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What does “the public” think about open access?

By Micah Vandegrift | October 3, 2013

As we are approaching Open Access Week, we are reminded that while outreach and conversations about open access within our communities is a valuable thing, a target audience for making scholarly literature available online is the general public. An idea that was floated around at my institution was to hold open access week events exclusively at the public library downtown. Convincing faculty members and colleagues of the value of open access is one chore, but introducing a local business owner to a relevant open access journal could have much more far reaching affects. The open access movement has a well-documented discussion from publishers and academic open access advocates, but not yet a good sense of the public’s call for access to high quality research online. One could imagine that many not involved in the academy might see this as just another one of the heated philosophical debates that happen inside a classroom between a liberal professor and texting undergraduates.

Hearteningly, initiatives like state-wide open access policies show that some representatives of the public at the legislative level are concerned and taking action about the state of scholarly publishing. Currently, New York and California have bills on hold until the 2014 session. Illinois, a leader in this aspect, has passed a bill which is waiting to be signed into law. The University of Illinois has provided a helpful fact sheet about the bill.

A barometer for public knowledge about open access could also be read from the journalism that reports it. A standard argument against open access is that press releases about scholarly articles in layman language suffice to provide the public with enough detail. Two items in recent weeks address that point indirectly, and from different stances on the value of open access.

Mother Jones published an article titled “Steal this Research Paper (You Already Paid for it!,” focusing on Michael Eisen, a Biologist, open access advocate and co-founder of PLoS. Michael Mechanic, Senior Editor of Mother Jones writes,

For nervous scientists looking for evidence that they can abandon the paywalled journals, [Eisen] offers himself as Exhibit A. Eisen earned his tenure from Berkeley and landed the prestigious title of investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute even though his lab publishes exclusively in open-access journals. Some people will cling to the old ways until the bitter end, he says, but “it’s basically inevitable that this is going to be the dominant mode of scientific publishing.

On the other side of the spectrum, writing about an article included in a Special Issue of Science on scholarly communication and open access, The Economist reports “It seems dangerously easy to get scientific nonsense published.” They write,

The publications Dr Bohannon selected for his sting operation were all open-access journals. These make papers available free, and cover their costs by charging authors a fee (typically $1,000-2,000). Policymakers have been keen on such periodicals of late. Since taxpayers already sponsor most academic research, the thinking goes, providing free access to its fruits does not seem unreasonable. But critics of the open-access model have long warned that making authors rather than readers their client risks skewing publishers’ incentives towards tolerating shoddy science. Dr Bohannon has shown that the risk is real.

Approaching this article as a piece of journalism intended for a public audience (despite the flaws and misinformation presented in this one paragraph) we see that the education and outreach we do on campus will only go so far. Thinking broadly about the impact of open access, perhaps the theme of Open Access Week next year should be “Engagement Beyond the Ivory Tower.”

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