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Open Access: Progress, Possibilities, and the Changing Scholarly Communications Ecosystem
March/April 2014 Issue

Open Access to Support Teaching and Learning

Within the university environment, open access is beginning to affect teaching as well as research endeavors. Jeffrey Pomerantz, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, is teaching an Introduction to Metadata Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which has led him to a new appreciation for open access.

In order to put together the syllabus for his course, Pomerantz wanted to use some chapters from a recently published book. He got in touch with the author and publisher and sought permission to distribute portions of the book at no cost to students enrolled in his course. The author and editor were amenable, yet the result was a significant investment of Pomerantz’s time and resulted in “crippled PDFs,” which students weren’t able to print. “My point is: it was labor intensive to get this to happen. There’s no way I can work directly with authors and publishers for a couple of dozen readings. I don’t have the time to do that, neither does my institution. The only practical option is freely available resources.”

Pomerantz reiterated, “It’s just a practical matter that if I want students to have access to stuff, it has to be freely available. There’s just no way around it.”

Although MOOCs are currently the hot topic on university campuses around the world, students enrolled in traditional courses are becoming one of the biggest and most vocal groups of stakeholders pushing for open access. Nick Shockey is SPARC’s first director of student advocacy and director of the Right to Research Coalition (R2RC;, a group of local, national, and internation al student organizations that advocate for researchers, uni versities, and governments to adopt more open scholarly publishing practices. Under Shockey’s leadership, R2RC has grown to represent just under 7 million students in approximately 100 countries around the world.

Shockey reflected on why he thinks students are so interested in open access, noting: “The experience of hitting a paywall is nearly universal among students.” Because the frustration of not having access to a needed article is something that anyone involved in research—not just students—can relate to, Shockey starts many of his presentations with a humorous screen shot from the Tumblr website. (Check out #WHATSHOULDWECALLGRADSCHOOL, “When the Paper I Need Isn’t Available through my University’s Subscription,” at, especially if you’re a “Trekkie.”). He adds that while students are all too familiar with the problems a closed scholarly publishing system creates, the OA solution isn’t apparent, noting “Students’ support for open access starts almost immediately with their introduction to this issue.” Their support is quite simple, as Shockey points out: “Today’s students have grown up with the copy and paste function and the Internet. At an intuitive level, they understand that this information should be available for everyone to read and build upon.”

Advocacy is not the only way in which students can contribute to open access. Shockey points to an example of a new tool built by two U.K. students, who, within months of learning about open access, started the Open Access Button ( Users click the Button each time they encounter a paywall. “The button aggregates and visualizes all these collisions with paywalls around the world into a ‘Map of Frustration’ and then helps users find freely accessible copies of paywalled articles online—either in repositories or by emailing the corresponding author.” Calling the Open Access Button, which launched in November 2013, “a fantastic project,” Shockey says it is “a perfect example of what happens when students bring their creativity and enthusiasm to this issue.”

Agricultural Research: OA Outside of Academia

Within the last few years, open access has gained traction at universities and from funding agencies. But outside academia, where access to expensive journal databases is often more limited, the implications for researchers to have full access to the body of science is even greater. One example is the field of agricultural research.

When asked if open access is important outside of the world of academia, Bocock responded: “Open access is—I would argue—more important outside of academia than in. For us at CGIAR, we look at open access as a means to put science-based data, information, and knowledge into the hands of those who need it most in a more rapid manner. What good is research if it stays locked up behind author fees and subscription journals? How can data be used to change the world when it sits in a proprietary database?”

Organizations such as the CGIAR Consortium, a group of 15 globally dispersed agricultural research centers working together for an environmentally sustainable, food-secure future, actively invest time, money, and resources in open access. Bocock believes that nonprofits, NGOs, and other members of the research community should push for open access and are now doing so. “The movement is growing, as we saw earlier [in 2013] when the G8 convened a meeting in Washington to push for open data for agriculture.”

Bocock says CGIAR and the CGIAR Consortium, which is comprised of 10,000 staff, have made a commitment to its stakeholders, donors, and partners to become an open access organization. “We have been working for nearly a year in a collaborative manner to develop a CGIAR Policy on Open Access and Data Management. That policy was just approved and now paves the way for our Centers and Research Programs to move to more open publishing of research and data. We are also working closely with a number of public sector partners to help catalyze the open access movement.”

