How Open Is Open Access?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 18 January 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.

partly open doorThose outside the UK probably won’t be aware of Jisc. The non-profit organisation’s role is to provide technological solutions to academic problems, including researching and developing new ways of working supported by technology. (Full disclosure: they are also one of my clients.) Jisc is publicly funded by UK taxpayers’ money and member subscriptions. Its members are from the UK, and its objectives are designed to create benefit for the staff and students of adult education institutions in the UK.

But its strategy includes a stated intention of ‘growing our offering internationally to further benefit our members’.

Jisc is also very keen on open sharing of information and resources. It advocates open access to research publications, which its says means making them ‘freely available so anyone can benefit from reading and using research’. It promotes the sharing of research data, and the use of non-restrictive Creative Commons licensing to enable re-use of resources. Jisc identifies various potential benefits of this, one of which is that ‘researchers in developing countries can see your work’.

So far, so many good intentions. I’m sure most of my Euro-Western colleagues will be nodding their heads and thinking yes, marvellous, jolly well done Jisc. And indeed I am not writing this post to criticise those at Jisc, who are doing their best to be good guys, and who after all exist in the UK for the benefit of their UK members. My point here is to critique our more general Euro-Western academic mindset, which Jisc’s example illustrates.

You see, until very recently, I would have been one of those people nodding along, with a satisfied expression, thinking “oh Jisc you are doing well”. But my eyes have been opened by a recent blog post written by Andy Nobes of international development charity INASP, featuring the work of Florence Piron from Université Laval in Québec and her colleagues from around the world. Piron and her colleagues have written – in French – some publications that offer new perspectives and ideas to Euro-Western advocates of open access. In particular, they challenge the idea that Euro-Western researchers simply making their work visible to ‘researchers in developing countries’, as Jisc suggests, equates to open access. By contrast, they see it as an extension of colonialism and an ‘alienation epistemic’. This is because it does nothing to make knowledge generated in other parts of the world equally visible to researchers in Euro-Western countries. In turn, that serves to reinforce the use of Euro-Western theories and models as normative, which is to the detriment of local epistemologies in other parts of the world (Piron et al 2017).

We don’t think of these things, do we, us Euro-Western researchers? We’re too confident that we’re doing OK as long as we’re making some kind of gesture towards those with fewer privileges.

Piron and her colleagues point out that many Euro-Western academics are unable even to think that ‘valid and relevant knowledge’ could exist in other places and other ways; they can be ‘blind to epistemological diversity’ and regard Western science as universal (ibid). Even those Euro-Western academics who do respect other forms of knowledge are unlikely to engage in truly reciprocal knowledge exchanges. Collaborative projects often involve Euro-Western academics acting as principal investigators while researchers from other parts of the world are restricted to data-gathering and administrative work (Sherwood 2013, Yantio 2013).

In some Euro-Western academic circles there are moves afoot to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. But this is not only needed in Euro-Western establishments. Some teachers in other parts of the world also choose exclusively Euro-Western literature and examples for their students (Mboa Nkoudou 2016). This is a direct real-world consequence of the pervasive Euro-Western conviction that any other way of thinking must be inferior to our own. It makes life harder – not easier – for people in other parts of the world to solve their own local problems in appropriate and sustainable ways (ibid).

Truly open access will involve a two-way exchange of – and respect for – knowledge and the epistemological positions on which it is based. Obviously this is beyond the power of a single organisation, such as Jisc, or a single individual, such as you or I. However, all Euro-Western researchers, and those who work with them, need to be aware of the difference between open access as we tend to purvey it, and genuinely open access. Only with such awareness will we find ways to move from our one-way, take-it-or-leave-it approach to a true openness and sharing with other academics around the world.

New Year’s Resolution: Open Access Only

open-doorHappy New Year, all my lovely readers! I hope you’ve had a wonderful break and that any resolutions you may have made are the life-enhancing rather than the punitive kind.

My resolution for 2017 is that from now on, I will only write academic articles in my own time for open-access journals. If someone wants to pay me to write an academic article, then I’ll be open to submitting that article to a journal of their choice. (It has happened once in my life, so far.) But otherwise I’m going OA.

I can’t afford to do that with books, as I’m finding that academic self-publishing doesn’t pay, while academic traditional publishing does, a bit. (My trad pub royalties for the year 2015-16 finally broke four figures, which felt GREAT.  The actual figure was £1,627.20 which is a month’s money for me. Though it did take five-and-a-half years of dedicated writing and promo to reach this point… at that rate I should be able to give up the day job in 2071. When I’ll be 106 years old. Oh well!)

Articles for academic journals are much easier and quicker to write than books. They’re also good for testing and refining small ideas. I enjoy writing them, so I’m not going to stop. But I am planning to reduce the number I write to two a year, and publish those in OA journals or not at all.

This is primarily an ethical decision. Early in the days of OA publishing, although I liked the prospect from a reader’s viewpoint, I worried that many writers would be excluded because of the costs. I think that is still the case in some quarters, but I have found that reputable OA journals are often willing to waive their fees for independent researchers, and some don’t charge fees at all. Also, I would like my work to be more widely accessible, including to people who are temporarily or permanently outside the academy, or in parts of the world where it’s particularly difficult for people to access paywalled academic journals.

There are many more open access journals around now than there were five years ago. When I was working on the first edition of Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners, in 2012, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) listed 22 journals covering social work. Now it lists 125. There are similar levels of increase in other subject areas, and there are now 9,000 journals on the site as a whole. Yet the DOAJ only lists journals that are peer-reviewed or otherwise editorially controlled; they don’t list predatory journals. They promote best practice in OA publishing and have high ethical standards.

I feel ashamed to say that I have never published an article in an OA journal. To begin with I was advised on where to publish by academic mentors, then I wanted to publish in the journals I liked to read. Now I want to read more OA journals as well as publishing in them. I’m not going to rule out citing work from paywalled journals – yet – but I want to focus on finding and using more OA journals, rather than going straight to the usual suspects all the time.

I do have a couple of articles in the pipeline with paywalled journals, so it’ll be a while before I get to assess the impact of my New Year’s resolution for 2017. Nevertheless, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting adventure!