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Columns, Opinions

Ruzicka ’21: Our future is Open Access

By
Staff Columnist
Wednesday, October 14, 2020

As we continue to weather the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown students remain scattered across the world. Both those that are in Providence and those operating remotely have felt the pains of not having the same access to academic resources as they do during a normal semester.

The University has taken steps to ensure all students can carry on their research, with particular efforts toward digitizing library resources and providing students with online access to academic content. This is made possible through University subscriptions to various journals and publishing companies that charge exorbitant prices for the ability to view materials such as research papers, some of which have been produced by the University’s own faculty.

In order for the University to maintain a sustainable, fair and collaborative academic model, it must implement a new process for publishing academic research: an Open Access plan.

Currently, the academic publishing process primarily benefits the journals and publishers, not the researchers who actually produce work. In a nutshell, authors produce content and then pay a submission fee to have it considered by the publisher. If the paper is chosen to be published, the authors sign away the rights to their paper, rendering them unable to republish or reuse their own content without permission. This can even prevent them from using their papers to teach courses and sharing their work with colleagues in their field to further scientific discovery.

According to Elsevier, one of the largest academic publishers in the world, Open Access is when “publications are available online — to everyone — at no cost and with few restrictions regarding reuse.” The Open Access movement is more than a decade old and began with the academics increasing ability to publish their research findings online; however, in order to do this, researchers had to give up their chance at publishing with a journal due to reuse and republishing limitations.

The only way for researchers to have guaranteed rights to use their own work without Open Access efforts is to subscribe to the journals and publishers that own the material. Many universities take on this cost for their researchers; institutional subscriptions to some of the largest publishers, like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. If an institution can’t afford to pay for a year, they cannot use new materials from the publisher and lose access to all content that they had paid for in years prior. All of this occurs while these publishers make profit margins upwards of 35 percent.

Most publishers offer some Open Access option for an additional fee. There are various kinds of Open Access, the most common of which are Green Open Access and Gold Open Access. The primary advantage to all forms of Open Access is that they allow researchers to deposit a copy of their article into the archive of their institution, which cannot be revoked. This creates a permanent collection for that institution and ensures their possession of academic material even during times when paying subscriptions becomes a financial hardship. Open Access content provides the basis for a more sustainable archival model, particularly when paired with programs like interlibrary loan, where libraries across different institutions can share their materials with each other.

Consequently, Open Access content helps level the playing field for researchers who are not directly affiliated with privileged institutions like Brown; while they could not directly view materials requiring access to a university subscription, they would be able to view the copies in online archives through a university’s digital repository without an institutional login. By using Open Access to create a localized collection of research content and offering to share it with other institutions, universities can give individuals who may not have had the ability to read about the most current research an avenue for generating new knowledge in their field.

More minds working toward solutions to our world’s problems means that we will arrive at discoveries faster, benefiting everyone involved. On the other hand, to deny capable researchers access to academic content squanders the potential of all fields of study to expand their corpus of knowledge.

Not only can researchers work independently based on the most current knowledge with the help of Open Access policies, but they can also more effectively collaborate. A research team cannot function if part of the team has outdated knowledge of the problem, so having the option to provide colleagues with current information is essential. It’s also important for researchers to have access to current findings in order to corroborate their peers’ work. Inaccessible research papers can hinder reproductions of experiments and potentially let flawed findings work themselves into accepted knowledge.

The University would not be alone among higher education institutions if they decide to implement an Open Access plan. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a policy in March 2009 stating that all research publications generated by their faculty must be made available to the Provost’s Office to be archived in their library collection. If there is an extenuating circumstance, faculty can opt-out of the program, but the crux of the policy changes the research culture at MIT, demanding that researchers default to sharing their work publicly. The only cost of this policy is that MIT committed to covering any Open Access fees that may be required from publishers, but this expense is minimal in the face of paying publishers hundreds of thousands of dollars per year to access materials indefinitely.

More recently, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and University of California (UC) both engaged in standoffs with Elsevier over Open Access policies and subscription fees in 2019. CMU was able to settle upon a “transformative agreement” with the publisher, allowing CMU access to all Elsevier content and making all new published materials authored by CMU faculty Open Access. UC has been unable to reach such an agreement as of yet, instead boycotting the publisher, to which they pay upwards of $10 million in subscription fees per year. They have been operating on other means of receiving information to maintain their research prowess, such as interlibrary loan.

Beyond the efforts of educational institutions, Plan S and cOAlitian S are joint movements that have solidified their presence in the fight for Open Access in more recent years, calling for drastic reform in academic publishing and stating:

“With effect from 2021, all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.”

The University is fully capable of making a commitment comparable to that of MIT and adding its voice to the fight for Open Access. There is no downside for the University to ask faculty to ensure that their content is made accessible to University libraries without requiring expensive subscriptions. Open Access policies are the beginning to ensuring an academic future that is sustainable, fair and collaborative, securing the livelihood of curiosity and discovery.

Emilia Ruzicka ’21 can be reached at emilia_ruzicka@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Great article!!

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