Making a Case for Open Access

On October 28th, the global scientific community wrapped up the Open Access Week. Open Access Week (according to wikipedia, and fact-checked by openaccessweek.com) is a scholarly communication event that focuses on Open Access and related topics. Events include talks, digital seminars, symposia, curated blog communities, or the announcement of open access mandates or other milestones in open access. All free of charge, of course.

This is well and good (very good in my opinion), but what is Open Access and what does it mean to me? First and foremost Open Access means information (often in the form of peer reviewed publications) that is freely available to anyone who seeks it. Which is, strangely, not always or even typically the case.

I published my first manuscript shortly after finishing my master’s degree at Oregon State University. I’m early enough in my career that I still have a visceral memory of the joy associated with getting the acceptance notification. When the manuscript finally made it out in the journal, I emailed my undergraduate field technicians – beaming with excitement – to share this enormous accomplishment with them.

One of them, a first generation college student and a woman of color, wrote me back: “My mom doesn’t have a library login, am I allowed to share this with her?” I didn’t know the answer, the paper was not published in an open access journal. I said yes, because I believed it was the right thing to do.

My student’s mother is not an academic, but she read the manuscript and beamed with pride herself to see her daughter’s name mentioned in the acknowledgments section. She shared the manuscript at work, paraphrasing it the way her daughter had paraphrased it for her. In this way the paper grew legs and slipped quietly out of the ivory tower and onto the streets, which ultimately is where research belongs.

The sharing of information is ingrained in the modern technological world. I can freely download secret family recipes, instructions on how to change a flat tire, poems by e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, or algebraic proofs. I cannot however, without some sort of institutional login, freely download peer reviewed literature on the media’s influence (or lack thereof) on frequent dieting in adolescent girls. Why? Cookies are free, but legitimate studies on social pressures and health is available only to those affiliated with an institution? Without pointing fingers, it is time for the research community to shift our own culture, and value the dissemination of work above all. Open access seems to be one of the torches being carried in support of this goal.

The move to open access publishing is palpable. Even journals that function on a traditionally subscription based model still have an open access option (at a hefty, dare I say, occasionally insurmountable fee of $2-$7k). Nonetheless, this is an important transition in the culture of science. Until the open access movement gained legitimacy, the potentially dramatic skew in access to scientific information – which is disproportionately biased against independent researchers, small NGO’s, and the general public – remained unchecked. Open access allows us, as a scientific community, to make a commitment to minimizing access disparity, and maximizing access to merit based research across subjects.

But open access publishing is only the first step. Opening the front door is not the same as giving someone directions to the house.

Open access publications ensure equal access. But equality and equity are not equivalent. Equality is about sameness – everyone gets to read the paper. Equity is about fairness – each person has the ability to find, and also understand the paper. As researchers we have developed a vocabulary that we’ll gently call ‘inaccessible’ to many, if not most. This phenomenon is so widespread that without batting an eyelash we’ll ask a scientist to quickly summarize their work for ‘non-specialists’, with the cogent implication that this means simplifying it to the utmost. While the vocabulary of research is to a large degree topically specific (one cannot talk about osmosis without using the word ‘osmosis’ at least once), the language of research has grown so obtuse that we ask “Do elasmobranchs possess the cognitive ability to discriminate between complex auditory cues?” rather than asking “can a shark tell the difference between two types of music?” (You can read this compelling study here, for a subscribers fee). I feel quite confident that my grandmother understands what it means to play music to sharks, but complex auditory cues may not get much of a reaction.

So yes, open access publishing levels the accessibility playing field (this is the equality portion of publishing). However, publishing research in an open access journal does little to increase the scope of dissemination to the members in our global community who may most benefit from the information (this is the equity part of the conversation). We have some choices to make. Is equity important enough to us as a community that we will shift both our language and our access? Do we cultivate a research culture in which every scientific manuscript is accompanied by straightforward translation? If I can successfully write an entire manuscript in “layman’s english” will my peer reviewers accept it?

Albert Einstein wrote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” As a research community we are moving in the right direction, but let us do more than remove all of the fences from the trees and post signs that say “Climb me”. Let’s examine how we can be better communicators of our work, both in the peer review literature and beyond it.

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