Paul Stacey

Open Access

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January 11, 2013 Aaron Swartz committs suicide.
The year 2013 starts on a somber note, an open wound.

I never met Aaron but I found it interesting to learn he was involved with the launch of Creative Commons.
Those who come before you leave a legacy.

So Open It Hurts provides a sense of Aaron’s personality and significant events in his life. This video of Aaron describing his personal involvement in the defeat of SOPA adds his presence, humour, and sense of intelligent innocence.

Aaron was a strong advocate for open access. His troubling and sad death has led to a rise in public awareness of open access. As part of Open Education Week 2013, and in the spirit of Heather Joseph’s Honoring an “Open” Activist by Taking Action, I thought I’d take responsibility to cast forward knowledge of open access, in my own way, through this post.


So what is this open access all about?

Open Access is the principle that research should be accessible online, for free, immediately after publication.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of academic and research libraries, has some great papers, guides and resources on open access. Their Open Access paper notes:

In the age of print, open access was physically and economically impossible. But thanks to the Internet, it’s an emerging reality. Now, the tradition of producing journal articles without expectation of payment combined with electronic publishing offers an unprecedented public good: the free online availability of peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles.


You may not have realized that research isn’t openly accessible.
What, you’re saying, you mean publicly funded research isn’t openly accessible?
That’s right, it isn’t.

Farhood Manjoo in his Slate post How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz describes the current situation like this:

The world’s colleges now collectively spend at least $10 billion and probably more than $20 billion every year on subscriptions to academic journals and archives like JSTOR. Even worse, those costs are rising at an astronomical rate—by one calculation, the amount that a typical college library spends on annual journal subscriptions rose by more than 300 percent between 1986 and 2005, much faster than inflation, tuition, and most university budgets. (Note that this was during a period when many journals went electronic—a time when you’d expect their costs and, thus, their prices to go down, not up.) These prices keep rising because the market for journals is inelastic—since there’s no substitute for any specific journal, whatever price it charges, universities feel like they’ve got to keep paying. This is all explained very well in a paper called “The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What To Do About It),” which I’d recommend you read if it weren’t behind a pay wall.

The amount universities spend on journals is especially perverse when you consider that most of the research in those journals was produced by scholars affiliated with and supported by universities, government agencies, and philanthropic endowments, all of whom have an interest in spreading scholarship far and wide. When you stop to think about it, the whole process looks Rube Goldbergian: People who work for universities and are funded by the public are giving their work away to journals for free—and then the journals are charging universities to buy it back. They’re making enormous profits from the scheme, too. For instance Elsevier, one of the leading publishers of scientific journals, routinely reports profit margins of around 37 percent.

Michael Eisen in his post How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz further elaborates:

Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.

Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.

But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.

Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.

Instead of encouraging their faculty to make their work widely available, virtually all universities send the unmistakable message to current and aspiring faculty that success in their career depends on publishing in the most high profile place you can. Since the most prestigious journals are generally old, this edict has the effect of stifling innovation in scientific communication. While countless alternatives to the traditional model have arisen, academics in most fields are reluctant to embrace them, fearing that doing so would harm their career prospects.

It is hard to account for this abdication on a university’s basic mission to produce and disseminate knowledge as anything but institutional laziness, as universities essentially farm out responsibility for screening job and promotion candidates to journals.

Absurdly, as soon as the scholarly output of our universities is in the hands of publishers, they immediately buy it back, spending billions of scarce institutional dollars every year in subscription and licensing fees to provide access to students and faculty, but leaving everybody else out in the cold.

Posting our PDFs is all fine and good, but the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again. We have to demand that our universities alter their policies to reward, rather than punish, free scholarly publishing, and that they stop cutting the checks that keep this immoral system afloat.

Above all else we need to enshrine the principle that the knowledge produced in the academy is a public good whose value is greatly diminished by turning it into private property.

So eloquently put.
And yet so shocking, almost shameful.
You mean research funded by the public, isn’t available to the public?
You mean universities don’t embody the principles of open access?
Yes, I’m afraid so, that is what this means.

But that’s wrong, you say.
Well some go so far as to say it’s immoral!


In a digital age open access is completely feasible.
Efforts to realize open access are underway.
Lets explore whats involved in going open access and progress toward that end.

Peter Suber’s Open Access Overview gives a really good summary of the ways and means of Open Access.
But let me start with practicalities.

How does one openly publish research?

Currently there are two main means of going Open Access.

1. Green Open Access (Self Archiving)
Green open access means self-archiving. Authors archive pre-prints (draft, uncorrected versions) and/or post-prints (the final version as it will be published) in repositories. Open Access repositories are institutionally based (OpenDOAR and ROAR are directories of institutional open access repositories), or connected to specific disciplines, such as arxiv for Physics or RePEc for Economics. When institutions host Open Access repositories, they take steps to ensure long-term preservation. Repositories can be searched with tools such as Google Scholar, and OAIster. Green Open Access involves authors publishing their work in any journal and then self-archiving a version of the article for free public use.



2. Gold Open Access (Open Access Publishing/Journals)
Gold open access refers to open access publishing, particularly in journals. Open access journals, usually electronic journals are available to readers free of charge and openly accessible on the Internet. These journals aren’t behind a pay wall and don’t charge a subscription fee. Instead they employ different methods of paying for the publishing including sponsorship, grants, advertising, and submission fees charging the author-institution for refereeing/publishing outgoing articles instead of charging the user-institution. Two well-known open access publishers include BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) but there are many more. There are thousands of peer-reviewed journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals.




Scientists and scholars are not directly paid for their journal articles. They write journal articles to advance knowledge in their fields and their careers.

