Open Access: Open Sesame or Opening Pandora’s Box?

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The open access (OA) landscape is littered with misconceptions and misunderstandings. In fact, the very definition of open access is frequently disputed. There are those who assume that anything free is open access. If you use a Web search engine and find free information, you're accessing the open Web, not, strictly speaking, open access. To put it slightly differently, Web search engines search the open Web, which may or may not find open access materials. Another common confusion is between open access and open source. Open source software, such as Linux, makes its source code freely available to anyone who wishes to use it or modify it. There's usually a collaborative development effort, which carries over to open source content such as Wikipedia and the Open Directory Project. Open source content isn't, however, synonymous with open access.

Then there's the confusion between open access and open archives. Perhaps that's because they share the OA acronym or because they deal with very similar types of materials. The Open Archive Initiative (OAI) is a metadata harvesting project based at the University of Michigan. It does work with open access documents, but it's not synonymous with open access either. Rather, OAI is a technology platform designed to promote the standardized metadata that makes retrieving documents easier. According to the OAI Web site, the goal is "to create a collection of freely available, previously difficult-to-access, academically-oriented digital resources . . . that are easily searchable by anyone." Digital repositories can be institutional, created by a particular educational institution, or subject-based, gathered from numerous educational institutions.

Opening Up Scholarly Literature
So if open access isn't open Web, open source, or open archives, what is it? Primarily, OA focuses on peer-reviewed, scholarly literature. Philosophically, the open access concept is relatively straightforward. It's all about scholarly literature being freely available to other scholars in order to facilitate scholarly communication and enhance scholarly research. The preponderance of "scholarlies" in that sentence was intentional. Think of open access as an alternative publishing mechanism for scholarly literature. It attempts to circumvent the high subscription prices traditionally associated with this publishing niche, particularly for scientific and technical journals. It also seeks to accommodate the natural desire of academicians to share their research with others and to build upon what their colleagues are discovering. In that sense, it's like an "Open Sesame" to scholarly literature for both the academic research community and ordinary people.

A 2002 ARL (Association of Research Libraries) task force examined the open access movement and recommended that the association promote the concept. In its article, "Framing the Issue: Open Access," ARL said OA was important because "society benefits from the open exchange of ideas" and that "access to copyrighted materials inspires creativity and facilitates the development of new knowledge." It pointed out that there are economic and legal issues to be addressed, however. That's where Pandora's Box comes in. Librarians, in particular, have shown great interest in open access, hoping it might solve the "serial crisis" that many libraries face: increasing subscription costs and declining budgets. However, as Yale's David Stern points out in the March/April 2005 issue of ONLINE ["Open Access of Differential Pricing for Journals: The Road Best Traveled?" pp. 30-35;], the open access business model "is neither necessary nor desirable." Whether you agree or disagree with Stern, it's clear that scholarly publishing is in for a prolonged period of turmoil.

Publishing Possibilities
Much of the discussion about OA over the past ten years has revolved around different publishing options and their impact on libraries and scholarship. Arguments and commentary on the OA movement play out in discussion lists such as the American Scientist Open Access Forum, the SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Institutions Repositories Discussion List, and the LibLicense list. SPARC also publishes a monthly OA newsletter, edited by Peter Suber, summarizing the latest developments. It's E-News bulletin is a "roundup of news items relating to SPARC's mission including developments from publisher partners."

Multiple options exist for open access publishing. The green road, as OA advocate Stevan Harnad dubs it, has authors self-archiving their articles in an institutional repository, coinciding with publication in a peer-reviewed, subscription- based journal. Without self-archiving, this would essentially be a toll road, available only to those with a subscription to a scholarly journal. The gold road is traveled when authors publish in open access journals, which are also peer-reviewed but charge the author a fee to publish. In theory, these fees are supposed to be covered by research grants or by the author's institution. The underlying notion of the traditional paid subscriber journals is that the reader (or, more likely, the reader's library) pays for the privilege, while open access journals assume that the author pays for the privilege of publishing. Either road, however, has as its ultimate destination a free read, if not a totally free ride.

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