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In a previous blog post, I wrote about the “serials crisis” that has threatened to undermine, and restrict, the existing economic model of the dissemination of scholarly communication through academic publishing. This week, we discussed the reaction to this crisis through the Open Access model, and also enjoyed a guest lecture from Martin Paul Eve, author of the recently-published book Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future. In a nutshell, the term “serials crisis” refers to the fact that the cost of subscribing to an academic journal has risen much higher than inflation ever since the 1980s, with a resulting squeeze on libraries’ acquisition budgets. This has led to calls for an alternative model of academic publishing that both shifts the financial burden away from the potential readers (many of whom are put off entirely by high subscription and individual article-purchase fees), allows unrestricted access and re-use of research, and the attendant benefits of sharing information.

The Open Access movement is derived from the world of computer software licensing: in the 1980s, Richard Stallman published the freely-licensed GNU operating system as a reaction against the growing preponderance of proprietary software. Just after the turn of the millennium, Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons, which extended these principles to any form of published authorial work; over the next few years, the principles of Open Access were developed and set out by Peter Suber and others following conferences in Budapest, Bethesda and Berlin, leading to phrases such as “BBB Statements” and the “BBB definition” of Open Access. As is clear from this timeline, Open Access evolved in step with the contemporaneous development and growth of the Internet, and one of the key points that underlies the movement is that the low cost of disseminating digital works via this technology has rendered traditional publishing models obsolete.

The raison d’être of Open Access is summed-up clearly and succinctly in this video, drawn and animated by the author of the popular PHD Comics webcomic:

In his aforementioned book, Eve provides an equally clear and succint definition of Open Access as follows:

The term ‘open access’ refers to the removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research.

Open Access means peer-reviewed academic research that is free to read online and that anyone may redistribute and reuse, with some restrictions.

The fact that the work is still subject to the peer-review process is important, as many people misguidedly equate Open Access with a drop in quality compared to the traditional subscription-based model of scholarly publishing. Looking at the “access” component of Open Access in academic journal publishing, there are two models:

  • Gold—the article is made freely-accessible (usually by publishing under a Creative Commons license) by the publisher and is funded by an Article Processing Charge (APC) which is paid by the author, their research institution or other funding body. The cost of publishing is therefore shifted from the demand-side (the audience) to the supply side.
  • Green—the author deposits a pre- or post-print copy of their article within an institutional repository, subject to certain provisions as set out by the publisher (for instance, the author may only be able to submit a pre-print copy that has not been subject to professional copyediting or typesetting standards, or the article may be embargoed until a certain time has passed since publication).

There are also two “permissions” models within Open Access:

  • Gratis—the article is free to read
  • Libre—the article is free to read and also reuse, for example for the purposes of text- or data-mining.

The massive change that the Open Access models represent in comparison to the subscription-based publication paradigm has caused, and will cause, a number of problems, such as the uncertainty of guaranteeing financial viability with unproven economic models, the high cost of developing “hybrid” or “legacy” Open Access models that are based on the adaptation of existing subscription-based systems, the difficulties in persuading researchers—who traditionally are pressured into publishing in the well-established “prestige” journals—publishers and even librarians to adopt a totally new system, and the fact that humanities subjects face additional challenges in a movement that was initially driven by the sciences. These include the fact that arts and humanities research is less well-funded than its scientific equivalent, thus making it harder to pay APCs, and the fact that the “half-life” of an arts of humanities research article is likely to be significantly longer than a scientific one, causing complications to the Green Open Access model.

Despite these challenges, the Open Access movement has nevertheless made significant progress in the decade or so since it was launched. In the United Kingdom, recommendations made by the 2012 Finch Report led the government to mandate Open Access publishing models for publicly-funded research (making the country one of fourteen to adopt such legislation); a model which has also been taken up by institutions such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Wellcome Trust. It appears that the Open Access movement is currently at a watershed moment during its history, and could soon become the prevailing model for scholarly publishing if current trends continue.