Open Access – the democratisation of Knowledge. Really?

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Open Access has transformed academic publishing. A majority of the world’s academic publishers follow a hybrid model for at least some journals; around 43% of academic content published in the UK is Open Access. The rising tide of OA content brings its own challenges, none more significant than how the broadest possible audience can find quality, peer reviewed open research. 

The original promise of OA was summed up back in 1991. Paul Ginsburg anticipated “the creation of a centralized automated repository and alerting system, which would send full texts only on demand (in order to) democratize the exchange of information…..globally for all with network access”.  If OA is to fulfil this ideal, it has to be truly open to everyone, not locked away in a dusty University repository. Mark Johnson at PLOS believes that much still needs to be done and he recently stated that as much as 85 percent of research is still locked behind paywalls upon publication.

Relatively few outside the academic community have heard of OA. Good material may be undiscoverable while second-rate content is launched into the void through “predatory” publishing houses – Beall’s List this year contains over 920 such enterprises, 230 more than 2015. Separating academic wheat from chaff is more complex than ever.

The general consensus is that a significant percentage of new research goes uncited and unread. The history of science is littered with great research that lay undiscovered for decades.  There is innovation in discovery, such as semantic analysis engines (Yewno is an example) which search for ideas rather than specific keywords. But discovery remains hamstrung by the boxing-up of content into diverse silos which are not cross-indexed or searchable by licence type. As Open Access generates no direct revenue post-publication, marketing has to rely chiefly on peer or search-engine referral. 

Nevertheless, there are examples of OA publications reaching parts more traditional works can only dream of reaching. Carefully-orchestrated social media can make a world of difference.  How the World Changed Social Media, published this year by UCL Press, delivered outputs via a range of means: a website featuring articles, blogs, facts and videos; a multi-lingual MOOC; a photo exhibition. This meant the widest possible reach, both academic and public, with over 5,000 downloads in just over two weeks. 

In the longer term, discovery may be guided by institutional librarians. As holdings and collection acquisition become less relevant, it is possible that the value of librarians will be transformed to mentoring and facilitation, escorting readers and researchers down the most appropriate discovery pathways.

Another option is to turn authors into marketers; Kudos is a tool which empowers authors to promote their research via social media. It relies on authors doing the legwork, incentivised perhaps by the glory often going to those who draw most attention to a discovery, and not necessarily the discoverers themselves.

To the growing volume of OA content is added another, less appetising aspect - somewhat hit-or-miss quality assurance. Rather like buying a doctorate from an unknown “university”, it is easy enough for any author to pay to get content published somewhere. Whether it has been through a judicious, structured peer review process is another matter. Predatory or “vanity” publishing is all part of this disruptive OA mix.

So how do you ensure that you can find appropriate content and be assured that it has been through rigorous editorial and peer review processes? One way of course is to visit indexers which adopt approvals screening such as the DOAJ, or renowned mega-journal sites such as PLOS, with 80,000+ reviewers and 6,000+ editorial board members across seven journals.

PLOS content is highly discoverable: without paywalls, the full CC-BY text is indexed by all major search engines and can be posted on third party sites permission-free. That an aggregator can gather and share a publisher’s content without any permissions is anathema to the traditional publisher, yet in the disruptive world of OA, guarding content from “competition” is meaningless. So one exciting option is transparent collaboration as practised by sites such as F1000, and a drawing-together of all the dispersed OA content silos into one searchable Hub.

This is what a new project from Ingenta aims to achieve. Pulling together OA content from a variety of sources and indicating clearly the peer review process behind each content source, Ingenta Open will eventually enable networked search and discovery across multiple silos. These will range from institutional repositories and independent websites through to Ingenta Open’s own low-cost supported CMS for smaller OA publishers. The new site launches in October.

Open-ness, discoverability and transparency are key issues for stakeholders in scholarly publishing, as we face a future that is less certain than at any time in past generations; it’s a challenge that lies at the core of what that future may hold for us all.