Learning to be Open: Open Access as a Deliberate Academic Practice

When I was first asked seven years ago whether I wanted to publish my doctoral thesis as open access on the university’s online institutional repository or enforce an embargo on it, it was the first time I had heard about such an embargo. I was quick to make my thesis open access, wondering why anybody would not share such a seemingly wonderful and scholarly product with the world. Then, as I tried to publish a book based on it, it was clearer to me why others may not do so, for trying to ‘publish’ something that has been downloaded 2500 times on the Internet does not really bode well for a potential publisher. In fact, some disciplines such as History encourage such an embargo on doctoral theses.

Now, I work in a HASS (Humanities and Social Sciences) faculty with History as one of the main research strengths. Over the last five years since I first became an academic, I have maintained my love for open access (what’s not to like?), although I became more of an advocate after conversations with my University Librarian Mal Booth, whose blogs on Open Access have informed me over the years. Yes, there are several research articles on the topic, but I have also found the articles on Open Access in The Conversation, especially by Virginia Barbour and Danny Kingsley to be extremely useful in understanding the current state of thinking on the topic.

My conversations with colleagues in the hallways of academia, all of whom are both producers and consumers of scholarly outputs (and also reviewers and editors), reveals no contradictions with the main thrust of the open access movement of free and unrestricted access to scholarly outputs. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is much misunderstanding on what open access is and how it can be achieved.

For many in the ECA category (I use this rather than the more commonly-used ECR as the term early-career academic reflects more accurately the competing pressures between research, teaching and university engagement), the conversation is still around “how to get published” and “how to find time to write” rather than about where to publish. For senior academics, it is more about publishing the next book, often with their trusted publisher, and they do not perceive the open access discourse to be relevant to their work. Hence, I believe it is mid-career academics like myself that need to carry the torch for open access and raise awareness and engagement with this movement.

It is important also for us researchers and academics to understand that we don’t have to do it alone and that there are scholarly communication experts in our organisations and around the world who can help us at every step. We can trust our librarians and our research support officers to give us good advise on open-access publishing (as part of a more holistic publications plan customised to suit our research) and on how it can increase both the research impact and the social impact of our research. We also need to learn about the different types of open research so we can make informed choices in our publishing plans: there are open access journals, open data repositories, open books, open textbooks, and even open peer review. An excellent example of an open peer review is linked here. Talk to your friendly neighbourhood librarian to learn more.

Sometimes it may be necessary for you to publish in a journal that will in turn put your article behind restricted access, but make sure that you follow good self-archiving practices, both for the sake of open access and for the sake of preservation, and archive a pre-print copy (check journal policies here at SHERPA/RoMEO) on your own website, your institutional repository, or in a disciplinary repository such as SocARXIV . Increasingly, research funding from governments stipulates open access also, so do check the requirements from your funder here at SHERPA/JULIET. So in essence, the time has come for us all to join this movement.

I believe open access is the way to do right by one’s research and maintain the integrity of the work, as much as we’re doing right by society at large through our research.  We need to also empower early-career academics to know exactly what control they have over their own work, and what can be done with it, and in making a principled decision about access to their research. These decisions need to be considered at the beginning of the research process already and not just at the end. Just as with any new mode of practice, open access has a learning curve that requires deliberate and purposeful practice, but pays off very quickly in terms of citations, research impact, and social impact. So the next time you have a paper waiting to be written, look up the open access options in your discipline. In the meanwhile, make sure to find the preprint copies of all your published papers and deposit them in your institutional repository.

Oh, and I forgot. I now have a contract to publish my doctoral dissertation as a book, and it was only because I had made it open access

– Bhuva Narayan, on behalf of the LISRA-RADAR Project team

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