The Need for Libre Open Access

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The Need for Libre Open Access
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By Fabiana Kubke, Senior Lecturer, School of Medical Sciences, at the University of Auckland and Chair of the Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand Advisory Panel.


noun \ri-ˈpä-zə-ˌtȯr-ē\

: a place where a large amount of something is stored
: a person who possesses a lot of information, wisdom, etc. [1]

At University repositories, this “something” is the knowledge we generate as a result of our academic research. My institution (University of Auckland), like other academic institutions around the country, has an “Institutional Repository”. It is called “Research Space” and I suspect many of my colleagues might have never heard of it, and many might not know how to make use of it.

Archives New Zealand Lower Level Three Stacks by David Sanderson, via Flickr. Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported licence.
“Archives New Zealand Lower Level Three Stacks” by David Sanderson, via Flickr. Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Unported licence.

Open Access is usually described as Gold (where the article is made accessible free of charge by the published) or Green (where some version of the manuscript, usually the peer reviewed version, is deposited by the author). I don’t personally find this distinction palatable, because the gold/green definition says more about mechanisms of delivery and less about liberties for reuse.

Those who know me also know that I prefer to think about Free Open Access (where the article is provided free of charge) and Libre Open Access (where the article is provided free of charge and there are few restrictions for reuse and repurposing). The copyright agreements we enter or the licence we choose when publishing open access defines where in the free-libre spectrum the article will sit.

If we wish to communicate our findings as widely as possible, shouldn’t we be opting for libre Open Access, where they can be reused, redistributed and repurposed? This week Daniel Mietchen, Raphael Wimmer and Nils Dagssonwas  received an award for the work they did taking multimedia files that were part of libre Open Access literature and giving them a new life in WikiMedia, where they can be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles,  used for educational purposes, etc.

Unfortunately, research publications do not solely serve the purpose of communicating our findings. They are also perhaps the most important contribution through which our worth as academics will be measured when we apply for a job, apply for promotion or seek to be granted tenure. We may be forgiven a lot by staffing committees, but never a poor publication record. We have been taught that how we brand our publications (where we publish them) will be a major factor for that assessment.

It is not surprising then, that most of us will feel the need to do our best to place our article in the better branded journals, many of which will charge hefty Open Access fees, but will publish our article sometimes at a lower price or free of charge  if we are willing to give our rights as authors away to them.  Because this decision of where to publish is so intricately tied to career progress, the cultural inertia is hard to overcome.

[quote float=”left”]For our outputs to have impact, they first need to be read.[/quote]

These days, it is rare that I will find someone who doesn’t think that Open Access is “a good thing”  (progress!). As soon as the term “Open Access” enters the discussion, however, I can see the $ shaped tears rolling down someone’s cheeks. Most frequently the discussion veers towards a standard list of “buts”.

Many of these “buts” are myths that seem to persist even in the face of evidence against them.  Once they have the mindset that Open Access is not a “viable” alternative to be embraced by them, their immediate community of practice or even their institution, it does not  seem to matter how much data is presented — the response will inevitably be “Oh, ok. [pause] but…”  If we cannot change scientists’ minds when confronting them with evidence, how will we be able to persuade our agencies and institutions? Until we overcome our apprehensions about open access, should we just stick to the status quo?

Institutional repositories provide a place where authors that choose to publish in the traditional way can deposit the peer-reviewed accepted article for anyone to access free of charge. All authors need to do is to contact their librarian and they will happily show them how to do this. In New Zealand, articles that are deposited in these repositories are given a second life, free of pay-walls and indexed by Google. In New Zealand the articles (and other research artifacts) are aggregated  in

[quote float=”right”]Articles that are deposited in repositories are given a second life, free of pay-walls and indexed by Google.[/quote]

There are several types of artifact types listed in nzreasearch (theses, conference posters, journal articles, patents, datasets, etc) and the site provides a really nice user interface to search for material. I could find at the time of writing 20,450 thesis listed, 15,132 research articles  and 235 conference posters, for example. I doubt that these numbers (other than theses, perhaps) reflect the actual number of outputs from the NZ research sector. These numbers may instead indicate that more work needs to be done to encourage authors to make the deposition of their outputs in the repository a regular part of their workflow. I can’t help wondering whether, if we were asked to identify at our annual performance review, continuation, or promotions the proportion of our output that was deposited, we might see some progress.

My personal position is that research outputs that result from public funds should be made available under a copyright licence that minimises the restrictions on distribution and re-use. I also understand that authors may base their choice over where they publish on different kinds of reasons (some which I understand and other which I don’t). But even when authors choose to publish under traditional pay-walled schemes, the value of depositing in the institutional repository far outweigh the reasons not to do so.

This year’s Open Access Week focus is on “impact”, and for our outputs to have impact they first need to be read. Björn Brems put it best when he said:

“No matter what field (or planet): limiting potential readership does not increase actual readership.”

 [1] Definition from Merriam Webster online dictionary

[You can read more from Fabiana at her blog, Building Blogs of Science, part of the Science Media Centre’s SciBlogs network. She also blogs for the Public Library of Science.]

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