What do you think about Open Access?

Amy Buckland (@jambina), Jim DelRosso (@niwandajones), and I spent an hour this morning at NYLA talking with our audience about Open Access. We framed the panel around 6 challenging statements about Open Access, then explained why we believe them, as possibilities or realities. I can’t replicate that discussion, but I can share the statements.

  1. A child born today will use nothing but open access materials for research in college.

  2. Textbook companies will go out of business as faculty realize they can write, compile, and publish their own customized open course texts.

  3. Future discussions of the quality of library collections will focus not on the collections a library owns, but on the collections a library creates.

  4. The adoption of open access collections will obviate proprietary discovery layers.

  5. It is irresponsible for federally-funded researchers not to make their work available in an open format.

  6. True change in the scholarly publishing system will come from smaller liberal arts colleges, and not the big guys.

What do you think?


  1. In terms of statements that I hope come true, I might offer the following modifications:
    3. Future discussions of the quality of library collections will focus not ONLY on the collections a library owns, but on the collections a library creates.

    I think ownership still matters, in terms of long-term preservation and ability to offer collections for widest possible variety of uses (I’m thinking text-mining, but who knows what other uses will require ownership?)

    4. True change in the scholarly publishing system will come from smaller liberal arts colleges, AND the big guys.

    Some of us “big guys” are slow to innovate, but not always; and lots of advantages in terms of resources, influence, etc. if change happens WITH us.

    Great list!


  2. For #2, some textbook companies will go out of business, but not all. There are a small number of faculty who make good money with the sales of their textbooks, and they will push back on that. But, I would argue that most faculty will compile open course texts. I try to do that for the classes I teach, partly because it is easier to point the students to this material.

    For #3, I don’t think this is an either/or situation. Library will continue to provide collections that they buy, but they will also brag about the collections that they create. The energy and resources going to buying stuff will go down, but it will not go away.

    For #6, I am starting to see that there are going to be thousands and thousands of small shining beacons of open access publishers. The big publishers will see a slow erosion of the content being sent their way. Authors will have more options to send their content to one of thousands of smaller journals that will be indexed on the web.

    Heartily agree with the other points.


  3. Hi Jenica. A timely post as we are organising a similar panel discussion at our University Library for OA week. Basically, I agree with all you’ve said above, but I think some of the larger well-ranked universities will also need to set an example and help to progress it. Some in the US have already expressed a good deal of interest in OA. It won’t all happen overnight, but if we all keep pushing and making progress things will change along the lines you indicate. Thanks again,


  4. Couldn’t agree more with all this… except point 6. Harvard, MIT, and UC have all been pretty big movers and shakers for Open Access, and the main push for OA has come from science and technology, not liberal arts.

    Points 3 and 4 are really insightful!


  5. My father-in-law’s a textbook author, and his publisher begged him for years to do another revision of one of his books, and he wouldn’t, because they simply wouldn’t pay him enough. (And this is a book with a much larger potential market than most textbooks.)

    It is a *huge* amount of work to do a good textbook; that work is poorly compensated financially by the existing market, and would probably be less so in the indie version you describe. It counts negatively for tenure. If you’re at a research-focused institution, writing a textbook doesn’t advance any of your social incentives.

    I think there are really teaching-focused people who will do it anyway, and technology has lowered the collaboration and dissemination costs enough to tip the balance for some, but ultimately it’s a lot of work and most of the incentives in academe point against it. You generally get people to do work they’re disincentivized to do by giving them lots of money, and…that doesn’t really suggest to me that OA is the wave of the future, here.

    I do think we’ll see more OA textbooks. But I also think we’ll see a *lot* more textbooks without listed authors — written by teams of non-scholars toiling in a basement somewhere — tarted up with special features that let marketers use technology buzzwords, that catch students’ eye because they’re shiny (or that make administrators *think* “oh, that’s shiny, the young people will like it”, at least), and that let publishers sell higher-cost units (because technology!) with more vendor lock-in (subscription or rental models).


    • (I also think the open textbook thing will vary widely by discipline. Disciplines driven by reading lists more than textbooks have an advantage, in that compiling an openly-available reading list is easier than creating a full textbook — though also the disadvantage that the readings might not be OA, and some of those disciplines have strong cultural biases against OA. Physics will have a huge advantage, because physics understands OA so well they invented the web to make it happen. But, say…chemistry. We are not going to see a rash of open chemistry textbooks. For example.)


    • My feelings on that one are informed by the SUNY Open Textbook initiative: http://opensuny.org/omp/index.php/SUNYOpenTextbooks

      The faculty I’ve spoken to working as authors, reviewers, and editors on that project are being paid in comparable terms to what they would from the commercial publishers they’ve worked with. And, at institutions like mine, with a serious teaching and learning focus (rather than research at the core), this is a very important kind of tenure scholarship.

      So I suspect it varies wildly by context, just as everything else does. 🙂


  6. Okay, so to address the questions and objections on #6:

    My co-panelists could speak on this very well, too, if they choose, as the panel’s reps from an Ivy and a major research institution. But here’s my take.

    If I want to use my influence and knowledge to move OA forward at my institution, there are a few ways I can do that, obvious and first-step.

    1. Change what we buy/direct users to/provide as information resources.
    2. Lobby for an OA mandate.
    3. Assist interested faculty in changing their publication practices.

    Those are just three easy, low-hanging fruit answers. And they are, IMO, easier for me than than they are for, say, McGill, or Cornell. Here’s why.

    If I want to change the resource package for a particular subject area, I have 5-10 faculty to convince, as all of our departments are small and focused. I also need to convince our Collections librarians — a group of 6 or 7. And then the administration, essentially one Dean and the Provost. So less than 20 people need to get on board. At a Big Guy, departments and stakeholders are multitudes larger than mine, and it’s a harder, bigger job to move more people.

    Ditto an OA mandate; hugely increased numbers of stakeholders.
    Ditto faculty publication practices, which are closely tied to tenure and reputation, both of which are harder to move at larger, more prestigious institutions.

    Which is the second facet of this: When your institution’s reputation is international in scope, and you are known as “one of the Big Guys”, people watch you. Respect you. Look to you for leadership. Internally at those places, that means in practice that the very reputation you’ve earned is also closely guarded and deeply valued. And people don’t like to risk what they’ve closely guarded and deeply valued, so revolutionary and challenging ideas around OA are harder to move forward simply because they, if they fail or generate pushback, will challenge that reputation.

    I have less of that to worry about. We’re a teaching college with a focus on excellence in student experience, and so the framing issues of academia are a big part of who we are and what we do, but no one looks to us to define The System. It gives me more freedom to move.

    Systems are not changed simply when important people and institutions stand up and declare they must. Systems change when the people who support the systems demand it. I have access — easier access — to people who are also easier to move toward demanding that change. You can’t devalue that in these discussions, and putting advocacy and revolution solely in the hands of The Big Guys does the whole thing a disservice.


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