Open access as a matter of academic ethics: The right thing to do

In order to succeed, open access needs to demonstrate real and practical benefits to the scholarly community and beyond. In order to instill confidence as a publishing model, open access needs to be both economically accessible and economically sustainable.

However, it’s not just what open access needs to be or do to justify its serious consideration. As has been discussed on this blog before (especially here), open access brings with it a capacity to raise awareness of a values dynamic in the creation, dissemination, and use of the products of scholarly research. If for no other reason than the fact that open access presents scholars a choice (as an alternative to traditional publishing avenues), it ought to at least provoke thoughtfulness about what we need to be or do when it comes to publishing research. The decision is no longer just where will we publish (to best enhance our academic careers and reputations) but how will we publish (to best contribute to the growth of knowledge to the widest possible audience with the fewest possible barriers). In other words, open access introduces an added dynamic to academic ethics.

John Willinsky and Juan Pablo Alperin, in a recent article entitled “The academic ethics of open access to research and scholarship” (in Ethics and Education 6(3), October 2011, pp. 217-223), note that academic ethics in the institutional context usually focuses on issues of academic integrity and honesty. Ethics committees in the institutional context are commonly directed to investigate and recommend disciplinary action against faculty or students for infringements of academic integrity and honesty, whether through fraud (manufactured data), or plagiarism (intentionally claiming the work of another as one’s own, or failing to give proper attribution).

The application of academic ethics from this negative point of view is, regrettably, too well known. The new dynamic Willinsky and Alperin propose is that we also view academic ethics as positive action.

We believe that with the coming of the digital era, the university faces an unprecedented ethical opportunity to act in a positive fashion by reaching out to help others. We wish to present the ethical case for going out of one’s way to ensure that one’s research and scholarship has been made as widely available as possible to other scholars around the world, as well as to interested members of the public. (pp. 217-218)

Willinsky and Alperin believe that whereas the negative aspects of academic ethics have and will be with us for a long time, “there is something of a time-limited opportunity for ethical action when publishing models are changing and in this unsettled period are radically split between tendencies toward increasingly restrictive (for reasons of profit) and open (for wider sharing) practices” (p. 218).

Once there was a time when having a study published in a scholarly journal was the only way to make the work public in a timely and responsible (peer-reviewed) way. Publishing it in a highly reputed journal further guaranteed that the work was more widely circulated, as such journals had more subscribers. …

This is no longer the case. As libraries struggle to afford even their current subscriptions, the new means of achieving almost universal online access presents itself. We, as scholars, face new responsibilities for thinking about how widely our work circulates, which does not preclude publishing in prestigious journals, but which does call for a more ethical approach to the sharing of our work. (p 218)

But not all open access approaches are ethically equivalent. Publishers may sense a change in the air. Willinsky and Alperin raise concerns about “the commercialization of OA,” and merely shifting the economic model from “high-priced subscription journals to high-priced article-processing fees” (p. 219). Yes, this approach brings down the user-side paywall, but it raises new barriers for researchers and scholars. Some disciplines enjoy generous grant funding that can fairly easily cover these new producer-side open access publishing costs. But what about disciplines—like most of the humanities, including religious studies—where grant funding is scarce and department budgets are perennially tight? If scholars cannot afford to publish their research how can even open access help to enhance the production of and access to knowledge?

Willinsky and Alperin do not say this explicitly, but the implication is that institutions, as part of their larger concern that faculty and students act ethically in their academic context, need to take a role in authorizing scholars to choose less costly approaches to open access, and also recognize the legitimacy of these approaches. Willinsky and Alperin specifically mention author self-archiving of research papers and articles in open access institutional repositories or websites, and the creation of new “scholar-publisher” open access journals that typically do not charge article-processing fees as two low-cost alternatives to either the traditional subscription-based journal, or the open access journal that imposes article-processing fees.

We are, of course, familiar with John Willinsky’s work with the Public Knowledge Project at Simon Fraser University in Canada, which developed the open source Open Journal Systems journal platform. A study referenced by Willinsky and Alperin, which surveyed journals using Open Journal Systems, found that “a good number of journals are making a go of it with OA. [The study notes that approximately 5,000 journals are using the OJS platform!] [T]he scholar-publisher [i.e., a scholar or group of scholars in an academic department who start a journal without seeking/requiring the support (or the costs) of a professional publisher] dominates these titles, with an average per article cost under US$200” (p. 219).

Willinsky and Alperin conclude:

The university has long been regarded as a center of knowledge creation, one that has often held to strict ethical standards. In addition, certainly when it comes to the best ways of engaging in scholarly publishing, we can accept that there will be a debate as to where the balance lies in terms of how to organize, finance, and structure this increased access to knowledge. What we cannot do is ignore the ethical dimensions of this issue. We must come to a shared understanding of what our obligations are in undertaking this research and scholarship. … Our hope is that as we might move forward ‘in search of the ethical university,’ so that the ways and means by which we distribute what we have learned, as a matter of public trust and public good, might become more public and widely available. It seems like the right thing to do. (pp. 221-222, emphasis added)

Posted in Book/Article Review, Open Access, Publishing Platforms
7 comments on “Open access as a matter of academic ethics: The right thing to do
  1. Gary F. Daught says:

    I have received a few comments from folks who thought it was ironic that they could not access Willinsky and Alperin’s article to read because it is published in a subscription-based journal that their institution’s library does not receive. The article can be found on the Taylor & Francis journal website. But it stands behind a paywall, and can only be accessed if you pony-up $36. Incidentally, I had to request a copy of this article through interlibrary loan in order to read and review it here.

    A couple of these folks were critical of Willinsky and Alperin for choosing to publish their article on the academic ethics of open access in a non-open access venue. Doesn’t this “reduce the potential impact of their article”? Clearly it does. I did not assume they were trying to be subtle or subversive. But I defended Willinsky and Alperin by imagining that they specifically intended to bring their message to an audience that may have never seriously considered the implications of limiting access to information and knowledge as a valid dimension and application of academic ethics.

  2. […] Open access as a matter of academic ethics […]

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  5. steelgraham says:

    Great post, Gary. Whilst it’s unfortunate that Willinsky and Alperin’s article is pay-walled, as you say, this was possibly done on purpose.

    Have requested a copy via the interwebz as I can’t access it with my Athens !!

    If I can work out how to do it myself, I’ll add it to the Open Access Irony Award library on CiteuLike 😉

  6. You can now access a pre-print from the Stanford University School of Education Open Archive:

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