Open Access Publishing and Public Scholarship

by | Oct 24, 2017

Deciding on open access publishing isn’t always easy in the academy. Far too often we are so grateful at the idea of being published at all that we hand over our writing and add the line to our CVs with hopes it will help us get the fellowship, the job, or at least some likes.

Publishing with open access journals can get our work out there to broader audiences, but it also risks making our work seem less valuable to the people making decisions about our career. For those of us editing and publishing journals, the answers to these questions shape the future of our fields.

So, should we go open access or not? Consider these questions as you make your decisions.

Who is your ideal audience?

Open access publishing means everyone can access your work, no subscription required. There are no paywalls or datawalls, so scholars at institutions without the big budgets required to subscribe to journal databases will be able to read your work quickly and easily.

Scholars outside universities, public audiences, and global audiences without the same access to US-based library systems will be in the same boat. Open access publishing makes it possible for students to read and engage with your work without regard to cost. If you want to reach the widest possible audience, there’s no question open access is the way to go. And when everyone has access to resources without negotiation, everyone learns and thinks better.

That said, some scholarly communities tend to publish in a small set of journals. If they aren’t open access but you want to be part of those conversations in particular, it can make more sense to publish there.

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What will “count”?

I wish we didn’t have to ask this question either, but we do. Depending on your field, some scholars assume open access journals are not peer reviewed and are less “serious” than traditional university press journals. This incorrect assumption is becoming less and less true as more editorial boards are seeing the benefits of open access publishing.  But if you are on the job market or looking to secure a fellowship or tenure, it is worth pausing and asking your advisors and peers for advice.

Think seriously about your priorities as a scholar and writer—what counts for you? Make your decision accordingly. Keep in mind that open access journals are just as rigorous, serious, and peer reviewed as conventionally published ones, so do not be afraid to go that route, even if those counting the beans are conservative.

Should my journal embrace open access publishing?

If you are on an editorial board for a journal or are part of a collective starting a new one, the question of whether or not to go open access should be on the agenda. Open access publishing democratizes knowledge, and that’s a good thing. One concern, though, is who will pay for it. Just because access is free doesn’t mean the platform and labor to produce it are free. These costs need to be considered when making this decision.

So, why don’t all journals publish open access? Sometimes the answer is resources. If a press that already publishes journals takes yours on, that can be easier than building an open access infrastructure.

Sometimes the answer is simply prestige. There is still a lot of power in print, and for some scholars working in new fields or writing about subjugated communities, that prestige can stamp the field with some semblance of authority. That’s not a pretty answer but it is a real one, one I hope will make less and less sense as more people get on board with the importance of making knowledge accessible to all readers and researchers.

Finding out more

Many people are actively working to promote open access resources across academic disciplines. On campuses, it is usually the librarians who think hardest about these issues and can connect researchers to resources. They are the ones staring at budget lines as even at our most well-resourced institutions struggle to keep up with the rising cost of databases that control access to scholarship. Don’t be afraid to ask your librarians for help understanding where and how to publish open access.

On a policy level, organizations like PLOS and the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) are working to make open access the default choice for writers, researchers, and publishers.

As more and more scholars recognize the benefits of open access publishing, the question of whether or not to go open access should have a pretty obvious answer. How to pay for the labor that goes into producing and disseminating knowledge remains an open and urgent one, regardless of where and how we publish.

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Kate Drabinski is the education director at Ideas on Fire, an avid bicyclist, and a senior lecturer in gender and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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