When it comes to academic publishing, there is an elephant in the room. That is open access, which threatens the structures and thinking of the traditional forms of publishing. The phrase ‘open access’ is becoming increasingly pervasive in academia and yet it is rarely properly explained or discussed, particularly amongst PhD researchers. As a result it can appear to be a tool utilised for no other reason than to make those in the know feel smug and superior over those that do not.
So what is open access? This was a question that was initially addressed by the panel at a Hive Seminar entitled ‘Challenging Traditional Approaches to Publishing’ (see the bottom box at for audios and slides of the talk). Open access, in essence, describes the publishing of academic work in a way that allows the reader free access to the literature. There are two types of open access sources. There is the so-called Green Route where a copy of the published work is available for free through a repository such as Sussex Research Online. This may lack the final layout of the published piece and may be subject to an embargo period. The Gold Route, on the other hand, provides immediate access to the published work under an Open Access license. This almost sounds too good to be true; open access essentially equates to high-quality free stuff! More significantly it enables access to free journal articles and books, banishing the dreaded paywall. Because open access is invariably online, you can acquire books and materials at home! In your bed! For free!
Aside from being able to read free literature, legally, and in your bed, the benefits of open access are boundless. The heart of academia lies in the exchange of substantiated ideas and arguments. What legitimises this conversation is the notion that these individuals are specialists in their field, devoting considerable time and effort to furthering their understanding of their topics of inquiry. However, as obvious as it may seem, paywalls prevent the vast majority of individuals who are not affiliated with multi-million pound institutions prepared to pay for hefty subscription fees from accessing the literature and thus participating in the conversation. The requirement to pay for the literature, therefore, limits the conversation to elites. This has significant implications for the pace of academia, particularly in the sciences. You don’t have to look far to see a multitude of instances when the wider public debate would be significantly improved if more members of the public had access to the literature. Discussions, for example, on fracking, global warming, the causes of cancer, sexual assault and even the identity of Richard III would all benefit from wider access to academic debate. As it stands such discussion are largely unable to move away from the generalised media headlines, despite their societal importance. What’s worse, paywalls are largely ineffective. On those occasions when the university does not have access to a promising article for my own research, I will often resort to social media to ask friends at other institutions if they can source it. Some resourceful doctoral students will email the author directly for a copy. Such a practice has been reiterated by other doctoral students at a recent conference on academic engagement with published literature. (see or #alpsp research)
Paywalls become particularly galling when the structure of peer-review literature is considered in more depth. The peer review process is the expected means of preserving academic vigour. As a result other academics, often anonymous, comment on a prospective publication providing suggestions for change or substantiation. Although it is rare, reviewers can take a dislike to the article altogether and ask for some significant changes to be made before publication. In a recent seminar at Sussex on the future of peer review, Dr Martin Eve, founder of the Open Library for the Humanities, illustrates some of the problems with the process (see ). The anonymous review process according to Eve, can result in a harsher critique of work by reviewers who forget that there is a human being at the other end. Moreover it limits the dialogue between academics even further, by preventing the author from explaining their work and the reviewer from explaining their comments. Reviewers do not get paid by the publishers to complete this process and yet you must pay for access to the finished product. This process was likened by the Hive panel to a café; in order to follow the academic publication model the café would have to require the customers to bring their own coffee, make the coffee themselves and then be charged by the café to drink it. You’ve got to admit the business model is ingenious, but it is largely unsatisfactory and a daunting process for new academics looking to establish their presence in their specialist field.
Rupert Gatti, the first speaker at the Hive Seminar and co-founder of the open access ‘Open Book Publishers’, summarised the benefits of open access succinctly. Open access, he argues, is important because the legacy publishers have no incentive to change the status quo, regardless of the obvious detrimental impact the standard models of publishing has on academia. It is an interesting and pertinent point. Anyone who has undergone the publishing process will know how arduous and painfully slow it is. As a law researcher, I can find myself waiting nearly two years for my article to be published in one of the top law journals. Such a time frame means that, if I want to have published by the time I start looking for an academic job, I have to have researched and written them in my first year, before I have made any real headway into my actual thesis. Yet the increasing competition for academic jobs means that it is vital to have published in these high-ranked journals. The maths simply does not add up. Open access publishing can drastically reduce the time needed between submission and publication. Open Book Publishers, for example, can have a turn-around time of around three months complete with a rigorous peer-reviewed process akin to that of traditional means of publishing.
Long publishing timeframes necessarily reduce the topicality of research; rendering most academic journal articles obsolete by the time that they have been published, a comforting thought after the many hours put into perfecting it. This problem is particularly acute in the sciences, despite the publishing timeframes largely being less than those for the social sciences. Conversation between other academics within specialities is fundamental when research involves complex and time-consuming experiments. Long waiting times for journal articles means that it becomes very difficult for scientists to learn from and build upon data unearthed by other academics. It also makes it very difficult to identify if other scientists are conducting the same experiment. As a result it is not unknown for inadvertent scooping to happen; when you are just about to publish your data on an experiment and another group of scientists whom you were unaware of, publish their data on the same or similar experiment, rendering your data largely useless. Moreover the traditional methods of publication make it difficult to publish negative data (i.e. when an experiment failed to produce the hypothesised result).
Open access not only has the potential to drastically reduce the publication timeframe but it also has the capacity to change the publication process of the legacy publishers. The direct publishing of data online, is instantaneous and, in an era of social media, the arguments in favour of peer review do not really hold weight. There is no real reason why the peer review process cannot happen in real time, with readers making comments and recommendations alongside the original article. Kind of like a mix between the review button in Microsoft Word and the document editing process on GoogleDocs. Such a model is being championed by Peter Coles, an astrophysicist at Sussex, who is in the process of establishing the open access journal ‘Open Journal for Astrophysics’. (see ) It is an intriguing concept and would, after all, would be a truer reflection of the academic conversation minus the formalistic and often limiting process of traditional publishing.
Open access is championed in the sciences with initiatives such as PubMed, sponsored by the Federal Government in America, and receiving frequent footfall amongst aspiring and established academics. The benefits of open access in the sciences is clear, where there is an obvious need to exchange ideas rapidly. Such criteria is perhaps not applicable in the social sciences, where open access is lagging. Indeed, despite it gaining ground outside science, open access remains largely under-utilised, with academics still viewing open access as an ideological mission rather than serious competition with traditional publications. This can have some serious implications for those who want to publish open access, particularly for new academics. The move towards Open Access has benefited from HEFCE’s announcement that more academic journal articles and conference proceedings should be publicly available by the post-2014 REF. However until senior academics, particularly, those on the interview panels within the social sciences are willing to recognise the validity of open access publications, it will remain a domain for well-meaning but well established academics whose credentials will not take a hit when using open access. Yet open access is not going to become the norm until more academics are willing to participate in the endeavour. Perhaps there should be something similar to PubMed in the social sciences, allowing for a wholesale database of open access sources to be located in the social sciences. A PubSocial, so to speak. With a name like that, it is an initiative I could definitely get behind.
Written by Rachel Gimson (PhD candidate in Law, University of Sussex; Research Hive Scholar)
Written by Rachel Gimson (PhD candidate in Law, University of Sussex; Research Hive Scholar)