Keith Brown and I attended UNT’s second annual Symposium on Open Access on Friday. The academic movement toward open access is based on valuing academic information and scholarly output as a public good, and therefore should exist in the public domain for interested members of the public to access. Much like K-12 education, access figures prominently in the production and consumption of academic knowledge.
What I enjoyed most was the keynote address by John Willinsky, a leading author and scholar of the open access movement. He was very clear about open access as a movement not necessarily for free access, but for increased access. Peer review is what fundamentally drives the academic publishing industry (in tandem with potential profits). More ‘prestigious’ journals are defined by their exclusion criteria and the recognized quality of papers that are published, which is heavily tied to the robustness of its peer review system.
It costs money, of course, to edit, collate, and review papers for publication in a journal, and better recognized quality means a journal can charge higher prices for submission and subscriptions. But rising submission and subscription prices are outpacing the ability for academic budgets to keep up – the system is unsustainable. Now it will never be free to publish an academic journal; at the very least, some payment is needed for raw materials, or server space for archives and online hosting. The open access movement, however, advocates for increased access by cutting out expensive publisher middlemen that contribute to the unsustainability of current publication schemes.
Greasing the wheels of the academic publication machine can mean lower costs to subscribe to journals or purchase individual articles. But it also means that the economy of academic knowledge production is no longer represented in terms of prestige only. The push to electronically represent, archive, and index academic work has resulted in an economy of visibility – what can be accessed counts, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. When a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound if no one is around to hear it? Likewise, if a researcher publishes his or her research, does it make an impact on the community (or on the general public) if few people can read it?
In other words, the problem of academic work being walled off from larger society, or even from other disciplines in the academy, is not a lack of interest on the part of potential readers; it is a lack of access. Slowly shifting the emphasis from for-profit publication powerhouses such as Elsevier and Springer to localized electronic journals is a measure for radically lowering operational expenses, which means lower financial barriers to consumer access. Willinsky cited the electronic journal he helped create at the University of British Columbia; its operating expenses are about $2,000 annually, compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars, or sometimes even millions, required to operate large, top-of-the-pyramid journals.
Willinsky also emphasized that open access does not simply change the venues for storing information, but it requires a rethinking of the compilation and organization of that information into formats that are more easily accessible. Libraries, then, as catalogers and archivers of information, can (and should) play a central role in this movement, not only to give local academics better access to materials, but also to give the general community – in the Internet age, this means the world – better access to knowledge.