Open Access Talk: The benefits of setting information free
University of the Western Cape (UWC) academics from several faculties met in the new Life Sciences building on 13 August 2013 to catch a lunchtime talk on open access and its benefits for researchers and institutions. Dr Alma Swan, Director of SPARC Europe, and Convenor of Enabling Open Access, delivered a talk on “Transition to an Open Access Policy”.
The talk was one of a series of discussions regarding open access (OA) at the university, ahead of the signing of the Berlin Declaration by UWC's Rector, Prof Brian O'Connell, in October this year. The Declaration, written at a conference in Berlin in October 2003 hosted by the Max Planck Institute, has become a benchmark signalling institutional support for open access as an enabler of global flows of knowledge for scientific discovery, innovation and socio-economic development. It has been signed by universities, research institutions, funding agencies, research councils, libraries, archives and museums.
Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, introduced Dr Swan and her long (and impressive) list of accomplishments – as an accomplished scientist and businesswoman, a consultant and advisor, an independent researcher, a director of advocacy for open scholarship and open science, and former editor of the online journal Neuroscientist, among other things.
Dr Swan, who joined in the discussion via Skype from London (enjoying, she noted, one of its rare beautiful summers) to deliver her talk and answer a few questions, began by delving into what open access is - the free release and access of peer-reviewed scholarly information - and what it isn't - an excuse for vanity publishing, or just “sticking anything up on the web”).
Open access journals publish content – almost always online – and make it available for viewing by anyone, free of charge. Open access repositories host articles from a university or other institute and make them available in the same way. They are indexed, searchable, and can be found on Google – open and visible to all.
Dr Swan delved into the data, discussing interesting research on OA, and presenting multiple graphs and slides filled with statistics. For example: did you know that 25% of new peer-reviewed literature is open access? Or that there are over 2 500 OA repositories at present, with about one new open access repository created every day? Or that the centralised OA repository, PubMed Central, contains 2 million articles and receives 420 000 unique visits every day – of which only 25% are from universities, with 40% being from the unaffiliated public at large?
For researchers, she demonstrated that there is always an increase in research visibility, impact and usability when going the open access route. At the University of Liege's repository, single papers have been downloaded more than 4 000 times. The most-downloaded author from the Queensland University of Technology repository has received over 225 000 downloads. MIT's OA programme is even more successful – many of these downloads are coming from China and developing nations, but a large portion are also coming from the US itself.
“These are enormous numbers,” Dr Swan noted, “and those downloading from repositories are usually those who do not have access through their institutional library subscriptions. These are entirely new, additional audiences – this is the whole point of open access.”
Institutions benefit from OA as well, as the aggregate of researchers benefit, but also in other ways. Most importantly, OA aids the university in reaching out to the wider public – interested non-academics, independent researchers not affiliated with an institution, and the practitioner community (civil engineering firms, for example). “The public funds research,” Dr Swan explained, “and the public should have access to that research.”
But for OA to take hold at an institution, she said, it must be mandatory – a voluntary process all too often results in low levels of research being made available to the public, as could be seen in UWC's Open Access Repository (a good first step, but with only 9 articles posted for 2013 thus far, it’s a sadly underutilised resource).
“I hope this talk convinces you to take more notice of the UWC Repository,” said Dr Swan. “What goes on in this university is very important, but what we do outside the university is equally important. Open access allows us to extend our reach outside our usual academic avenues.”
Still confused about Open Access? Want to know a bit more about what makes it so exciting? Interested in finding out more about UWC's open policies? Just visit the UWC Library Blog at http://blog.uwc.ac.za/ and have a look around.