We put a man on the moon about half a century ago yet we still haven’t solved the problem of access to the scientific literature.
I was invited to speak at the New Zealand Association of Scientists meeting this year. The theme was “Science and Society” and I was asked to speak about Open Access from that perspective.
The timing was really good. Lincoln University published their Open Access Policy last year, Waikato University released their Open Access mandate a couple of weeks ago, and the University of Auckland is examining their position around Open Access. New Zealand is catching up.
I opened my talk by referring to the New Zealand Education Act which outlines the role of univeristies:
“…a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning”
[New Zealand Education Act (1989) Section162.4.b.iii] (emphasis mine)
I argued that those values could be best met by making the research outputs available under Open Access as defined by by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, that is, not limited to “access” but equally importantly, allowing re-use.
After summarising the elements of the Creative Commons licences that can support Open Access publishing, I invited the audience to have an open conversation with their communities of practice to examine what values each place on how to share the results of our work.
My position is that the more broadly we disseminate our findings the more likely we will achieve the goals set out by the NZ Education Act to maintain, advance, assist in the application of knowledge, develop intellectual independence and promote community learning. I am also of the position that this is what should be rewarded in academic circles. I think that. as a community , we should move away from looking for value in the branding of the research article (i.e., where it is published) and focus instead on measuring the actual quality and impact of the research within and outside the academic community.
How do we measure quality and impact?
At times I feel we have we become lazy. We often stick to using impact factor as a proxy for quality instead of interrogating the research outputs to understand their contribution and impact. Impact factor may be an easy metric – but it is not one that measures in any way the quality or impact of an individual article, let alone of the researchers who authored it. It is just an easy way out, a number we can quickly look at so we can tick the right box. As a metric it is easy, quick and objective. As a metric of value of an individual piece of work it is also useless and, because of that, it inevitably lacks fairness in research assessment.
What does this have to do with OA?
By the end of the conference I couldn’t shake the thought that the barriers to Open Access may not be financial and the costs of publication fees may be the least of our problems. (This issue of cost just keeps coming up.) I can’t but wonder if the cost Open Access might just be a red herring that lets us avoid the real (and bigger) issue: quality assessment. Open Access may help our articles have a wider reach but, except for a few titles, Open Access journals are not recognisable brands. If we are forced to stop looking at the “journal brand” we will be forced to assess the individual articles for their intrinsic value and impact. And, although it may lead to better, more valid, assessment, it is also a big and difficult job.
A lot of what was said today at the conference revolved about the value of New Zealand science (and scientists) to society and the importance of science communication. We spoke about the importance of evidence-based policy, the need to be the critic and conscious of society and the challenges of working with the public to build a trust in scientific evidence despite its uncertainties. We expect politicians and society to do the hard job of making decisions based on evidence. I couldn’t help but ask whether we, as a community of scientists, can live up to those standards.
Can we ditch the bad and easy for the good and hard?
We put a man on the moon. Solving the issues around open access and research assessment must certainly be easier to solve. Are we ready to put our money where our mouth is?