The internet is pretty awesome guys. Privacy attacks and trolls aside, no other tool humans have ever created can match its potential for information transfer. Sure, I often use it to watch cat videos and buy clothing I don’t need, but it also supports one of the biggest developments in modern librarianship and one of my favorite topics: open access publishing.
What is open access exactly? Put simply, open access (OA) is a catch-all term for any scholarly, peer-reviewed work that’s published in full on the internet and available at no cost to readers. This can include several different methods, but it most commonly includes personal web pages, institutional repositories, and open access journals. Academic social media sites like Adcademia.edu are another option, as are subject-specific repositories the experimental physics site arxiv.org. If you’ve ever downloaded a full-text article from Google Scholar, you’ve accessed OA works. All these methods (and more) are further divided into “green” and “gold” OA, which refers to making a work available via an OA journal (gold) or other any means (green).
An important thing to understand about OA is what it is not. OA is only used the world of academia where authors typically aren’t paid for their writing. Musical compositions, visual artwork, films, book-length writings, and any other works that would normally generate direct income and/or royalties for their creators are excluded. That said, OA is NOT copyright free. Authors still get credit, and plagiarizing an OA work is still plagiarizing, full stop. Creative Commons licenses are popular on the green side of OA, and gold authors are often covered by whoever is publishing them. OA is also distinct from the concept of open data, which refers to public access to the datasets connected to scholarly works. OA advocates have also been careful to note that open access is not the same thing as universal access; you can only take advantage of OA information if you have access to a working computer with a decent internet connection.
The biggest benefit to OA that proponents normally bring up is that it circumvents the often significant costs associated with traditional scholarly publishing. Annual subscriptions to journals and databases have increased wildly over the last few years, so wildly that the Faculty Advisory Council at Harvard threatened to cancel several subscriptions in 2012 when their fees went up too much. Most OA advocates aren’t trying to bankrupt the journal publishers, (although there are notable exceptions to this, more later) but they do hope to bring prices down to a more manageable level. OA is also lauded as a way to democratize the scholarly world by allowing researchers in poor and developing countries with limited funds for database subscriptions to access their peers’ research. Finally OA champions often argue that Gold OA allows younger researchers a better chance to get their work published; online journals don’t have the same space restrictions, so they can accept a lot more submissions. This was part of the reason that Science started their OA journal, Science Advances; too many high-quality papers were being turned away for lack of space.
OA does have it’s critics though, primarily on the gold side. For starters, most gold OA publishers cover costs by having authors pay a fee to be published. There are some exceptions to this, like the Journal of Machine Learning Research, but publication fees are the norm. This leads to the accusation that only wealthy authors can be published, but the truth is most authors’ sponsoring institutions cover their publication fees, and authors who don’t have this luxury can generally work with the publishers to get the fee waived.
The other big complaint against gold OA is that the pay-to-publish model leads to predatory journals that will publish any gibberish you can come up with if you’re willing to pay. There is some basis to this argument. Science made headlines about a year ago when it sent versions of a made-up, nonsense paper to over 304 gold OA journals, and over half accepted it. Gold OA got another black eye earlier this year when Springer and IEEE had to remove over 120 articles from their databases after a researcher discovered they were complete nonsense.
This isn’t the whole picture of gold OA though; most gold OA journals are very well respected and often run by larger subscription-based journals or responsible institutions, like the NIH’s PubMed. Gold OA is also mandated in a lot of cases. Some private funding institutions, like the Wellcome Trust in the UK, require OA publishing for any work they fund, and any research funded by the NIH has to be deposited in PubMed for public consumption. Research Councils UK also mandates OA publishing, and goes a step farther by requiring that datasets be OA published as well. This trend will only increase if Congress ever gets around to the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), which would mandate OA journal publishing of all non-classified research funded by federal departments and agencies with an annual extramural research budget of $100 million or more.
Green OA is a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Like I said before, this can include pretty much any method of internet publishing other than a journal, as long as it doesn’t carry an access charge or a paywall for your reader. One argument for green over gold is that it cuts out the publishers entirely. Stevan Harnad, an OA advocate and researcher with the Université du Québec à Montréal and the University of Southampton has argued that supporting gold OA ultimately hobbles the movement by using up precious funding on publishing fees rather than to support research. He also sees green OA as more beneficial to academia because quality can be more tightly controlled, and because funding institutions can mandate OA participation.
Green OA also comes with a lot less complications. You can throw your stuff up on your own website, submit it to your university’s repository, use a blog (like Hack Library School!), whatever. It still needs to be scholarly and it must be peer reviewed, just like gold OA, but unlike gold OA journals, putting your work in an institutional repository doesn’t come with any copyright restrictions. You’re often not allowed to take things out once you’ve submitted them for deposit, but you can submit them anywhere else you please (some publishers get snippy about publishing things that are already in IR’s, but most have learned to live with pre-print IR versions).
The chief problem with green OA is getting your stuff to an audience. There is a dedicated tool for OA databases and repositories, OAIster, and Google Scholar searches them too, but there has been work to indicate that green-OA work isn’t nearly as well-distributed. Repositories can help this by using the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting, but the fact remains that green OA works generally have to be looked for. They aren’t going to be stumbled upon by a reader in the way that a gold OA piece might. Green OA also doesn’t provide the much-needed publishing cred that young researchers need to build their careers.
There are more problems and issues to be discussed in this arena (I didn’t spend a whole term paper repeating myself, after all). This is a hugely contentious issue, and I fully expect that commenters to tell me what a fool I am for trusting the OA model (we’ll just have to disagree) But despite the quality concerns with gold OA and the findability problems of green, I am a huge OA proponent because it makes information more fluid. People get access to the stuff they need to do their research without the red tape and roadblocks of subscription fees, which generates more knowledge, which in turn makes us a better informed and hopefully wiser society. One of the key points in my library school application essay was my desire to make information useful, and by increasing access OA does just this. What’s not to love?
If you’re looking for more information on OA, Peter Suber’s webpage is probably your best place to start. Suber is one of the founders of the Open Access Directory, a wiki that compiles information on open access data, and probably the best known voice of the OA movement. Try not to fall down a link hole, you’ll lose your whole day.
 Full disclosure: I like OA so much wrote a term paper on it during the spring 2014 semester that discussed a lot of the same topics and people. Prof. Shuler, if you’re reading this, it looks familiar for a reason.