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.

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Open Access Week

  1. Question: Surely there was some discussion of Michigan congressman John Conyer’s bill attempting to overturn the NIH OA mandate?

    Comment 1: Whether one accepts the http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/442-guid.html definitions of the two kinds of Open Access (“gratis” and “libre”) or one prefers to deny free access the honorific of “open,” the fact is that we do not even have free online access (whatever we choose to call it), and that asking nonproviding authors to do more, and asking institutions and funders to mandate that they do more is even more difficult than just getting them to provide the free online access, which only 72 institutions and funders — out of perhaps 10,000 worldwide — are so far doing. (Without even that, it’s all just a name-game.)

    (The necessity of http://tinyurl.com/cbprro “re-use rights” for the verbatim texts of peer-reviewed research journal articles (as opposed research data, or Disney cartoons) is perhaps also worth giving some more thought.)

    Comment 2: For how students can help OA, see: http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/358-guid.html “The University’s Mandate To Mandate Open Access.”

    Comment 3: Before getting too taken up by the theory of the “Great Conversation,” it might be a good idea to makes sure free access (at the very least) is provided to its target content.

  2. These are great thoughts on the subject and I was happy to participate this last week in some of the discussion.

    We (Open.Michigan) are also thinking about how to engage students, particularly undergraduates, in advocacy and include them in this conversation. They are already creating new community standards for sharing work and ideas, but this has mainly been in the amateur world where profit hasn’t mattered. However, they all understand that big media is controlling content and forcing them to make concessions about sharing certain types of content. They want to retaliate but sometimes do not know how. My point here is that the culture is changing and movements like Open Access and Open Education might join in with groups like Students for Free Culture. The base principles have quite a bit of crossover.

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