Open Access, which I think of as the sometimes costly process of making scholarly outputs free-to-read, has enjoyed a fascinating career since its formal articulation and inception around the year 2000 (with many experiments and precursors before). While this is not the space to review its history, I do recommend that readers of this blog take the time and attention to do exactly that at some point. From where we are now, more than 20 years into some major OA initiatives, the continuing place of OA near the center of scholarly and scientific publishing seems well assured. OA Week 2021 seems a good occasion to reflect on that fact, and to then try peering, just a little, into the future. Back in 2000, no one knew where all this was going. We may have no more reliable idea about the future now, but that has never yet daunted a blogger from gazing into their ever ready-to-hand crystal ball.
Were this a formal research paper, I might at this point conduct a review of the literature. But who, other than real scholars working on real scholarship (and not simply the occasional blog post), has time for that? Instead, I will take a quick look at several articles which I think each point to something distinctly interesting about the future of OA. As a preview: I think the key aspects of OA, now and in the future, are about improving accessibility (for researchers and readers), and improving reach (beyond those in the most-developed economies).
First up is “A Brief History to the Future of Open Access” (2020), an article by Margaret Mering and Casey Hoeve which first appeared in the Taylor & Francis journal Serials Review. (I must say that I love the title.) The citations in this paper provide a handy guide to the history of OA as well as pointers to the present state of the OA movement. And I am also inclined to agree with these observations from the conclusion: “. . . open access has a tremendous amount of future potential for options and strategies to pursue with the goal of making information freely accessible to scholars. While many goals are feasible, some are currently aspirational and only time will tell if they succeed or fail.”
Because impactful publishing of quality articles actually costs money, Gold OA, in which publishers’ costs for making articles OA are paid through Article Processing Charges (APCs) on an individual or aggregate basis (e.g., Read and Publish deals), may appropriately be referred to as the standard model at this point (with Green OA, or “self-archiving”, as the principal supplementary alternative). Writing in that context for The Scholarly Kitchen, David Crotty asked “New Open Access Business Models — What’s Needed to Make Them Work?” As Crotty points out, Gold OA “works really well for some authors, in some subject areas, in some geographies. But it is not a universal solution to making open access work and it creates new inequities as it resolves others.” What sort of new inequities? For one, it is clear that arrangements that provide “access to publication” based primarily on the ability to pay advantages those researchers and institutions who are based in wealthier countries. However, no one is arguing that the currently most prevalent models are perfect – far from it ; the question is how to mitigate (and not add to) these disparities, and how feasible it may be to implement and distribute any improvements.
Proposed alternatives to the APC or Green Road options have included library or institutional funding for direct support of affiliated authors or journals; central government funding to support the publications themselves; funding through private grants to authors; or government-mandated OA — this last, in my view at least, is a harsh solution which, even as a former academic and public librarian, I do not favor. (As I see it, a mandated and “no embargoes” requirement for immediate full access inevitably serves to cut the necessary editorial work, and publishers, out of the value chain, and thereby violates the basic logic of information economics. A topic for another post.) Crotty refers to the sustainability question about new and alternative models: Are there solid, empirical reasons to think that any new or proposed models are sustainable over the long haul? It may be overly conservative of me, but I think that (ideally) the Version of Record should always be available somewhere. In that context, one might wish that CLOCKSS were universal. But it isn’t. Any proposed “new model” not fully satisfying this sustainability criterion, I think, might reasonably be viewed as suspect or (at best) experimental.
Another publication that caught my eye, and that I want to highlight in the context of this look-ahead for OA, is a white paper released in 2020 by Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research, entitled “Achieving an equitable transition to open access for researchers in lower and middle-income countries.” Its principal authors are Andrea Powell (STM Outreach Director and Publisher Coordinator, Research4Life), Rob Johnson (Director, Research Consulting) and Rachel Herbert (Senior Research Evaluation Manager, Elsevier), and their work focuses on practical ways in which publishers and others in the scholarly ecosystem can better support researchers in Lower- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) with access to the publications they need as well as to resources enabling them to publish important (and sometimes lifesaving) results as well. As Open Access progresses among the wealthier countries, it seems to me that seeing to it that “. . . the growing cohort of scientists from LMICs are active participants in shaping the knowledge generation and transfer mechanisms that will underpin the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals” is within reach and ought to be aggressively pursued until it is achieved.
Also very informative for readers of Velocity of Content is Claire Redhead’s post for OASPA, “Developing a healthy and diverse OA market: Reflections.” Reading the post and following the links to resources, we learn that participants in a recent OASPA-sponsored workshop asked (what I think of as) all the right questions: What is the market [for OA materials]? What is the problem [that they are intended to address]? What are the characteristics of a healthy and diverse OA market? What are the roles of regulation, and of the community? Our Magic 8-Ball might not provide the answers, but there is no avoiding these questions.
Having considered these points in turn, I’m left to address what is sometimes called the “So What?” of research work: OA has come a long way in 20 years. So What?
To date, OA has clearly improved the accessibility of significant swathes of the scholarly and scientific publishing universes. There’s no risk of the world turning back on that progress now. However, and as I suggested above, I think the two most critical challenges OA will be facing in years to come are ( a ) the question of the long-term sustainability of its models, and ( b ) the challenge of extending its reach to more fully include researchers, authors, and publishers based in the LMICs.
As we celebrate OA Week 2021, perhaps as we reflect on how far OA has come, we also should use the occasion to contemplate how far it has yet to go.