Open the Doors of Learning: The Case for Open Access Academic Publication

By Glenn Ashton · 27 Feb 2013

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Picture: Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide when faced with 35 years in prison for downloading academic articles, courtesy redredpei/Flickr.
Picture: Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide when faced with 35 years in prison for downloading academic articles, courtesy redredpei/Flickr.

A metamorphosis is underway in making knowledge from institutions of higher learning accessible to all. This change is the open access (OA) revolution.

Most new knowledge emerges not from industrial research, but from within the hallowed halls of academia, from our universities, technological institutes and affiliated research organs. The breakthroughs and innovations made in these institutions benefit us in many ways beyond the narrow focus of commercial adoption.

In the USA, 58% of basic research emanates from academia. In developing nations that proportion is significantly higher. The largest single financial contributor to higher learning and thus academic research remains the state, followed by institutional fees, then industry funding. The state pays approximately 40% of all university costs in South Africa, 30% in the USA. This provides a potent incentive and motivation to ensure academic research is publicly available.

However there is a fundamental problem in how this information is shared at present. The primary means of sharing new knowledge, research or critique is traditionally through publication in what are known as peer-reviewed academic journals. These are publications where experts in the field examine and approve articles for publication.

The problem with this venerable system, which dates back to the 17th century, is that academic journals have become increasingly inaccessible, especially to those working outside narrow specialist fields of interest. This is mainly due to spiralling costs. While journal costs used to be reasonable they increased four times faster than inflation between 1996 and 2010. This was mainly the result of monopolistic behaviour within a consolidated, commercially oriented academic publishing industry.

Access to a single journal article can now cost hundreds of Rands, making it unaffordable to most. The biggest line item on university library budgets is subscription to academic journals. Large South African universities pay around R40 million per year, sometimes buying back the same information they have generated. Even Harvard University has stated it can no longer afford to keep paying for all of its subscriptions. The impacts on educational systems are dire, especially in developing nations.

Clearly the existing system is broken and counter-productive. We cannot deny that cutting-edge, publicly funded information should be harnessed for the broadest possible social benefit.

Research shows that academic institutions have been perceived, especially since the 2008 economic crisis, as exclusive, cloistered institutions with limited broader social relevance. This is not only because of self-referential logic but more because people cannot actually see what highly paid academics produce and more importantly, what relevance their output has.

Over the past two decades there has been a fundamental realisation as to the extent of these problems along with a corresponding shift to address them. What is now known as “open access” or OA publication has become more broadly accepted and promoted throughout academia.

This shift has arisen both from within, as the scope of the problem has dawned on academics, and from without, as the utility and spread of the Internet has been integrated into the modern world. In short, hard-copy printed text is no longer essential to disseminate information. The internet has made previously inaccessible information far more readily available.

The start of open access academic publication was driven by various visionaries during the later part of the 20th century. This reached critical mass during the 1990s. The collective aim was to make relevant research available to the broadest possible audience, for free. The philosophical underpinnings of the OA movement were reinforced by various national initiatives such as the Bromley principles of full and open access, which became established US policy. This shift was eventually enshrined in three major international agreements, collectively known as the BBB agreements, after being finalised respectively in Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin.

The underlying assumption of the BBB principles is that access to published information must be available free of cost. However the agreements go somewhat further. If work is OA, then the copyright holder(s) consent to others not only using the work, but also allow the distribution, transmission and public display of the work, in any digital medium, for any responsible purpose, as long as authorship is attributed.

These principles have much in common with the philosophy behind open source, non-proprietary computer code managed under the GNU general public licence, from which the Linux programme kernel emerged. Equally, the simultaneous development of principles like copyleft, a counter to copyright, along with the now well-established creative commons licence system has enabled the publication of printed and electronic media under similar conditions to the BBB principles. However open source is not identical to open access: they are more cousins than siblings.

The consequence is that published knowledge has become far more accessible, encouraging innovation. Research shows how significant demand for access to OA academic articles and data emanates from the general public, not only from within academia. The German government estimates that at least 35% of the workforce is employed in “knowledge intensive services”, providing 37% of the entire added value chain. Clearly, intellectual property and the knowledge economy have direct bearing on the real economy.

OA has been embraced by both governments and large international institutions like the World Bank and the UN Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO). In South Africa the charge has been led through institutional change in large universities, notably Stellenbosch University which hosted the Berlin ten year conference in 2012 and which financially supports open access publication. Other Universities are gradually shifting in this direction, some faster than others.

The Department of Science and Technology actively supports the process and was instrumental in aligning South Africa with the SciELO open access platform developed in Brazil, which now links Africa and the Americas. Despite this the South African government has failed to yet establish a coherent national OA policy.

One exciting aspect of the shift toward OA publication is the degree to which several established publications have embraced the concept. This is by no means universal, with some organised opposition to the concept, mainly on self-interested financial grounds. Beside the rapid establishment of OA journals like the Public Library of Science (PLoS), established, reputable publishers like Springer have started the inevitable shift, while others such as like Elsevier and JStor have demonstrated resistance to true OA principles. They have consequently come in for significant academic flak and even boycotts.

An important consideration in evaluating the shift toward OA is the estimation of credibility of any publication. If an article has not been properly reviewed, or is published in a lesser journal that has neither the reputation nor the “impact factor” of more cited publications, credibility can be diminished. The increasing relevance of so-called “almetric” services, which measure the impact of research across the web has begun to displace the primacy of impact factors.

OA advocate Aaron Swartz recently became something of a martyr in the cause of open access, after relentless persecution by both Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the US Department of Justice was implicated in triggering his suicide. Each of these institutions have subsequently reconsidered their polices around OA. Swartz was prosecuted for systematically distributing restricted JStor academic publications onto an open access database. His death prompted the drafting of “Aaron’s Law” which proposes to remove “terms of service” contractual obligations from felony criminal sanction.

These seismic shifts in the dissemination of information collectively illustrate the extent to which the doors of learning are indeed opening to all, or at least to those with access to the internet. Now attention is focused on making OA available on mobile devices. Never in history have technological advances provided such massive impetus for egalitarian change toward open access to scholarship and learning. While the battle is far from over, academic publishing will never be the same again.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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27 Feb

Open Access in South Africa

Thanks for a thoughtful article Glenn, with really useful hyperlinks too. I do think we need to put pressure on the powers-that-be in South Africa. Although the DST has indeed supported open access in principle, it would take some policy and regulatory requirements to change scholars' behaviour. This is having a profound effect all over the world, as you know. We at UCT are raising these issues from the inside- see

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