Free Knowledge!

DAVIS: A while back on Write Right we got a pretty broad overview of the academic publishing world. It was a 6 minute long episode and, as you can imagine, it’s not really possible to get to everything in that amount of time. One of those everythings is this growing idea in the publishing world called “open access.” Back in that episode I talked with Ted Goebel–he’s the editor of a journal called PaleoAmerica here at Texas A&M. He told me a little about the open access practice.

TED: “If you go to like, Google Scholar, which is a great resource for students who are trying to do some research and you do a search for something, say Viking archeology, all of these different citations come up and a lot of these are journal articles and sometimes you’ll see where it says ‘PDF Available’ and you can click on that PDF and get open access to it. So this is what I mean by open access you don’t have to be a member of a university library system or something of that sort.”

DAVIS [on tape]: “Anybody in the world…”

TED: “Anybody in the world could look at this just like you and I are now. And that’s open access.”

DAVIS: I wanted to learn a bit more, so I wandered around the library until I found someone that looked like they knew what was going on.

BRUCE: “I’m Bruce Herbert. I’m the director of the office of scholarly communications at the Evans Library here at Texas A&M.”

“Open access is the idea that we should share our research publically without putting it into journals or articles or books that require subscriptions. This way we can share it the whole world.”

DAVIS: Typically scholarly journals cost money to subscribe to, like, a lot of money, anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Most often universities will purchase access for the researchers and students at their institutions, but that’s just one segment of the population that could use that knowledge.

BRUCE: “If we lock up our research into subscription based journals and other venues like that, traditional ways of publishing our research, what happens is we’re only sharing our research with other scholars.”

“The value proposition of open access is the idea that the research can get out to more people so that they can use the information more widely to solve or address whatever problem they’re working on.”

DAVIS: The idea is that the more people that have access to knowledge, the better. Based on that, advocates for open access are asking journals to open up their archives to the public. But does doing that actually help knowledge disseminate? Well, we actually can measure that.

BRUCE: “Things like citations are used often to measure reputation or scholarly impact. And open access articles often have citation rates that are two to seven times higher.”

“You read what you have access to. So the more we can improve access, the more people will read our work.”

DAVIS: But if the articles are accessible for free, then do we even need journals? Why convince journals to go open access when researchers could just publish their results on a blog or on anywhere else on the web for that matter.

I asked Dr. Peter Suber about this. He researches open access at Harvard University and is like, the guy to talk to about open access.

PETER: If all you cared about was sharing it with other people you could put it on a personal website but the reason most scholars don’t do it that was is that they need to get hired in a University, they need to get promoted and tenured in a University, and at every one of those steps there’s a committee looking at your work to see whether it’s good enough. And those committees have their standards and without getting into whether their standards are the right ones or the wrong ones let’s just say that they’re academically conservative. So they look for high quality work and instead of judging high quality solely from reading the work they also judge it from the reputation of the journals and the publishers where it appeared. So if you just published on a [flobby-naught ??] website or a personal homepage there’s no credential there.

DAVIS: That part about credentials is important. If there’s one thing provided by traditional journals that is absolutely invaluable it’s the peer review system. Peer review means that the journal you’re submitting to has experts in your field read your paper before they decide if they should accept it. Having an article get through peer review means that—like Peter said—it’s credible…most of the time. So yeah, journals are necessary for a lot of different reasons, but if they’re giving out articles for free, how do they stay funded? How do journals stay around to serve the important functions that they do? Peter isn’t concerned about this. To him and his colleagues, publishing is about the spread of knowledge, not making money.

PETER: It’s not a good argument against open access because the purpose of open access is to serve the interests of research itself and researchers as authors and also research institutions and we don’t care if a particular publisher finds it easy or hard to make money we still want to advance the cause of research.

DAVIS: The issue of money brings up a lot of other questions, of which many are still being debated in the academic community. For instance, there are journals–journals that Peter just calls scams–out there that will solicit papers, take publishing fees, and then publish something that has not gone through any sort of editorial process. That can lead to weird claims and misunderstandings in the mainstream press about what is and isn’t an accepted line of thought or research in a field. Advocates for open access say peer review and impact scores keep that kind of tomfoolery in check, but opponents say it’s just too dangerous to let the reigns go. And like I said, this is still up for debate, so we’re interested in hearing what you have to say. If you have a thought you want to share, record yourself with your voice memo app and send it to Maybe you’ll wind on a future episode! We’ve also included some links to different takes on open access in the show notes, so check those out! “We’re trying to encourage a kind of critical thinking about the sources that students or any writer for that matter are working with as they’re writing, to think about what is going to be useful to someone who is reading the thing that they’re writing in order to track down the original sources that are being cited.”

DAVIS: That critical thinking with regards to your audience and the type of conversation that you’re in plays down into the nitty-gritty of the citation style itself too, even if sometimes it can feel a little arbitrary. While the new MLA approach does away with categorizing types of citations, the mechanics of those citations still do have meaning.

DAVIS (on tape): “It is kind of, I guess, common, especially in 100-level rhetoric courses for professors to just kind of dock points when you get something wrong on a citation—like it’s not italicized, or something like that, there’s a period in the wrong place. How important do you feel that those exact things are, or is the real meaning of a citation just to get that information across?”

KATHLEEN: “I think that the real meaning of the citation is, as you say, to get that information across, but some of those differences do matter. So, say, where the period goes may matter a little bit less than something like italics. Italics actually tell you something about the title that’s italicized, it tells you it’s a full length thing. So there is meaning that gets conveyed with italics that I do think is important to pay attention to. Part of what we’re trying to do with this edition of the handbook is to explain why that matters, rather than just telling you this has to be in italics.”

DAVIS: So next time you’re writing and wonder why exactly you have to insert parentheticals, italicize something, or keep track of page numbers, this is why: your writing isn’t just for yourself. Your work exists to build on top of and to contribute to a larger volume of work that explores and analyzes a topic in the field. Just as you read other people’s work to research your ideas, other people are going to read your work to research and expand on theirs. Keeping your sources and ideas cataloged in a way that is standard to your field helps facilitate that conversation.