The development and proliferation of the internet has been the most powerful force to disrupt the academic publishing ecosystem since its inception over four hundred years ago. Among other things, the internet promised to provide a cheaper and faster way to disseminate knowledge. As a result of this potential, open access emerged as an alternative to traditional paywalled journals.
As a movement, open access is best understood as a commonsense response to one of the fundamental weaknesses of scholarly publishing – research is largely supported through public funds, yet the vast majority of funded research is published in paywalled journals that only those affiliated with academic institutions have access to. Limiting access to this knowledge not only prevents those who have funded the research from accessing it, it also severely undercuts its potential to positively impact the world and contribute to innovation and the betterment of society.
Promise vs. reality
While there is no denying that the internet has had a profound effect on the publishing industry, for many it has not lived up to its more radical and transformative potential.
Perhaps the biggest threat to traditional publishing models, open access is hard to conceptualize without the internet, as it relies largely on online platforms as a means of public dissemination.
Interestingly though, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, 2002, which is often considered the first formalized articulation of open access, imagines open access to be possible not so much because the internet will make all things discoverable, but because the costs of publication will decrease dramatically and publishing will be much easier over the internet, making it possible for the academy to take back control of the publishing enterprise from commercial publishers.
Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of the original BOAI, Jean-Claude Guédon wrote:
“Much has happened, and much of it is positive, but taking stock of what has been achieved has also become an urgent task, if only to get a clear sense of our bearings: while Open Access is now here to stay, it also displays a variety of forms that do not all conform with the project of distributed human intelligence with which it is associated. Lesser, degraded, forms of Open Access have also and gradually emerged, sometimes as the result of power plays by powerful actors, sometimes out of compromises proposed by people of good will. At the same time, the very multiplicity of social actors now involved in Open Access has made the field much more complex than it was fifteen years ago. “
If we compare the early articulation of the promise of open access to its contemporary reality, it is easy to see that the promise of the internet with respect to transforming academic publishing, has largely been unfulfilled. While open access continues to be an important and growing force withing publishing, the more radical elements of open access – based on the assumption that the academy would regain control over knowledge dissemination – have not come to fruition. Today commercial publishers are key players in the open access publishing ecosystem, having learned how to monetize open access publishing by charging back the cost of publication to authors.
Refer to the Pathways to Open module to learn more about open access.
The impact of COVID-19
Recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic provide another opportunity to reflect on the current state of academic publishing and highlight the need to quickly and freely disseminate scientific research. In a recent statement on the importance of sharing COVID-19 data UNESCO stated, “the value and necessity of Open Solutions is crucial. Open Access to scientific information and open data facilitate better and faster research towards a vaccine and inform public health measures essential to contain the spread of the virus.”
The fact that so many publishers, funders, governments and researchers have promised to release their COVID-19 related work open access both demonstrates the real value of open access and begs the question, why hasn’t open sharing become the norm for all scientific publishing?