Open Access: An Ethical Imperative
In 1994, I became practically acquainted with the notion of "open access" (OA), namely the goal of making scholarship, particularly scholarly journal articles, freely available to anyone with internet access. In that year I published an article in the peer reviewed journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, an OA journal. The journal was new, only started the year earlier, and was not particularly well known (though it has subsequently evolved into a very prestigious Education journal). Within weeks of my article appearing, its subject a fairly obscure topic in nineteenth century English educational history, I was amazed to see that it had been accessed hundreds and hundreds of times. Today this figure has reached many thousands. The lesson was plain for me if I wished an article to reach as many as possible the strategy was to publish it in an OA journal rather than one closed to most potential readers by subscription barriers.
Today faculty are increasingly aware of the benefits of open access as well as the disadvantages of closed access. Indeed, some experience the irony that sometimes they cannot access their own published work as their institution cannot afford to subscribe to the particular journal. Moreover, many are also cognizant that costly financial barriers to journal access at other libraries result in their articles being read less and cited less. Such access barriers certainly affect students too, many of whom are strong supporters of OA. The student-founded Right to Research Coalition has as its primary goal "to promote an open scholarly publishing system based on the belief that no student should be denied access to the articles they need because their institution cannot afford the often high cost of access." The Coalition presently represents seven million students both nationally and globally.
While librarians, faculty and students have been the primary promoters of open access, the general public has also been increasingly vocal in calling for greater availability to scholarship. Most Americans, many of whom have helped fund research through their tax dollars, have no ready access to the scholarship resulting from that research. And they certainly desire such access. There is very great interest among the ordinary public in reading, for example, medical scholarship. Parents want to research medical articles to help cure their sick children, or themselves. Individuals often need to retrieve legal commentary in preparation for some legal process. Others require access to important educational scholarship for a variety of reasons. A profusion of scientific research generally only available to those who have entrée to major research libraries is also of interest to many of the general public. A plethora of other examples of people outside academia desiring access to material closed by financial and license barriers might be provided. The fundamental point is that placing major gateways to scholarship, as is the case with many costly subscription journals that are only accessible at large research libraries, is surely an ethical issue. As most college and university libraries are publicly funded, why should the public have to pay for articles twice, first with their taxes and then with subscriptions to journals? Arguably the erection of barriers to the results of research that can aid so many individuals in so many different ways, individuals who in many cases have helped fund through taxation the research published in the journals, is a manifest social injustice?
Another major discrimination is the "cultural apartheid" being suffered by numerous developing countries. Libraries in many of these nations are invariably much worse off financially than their counterparts in North America and Western Europe and are far less able to subscribe to important scholarly journals. In such an environment of the "haves" and the "have-nots" there's a clear ethical imperative to provide access to scholarship, most of which has been produced in the first world, to those who cannot afford to purchase it. This scholarship can be of great assistance in improving society in countless important areas, e.g. climate change, environmental issues, medicine, education, literacy, economics, business. The list might be greatly extended. Open access is certainly an effective strategy to make far more knowledge available to all. At a time when financial institutions are often criticized for greed and for putting the bottom line before any notion of social justice, the World Bank deserves much commendation for its policy of making all its research outputs and knowledge products OA, a policy which came into effect in July 2012. At the time of the announcement World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick stated that "Knowledge is power. Making our knowledge widely and readily available will empower others to come up with solutions to the world's toughest problems." In addition to the social justice aspect of sharing research it is good foreign policy by developed nations to do so. Moreover, by disseminating and making available information in a more equitable manner, OA is a powerful force to advance democracy and society's political wellbeing.
It is important to point out that Boston College Library was an early signatory of the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative that promoted the public good of open access. This public good, the Initiative stated, "is the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds. Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge." Boston College Library is also a member of the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a body whose primary goal is "to ensure that the published results of research funded with public dollars are made available to the American public, for free, online, as soon as possible."
Though most OA discussion is focused on journal articles, in recent years a swiftly growing concern is that of open access to research data. Increasing the open availability of research data has the potential for a major impact on the advancement of critical, global scientific research efforts by simplifying the process and lowering the costs of exchange and reuse of valuable data sets. The data underlying the research of many journal articles has also been funded from public sources. More and more individuals, viewing this as a social justice issue, want this data to be freely available to the taxpayer. Though the scholar may have collected, analyzed, evaluated the research data, a strong case can be made that it does not belong to her and should be made public and shared. The researcher is usually only a steward of the data. A number of major funding agencies now mandate that data be made public to a greater or lesser degree, for example the National Institutes of Health (data sharing required for grants exceeding $500,000); the National Endowment for the Humanities (the NEH has a particularly robust data management plan); the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. The National Science Foundation has required from January 2011 that grant proposals include a "Data Management Plan" that specifies sharing of data: "Investigators are expected to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the primary data, samples, physical collections and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of work under NSF grants. Grantees are expected to encourage and facilitate such sharing." The sharing of such data, not just to other academic researchers but to all, can go far in furthering many facets of the public good.
Some scholars are still leery of OA. It's a relatively new concept that upends what has been for years the traditional dissemination of scholarship. It's true that many authors are loyal to the existing subscription journals which they have known and maybe published in for years. Also, there are a number of myths associated with OA (see the article "Open Access Myths: Busted!" by my colleague Jane Morris) not least of which is that OA journals do not practice peer review or that some lesser peer review is performed in OA journals. This oft cited absence of peer review is just plain wrong. There are good quality peer reviewed OA journals as well as mediocre peer-reviewed OA journals as is the case with subscription journals. The quality of journals has nothing necessarily to do with whether they're free or subscription. There is no reason whatsoever that an OA journal must be more lacking in academic and editorial rigor than its toll-access counterparts. Still, as OA journals are a somewhat new phenomenon it's understandable if many seeking tenure or other decisions affecting their career tend to eschew publishing in such media. They are worried that the decision makers may be ignorant of the nature of OA. Of course much of this attitude is discipline based. There tends to be far more knowledge about OA in, for example, some of the sciences - physics is to the fore as is medicine. Of the social sciences economics enjoys the most practice of OA.
Nevertheless, scholars' leeriness regarding OA is disappearing. A growing number are careful when signing copyright agreements to seek to retain sufficient rights to place the published work on their personal web pages and in such disciplinary OA digital archives as the scientific arXiv.org or the economics RePEc or in such OA institutional repositories as BC's eScholarship@bc. Numerous others are publishing in such free OA journals as the 9,000 listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals or paying, if funds permit and policies allow, for their articles in regular journals to be available as OA. One can assume that more and more authors appreciate the patent advantages of OA in disseminating their scholarship as well as the ensuing benefits of wider readership. While scholars are pleased with OA for professional reasons, it is likely that many also subscribe to the social justice aspect of OA. They want their research to make a difference, to help society. It makes no sense, certainly no ethical sense, to keep research closed by means of publisher financial gateways from vast numbers of the world's population who would benefit from such research. Recognizing that knowledge is a public good and not a mere commodity, more and more agree that it should be free as well as easily accessible, that providing open access to knowledge is, in short, the right thing to do.