A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access

min read

Funded by tertiary institutions rather than individual researchers, this new model seeks to provide open access not just to traditional academic publications but to all forms of scholarly output.

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Alexis Seeley is associate, K|N Consultants, and associate dean of Teaching, Research, and Technology, Barnard College; Lisa Norberg is principal, K|N Consultants, and dean, Barnard Library and Academic Information Services, Barnard College; and Rebecca Kennison is principal, K|N Consultants, and director, Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, Columbia University.

"Pretty much every major university in the United States pays these sort of licensing fees... to get access to scholarly journals that the rest of the world can't."
—Adam Swartz1

As the open education resources (OER) movement continues to evolve — most recently through high-profile university MOOCs2 and distributed open collaborative courses (DOCCs), as well as in nontraditional online educational opportunities such as those at Khan Academy and General Assembly — an even greater urgency arises for an open, sustainable scholarly information ecosystem. How can OERs succeed if the research and scholarship that students and faculty need to learn and teach is inaccessible?

Clip from The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz3 (1:59 minutes)

In the 12 years since the Budapest Open Access (OA) Initiative launched the OA movement, we've made considerable strides toward widespread adoption of OA principles. Practice, however, has often lagged behind, as both credibility and business models have struggled to gain traction. The transition to OA from subscription-based scholarly society publishing operations in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) has been particularly difficult, for reasons that expose many current OA models' limitations:

  • in HSS, articles are not the only publication type of value or even the most valued type of publication;
  • external funding for research is minimal or nonexistent; and
  • HSS societies often consider their publications to be the primary benefit they offer their members and thus find it difficult to imagine how they might support their society's activities if current publishing operations change.

If we are to fulfill the promises of OA, we need a broader, more inclusive model that provides all academic disciplines, including those in HSS, open access to the forms of scholarly output they both produce and use.

A New Model

In our white paper, "A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences,"  we offer a new model that tackles head-on the predominant OA business model's major drawback: it is based on individual payments from researchers — typically called article-processing charges (APCs) — and offers access only to certain types of publications. Our model, in contrast, asks tertiary institutions to contribute to systemic support of the research process itself, including its entire scholarly output — whether article, monograph, data set, conference presentation, multimodal website, or formats not yet envisioned. Our model looks to societies to play a central role within the scholarly communication ecosystem, and for academic libraries to become true partners with them.

A bold rethinking of the economics of OA, our plan is nevertheless designed to assuage the fears and embrace the investments of all stakeholders in the scholarly communication system. Our plan

  • is intentionally incremental, acknowledging the inherent conservatism of traditional academia;
  • enables societies, along with their publishing partners, to gradually develop strategies to provide their members with services that continue to be useful and meaningful;
  • suggests preservation and curation as a library's primary role, which is a natural space for libraries to occupy and has always been part of their mission;
  • allows all partners in the scholarly communication ecosystem to begin to work together to agree on best practices; and
  • provides a clear but ever-evolving and expanding roadmap to address concerns about "free riders."

The financial model we propose is based on an annual or multi-year payment made by every institution of higher education, no matter its size or classification, and by any institution that benefits from the research generated by those within the academy. For tertiary institutions, the payment is based on the number of students and full-time faculty on a sliding scale tied to Carnegie classifications (in the United States) and the International Standard Classification of Education (outside the United States); at other types of institutions, such as medical research centers, the payment is based on the number of researchers, scientists, or scholars. The payment is modest relative to most institutions' overall budget, but when spread broadly across all institutions, it results in a sum substantial enough to sustain a vibrant and open scholarly communication environment.

The institutional payment goes into a centrally managed fund. Institutions and scholarly societies come together in partnership to apply for funds through a competitive grant process; the funds dispensed provide direct support for the distribution, access, and long-term archival preservation infrastructure of the partnerships. Because the program's goal is sustainability, grants are open-ended to guarantee recipients a reliable source of income. At the same time, the model requires adherence to strict guidelines and oversight of the funding. While implementation outside the United States would require customization based on each country's unique institutional structures, funding practices, and academic culture, the model is intended to be adaptable and scalable to recognize and foster the global nature of education and research.

The Stakes

Sharing, curating, and preserving scholarship is imperative for research to advance, but openness is equally important and central to the development of new modes of teaching and learning. Deep structural changes to the scholarly communication system are needed not only to respond to higher education's current funding crises and the emerging forms of scholarship in the digital age, but also to foster and deepen the connections between the academy and the wider public and to give that public access to content that encourages and enables lifelong learning. Only a model that builds collaborative alliances across a wide variety of institutions and that engages a range of stakeholders can provide a fair and equitable path to truly open and sustainable forms of scholarship.

Model Highlights

Open education efforts will not succeed without a scholarly information ecosystem that is open and sustainable. Our white paper describes in detail how our model addresses these crucial needs:

  • The model we propose would cover the costs for traditional publication formats, including journal articles, books, and monographs. However, we intend to go beyond these formats and we  present an approach that funds the entire scholarly communication infrastructure — not just certain types of research, and not just the production and distribution of content, but also the long-term preservation of all scholarly output.
  • Our model proposes to bring together societies, institutions, and libraries in collaborative ways that have not yet been tried — at least not at scale — which is admittedly very challenging, but potentially very rewarding.
  • Our initial focus is HSS; for all the problems inherent in an APC OA funding model, it works in STEM (at least for now). HSS needs are different.

Our goal is to achieve full participation from the entire higher education community — from small community colleges and large research universities alike. Everyone will benefit from a world in which all research output is freely available, so everyone should pitch in to make this the reality.

  1. Archival footage of Aaron Swartz, in The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, a documentary film by Brian Knappenberger, 2014.
  2. Scott Jaschik, "Feminist Anti-MOOC," Inside Higher Ed, August 19, 2013.
  3. Knappenberger, The Internet's Own Boy.