• Open Insights: What’s to Be Done? Thoughts on Moving the Open Access Conversation Forward

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2018-08-03


An Open Insights essay by Michael Roy 



Stephen Buranyi’s piece from last summer “Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?” (short answer: yes) and Jon Tennant’s “Scholarly publishing is broken. Here’s how to fix it” are timely reminders that the open access movement matters to us as a society, that it is a movement that involves fighting against forces with priorities very different from our own, and that--in addition to reminders about what’s at stake in this battle--we need practical, actionable advice to get us where we want to go. 

I am not going to spend time rehearsing why Open Access matters. Nor will I spend much time explaining why it is that many established commercial publishers and other (bad) actors have a stake in seeing Open Access happen either very slowly, or in terms that are favorable to their interests. Others have covered this territory quite well. 

Instead, I want to take this opportunity to think about what actionable and practical things we can do to help realize the opportunity that Open Access provides for changing the way that we produce, share, and archive our scholarship, how this work is financed, and the impact of this work in advancing our mission. By we, I mean faculty, administrators, technologists, and librarians employed at colleges and universities. And while our colleges and universities each occupy a particular niche and reach a specific audience, I believe that we collectively share a common mission to educate, to pursue and disseminate new knowledge. I believe that these two activities play a critical role in helping society govern itself more justly and democratically, to improve the lives of those who inhabit this planet, and to address the world’s most pressing problems. 

I believe that we collectively share a common mission to educate, to pursue and disseminate new knowledge. I believe that these two activities play a critical role in helping society govern itself more justly and democratically, to improve the lives of those who inhabit this planet, and to address the world’s most pressing problems. 

At my own institution, I am frequently asked “What can we do about this?” as we wrestle with the challenges of unsustainable price increases from commercial publishers and the unrealized vision of Open Access. I see no single, clear path forward. Below are thoughts (as much for myself as anyone else) about what might be done on our individual campuses, understanding that this is a complicated, systemic problem that can not be solved through the action of any individual, or individual institution, but also acknowledging that the new systems, models, and activities required for positive change are unlikely to arise out of disruptive market forces, and are more likely to arise out of our own collective action. (See Mark Edington, The Commons of Scholarly Communication: Beyond the Firm and John Wenzler’s “Scholarly Communication and the Dilemma of Collective Action: Why Academic Journals Cost Too Much”.)

 Here is my best thinking to date on “What is to be done?” 

1. Get and stay informed about Open Access

There are many core resources that can help us understand what Open Access is, why it matters, what is happening in this fast-moving field. In addition, much of the work in Open Access wrestles with underlying economic questions of markets, and the role of commons-based production in a market dominated economy.  Given the vast number of projects and activities currently underway, it is not easy to keep up. Who on campus needs to be tracking this, and how should key new findings, developments, and opportunities for action be shared? We need a plan for getting and staying informed on our campuses.

2. Understand the connections of Open Access to Tenure and Promotion guidelines on campus and more broadly

Some publications are more important (read: higher prestige) than others. In other words, books published by certain publishers and articles published in certain journals are considered more important than the books and articles published in what are deemed less important places. The fact that we currently associate quality with certain journals and certain book publishers means that it is hard to convince authors to publish in new venues that are experimenting with new business models and new ways of evaluating quality. This logic deeply constrains current efforts to innovate and re-imagine a system that questions the core foundations embedded in our current system: what is a book or an article in the internet age where it is increasingly easy to include media, data, and hyperlinks? What is the role of the publisher and the scholarly community in the vetting and production of these new forms of publication? How do you appropriately evaluate the quality and impact of a scholar’s work in a digital environment? At a local level, we need to have conversations about how our tenure and promotion guidelines are contributing to maintaining the current system of scholarly communication, and if that’s okay. In other words, do our current promotion and tenure practices create bad incentives for scholarly communication, and which realistic reforms to our local tenure and promotion procedures might create better incentives? And because the current and future leaders of disciplines and scholarly societies come from our own institutions, we need to encourage these leaders who are on our campuses to have these very same conversations within their own fields, and for those on our faculty who care deeply about these issues to get involved in their own scholarly societies to advocate for reform.

