Proponents of open access generally agree that there are many benefits to open access, but discussions about the processes involved in achieving open access often stop at making the published research available. But what happens when the issues of accessibility are considered?
A remarkable project is underway in Australia, spearheaded by the Australian chapter of a not-for-profit international development organisation, Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The Open Journal Project aims to explore and promote techniques to make academic information genuinely open and accessible – with a focus on groups that are often excluded from access to this type of information.
EWB is a volunteer organisation, sending volunteers overseas to a local non government organisation to work on the ground on a project. The Open Journal Project considers the needs of individuals and practitioners in other countries.
“The Project doesn’t finish the day you press publish – that’s when it starts,” explained Julian O’Shea, who is the Director of the EWB Institute, the education, research and training section of EWB, and is heading up the Project.
“We are thinking about what we can do to make the work more accessible.”
The EWB Institute is based in Melbourne, and is publishing a peer-reviewed journal as a pilot and case study in their work. The Journal of Humanitarian Engineering (JHE) is piloting innovations in open access, including multi-language access, developing country access, low-bandwidth websites, and disability-accessible content.
“We want to pilot innovations and share our experiences with doing this,” explained Julian. “We want to work out what is world’s best practice, do it and live it and show it is not too hard.”
The EWB has noticed that practitioners overseas are under-served by the current publishing process. As an example, Julian stated that the leading university in Cambodia does not have access to the largest database in the field of engineering.
The idea for the focus of the journal began because the group saw there were very few that focused on experience, drawing on outcomes from developments and disseminating that information.
“The aim of the journal is not to be published or cited, but to provide outcomes in communities,” explained Julian. “This is different to other research organisations as a metric of success. It gives us a different angle or lens.”
The group wanted to encourage this as a field of research in academia. They were not sure what level of interest there would be in the journal because from a purely technical point of view they are not publishing innovative technologies. Rather, the focus is on new ways of applying this technology.
“We have been surprised and pleased that the journal has been really positively responded to,” said Julian.
The journal is published open access, with no cost to the author or to the reader. It uses an open source program called Open Journal Systems to run the administration of the peer review and publication. All papers in the journal are available under a CC-BY 3.0 license.
“We have had no negative feedback at all from people wanting to publish in the journal,” said Julian. “People doing this kind of research don’t have any issue with making their work freely available.”
Accessibility – language issues
Academic papers can be difficult to read even for people within a field. They can become impenetrable to researchers in parallel fields. This problem is further exacerbated in an international environment, working with practitioners on the ground who may not have any tertiary education.
There are several issues with language. The first is the problem of making the technical reports understandable to the lay person. Often the papers in this area are very technical, including many equations, and can reach 300 pages.
To solve this problem authors in the JHE are required to submit a two page plain summary about the paper with the formal paper. This means a project manager on the ground can make a decision about applying the technology or approach and then pass the full paper on to the technical manager.
But many of these projects are in countries where English is not the primary language. The Project addresses this by making the reports available in the language of the country it is targeted towards. The Project translates the plain language guides into both the local language of most importance and into other general languages.
The Project called on goodwill to obtain the translations. They sent articles out to the world, asking for volunteers to translate the papers. This had a good response from universities, companies or simply people to help out on the website.
The Project now has an approved translator list. The first time an article is translated it is sent to a native speaker to approve it and once this is done the translator can go onto the list. The quality of translations has been very high, said Julian, with only one that had to be sent back.
To date the plain language summaries have been translated into Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Hindi, Chinese, Spanish, Danish, Khmer and French. The number of languages is growing.
Accessibility – distribution
Another consideration is bandwidth. In many countries the internet connection is through a mobile telephone which prevents the download of large documents. The Project decided to produce the journal on a low bandwidth, and this opened up new issues.
“Generally the journal system distributes through pdfs,” explained Julian. “The problem is it is all or nothing – if the download cuts out at 90% you get nothing.” So the Project looked at releasing html versions of the papers. This has reduced the size of the website to 4.3KB and the journal articles are about 18KB. “We can put about 80 journals onto a floppy disk,” he said.
The Project also has plans to further improve the distribution to remote areas. “We haven’t done it yet but we will have a system that says ‘here’s a postcard, send it to us and we will send the paper to you by donkey’”, said Julian.
Accessibility – inclusion
With a philosophy of sharing research, it was important to the project to provide versions of the papers in an accessible format for people with disabilities.
The choice of publishing html versions of papers assists people with vision impairment, as they translate better using text-to-talk programs than pdfs. In addition, the project is being proactive about embedding helpful metadata within the document such as describing images.
The Project has used the guidelines for Vision Australia to release a large print edition of the papers. “The first one took about couple of minutes – after that it was very simple,” said Julian. “That is what we are trying to show in this project, to meet a need for some people can be solved in literally two minutes.” The team has also produced Braille editions of the plain language guides.
The project hopes to share their experience and inspire others. “We are doing this through the case study approach,” said Julian. “This is my goal – to be able to communicate better. I am an author – what can I do? I am a publisher – what can I do?”
The Open Journal Project is hoping to formally launch later this year. Meanwhile, Volume 2 issue 1 is about to be released.
Twitter handle – @OpenJournal
Dr Danny Kingsley
Australian Open Access Support Group