Open Access to Scholarship: An Interview with Ray English

by Michael Roy, Middlebury College


What is the open access movement?
Open access is online access to scholarly research that’s free of any charge to libraries or to end-users, and also free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. In other words, it’s scholarly research that is openly available on the Internet. Open access primarily relates to the scholarly research journal literature–works that have no royalties and that authors freely give away for publication without any expectation of monetary reward.

The open access movement is international in scope, and includes faculty and other researchers, librarians, IT specialists, and publishers. There has been especially strong interest from faculty in scientific fields, but open access applies to all disciplines. The movement has gained great impetus in recent years through proclamations on open access, endorsements from major research funding agencies, the advent of new major open access publishers, and through the growth of author self-archiving and author control of copyright.

Are there different forms of open access?
Open access journals and author self-archiving are the two fundamental strategies of the open access movement. Open access journals make their full content available on the Internet without access restrictions. They cover publication costs through various business models, but what they have in common is that they generate revenue and other support prior to the process of publication. Open access journals are generally peer-reviewed and they are, by definition, published online in digital form, though in some instances they may also produce print versions. Author self-archiving involves an author making his or her work openly accessible on the Internet. That could be on a personal website, but a preferable way is in a digital repository maintained by a university or in a subject repository for a discipline. I should point out that author self-archiving is fully in harmony both with copyright and with the peer review process. It involves the author retaining the right to make an article openly accessible. Authors clearly have that right for their preprints (the version that is first submitted to a journal) – but they also can retain that right for post-prints (the version that has undergone peer review and editing).

Do journals generally allow authors to archive their work in that way?
A very large percentage of both commercial and non-profit journals do allow authors to make post-prints of their works openly accessible in institutional or disciplinary archives. There tend to be more restrictions on the final published versions (usually the final pdf file), but many publishers allow that as well. An interesting site that keeps track of that is SHERPA in the United Kingdom.

Why is open access important for higher education?
Open access is one strategy – and actually the most successful strategy so far – for addressing dysfunctions in the system of scholarly communication. That system is in serious trouble. High rates of price increase for scholarly journals (particularly in scientific fields), stagnant library budgets, journal cancellations, declining library monograph acquisitions, university presses in serious economic trouble, and increasing corporate control of journal publishing by a small number of international conglomerates that have grown in size through repeated mergers and acquisitions – those are all symptoms of the problem. Scholars have lost control of a system that was meant to serve their needs; more importantly, they are also losing access to research. Open access has extraordinary potential for overcoming the fundamental problem of access to scholarship. It is a means of reasserting control by the academy over the scholarship that it produces and of making that scholarship openly available to everyone – at anytime and from virtually any place on the globe.

Why does open access matter to liberal arts colleges in particular?
It is especially important for liberal arts colleges because of the access issue. Liberal arts college libraries have smaller budgets, compared to the research universities. While even the major research libraries cannot afford all of the journals that they need, the lack of access is an even bigger problem in the liberal arts college realm. Faculty at many liberal arts colleges are expected to be active researchers and independent study is also a hallmark of a liberal arts college undergraduate education. So the lack of access to journal literature can be even more problematic in the liberal arts college framework than it is for the research universities.

Are there other benefits to open access?
There are many benefits, but the main one that I would point out relates to the growing body of research that demonstrates how open access increases research impact. A number of studies have shown that articles that are made openly accessible have a research impact that is several times larger than that of articles that are not openly accessible. Authors will get larger readership and more citations to their work if they make it openly accessible.

And what about disadvantages?
Well, one of the main objections to open access journals relates to the fact that most of them are new and don’t have the prestige factor of older established journals. So, younger faculty who are working for tenure may not want to publish in open access journals, particularly if they can publish in traditional subscription journals that are high in prestige and impact. That’s not as much of a concern for tenured faculty, though, and some open access journals are becoming especially successful and prestigious. Titles published by the Public Library of Science are a great example of that. Prestige and tenure considerations don’t come into play for self-archiving. All authors can exert control over copyright and can make their work openly accessible in a repository, and that will definitely benefit both themselves and the research process generally.

