Why Open Access? Why Now?
The traditional scholarly publishing model came about in a time when editing, typesetting, printing, and distribution were expensive and time-consuming, but technological changes have made it increasingly easy to share knowledge. The last few decades, in particular, have seen massive increases in our ability to publish research findings via the web.
Not only is instantaneous worldwide sharing of all scholarly output technologically possible, we already have infrastructure in place to support it in services like Open Works, the College of Wooster's institutional repository. Open access is the necessary modern update for the distribution of research that uses current technology to fulfill the original goals of the scholarly publishing system -- maximum access and visibility of results.
Developing countries are home to the same groups that require access to research in order to thrive (students, researchers, doctors, etc), but they often face much steeper access barriers. While many institutions in the developed world can afford journal budgets of several million or more dollars, institutions in developing countries often make do with a small fraction of that budget. Open access helps them get more of the research they need, faster.
Furthermore, open access publication helps research originating in the developing world gain entry into the marketplace of ideas by increasing global exposure of the work. Watch Mary Abukutsa-Onyango of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology discuss the impact of open access on recognition of her research:
One way to summarize the lifecycle of a journal article might be this: public funding, in the form of grants, student financial aid, and direct funding of public institutions, pays for research to be conducted, then researchers share the results of their work with a publisher; the article and associated work such as peer review are provided by the research community at no charge to the publisher; following publication, the publisher then charges the research community and the public a fee for access, often at a profit.
Although research is produced as a public good, it isn't always available to the public who paid for it or to the academics whose labor brought it about. Open access helps us to move toward a system that benefits everyone, not just a small set of academic publishers and those who can afford to pay them.
It may seem self-evident that research that is easier to access sees greater use, but the relative citation rates of open access and closed access articles have been studied extensively in the last decade, and there is now a substantial body of research supporting the conclusion that open access publication leads to more citations. Estimates of the effect range from a 25% increase up to 500% or more, depending upon discipline and time since initial publication (for more information, see the bibliographies located here and here).
One recent study found that the effect on page views and social media impact can be even greater than the citation advantage provided by open access.
Between 1989 and 2012, the growth in the average price for journals published by scholarly societies outpaced the Consumer Price Index:
Over the same time period, the business of academic publishing has become increasingly controlled by a handful of large, for-profit publishers:
(Movement of journals from small to big publishers, 1973-2013; source)
Combined, the top five most prolific for-profit publishers accounted for more than 50% of all papers published in 2013, while posting profit margins of 20-40% (source).
These factors, along with flat or shrinking library budgets, have led to a crisis of access in even the most well-funded institutions. Libraries simply cannot afford to subscribe to every journal their users might need. This means delays in access to essential research even in the best case scenario. Open access helps relieve the pressure of ever-increasing subscription costs.
Governments and private funding agencies worldwide are starting to realize that the current academic publishing system, which blocks public access, impedes scholars, perpetuates systemic inequalities between nations and between institutions, and squeezes libraries, is less than ideal, and they have started adopting open access policies to open up the results of the research they fund. ROARMAP, the Registry of Open Access Repository Mandates and Policies, tracks these activities. Here are some examples of major initiatives:
(Open access policy adoption by quarter; source)
Portions of this page were adapted from the Right to Research Coaltion.