For all its faults, 2020 appears to have locked in momentum for the open access movement. But it is time to ask whether providing free access to published research is enough – and whether equitable access to not just reading but also making knowledge should be the global goal.
In Australia the first challenge is to overcome the apathy about open access issues. The term “open access” has been too easy to ignore. Many consider it a low priority compared to achievements in research, obtaining grant funding, or university rankings glory.
But if you have a child with a rare disease and want access to the latest research on that condition, you get it. If you want to see new solutions to climate change identified and implemented, you get it. If you have ever searched for information and run into a paywall requiring you to pay more than your wallet holds to read a single journal article that you might not even find useful, you will get it. And if you are watching dire international headlines and want to see a rapid solution to the pandemic, you will probably get it.
Many publishing houses temporarily threw open their paywall doors during the year. Suddenly, there was free access to research papers and data for scholars researching pandemic-related issues, and also for students seeking to pursue their studies online across a range of disciplines.
There is clearly an appetite for freely available information. Since it was established earlier this year, the CORD-19 website has built up a repository of more than 280,000 articles related to COVID-19. These have attracted tens of millions of views.
Europe has led the way
Europe was already ahead of the curve on open access and 2020 has accelerated the change. Plan S is an initiative for open access launched in Europe in 2018. It requires all projects funded by the European Commission and the European Research Council to be published open access.
A 2018 report commissioned by the European Commission found the cost to Europeans of not having access to FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable) research data was €10 billion ($A16.1 billion) a year.
In 2019, open access publications accounted for 63% of publications in the UK, 61% in Sweden and 54% in France, compared to 43% of Australian publications.
Australia is lagging behind
Australia’s flagship Australian Research Council has required all research outputs to be open access since 2013. But researchers can choose not to publish open access if legal or contractual obligations require otherwise. This caveat has led to a relatively low rate of open access in Australia.
The Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) and the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group (AOASG) have long carried the torch for open access in Australia. But, without levers to drive change, they have struggled to change entrenched publishing practices of Australian academics.
Our Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) project has examined open access across the world. We have analysed open access performance of individuals, individual institutions, groups of universities and nations in recent decades. The COKI Open Access Dashboard offers a glimpse into a subset of this international data, providing insights into national open access performance.
This analysis shows a steady global shift towards open access publications.
For example, in November 2020, Springer Nature announced it would allow authors to publish open access in Nature and associated journals at a price of up to €9,500 (A$15,300) per paper from January 2021. This was a signal change for the publishing industry. One of the world’s most prestigious journals is overturning decades of closed-access tradition to throw open the doors, and committing to increasing its open access publications over time.
At the moment, the pricing of this model enables only a select group to publish open access. The publication cost is equivalent to the value of some Australian research grants. Pricing is expected to become more affordable over time.
This international trend is a positive step for fans of freely available facts. However, we should not lose sight of other potentially larger issues at play in relation to open knowledge – that is, a level playing field for access to both published research and participation in research production.
Put another way, we need to pursue not only equity among knowledge takers but also among knowledge makers if we are to enable the world’s best thinkers to collaborate on the planet’s signature challenges.
All of this is good news for people who love to access information – but the bigger overall question for the higher education sector is about the conventions, traditions and trends that determine who gets to be considered for a job in a lab or a library or a lecture theatre. There is much more to be done to make our universities open for all – a future of equity in knowledge making as well as taking.
For university students, textbooks have been both a saviour and a bane. Having most of the essential readings in a single volume enables students to access resources easily. Despite mostly being used for short periods of time, they come with a hefty price tag – and weight.
With the price of textbooks increasing – in the decade to 2013, the price of textbooks worldwide increased by 82%, roughly triple the price on inflation – they are becoming less accessible to students.
In Australia textbooks cost hundreds of dollars each. For administrative law, a student might spend A$123.95 on a single textbook. A big investment for one course.
The National Union of Students in Australia has launched a campaign to make textbooks cheaper – calling for the removal of import restrictions on books. According to the union, some students are dropping subjects or changing their degrees because textbooks are so expensive.
To add to this, last year the Australian government ceased student scholarships to fund textbooks and other education resources, and instead replaced this funding with a student start-up loan, as a way to make government savings.
Creating an open access textbook
But adopting an open access model in the US is radically shaking up this highly profitable textbook industry.
