Tracy Creagh

Open access: why we must break down the paywalls now

Publication via open access increases visibility, reach and impact of educational research, so why are we still hitting our heads against paywalls?

Why do we publish? For attention, for funding and for impact. The quality research undertaken by Australian education researchers has the biggest chance of impact if it is readily accessible to educators and policymakers. So why is the important voice of research left out of policy and practice? 

There is no question that one major obstacle is the lack of timely access to published research. Unless you are a researcher with an academic library login, then paywalls, restrictive terms of access, and the time to get hold of legally published research, shut out the very people who need this information.

Traditional publishing model 

Why are our organisations paying excessive amounts to both publish and  access (often) publicly funded-research? In case anyone needs a refresher on the traditional academic journal publishing model:

Academics receive funding via grants to conduct research (taxpayer-funded). Research findings in the form of academic papers and book chapters are reviewed (mainly for free) by their academic peers. Authors rely on their institutions to pay publication costs. Once published, institutions pay again to get access to these works via library subscriptions. 

So, who benefits from this model? Certainly not those outside the academic ecosystem, nor those inside it. The costs are worn primarily by researchers and their institution (x 2) while publishers make a significant profit (for example, a major academic publisher now has a profit margin heading towards 40%, higher than companies like Microsoft and Google).  

OA benefits all

Next week is Open Access Week (24-30 October) which provides an opportunity for the academic and research community to stop and rethink why we do what we do. So, what is open access (OA)? 

Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment (SPARC).

The momentum towards open access publishing is not without challenges and misrepresentation, and fair and equitable access to Australian education research remains challenging. 

The quality question 

There remains persistent misconceptions around OA, often conflated with predatory publishing. Quality discussions in 2022 are more nuanced. In order to be indexed by the Australian Education Index, ERIC, Scopus, et al., all journals (no matter their publishing model), are evaluated for adherence to quality standards including the application of peer review. The most comprehensive index of OA journals, DOAJ, follows rigorous principles for transparency and best practice in scholarly publishing that need to be met to be included. Quality and credibility should be vested in the research itself, not simply by the place of publication. While business models are very much in flux, scepticism is healthy when applied to both not-for-profit and big-name commercial players.

Re-route around the paywall

As members of educational organisations and academia we are not the only consumers of research. OA ensures that those outside of the institutional bubble, including those responsible for policy and information provision, have access to timely research. It also supports collaborative research without restrictions on a global scale. 

Internationally, there is a lot in-play around research access and discoverability. The emphasis on OA is significant in light of the White House (OSTP) memo on equitable access to research, and the release of UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science

Nationally, the OA policy revision from Australia’s leading health and medical research body removes the current 12-month embargo on the release of NHMRC-funded research from 2023 and all research will be openly licensed (ensuring and clarifying re-usability). If open access is good for science and medicine, it’s just as crucial for education. 

If governments and research organisations are mandating equitable and timely access the writing on the ‘paywall’ seems inevitable. It’s feasible to expect more favourable changes in terms of access to all research.

That’s not to say that for-profit publishers are not embracing OA – many actually are. But while they might be removing paywalls to access the research, they have generally adopted an author-pays model via article processing charges (APCs), again contributing to inequitable publishing opportunities for authors. Some have noted that major publishers are actually now leveraging the OA movement for their own benefit and time will tell as to the success of transformative agreements between institutions and publishers. 

Taking back control of the education research landscape

Improving access to education research requires an informed approach to navigating the OA landscape. Put simply, it comes down to the purpose of education research to affect and improve educational practice and policy. Journals are not the only vehicle for sharing research. Institutional and subject-specific repositories are valuable in terms of discoverability and expanding the use of research to a wider and diverse community. Repositories are central locations for institutional content and “have a critical role in archiving, preserving and sharing the diverse content produced by universities so it can be used by others and have the greatest impact on our society”.

Disciplinary repositories offer a bespoke OA alternative, and contribute to the visibility of discipline-specific research. We have recently been involved with a project that highlights actions that improve access to tertiary education research. The Universities Australia Learning and Teaching Repository (LTR) collates higher education learning and teaching research. Initially LTR archived the learning and teaching project reports and outputs funded by the Australian Government from 1994-2018. Repository content is openly licensed and in 2021 LTR undertook a pilot activity to index selected articles from the education-focused, OA Student Success journal. This pilot activity provides two obvious benefits in terms of educational research: 

  1. LTR, as a resource, is sustained by contemporary scholarly research filling the void left by the removal of consistent education research funding in Australia
  2. As an OA tool, educational research is curated and amplified to an educational community that extends further than our institutions. 

What can researchers do?

As education researchers, there is a lot we can do to make the OA model work for us.

Publish and review in OA journals

When thinking about where to donate your time as a reviewer or author, consider open access options. Read your publishing contract. If you transfer your copyright to a publisher can your own institution re-use your published content in its teaching? Most OA journals apply Creative Commons licenses which articulate rights to reuse, which means immediate and free access to your work.

Deposit in relevant institutional and education repositories

Give your institution’s repository plenty of love. Depositing your research in an institutional repository automatically improves discoverability and impact and that’s a fact. Most recently, the Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative examined citation activity in the OA landscape and noted “Open access through disciplinary or institutional repositories showed a stronger effect than open access via publisher platforms”. 

Advocate for Open AccessThere is value in an active (and collective) academic voice when it comes to advocating for OA to educational research. First and foremost, academic libraries and the information professionals working in this space are well-placed to help researchers navigate the changing publishing landscape. Secondly, keep abreast of international and national OA organisations and their activities. Open Access Australasia is a ‘go-to’ central source for current information and resources. Get your institution on board if they are not already members. Finally, if you are an editorial member or a reviewer for a paywalled educational research publication, start a conversation around the value of OA in your own community – what have you got to lose?

Tracy Creagh is Journal Manager, Academic Journals in the Office for Scholarly Communication at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She manages three of QUT’s five open access, peer reviewed scholarly journals and leads the institutions’ Open Access (OA) Journals Community of Practice dedicated to sharing and contributing to best practice in open scholarship. She is also Managing Editor of the Student Success journal. Tracy is on Twitter @creaght 

Pru Mitchell is Manager, Information Services at the Australian Council for Educational Research and adjunct lecturer, School of Information and Communication Studies at Charles Sturt University. She is a long-term advocate for open education resources and her research interests include metadata standards for digital collections that enhance the discoverability of open access content. Pru is on Twitter @pru