What Is Research?

July 29, 2009

Information costs and open access

Filed under: Uncategorized — vipulnaik @ 4:59 pm
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In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards “open access” among librarians and academics. For instance, the University of Michigan recently held an Open Access Week, where they describe open access as:

free, permanent, full-text, online access to peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly material.

In an earlier blog post, I discussed some issues related to open access. Here, I attempt to look at the matter more comprehensively.

Rationales for open access

There are many rationales for open access. The simplest rationale is that open access means reduced cost of access to information, which allows more people to use the same research. Since the marginal cost of making research available via the Internet to more people is near zero, it makes sense from the point of view of efficiency to price access by yet another person to the research at zero.

Another rationale is a more romantic one: making scientific and scholarly publishing available openly allowsfor a free flow of ideas and a grander “conversation”. Support for this rationale also indicates that open access should be more than just free (in the sense of zero cost) access to materials, but also a license that permits liberal reuse of research materials in new contexts. Academia already has strong traditions of quoting from, linking to, and building upon, past work, but this form of open access seeks to provide a legal framework that explicitly specifies reuse rights that go beyond the traditional copyright framework of countries such as the United States. An example of such permissive licensing is the Creative Commons licenses.

As shorthand for these two rationales, I shall use cost rationale and conversation rationale.

Open access policies/mandates

One of the major problems the open access movement has faced so far is getting people to publish papers in open access journals. As long as the best papers continue to be published in closed-access journals, academics who want to read these journals will pressure their university libraries to subscribe to these journals, even when the journals overcharge. Thus, librarians are unable to push open-access terms on publishers.

To overcome this problem requires collective action by major academic institutions. The most typical action is an “open access policy” undertaken at a department-wide or institution-wide level, that says that all papers published by people in that department or university have to be available in an open access repository. Harvard University has three open access policies. As Stuart Shieber explains in this blog post, the Harvard policy should not be viewed as a mandate (though it has been described in those terms) because Harvard has no effective enforcement mechanism. Rather, it should be seen as a powerful default rule that encourages faculty who may otherwise be indifferent to move towards open access (read here Richard Poynter’s blog post parsing and picking issue with this).

Open access has been accepted by many other universities, including an institution-wide policy by MIT.

At another level, the National Institutes of Health instituted a public access policy a little while ago, that requires all papers written with funding using NIH grants to be submitted to an open access repository a year after publication. The compliance rate for the NIH policy, when I last checked, was around 50%. This means that about half of all NIH-funded papers published a year or more ago are now freely available online. If other funding agencies such as the national Science Foundation and the National Security Agency introduce similar public access policies, the effect on open access is potentially huge.

Is this lowering the cost and increasing the availability of information?

Are the cost rationale and conversation rationale for open access justified? Do open access policies reduce the overall cost of accessing information?

Some of you may be saying at this moment that it has, by definition, reduced the cost of access. I don’t think it is completely obvious. The question here is whether there were people in the past who knew they wanted to access some content and were unable to do so because of the cost, but are now able to do so. People who have a demand but whose reservation price is less than the cost of the journal (and who are not in institutes that subscribe to the journal) would be the people for whom most value was created. The real question then is: to what extent are the open access resources being accessed? Is there a sudden, explosive increase in demand when something becomes freely accessible? Chris Anderson, in his book Free, argues that there is an explosion in demand when the price drops to the magical number of zero.

I am not so convinced that there will be an explosion of demand. If there isn’t, then I don’t think the conversation rationale is supported, and the best that can be said about the cost rationale is that it distributes income away from journal publishers towards academia and libraries, while possibly expanding access to others (even if very few actually use it). While an open access policy could still be supportable on these diminished grounds, the question then becomes one of whether publishers or libraries are most likely to “do good” with the greater money that they have.

Unfortunately, I do not have any idea of whether demand has indeed exploded thanks to the open access policies, or whether new demand segments have been created. What I do know is that in much of the discussion of open access, success is measured not in terms of the effect on increased demand but rather in terms of the compliance rate with the open access policy. This contrasts with initiatives to make things free outside academia, where we regularly hear about authors and artists putting up their work for free and getting millions of downloads and a boost in sales of their books and albums.

Better strategies

An extraordinary focus on “open access” from a principled perspective might obscure what I consider the larger goals: the cost rationale and the conversation rationale. Reducing costs and increasing availability are unlikely to be achieved by a few mandates without a change in the fundamental nature of incentives. My admittedly limited reading of academic papers published in journals makes it clear that these papers are often written for small audiences. For these audiences, they are often fairly user-friendly, but for others outside the cliche, they could be quite user-unfriendly. The nature and structure of the academic paper itself is a much greater issue when it comes to ensuring access to more people than the problem of cost.

Further, the fact that open access policies need to be made across-the-board in order to ensure compliance suggests that for many academics, their incentives make them largely indifferent to open access in practice, even while they may support it in principle. For instance, in this blog post, open access advocate and University of Michigan librarian Molly Kleinman writes:

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.

What then would be a better strategy? I don’t claim to have any concrete answers, but I will here outline some possibilities. First, something has to be done to make accessibility of materials more than just a matter of anybody freely being able to download one’s work. Rather, it should be a matter of understanding what kinds of other people might benefit from looking at one’s work, including segments within one’s profession and outside it. Then, it involves being able to reach out to these diverse audiences and increasing their awareness of, and hence their ability to benefit from, such work. Of course, this is already done in academia, but my limited experience suggests that it could be done a lot more.

Is the problem one of incentives? Possibly. More importantly, it is a problem of “thinking small”. Lecturers try to teach good courses, and some of them put up course notes online, that other lecturers can benefit from. But these course notes are heavily context-based, and their usefulness as a general resource for others is severely limited. It takes a whole new degree of effort to create something like MIT OpenCourseware. OpenCourseWare was possible because of thinking big, and in particular thinking deeply about the needs of people outside MIT to access course materials in a comprehensive and useful ways.

The localized incentive to teach a course well (often at a huge cost of preparation time) without a comparable incentive to work towards the design of a high-quality, widely available course is similar to the localized incentive to write a good paper to solve a problem in the field versus thinking about the larger, broader implication of making one’s research work and the many directions one has explored widely available and accessible to a larger audience including people working in totally different areas.

Some might argue that thinking “big” takes too much time and effort and it is best if such big thinking is restricted to a few individuals who specialize in such work while most others concentrate on tackling smaller problems. This is plausible. Even if this is the case, we need to have explicit roles for people who specialize in thinking big and who also have enough of the respect and admiration of their colleagues to be able to spread the best practices emerging from their work.

To some extent, the move towards open access may simply be a reflection of the bigger thinking that has emerged in a world where people have more ready access to a lot more information and ideas. In so far as it reflects part of a broader trend of this sort, the future looks promising for both the cost rationale and the conversation rationale. In so far as open access is treated as an end in itself, I think it has little promise to revolutionize research, teaching or academia, though it might definitely ease the budget burden on libraries.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi! really interesting and good article. Open access is very good thing especially,like you sait because people can easy find and have what they need.
    It is free for all to read, and to use (or reuse) to various extents. You have free access to material (mainly scholarly publications) via the Internet.It promote free availability and unrestricted use of research and scholarship. Bye

    Comment by intechweb — September 14, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

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