The textbook industry is worth US$14 billion at year in the US and over A$2 billion in Australia.
The movement is to create open access textbooks, which would mean any student or member of the public, could access the appropriate texts online for free.
Campaigns for affordable textbooks have blossomed starting with strong advocacy in the US, and in October last year, the US Congress announced they would introduce a competitive grant program – called the Affordable College Textbook Act – to support the creation and use of open university textbooks.
This means high quality textbooks will be easily accessible globally to students, professors and the public for free.
How would open access textbooks change education?
So far the open access movement has focused on making publicly-funded research available to the world. In Australia, more than 400,000 open access research papers are available online through Australian universities with around 32 million downloads this year.
Studies in the US have shown that open access textbooks are associated with better student retention, higher marks and greater literacy.
A study by students at Virginia State University School of Business found that students using these textbooks “tended to have higher grades and lower failing and withdrawal rates than those in courses that did not use” the texts.
Results from a study of 5,000 post-secondary students in ten institutions in the US using open educational resources (OER) and over 11,000 control students using commercial textbooks, found that “students whose faculty chose OER generally performed as well or better than students whose faculty assigned commercial textbooks.
There are some different models for the creation of open access textbooks.
The Gold open access model allows payments to be made to traditional publishers to make texts open access. While this developed in the journal market it is increasingly available for books.
There are now hundreds of open access textbooks – most of those listed in the Open Textbook Library have been published by universities.
It challenges the publishers who have relied on textbooks for their profits – however it is still early days.
But as a case in the US shows, changing the university mindset is not easy. Last year, an associate professor of mathematics at California State University was reprimanded for assigning his students with a less expensive textbook option – as well as open access material – than his department’s US$180 preference.
In Australia, the Australian National University has begun a bold experiment with open access e-textbooks. Three text books have been published so far, with more planned.
The experiences of the first three textbooks (in law, botany and languages) indicate that students are able to use these materials differently with better educational outcomes. This gives students a greater set of capabilities to start their careers with as they are more likely to complete their degrees and achieve better results.
Open access textbooks are able to change quickly to ensure the most up-to-date material is online. Hands on resources that are built on in class experiments that have been researched to produce the best learning are able to be implemented.
Open access textbooks have the potential to have an enormous impact on student learning. It is time for Australia to learn from the initiatives in US and take a major step forward.
Open access means making peer reviewed works freely available in digital form, so that anyone with internet access can use them, without financial, legal or technical barriers. It allows users to download, copy, print and distribute works, without the need to ask for permission or to pay.
To the mark the eighth annual Open Access Week, we asked what readers wanted to know about the initiative.
Why do we need open access? How can I use it? Is it better for the sciences or the humanities?
Lucy Montgomery: Open access is a powerful mechanism for widening access to knowledge and for increasing the impact of research beyond universities. Because it makes peer-reviewed scholarship free at the point of use, open access helps ensure people who need knowledge can access it, even if they can’t afford to pay for it.
Patients scouring the internet for the latest information about rare medical conditions, scholars in the developing world, and practitioners who want to apply evidence-based research to challenges they face every day, are just a few examples of groups who benefit from open access.
The global shift to open access is being driven by a consensus that the public has a right to access publicly funded research outputs. Closed publishing models rely on recovering the costs of publishing research by selling access to it. This made sense in a print-dominated world, when the marginal costs associated with making and distributing physical copies of books and journals was high; it makes much less sense in digital landscapes where the costs of making additional copies of a work once it’s been published are very low.
Once a work has been made open access, it’s free for anyone in the world to read or download. This is a boon for anyone who has ever been frustrated by a pay wall, for teachers looking for resources that can be shared easily with students, and for scholars who hope their work will contribute to a wider body of knowledge.
Although open access has been faster to take off in the sciences, it also has important benefits for scholars working in the humanities: helping authors to share their work with the communities that they write both for and about, and making knowledge and ideas available to new audiences.
How can journals meet the costs of editing, typesetting, proofreading, website construction and management if they move from subscriptions to open access?
Keyan Tomaselli: One of the key blind spots in open access discussions is the cost it poses to publishers. Journals that are not funded by foundations or universities are financially vulnerable in an open access environment unless they start charging for publishing articles. This is because their “permissions income stream”, which are paid to journals through national copyright agencies when their articles are reproduced in student course packs, will dry up.
