Open Access – the good, the bad and the ugly

Open Access has become a major theme of interest within the research community and those interested in dissemination of information and knowledge.

In the debate around Open Access, the sadness around the loss of  Internet activist and programming star Aaron Swartz highlights that we have much to learn, and little time to learn it. Computer hacking Swartz was a vocal open-access campaigner, and died at the age of 26. Swartz was integral in creating RSS, and created a company that later merged with popular internet destination Reddit. However, more recently he was investigated for hacking JSTOR, the subscription-based journal service, and extracting its database with the intention for public release. For more on Swartz – and the impact of his work on free-data, and the world he leaves behind – read Lawrence Lessig’s piece “Prosecutor as Bully.” BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow also has a must-read tribute to Swartz, including information on the organization, DemandProgress, Swartz helped establish.

But what exactly is Open Access?    In this video  Nick Shockey and Jonathan Eisen take us through the world of open access publishing and explain just what it’s all about.

Historically, the two main types of obstacles to information discovery have been barriers of awareness, which encompass all the information we can’t access because we simply don’t know about its existence in the first place, and barriers of accessibility, which refer to the information we do know is out there but remains outside of our practical, infrastructural or legal reach. What the digital convergence has done is solve the latter, by bringing much previously inaccessible information into the public domain, made the former worse in the process, by increasing the net amount of information available to us and thus creating a wealth of information we can’t humanly be aware of due to our cognitive and temporal limitations, and added a third barrier — a barrier of motivation.

Open Access publishing is aiming to bridge the gap in higher education areas. Good research should have no boundaries. Here in Australia the Australian Research Council (ARC) is the largest funder of basic science and humanities research in Australia. So when the ARC talks, academics listen. The ARC has introduced a new open access policy for ARC funded research which takes effect from 1 January 2013. According to this new policy the ARC requires that any publications arising from an ARC supported research project must be deposited into an open access institutional repository within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication.

In most cases, this open-access publishing will occur through electronic institutional repositories – university websites where one can freely download researchers’ articles. Search engines such as Google Scholar will automatically index these articles and link them to related research. The resulting stream of freely available research will be a boon for our society and economy. But it’s not perfect, just a step in the right direction, as publishers also get ‘a say’ in what happens with published information.

Check the ARC Open Access Policy for more information. While  the ARC policy will shift some power away from the publishers by putting institutional repositories centre stage, there is a counter-flow that is not in the same spirit of Open Access. Just because public domain content is online and indexed, doesn’t mean that it’s useful.

Beall’s List of Predatory Publishers

The gold open-access model has given rise to a great many new online publishers. Many of these publishers are corrupt and exist only to make money off the author processing charges that are billed to authors upon acceptance of their scientific manuscripts.

Scholarly Open Access showcased the Beall List of Predatory Publishers 2013. The first includes questionable, scholarly open-access publishers. Each of these publishers has a portfolio that ranges from just a few to hundreds of individual journal titles. The second list includes individual journals that do not publish under the platform of any publisher — they are essentially independent, questionable journals.

In both cases, the recommendation is that researchers, scientists, and academics avoid doing business with these publishers and journals. Likewise, students should exercise some caution when reading and referencing these articles in their own academic learning.

Follow Scholarly Open Access for more insights into the contentious field of Open Access publishing.

Image cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kevin dooley