As part of our field work in Washington DC last month I met with Heather Joseph who is Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), a membership organization of academic and research libraries. Their mission is to make libraries and the information they hold more equitable and more open, and they count more than 800 institutions among their membership.

Heather gave a great overview of where SPARC have been in the past and where they see themselves in the future.  She began by noting that there remain barriers to providing high quality information on campus, and the subscription model impedes possibilities for innovation.

  • Cost – subscription model impedes possibilities for innovation
  • ‘Returning the products of the academy to the academy’

Historically, SPARC has treated ‘open’ as synonymous with ‘open access’ to journal information where library interest in open access originally inspired by pressure on budgets. Openness initially provided an answer to price points but it soon became clear that openness offered a way to effect other changes.

The open access movement is now 10 years old, now at a point where we can envisage the majority of journals being open access (20% at present). Author uptake is increasing exponentially and we can now see open becoming the dominant model in academic publishing. It’s taken a while to get library communities on board, but there are two big currents at present:

  1. Build infrastructure – repositories, licensing, etc.
  2. Momentum towards open policy where openness is default

The Obama administration has adopted the view, espoused by Creative Commons, that publicly funded resources should be publically accessible resources (though they have stopped short of prescribing CC-BY). Funders should ask for open outcomes in the research they commission.

Historically, SPARC has been focused on increasing open access but is now preferring to talk of being ‘open’ more generally and focusing on a wider range of resources. They are now moving beyond just improving access to articles into finding more evidence of remixing educational content as well as making datasets available online. Heather argues that free sharing of the fruits of scholarly work is central to the mission of the academy. Research products can be better accessed and exploited in the knowledge economy. Younger researchers are increasingly willing to share their work openly and make a case for publication in open journals because they recognize the value of exposing their work. The open movement is also keen to add other measures to the impact metrics. These can include article level metrics, social media, and site analytics. Generally, Heather believes that there is a real appetite for access to information; many of those accessing repositories are not coming from educational domains.

The biggest challenge being faced in the open access movement now is the co-option of the idea of open access. SPARC endorse the Budapest Open Access Declaration which sets out conditions for reuse and attribution. Many things fall short of this yet still claim to be open, including commercial publishers who dispute the meaning of ‘openness’. For the academic environment, Heather thinks that CC-BY is typically the way to license outputs.

Heather identified a fundamental tension between open and non-open, which, while not necessarily destructive, can also be productive. In terms of the future of open access, it is widely accepted that lots of different systems will co-exist until a new picture emerges.  As Heather puts it:

“I think we have a moment in time where we can really change the status quo and the expectation of people entering into education. It’s not a moment to waste. It’s not that we should rush into thinking open can solve everything, but we have this fantastic networked and digital technology that enable us to do things in a new way… Let’s be unafraid to fail and learn from what we try.

There’s something of the zeitgeist here. It seems to me that the way in which a number of different groups are now embracing the rhetoric of openness because they see the way the wind blows, but without a common understanding of what it means to be open – or how we should measure degrees of openness – there is a real risk that we end up with options that are not as open as they could be.