Of ruminants and regurgitation

De rumiantes

For more than a decade, an international movement has been gaining momentum in the academic context: open access. The philosophy of open access is based on an ethical principle: Scientific knowledge is produced not for the benefit of a few—those who can afford it—, but must spread freely, democratically and, now, thanks to technological developments, massively through the Internet, so that any individual interested in a topic or issue can access reliable literature:

Removing access barriers to this literature will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich, make this literature as useful as it can be, and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge (Budapest Open Access Initiative – BOAI).

The first ones to take the flag of open access were scientific journals. The Budapest Declaration—which was made in 2002 by a small, diverse group of libraries, universities, associations, and editorials—served to formulate the general guidelines of that movement and center its scope in the literature evaluated and published by journals. The immediate actions suggested therein pointed to two things: 1) encourage in authors the habit of self-archiving the articles published in journals in institutional repositories to promote their distribution and 2) promote the creation of open access journals that will freely disclose their contents. The effects of open access are reciprocal: “It gives readers extraordinary power to find and make use of relevant literature, and (…) it gives authors and their works vast and measurable new visibility, readership, and impact.” (BOAI). Of course, institutions also win with this. If an author and his work become known, if his article or book takes precedence and is valued by the academia, the institution to which the author is affiliated takes some recognition.

In Latin America, many academic journals not only adopted publication in digital formats, but also took this philosophy as their own. Regional initiatives such as SciELO and Redalyc have allowed a great number of scientific papers produced in our universities and academic associations to circulate unrestrictedly on the Internet. Those digital, open libraries have assured that papers published in regional journals are disseminated much more efficiently, but they also have promoted the formation of new abilities in editorial teams, the adoption of best practices in the publishing trade and, together, they have had a positive impact on the quality of publications. In recent years, studies have shown that journals with a reputation in their areas and reported in citation indexes (like the famous JCR) experience significant growth in their citation when they opt for publishing their contents in open access. The formula of open access can then bring benefits to consolidated publishing projects: If a journal with a reputation publishes its contents without payment restrictions, more readers can access those contents and, possibly, use them for academic, educational, informational, or research purposes.

Although citations can be a way to measure the reception papers have in a disciplinary community, producing citations is not really one of the purposes of open access. Citations is part of what could be the natural effects of an open, robust publishing project, having the appropriate infrastructure, policies and strategies, without losing sight that the main concern of academic publishers, authors and host universities must be on the published contents and their relevance, given that academic work does not often respond to the logic of the market or institutional pressures of production per se (in response to a number), and it should not be defined or assessed by universal indicators of effectiveness. Metrics, despite its benefits, also pose a risk. The business language of indicators has been colonizing universities, their academic and research units, and university presses; countries have also been formulating and enacting public policies for measuring academic productivity and, with this, there is already a strong tendency to publish quotable papers, to have quotable journals, in short, that everything done produces some figure that can facilitate standardized (product and author performance) evaluation processes, displacing the importance of other impacts, other applications or other forms of assessing this literature. All this can lead to authors losing the sense of publishing and publishers turning their trade into a simple technique serving an eternal regurgitation of knowledge within an academic system that no longer seeks to transform or serve, but position.

However, if we are in some agreement with Peter Dougherty, the editorial director of Princeton University, it is that the texts that we deal with in academia are extremely valuable and unique: The sap of university presses, monographs, text books, research books series, academic journals are complex ideas. And it is these ideas, when understood and assimilated, what cause large social, cultural, economic and artistic transformations.

Additionally, the issue of open access does not finish with journals.

About three years ago, in September 2012, a new declaration of Budapest (BOAI 10) was issued. This declaration reaffirms the principles of the first “campaign”, but adds some additional challenges: giving more shape and consistency to institutional (and country) policies on open access, evaluating its effects on copyright and formulating clearer rules, improving technology infrastructure—mainly what has to do with institutional repositories and protocols to facilitate the tracking and tracing of texts—and making the global movement much more solid and sustainable so that its purpose is not lost—as in the case of editorial predators, which have grown like weeds around open access, making authors have doubts about “open” projects for their commercial rather than academic interest.

In that declaration of 2012, one of the most important recommendations is that open access must colonize other formats of academic literature, including books, which means thinking about comprehensive open access publishing projects that get involved in the movement more decidedly.

Publishing books in open access does not necessarily mean giving up the sale of printed copies or their further decrease. Making available to readers the free digital format of a book could even stimulate the sale of printed copies, specifically in the case of academic texts since readers do not yet feel entirely comfortable with reading on devices. What open access does involve is a reflection on the meaning of publishing in academia. Universities, host institutions, and their publishers should raise that reflection and explore new ways and policies to ensure the sustainability of their presses, beyond financial returns. Currently, universities invest together hundreds of millions of dollars a year in paying subscriptions to databases so that their professors and students have access to valuable literature; however, they are managed by large business and publishing groups. Perhaps an alternative is to increase the pressure on these companies so that costs of access to such literature are much lower and their policies more responsive to the needs of academia. Part of these funds could be redirected towards university presses in order to improve their infrastructure, the capacity of its editorial teams and the scope of their projects in various types of inter-institutional cooperation. Such a change would also involve formulating country policies that do not undermine or stratify the national academic production with respect to other countries for practical issues of academic management or evaluation methodologies that only seek to establish rankings.

Can regional university presses publish good texts, under rigorous evaluation processes, that have an impact on their disciplines and are accessible to readers? Yes. Is more relevant an article published in the journal of a large publishing group or a journal that is within the canon established by these same groups than one published in a regional journal? Not necessarily. The literature produced by university presses is valuable not only because they may at some point contribute to positioning universities in rankings or to their international “visibility”, but also because it could serve as a basis for innovation processes, knowledge building, exchange, understanding, discussion, and transformation of local and regional issues. And that makes sense in Latin America.

It is not a matter of making life easier for editors, or releasing them from budgetary pressures or the austere management of resources, but understanding that university presses, in principle, are not a business and they exist to provide a service to academia and disciplines, to become a reliable, accessible and, why not, public repository of knowledge. What university presses do is integral to the mission processes of the institutions that support them (research, teaching, extension, and internationalization) and is not at all incompatible with open access.

By contrast, open access can help reduce the tension that occurs between a publishing model based on sales of titles (sometimes difficult or uncommercial) and the expectation of authors and editors (inherent in the act of publishing) that their texts are accessed, read, used by the widest possible readership. If outstanding sales of many titles are not achieved and readers cannot know their content by the restriction of a payment, why not eliminate that restriction for digital formats in order to reach many more readers? Thus, we would be changing the nature of the business to the side of authors and readers, which also, in perspective, would benefit host institutions with the possibility that their editorial project and contents, reach a much wider audience of readers.

We need to discuss more, ruminate on open access, its possibilities, sustainability and development in the region through upright academic publishing projects. What we cannot do is chew knowledge within a system that may end up nurturing an autistic, closed circle solely. That is impracticable.



Manfred Acero Gómez

He holds a bachelor in Comparative Literature and a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Universidad Nacional de Colombia. He has been a university editor for several years and currently, he is the director (editor in chief) of the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia Press.