Open Access Backgrounder



The rationale for Open Access

Open Access (OA) is a means of disseminating scholarly and scientific literature over the internet free of charge to researchers and to anyone else who might benefit from accessing the results of publicly funded research (1). Research libraries have lent their support to the open access movement as a way of extending their mandates to preserve and provide access to the world’s knowledge, but have also seen in it a potential solution to the problem of escalating journal subscription prices. From 1989 onwards the average scientific journal price had steadily risen by 315 % by 2003. Prices have increased at a slower rate in recent years, however, they continue to rise by about 9 % yearly (2).

But OA is not only about devising sustainable publishing and access models to research journal literature. Researchers and librarians also see it as a means to repair a scholarly publishing system that, although it has worked in the world of print-based dissemination, drastically limits the possibilities offered by the emerging networked research environment and the internet. If researchers cannot always access parts of the current research literature in their fields they are missing information that is potentially vital to their research, and the result is that the progress of scientific discovery is stalled. Open Access levels the field for researchers everywhere, in terms of accessibility, giving scientific literature the broadest possible dissemination so researchers can find it, interpret it, and build on it to help solve problems and challenges society faces.

This briefing paper describes the basic means of achieving OA, explains who benefits, and highlights some international and Canadian OA initiatives

Primary methods of achieving Open Access

Open Access is not intended to replace journals as they currently exist nor does it aim to do away with peer-review which is vital to scientific communication. OA rather seeks to ensure publication costs are covered while the results of scholarship are free to access – that is free of charge, except for such costs that cannot be separated from accessing the internet (3). OA does not entail, as is sometimes believed, second rate or vanity publishing; it in no way seeks to curtail the necessary rigors of peer-review and the high editing standards expected from scholarly journals. An estimated 10% of the scholarly and STM journals are open access. PloS Biology, a journal published by the open access publisher Public Library of Science, is the highest ranked scholarly journal in its field (4).

There are many OA models, but the two chief approaches are open access journals and open digital repositories. OA journals provide free access to scholarly literature by covering the publications costs through a variety of alternatives to the predominant subscription model – institutional subsidies/grants/memberships, advertising revenue, article fees, combination of free online version with paid print subscriptions, etc. The second main route to Open Access is through article manuscript archiving in open digital repositories. This particular strategy compliments scholars’ practice of publishing the results of their research in vetted peer-reviewed research journals – it does not replace it. Researchers carry on their usual publishing activities, submitting to the most suitable journals in their field whether they are open access or subscription based. Just a few minutes and keystrokes at the keyboard (at no cost to the authors) enable (5) researchers to make their work more visible, allowing for other researchers to find it and build on it. The accompanying metadata submitted with article manuscripts in open digital repositories is compliant with the Open Archives Institute Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) (6) which renders such scholarly content easily findable in popular search engines like Google and Goggle Scholar as well as numerous automated harvesters of digital repository content.

The value proposition of OA to the higher education and scientific communities

Successful implementation of OA policies, programs and publishing models will require close collaboration between researchers, university research offices, libraries, research funders, and publishers, in order to “align the intellectual and economic models for scholarly publishing with the needs of contemporary scholarship and the benefits, including low marginal costs of distribution, of network technology. (7)” These are highly desirable outcomes, however, the key goal of Open Access is to advance science by removing barriers scientists face in accessing other scientists’ work. Not only does OA help advance science, but it brings the potential to accelerate the speed at which it progresses [See Appendix A]. Open access is good for education and good for research; by broadening the dissemination of the results of scientific inquiry and discourse, it supports the core mission of the higher education enterprise – its ongoing commitment to the advancement of knowledge.

While there are numerous benefits to distinct groups, all having an interest in research, support for open access policies and mechanisms constitute a critical national investment, economically and socially. Recent research carried out by John Houghton and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Melbourne suggests that enhanced access to the results of publicly funded research will likely result in a greater return on investment in research and development, something that benefits any economy (8). It is by building on prior studies that greatly beneficial discoveries have been made [See Appendix B]. Scientific research is intended to benefit society through the creation of new knowledge. Universities, governments, industry, and other sectors invest enormously in research to meet current societal challenges and problems. Putting that research to its best possible use is contingent upon disseminating it as far and wide as possible and in a cost-effective manner, as is aptly put in a declaration in support of open access issued by the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, the Coalition for Networked Information, and the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges:

The creation of new knowledge lies at the heart of the research university and results from tremendous investments of resources by universi¬ties, federal and state governments, industry, foundations, and others. The products of that enterprise are created to benefit society. In the process, those products also advance further research and scholarship, along with the teaching and service missions of the university. Reflect¬ing its investments, the academy has a responsibility to ensure the broadest possible access to the fruits of its work both in the short and long term by publics both local and global.

