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The Writing on the Unpaywall

Happy open access week. We have progress to celebrate.

October 22, 2019
 
 

Since it’s Open Access Week, I finally got around to reading a paper I’d bookmarked a few weeks back, “The Future of OA: A Large-Scale Analysis Projecting Open Access Publication and Readership.” Written by Heather Piwowar, Jason Priem, and Richard Orr, the wizards behind Our Research, a non-profit devoted to developing infrastructure for open research, it makes a measured assessment of how much open access research is being read, what form it takes, and whether being published in an open access form makes a difference in readership and (by extension) in impact. Their analysis is based on the Unpaywall data set and access logs from the handy browser extension that lets you see if there is a legit open access version of a paper. (In other words, it doesn’t include papers publishers want to keep behind a paywall, just papers that are open access from the start, open access after a period of time, or open access because the publisher gave authors the explicit right to post them openly.)

Here’s the tl;dr version: more research will be open in future, and research that is open access is more likely to be read. This should surprise no one, but it’s good to have data to back it up.

At the moment, according to their analysis, nearly a third of journal articles are open access; over half of articles read are open access. By 2025 the authors estimate 44 percent of articles published will be open access and 70 percent of the articles read will be open. This is likely conservative because it doesn’t take into account the potential of major shifts in policy, such as Plan S or large scale read-and-publish deals, or simply the growing popularity of open access among researchers and their funders to significantly ramp up the shift to open access.

For folks in the humanities, this may be a bit misleading, since the data is limited to journals that assign DOIs. Still, it’s likely that with shrinking library budgets and the growth of open access options for humanities scholars, we’ll see a similar pattern. People are more likely to read research they can get their hands on. A lot of people don’t have access to research libraries with large, current collections. Increasingly, they do have access to publicly-available research. If you want your research to find readers and make a difference, making it open is smart. Libraries are finding ways to help.

I’m not sure these myths are as widespread as they once were, but I’ll bust them anyway:

  • It’s not true that open access means you have to pay. It all depends on the discipline and the publication. Yes, in disciplines where researchers get grants, it's not unusual to use available research dollars to fund publishing. If your discipline isn’t awash in grant money, it's likely open access journals won’t charge you a dime. (If they do, you're probably looking at a profitable mega-publisher that handles lots of STEM journals. Look for alternatives.)
  • It’s not true that if the author pays, it’s vanity publishing. Open access journals apply the same peer review criteria and processes as toll-access journals.
  • It’s not true that open access publishing is lower quality than subscription-funded publishing. You’re confusing open access journals with scams that pretend to be open access journals but aren’t. Don’t worry; you can tell the difference. And it’s not as if every journal that charges subscriptions is high quality.
  • It’s not true that you can’t get tenure with open access publications. Yes, some departments and some T&P committees are ill-informed and think Journal Impact Factors mean something they don’t, but times are changing, and younger faculty are increasingly impatient to have their work shared.

I’ll also recap my usual open-access-without-tears advice:

  • If you aren’t already familiar with open access journals in your field, take a browse through the Directory of Open Access Journals. Not every quality OA journal is listed here – the vetting is done by volunteers, and there’s a backlog – but it’s a place to start. Or just ask around. There are lots of excellent OA journals being published.
  • If you have a subscription journal in mind, see what their policies are before you submit using the SHERPA/RoMEO database. Most journals allow you to make your article available online, though they may make you wait for a year or more and often require you to post a manuscript version rather than the final PDF. (Hang on to that final draft!) Articles posted by authors get read, as the Future of OA analysis shows. It doesn’t take much time to build a few easy steps into your work flow to set your research free for all those potential readers who won't otherwise see it. If you don’t have a repository in mind, librarians can help with the how-do-I-get-it-online part.
  • What about books? The list of open access books is growing, and quite a few publishers also allow authors of chapters of edited books to post manuscript copies online. See what’s shaking at Punctum Books or Lever Press or any of the publishers on at Simmons’ Open Access Directory list of open access book publishers. Sure you could go with Routledge or Palgrave if you don't mind a $150 price tag that will limit readership to the privileged few. Or you could make your book available in a way that won't make your proud parents blanch when they ask how to get copies for the relatives.

Ten years ago, Open Access Week launched. We’ve seen a lot of progress. Imagine what the next decade will bring.

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