In their own words: academics talk about open access


Richard White. Portrait in green’ by Catriona McKillop, used with permission.

By Richard White –  Manager, Copyright & Open Access Vice-Chancellor’s OfficeUniversity of Otago.

Many of you reading this post will – like me – be dedicated advocates for open access to research.  To us the benefits are plain and it can be frustrating that we still, after fifteen or more years of OA as a movement, hear comments like:

“I have been told by my [head of department] that publishing in OA has less status because you are paying to get published – I am not sure that this is true but it seems to be a prevalent idea.”
This is an actual response from an early-career academic to a survey on OA publishing we conducted at my own institution, the University of Otago.  It’s a particularly illustrative comment: the eager youngster finding his or her way as a researcher goes to the senior colleague for advice, who with a sweeping generalisation writes off OA as a legitimate option; the respondent seems to want to believe that making his or her research as findable and readable as possible is A Good Thing but demurs to the head of department’s opinion, and the myth that OA journals have some sort of monopoly  on poor quality is continued.


OK, I’m over-dramatising this for effect but at Otago we knew that, although this comment describes the prevalence of this attitude, many of our staff were publishing in open access avenues and that many were extremely well-informed about OA, hence undertaking the survey.  While we could read the plethora of research now available on researchers’ attitudes to open access, this commonly presents a Euro- or US-centric view.  Here, at the bottom of the world, we are operating in an entirely different political and organisational context so a survey seemed a good means of not only understanding our researchers’ attitudes towards and practices in OA publishing but also of facilitating a more informed debate about our institutional policies and practices.


What did we learn?  On the face of it, our results mirrored those of surveys carried out in other places and on different scales.  Otago researchers believe that Research articles should be freely available to all, with 86% agreeing or strongly agreeing with this statement and several comments of this nature being made:


“If research is publicly funded, then the results should be accessible to the public without cost/delay/other barriers.”


“We research in areas of health equity and indigenous health. Open Access publishing is a way of reducing the inequity in access to research for marginalised populations.”


Almost exactly the same proportion said that Obtaining funding to publish OA is a barrier that prevents adoption, with 84% agreeing/strongly agreeing.


“Open access publishing is a good thing and some of the journals are very good. But, the cost is an enormous barrier which we have no answers to at a Dept level.”


“Good ‘non-funded’ work gets blocked unless a cake stall is held!”


Several respondents explicitly acknowledged the difficulties of these divergent factors:


“I’m undecided on whether I should pay for my work to be published.  I support OA, in principle I do not support publishers profiting from the products of publicly funded bodies.  There are inappropriate drivers to publications for academics and these undermine the academic mission.”


This bifurcation is pretty typical, as was the fact that respondents indicated heavy use of academic social networking sites for sharing their research (64% using such services) and limited use of our own institutional research repository or other Green OA options (only 12% having practised some form of Green OA in the previous two years).


What was more instructive was the level of engagement with OA.  82% indicated that they provided peer-review or editorial services to ‘traditional’ journals but as many as half said they did so for OA journals.  Moreover, almost half had published at least one Gold OA article in the previous two years, with about one-fifth of all Gold OA articles being published without cost.  And there was clear evidence of the chilling effect of fees – or the perception that OA must cost money – on publishing choices, with almost one-third of those who hadn’t published any Gold OA articles indicating that they chose not to because it was “unaffordable” for various reasons.


“Too expensive.  I publish about 2-3 articles per year on open access and that’s all I can afford.”


“In my field many of the journals with the highest impact factor are open access so I would very much like to publish in them but the university won’t pay for the article charges.”


All this is a reminder that it’s easy to lose sight of what the average researcher thinks about open access, informed as it will be by their own experiences and the OA climate within their own discipline and even their own department.  We need to keep plugging away to dispel myths surrounding open access, informing and educating people about the benefits so that they can make informed decisions about their publications.  And perhaps most importantly these sorts of comments remind us that we need to build the infrastructure of openness around academics to make it easier for them to be open than not.


This survey was the topic of discussion at AOASG’s webinar on 8th May, 2017.


Visit our project page on Figshare to read the full report on the findings of our survey – including a vast number of comments like the above – or to download the survey questions and/or results data.


You can even take the survey yourself if you’re interested in the tool we developed.  Everything is licenced with Creative Commons for reuse, of course.