March 26, 2013

Open Access?

The first time I had come across the 'open access' publishing/repository concept was during a meeting of the 'Researchers of Tomorrow' cohort at the British Library, some time in 2009. Now (at time of writing), the entire UK system of academic publishing is about to change towards open access as the default publishing option, and it's not exactly a unanimously supported decision. This blog post focuses on the implications of open access for PhD research and is based mostly on my own experience.

The web page for Researchers of Tomorrow reports, as some of the study's key findings, that

Open access [...] appear[s] to be a source of confusion for Generation Y* doctoral students, rather than encouraging innovation and collaborative research.

And that

Access to relevant resources is a major constraint for doctoral students’ progress. Authentication access and licence limitations to subscription-based resources, such as e-journals, are particularly problematic.

*In this case, born between 1982 and 1994.

The majority of us, the study participants, all PhD students, had not really heard of open access until that 2009 meeting. We were not sure what it meant for quality control, peer review, prestige and impact/REF-related aspects of the publishing process. We had the opportunity to discuss open access with publishers, RCUK representatives and other stakeholders, but in my opinion some confusion still remained. There was also an awareness of open access publishing being stigmatised, with some participants reporting that their supervisors would not approve of such a research output over publishing in high-impact non-open access journals.

However, as we met up and discussed our various concerns both formally and informally, what emerged was just how wide the disparity was between journal subscriptions and access to research resources at different universities. People reported not having access to the right journals, or only having access after a certain embargo period, having to wait weeks for items from inter-library loans, paying for a paper based on the abstract and then finding that it was not useful, having to travel to London from all over the UK to use the British Library, and asking colleagues to get articles from sources to which their own institution was not subscribed. This chapter of the Researchers of Tomorrow report discusses these findings in detail.

That was back in 2009. I’m not sure how much attitudes to open access have changed, but there are different concerns being raised and different open access models being proposed: pay-to-publish (‘gold’) and open after an embargo period (‘green’). Among the main concerns about the move to open access publishing is the source of funding that would otherwise come from journal subscription fees. The BSA (British Sociological Association) receives just under half of its income from journals (Network BSA magazine, Spring 2013). But the costs/funding changes associated with the proposed open access policies in the UK and the implications for the kind of research which gets published and by whom are not entirely clear.

However, as PhD fees are broadly similar, and as RCUK studentships do not differ in their value by institution, I think that it is deeply unfair that some students have worse academic resources than others, based purely on their institution’s journal subscriptions. From the PhD perspective, a move towards more good quality research articles being freely available is a good move. What kind of open access publishing model is the ‘best’ kind of model remains to be seen.

Related websites

Warwick Researcher Life Blog:

Warwick - Open Access: What's in it for you?:

Nature - Pros and Cons of Open Access:

Taylor & Francis Open Access Survey - Initial Findings:

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