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Posted by on May 3, 2013

Open Access and the Survival Instinct of Organizations

I don’t generally weigh in on these debates or developments on academic publishing and open access. This isn’t necessarily because I am not concerned with their developments, but rather people smarter than me are expressing their opinions as clearly as I could ever hope to. So, I generally feel as though I don’t have a lot to add to the subject. But it is an important one and one that has far-reaching effects on the way that research is distributed and used and so I thought I might jump in a bit and offer my opinions. I think the value, if any, I might provide to the discussion is my particular experience and resulting perspective on the mechanisms at work in the industry outside higher education.

I feel it necessary to start with the fact that I used to work for ITHAKA, the non-profit organization that counts JSTOR as its largest service. I worked there relatively happily from 2006-2012, the last four being more or less directly associated with the JSTOR service. I enjoyed my time there and enjoyed the enthusiasm of my colleagues, all of whom, to some degree or another, were convinced that they were doing good. I stand firm in my conviction that we were doing good and that ITHAKA has value to provide to higher education and academic publishing, the least of which being that they are one of the few organizations on the outside, i.e. outside higher education, willing (indeed, almost eager at times) to discuss the trend towards greater access in general and open access publishing more specifically. I thought that they took heat in a few news cycles and throughout some vocal social media circles for their paywalls and the perceived notion of being an exclusively closed service. I don’t deny that some significant aspects of the service are gated in some way, but I felt the vitriol of the criticism was rather unwarranted. I didn’t then and I still don’t see this as a black and white issue and I feel that higher education should be more nuanced in their approaches to open access. Test as many models as possible to see which one sticks, because rest assured the long-term evolution of academic publishing will result in something that looks very little like what it does today.

All that being said, I had a few brief points mostly in response/addition to Steve Wheeler’s post  and another article from Inside Higher Education discussing Duke University’s decision to opt-out of an elearning consortia offering credits. I found both these articles enlightening for different reasons and I wanted to briefly to address how.

Open Access

I believe in open access and I support academics like Steve Wheeler taking the plunge and choosing to not publish any research going forward in paywalled journals. Having noted academic like this will improve the perceived quality of open access journals and trigger more academics to follow suit. It might be a trickle of activity on this front, but it will come with time. Although most certainly not a noted academic, I have chosen, albeit almost accidentally, to publish in open access journals as I wanted as large a readership as possible. Also, I co-author a lot of papers and the likelihood of their being at least one open access type in a gaggle of elearning and open learning academics is fairly high. I suspect that the percentage of authors trending towards open access publications spikes considerably in particular disciplines (education and elearning seem to be fairly vocal about it). I support these trends as I do believe it is in the long-term interests of the research itself and the research community.

My support for open access, as I see it, in no way contradicts my support of ITHAKA’s mission, both then and now. All parties to this discussion are in the business of getting the research in the most hands as possible, but all are using different economic models to get there. And this is where I would like to see more discussion from the higher education community. Economic models. I have seen very convincing evidence that open access increases readership and impact (and I believe this to be absolutely true). I have seen evidence from academics analyzing the costs of academic publishing. I am encouraged by the experimentation from the UK on open access publishing (despite the Gold vs. Green debate which I believe is actually a healthy discussion). I think foisting publishing costs onto the authors is short-sighted and altogether unconvincing. If forced to pay to publish my work, then rest assured my work will stay here on my blog. Paying to publish is not something I would consider, career advancement or not.

What I would like to see more from the academic community is a convincing model for what open access might look like en masse, i.e. a model that accounts for all research going forward and all research from the past. Without this, open access will precede in fits and starts and eventually get to where it wants to be, but it will take a long, long time. A convincing model, as far as I can tell, would include:

  1. Models for perpetual storage-one should not doubt for a moment that archiving is expensive and this extends well beyond server costs. Information degrades over time and needs constant upgrading over time to stay accessible.
  2. Models for perpetual access- if it is open access, then this is more than merely making it available. It means making it available forever. This is how JSTOR more or less got started in the first place. E-research was appearing and then disappearing and research was being, or was in danger of being, lost. This leads to redundancy and a diminished or nonexistent impact. I have seen this firsthand and it is demoralizing to the extreme. Making things available, retrievable, and usable is an expensive proposition.
  3. Models for participation and transparency- I am not willing to trade one anachronistic, dysfunctional system for another. If there is to be open access, it is to be of a transparent kind, one that encourages participation from all members of the research community. I am speaking especially here about developing nations’ researchers, who are proactively experimenting with different models, but who routinely are, whether intentional or not, shut out of these discussions in terms of technological capacity or through a general weighting of the system against their chosen research subjects.
  4. Models for distributed intelligence and retrieval-there is much work, much useful work, to be done here with a distributed system, an Internet of academic research. There is no reason it needs to sit in one spot, be hosted on one farm of servers, or even be ignored when sitting on a personal space (blog or site). As long as its long-term availability is assured, the retrieval mechanisms for actually finding it should be easier than they are. We are getting into the realm of authority and peer-review and perceived quality here, a thorny issue indeed, but not an insurmountable one. Have it out in the open, float a few different models, and perhaps reinvigorate the university commons methods of depositing research from faculty there. It would be easy to retrieve from there into a larger index.