Bocock also shares why many believe that open access is particularly valuable for agriculture and related fields. “Let’s remember that one of the greatest challenges this planet faces is how to feed the predicted 9 billion people by 2050. How do we increase capacity, productivity, and accessibility, and, at the same time, do it without destroying our environment?” Big questions such as these, Bocock maintains, must be addressed by using all available data, information and knowledge. “Our belief is that this will happen much faster with open access, investments in research will be more efficient, and the impact will be greater.”

CGIAR is not alone within the field of agricultural research—among other examples, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO;, an arm of the United Nations, has been working to support open access in various ways for many years.

Unintended Consequences of Open Access

Most arguments against open access come from publishers and focus on lost revenues. But these arguments are losing steam as more of the big players in STM publishing offer OA options, and OA publishers are beginning to break even or generate a profit. Springer, a major player in the STM publishing world, has gone so far as to recently announce in a press release, “Open access is now at the heart of Springer’s strategy, and with BioMed Central delivering an increasingly substantial fraction of the company’s growth, the time is right to fully integrate BioMed Central into Springer to ensure that the full potential of open access publishing at Springer can be achieved” (“Matt Cockerill to leave BioMed Central/Springer: BioMed Central mission and branding to remain unchanged,” Sept. 17, 2013; ter/pressreleases/20130917).

But other arguments against open access remain, and new, unintended consequences of OA are still emerging. Society publishers, professional associations which produce academic journals for their disciplines, or university presses by and large have not embraced OA publishing. As Jason M. Kelly, director of the Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Arts and Humanities Institute and associate professor of British history, wrote on his blog:

[An] argument against open access often comes from scholarly societies themselves. After all, they are often the organizations that produce academic journals, and their budgets often depend on revenue from journal subscriptions. And, since professional societies have historically been essential to academia — hosting conferences, serving as advocates for the profession, and providing a variety of supplementary benefits — declines in revenue from the journals could undermine their viability ( Last accessed 10/24/2013, Jan. 27, 2013).

While the general consensus is that free access to information is good for development, there are some questions surrounding potential drawbacks to this model for developing countries. Susan Murray, managing director of African Journals OnLine (AJOL), has expressed concerns about unintentional consequences of OA on local publishing organizations across Africa. For example, Murray has raised questions as to whether APC waivers for authors from developing countries lead to a preference for African authors to publish in journals based out of the global north or if the practice of international publishing houses acquiring local journals leads to gaps in knowledge transfer around the practices of publishing, editing, and peer review.

Evolving Roles for Librarians and Information Professionals

All of the changes within scholarly communication are pushing librarians and information professionals to develop new skills and enhance existing skills to meet the challenges of today’s environment. In addition to her ongoing work at EIFL to support open access, Kuchma is serving as the chair of the new Joint Task Force on Librarians’ Competencies in Support of E-Research and Scholarly Communication. She explains the impetus for the task force:

Rapid changes in technology and associated shifts in research and scholarly communications are profoundly changing the role of libraries in the 21 st century. The emergence of e-research, for example, is bringing about new ways of doing science across the globe, compelling libraries to adopt new services such as assisting with the development of research data management plans, hosting collaborative virtual research environments, managing open access repositories, and helping to publish open access journals and books. These novel services require a range of new skills and expertise within the library community as well as a shift in organizational models for libraries.

The task force was launched in August of 2013 by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL), the Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR), and the Association of European Research Libraries (LIBER). Kuchma notes that “disseminating research outputs through open access is one of the major issues, but there are also others like digital preservation, research data management and sharing, hosting virtual environments and e-research support. But of course, openness is the key.”

Shearer also reflects on the evolving roles of libraries necessary to support repositories and the OA infrastructure in an “increasingly dynamic environment.” She says, “I think perhaps the greatest challenge [for libraries] is maintaining relevance during times of rapid change. Repositories are not static infrastructure[s] but rather a set of services that must continuously evolve to support the changing needs of their stakeholder communities. Libraries will also have to devote more resources to repository services as they become more central to their mission.”

All of these areas build upon the central focus of libraries around the world— providing access to information—yet reflect the dramatic changes within scholarly communication that have taken place in the last decade and which continue to evolve.

What’s Next?: The Continued Evolution of Scholarly Communication

The arena of scholarly communication as a whole is still ripe for innovation—open access is simply an element of that ecosystem. From the perspective of researchers, we still have a long way to go. As Brembs sees it, “OA is just one aspect of a badly lacking scholarly infrastructure. … Open access is only addressing 1% of the issues. If we had universal OA tomorrow, 99% of the problems would still be unsolved.”

