This week is Open Access Week (follow #oaweek on Google+ and Twitter), and while I’ve shared a few links and talked to some of my officemates, I haven’t taken (or had, really) time to expand on my thoughts more fully. But I take Open Access very seriously, and I know the status quo (researchers signing over copyright to journals who lock away the research behind paywalls) won’t change unless more of us keep sharing openly to the widest audience possible. Because the antithesis of Open Access isn’t copyright — it is the unwillingness to share any ideas at all.
In the field of education, particularly in education policy, research is conducted and published in one of two ways: either by academics to submit to journals, or by think tanks and other groups who generally do non-university-based research. Academics will defend their system because their research is peer-reviewed, whereas much think tank research is not. In fact, in an effort to force a peer review process onto think tank research, the National Education Policy Center created the Think Tank Review Project, which includes reviews of think tank research and the annual Bunkum Awards. (Disclaimer: I know, work with, and take classes from various scholars at the NEPC.) If the academics are right, and their peer-reviewed research is superior, does that mean it is more influential? Hardly. According to this research by Holly Yettick (also affiliated with the NEPC), university-based education research is only cited about twice as often in major news outlets as research from think tanks, even though universities publish about 15 times more research (2009, emphasis mine). Yettick’s conclusions to this report include a recommendation to education reporters, urging them to consider more sources because “Unlike think tank employees, university professors generally lack the incentives and resources to conduct public relations campaigns involving outreach to journalists” (p. 15). My question is this: How does copyright and traditional publishing affect this incentive structure, and how can open access change it?
First, imagine you work at a think tank and you’re proposing research. Even before writing a word, you probably have an audience in mind that you’d like to reach with your work. Once your research is approved, you go about the research process and publish a report. Because the think tank does the researching and the publishing, no transfer of rights are necessary — the work was a work for hire and copyright belonged to the think tank from the very beginning. Now the think tank can set about trying to promote the results to the research to the media and other interested audiences. They have an incentive to promote because the research, the publication, and the promotion is carried out by the think tank, an organized unit that includes you in its shared ownership of the work. This gives the think tank a collective interest in spreading their ideas.
Now imagine you’re a researcher at a university. You too have an audience in mind that you’d like to reach, but when your research is finished you submit your report to a peer-reviewed journal. In order for the journal to publish (or sometimes, even to consider) your article, you must transfer to them your copyrights. The journal now owns the report, and this is where the incentive system starts to break down. The article might be read by your peers, and may help you receive tenure, but surely (I hope) your peers and tenure committee don’t comprise the true scope of your target audience. If you, the researcher, are still intent on making sure your work reaches the intended audience, how effectively can you promote something you no longer own? Most efforts to share your report will violate the publisher’s copyright. You could create derivative work, in the form of conference presentations, blog postings, or articles for magazines, but this actually requires extra effort to avoid a copyright violation, impedes future progress on other research, and often does not count towards tenure.
Instead of self-promotion, can you, a researcher, count on a journal to promote your work? Why would they? Do they know the scope of the audience you would like to reach? What incentives does the journal have to promote work they did not create? The journal wants subscribers, to be sure, but because they have no rights to your future research (or that of any scholar), their main incentive is to preserve a system that positions their journal as one of the few credible outlets for research. For example, the American Education Research Association has 25,000 members and publishes six peer-reviewed journals. If you’re an education researcher, you probably belong to AERA and you respect and read the scholarship in their journals. But in Holly Yettick’s dissertation research, searching through “nearly forty thousand articles in hundreds of publications” (2011, par. 14), she has yet to see a single AERA-published article mentioned anywhere. So while you might hear Brian Williams start a story on the NBC Nightly News with the phrase, “A new study published in the journal Science…,” you won’t hear an equivalent statement mentioning an AERA journal, despite education getting plenty of attention from NBC.
Think tanks have an advantage because the shared ownership of the creation and publication of research creates a common incentive for promotion. Even if the research is lower quality, the spread of the research to a wide audience gives the research power and influence. The traditional system of university-based researchers transferring rights to publishers in exchange for publication might produce higher-quality work, but leaves us with a publication paradox: how do creators promote something they don’t own, and how do owners promote something they did not create?
I see two options for improving the incentives to promote academic research: (a) publishers should own creation, or (b) creators should maintain ownership (or at least rights to open distribution). Option (a) essentially turns a publisher into a think tank, and would not fit with academia’s culture of academic freedom and independence. Some universities host their own journals, but they do not do so for the purpose of sponsoring and publishing their own work. Furthermore, most university researchers don’t want their work to be seen as “work for hire.” Option (b), which is not without its challenges, is the better option, and the growing Open Access movement is making it a more viable option every day. But for it to be successful, researchers are going to have to support change — not for selfish reasons, and not out of spite for publishers, but to ensure the best research is freely available to the audience for which it was intended.