Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The State of Open Access in Academia

Earlier this year, Forbes ran a great article on the state of open access in academia. More than any other technology, the web has revolutionized access to the world’s information. While nearly every other form of informational output has been reinvented in some fashion in the internet era, academic literature has remained steadfastly locked in the centuries-old subscription format, paywalled away from all but those who can afford to purchase access

Even at public universities, where the salaries of faculty and staff and the operating costs of the institution are often heavily subsidized by taxpayer money, either directly by their states or indirectly through grants from NSF, NIH and other federal agencies, the majority of the research output of the institution is not publicly accessible.

Instead, much of the world’s scholarly knowledge is owned and controlled by commercial enterprises that operate the journals that academic researchers publish in.

The extreme cost and paywalled access to information of traditional journal publishing has led to the open access revolution in which grant funding agencies (such as NIH) are increasingly requiring publications stemming from research they support to be made publically accessible. 

As part of the open-access movement, many academic disciplines now permit preprint publication of works in arXiv and similar scholarly repositories, as well as institutional archives.

Why is academia so far behind in terms of open access? Perhaps the simplest answer is that in academia promotion and tenure are still tightly linked with publishing in top-tier journals, which are largely well-established commercial venues. Faculty who choose to simply post their research on their personal or institutional websites or in archives like arXiv will find that those papers do not count towards their performance reviews for tenure and promotion.

As noted, one possible solution is to transfer the burden of subscription costs to the national government as a service to its citizens. Last year the government of Egypt launched an ambitious initiative called the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, described as “the biggest digital library in the world, housing contents of the most prominent publishing houses all over the world such as National Geographic, Discovery Cambridge, Oxford, Reuters, Britannica and others.” Instead of the American model in which each individual university purchases its own journal subscriptions and ordinary citizens have no access at all, the Egyptian government purchased national site licenses to a wide array of content, making it freely available to its citizens. 

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