Open Access Week: What is Open Access?

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Happy Open Access Week! As I mentioned last week, this week sees return of Open Access Week for the sixth year. The aim of Open Access week is for the global academic and research community to share, learn and enjoy Open Access. For information about Open Access Week, have a look at the Open Access website, which summarises the aims of Open Access Week far better than I ever could:

OA Week is an invaluable chance to connect the global momentum toward open sharing with the advancement of policy changes on the local level. Universities, colleges, research institutes, funding agencies, libraries, and think tanks have used Open Access Week as a platform to host faculty votes on campus open-access policies, to issue reports on the societal and economic benefits of Open Access, to commit new funds in support of open-access publication, and more.”

I thought I’d start this week by thinking a little bit about what Open Access (OA) actually is. Although if you’ve never come across OA you might think it is something of mysterious concept, commonly understood meaning of OA is that it facilitates free, immediate access to scholarly output via the Internet. See: simple! OA is typically achieved by uploading material to institutional repositories (such as UBIR here at the University of Bolton), subject repositories or by publishing in OA journals, for example, those indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). In more recent times, it has become possible for authors to pay charges to the journal in which they wish to publish (known as an Author Processing Charge or APC) where the cost of producing a journal article – which is not an insignificant cost – is removed from the reader and passed onto the author. For a very exploration of what OA is, including a discussion of the relationship between research funded by the research councils and OA, see the Open Access Q and A that has been produced by the library at Queen Mary University of London.

So why do we need to worry about OA? At around the time I was undertaking my postgraduate diploma in library and information management, there was a great deal of discussion about a government paper (Scientific publications: free for all?) that delved into the world of paying for scholarly research. A particular focus of this report was the fact that the public was paying for the research indirectly via taxation, but unless they happened to be a member of a subscribing institution, they could not access this research. At this very simple level, this seems an unfair situation, and it had to be changed. At that time, there was also discussion about the need for academics in developing countries to be able to access research. These are still true today. Indeed, a number of research councils now insist that research that has been funded in this way is available to the public i.e., to those who have funded it. It’s also true to say that the handling of OA by publishers – a hugely complicated issue and one for another – has been consolidated by the growing use of APCs to facilitate OA, having previously been wary of OA for fear of financial and indeed academic damage. That said, there is more and more quality academic material available via OA, and knowledge of OA has increased rapidly. I have seen this demonstrated to me very recently when I was asked about APCs by an academic. Not so long ago, I needed to spend a long time explaining OA and almost ‘selling’ the benefits. It seems that these days, many are aware of the benefits, and the issue of how to join in is the pressing question.

So OA seems to be a good thing: research is available free of charge, And it is a good thing. However, the simple concept of OA has been challenged and will continue to be challenged, and tomorrow we will look at some of the issues and pitfalls of OA.

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