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Open access and scholarly publishing

Randall F. Clemens

Napster operated from 1999 to 2001. Twenty-six million users joined the peer-to-peer file sharing service. From B-sides to bootlegs, the digital venue allowed music lovers to share rare songs and provided unprecedented access to diverse forms of music.

Record label executives rebelled. Users, they argued, were stealing music. They targeted the college student who, with no regard for the artists’ (and industry’s) labor, amassed a 500 GB music collection. And yet, by the time Metallica, Dr. Dre, and other wealthy industry figures shut the service down, the change had already happened. The top-down corporate structure could not hold. 

Napster represents the ethos of a tech-savvy, connected generation. New technologies, along with sharing tendencies, have challenged issues such as access and ownership. 

Changing production and distribution channels have influenced all forms of media. Apple and book publishers are now battling allegations of e-book price fixing. Microsoft and Sony have both announced next-gen gaming consoles. A key issue among gamers has been rumors about game sharing and “always on” consoles. Gamers worry that corporations will use technology—the same technology that has allowed mass sharing—to limit access. PlayStation, unsurprisingly, has taken the early lead by charging less, limiting restrictions, and supporting indie game developers.

In academia, open access journals have increasingly dotted the publishing landscape. AERA recently announced a partnership with Sage to launch AERA Open, a peer-reviewed open access journal. It will allow all online users to view and read articles. To defray costs, AERA Open will charge authors a fee: AERA members will pay $400 whereas non-members will spend $700.

AERA’s forward thinking decision to embrace open access recognizes the shifting dynamics of knowledge production and distribution and raises a number of important and interesting questions: How will analytics affect journal and article rankings? Will crowdsourcing become more influential? And, how will open access modify the ways in which people find articles and value research topics? 

Open access journals present opportunities and challenges for graduate students and early career faculty members. For individuals like myself, I am drawn to new forms of distribution and presentation. Some fear—like record industry execs did of Napster—that open access will ruin the knowledge economy and devalue the work of academics. I disagree. Higher education is changing. Fear of uncertainty is not an acceptable reason to uphold the status quo and limit free access to knowledge. Open access potentially allows wider readership and improves visibility. 

The new trend encompasses several risks. For tenure-track faculty, a level of uncertainty exists regarding rigor. Although faulty, impact factors are important to tenure. Scholars make their names by publishing in top-rated and topic-specific journals. Even though the peer review process makes open access far different from pay-to-publish journals, many deans may not be able to differentiate between the two. Authors, consequently, have to choose and advocate wisely. As Bill suggested during an AERA governance meeting, while impact factors may not be available, other metrics such as accept / reject rates provide solid evidence to tenure committees.

Overall, I believe the benefits of open access outweigh the risks. The primary challenge for journal editors will be to maintain high standards, provide a quick peer review process, and present articles in a compelling and logical manner. The test for academics will be to embrace new technologies and practices.