In this model, the burden of payment will shift from reader or library payment for downloads or subscriptions, to author or institution for articles to be published. The assumption that open access is free – after data charges are paid – is wrong because though readers can access articles for free, authors and their institutions will end up paying so journals can recoup their costs. Data charges relate to the cost of internet access and downloading.
Too often one forgets that such accessing of the internet has cost implications too. And then there are journal post-production costs, including online platform hosting, marketing, discoverability, and archiving, among other things.
Open scholarship includes open notebook, open data and open review as well as open access. What are more systematic and rigorous treatments of open scholarship?
But although the nature of research is changing profoundly, the current system still only rewards and recognises traditional publication. Opening up scholarship has multiple benefits: research claims can be verified, work doesn’t have to be repeated to recreate the data, and data can be analysed from other perspectives.
It’s now possible to put a digital “stamp” on different scholarly outputs, called digital object identifiers (or DOIs). This means a researcher can be cited when another uses their work, and receive recognition.
By having an “open process” in research, we can put digital stamps on all aspects of research, such as progress in thinking through an online discussion paper, for instance; new techniques; and approaches and experiments. These can themselves be cited and therefore rewarded, rather than only recognising traditional published outputs.
How do we ensure research published under open access continues to have a system of rigorous quality checks, such as peer review, that can cope with the enormous load of research looking for publication?
James Bradley: We can’t ensure rigorous peer review of research will be undertaken under open access. Not only that, we know for sure that the explosion of open access journals has allowed for the publication of not just bogus work, but also work that’s irrelevant or useless for scientific or the whole academic enterprise.
How do we know this? For starters, there was an infamous sting in late 2013 that revealed a nonsensical piece of research was accepted for publication by a large number of open access journals. Then, there’s the research showing the huge numbers of “predatory” journals, which are basically in it for the money. The academic or the academic’s institution pays for publication and the piece gets in, regardless of quality. That’s why so many researchers often get emails from start-up journals soliciting our work — for a fee. It’s all about profit.
To mitigate this situation, there’s the Directory of Open Access Journals, which is supposed to act as quality control. If you make it on to the list, then you are supposed to be reputable. But some of the journals that have made it to the list are, in fact, “predatory”.
But it’s false to assume that all research that makes it into a front-rank publication is great or that all work in pay-for-publication journals is junk. The peer review system has always had flaws. Ultimately, there’s another form of quality control that transcends peer review and lies in the after-life of a publication — the opinion of your peers.
And this can, to some extent, be measured by metrics through citation databases. But it’s also reflected in the status and reputation accorded by your peers. It was ever thus, and most definitely remains the best form of quality control.
To what extent does this issue go beyond the machinations of open access versus the nuances of what’s free and not free, to the problem of the role of the university in a world where capitalism and the internet frame much of what we do?
Tom Cochrane: Open access has three points of origin. These, in no particular order, are the interests of the researcher in greater exposure and readership; the distorted economics of the price of scholarly communication (as distinct from the true cost of academic publishing); and the fact that the internet has made open access possible in the first place.
As the debate about open access has matured, it has also become clear that greater openness can also provide protection against research fraud or dishonesty. Openness in access to research outputs, research data and research processes, enhances replication capability, and allows review.
Open access has no particular correlation or causal relationship with the broader role of universities, other than to improve the efficiency and integrity of research and to increase the likelihood of greater integration with their various communities. It’s certainly true that we wouldn’t have seen it develop without the internet and, as such, the movement is another case of innovation and disruption of legacy models.
Where are we getting with the movement, year to year? How much concrete progress has there been as opposed to awareness raising?
Virginia Babour: There’s no doubt that the open access has come a long way. There are now mandates for open access in many countries and institutions globally.
These mandates vary in what they require. Some, like the one in the United Kingdom, are primarily supported through publication in open access journals. Others, like Australia’s funding councils’ mandates, are via deposition of an author’s research in university repositories.
There’s also been an explosion of different technologies around open access, including new ideas on what can be published – just parts of articles, such as figures, fir instance – and new models for publishing open access books.
Finally, the infrastructure to support open access is developing with licenses for publishing, which lay out clearly how articles can be used. And identifiers for people and documents (even parts of documents), so there can be better linking of scholarly literature.
Open access is an evolving ecosystem. There will be different models to fit different specialities and probably different countries. But that’s fine if it works.