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In defence of Open Access systems

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LESLIE CHAN, champion of the Open Access Initiative, tells G. MAHADEVAN that the traditional journals will lose the battle to Open Access publications.

Leslie Chan of the Department of Social Sciences, University of Toronto, is hailed as one of the leading figures in the movement towards a democratised system of information access. He was at the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management in Thiruvananthapuram recently to deliver a talk on “Emerging trends in scholarly communication and what prospects the near future hold for open access.” He is a pioneer in the use of the Web for knowledge exchange and learning. His long-term teaching and research interests are in the roles of openness and control in the flow of knowledge and information and their impact on local and international development and in the development of alternative forms of knowledge media and communicative practices enabled by social network and collaborative software. In this e-mail interview with The Hindu-EducationPlus , he discusses the merits of the Open Access initiative.

What, briefly, is the conceptual core of the Open Access Initiative? Is it just making available academic research free of cost to everyone?

The Open Access movement is fundamentally about freeing the scholarly literature from price and unreasonable permission barriers so that research could be used, built upon and shared by anyone who wishes to do so. The goal is to maximise the impact and benefit of research for the betterment of society.

Open Access is of particular importance to the Global South because it provides an unprecedented opportunity for equitable access to essential research information from around the world. So while removing the price barrier is important, the key to Open Access is that it allows researchers and the institutions they work for to regain control of their intellectual labour and capital by disseminating the research they produce in ways that they see fit, and not simply according to the business logic of the for-profit publishing houses. In time, the hope is that we will see a more balanced production and dissemination of knowledge from around the world.

In an academic world, ruled by refereed journals and where the impact factor seems paramount, how will you position Open Access as a viable, credible alternative?

While the referred journal remains to be a key vehicle of scholarly communications and the journal impact factor continues to play an important role, the power of the network is profoundly transforming the nature of scientific discovery, reporting and collaboration, and the days of traditional journals are numbered, along with the impact factor.

The impact factor at best reflects the prestige of the journal title, not the actual impact of a particular article. Moreover, there are many technical and statistical problems associated with the calculation of the factor, while the data use for calculating it is non-transparent and not amenable to replication. Today, technology is changing how readers discover relevant research materials, and article-by-article use, regardless of journal title, is fast becoming the norm. In particular, technology now allows us to track article-level measure that takes into account additional evidence of influence, from social media to usage statistics and citation in various contexts.

Even under an Open Access system, the production of a journal involves cost. Open Access has been criticised as a financially unsustainable model, and financially detrimental to the author of a work. Your response.

Open Access is fast becoming the norm precisely because traditional subscription-based access has become completely unsustainable, even for well-endowed institutions such as Harvard and the University of California. Critics who suggest that Open Access is financially unsustainable are misunderstanding or misrepresenting several of its aspects.

Much attention has been paid to the author-paid model of Open Access publishing, which requires authors to pay an article-processing fee to the publishers to make the publications openly available. Such fees can go as high as several thousand dollars per article and are clearly out of the reach of most researchers, particularly those working in less well-funded research areas and for those from the Global South. But it is important to note that a majority of Open Access journals do not charge author fees, and they sustain themselves by various business modes, including government or funding subsidies, membership, advertising, and above all, free labour contribution by members of the academic community.

With free software such as the Open Journal System, and with peer-review being performed without cost as a long-standing tradition, the cost of producing journals is far lower than commercial publishers would have us believe. The Directory of Open Access Journals now list over 8,500 titles from around the world; most do not charge author fee. These Open Access outlets provide important opportunities for knowledge dissemination while reducing costs substantially for the libraries.

In addition to Open Access journals, a key strategy for making publications Open Access is through the use of open institutional repository or subject-based repository such as the famous physics e-print archive, arXiv.org, PubMedCentral for medical research, and the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), which is the largest and fast-growing archive for research articles in the social sciences. It doesn’t cost the author anything to deposit in any of these repositories or in their own institutional repository, and the cost for setting up the latter is rather low, given the availability of open and free software for repository set-up. There are now over 33 million items made available by over 2,300 repositories from around the world (http://maps.repository66.org/) so the claim that Open Access is financially unsustainable is simply untrue.

