Reintroducing academic knowledge into the world

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.

This entry was posted in Accountability, Future of the University, Libraries, Open Access, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Reintroducing academic knowledge into the world

  1. Dennis says:

    Wish I had gone to the lecture. Sounds interesting.

    Since I didn’t go, I have a couple of question for you:

    1. You say (or Willinsky says) it isn’t a lack of interest but a lack of access. In my experience, this isn’t accurate. Most university students have access to a large amount of journals and publications. Not only (estimation) thousands of journals (UNT students have access to all Springer journals, to a certain date), but through ILL, hundreds of thousands of books. But most students, even to the grad level, don’t take advantage of this. So why would the general public do differently, just if they were open? Access almost seems to be part of the problem. There is just too much. If this is so, then Librarians don’t need to increase access, they need to exclude, categorizing works into value categories, so I don’t have to run through 200 journals on East Asia when doing a lit review on water in Thailand. This is, of course, personal anecdotes, so maybe I’m just hanging around too many lazy people.

    2. This is one is shorter: What does local mean in “localized electronic journals”?

    • Kelli Barr says:

      Thanks for commenting, Dennis! And my apologies for taking so long to get back to you. I have since found my notes from the conference…

      1. I think you are quite right about the interest factor. Access is not a significant problem for university students, it’s having enough interest in the material to go searching for it. I would bet that when students do dive into journal databases, the majority have run into the same feeling of ‘there’s just too much…’ The overproduction of academic knowledge is a problematic phenomenon, for sure, and I don’t see the rate of turnout subsiding anytime soon (for reasons discussed in other posts).

      But I want to make a distinction between what students experience as far as accessing/utilizing academic knowledge and what a non-academic or non-student might experience. Willinsky cited a survey of private and public-sector businesses (and silly me, I didn’t write down the authors) that demonstrated a demand for academic knowledge for the purpose of informing business dealings. Producers of technology, for example, would benefit greatly from the latest research in nanotech; however, the survey revealed that these companies feel shut off from such potentially useful research.

      So the evidence for increased access is also based on anecdotal evidence in addition to (sparse) empirical data. But what Willinsky did emphasize is that the movement did not arise from academic brainstorming – it was the result of individual academics interacting with non-academics and identifying access to academic knowledge as a real problem.

      One may also hope (as we CSID-ers do) that increasing public or non-academic utilization of academic work retroactively spurs academics to make their work more relevant to real-world issues. This isn’t to say that all academic work must address some social problem or phenomenon, only that academic and the public would benefit from the production of knowledge that can and will be used outside of academia as well as inside.

      2. Local refers to locally-hosted. Instead of a major publishing company, such as Springer, as the publisher of an academic journal or press, the university’s library would host the publication electronically. The data would be stored on their servers and university employees or volunteers would manage the publication. Willinsky’s own foray into this publication scheme is evidence enough, I think, of how locally-hosted electronic journals are much cheaper and can run more efficiently that journals published by external sources. The main idea behind this is to break down the external publishing scheme – it is massively expensive for academics and economically unsustainable – and return the management of publication activities back to universities and academics themselves.

      I think the movement definitely merits more thought and attention, though, especially to the differences you indicated between the student’s experience with academic knowledge and the public’s in terms of interest or access.

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