Emory Report
September 29, 2008
Volume 61, Number 6



Emory Report homepage  

29, 2008
Open access: Removing barriers benefits all

Rick Luce is vice provost and director of libraries.

When I’ve been asked why I support open access, my first thought is: Because it makes sense. We write to be read and to influence, and the best way to do that is by making our work easily accessible.

Open access to digital content removes barriers to access and use. Barriers to access include subscription fees and licenses. Barriers to use include restrictive terms of licenses and restrictions on re-use and sharing. Open access makes scholarly research available to anyone, anywhere. This increased availability can also increase readership and influence.

Why do I believe it’s important to remove these barriers? The Internet has changed research — not only how we search for knowledge, but also in enabling collaboration and supporting the exploration of primary data and data sets.

The Internet enables not only linking digital content together, but also enables us to easily make connections between previous, and perhaps seemingly unrelated, knowledge to form new ideas. The power of exploiting this interconnectivity relies on open access — the removal of barriers to both access and the use of knowledge.

Faculty rely, in varying degrees, on libraries to provide access to tollgate digital content — electronic journals, databases, eBooks, images, etc. — as well as print content. But no library can afford to buy everything that is needed. This was true long before the Internet, but now we live in a globally connected world. Should we remain passive about access to knowledge based on ability to pay, or can cost barriers be removed?
These questions were the impetus for the Conference on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in Berlin in October 2003, which I was privileged to co-organize.

The result was the Berlin Declaration, which asked organizations to support the transition to open access by encouraging researchers to publish their work in open access publications, to support making cultural heritage resources available via the Internet, to develop ways of evaluating open access contributions, to advocate the recognition of open access publications in promotion and tenure evaluation, and advocating contributions to open access infrastructure.

In the five years since the Berlin Declaration, I’ve seen shifts toward open access, and noted a few stumbling blocks still in place. The number of open access journals is now over 3,500, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals.

Two of those journals are affiliated with Emory. Molecular Vision, supported by the Emory Eye Center, is a peer-reviewed, online journal dedicated to the dissemination of research results in molecular biology, cell biology, and the genetics of the visual system.

Southern Spaces
, supported by the University Library, is a peer-reviewed, online journal exploring the real and imagined places of the American South and their connections with the wider world.

These peer-reviewed open access journals are leaders in their fields and demonstrate that breaking down barriers to access doesn’t have to sacrifice quality. The perception that open access journals never have the same academic rigor as print or subscription electronic journals is a stumbling block still to be overcome, especially in tenure and promotion decisions.

Many universities are creating institutional repositories that provide open access to the intellectual output of the university. At Emory, thesis and dissertations will be submitted, preserved, and distributed electronically as open access.

This new approach, called electronic theses and dissertations (ETD), was piloted this past year. Although some ETDs will not be immediately distributed — such as when the research may result in a patent — open access to ETDs showcases the work of our graduates.

On a national front, the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy became effective in April. This law requires articles resulting from NIH grant funding to be deposited in PubMed Central, the NIH’s free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature. This law has resulted in more than 3,000 new articles being deposited in PubMed Central each month.

The policy behind this law is that the public should have access to publicly funded research. Some publishers claim this law is a threat to their traditional subscription and license models.

One publisher complaint is that the availability of articles in PubMed Central allows for interconnectivity of content among the suite of products offered with PubMed that the individual publishers can’t provide. Isn’t this increased availability and exposure good for authors? Isn’t rapid and unfettered discovery of interconnected relationships good for research?

Which brings me back to whether or not the subscription barriers can be removed. Is it possible to have open access to all the digital content a researcher may need? What about subscription journals? Producing a journal costs money, and other than charging author fees, publishers don’t have an economic model for making journals freely available through open access.

As an international experiment, there is an alternative funding model for high energy physics journals called SCOAP3. Under SCOAP3, rather than libraries paying publishers so that only their users can access these journals, libraries will negotiate collectively to pay publishers a fixed price to produce these same journals as open access journals.

Why would libraries agree to this? Why did I pledge support for SCOAP3? Because it makes sense.
It makes sense that the widest possible access to research accelerates future research and discovery. It makes sense that libraries individually can’t, and never will be able to, buy all the digital content their community needs — but collectively we can begin to remove barriers to that content — not just for our communities, but for the world. It makes sense that research, based on all available knowledge and not just knowledge accessible to only those who can afford it, benefits us all.

Although SCOAP3 covers only high energy physics, it can serve as a model for communities of researchers in other fields. There are still barriers to a move to open access, both perceived and real. But the move to open access is happening — internationally, nationally and locally.

While pondering open access, consider that Oct. 14 is International Open Access Awareness Day. I think I’ll celebrate by sharing an open access article in Southern Spaces with a colleague. What will you do?