Do you think that published science should be freely available to everyone? Of course you do. Most people do. But like every ‘ideal’ system, there are positives and negatives to OA publishing, some that outweigh others. While the overall benefit of OA (public access to scientific information) is a valid reason to advocate it, this single positive is also a huge generalisation encompassing lots of grey areas.
In general, the black-and-white ‘OA is essential’ opinions get the most exposure, with very little discussion of how to manage all the shades of grey. This can give an unbalanced view of the issue and also means that any valid ‘other sides’ to the OA ideal are rarely given credence.
The term ‘open access’ may mean different things to different people, and the cultural connotations of OA can differ significantly between disciplines and demographics. For example, humanities disciplines can be more cautious than science disciplines about jumping on the OA bandwagon. Is it because humanities researchers generally get less funding than scientists (so publishing fees lose priority)? Or is it because humanities-based research and investigations often create more books than journal articles, which aren’t as readily converted to OA?
I am not advocating either for or against OA. But I am suggesting that, while we strive for the OA ideal, we also consider contexts and accept that there are positives to supporting a combination of OA and non-OA publishing.
What are the cultural connotations (outside academia) of a scientist paying to publish their work?
Designing and publishing research is essentially knowledge building and sharing. Think about other types of knowledge sharers: teachers, investigative journalists, writers, lawyers. All of these roles are specialists in their field of knowledge, and their career revolves around designing, creating and sharing knowledge with an interested audience.
In these careers, the writer/thinker/creator rarely pays for their work to be published. In fact, before the Internet came along and shook up the ethical fault lines in society, most forms of self-publication were considered a wee bit distasteful. Paying to be heard (essentially a form of self-publication) often connotes bias or corporate infiltration…i.e. advertising.
Arguably, this is the system that most non-specialist audiences are also familiar with. You either get paid or you volunteer your services, you rarely pay someone else to let you publish your work. If community engagement is crucial to a scientist’s work, is there a risk that publishing OA could lose credibility with public or non-specialist audiences? How do we, as scientists seeking credibility, deal with this?
What about Societies?
Some paywalled journals are published by a scientific society, so members receive the journal as part of their subscription fee. These subscription-based societies are aimed at professionals (academic and non-academic) working in a particular field (e.g. The Linnean Society, Royal Entomological Society, or Ecological Society of Australia). Societies are important resources for their members, giving them access to job and research opportunities, networking events, and scientific conferences. Regional societies, like many Natural History societies, are also very successful at science communication aimed at engaging amateur/non-specialist people in the discipline.
Society-based journals are mostly published from funds raised through membership subscriptions. So if we all jump on the OA bandwagon, what happens to the societies that can’t afford to publish their journal OA?
Are paywalls an underutilised networking opportunity?
With the wonders of modern technology, there are now lots of ways we can legitimately access non-OA articles for ‘free’, which kind of negates the myth that paywalls ‘lock up’ research and increase the public-science divide. Google Scholar can usually tell you if there is a free copy available online; online journal libraries like JSTOR allow users to set up an account and read a number of articles every year for free; real libraries often have hard copies of the journal (gathering dust on shelves in the back corner). If you work at an institution that doesn’t have access to a particular article, chances are your library can source you a copy through an inter-library loans system.
And if you can’t get access online, maybe that’s an underutilised networking tool? The author’s email address is given for a reason. If you can’t access one of my articles, send me an email – I’m more than happy to send you a copy if you ask nicely!
More opportunities for science communication and engagement!
Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation is online for everyone to access for free. But if I’m looking for legal advice, I will search for the jargon-free version online before I read the actual legislation.
Similarly, for science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing OA is not a necessity or replacement for science communication, it is really just an added bonus.
One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is the ability to connect and engage with more people. Today, a scientist has more opportunity than ever to share their findings with global peer and non-peer audiences through social media, emails, youtube and online news/analysis sites – most versions of which will be more ‘readable’ for more people. And if a scientist doesn’t have time, skills or interest to use those media, most science-beat journalists would love to have a bona fide scientist approach them and say “Hey, I’ve done some research that could potentially benefit people, would you be interested in telling my story?”
What do you think?
I’m keen to know your thoughts on the contexts around OA vs non-OA publishing. There are two polls below, one for authors of journal articles and one for non-specialist readers of journal articles (i.e. non-academics or academics reading articles that aren’t critical to their research or in their own specialty). Feel free to answer either or both – they are completely anonymous. If your preferred answer doesn’t appear, please leave a comment!
© Manu Saunders 2014