Is Open Access Enough? Strategies for Healthier OA.

I’m a salesman, and the hardest part of my job is encouraging people to buy. As a Digital Scholarship librarian I manage the Institutional Repository (IR) and peddle Open Access (OA) to students and faculty, who, despite enthusiasm in our field are sometimes skeptical about web based and OA resources. For a long time, librarians have championed OA in the light of the greater good that access will provide. We very often cite the evidence that OA increases impact factor and citation counts for our faculty, while librarians like Char Booth show the ways in which OA empowers students to publish and contribute to larger scholarly conversations. Unfortunately, in the recent past we’ve seen high profile rejections of the OA model. The most notable of these is the American Historical Association’s recommendation against OA deposit of History Theses and Dissertations. This has been debated and framed as “protecting the most vulnerable” in the academic profession. Inherent in this is a distrust of the open access model as a legitimate form of scholarship (despite arguments to the contrary). Anecdotally, I hear stories of faculty discouraged from publishing open access because of the lesser prestige associated with these journals.

Low faculty involvement in the Institutional Repository and suspicion of OA are symptoms of growing concerns surrounding the intellectual weight of OA resources. There are some in our universities who will see Char Booth’s assertion that OA is good pedagogically for students, as evidence to this point that OA journals and publishers do not have the weight that traditional “brick and mortar” journals have (ie it is good enough for students but not good enough for faculty.) For a long time I have explained the importance of OA to my faculty as a discoverability and impact issue, but, evidence has shown it is a quality issue as well. Just because availability of research increases its use, most often through FUTON (Full Text Online) bias, this is not indicative of the caliber of a resource. Therefore, Librarians shouldn’t dismiss our faculty’s concerns as a stodginess or an unwillingness to publish in web sources, but instead view them as part and parcel of larger debates of what makes research influential, impactful, and important.

I have seen this in my limited experience as a new librarian at both my graduate school and my current institution. Predatory journals and publishers work to capitalize on our enthusiasm for OA to entice our libraries to purchase, and our faculty to publish in, less than reputable journals. This is where our enthusiasm hurts the people we’re here to help, and hurts the overall image of OA. That is why I believe that librarians should encourage more than just openness in publishing; we should encourage quality. These are not mutually exclusive.

A result, perhaps, of the glut of false information on the internet we are suspicious of the quality of online sources. Open sources because of their very nature exist outside of the familiar boundaries of the expensive and locked journals of yesteryear, and so they are presumed to lack intellectual weight. How do we as librarians combat this in our efforts to encourage OA? For libraries with OA funds, we should only fund journals that appear in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and we should investigate every publisher who appears on the market. We should become well-versed in resources like Beall’s List that show predatory publishers, and we should warn each other about new and shady publishers. These sources are not set in stone so we should be open to talk with publishers about what we desire from open access publishing. We should hold our own hosted journals and monograph series to the same standard that our University Press partners and influential journals do. By doing this we do not limit who can publish or what can be published, but we ensure that OA journals and repositories will be treated with the respect that we know they should. The result would be that all open research including student research (which is often seen as unpolished or unready for the limelight) will be more impactful because of the healthier state of Open Access. We are approaching a moment where open publishing could be as accepted, especially for tenure files, as established sources.

Alas, all of this open information is useless if no one is reading it. We should make it a point to include OA resources into our database instruction. Why isn’t the Institutional Repository taught in our class sessions as a resource for students to use? Why do we always point to our paid databases rather than OA ones? There are two common sense reasons for this, one being that we pay for these resources, and two that these resources are “legitimate,” as in they are peer-reviewed and, often, backed by universities or organizations. Open Access in some ways counteracts the elitist undertones of this kind of thought. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Open resources are not seen as legitimate because we do not treat them as such, and legitimate resources do not use them because we do not believe them worthy. As Daniel Dorner and James Revell remarked in 2012, about IRs and OA, they: “must also be seen by information seekers as an accessible information resource whose content is useful to their needs”1 This worthiness is built not on availability but on expectations of quality. Hence, increasing the use of the IR or of OA resources will show that they are a worthy home for higher quality projects. If we expect people to submit to OA sources, we should encourage them to use the materials that are already housed in them.

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