Open Letter on Open Access

Kritika, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Open Letter on Open Access


Open access has been making headlines in the past two years. An object of hot controversy, it has met with great enthusiasm among diverse constituencies, becoming an established institutional policy at many universities and gaining the support of legislators in Britain and the United States. The goal is laudable: to remove all barriers to scholarly work, specifically peer-reviewed journal articles, making it freely available online and allowing the public to make broad use of all findings. To this end, a coalition of universities, libraries, state funding agencies, and nonprofit organizations--in addition to for-profit companies--have created special online portals and repositories through which scholars can make their journal article manuscripts available, allowing authors to present research to their readers while sidestepping so-called "pay walls"--fees and subscription charges. In this editorial, Kritika's editors summarize some recent developments from the perspective of a small-budget international journal and delineate a provisional policy.

Perhaps no group has been more vocal in support of open access than university librarians, whose subscription payments keep the vast majority of scholarly journals afloat. Struggling to maintain acquisitions amid skyrocketing cost increases, many librarians have become highly critical of for-profit publishers, whose rates, particularly in the natural sciences, have grown prohibitively expensive. Here subscription costs run into the tens of thousands of dollars and companies' profit margins average 20-30 percent. (1) Librarians are also naturally sympathetic to the project of making scholarly literature available to the widest possible readership. It is no coincidence that the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), founded in 1997 by the Association of Research Libraries, has been an eager proponent of one of the more radical formulations of open access: the "immediate, barrier-free online availability of scholarly and scientific research articles, coupled with the rights to reuse these articles fully in the digital environment." (2) SPARC has been at the forefront in advocating that the government and universities foster open access.

Openness is defined somewhat differently by different institutions, and proponents can be deliberately vague. (3) Two broad approaches have emerged: one "gold" and the other "green." Gold open access demands that authors make their peer-reviewed articles available immediately upon acceptance. The UK's Finch Report, which helped devise this model, explains how journals can comply: "publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication." (4) This system is often referred to as "pay to publish," and the funds are, ideally, to come from research grants. In April 2013, Research Councils UK made gold open access a requirement of the researchers it funds, though this requirement provoked considerable controversy, which has prompted both the Councils and the UK government to take a softer line. (5)

Green open access, by contrast, requires authors to place their work in a repository. Such work can take the form of a post-print file, usually made available after a six- to twelve-month embargo period and thus allowing journal subscribers privileged access for a brief period. Alternatively, authors may deposit a pre-print file--a version of the text that has passed peer review but has not yet been converted into page proofs. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, mandate that all research they fund be made available immediately in a pre-print file, followed by a post-print file within twelve months of publication. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act, currently before Congress, would require all federal agencies to ensure that grant recipients make their works openly accessible within six months of publication. …

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Open Letter on Open Access
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