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Open Access and Academic Reputation

Open access is an initiative that seeks to find ways of making the journal literature published online freely available to readers. It is having the effect of not only taking us a step closer to the ideal of universal access to the knowledge needed to advance knowledge, but it is also altering, if every so slightly, the traditional means by which reputations are established and maintained within academic life.

About twenty percent of the research literature published today ends up open access, whether through authors archiving their published work in their library’s open access repository (with the publishers’ permission) or through journals that make their content freely available, by such means as using open source software to reduce costs or by charging article processing fees or by releasing work some months after publication.

The traditional scholarly publishing model was based on a match of publisher and author interests. Publishers were interested in securing the reputation of their journals by having distinguished editors and boards, as well as reasonably high rejection rates, while recovering their costs-plus by maintaining the exclusivity of their intellectual property. In the days of print, the journals that built up a reputation were the only means by which authors could secure a readership and the status needed to secure tenure, promotion, grants, prizes, and job mobility.

The actual contribution of the author’s article often ended up playing a secondary role compared to the credit the author received for getting a piece into the journal, which could well be, depending on the title, no small feat in itself. At the same time, the journal in many fields grew into the primary measure of reputation, as journal ranking could be carefully calculated by Impact Factor (average number of times an article is cited within a two-year period), in way not possible with books (for which there was no citation index).

The digital revolution has seen scholarly journals move online, which is shifting the reputation factor from the status of the journal in which the article appears to the contribution of the article itself. The online journal edition enables articles to better make their own mark, with such networked features as citation linking and data inclusion allowing readers (as well as peer-reviewers) to better judge the work, rather than rely on the reputation of the journal.

What open access introduces into this picture–at least while only a limited proportion of the literature is open access–is the opportunity for authors to have their work evaluated, cited, and utilized by a wider readership than is experienced by comparable articles that have not been made open access. The open access article, in these circumstances, is open to a different level of scrutiny by this wider audience (and potentially through the further openness of its data and sources) and thus the reputation associated with such work might be thought of as a somewhat more reliable indicator of its worth and contribution, by virtue of this openness in the very spirit of science.

Open access’s ability to increase the value of the individual article is also the result, in part, of the comprehensive and precise academic search capacities available through Google Scholar and other sources. For the digital transformation has led to a shift in how researchers keep up with the literature. They are now far more given to electronic searching for articles of interest than to browsing journal contents. To search for papers on a particular topic brings up the most relevant articles no matter what journal they are in. And the articles that come up which are open access, whether through an archive or through a journal, can then be consulted in full and readily used by the researcher, whether the researcher’s library subscribes to the title or not. Earlier habits of browsing journals for articles of interest and value were more often limited to highly reputed journals. In this way, open access is tending to level the academic playing field of reputations, somewhat reducing the Matthew Effect, at least among journals, that Robert Merton identified (“For unto every one that hath shall be given”).

As well, where it once took journals many years to establish themselves, by finding a market in libraries and a place in the major indexes, the pre-reputation period can be reduced for new journals that support open access through archiving or by being open access. These new journals can make their content immediately available to interested readers across the globe as they become part of Google Scholar’s citation indexing. Thus it seems safe to say that a new journal like PLoS Biology would never have been able to achieve the highest Impact Factor in the field of biology after less than two years of publication, if it had not been open access. Certainly, having Nobel laureate Harold Varmus on the editorial board, and a substantial endowment funding the journal’s promotion made a difference, but at least some of the quality materials the journal attracted were a result of the authors’ interest in demonstrating the value of open access. That is, a commitment to sharing one’s work as widely as possible, in the very spirit of science, can end up adding to one’s reputation

A further aspect of reputation economy arises from how open access is always public access. This speaks to an additional responsibility to which open access gives rise. The non-expert reader, who now has access to this work, needs a means to ascertain the authority and reliability of research they can now readily encounter on the web. To begin to address this aspect of open access, the Public Knowledge Project has developed, as part of its journal management and publishing open source software used by a number of open access journals, a set of reading tools that enable readers who are consulting an article to check related studies and works that cite the paper, as well as author background and other publication, as a means of assembling some background on the work of interest.

While such tools are common enough among online publishing systems, such as Highwire Press and ScienceDirect, which are associated with subscription journals, the Public Knowledge Project has also added public sources, with tools that allow readers to check for related materials in media sources, such as the New York Times and government sites, such as USA.gov, to help make sense of the concepts at issue, as well as to consider any implications of the work. The peer-review status of articles are also clearly marked, in this open source journal system, with links to the journals’ review policies, an aspect of reputation and authority taken for granted with traditional journals that have not had to worry about their reputation for rigor outside of the academic community.

Finally, open access contributes to the broader reputation of science and scholarship as an open enterprise and public good in a digital era in which public expectations of access to information have greatly increased. Free access is the new standard for knowledge that has been publicly supported and which has been undertaken in an act of public trust, especially at a time when the reputation of the universities, with regard to the influence of commercial interests, has come under criticism. Open access would seem to offer the academic community at large a wonderful opportunity to reestablish the public mission of the universities in these often skeptical times.

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