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Free Access to Research Evidence in Education: An Open and Shut case?

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Mike Blamires was recently on a working group to develop the Open Access policy for academic publication at Canterbury Christ Church University. In this article he discusses some intriguing implications for universities and their Departments of Education. His expressed views are his own and are not intended as a representation of any policy guidelines.

open gateImagine a web where there are no pay walls to access research papers, where it is easy to access the latest research paper or journal. Would academic life be easier without the constraints of limited access to evidence that underpins academic work or would academics and students be too spoilt for choice?  Universities would not differ in their library lists of journals despite their size or funding levels and local libraries could match what the university libraries offer.  This is before we even consider open access to books and monographs – something that is, perhaps, a little further away in time than open journal access.

Open Access to research is centrally concerned with ensuring that research publications are freely available online to improve and expand engagement with research. The vast majority of research institutions have an enduring commitment to sharing knowledge and expertise to enhance understanding and utilisation amongst other academics and society.

There are, however, implications for organisations that rely upon the commodification of knowledge to fund their scholarly activities. For example,  current ‘Learned Societies’, such as  the Geographical Society and History Association, often depend upon the subscriptions paid for their journals as a means of supporting scholarship. By contrast, Universities offer the mediation of knowledge through their courses. This involves the quality assurance and accreditation of individual engagement with collections of knowledge and it is more usually referred to as ‘teaching’, ‘assessment’ and ‘study’.

The growth of Open Access publishing

Open Access publishing is well established but there have been recent worldwide developments that have brought Open Access issues to the fore.  In the UK, the 2012 Finch ‘Report of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings’  had its recommendations accepted by the Government. Funding bodies such as Research Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust now require open access publication for the research they fund.  HEFCE have undertaken a policy consultation on open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). It is likely that a significant proportion, if not all, of an institution’s research will have to have been published through an open access route in order to be eligible for inclusion in the next national audit of research activity in universities.

As the Finch report stated ‘particularly when the research is publicly-funded barriers to access– are increasingly unacceptable in an online world: for such barriers restrict the innovation, growth and other benefits which can flow from research.’

The current debate around open access tends to centre around the following two forms of access but new methods are likely to be developed at some point.

  • ‘Gold’ Open Access: The full text of the article is accessible to anyone, without a subscription charge, from the journal’s website. This is because the author or their funding organisation pays the publisher an Article Processing Charge (APC).  Some subscription journals now include open access articles within their subscribed online journal.
  • ‘Green’ Open Access:  The author publishes in a traditional, subscription based journal but also deposits a copy of the “post-print” version (normally the final manuscript that has all the resultant changes arising from peer review) in a repository, such as CReaTE. The published version of the journal sits behind a subscription pay wall, the “post-print” copy is available to anyone after an embargo period that has been imposed by the publisher.

Critiques of the Green and Gold Dichotomy

Some academics have argued that the focus on Green or Gold is really about the business model for academic publishing and that it ignores other models where collegiality and collaboration amongst academics and universities mean that article processing and journal production costs are absorbed within the academic purposes of staff and universities. A number of blogs have been produced using open journal software that supports most of the activity involved in producing an academic journal on an on-going basis. The costs of production are borne either by voluntary labour, or by the academic institution subsidising the work of editors and copy-editors: at present, the true costs of commercial publishing to academic institutions are unknown but there are many cases where commercial publishing is also subsidised in this way.

In 2012 the Royal Society suggested that the readers and contributors to a specialist academic journal can constitute an ‘invisible college’.  Thus it may be that visible colleges and universities have a role to play in shaping existing journals into open and accessible repositories for a specific sphere of knowledge. This may mean that the process of peer review as a gatekeeper to publication will change. Submissions to journals are now, in some cases, being  mentored to publication by an editorial board or an academic community.  A good example is:  The Online Educational Journal from Durham University .

Many authors are not aware of the potential for open access publication and may be even less aware of the likely requirements in this area within the next research assessment. Some authors of research are keenly aware of the impact hierarchy of journals and have established preferences for targeting their research at certain journals.  They may not have explored Open Access alternatives or equivalents. In addition there may be a lack of commitment to some of the Open Source titles as they may not have an impact rating or reputation as yet. There is still a view in some parts that on-line journals are inferior and a recent journalistic article found that the acceptance rate for a deliberately poorly written paper was quite high. There was, however, no comparison made with print based journals. For those wary of on-line journals there is ‘Beall’s List’ of ‘potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers’. These are journals that exploit the unwary by charging them to publish their own articles in journals that are not properly edited or peer-reviewed.

Barriers to Access

Whilst some academics can see the benefits of immediate (Gold) open access to the community and to teaching and study, they cannot see the benefits for themselves. This may be due to the cost of APC in some high esteem journals and the idea of paying £1000+ to make a publication open access is seen as off putting. A number of research funding bodies now include funding for Gold access publishing as part of the dissemination and valorisation costs. There is currently little uptake in open access publishing of books or monographs (e.g. Mackenzie- Cummins,2011)  although there may be great potential for this form of publication. Typically, authors seek publishers for their reputation amongst colleagues and for their production and marketing abilities. Whilst this may not change, the business model might.

Many social science academics are also unaware of the Green versus Gold Distinction (HEFCE,2014) and are quite uncertain what to do about embargo periods so that they take the ‘safe option’ and don’t submit a manuscript with their entry into their university’s research repository

Arising Challenges and Opportunities

The advent of easy cost free access to a vast array of journals could really enhance courses in education.  The importance of being able to find a coherent and relevant pathway through these resources  increases and that is where faculties and departments of education have a significant role to play… as they always have had.

The move to author payment for publication may be divisive across institutions that may have different capabilities for or attitudes to funding this. It may be that involvement with the process of peer moderation and writing for open access journals becomes a more significant part of the academic role.

Authors might want to take a closer look at their publishing agreements as a result of open access. The Romeo project suggests that some publisher’s agreements are unnecessarily restrictive in what they allow an author to do with their work. Whilst the publisher may need exclusive and non-transferable right of first commercial publication, distribution and sale of the work, the author will should to be able to archive the work in different ways.

The current disjunction that exists between research and publication where the latter has been dependent upon a business model, is in a process of rapid change and these subtle changes may have far reaching consequences for the viability and working of universities.


HEFCE (2013) Consultation on open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework
Bristol HEFCE  http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2013/201316/

A Youtube video on Open Access explaining some of the background: Nick Shockey and Jonathan Eisen (2012) Open Access Explained PHD comics published 25 Oct 2012 accessed 12/03/2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY

Nath, C. & Hobbs, A, (2013) Post Note 397: Open Access to Scientific Information London:  Houses of Parliament Library http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-397.pdf

MacKenzie- Cummins P (2011) Open Access: Awareness and Attitudes amongst the Author Community Intech:  Rijeka Croatia http://www.intechopen.com/js/ckeditor/kcfinder/upload/files/InTech_WhitePaper_FutureofOA_Dec11.pdf

A useful article in The Guardian that addresses a few myths: Suber, P. (2013) Open Access: Six Myths put to rest London: The Guardian Higher Education Network 21st October

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee was the first to investigate Open Access, post Finch Report.  All its reports are located at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/science-and-technology-committee/inquiries/parliament-2010/open-access/

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