What about the business viability of open access journals?
As I mentioned, there are a variety of business models that support open access publishing. They include institutional sponsorship, charging authors’ fees, and generating revenue from advertising or related services. Business models will differ, depending upon the discipline and the particular circumstances of a journal. In the sciences, where there is tradition of grant support, charging authors’ fees is very feasible. Both the Public Library of Science (the most prominent nonprofit open access publisher) and BioMed Central (the most prominent commercial open access publisher) are great examples of that. In humanities fields, by contrast, there is very little grant support for research, but publishing is also less costly, so open access there is likely to be fostered primarily through institutional sponsorship. Open access publishing is inherently less expensive than traditional subscription or print publishing. There are virtually no distribution costs and no costs related to maintaining subscriptions, licensing, or IP access control. There are also a number of open source publishing software systems that support the creation of new open access journals. I’m amazed by how many new peer-reviewed open access journals are appearing all the time. One way to get a sense of that is to go from time to time to the Directory of Open Access Journals. As of right now there are almost 2,000 titles listed. Just six months ago there were about 1,450.

Are there over 500 new titles in the last six months, or are there 1,000 new titles, and 500 titles that went out of business? Should faculty who don’t have tenure worry about publishing in journals that might no longer exist when they come up for tenure?
I’m not aware of any conclusive data on the failure rate for open access journals (or new subscription journals, for that matter). A new study that will be published in January indicates that about 9% of the titles listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals have published no articles since 2003. Those titles are still available online, so it’s hard to say if the journals have actually ceased. In addition, a small percentage of titles in the directory (about 3%) were inaccessible during the study. The reasons for those titles being offline are not clear; some may have failed, but some may just be inaccessible temporarily. A significant percentage of open access journals are from well-established publishers and some individual titles have been in existence for a decade or longer. At the same time, a large majority of open access titles are from smaller, more independent contexts – they are produced by non-profit organizations, academic departments, or leaders in a field. Since they are relatively new, their viability isn’t proven yet. So it could be advantageous for untenured faculty to publish in some open access journals, but that may not be the case a lot of open access titles.

What’s the hottest current issue related to open access?
I think it’s the issue of taxpayer-funded research. Both in this country and abroad there is increasing interest in making publicly-funded scientific research openly accessible. We saw the beginnings of that with the National Institute of Health policy that was instituted last year and I think we will soon see a broad national debate about the advisability of this for all U.S. government agencies. The United Kingdom is moving toward a comprehensive policy of mandating open access to all government-funded research.

What is your role in the open access movement?
I have been a member of the steering committee of SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) since its inception. SPARC, which is a coalition of academic and research libraries, has been a prominent advocate for open access. I have also played a leading role in the scholarly communications program of the Association of College & Research Libraries. I chaired a task force that recommended the ACRL scholarly communications initiative and I have been chair of the ACRL Scholarly Communications Committee since it was established. Being involved with both SPARC and ACRL has put me in the middle of a number of these issues for the past several years.

How does open access fit into your role as library director at Oberlin?
We have been doing ongoing work at the campus level to build faculty awareness of scholarly communications issues and also to support open access in concrete ways. We have taken out institutional memberships to major open access journals and we’ve encouraged faculty to publish in open access journals in instances where that made sense for them. I have also been involved as a steering committee member with the creation of a statewide institutional repository that OhioLINK is developing. When that repository system is implemented we will be working very actively with our faculty on the question of author control of copyright and self-archiving.

What are some concrete things that faculty, librarians, and other stakeholders can do to help?
Faculty have great power in the system of scholarly communication (as editors, reviewers, and authors), so they are in the best position to bring about change. They can assert control over their copyright, archive their research openly, and publish in open access journals, among other things. The role of librarians and IT staff necessarily needs to be more educational in nature. They can become informed about these issues and then work with faculty and other researchers to bring about fundamental change. There is a good summary of a lot of these issues, along with concrete suggestions for what faculty, librarians, and others can do, in the ACRL Scholarly Communications Tool Kit.

The Create Change website is another great resource.

Other than Academic Commons, what is your personal favorite open access publication?
My favorite one, for obvious professional reasons, is D-Lib Magazine. It publishes a variety of content – articles, news, commentary, conference reports – related to the development of digital libraries. They’ve had a number of important pieces on open access and scholarly communications issues.