Open Access, the freely available classification for some academic work, is a growing and vital means of sharing information. While it may seem counterintuitive to ‘make’ something open access in the Internet-connected world, the need does persist. Fueled largely by a need to cut through the noise and find valuable data from conscious and respected researches, open access classification remains a major necessity for academics and students alike.
What is Open Access?
Open Access, sometimes referred to as OA or Open Access Publishing, describes content published without restriction on who can use it. There are never fees or charges to view or use Open Access materials.
For academics and students, open access means they can use the research materials they need. And for researchers publishing their work, making it available through Open Access ensures their work will be available for anyone to use and expand on. At its heart, Open Access guarantees the availability of information.
It should be easy enough to see why this is so important for academia. Without Open Access, educational institutions would be trapped by the restrictive and profit-driven forces that dominate traditional publishing.
Does Open Access Work?
The debate rages. Historically, academics were funded by an institution, which would publish their findings and sell them as part of a subscription journal or include the work in a textbook. Other institutions and students would then buy the work and everyone would be happy.
Of course not. The textbook industry chokes every penny they can from institutions and individuals. Due to the rather large and comprehensive nature of textbooks, a course needing only a fraction of the contents would still assign an entire book for purchase. Students might need only a single chapter or article for their course, but the nature of access demanded they buy the entire text.
Open Access flips that model. Work is freely available and (generally after a fee) the OA content is readily searchable on academic databases. Access to the database allows an individual or an institution to find any open access material whenever they need it.
Reading the previous sentence, you might have been given pause. Open Access, for all its value as a free resource for readers and researches, is a paid service with a cost to the creator or publisher. Whether traditionally published and distributed, or made available through Open Access, there will be costs incurred.
How, then, do we measure the worth of Open Access?
Academic writers and researchers tend to measure the success (or lack thereof) of their work based on how often it is cited in later works. A reasonable approach to determining how useful one’s content is to the academic community, this same metric is generally applied to studies of Open Access content.
While studies can be found both supporting and disproving the value of Open Access, one I’d like to spend a moment considering is the 2016 study by Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Library.
This study looks at the increase in citations for articles using the various levels of Open Access (defined by Colored Tiers).
What this study found was that the most accessible form of Open Access for the cost (Green). While this level of Access does not ensure complete availability, it does ensure your work is archived and is searchable. The takeaway here is that discoverability is actually more crucial than free vs. paid access.
Other studies seem to support this, though finding a set of research that agrees is quite difficult. One challenge is that most data on Open Access use and citation of content is self-reported, leaving room for errors and bias.
Nevertheless, whether it be an increase in discoverability or direct access to materials, we can generally agree that making content available and archived for search is a net positive for academia.
Open Access Of Tomorrow
Not everyone believes that discoverability is enough. For many, they feel that the gathering and dissemination of knowledge should be a publicly funded endeavor. These are individuals who back the Plan S initiative for Open Access.
The Plan S initiative, introduced in 2018, calls for the free and open access to scientific research at the moment of publication. Taking root at the moment in South Africa, the first and most prominent concern is cost. Scholars have to be able to afford to publish their work, or we all risk their research remaining inaccessible to all.
This is the obstacle Open Access in all forms will need to overcome. While the exorbitant profits of publishers (in both academia and general book publishing) hurt consumers and underpay creators; these models do get knowledge in the hands of academics and individuals. The alternative of that knowledge never being published is far worse.