The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Open Access

Submitted on December 1, 2020

By Elizabeth Labiner

Open access, or OA, is not a new movement, but it has achieved new momentum and prominence during the past year as universities slash budgets and academics find themselves with less or even no funding. The principles and practice of OA focus on online distribution of research from across disciplines, free of cost or other access barriers. 

At an OA conference in 2003, the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities emphasized the educational and collaborative potential of the internet, and asserted that the “mission of disseminating knowledge is only half complete if the information is not made widely and readily available to society.” The Declaration further argued in favor of a “sustainable, interactive, and transparent” internet that aids in the realization of the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge. 

What this means, practically, is that there are increasing calls to publish in journals and repositories that do not keep content behind paywalls. OA can be applied to all forms of published research output, including both peer-reviewed and non peer-reviewed academic journal articles, conference papers, MA and PhD theses, book chapters, monographs, and images. As researchers, graduate students typically gain access to many resources through their institution’s library, but in times of budgetary difficulty libraries must make difficult choices regarding subscriptions. As authors, students must decide if, when, where, and how to publish -- and there’s no one correct method or option. Attitudes toward OA vary from field to field. 

Dr. Lars Fogelin, associate professor in the School of Anthropology, published an open-access book last year and wrote about his experience in an article titled, “What I Learned Writing an Irreverent Archaeological Theory Book and Giving It Away for Free.” He writes, “I did all of this as an experiment—an experiment in writing, an experiment in open-access publishing, but mostly an experiment in finding readers.” Dr. Fogelin points out that the appalling expense of academic publishing is prohibitive to readers, and undermines the very premise of what publishing ought to do: share knowledge with as many readers as possible. His self-published free e-book was downloaded over 700 times in its first month available, a number far beyond the sales of his traditionally-published works. In light of his experience, he advocates for an online clearinghouse of open-access work. Dr. Fogelin’s article, along with his book, can be found on his Academia.edu page; I encourage all to read his article in full for not only a fascinating description of his process, but also a strong examination of academic publishing, the role of publishing and self-publishing in promotion processes, and the mission of universities and scholarly organizations. 

Dr. Chris Impey, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Astronomy, says that from the perspective of astronomy and most other physical sciences, open-access is a highly regarded movement. He explains, “The prices of journals, to buy and for page charges, have grown to be a burden in a research budget, and open-access pushes back on that trend. Astronomers care mostly about the impact factor and citation statistics of a journal, and less about whether or not it is open access. Admissions and hiring processes are usually in accord.”

Dr. Regina Deil-Amen, Director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education, stresses the legitimacy of the publication above all: “Whether or not it is open access means much less than the process authors need to go through to publish a manuscript. Mainly, is it peer-reviewed and how extensive, vigorous, and valid is that review process?”

Dr. Jeannette D. Hoit, Director of Postdoctoral Affairs, agrees that one of the best things one can do is to ask around to see what the perception is of a particular journal. She asks: “Is it well respected by senior scholars in your discipline? Are the articles in it of high quality in your opinion?” She also notes that some journals and presses are fully open access, while some give you the option of publishing your article as open access. She warns, “[OA] requires money, though!”

Dr. Ben Fortna, Director of the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies, has first-hand experience with the monetary requirements of OA publishing. He explains, 

My main experience with open access stems from my years in the UK where open access was becoming a major factor in academic publishing. The UK’s national research review is, I believe, now requiring open access for some or all of works submitted for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is a bit like a national review of all academic areas that takes place every 6-7 years (sort of like a collective tenure review for everyone!).

A key problem is that open access is expensive and publishers have naturally tended to push the costs to individuals or institutions.  I was once fortunate to get funding from the British Academy for a project, and the edited volume that came out of it was an open access book that anyone anywhere with an internet connection can access.  The cost, something like $8,500 (journal article costs are more like $2,000), was paid for by the grant.

Dr. Fortna acknowledges that the costs can be daunting, which dovetails with the argument Dr. Fogelin makes for self-publishing as a mechanism for avoiding those costs, given that grant funding is often too sporadic and small to cover the academic demand for publishing. Cost aside, however, Dr. Fortna sees the importance of OA:

In theory, open access is great and should, if collectively pursued, drive down the rampant costs that the large publishing companies charge for journals and books.  All university libraries are under huge pressure to pay for the rising costs of publications, and open access is potentially a way to allow researchers and students to have access to information for free, but it’s proven difficult so far to find a means to eliminate the for-profit companies’ role in the game.

Dr. Hoit warns against journals that are not just for-profit, but in fact predatory. She explains, “What you need to watch out for are "predatory" journals, who might approach you and say, ‘we want to publish something for you. Please send us a manuscript.’ They are just trying to make money and they are not considered "good" journals to publish in.” She suggests reading up on these types of journals; a good article on the topic is Nature’s “Predatory journals: no definition, no defence.” Dr. Hoit also suggests looking into impact factor and other metrics to assess journals, though, she is quick to add, these metrics all have their problems. 

Whether delving into open access as a researcher or a writer, the UArizona Library has a great deal of information on their website, not to mention expert librarians with whom to consult. 

They have a webpage with a listing of their OA policies and resources, as well as an OA guide for researchers

For journal reputation, they have a guide on predatory publishers, as well as a webpage on journal impact and a guide to measuring research impact

In addition to the librarian liaisons, the scholarly communications librarian, Ellen Dubinsky, is available for consultation and questions regarding OA and predatory publishers or journal impact.