Thursday, October 1, 2015

Open Access: A Philosophy and a Publishing Format

This year Open Access week will be celebrated October 19 through October 25, 2015.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the above graphic, it is the official Open Access logo, originally designed by the Public Library of Science.

Even though there are no scheduled events this year about Open Access on the NIU campuses, I believe that it is important to compose a brief entry about the philosophy behind Open Access.  You may not believe this issue is applicable to you, your field of study, or your research topic; however, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, after you have successfully defended your thesis or dissertation, the next step is to submit your written work to our office via ProQuest. During this submission process, you will have to choose a publication option for your academic work: traditional or Open Access. Many opt for traditional publication if for no other reason than the fact that it costs you nothing, whereas opting for Open Access publishing does involve a $90 fee. 

Open Access simply means unrestrained access to research -- peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed research articles, conference papers, theses, book chapters, and dissertations. Much of this research is not available in its entirety to the public. You may come across an article abstract or a preview of a scholarly work thanks to an Internet search, but this is not unrestrained access to the entirety of that scholarly work.

A large number of researchers and scholars receive funding -- some of it via government grants -- to conduct research in their field. Once these academics have collected their data, they publish their findings in scholarly journals. The problem is that access to these scholarly journals may be guaranteed exclusively through individual subscriptions to the journal or through pay subscription services online. In other words, this scholarly research, some of which has been funded by government grants -- i.e. your tax dollars -- is locked behind a paywall. People who subscribe to the Open Access philosophy take issue with this and rightly so.  

These online subscription services might not be an issue for students and academics if they happen to be affiliated with a college or university that has allocated funds for the school library to pay for these subscription services. After all, what lay person is going to devote their time to reading some graduate student's monograph? Then again, people who believe in Open Access make the rather compelling argument that many schools -- across the United States and in under-developed countries -- might not have the funds to pay for library subscription services. Another scenario might be that a college or university has limited funds that allows it to subscribe to some scholarly journals or some subscription databases, but not all of them. In these two examples, this means that future generations of academics will have a hole in their education due to the fact that they will not have access to certain texts. The common retort to this argument is that students and researchers can request materials through interlibrary loan. The problem with this is that an article requested by interlibrary loan might have to be photocopied and sent by post, or it might be scanned and sent via email. Then again, the request might not even be fulfilled. If the literature can be shared, however, time might be an issue for the student or researcher who made the request. Open Access can ensure reliable quick access to research. 

The one scenario in support of Open Access that I do happen to find rather compelling is this: outbreaks of deadly viruses.  When a community of scientists and academics can share their work through Open Access, this guarantees the ability to stay on top of recent findings in the medical field. Thanks to Open Access, a doctor in Africa will be able to learn about an alternative form of treatment discovered in Europe that may prove to be more efficient treating patients suffering from some exotic virus in his part of the globe. This doctor can then build on the European research that he was able to access quickly and easily. 

Elizabeth Marincola discusses how science might be advanced with Open Access publishing in her TED MED Talk:

Then again, who is to say that a lay person is not interested in reading the most recent research having to do with green energy? Or Astronomy? Or Physics? If you are earning your PhD in education, there may be legions of grade school and high school educators across the globe who are curious about successful teaching strategies that they might implement in their own classrooms. They might even wish to keep up to date with recent research related to their subject fields. If the research has been done, many people are asking the question: why can it not be made available to everyone, free of charge, via Open Access? 

There is a great deal more that I could write about with regards to Open Access. For instance, there are two categories of Open Access: gratis and libre. There is "green" access and "gold" access when it comes to making your work available through Open Access publishing. There is even some controversy amongst Open Access devotees when it comes to Creative Commons copyright, which is  associated with libre Open Access. There is also the history of Open Access, tracing its founding principles back to the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002.

For now, I simply wanted to introduce you to the philosophy behind Open Access with the intention of inspiring you to consider whether or not you should make your own thesis or dissertation available via Open Access. You may have noticed that a number of the scenarios I have described here relate to the sciences. This is not to suggest that Open Access does not apply to the humanities as well.

In the meantime, if you have questions about the Open Access philosophy or Open Access publication options, keep an eye out for future blog entries or feel free to contact our office  directly ( You can read up on the topic a bit more by checking out and SPARC. I've also taken the liberty of posting a link to a fun video from PhD Comics that is a fairly detailed explanation of Open Access. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts about Open Access in a comment, or post about it on our Facebook group page.

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