3. Keep track of how you spend your money

While it is certainly the case that not everything that can be measured matters, and that not everything that matters can be measured, it is also the case that measuring certain things does matter. A small group of us have been working to develop tools for measuring our individual and collective investment in the resources required to build a scholarly community-owned and -governed scholarly commons. To create such a scholarly commons will require collective investments in shared infrastructure, and a good first step towards realizing that vision is to understand our current levels of investment. Our project is looking for volunteers to help us define what should count as an investment in the shared infrastructure, to collect this data, and to establish norms around how to use this data to drive change. 

4. Invest wisely 


Currently there are many great ideas for how to move forward. We can invest in advocacy and policy organizations, infrastructure projects, new entrants in the publishing field, and efforts to flip existing publications to Open Access. There are also initiatives that attempt to “grade” open resources in order to help guide investment, and various kinds of collective investment funds for Open Access. For anyone who has to make strategic decisions about what investment will have the greatest impact, it is daunting. One effort we have underway is to create a typology and shared inventory of investment opportunities to help map out the wide array of opportunities, and to identify gaps in the overall system. 

5. Invest more and/or invest differently

Our effort to document current investments and inventory current investment opportunities is tied to a belief that a new scholarly commons will require additional and likely significant investment by colleges and universities, and doing so in a coordinated manner should reduce overall costs across the system. It is unclear where that investment will come from. Do we all cancel our big deals with the major publishers and instead invest in open access? Do we convince our CFOs that investing in the infrastructure to sustain the scholarly commons is akin to investing in other forms of campus infrastructure (e.g., roofs, boilers, and campus networks)? What would it cost to fully fund the scholarly commons? How long might it take to make that transition, and how long would we need to be funding two systems at that same time? 

We should understand the values and practices of the publishers that we consider, and consider whether or not these values and practices align with our values as individuals, as citizens and as scholars.

6. Be personally Open

Understand the simple, practical ways that we as individuals can contribute to the Open Access movement. We should understand the values and practices of the publishers that we consider, and consider whether or not these values and practices align with our values as individuals, as citizens and as scholars. We need to understand what our rights are, and retain as many as we possibly can. An obvious example: we should make all our own scholarship, or at least our journal articles, open access. 

I had the great fortune this spring to listen to Bryan Stephenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, which is an organization that, in their words, “challenges poverty and racial injustice, advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system, and creates hope for marginalized communities.” In his remarks Stephenson shared what he has learned about making positive change in the world.  I think we can learn from his model as we engage in the fight to re-claim control over the system of scholarly communication and to see to it that the values and principles of that system are consistent with the mission, values, and principles of education and research. 

He talked about the need to hold together these four elements in any work of social change:

Proximity: We need to be close to those we are trying to help. We need to understand what change will mean for everyone involved in that change, and to listen and include in particular the ideas and perspectives of those who have historically been excluded from designing the system. 

Re-framing: The manner in which a problem or opportunity is framed greatly influences how you approach solving that problem or pursuing that opportunity,  

As much as it might be unpleasant to be involved in conflict, as much as it might not feel good in the short run, the history of real change always involves discomfort. 

Discomfort: Changing a system is hard. There are people and institutions who don’t want the system to change. If it were easy and in everyone’s interest, it would have changed a long time ago. As much as it might be unpleasant to be involved in conflict, as much as it might not feel good in the short run, the history of real change always involves discomfort. 

Hope: Anger at wrongs and injustice is necessary, but to sustain change requires hope. We have to believe that change is possible, and we need a positive vision for a better future that will fuel the work and keep us coming back year after year to make it so. 

While Stephenson and his organization are fighting for social justice within the criminal justice system, he frames his advice in broad terms, hoping that they will be of use to all involved in other types of reform movements. In thinking about how to proceed with the work of realizing the scholarly commons, I can see that Stephenson’s advice is useful as a guide to ensuring effective long-term campaigns for change. It also serves as an invitation to think expansively about the impact of this work on our society, and to learn from those who have long toiled to build and sustain movements that strive to make a real difference in this world. 

These ideas, written as much for myself as for anyone else, are certainly incomplete and in need of refinement. Many thanks to some of my heroes from this world for their useful comments on a draft of this: Raym Crow, John Dove, Mark Edington, Charles Watkinson, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Diane Graves, David Lewis, Mackenzie Smith, Peter Suber, and John Willinsky. I welcome thoughts and suggestions drawn from your own experience as to what we who work at colleges and universities can do. 


Michael Roy is Dean of the Library at Middlebury College and co-founder of Scholarly Commons

Image by J / Unsplash

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