To make open access work, we need to do more than liberate journal articles

January 16, 2013

(Credit: Kamil Porembiński/Flickr)

In the days since the tragedy of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, many academics have been posting open-access PDFs of their research as an act of solidarity with Swartz’s crusade to liberate (in most cases publicly funded) knowledge for all to read.

While this has been a noteworthy gesture, the problem of open access isn’t just about the ethics of freeing and sharing scholarly information. It’s as much — if not more — about the psychology and incentives around scholarly publishing. We need to think these issues through much more deeply to make open access widespread, suggests Wired.

When the phrase academia is best known for is “publish or perish,” it should come as no surprise that like most human beings, professors are highly attentive to the incentives for validation and advancement. Unfortunately, those incentives often involve publishing in gated journals, which trade scarcity for the subscriptions that sustain them (and provide outsized profits for some commercial publishers). For this reason, open access has not been a high priority for many academics.

One major rub with open systems of scholarly communication is that peer review essentially comes after the act of publication, which strikes many traditional academics as odd. So some early initiatives have tried to remedy this confusion: In the sciences, there is a new attempt to highlight “altmetrics” or alternative measures of an article’s impact as a form of validation (for example, by measuring number of downloads). But this works less well in the humanities.

We need a sensible shift towards an acceptable form of post-publication, rather than traditional pre-publication peer review. This is especially true given the growing numbers of digital genres and options for scholarly publishing directly to the web — multimedia scholarly sites, sophisticated digital collections, vast online paper repositories, long-form academic blogs, and the like.