Will Open Access be Open Sesame?


Let us begin with a simple premise. Knowledge should be free. There is no argument with the basic idea. However, can the creation of knowledge be free, especially when it involves time, effort and exploration? None of that comes free. Not unless skilled professionals are permanently in ‘volunteer’ mode. This is the basic conundrum of ‘Open Access’, a movement that began a few decades ago and has gathered steam.

The rapid expansion of the internet has also opened avenues for scholars in several countries to the possibilities of enhanced learning. In the older institutions, there was a clear path to publishing. Now, clarity depends on whom you speak to. Where do you distinguish between scholarly articles that should be paid for and those that should be free? Is the distinction to be made between levels of knowledge or the complexity of the subject?

Peer review has a 300-year-old history. As a process, it was the widely accepted way to advance scientific knowledge by skilled and experienced scholars and teachers. There was a hierarchy and while there may have been a few controversies from time to time, the overall system propagated quality and raised levels of knowledge across subjects significantly over time.

There are no easy answers.

Libraries were the pivot around which academic and research institutions revolved. The internet changed that. When access began to expand on a global scale, the direct delivery of articles from catalogs disrupted the status quo where libraries were the intermediaries. If there was no need for a physical location to access papers for several subjects, their use would begin to drop over time.

Here’s an extract from a Wikipedia article: Instead, the impact of technology on libraries has been mixed. While usage of some library services, such as reference assistance, has declined, there has been a well-documented increase in the usage of public libraries in the U.S. and Canada over the last decade.[5] Most libraries have added services such as public computers, free Wi-Fi, and digital materials such as web sites and e-books, leading to higher overall usage of the library. Counties and cities also continue to invest in library infrastructure.

As of 2012, library construction and renovation has remained steady. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 54 percent of Americans ages 16 and older have used a public library in some way in the past 12 months. A similar poll of Britons, conducted in 2010, stated that 67 percent had visited a library within the last year. Public libraries remain very popular among all users, and as of 2014, younger patrons read and use the library at the same rate as older ones. Over 94 percent of Americans say that “having a public library improves the quality of life in a community.”

At the same time, public funding of libraries has declined. While libraries have a positive reputation, it is clear that citizens value other government services over libraries when budgets must be cut. School and academic libraries have also faced both severe budget troubles and declining usage of traditional library services like reference and interlibrary loan. Budget cuts and closures of publicly funded libraries in the Canada and UK have begun to affect the availability of library services in those countries.

Stakeholder dynamics

Universities, researchers, scholars, librarians, information professionals, and digital publishing platforms are the stakeholders involved in building a new set of equations. Old relationships must transform to expand access and reach. The costs of building these platforms and ensuring that more people benefit from them at reasonable costs are where the dynamics get complicated.

With limited budgets, libraries must decide allocations and still meet needs. Existing models will have to be redrawn, much like books, music and movies went through a period of turmoil before digital models were able to deliver.

Open Access itself is going through a definitive phase – Green Road Open Access allows for publication in any journal, authors retain copyright and they are permitted to put a copy on their website. In Gold Road Open Access, the article is published in an Open Access journal, available for free on the web and for archival elsewhere.

These definitions are well-meant but to scholars and researchers looking for access or publishing opportunities, it muddies the waters. Which one should they be looking at? And how will it affect careers in the  future based on the choices made?

The peril of piracy

Pirates and hackers did not consider this a lucrative market until Sci-Hub plundered large publishing systems and made the papers available to everyone for free. That set alarm bells ringing because it put the entire industry at risk. Security had to be strengthened to protect existing intellectual property. And that increases cost further.

The genie is not going back into the bottle. There is a growing market available, but business models are still being crafted. PubMed could be a qualified success in Open Access to medical literature. The model of journal publishers making articles available after a certain period to everyone has possibilities to build upon.

To help it grow, there must be strong security in place for gated articles, so that the difference is perceived by the market and those needing immediate access are prepared to pay a premium. That is where several questions arise and determining value will be a constant challenge.

What are the building blocks?

So how will digital publishing evolve through these tempestuous times? There are a few signs pointing the way. A significant body of existing work can be delivered free. Niche journals on emerging fields can be promoted to markets and companies who need them providing fresh sources of revenue. Industry and academic collaborations are rising and some of the proprietary work will provide publishing and digital distribution opportunities across industry sectors for those prepared to pay higher prices.

At the same time, defining what is equitable and recovering costs from a larger base of prospects in general areas is another option.

India’s Science Policy in 2020 created waves last year when it proposed that the government would negotiate with leading science publishers worldwide for a country-wide open access policy and      a single fee, make it available to all living in the country. A central payment system on this scale has not been implemented, except in Germany which restricts open access to universities and researchers.

Change is certain. A proposal like this has the potential to open the floodgates and upend all existing markets. Digital delivery and security, however, are at the foundation of making it happen.