Lessons from Open Access Week

As most of you already know, last week was Open Access Week at the University of Michigan Library. It was a great series of events, and I’m very happy with how it all came together. Audio recordings of some of the events will be available soon for those who are interested, and I’ll post links when they are. Private Drive by Ron Layters
Private Drive by Ron Layters, CC-BY-NC-SA

Now that I’ve had a little time to catch my breath and look back, I’m realizing that OA Week gave me a much-needed opportunity to refine and reflect on my thinking about open access. Over the course of the week, I learned a few valuable lessons, and even changed my mind about a couple of things. Before I forget it all, I wanted to share them here.

Lesson #1: A formal definition of open access should include re-use rights The Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin definitions of open access all require not just free online access to the work for all users with an internet connection, but also a license that permits copying and redistribution of the work. Prior to Open Access Week, I believed that a definition of open access that required usage rights was sacrificing the good for the sake of the perfect, and that therefore all three of these founding documents were deeply flawed. In an environment where scholarly authors must often haggle mightily just to keep the right to deposit their articles in an institutional repository, such a requirement was asking too much. We shouldn’t disparage those who do the valuable and important work of promoting subject and institutional repositories just because in an ideal world we’d have something even better.

Discussions at the Open Access and the Academy panel have convinced me that the difference between a work that is freely available and a work that is freely reusable is tremendous, and that true openness does require the possibility of future adaptation and use. We can draw a distinction between free access and Open Access without demeaning those who have only been able to achieve free access. In very many situations, free access is enough.

There is also a broader Open with a capital O movement – Open Source, Open Education, Open Content – and those opens all require Open Licenses. As a child of the branded generation, I think it makes sense for all those Open movements to have a recognizable theme, and since Open Source, Open Education, and Open Content all call for Open Licenses, so should Open Access. (The question of which licenses constitute Open Licenses is another matter, one on which I tend to disagree with the majority.)

Lesson #2: Undergraduates have an important role to play in advocating for Open Access This is the second thing about which my mind has been changed. In the past, I have argued that Open Access outreach programs targeting students are misguided, because undergrads have nothing to do with any part of the publishing process. Most of them don’t write articles for academic journals, and they don’t publish academic journals. The points in the system where change could happen involved the author and the journal, and those were the two audiences to which we should be directing our message.

While nobody spoke directly about undergraduate engagement during OA Week, the week made me think about it because it reminded me that it’s damned hard to get faculty into a room they’re not contractually obligated to be in. Despite a determined marketing push, faculty did not turn out to our events in large numbers. The same is true in my day to day work. Most of the time, I only hear from faculty seeking copyright advice after they have a problem. Until they have a problem, author rights and open access are simply not on their radar. I can send postcards and emails and speak at department meetings until I’m blue in the face, but it’s going to take an outside force to convince busy academics that this is something they should be paying attention to. As evidenced by the faculties at Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere, the winds are starting to shift, but progress is still very slow.

So now imagine what a little undergraduate activism can do. The high cost of purchasing scholarly journals contributes to the rising cost of education, and the rising cost of education is a hot topic in these dire economic times. If we can get students riled up about open access – and that’s still a big if – they might have more luck influencing the behavior of their professors than librarians have. While before I thought that targeting students for open access outreach was a waste of time, now I believe it’s worth a shot. Some infrastructure for it already exists, and in the coming months I plan to look into how I can promote student participation here at Michigan.

Lesson #3: Never lose sight of the Great Conversation Jean-Claude Guédon, one of the panelists on Tuesday, spoke of the importance of open access in facilitating what he called “The Great Conversation.” The Great Conversation is the purpose of all scholarship. It signifies engagement with knowledge, ideas, and a worldwide community of scholars. To frame the issue this way, open access is not about money or fairness or social justice, it’s about something more romantic. Perhaps the way to win over the hearts and minds of faculty is to put open access in loftier, more idealistic terms. People who do not have access to scholarly output cannot participate in the Great Conversation, and neither can people whose works are not widely accessible. And who can resist the seduction of a Great Conversation, a free-flowing, boundary-crossing exchange of opinion and understanding?

We in libraries often get bogged down in the numbers, the line graphs that show the skyrocketing prices of journals relative to inflation, the mundanities of our stagnant or shrinking budgets. We believe these fiscal arguments should resonate with faculty, and sometimes they do, but there is nothing terribly inspiring about a line graph. When we talk about the importance of Open Access, we should remember to speak not only about what is broken right now, but also the tantalizing possibilities for the Great Conversation that lies ahead.

Open Access Week at the University of Michigan

I have been working with an excellent team of librarians here at Michigan to plan a week of events related to open access and the future of scholarship. We’re calling it Open Access Week. Clever, no?

It’s less than three weeks away, and as the schedule has come together I’m struck by how timely these events are, and how much we could conceivably do under the umbrella of discussing open access and the future of scholarship. When we started planning several months ago, I was concerned that a whole week might be too ambitious; I wasn’t sure how we would fill it. Now we’re starting to turn down proposals for events because there is so much going on already. The confluence of circumstances nationally has made this the perfect moment to discuss what’s wrong with existing modes of academic publishing, and to start getting aggressive about making change.

First we have the return of the dreadful Fair Copyright In Research Works Act, which is opposed by just about everyone except commercial publishers, including 33 Nobel Laureates in science. Then comes the word that together Elsevier and LexisNexis earned over $1.5 billion US in profit in 2008. For Elsevier that’s an adjusted operating margin — a profit — of 33%. While universities across the country are facing budget cuts of 20% or more, Elsevier brings in 33% profits, largely on the backs of university libraries. And economic news more broadly indicates that no library will escape unscathed. When Harvard starts laying off librarians and eliminating subscriptions, we’re all in trouble.

Now is the perfect time to get serious about adopting alternate modes of scholarly publishing, and Open Access models are serious alternatives. I’ll be the first to admit that we still haven’t figured out how to make OA work long term, or how to make it financially sustainable. We know it’s cheaper than Elsevier, but real costs remain. The more we experiment with new models, the better our chances that some of them will succeed. My hope is that our series of events during Open Access Week will help raise awareness among faculty and researchers here, and also build some energy for action and experimentation. I’d love to see an Open Access deposit mandate here at Michigan, or a commitment among faculty to edit and referee for OA journals. These ideas have been around for a long time, but this economic moment might be just what we need to push them forward. A recession is a terrible thing to waste.