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Unanswered questions about open access

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Professor G.E. Gorman, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

"Open access is the buzz"

CLIR News (No. 42, Dec 2004) contained an interesting, brief article by Nancy Davenport, "Open access is the buzz". This may well be the case, but one suspects that there will no pot of honey for scholars or their readers when all the buzzing has stopped. Or perhaps we should say "pot of gold", for the success or failure of open access comes down to finance, and it is difficult to see that money will be available to bed down and sustain a viable model of open access. It's not free, in other words!

For those of you not yet familiar with open access, it refers to materials that are on the Internet and can be accessed, printed, copied and downloaded without any cost. But this "free" material must be free only to the user, for someone is incurring the cost of mounting it on the Web if such material is to have any credibility. Even if the author does everything as a sort of "pre-production" exercise, this is costly in terms of time – for editing, formatting, indexing, processing, etc.

Stakeholder groups

Who is affected by open access? I'd like to suggest that "every literate person" is the answer; or, as Davenport suggests, this includes scholars and researchers, librarians, users and publishers, to which we might add vendors, subscription agents, other sales organizations, and freelance workers such as copy editors and indexers.

The intention of Ms Davenport's article is to raise a series of unanswered questions affecting each of these stakeholder groups. The following is based principally on her questions, interwoven with some of our own. The purpose of this is to put the brakes on the open access (OA) bandwagon by helping everyone to reflect more deeply on what is happening and to stop following the OA fad so blindly – there are too many unknowns for information professionals to be hoping that this is the answer to their problems. And it is written from the perspective of 30 years plus as an academic, writer, editor, and once-upon-a-time librarian.

Scholarly and research community

The first set of unanswered issues relate to the scholarly and research community, that earnest group that actually provides the raw material for open access. In North America, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and indeed around the world our profiles depend significantly on where we are published – in which journals, by which publishers, in which countries.

The rewards system in every anglophone country is certainly geared to this, and in these fierce days of Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs) and Performance-based Research Funds (PBRFs) (the rather toned-down and too personalized New Zealand version) the bean-counting has become almost absurdly serious. But this is what we live with, and to replace it with an untried, untested open access system is courting danger. Specifically, in Davenport's words, "how will publishing in an open-access mode affect my professional standing?". Further, how will it affect the institution to which I am in bondage? One suspects that open access materials will not be oft-cited by others, because they lack the kudos of journals with Thomson (formerly ISI) impact factors, etc. This may come in time, but for now experience suggests that open access should be avoided as second best. Further, there is much talk of preprocessing costs that may need to be borne by the creator – I have never in my life paid for an article or book to be published, and I'm not about to start now.


The second group of issues comes from librarians, who already have more than their fair share of worries. This is recognized as a era of serials-cutting exercises, which is never easy for managers of libraries. Some are hoping that open access may hold the key to resolving this problem through lower costs, but there is no real evidence that OA is an adequate substitute for print collections (either hard copy or digital), nor are we guaranteed that costs will be that much less.

For example, what are the likely up-front fees for open access that libraries will be asked to absorb? Proponents are remarkably coy on this issue, and one imagines that it will be a matter of creeping fees as the profit motive takes hold. Who will be responsible for preserving open access materials? There are as yet no standards for this, making it dangerous for libraries to rely on OA as a stable alternative to ownership or subscription – and the same applies to access. While academic and research libraries take seriously their role as custodians of research materials, open access appears to be wresting this important role from the librarians, without any guarantees or safeguards. Too risky.

User communities

For user communities there are a number of issues affecting them. Through information literacy initiatives, we have rightly expended considerable energy on teaching people how to distinguish "good" from "bad", especially on the Web. Will this apply to research-based materials available only by open access? How can we know that these materials are quality-assured if any researcher can make his or her work available through OA? Where are the effective quality controls?


And finally, what of the publishers? From their perspective, if it isn't broken, why are we fixing it? The current model has worked, and worked reasonably well, for decades. The proposed open access model remains untested in the rigours of the marketplace, and this has important economic implications (Björk and Hedlund 2004). What costs will be involved for a publisher who moves to an open access model, and how will these costs be met if OA is "free"?

Given these difficult and critical issues that have not been addressed effectively by OA missionaries, my inclination is to steer clear of OA and to continue to support existing publishers. After all, most of them have given quality service over the years, and it has been a symbiotic relationship between authors/scholars and publishers. I provide the writing, they provide the reviewing, packaging, marketing and access –- what could be better? Obviously, though, many would disagree, as the following articles from the Emerald database indicate. This is fine, and reasoned, scholarly debate on the issues outlined above is to be encouraged. However, the scholarly community must not let librarians control the debate, for the latter's perspective is either one of economics or access for the masses, neither of which is a motivating factor in research or scholarship –- we do what we do, not as a "service", but because we enjoy it, because it brings kudos, because it is simply part of the academic life; this may be very different from the librarian's perspective, and we must recognize this in the open access debate.

Emerald articles on open access

Björk, B-C. and Hedlund, T. (2004), "A formalised model of the scientific publication process", Online Information Review, Vol. 28 No. 1, pp. 8-21.

Falk, H. (2004), "Open access gains momentum", The Electronic Library, Vol. 22 No. 6, pp. 527-530.

Hughes, C.A. (2004), "Escholarship at the University of California: a case study in sustainable innovation for open access", New Library World, Vol. 105 No. 3/4, pp. 118-124.

Medeiros, N. (2004), "Of budgets and boycotts: the battle over open access publishing", OCLC Systems & Services, Vol. 20 No. 1, pp. 7-10.