From the standpoint of students, how would Open Access help in furthering their academic work and enhancing the quality of their research?

Learning form primary research publications is key to training the next generation of researchers. Without access to the current primary literature, both students and researchers are limited to outdated or secondary sources and the quality of their research and their learning suffer.

An important feature of Open Access is that it encourages teachers and researchers to reuse, adapt and “translate” primary research materials into learning resources, and around the world, development of Open Educational Resources (OER) is a vibrant activity supported by many international and national organisations and higher education institutions, including UNESCO, the Hewlett Foundation and the Suttleworth Foundation.

What are the legislative and infrastructural foundations that a university or an institution should have to implement Open Access across the whole spectrum of academic work?

As noted, the set-up of an institutional repository should be the primary means that each institution should have for making the research output of their faculty openly accessible. The advantage of institutional repositories is that they are interoperable so that materials deposited in a local repository can be easily discovered by standard search engines (such as Google), as well as specialised Open Access academic search engines (such as BASE by Bielefeld Univerity, http://www.base-search.net/ about/en/index.php).

Most universities in North America and Europe have set up repositories individually or as consortia, and an increasing number of higher education institutions in the Global South have also set them up to feature their faculty’s research output. In addition, many universities have also set up publishing platforms such as the Open Journal Systems and other kinds of open source platforms to allow faculty to engage in Open Access publishing and other kinds of innovative digital scholarship.

However, many repositories remain poorly filled because researchers are often not aware of Open Access, or they have misconceptions about it and copyright, or about quality issue associated with it, not realising that Open Access is compatible with traditional peer review and copyright. So more awareness raising efforts are needed to better educate researchers about the benefits of Open Access and the limitations and unsustainability of the traditional system.

In addition, policy should be put in place to encourage researchers to deposit their research articles and materials into the repositories. Many institutions now enact either a voluntary or a mandatory policy requiring their faculty to deposit a copy of their work into the repository. It is also crucial for administrators to be better informed about the detrimental nature of adhering to the narrow use of the journal impact factor as a means of research evaluation. At the same time, the academic reward system needs to be expanded to take into account the new kinds of online metrics that are made possible by new tools and Open Access. It is likely that until the academic and reward system is aligned with the benefits and potentials of Open Access, its uptake will be limited to those who are well informed. So it is crucial that funders, policy-makers and university administrators begin to formulate policy and framework that would “move prestige to Open Access” by rewarding publications in high-quality Open Access outlets and by recognising the broader range of impact metrics made possible by social media.

To what extent would you say Open Access has taken roots in India and in Kerala?

In India, Open Access is now a key topic of discussions and engagement at many higher education institutions (including universities and deemed universities) as well as high-level research organisations, such as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Atomic Energy, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Indian Council of Medical Research. The tireless advocacy work of Subbiah Arunachalam [Chennai-based information consultant] has been instrumental in sensitising these key institutions in the Open Access debates. However, a strong national or institutional policy on Open Access is yet to be implemented.

At the same time, some key institutions such as the Indian Academy of Sciences have been playing a leadership role in providing Open Access to the journals they publish, and the Indian Institute of Science has one of the longest running institutional repositories with the most content in the country. There are now over 350 Open Access journals being published by various organisations across India, but they cover mostly areas in science and medicine. Social sciences and the Humanities are poorly represented. Of the close to 600 higher education institutions across India, fewer than 100 have an existing institutional repository, though many are in the planning stage.

In my recent visit to the University of Kerala, I learned that a repository is being planned, and thesis and dissertation will be the first round of materials to be deposited. This is an encouraging first step. I also learned about a new Open Access peer-reviewed journal called Health Sciences , published by the Kerala University of Health Sciences, http://healthsciences.ac.in/. This journal is a good example of a high-quality “locally” published journal that takes advantage of the technology and the expertise from the region to highlight health issues from the region and beyond.


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