In “The Infrastructure Crisis of Science,” a presentation at SPARC Munich in July 2013, (, Brembs described the “infrastructure crisis of science” in three areas: (1) dysfunctional scholarly literature, (2) scientific data in peril, and (3) non-existent software archives. Brembs wrote: “Today’s intellectual output of scholars manifests itself in text, software, and data. There is no digital infrastructure in place to take care of any of these products in any functional way. What we have is either dysfunctional (literature), a stop-gap measure (data), or non-existent (software). At the same time, the funds required for this infrastructure are being handed out in the form of publisher profits.”

Fitzpatrick sees the future in terms of Open Scholarship as well as open access. She explained: “Open scholarship, by contrast [to open access, which is fundamentally changing the economic model of scholarly publishing], focuses on opening up the processes of scholarly research, so that the many stages along the way toward a final publication are shared openly in a way that lends itself to discussion and collaboration. Open scholarship is therefore more fundamentally about rethinking the ways that researchers today work.”

An area in which Rice expects to see continued changes is digital archiving—and he hopes that libraries and publishers do a better job of transitioning the process of archiving to the digital arena. “The issues that are difficult [include] digital publishing of ‘traditional’ (i.e. non-OA) journals,” Rice notes, adding that there are a couple of different challenges, one being that it is simply not feasible for a library to download and archive copies of everything it subscribes to. Therefore, Rice asks, how much confidence can there be that these articles will still be here 50 years from now? “Traditionally,” he says, “we would have to trust that the university and its library would be around, and that if any one institution/library were to close down, that lots of other libraries also would have copies of the journals or books that had been produced.” That scenario has changed now, not only because there is so much to keep track of, but because doing so requires a lot of digital storage space and technological expertise. Consequently, responsibility for archiving has shifted a bit from libraries to publishers, who of course intend to keep their material available in perpetuity. However, Rice foresees the day when some particular publisher may close shop and asks, “What happens then?

Fortunately, Rice notes, there are some efforts underway to tackle this problem, however, as he puts it, this is very much a work in progress. “As these archives become more and more comprehensive, I sleep a little better. But I want to emphasize that this work requires good funding, high levels of technical proficiency, and the cooperation of the publishers. With open access publishing, we’re less dependent on the last of these, and can spend more energy focused on the actual archiving work.”

From the library and repository community, a different set of issues emerged. When asked what big issues we should be considering, Rodrigues responds, “I think the big issues for open access in the short term are policy alignment and coordination and technical coordination and interoperability.” Here are more of his comments on these issues:

Regarding policy alignment and coordination, it should happen between research [conducting] organizations (like universities) and research funders, and also across national and regional borders, as we are aiming [for] in Europe…Researchers work in several contexts in a certain period (i.e. at one or more institutions, with different funders financing their research), and they should not be required to comply with different policies.

Policies should require universal OA available through repositories (green OA mandates), offering support to gold OA (through APCs or by subsidizing publishing OA journals without APCs), but in a way that doesn’t promote the increase of APCs, “hybrid OA,” or longer embargoes to green OA.

Regarding interoperability and technical coordination, we need to work on the issues we’ve identified in the COAR Report, The Current State of Open Access Repository Interoperability [ pository-interoperability/coar-interoperability-project/the-current-state-of-open-access-repository-interoperability-2012].

In the medium and long term, I think the issues of open data and linked publication data or enriched publications will be big and important issues.

Bjørnshauge references to similar themes when talking about the next big issues facing open access as it becomes more mainstream: “Making open access work, maintaining and developing sustainable infrastructure services, changing researchers’ attitudes, changing rewards systems to eliminate obstacles for the progress of OA, transfer soft mandates into hard mandates, and getting mandates where there are [none] today.”

While individual researchers can choose to publish in OA journals or deposit their manuscripts in OA repositories, the real growth of OA has occurred through mandates at all levels—by universities, funding agencies, research organizations, regional and national governments. We have reached the tipping point and appear to have more than half of all scholarly, peer-reviewed research freely accessible via repositories, websites, or publishers’ platforms; even so, there is still a large block of research still locked up behind paywalls. However, the percentage of “closed” research continues to decrease, and in coming years should diminish at an even greater rate.

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Abby Clobridge is is founder and consultant, FireOak Strategies, LLC. 


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