A Look Back at Open Access Week 2017

This year’s Open Access Week at my institution was a bit different than before. With our time constrained by conference travel and staff shortages leaving everyone over-scheduled, we decided to aim for a week of “virtual programming”, with a week of blog posts and an invitation to view our open access research guide. While this lacked the splashiness of programming in prior years, in another way it felt important to do this work in this way. Yes, it may well be that only people already well-connected to the library saw any of this material. But promotion of open access requires a great deal of self-education among librarians or other library insiders before we can promote it more broadly. For many libraries, it may be the case that there are only a few “open access” people, and Open Access Week ends up being the only time during the year the topic is addressed by the library as a whole.

All the Colors of Open Access: Black and Green and Gold

There were a few shakeups in scholarly communication and open access over the past few months that made some of these discussions more broadly interesting across the academic landscape. The on-going saga of the infamous Beall’s List has been a major 2017 story. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Jeffrey Beall was emailed to me more than once, and captured the complexity of why such a list is both an appealing solution to a problem but also reliant on sometimes questionable personal judgements. Jeffrey Beall’s attitude towards other scholarly communications librarians can be simplistic and vindictive, as an  interview with Times Higher Education in August made clear. June saw the announcement of Cabell’s Blacklist, which is based on Beall’s list, and uses a list of criteria to judge journal quality. At my own institution I know this prompted discussions of what the purpose of a blacklist is, versus using a vetted list of open access journals like the Directory of Open Access Journals. As a researcher in an article in Nature about this product states, it’s likely that a blacklist is more useful for promotion and tenure committees or hiring committees to judge applicants more than for potential authors to find good journals in which to publish.

This also completely leaves aside the green open access options, in which authors can negotiate with their publisher to make a version of their article openly available–often the final published version, but at least the text before layout. While publishing an article in an open access journal has many benefits, green open access can meet the open access goals of faculty without worrying about paying additional fees or worrying about journal quality. But we still need to educate people on green open access. I was chatting with a friend who is an economist recently, and he was wondering about how open access worked in other disciplines, since he was used to all papers being released as working papers before being published in traditional journals. I contrast this conversation with another where someone in a very different discipline who was concerned that putting even a summary of research could constitute prior publication. Given this wide disparity between disciplines, we will always struggle with widely casting a message about green open access. But I firmly believe that there are individuals within all disciplines who will be excited about open access, and that they will get at least some of their colleagues on board–or perhaps their graduate students. These people may be located in the interdisciplinary side, with one foot in a more preprint-friendly discipline. For instance, the bioethicists in the theology department, or the history of science people in the history department. And even the most well-meaning people forget to make their work open access, so making it as easy as possible while not making it so easy that people don’t know why they would do it–make sure there are still avenues for conversation.

Shaky Platforms

Making things easy to do requires having a good platform, but that became more complicated in August when Elsevier acquired bepress, which prompted discussions among many librarians about their values around open access and whether relying on vendors for open access platforms was a foolish gamble (the Library Loon summarizes this discussion well). This is a complex question, as the kinds of services provided by bepress’s Digital Commons go well beyond a simple hosting platform, and goes along with the strategy I pointed out Elsevier was pursuing in my Open Access 2016 post. Convincing faculty to participate in open access requires a number of strategies, and things like faculty profiles, readership dashboards, and attractive interfaces go a long way. No surprise that after purchasing platforms that make this easy, Elsevier (along other publishers) would go after ResearchGate in October, which is even easier to use in some ways, and certainly appealing for researchers.

All the discussion of predatory journals and blacklists (not to mention SciHub being ordered blocked thanks to an ACS lawsuit) seems old to those of us who have been doing this work for years, but it is still a conversation we need to have. More importantly, focusing on the positive aspects of open access helps get at the reasons people to participate in open access and move the conversation forward. We can do work to educate our communities about finding good open access journals, and how to participate legally. I believe that publishers are providing more green access options because their authors are asking for them, and we are helping authors to know how to ask.

I hope we were not too despairing this Open Access Week. We are doing good work, even if there is still a lot of poisonous rhetoric floating around. In the years I’ve worked in scholarly communication I’ve helped make thousands of articles, book chapters, dissertations, and books open access. Those items have in turn gone on to be cited in new publications. The scholarly communication cycle still goes on.


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