: to write a paper which features in a so called high impact journal, or in a place that other researchers and also other practitioners, and why not public, can access it to? With that comes another range of questions: should we just publish research in “academic language”? Should it be restricted to writing? Why can’t podcasts, short videos, newsletters, online discussions also serve as impact. They would probably be more accessible and generate different types of impact 'highly rated' journals haven’t been able to: not only in terms of being free and easy to get hold of, but also in terms of discourse and format.

Online technologies offer different conduits for true communication and dissemination of research, in which the researchers themselves can be directly involved in after they deliver their product (e.g: their publication). I’d even argue that the real strength of these new technologies is ‘participation‘. Hence, it’s not about delivery but rather about transactions of knowledge and ideas in progress. Funny enough, one of the first research journals, which would end up setting the tone for all the academic publications thereafter, was called exactly that: "Philosophical Transactions". It used, what I assume to have been seen as, the cutting edge technology of that time - printing press - to disseminate research.
I will also assume that, given that at the time literacy was a privilege of a few, there was no need to raise concerns about accessibility and whom the journal was read by. Today, however, the case is different, or at least I’d like to think so...but that’s probably another post!

So, all of this to say the following: Open Access is, in my opinion, more than the releasing of pre-prints and copies of articles published in closed journals. The effective transformation requires action and determination in publishing in and creating open access opportunities. Research Journals are still an important vehicle for communication of research, but they don’t have to be closed or managed with profit in mind. We already write the articles for free. Let’s make sure people don’t get charged to read them! Further to that, there are other forms of sharing our practice. Participatory media can provide alternatives. Let’s exploit them. Finally, we need to look at influencing policy. We need to instigate change on how our practice is appraised and how our research is measured. High impact journals aim at perpetuating an elitist style of communication. Times have changed. We need to think community if our goal is to impact on our society.

To hear a discussion about this topic visit the Research Zebra Chat site


  1. Nice! Looks like a "chmod 777 research" command :)

  2. I think that one of the problems underpinning resistance to the open access idea it that academics tend to have a very narrow view of their publication profile, in that they view it as an either/or situations as if publishing in high impact pay-too-view journals automatically means they can't publish elsewhere in an open access format. Why not have both?

  3. agree..
    or why not create opportunities to make open access journals 'high impact' by making publishing in open access an item of the measurement of research exercise. Also, it's high time we changed the criteria of what we consider to be high impact... for instance, posting your findings on a blog, generating discussions, enhancing the research from there can also have impact. we need to keep up with the times. After all, as research points out we have entered the digital age and we need to adapt to the demands of the current society... (ah, now that I recall, i think those finding might have been published in a closed journal and not many people had access to it!) ;-)

  4. The difficulty is time. New journals have to be up and running for about 3 years before they can even apply for an impact factor. It will take a massive paradigm shift to get a critical mass of papers. This is this big dichotomy between the digital media were everything is instant and the traditional publication field where a paper can take 2 years before it is published in hard copy.

  5. I think some of this is fear though. Fear around intellectual property and fear of the technology itself.

    What people need to understand is the market that you can create and the conversations you can have which will increase knowledge. Twitter is a fabulous resource if used well and conversations are easy between cultures and topics.

    I write a blog and it has already been translated into Romanian. It is easy to start conversations with those from other countries and gain an insight into their opinions on what you write as well.

  6. @ali I get what you say...and this takes me back to some of the questions I posed. What's epistemology of practice? what do you believe is the mission of your profession and your role in it? They are probably focusing on a quite social constructivist approach, and that makes you challenge of not the system, yourself because these new media allow you to create knowledge in ways that are more congruent with nature (of doing things and seeing the world)
    for the majorly though that is not necessary the case. We have been socialised and institutionalized in such a way that leads most of us to see knowledge as something secretive, precious, that belongs to a group...
    We gain official academic status for publishing articles not for writing blogs...unfortunately.
    But I'm with you.we need to do it and we need to prove it's much so it's starts being part of the official appraisals.

    @carol that is why I think we need to start now. If it takes 3 years at least to get an open access journal up those standards then we need to start now and make sure that we shorten the peer review periods.. but that's just one thing we need to do. We also need to start feeding into policy and into the research measurement exercise committee new ways of measuring and recognizing research impact. So how do we get to them? Are they reading this blog? ;-)