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Pushing Towards Open Access Scholarship

We're in the final keynote for AoIR 2007 already (I missed the morning session this Saturday as I was having breakfast with Henry Jenkins this morning) - the keynote speaker today is John Willinsky from the Public Knowledge Project. He begins by noting issues of civic participation and access to knowledge as a key question of today, and relates these especially also to academic publishing: 'you make all the content, they take all the wealth' also applies in this environment, and the moral economy of academic work must be carefully considered. Fan writing, fans going public with their work - something that Henry Jenkins talked about yesterday - also translates into important challenges for academics: we, too, should aim to make our work more public, and connect it to wider civic concerns. This goes well beyond questions of technologies of access and distribution - it requires a shift of thinking; we need to 'get in the game', to allude to the 'Let's Play' theme of this conference.

John speaks here specifically also to the future development of AoIR, and suggests that we may want to consider developing an open access journal for the Association - openness is essential here, and an increasing theme in academic work well beyond the field of Internet studies (in the Gutenberg project, open genome, open notebook, creative commons, and other projects). Sharing is caring, as Henry said yesterday. The public sphere is changing; public participation and civic access is increasing, but where is the academy in this? There is a quality of knowledge, and quality of concern with that knowledge, which has been presented here at AoIR over the past few days and needs to be shared with the wider public sphere. Much of that knowledge has now moved online - certainly academic journals have! - and this is an important contributor to sharing information more widely and more quickly.

John notes the Open Access movement (and its Directory of Open Access Journals) as an important driver of this development - many of them free, some of them charging authors for publication rather than readers for access; some of them providing open access straight away, some after a small delay (like the leader in that field, the New England Journal of Medicine). The Canadian government is now explicitly supporting open access journals, in fact, and offers funding support for such journals. What's emerged here is a kind of gift economy, and an economy which trades in status rather than currency.

The DOAJ, and the Open Journal System which John has been instrumental in developing, are tools developed explicitly to support such change; there are now over 1000 journals in the world using OJS as their publishing system. OJS takes care of the editing and refereeing processes in a very effective and straightforward manner - this improves recordkeeping and accountability and in the process offers an opportunity to improve the scholarly quality as more focus can shift towards this rather than operational matters. Even commercial publishers are slowly coming to the game - Taylor & Francis's Information, Communication, and Society (which is now forming an association with AoIR) has introduced an open access clause, for example, allowing authors to post pre-print or post-print versions of articles on their own Websites, if under some very stifling conditions.

So, as scholars we could make a great deal of this work freely available for our peers now, under these conditions, and John passionately argues that we do. There are two roads to open access, then - legitimate open access journals, and commercial journals which offer at least some limited pre/post-print open access publication options. Indeed, some funding bodies in the U.K. and elsewhere now require that as a condition of public funding articles coming out of grant projects must be published in open access forms within a certain timeframe.

Such open access publishing increases visibility and readership; it demonstrably increases citation levels (and as a result may increase financial returns to scholars where citation levels are linked to funding or promotion outcomes); it improves status and impact in the field. In developing nations, in particular, open access journals are incredibly important, as they both improve local scholars' access to information, and local scholars' ability to publish their own work to a wider audience. John notes the role of open access journals, and particularly of the PubMed site, in alternative medicine scholarship as another example - where practitioners are especially frustrated with the limited level of access to scholarly information.

He shifts now to consider the Wikipedia, as another source of open access information - noting especially the surprising level of voluntary contributions to creating this resource. For academics to criticise the quality of Wikipedia is verging on hypocrisy, as we have the most to offer in further improving its contents - Wikipedia is frequently highlighting the need to further verify its contents, and this is a challenge which academics should be more encouraged to take up, and in turn we can and should point to further information available in open access content repositories. Doing so would further boost civic participation and participatory culture, as it would help to connect scholarly work and wider public interests; it would transfer scholarly ideas from within the academic domain into a wider public discourse. We have the legal right and the moral sensibility to make these connections - so we ought to do it. (Indeed, John suggests that we must especially also create an expectation in our students that such open access is required.)

Finally, there is also a question of academic freedom here, as some journals (especially in medical and other expensive fields) are closely associated with large government and corporate interests; open access journals are able to operate more cheaply, with less dependence on large funders, and therefore with greater freedom from interference. This is especially beneficial for new and emerging areas of research and scholarship which are as yet overlooked or shunned by incumbent academic associations. Open access is a route to academic freedom, to establishing the rigorous review processes which sustain and defend academic freedom.

AoIR, then, John suggests, needs to establish its own open access policies for conference papers; it needs to become more politically aware of such policies as they exist elsewhere in academic publishing in the field; and should it establish its own journal, it needs to consider the possibility of establishing it as an open access journal. Any increase in access for scholars, teachers, students practitioners, and for the wider public is a significant benefit, and should be pursued for its potential of driving cultural convergence, participatory culture, and civic engagement.

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