Journal publishers have historically required scholars to transfer copyright to the publisher before they will publish their work. Standard practice is for authors to sign a restrictive publication agreement, often called ‘copyright transfer agreement’, that essentially transfers copyright from the author to the publisher. Through this transfer authors give up rights and must ask permission from the publisher green open access their work. However, publishers only need permission to publish an article, they do not need to control the copyright as well.

SPARC has developed the SPARC Author Addendum, which is a “legal instrument that modifies the publisher’s agreement and allows you to keep key rights to your articles.” Scholars are encouraged to retain copyright through use of this addendum so they can post it in an green open access online repository.

Interestingly, most publishers (60+% according to Suber) already permit green open access. However many authors fail to take advantage of the opportunity. Funders and institutions who are in a position to put in place policy that ensures open access for 100% of published work by grantees and faculty have not stepped up to do so.

It’s puzzling why academics, institutions and funders don’t take action around open access. For scholars dissemination and citation of research work generates metrics on which their personal reputation and merit are based. Open access generates more readers, more recognition and more research impact. Astronomy researchers who made their Astrophysical Journal articles open access doubled the citation rate of their articles. Scientists who chose the open access option when they published in Limnology and Oceanography had approximately three times more downloads. (see SPARC’s Open Access paper for references). The most highly cited articles are open access. Open access increases the impact of research work, shortens the delay between acceptance and publication, and makes articles easy to find and use. Open access research work is visible to search engines and retrieval tools.

And its not just citations from other researchers that matter. Open Access makes research work available to anyone. Students who read and rely on scholarly publications are not locked out of accessing work their library doesn’t subscribe to. Faculty who assign literature readings as part of course packs can choose the best research articles available. Open access promotes sharing knowledge for the public good. Those who rely on research for innovation and economic development can advance faster.

The booklet Greater Reach for Your Research points out that;

“Research is more valuable when it’s shared. Sharing enables new research to build on earlier findings. It not only fuels the further advancement of knowledge, it brings scientists and scholars the recognition that advances their careers. In the digital world, the ways we share and use scholarly material are expanding – rapidly, fundamentally, irreversibly.

Exact measures of how much of the worlds research is currently available through open access are difficult but studies show approximately 20% of research is available through green open access and 2-17% available through gold open access. (References here, here, here, and here.) Despite the obvious benefits only a small percentage of research is available through open access.

But things are changing and going open access is picking up speed.
Open Access by the Numbers provides a great synopsis of progress, growth, and current status.

Landmark steps toward change go back a few years. In 2007 the US National Institutes of Health enacted a Public Access Policy that says:

“all investigators funded by the NIH submit or have submitted for them to the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central an electronic version of their final, peer‐reviewed manuscripts upon acceptance for publication, to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after official date of publication”


The NIH policy goes on to describe what is at stake with this policy listing:

  • Opening up to the public 90,000 new scientific articles each year reporting research that U.S. taxpayers have funded through NIH’s annual 32 billion dollar investment in biomedical research.
  • Putting current, quality research in the hands of scientists in industry and academia to accelerate the pace of discovery.
  • Creating a central repository of biomedical information that serves multiple audiences from researchers to students, from doctors to entrepreneurs.
  • Fostering progress towards the common goal of combating disease and improving health.

In 2008 the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) followed suit with their Open Access Policy. Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) have also taken steps in support of open access and collectively the three principal funders of research and scholarship have established guiding principles around public access to research results.


In the UK the 2012 Finch Report recommends publicly funded scientific research be made available online for anyone to read by 2014. See “Free access to British scientific research within two years“.


The US has a web site called We the People which provides an online way to petition the government to take action on a range of important issues facing the country. If a petition gets enough support, White House staff review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response. In 2012 a petition to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research was created and rapidly generated over 65,000 signatures.


In February 2013 the government responded with a directive to Federal agencies that requires those with more than $100 million in research and development expenditures to develop plans to make the results of federally-funded research publicly available free of charge within 12 months after original publication.

At the same time a Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) is before Congress and making its way through the House and Senate. As SPARC explains in its SPARC Applauds White House for Landmark Directive Opening Up Access to Scientific Research press release “The Directive is a major achievement for both open access and open government. We should now take the next step and make open access the law of the land.”

As Peter Suber points out in his Second shoe drops: new White House Directive mandates OA the two approaches complement each other.

The early days of open access have focused on science but other academic domains are following suit.
Project Aims to Bring PLoS-Style Openness to the Humanities
The Open Library of Humanities, (launched in Feb-2013) and
Mathematicians aim to take publishers out of publishing.

Open access is clearly transforming the publishing and public access of research. Two aspects of open access that continue to be refined are the need for, and duration of, an embargo period and the open licensing of research to permit reuse. Science publishing: Open access must enable open use makes the case for reuse.

Creative Commons licenses have emerged as the standard for licensing research articles. This chart from the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association shows growth in use of Creative Commons CC-BY license


Aaron Swartz’s suicide generated much sorrow leading many to question the status quo.

Was Aaron Swartz right? Aaron Swartz Was Right.

Has the scientific journal industry been disrupted? After Aaron, Reputation Metrics Startups Aim To Disrupt The Scientific Journal Industry.

Will MIT honor Aaron and other open activists? How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz.

Will others take action like Nina Paley? Ahimsa: Sita Sings the Blues now CC-0 “Public Domain”.

For me Aaron Swartz’s suicide led to introspection and this exploration of open access. Writing this post has been a kind of eulogy and a revelation. Higher education has often been defined as having three distinct functions – research, teaching, and community service. As I see things now open access is central to research, open educational resources to teaching, and the overall principles of open the basis of community service.


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