It’s not easy being an open scholar

It’s not easy being an open scholar. Well, technically, it’s much easier than the traditional route. There are several thousand open access journals, which means a good number are being published in every field. And an increasing number of universities are hosting open repositories for their faculty’s scholarly work.

So how can open access publishing not be easy? I had the chance to attend a presentation by Jennifer Chan, Assistant Professor at CU, on Open Access Publishing during the CU Academics Online week.  Chan covered the different elements of Open Access like a pro (which she is, so that makes sense), and like someone for whom living in the Open world is already natural.

For me, Open is still relatively new. Several times, I found myself starting to think, “yeah, but…”

Most of the time, I caught these thoughts before they took control and instead worked hard to align myself with her perspective and that of the other librarians in the room. After all, the Open community is passionate about scholarship, knowledge, and learning. And there are sufficient examples that prove this can be an effective and successful model for disseminating research.

Chan talked specifically about works publishers by third parties (i.e., those appearing in journals or serials). If a work is open, it is available to individuals not affiliated with an institution or who don’t have access to a subscription. “Open” is in contrast to the “paywall model”. She described two types of open that are labelled in the community as “Open Access Gold” and “Open Access Green”.  Gold means immediate or automatic open access. PLoS is a good example of Gold.  There are, in fact, over 7000 open access journals. Green was a little harder for me to understand; in green, the work is not automatically open access. Instead, the author might do something to arrange with the publisher for the work to be open, or there may be some delay (embargo) after which the work is open.

I learned, too, that many U.S. research universities have policies stating that any of the works published by their faculty are to be open access of some kind (it can vary by the university). Evidently (I didn’t know this either), these universities notify publishers directly. Individual faculty don’t even have to be aware of it.  Because the scholarly journal market is now dominated by only 5-6 publishers, most of the journals out there are covered. Short of a university’s policy, journals have a default open access policy, as set by the publisher, and these policies are all online in a handy tool by Sherpa called Romeo.

Another way that universities are getting into this space is by creating their own Open Access repositories for faculty works.  CU has just started one this past year, using the Digital Commons platform by bePress.  Sherpa also maintains a list of these open access repositories named OpenDOAR. Placing your work in an institutional repository gives it a persistent URL, which means that no matter how many times you change your website or how many different places your promote your work, users will always be able to find it in the same place.

Open access extends the reach of our work, makes it persistent, and the software gives us better statistics of how many people are actually looking at each publication.

So, what is that voice in the back of my head still nagging about? The bottom line is that there remains a bias against open access journals in most disciplines. I faced a version of this bias early on in my career when I published in one of the first online journals in my field. That journal, the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, is now indexed as one of the top journals in my field, but at the time, established scholars in my field thought that anything published online-only must be sketchy and not very rigorous. Indeed, JCMC itself gained wider credibility when it was acquired by Wiley.

When landing a long-term (i.e., tenure track, reasonably paid) academic job is increasingly competitive, it’s difficult to persuade new researchers to publish in places that are seen by hiring committees or by colleagues as questionable or less rigorous. Open access publishing draws attention to a new researcher’s record and right now, it’s not positive attention. Regardless of whether any particular journal published by the big 6 is rigorous or not, traditional publishing is a known commodity. We know how to value an article and how much it should “count”. Over the years, we’ve developed a system that allows a publication to act as a proxy for our own assessment for whether or not a researcher’s scholarship itself is of high quality and makes an important contribution.  Sometimes that can be good, say, if an assistant professor is doing research in an area that colleagues at that institution don’t value but that is important and valued in the discipline.  But I think that the rapidly-inflating expectations for numbers of publications is evidence that, more often, this proxy system is bad.  We accept the legitimacy of the publication process without actually holding it to any concrete, accountable review, and we cover up our own preference for closed-ness with stories of predatory publishers (“pay us and we’ll publish your manuscript”) and of journals that have weak editorial boards or high acceptance rates.

Libraries see publishers and their profit motives as the driving force against openness.  This is understandable, since it is the libraries that have had to pay the subscription fees for our journals; subscription fees that have grown at many times the rate of inflation over the past 15 years.  Without diminishing that factor at all, I think we should also take a close and open look at our own academic culture. We are holding on to metrics and processes invented for a time when disseminating information was a challenge.  Right now, advocates are arguing that open access publishing can look like, walk like, and quack like traditional publishing.  And that’s important.  But there is more potential here.  Universities are being pressed to demonstrate their relevance and contribution to society.  Publisher paywalls that charge high costs for a single article don’t show that we are “important” or “credible.”  In fact, they are hurting us. They cut us off from society and make us irrelevant. We need to recognize that there are larger institutional issues at stake and to begin rethinking scholarship for an open age.

Print Friendly