Faculty research and scholarship represent invaluable intellectual capital, but the value of that capital lies in its effective dissemination to present and future audiences. Dissemination strategies that restrict access are fundamentally at odds with the dissemination imperative inherent in the university mission (9).

Greater adoption of open access publishing models, activities, policies and mandates will challenge all parties with a stake in the dissemination of scholarship to find creative solutions to continue supporting scientific communication, but they need not compromise a successful balance of interests (10). The research community, as a whole, and publishers alike benefit from open access [See Appendix C].

Growing support for Open Access worldwide

At the grassroots levels academic librarians discuss scholarly communication issues with students and faculty to raise awareness of the shortcomings of the current dissemination system and of the importance of experimenting with models that will allow greater, more cost-effective access to scientific and scholarly information. Groups such as the Association of American Universities, the Association of Research Libraries, the Coalition for Networked Information, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), among others advocate for public access to federally-funded research to bring national attention to the matter of a sustainable scientific information environment that is accessible to every citizen.

At many universities, librarians, administrators and some faculty are coordinating library and university press services with a view to improving support and management of their institutions’ scholarly output. The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) calls for research institutions to “disseminate, manage, reuse, and preserve the products of their research enterprise (11).” Assuming that responsibility comes with challenges (e.g. overcoming faculty inertia and misgivings, reticence or outright hostility to these ideas on the part of some scientific or society publishers), however, it also presents the academy and everyone with a vested interest in scholarly communication a chance to reap significant rewards. Catherine Mitchell, Director, Publishing, California Digital Library, succinctly posits the matter concerning the research enterprise’s interest in a sustainable scholarly communication system: “We have an opportunity here as a community to put a stake in the ground, to work to protect our institutions’ investment in academic research by inserting ourselves, wherever possible, into the flow of scholarly communication (12).”

Several Canadian universities also recognize that opportunity and have begun to act on it. On April 22, 2010, Concordia University faculty passed a landmark Senate Resolution on Open Access that requires all of its faculty and students to make their peer-reviewed research and creative output freely accessible via the internet. Concordia is the first major university in Canada where faculty overwhelmingly supports a concerted effort to make the full results of their research universally available to the world in the university’s open digital Spectrum Research Repository (13). Some exemplary open access programmes, developed by libraries in collaboration with faculty and university administrations, have already been implemented at the University of Calgary, the University of Ottawa, and Simon Fraser University [See Appendix D].

Granting agencies also have a pivotal role in improving access mechanisms to the results of scholarship providing the funds that enable researchers to conduct their work. Canada’s federal research granting agencies deem broad dissemination of the results of scientific research as widely available and accessible as possible a crucial part of promoting science, intellectual curiosity, critical analysis, and applying knowledge towards finding solutions to problems Canadians face. Through four shared guiding principles – to Advance Knowledge, Minimize Research Duplication, Maximize Research Benefits, and to Promote Research Accomplishments – the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) are “committed to developing a shared approach for improving access to publicly funded research in keeping with internationally recognized best practices, standards and policies for funding and conducting research (14).” Considering that best practices, standards, and policies are vitally important with respects to deriving the most benefit from investments in research, the third tri-council guiding principle - Maximize Research Benefits - bears noting: “Publicly funded research should be as accessible as possible in order to maximize the economic, social, cultural and health benefits for Canadians [See Appendix E].”

Recognizing the worldwide momentum favoring the development of efficient and sustainable information systems that maximize the impact of public investment in scientific research , the [U.S.] Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a call in December 2009 for input regarding “Public Access Policies for Science and Technology Funding Agencies across the Federal Government.” The request for feedback garnered a tremendous amount of responses from organizations and individuals which the OSTP is analyzing to craft policy recommendations [See Appendix F].

