Emergences 7: Open Access

posted by Augustin Nicolescou on 2008/10/07 22:38

[ Veranstaltungen | Conferences ]

Kakanien revisited's conference on Open Access has come and gone. The conference, which took place at the University of Vienna, may have had a bit of a hard time competing with one of the last few Saturdays of nice weather we have left. But if we didn't have a record quantity of those in attendance, there was certainly quality and many interesting discussions. So what about Open Access...

In brief, Open Access is the idea that scholarly works should be made freely available to users. That is, users are free to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of such articles. The authors maintain a limited copyright over their works. It is in this spirit of cooperation and sharing of knowledge that Kakanien revisited operates. This is in stark contrast with the way traditional publishers put out journals which are generally quite expensive and therefore can usually only be accessed by the users of academic libraries which pay large fees to make this material available. These publishers are the ones who most benefit from the traditional system.

Open Access opens up the possibility that any scholar can publish and be read, cited and contribute to the academic discourse. Knowledge is made free by the new participative technologies such as the internet and desktop publishing. As Falk Reckling pointed out in his presentation, the World Wide Web was based on the idea that researchers should be able to easily and freely communicate with each other.  But as with much of the Web, the vision is often better than the reality. Many challenges still face the OA movement.

On the one hand, we saw that traditional publishers seem to be embracing OA to some extent, but in the process may very well be high-jacking the movement. This has brought the advent of “opener” access. Access is still restricted, but a bit less than before. Anything to keep the traditional model from collapsing...

One argument used by publishers is that OA can reduce quality; this may not be entirely wrong. At least so far, articles available freely online are not as readily cited as those that have appeared in printed publications. There is perhapse the idea that free information cannot be as good as paid information. We can notice that articles published in both printed form and as OA articles, when cited, are predominantly cited according to the print publication. It still seems like a more serious source when someone has committed the money to have an article published by a professional print shop. Then again, OA is still young; the Budapest Open Access Initiative was only initiated in February 2002. Once researchers have become used to the idea, OA articles will be more readily cited. So if online papers are less cited than their printed brethren, it does not necessarily mean that there is a discernable decrease in quality. Or at least it doesn’t have to be this way. And as it stands, having an article published in OA does increase impact, even if there is a preference for printed works when available. So it is good for the researcher.

Chris Ambruster broke down for us the process that goes into publishing a scholarly article: registration (of the article – basically a time stamp), certification (e.g. peer review), dissemination (publication), archiving, and navigation (a way to find articles in an archive). This takes resources. Which means either time or money, most likely both. The traditional model is financed to some by grants to researchers (to do the research) and libraries (to pay for publication access), as well as by other subscribers to the publication. The publishers make the financial profit in exchange for offering the needed services.

OA offers an alternative.  Kakanien revisited, for example, is engaged in the entire scholarly communication cycle Chris described. Even with the dedicated work of my colleagues here, it would not be possible without funding from the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research. Unfair subsidies and government interference as publishers claim? Not really. If the funding for research did not exist in the first place, and if the funding for libraries to provide traditional journals did not exist, neither would the traditional publishers. OA cuts out the middle man. In doing so it increases availability and impact. It is unfortunate that one of the presenters, Ulrich Herb, was unable to attend at the last moment. His insights into OA, and especially the altruistic element of OA, would have rounded up the discussion very nicely.

The digitization of books (i.e Google Books and eLib), the archiving of internet web pages (archive.org), the special considerations needed for OA archives as opposed to libraries, even the digital YouTube era remix culture are all things which came up during the conference and which would require much more space to go in to.

But a few closing thoughts. For OA to be successful it does need to ensure the quality of the publications. It does need to find a way of ensuring that archives are maintained in the long run – paper has a much longer shelf life than CDs and hard drives, as many of us have found out the hard way. Records should be stored in a way that allows citations, i.e. permanent links. It needs to be financed in some way. These are all issues that still need to be taken into account, but they are not insurmountable by any means. Each problem has solutions, and as OA matures, these problems will be resolved. The benefit for readers and researchers is without a doubt significant.


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