The shifting ecology of online scholarly communication

The expansion of the Internet as well as other digital technologies has brought a great deal of interest as well as new opportunities to our society, one clear example of that is how open access initiatives have already diversified the alternatives to access and share academic peer-reviewed scholarly information (papers, reports, books, data base, etc.) more readily available to all who might benefit from it across the globe. The interest in open access is highly influenced by other practices which promote more diverse and inclusive mechanisms of production, consumption and socialization of knowledge, such as open source, open science and open education. The open access (OA) literature can be understood as “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions”(Suber, 2010[1]).

The “nature of openness” as described by Conole (2013) in higher education is understood as: “Openness is becoming a trend, both in terms of the production and sharing of educational materials, as well as making research publications (and even research data) freely available.“ The promoters of OA usually refers to concepts such as: e-science, digital scholarships and digital humanities, science 2.0 as well as open scholarship or open science. Here, Burton (2009) emphasis on the notion of open scholar:

“…is not simply someone who agrees to allow free access and reuse of his or her traditional scholarly articles and books; no, the Open Scholar is someone who makes their intellectual projects and processes digitally visible and who invites and encourages ongoing criticism of their work and secondary uses of any or all parts of it — at any stage of its development.“

An example of the current concern of how academic knowledge is commodified can be found on ‘The Cost of Knowledge’ (thecostofknowledge.com), where almost 15,000 academics protested against the business practices of the academic journal publisher Elsevier. The protest was materialized in a massive rejection to publish, participate as referee or doing any editorial work with “any Elsevier journal [~2,000] unless they radically change how they operate”. This digital movement simply illustrates the increasing interest of incorporating higher levels of “openness” in science and the dissemination of knowledge.

Evolution of the ‘open science’ references in Google Books, between 1960 and 2000, according by Ngram Viewer (Source)

Source: Cope, B., & Phillips, A. (2014). The Future of the Academic Journal. Chandos Publishing.

In the last few years the number of open access publications as well as the volume of studies about this topic have grown notably (see DOAJ[2]). There is an increasing amount of publications explaining and analyzing the importance of adopting open access publications as a form of knowledge dissemination. Although, not always broadly understood, the different positions in this field somehow illustrates the current transitions that exist regarding how to access and consume knowledge in this (changing) digital era.

For instance, the guidelines of the EC in this field activated an interesting debate about the consequence of adopting green and golden[3] routes of (more) open publications[4]. This initiative has been considered as a possibility to increase and accelerate the pressure toward open access and more liberal licensing opportunities that could change the landscape of publishing. Although the emerging business models behind the academic publication in open access (i.e. direct cross-subsidies; the three-part market; freemium; or non-monetary market) are by no mean consolidated[5].

Today the mechanisms of pre-print and post-print publication[6] in open access are certainly more diverse. That can be associated with a large number of alternatives in the digital ecosystem: self publication; open repositories, adoption of open licenses as well as the increasing appropiation of platforms for knowledge dissemination such as Wikipedia, SSRN, Academia.edu and the growing acceptance of more flexible licences like Creative Commons. Jackson and Richardson[7] argues that open access has moved firmly into the mainstream of academic publishing, and in some cases it can be even profitable at least within some disciplines (see cases of PLOS or BMC).

The promoters of OA publication suggest that it expands the access to high- quality and up-to-date contents; stimulates the exchange (and combination) of knowledge (disciplines); generates reputational benefits like visibility, recognition or traffic; accelerating feedback and open peer review and facilitating networking and engagement with a wider community (transdisciplinarity). Some of these benefits can be summarized as reuse, redistribute, revise and remix (Hilton et al., 2010)[8]

However, not everyone sees the clear benefit to move to further technological means and particularly new open practices. There is a number of challenges and constraints that individuals and institutions need to be prepared to deal with (i.e. current institutional rules for rewarding, dissemination and quality measurements) before embracing the openness in publication as the way to move forward. According, to previous research these constraints could be associated with institutional and cultural resistance to give up the traditional model of academic publication (well embedded in the culture of the Higher Education), others are suspicious with the idea that open publication (self-publication, for instance) and its reliability in terms of quality assurance in contrast to the ‘traditional publication’ practices. At the same time, there are technological challenges that affect at least a segment of the academics who are not familiar with the current digital media ecosystem and the possibilities behind these tools. In addition to the already mentioned challenges, the sustainability of open access publication is still under development in the best of the cases. The business models and the economic strength of open access it is by no mean an exclusive challenge for the academic publications but it also affects other sectors such as mass media, art and culture industries.

Summary of key barriers to foster OA initiatives: lack of awareness; digital proficiency limitations; change resistance in the culture of the academic institutions (policies and practices); copyright issues (reproduction, derivative versions), concerns for the quality-reliability and information-quality control; legal limitations; lack of business models (securing economic sustainability); pedagogical challenges (OER); others.

As Meyer and Schroeder suggested (2009)[9] even if open access somehow succeed and a large volume of scientific products are published under OA license offering more flexible avenues for accessing knowledge it is possible to foresee new problems and challenges such as: the predominance of gatekeepers (such as academic search engines) that will “shape the online visibility” combined with the limited span attention from individuals exposed to an information overloaded Internet.

Although the future of copyright as well as academic publication might be difficult to predict it is tempting to venture that the new changes for academic journals and publishers will come, affecting for good or for bad the academic community and their institutions. The digital ecosystem is continuously evolving and it is important to understand its momentum.

For more infomation here: @cristobalcobo or here freespeechdebate.com


[1] Suber, P. (2010). Open Access Overview. Retrieved October 31, 2010 from http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/overview.htm

[2] Heather Morrison » Open Thesis. (2012). Retrieved from http://pages.cmns.sfu.ca/heather-morrison/open-thesis-draft-introduction-march-2011/

[3] A gold open access model: with the article processing charges paid up front and not by the reader.

[4] For instance, in 2012 both the European Commission and the British Economic and Social Research Council announced that they would be adopting policies to facilitate and accelerate the open access to scientific knowledge (cf. ‘gold’ and ‘green’ schemes of publication) Van Noorden, R. (2012). Europe joins UK open-access bid. Nature, 487(7407), 285–285. doi:10.1038/487285a.

[5] Income models for Open Access: An overview of current practice. (2009). Retrieved August 20, 2014, from http://sparc.arl.org/resources/papers-guides/oa-income-models

[6] http://www.sherpa.ac.uk/romeoinfo.html

[7] Gold open access: the future of the academic journal?∗ Rhodri Jackson and Martin Richardson. In Cope, B., & Phillips, A. (2014). The Future of the Academic Journal. Chandos Publishing.

[8] Hilton III, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J., & Johnson, A. (2010). The four ‘R’s of openness and ALMS analysis: frameworks for open educational resources. Open Learning, 25(1), 37-44.

[9] Meyer, E. T., & Schroeder, R. (2009). The world wide web of research and access to knowledge. Knowledge Management Research & Practice, 7(3), 218-233.http://www.palgrave-journals.com/kmrp/journal/v7/n3/pdf/kmrp200913a.pdf

Posted in sociedad de los conocimientos on Aug 22, 2014

Cristóbal Cobo