Until such a model is proposed, prototyped, or exists, then we will move forward with open access in fits and starts. A greater percentage of the newer research will be open access, a significant accomplishment, but not all of it and certainly not the older stuff.

Survival

I see this playing out again and again and it is a legitimate dialogue. People, faculty, publishers, or otherwise, are worried about becoming obsolete, losing their jobs, or being on the outside looking in. But mostly this is about survival. An individual and an organization’s first and foremost responsibility is to survive. This is as true for universities as it is for publishers or individuals or organizations. With this comes the truth that very few organizations or individuals will choose self-extinction in the face of the greater good. And this is a stumbling block in this discussion, one that the private sector is much more comfortable in dealing with via creative destruction. To make way for new orders of organization or distribution or dissemination, structures that supported the older order need to adapt or be washed away. Higher education and all their attached service industries are now feeling this transition and it is neither good nor bad. It just is. One can engage the change circling all around us and make it better, or one can ignore most of it, deflect some of it, and correctly critique parts of it (which is part of the process of making it better). But it can’t be postposed indefinitely.

This leads me a bit back to my thoughts on the Duke University decision. I think the critique was correct, that quality couldn’t be assured and in turn it would lessen the overall quality or perception of quality of a Duke University education. I think taking the occasional pause and evaluating is a positive move, but it is a temporary respite. If Duke decides to re-engage with this online experiment (not MOOCs mind you, these were controlled courses in terms of numbers of students), then more power to them for their discretion in critiquing in the first place. If they use this as an excuse to stay out of the game altogether, then the brand is already diminished. This process will be playing out in all the universities that have embraced or experimented with MOOCs once the blowback cycle begins (and it already has). Some have experimented openly and are better for the experience (looking at you, University of Edinburgh); some went headlong into the experiment for other reasons, financial or otheriwse. More power to them and I applaud their experimentation.

All that being said, as someone who has spent a lifetime on the outside of this discussion and now finds himself as a doctoral student slightly immersed in it (although only logistically as I don’t make any decisions whatsoever that directly affect The University of London), I want to make clear that I feel this discussion around new systems and experimentation is healthy and logical and worthwhile. But it is also an expression of survival. It is the survival of the university/higher education as an entity unto itself and not as one that directly serves the learner. Often the intentions of the learner and the university coincide, but sometimes they don’t. In short, the average leaner couldn’t and shouldn’t care less about the health of higher education. That is not their area of expertise, or concern, or even interest. Some in my position will finish their PhD and enter academia and some will not. I stand on the fence willing and eager to follow the greatest work (not necessarily organization) towards the greatest research that positively impacts the greatest number of people. I will be flexible in my approach on how and where that takes place. I generally feel that higher education is the best show in town in terms of reaching and educating the most people and facilitating the most scholarship but if a different model appeared that proved more fruitful I would follow that. All of us in this professional realm of intellect and logic and inquiry need to be willing to do the same.

So I am not only speaking about open access and open learning here. That is a great first step. I am talking about open research and open work and open impact. A world of open research where all are willing to follow the action. That is, ultimately, the end goal (for me). Higher education is and will continue to evolve to meet these needs for open societies. If they don’t, then so be it. Something will in its stead. Sometimes higher education demonizes private enterprise rushing into the cracks and fissures of the ivory towers forgetting the fact that we let them in. We can build from here, but universities (and their related service industries) need to be wary about positioning themselves in the us (higher education) vs. them (corporate/private enterprise) dichotomy. The learner sometimes does, but shouldn’t really care all that much who delivers their learning. They are finding workarounds all the time to make do and more power to them. I certainly have. And will continue to be open about the process.

PS: I love universities. I love higher education. I love all of it. I am just more in love with the demands that logic and service have on my actions; I view higher education as a collection of those types of people rather than a series of revered institutions.

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4 Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful reflection, Michael. It sets out a balanced perspective and provides some useful and insightful questions for all of us engaged in higher education work to be asking.

    • Hello there, Toja! Good to hear from you! Thanks for the comments. It took me some time to articulate my position in regards to open access considering our affiliation with ITHAKA. I see them as working towards the same goal so all is well in that regard. Am I reading your signatures correct in assuming you are now at the University of Akron? I am from Youngstown, so just a stone’s throw from there.

      • Hiya, Michael. I’m enjoying reading your blog! I have the same perspective on ITHAKA, and the broader field of online courses. I hope to get a better sense of things as a practicing academic. Yup, I’ll be in Akron officially this fall! Very interesting history…not too different from Youngstown and Pittsburgh, but it seems each has a different trajectory out of their industrial pasts… It feels like a good fit, surprisingly…and pleasantly. I’ll be following you as I forge ahead, old friend!

        • Sounds great, Toja and good on you! Glad to hear Akron is a good fit for you; good place to get into the whole academic thing and push on. As you are from the Midwest yourself, I don’t need to tell you this but their level of general niceness can be pleasant every so often. Either way, enjoy your summer first and foremost!

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