The Hub Open access is transforming research, and with it, entire communities

Open access is transforming research, and with it, entire communities

Four Athabasca University experts share why open access publishing matters beyond the walls of the ivory tower

Before the pandemic, when academic conferences still happened in person, Dr. Andrew Perrin was getting ready to share his research at Cambridge University.

Presenting at Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity was a big moment for the religious antiquities scholar and Perrin’s talk was based on a study that had earned him an early career award. Yet during his introduction, the chair of the seminar made no mention of this achievement.

“Instead, he noted that he had heard of my work through my YouTube channel,” remembers Perrin, referring to his “DIY venture” into knowledge mobilization, the practice of sharing research and discoveries with a wider world. Understanding that his research could have impact outside the traditional—and often expensive—academic publishing world was eye opening, he says.

“The biggest benefit of open access is really seeing that free book or article as the core of something bigger and better, which goes beyond the academic guild,” says Perrin, now Athabasca University’s associate vice-president of research.

While open access can take different forms, it generally refers to publishing research that’s free and available to anyone. To mark International Open Access Week, Oct. 25-31, we asked four AU academics to explain how open access works, how it’s transforming research, and why the rest of us non-academics should care.

What is open access research?

According to Robyn Stobbs, a research data management librarian at AU, open access means making research publications available online for free, typically using an open licence. This is different from traditional publishing, where institutions and users pay subscription fees.

Libraries contribute to open access by creating and maintaining repositories that allow researchers to share their openly licensed publications and expand the reach of their work.

“The overarching goal of open access is to make research more available to a larger audience,” says Stobbs.

This ensures knowledge is available to other researchers but also the wider public, which often funds research through government grants.

“Open access democratizes research and serves to get new knowledge into the hands of those best positioned to use it,” adds MacKinley Darlington, a knowledge mobilization specialist at AU.

Related: Knowledge for everyone: How open access expands the reach and impact of the university press

What does open access mean at AU?

As Canada’s only open and online university, AU has fully embraced open access, says Perrin.

“Minimizing barriers to knowledge is part of our DNA, so prioritizing open access in research outcomes should—and does—mean more at AU than most other universities.”

If research matters, it should be relevant, Perrin says. And if it’s relevant, it should be accessible both in terms of where research is published but also how it’s communicated.

Making something free isn’t enough, he adds.

“The best ideas and discoveries are engineered for impact by making research openly accessible and engaging, compelling, and intelligible beyond a niche academic discipline.”

close-up of someone typing on a keyboard

Why are universities pushing back against traditional models?

Academics need to publish to advance their work and careers, a fact that traditional for-profit academic publishers use to their advantage, explains Dr. Jon Dron, a professor in AU’s School of Computing and Information Systems.

Publishers get researchers to write, review, and edit a journal’s content and then sell it back to them—or anyone who can afford it, including universities. But only the journal gets to reap the profits.

“This waste of public funds used to be justified due to the costs of production and distribution of paper, but online publishing is orders of magnitude cheaper,” says Dron, an expert in online teaching and learning.

With open access, academics can produce equally high-quality online journals that anyone can read for free. That’s why some universities are refusing to pay the “exorbitant prices” publishers charge, Dron says, and governments are adding their own pressure by making open access publishing a requirement to receive certain grants.

Does open access affect the quality of research?

In response to the push back, for-profit publishers have started offering “gold open access” models that use their existing reputations as leverage to force authors to pay to publish, instead of readers, Dron says. This passes the costs to the funders of research, which often means taxpayers. These publishers still sell closed research to anyone willing to pay, often coercing customers to buy bundles of unwanted journals to access high-quality ones.

As a consequence, there’s been a “flood of low-quality shady publishers who offer vanity publishing” that allows anyone to publish provided they pay a fee, Dron explains.

“For-profit publishers can then gleefully and accurately claim that, on average, the quality of open journals is very low, despite the fact that around half of the top, most-cited journals in the world are fully open and free for all.”

Why should anyone outside academia care about open access?

Open access is an important topic in academic circles, but how knowledge is shared and the benefits to society go well beyond the ivory tower, explains Darlington.

Practitioners, policy makers, private sector and not-for-profit organizations, and the public all require knowledge and evidence to make decisions and effect change.

“Open access can help break down the walls of the ivory tower to support the timely use, application, and impact of research results,” Darlington says.

“Universities that embrace open access are sending a signal to the broader community that they recognize and respect the role they play and the responsibility they have within society.”

Open access can help break down the walls of the ivory tower to support the timely use, application, and impact of research results. MacKinley Darlington, knowledge mobilization specialist

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  • October 22, 2022