The new norm: thoughts on the world, post-OA

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Since 2012 open access (OA) has been in overdrive.

The UK catalysed developments with the commissioning and publication of the so-called ‘Finch’ report on publication and accessibility of research.  

It has now arguably passed the baton on to the Netherlands, the first nation to clearly articulate its vision, by 2024, of publishing *all* of its research outputs on a Gold OA basis. Although government policy direction in the US is around ‘public access’, the Gates Foundation is the first major research funder to mandate that all its funded research outputs be published  open access, accessible immediately (gold OA).

The rest of the world is engaging with OA in some form or other, though policies predominantly focus on Green OA (archiving articles in repositories following their publication in subscription journals). Nonetheless there is a clear direction of travel, and the future looks set to be Open.  

What next then, for scholarly communication? There has been much discussion around how best to communicate research and findings in our increasingly networked digital age. If we assume that all research outputs will be made available to all, how might scholarly communication change?

One area that springs to mind is accessibility. Those of us who don’t have a PHD in high energy physics struggle to understand the terms and concepts outlined in a typical research article in this field.  

How then do we bridge this gap in understanding? There are already moves to reframe the relationship between researchers and the public, with public engagement becoming an ever more important part of a typical academic’s role profile, and related initiatives such as citizen science gaining prominence.  

There are also more links forming between the academic community and the media, to try and put a stop to sensationalist headlines that bear little resemblance to the research that they are supposedly reporting on. A number of journals and sites now publish digests or synopses that are widely comprehensible.  Here we see a future ‘knowledge society’ where we all have the opportunity to exercise our curiosity and develop our personal understanding about the world in which we live.

What then however about the return on investment (ROI)? Much of the present legislation around open access is based on the premise that free access to research generates significant socio-economic benefit, and that access to information without boundaries catalyses innovation and the development of new products and technologies (the idea of disruptive innovation).

This idea translates very well into certain fields, where outcomes are quantifiable. However, what about research which makes a qualitative contribution, to our enlightenment or understanding as a society? Also, what about fundamental or basic research? Often this work is the building block upon which applied research advances its field, but it is unlikely in and of itself to generate a ROI. We must be careful that openness doesn’t lead perversely to a narrowing of the research agenda, to that research or those areas which are most likely to bear measurable fruit.

Will openness change the way that research itself is carried out? There are already 50 million research outputs, and this figure doubles every 20 years.

OA could well catalyse the growth in research, especially if past work is reused to create new material. We’re likely to see increasing granularity in research outputs, with those elements which are currently components of a final research article, or supplementary to it, becoming standalone items with their own unique value and contribution to the research opus (this of course is already happening in terms of research data).

We’re already in an age of information overload, so how will researchers keep up with key updates in their field? There is much discussion around whether there is a place for journals in an Open world, with many arguing that they are increasingly anachronistic. However, is there a role for them to fill in filtering and kite-marking key articles in a field?

This short piece only touches on some of the implications of a post-OA world. We’re on the cusp of a new era which holds an enormous amount of promise and potential but needs to be managed carefully to make sure that we maximise its potential to transform the world

Vicky Gardner is open access publisher at Taylor & Francis, where she has worked since 2008. She is focused on the development of Taylor & Francis’ open access policies and systems, through consultation with key stakeholders. She also works in promotion and advocacy around open access