Open access is an important if contentious issue in academia. At its most fundamental level, open access raises questions about the value of academic labor in an increased market-oriented academic economy. It does not question that academic production comes at a cost; it questions if that cost needs to be necessarily passed on to the reader. Furthermore, it upends the prevalent idea that copyrights to academic labor are owned not by the producers themselves but by the corporations and publishing companies that publish research. By removing price and permission barriers, open access aims to be immediate instead of offering limited previews etc. A world of open access seeks to democratize knowledge production and dissemination. For authors, the basis is “to give to the world without expectation of payment.”Given that most academic articles and written scholarship do not pay the author themselves, it strikes me that open access is perhaps the very basic rationale of academic scholarship. That academic scholarship itself has been commodified by entities doing so for profit is not under question. What is perhaps under questioning is why this is so? And why this commodification is tied to career advancement i.e. tenure and the like, in ways that open access scholarship is almost always devalued. Why is this so? Why is it that open access scholarship is somehow not seen as serious scholarship enough? Does attachment to a payment mechanism, even if the payment does not reach the author, make the scholarly publication more legitimate? It is unfair to expect early career academics to sign up to be open access advocates when their careers do not really depend on open access scholarship. Despite an avowed desire to disseminate knowledge, academic scholarship dissemination is extremely elitist and not at all democratic. Democratizing such an unequal space requires a top-down and bottom-up response. In what I consider my subfield—environmental history—there is only journal Environmental Historythat publishes environmental history scholarship. Run by the American Society for Environmental History and hosted by OUP, Environmental History is the preeminent journal in field publishing pieces on topics and geographies from across the world. While OUP ostensibly gives authors the option to publish open access scholarship through Oxford Open, where “authors of accepted papers are given the option of paying an open access publication charge to make their paper freely available online immediately via the journal website, meaning that readers will not need a journal subscription to view open access content.”This ‘model’ of course puts the onus of payment on the producer of new knowledge, often an underpaid academic who cannot possibly afford the charge. There is of course is also a larger philosophical question of why the author should even consider paying such a charge when the point of research is the generation of new knowledge which in turn can only benefit from wider dissemination instead of being cloistered behind paywalls. Furthermore, journals such as Environmental Historyperhaps hurt their own readership by being behind paywalls as independent scholars as well as academic scholars especially in the developing world do not have access to cutting edge scholarship as they are impeded by impossibly high paywalls. While open access is not some sort of panacea; indeed, as Suber remarks open access seeks to create a wider, larger body of literature and is not interested in putting non-OA journals or publishers out of business. Instead, it seeks to allow cutting edge scholarship an open (pun intended) forum to be reviewed and published in.
I realize that this may sound like a rant against pay walling and feed into a dichotomy between paywalled and open access scholarship. Instead, my point has been that open access is more than just about letting go of payment options. Instead, it hits at a fundamental value in scholarship: access. So if there are business models that allow greater access whilst providing revenue streams, those would be very fruitful to pursue. In the meantime, academic institutions would do well to recognize that scholarship that is open access is not incompatible with the standards of peer-review etc. The dichotomy between open access scholarship and non-open access scholarship needs to be broken. If anything, open access scholarship should be perhaps valued more, especially in our current reality.
Paul Suber, “Open Access Overview:Focusing on open access to peer-reviewed research articles and their preprints,” available at: http://legacy.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm
“Oxford Open,” available at: https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access