Mail & Guardian

Broadening the exchange of knowledge

30 Jun 2008 14:30 | Staff Reporter

In this age of accountability the need to have one's name "in print" and on screen, in the right places and as often as possible, is institutionally reinforced at every turn in academic life.

So it is hardly surprising that when discussing open access publishing with authors, the need to "publish well or perish badly" quickly surfaces. What does open access publishing mean for the goals of researchers and academics in relation to their developing a professional reputation and contributing to a body of knowledge?

There is ample evidence that open access titles get to more people, more quickly, than print-only publications. For example, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Press distributes books in three regions comprising about 11 countries, but has online readers from 184 countries. HSRC Press titles are, on average, visited online 22,5 times more than the number of copies bought. All evidence confirms that open access dissemination is exponentially greater than traditional publishing. But does this type of dissemination matter in developing an academic career? Do academics take open access publications seriously and what is their impact?

An academic work's impact is not only a measure of what it contributes to the work of others. It speaks, as well, to the recognition and reputation of the author. A commonly used measure of research impact is citation counts. This is not an ideal measure, as it is quantitative without a qualitative dimension, yet it is useful in gauging who is being read and referred to and how often.

Citation impact studies on open access reveal interesting nuances across disciplines. For example, in astronomy works have higher citations if astronomical data is included. But nuances aside, Steve Hitchcock, in his comprehensive web bibliography, The Effects of Open Access and Downloads on Citation Impact (2005), demonstrates that open access to scholarly publications garner on average 4,5 times more citations than print-only equivalents. The research impact offered by open access consistently outperforms traditional publishing models, suggesting that it is indeed taken seriously. This is encouraging for career development, but what about serving the greater good?

The most significant potential of open-access publishing is in broadening the circulation and exchange of knowledge while generally expanding research's presence in the world, from the cloisters of a few well-endowed universities and institutions worldwide, dedicated professionals and interested amateurs, to concerned journalists and policy makers. An open access approach to scholarly publishing is more than a matter of business plans and delivery systems. Rather, the potential expansion in the circulation of ideas is very much about the quality of knowledge pursued in certain settings. One could argue that the circulation of knowledge is critical to its very claim as "knowledge".

Helen Longino in The Fate of Knowledge (2002) demonstrates that this "social dimension" of knowledge, or who has access, is a crucial validating element of knowledge. She argues that we need to pay more attention to the social dimensions of day-to-day scientific work.

Not to do so amounts to what she terms a "cognitive failure" on the part of science as a whole. Put differently, the state of access determines forums for the criticism of evidence, methods, assumptions and reasoning. To limit this space, undermines the validation of knowledge.

Knowledge that advances human understanding and benefits humanity seems so clearly a public good that it might well be hard for someone who is not part of the current system to understand why research and scholarly literature is not made as open as possible.

Yet numerous studies have shown that, in the past four decades, global access to this literature has decreased and technological advances have mainly resulted in more sophisticated means of limiting access. The commercialisation of scholarly output, lead by multi-national publishing corporations, has led to a business model based on increasing gross profit margins and repeat subscriptions, as opposed to increasing volume. This might make eminent business sense, but the consequences are frightening.

Open access is a direct response to this state of affairs. Its spirit of being open is not merely an academic notion -- it is part of a larger movement to create a public space that can carry forward the life and legacy of "print culture". It is bent on increasing the democratic circulation of knowledge. To get back to those two goals that often occupy authors' minds -- developing their professional reputation and contributing to the greater good -- it seems there is sufficient evidence to suggest that open access publishing might be an occasion where you can literally "do well by doing good".

Garry Rosenberg is publishing director at the HSRC Press

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