In the United Kingdom ten leading organizations from the HE and Research sector are joining efforts to drive the implementation of Open Access in the U.K. at the policy level but also to foster a deeper understanding of the opportunities it offers the country in terms of maintaining its reputation and impact in the world (15). Likewise, in its Statement on Open Scholarship, the Council of Australian University Librarians (CAUL) asserts that communicative and publishing systems that enable rapid, affordable dissemination of research outputs as well as the scholarly record’s preservation and future use are the elements that advance open scholarship. CAUL describes open scholarship as “reflecting the increasingly open nature of access to information, research collaboration, and the sharing and re-use of data (16).” Like many library associations and other organizations with a vested interest in sustainable scholarly publishing and dissemination, CAUL intends to work with all stakeholders to move Australia closer to an open access knowledge ecosystem.

Everyone benefits from Open Access

Open Access enables cost-effective, unrestricted flow of ideas and information and underpins excellence in research while also bringing down barriers to learning, building informed communities, and fostering international collaboration and understanding. A transition to open access is possible if government, research institutions, researchers, publishers, and librarians engage in open dialogue and collaborate towards a shared understanding of the principles, practices and benefits of open access [See Appendix G]. In addition to providing and maintaining the required infrastructure components, including robust open digital repositories, that facilitate access to and preservation of scholarly research, librarians must engage administrators and researchers in discussion about institutional policies for stewarding institutions’ intellectual capital and about modifying reward and recognition mechanisms “that encourage the broadest possible dissemination and use of new knowledge.” Cooperation with publishers will be an equally important part of the transition by way of adjustments and experimentations with open access publishing models as well as accommodation of article manuscript archiving practices. Government can play a catalyzing role by implementing policies that facilitate access to the results of taxpayer-funded research. Open dialogue and cooperation among all parties, including the public, will go a long way to deriving the highest possible return from public investments in scientific research (17) which, crucially, is to all of society’s benefit. Open access provides scholars with the means to make good on their public mission to advance knowledge by removing access barriers to the products of their efforts, accelerating research, enriching education, making scientific literature as useful as it can be, and laying the “foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge (18).“

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© 2010, CARL Open Access Backgrounder by the Canadian Association of Research Libraries is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

End notes

(1) See definition of open access in Budapest Open Access Initiative

(2) Open Access Scholarly Information Sourcebook (OASIS) , Why librarians should be concerned with Open Access , and Association of Research Libraries, Monograph and Serial Expenditures in ARL Libraries, 1986 – 2003

(3) Budapest Open Access Initiative

(4) The impact factor of PLoS Biology for 2008, as calculated by the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI), was 12.6. Putting this in context, it is the highest-ranked journal in the ISI category 'Biology'. ISI Journal Citation Reports

(5) SHERPA/RoMEO, Publisher copyright policies & self archiving

(6) Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting

(7) An Open Letter to the Higher Education Community, April 23, 2010

(8) Houghton, J., and P. Sheehan. 2006. The economic impact of enhanced access to research findings. CSES Working Paper number 23, University of Victoria, Melbourne, as cited by Swan in Open Access and the Progress of Science.

(9) Association of American Universities, Association of Research Libraries, The Coalition for Networked Information, and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, The University’s Role in the Dissemination of Research and Scholarship – A Call to Action, February 2009

(10) Open Letter, op. cit.

(11) Talking Points for ARL Directors: The University’s Role in the Dissemination of Research and Scholarship – A Call to Action, February 11, 2009

(12) As quoted by Andy Havens and Tom Storey, The Future of Publishing: Libraries and the changing role of creators and consumers, NextSpace, No. 16, August 2010

(13) Concordia University Opens its Research Findings to the World, April 22, 2010

(14) Government of Canada, Access to Research Results: Guiding Principles, September 28, 2010

(15) Joint Information Systems Committee, Call for sector to unite behind open access, October 29, 2010 The group consists of senior representatives of two UK universities (Edinburgh and Salford), Universities UK, Research Libraries UK, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), JISC, the UK Research Councils, Wellcome Trust, the Association of Research Managers and Administrators UK, and a leading open access publisher in the Public Library of Science.

(16) CAUL Statement on Open Scholarship, October 1, 2010

(17) CAUL Statement on Open Scholarship
and Talking Points for ARL Directors: the University’s Role in the Dissemination of Research and Scholarship – A Call to Action

(18) Budapest Open Access Initiative