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Open Access: driving innovation in academic markets?

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Monday 10 February, 2014

Open Access: driving innovation in academic markets?

Open Access: driving innovation in academic markets?
Open Access: driving innovation in academic markets?

It has been instructive to watch the debate over Open Access (OA) ebb and flow over the last decade and more. We have now reached a point where OA is firmly established as part of the landscape of academic communication, and where academic publishers are being challenged to innovate and change in response.

For those who haven’t engaged with the OA debate, there is no shortage of background material to put you in the picture. The Open Access Directory is, as it says, “a compendium of simple factual lists about open access (OA) to science and scholarship, maintained by the OA community at large”—and it includes a helpful timeline of the events, dating back to the early 1990s, which have led us from first initiatives to widespread adoption of OA approaches. Elsewhere, an Open Access Overview by Peter Suber, a leading proponent of OA and Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, gives a useful summary of what, in his view, OA is and isn’t.

Any summary is inevitably flawed, and partial. But here’s my take: OA means full and free access to content. Its proponents have been motivated on the one hand by a high-minded belief in the desirability of the unimpeded flow of research information to anyone who wants to receive it, and on the other hand by frustration at the cost of accessing research material published under paid-for business models. Initially, and still overwhelmingly, fingers point at the subscription costs for STM journals, but the debate does not end there: Humanities and Social Sciences research have also become part of the issue, and books as well as journals are up for discussion.

Having started as an initiative amongst scholars and librarians, who then took up the debate with publishers, the drive towards OA has been backed by universities, funding bodies and governments—with the UK government wanting to be seen as a leader of the pack. The Finch Report in 2012 set out a plan for transition to OA as the dominant model of transmitting publicly funded research, and the government endorsed its finding; an article in the Guardian captured that set of events. The Wellcome Trust, one of the largest funders of research, requires OA publication of the results of its funded projects; so too do the Research Councils UK.

There have been voices expressing concern at the headlong rush for particular models of OA. Notably, the Royal Historical Society expressed its fears: “There has been considerable debate in the arts and humanities disciplines about the terms of the proposed RCUK policies, which seem to be modelled on policies developed in and appropriate for science rather than arts subjects, and which pose threats to academic freedom and quality.” And in a more dramatic mode, Beall’s List has become a forum for naming and shaming “predatory publishers” who have sprung up to exploit authors’ desire to see their material published in OA mode, and whose processes do not stand up to scrutiny.

For mainstream publishers, OA has been a challenge, and a spur to innovation. It is not self-evident that a publishing model which gives valuable content to readers free of charge is sustainable—but many publishers have come up with innovative models which allow OA to coexist with paid-for models. The journals publishers were the first to act (as they were the first to feel the pressure), and many, such as Springer, now offer an array of OA options for authors. In the world of books, experimentation also abounds. IPG member Bloomsbury was an early adopter of a mixed OA and paid-for model in the Humanities. New entrants are emerging and experimenting: some emerging from academia—such as the Open Library of Humanities—and others from a publishing background, such as Knowledge Unlatched.

For those of us who have not (yet) adopted an OA model, a stimulating and invigorating question is posed: what are we here for? Just as trade publishers could be elbowed aside by self-publishing, OA could potentially mean that the business of selling academic literature is no longer relevant. That puts us on our mettle every day, to demonstrate to ourselves and others that the processes we conduct—the shaping of a list, the thoughtful interaction with authors, the development of a work into a finished and beautiful form, the building of a reader community, the global dissemination of metadata, the shepherding of a sales and marketing operation, the distribution of multiple digital and print formats to readers—add value to academic endeavour.

Oliver Gadsby is Chief Executive of
Rowman & Littlefield International. He previously ran Continuum Publishing, and was Director of Strategy and Acquisitions for Informa. He has worked in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. He is also a Patron of the IPG.

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