UNL researchers, publishers stand divided on Open Access

McKae Pinkelman, an elementary education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, pulls journals from shelves inside Love Library to prepare for annual bindings.

By Riley Johnson, News Net Nebraska

Brandon Locke needed to access research articles on information science a few months ago. The trouble: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln doesn’t have an information science program and access to the journals containing the research Locke needed.

So Locke, a UNL history graduate student, had to go looking for other sources.

“There’s research out there that I need that’s restricting (my) scholarship,” he said.

Around universities, debate rages on about access to academic journals that are typically expensive. This debate recently heated up after Aaron Swartz, an open access advocate, committed suicide. At the time, he was being prosecuted for downloading journal articles en masse.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, some students and staff involved in research and journal acquisition say the time has come to open research to everyone. But publishers say their calls to expand a free route to scholarship need bearings in financial reality.

“It would be one thing if journals were just expensive,” said Brandon Locke, a UNL graduate student working on his master’s degree in history.

For the 2010-2011 school year, UNL Libraries spent about $6.5 million to gain access to more than 33,700 serials, which includes journals, annuals and other publications issued in parts, according to university data. Last year, the Libraries spent $6.3 million.

Locke, who studies 20th century gender, advocates for open access. He noted that much of academic research, particularly in the sciences, receives federal grant funding, and when prospective readers are charged to access that research in a publication, they’re double paying.

Though he doesn’t believe all content should be free, Locke said opening access could advance medical and technological innovation by allowing more people to read new studies and reports. Open access could improve metadata research done in the humanities, he said, where computers determine patterns within large amounts of text — research that would be more laborious for a single researcher and more difficult if certain scholarship were restricted.

But some publishers, such as Donna Shear, director of the University of Nebraska Press, say the open access movement, though “very altruistic,” doesn’t necessarily factor in financial reality within academic publishing.

“It’s a business that has to be run, and the only revenue stream is our products,” said Shear, who has overseen the press for 4 years and worked in publishing for 25.

“Most of us in publishing are barely hanging on,” she said.

Shear said there seems to be a misconception about the cost of operating a publication. It’s not just the publishing itself that costs money, she said.

Publishers also incur costs with the peer-review process, editing, page design and typesetting as well as administratively, Shear said.

Paul Royster, a former director of the University of Nebraska Press, said the open access movement is rooted in frustrations with publisher control over content.

“(We’re) giving our money to people who have been holding our content ransom for the last 50 years,” he said.

Royster said institutions should provide infrastructures that allow information to be open. In his job with UNL Libraries, Royster oversees such an infrastructure: Digital Commons, UNL’s institutional repository. Digital Commons, the second largest institutional repository in the U.S., contains 62,000 items, he said. Most of those are open to the public and available in full text.

Royster agrees with open access “green” publishing models where nobody pays, such as the Digital Commons, or what are called “gold” models, where authors pay the journal to make the content accessible.

Often times, those author fees are covered by the scholar’s grant or through an institutional fund set up for research publication purposes, Royster said.

But unlike the hard sciences, humanities don’t often receive the type of grant funding that pays for research publication, Shear and Royster admit.

There’s one type of open access, though, Shear said she could support.

“I believe if all of the parties involved do not want to get any payment for it… then it can be free,” Shear said.

Mary Bolin, chair of UNL Libraries Technical Services Department, oversees acquistions for the library and also edits an open access library science journal.

She sees the open access movement and dialogue surrounding academic publishing as side effects of the digital age. Journals, invented to deliver packaged readings, now must navigate a different era, where articles can be accessed anytime, from any place, she said.

To some degree, authors don’t need journals to communicate their message with the advent of blogs. As more and more people demand accessibility to content, Bolin said the rift between author, publisher and public only seems natural.

“We don’t just jump into the future all at once,” Bolin said.

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