Blog Post

Perspectives on Open Access

On Monday I attended a panel discussion about Open Access held at UNC-Chapel Hill's Davis Library, "Perspectives on Open Access," featuring four panelists: two librarians and two academics. The librarians were Kate McGraw of UNC's Health Sciences Library and Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University. The academics were Phillip Edwards, an instructor at UNC's School of Information and Library Science* (where I am a student, and where Edwards is my academic advisor); and James Boyle of Duke Law School (who recently gave a lecture at UNC). This was an exciting event for me to attend, as I am a student of library science and someone who has "drunk the Kool-Aid" on Open Access: a strong believer that it's an obuvious extension of the larger project of libraries, and of higher education.

Briefly, "Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions. What makes it possible is the internet and the consent of the author or copyright-holder." --Peter Suber, Earlham College. (PDF)

The panel was slightly disappointing in that there was little interplay among the panelists; each was given 10-15 minutes to speak, and when they had, little time remained for discussion or questions. However, each of the four brought a different perspective to the table, and had interesting points to make.

James Boyle, a longtime public advocate of copyright reform, started the program. He argued for more focus on explaining Open Access to a wider society: decision-makers, "clueless scholars," everyday citizens, and broader international audiences. Though OA is an obvious, logical choice to us [mostly librarians in the room], the broader public needs to be persuaded. Boyle offered a strategy: to explain OA in reference to the Web (which "was invented to facilitate scholarly communication"). For example, he asked, "Can you do mashups with the databases UNC pays for?" Access to scholarly work lags behind; it is an anomaly in the landscape of the Web. Also, Boyle pointed out, "access is not just eyeballs, but the ability to weave things together."

Kate McGraw
spoke next, focusing on what librarians are doing about Open Access. Our role, she said, is to lead and advocate our way into the future we hope to see. Mcgraw shared the history on OA and libraries, saying the movement among librarians "started as a reaction to raising database expenses... but it showed how limited access really was." She gave three main reasons to support OA: (1) wanting a wider readership for the research of the scholars she serves, (2) demanding access to publicly funded work, and (3) seeing how lack of access affects public health. That last reason McGraw illustrated with a story about working with medical practicioners around North Carolina who wish to practice evidence-based medicine but don't have access to the necessary resources. She said, "we librarians can be change agents," citing the work she has done with the HSL.

Phil Edwards gave his take on Open Access, speaking as both a researcher and a teacher in the field of scholarly communication. He added another dimension to the discussion by sharing his research, which has involved in-depth interviews with scholars about their pubilshing practices. Often, he has found that their motives are different from the commonly held notions of why scholars publish where (eg. top-ranked journal, then if not accepted, 2nd-ranked journal). Also, they share their work outside of academic journals, such as blogs. Students in his scholarly communication seminar (many of them future academic librarians) have done similar research on publishing practices at UNC. Edwards added that these students, and academic librarians in general, ought to use the framework of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) when regarding OA projects. This approach will ensure that the effectiveness of tools such as OA mandates and Institutional Repositories is evaluated, which will in turn make Open Access more effective.

Kevin Smith finished out the program, introducing himself as an academic librarian with a law degree and an unusual title: Scholarly Communications Officer. His job is to help students and scholars manage their intellectual property rationally; also, his position is recognition that "we need better scholarly communication systems to serve the academic community." In that vein, Smith has been working towards an Open Access policy for Duke, and in that process he has heard many fears and longings from faculty. He shared these, starting with fears: inability to publish where they want; OA will put publishers and scholarly societies out of business; OA will be too much trouble; there will be multiple versions of their work in circulation. Also, some faculty longings: a need to maintain peer review, and to get appropriate recognition for their work. He reported one worrisome statement: that some scholars say "everyone I care about already has access to my work" in response to criticism of journal prices. But, Smith argued, times are changing--scholars need to expand their chosen and intended audiences; they can't take for granted that everyone will have access.

So, as promised, four perspectives on Open Access, from four different sectors of the academy. It would be interesting to see how a librarian and scholar from NC State may have added to the panel, completing the Triangle. The panel was videotaped, so I'll link to that in the comments below when it becomes available.

This event was sponsored by The UNC Libraries Scholarly Communication Committee.

Additional Resources

James Boyle:
See also:

Kate McGraw:

Philip Edwards blog
*Phillip Edwards is also a HASTAC Scholar

Kevin Smith:



Hey Adam,

Thanks for posting.  I've been hearing a lot of buzz about Open Access lately, and couldn't understand what the controversy was all about - it seemed like it could only be a positive thing.  Some of the concerns of academics pointed out by Kevin Smith make sense to me though.  Especially the issue of potentially putting Journals out of business.   Without these it will be difficult to maintain a thorough peer review process and, at least in science, this is critical in order to keep researchers accountable for their work and maintain high standards for published material.  From your (more informed) perspective, are these claims reasonable?


Hi Dan,

I only have first-hand perspective on a few different angles of this debate, so I'm not sure I have a definitive statement to make. My background is: I'm a consumer of scholarly work (both OA and not), and as a librarian I've seen and studied how library users discover scholarly work. Most of my other knowledge of Open Access comes from librarian perspectives, which are overwhelmingly in favor of OA.

One statement I left out of my summary above is this one, from James Boyle: scholars have to publish ("or perish," eg. to get tenure), others edit journals and conduct peer-review for free to gain recognition/status in their field, and distribution costs on the net are effectively zero. So, if all of this happens free of cost, why should the work not be freely accessible?

In response to your question about peer review surviving: peer review is totally compatible with Open Access. A few excellent examples of this are First Monday and Public Library of Science. So, I don't think publishers are necessary for peer review. That doesn't mean they don't play a role in scholarly communication, and that we shouldn't worry about them going out of business.

As a librarian, I want Open Access because it makes scholarly work accessible to more people (not just those that can pay). For an example of even a top-notch school not having access to journals for lack of funds, see the UNC HSL's cancellations this year due to budget constraints. Smaller schools, including those in the developing world, have it much worse.

Also, OA makes work more easily accessible even to those that can pay, because it doesn't need to be locked away in proprietary databases that aren't easily searched/navigated. I've seen this difference in action both as a student and a librarian: OA materials are easier to find, share, use, and discuss. For a scholar, this means more readers for your work.

I don't know that I can answer the hard question of publishers going out of business. There's a very persuasive argument for wider and easier access; I hope they're able to embrace Open Access and still survive, perhaps with some alternative revenue stream. I'm afraid I don't know what that would be; their in a similar boat as newspapers these days.

For more on this subject, look here (though I can't vouch for the author):

Thanks for reading, and for the response,