Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why are so many people confused about Open Access?

Another example of academics confused about Open Access has just been published. I suspect that this kind of confusion affects many archaeologists; otherwise why wouldn't more of us know about OA and promote OA? I have yet to hear an argument AGAINST OA from an archaeologist.

The following entry is a reply to that publication. It is cross-posted from the American Scientist Open Access Forum (a listserv moderated by Stevan Harnad):

Date: Sat, 9 May 2009 17:32:12 +0100
From: "Andrew A. Adams"
Subject: Kathryn Suhterland's Attack on OA in the THE

For those who haven't seen it, Kathryn Sutherland of University of Oxford, wrote an attack on internet accessible writing and singled out OA for an ill-conceived polemic in the 30th April issue of the Times Higher Education magazine:

THE via tinyurl:

I have submitted a response to this as a letter to the editor today (no idea if it will be chosen for publication):


Kathryn Sutherland ("Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes they travel" - THE 30th April 2009) appears to fundamentally misunderstand the goals of the Open Access movement. There are many current challenges faced by academia worldwide that she discusses but her conflation of issues of the purposes of humanities research, the approach to material, the credit gained for an author for their writing, the money flowing in academia, and the various aspects of copyright (the right to attribution, the right to disseminate copies, the right to make derivative works) is rather a mess. The worst element for me is the suggestion that Open Access will somehow automatically and inexorably undermine careful reading of material, and the attribution of ideas and words to their originator. That is complete nonsense. It seems the Open Access proponents must repeat in every forum the basic goal ad infinitum. Open Access is about removing barriers to reading peer-reviewed journal articles which authors already give away for free. It is NOT about requiring books for which their author is paid to give the material away online for free. It is NOT about undermining the peer review and journal editorial quality controls. it is about making sure that scholars and scientists worldwide have access to the full output of each other.

Sutherland's complaints of the explosion of material is nothing to do with OA but with the increase in the number of researchers (based at least partly on the expansion of the undergraduate population leading to an expansion of staff numbers and an expansion of research output), the pressure on researchers to publish (publish-or-perish and least-publishable unit) and the greed of publishing companies who are starting more journals than ever in an attempt to cash in on these pressures on staff to publish. Open Access is one of the solutions to this problem in that too many publications and too many papers published in them automatically creates an access issue for most outside the richest universities (almost no university can afford to carry all academic journals and hence access is restricted for readers at almost all institutions). Open Access also provides the possibility of a huge improvement on the issue of academic plagiarism: while electronic versions of articles may be easier to cut-and-paste into a new work, the length of academic papers generally has never precluded re-typing anyway, but the huge array of material published now makes detection by peer review less likely.

However, if all articles were available online without publisher toll gates, then plagiarism checking could become as easy and automatic for journal submissions as it is becoming for student essays. Battling misappropriation/plagiarism, lazy academic writing, lazy academic study is completely orthogonal to the question of Open Access. This requires academia to take along hard look at its practices and the pressures that lead to unethical behaviour. It does not require us to perpetuate restrictions on access to peer-reviewed publications necessitated by the era of the printing press and entirely possible to sweep away in the era of the internet.

I have also posted a longer response on my blog at:


tingotankar said...

I wonder if one reason so many in academia seem to have such a distorted and uninformed view of OA (or just a professed lack of interest) is because we have so few seminars and workshops within the disciplines? People sit by themselves and fashion opions based oc water-cooler talk, random newspaper-articles and preconcieved notions.

There are major seminars on these subjects of course, but mostly for those directly involved in this line of research. We really need to start sessions on major conferences about these issues, so that we don't have to get stuck in Open Access 101 all the time...

Stephen said...

I found many of Kathryn's observations and assumptions about OA very much misplaced. Excellent response