OA Week: Open Spectrum

This week sees the 14th Open Access Week (#OAWeek #OAWeek2021) since it started in 2008. To mark the event, Simon Linacre looks at the challenges and opportunities the movement may face in post-pandemic times.

For many in the scholarly communications industry, Open Access Week is a fixture on the calendar just as much as Frankfurt Book Fair and The Charleston Conference, which bookend OA week. So, it may surprise people to learn that it only started as ‘Open Access Day’ in October 2008 as a follow up to the National Day of Action for Open Access in February 2007, growing to a week’s worth of activity in 2009. OA has come a long way since then – but how far does it still have to go?

Open Access content was minimal in those days, with an estimated 8.5% of published articles available as OA in 2008, and a further 11.9% available in repositories. By 2020, several estimates put the total number of research articles available via some form of OA as well over half of all articles published.

Judging the success of this growth since the inception of OA Week is difficult, and it probably depends where you are on the spectrum of opinion on OA itself. If you strongly believe that all research should be freely available period, then there is probably some frustration that a significant slice of content is still behind a paywall. The growth of OA as a percentage of all content has been sustained and consistent but is unlikely to reach the vast majority of published articles for some time yet. However, this availability varies hugely in terms of geography, with some countries such as the UK having national mandates in place to ensure almost all newly published articles are Open Access.

If you are on the other side of the spectrum and have no problem with the traditional subscription model, then you may be surprised how developed OA has become. So-called transformative agreements, initiatives such as Plan S and the increased use of repositories for scholarly communications have all contributed to the tide turning in favor of OA.

And if you are on this side of the spectrum, then you may also have concerns about the decrease in use of peer review as a method of validating research. The COVID-19 pandemic has both highlighted the risks of research being shared without peer review checks, and also stressed the importance of the sharing of vital medical research as quickly as possible. The net result is probably an acceleration, both of the availability OA research and worries about the consequences of this.

But where does this acceleration lead to? It was inevitable that most research would become available as OA, and if funding – either for authors or for publishers – was available to cover the costs of that, then few would disagree with this outcome. But for many it was not about when most research would be made OA, but how that would happen, and for them the validation of research in an age of fake news and deep fake images is perhaps more important than ever.

New Kid on the Block

The publishing industry is often derided for its lack of innovation. However, as Simon Linacre argues, there is often innovation going on right under our noses where the radical nature of changes are yet to be fully understood, for good or bad.

There is a clock ticking down on the top right of my screen. I have 15 mins and 28 seconds to upgrade to premium membership for half price. But what do I need to do? What is the clock for? What happens if I don’t click the button to stop the clock in time…?

This isn’t an excerpt from a new pulp fiction thriller, but one of the elements in a new journal many academics will have received notification of recently. Academia Letters is a new journal from Academia.edu, a social networking platform for researchers worldwide to share and discover research. Since it started life in 2008, the site has become popular with academics, with millions signed up to take advantage of the platform to promote their research and find others to collaborate with. It has also been controversial, accused of hosting thousands of article pdfs in breach of copyright terms. Up until now, the site has focused on enabling researchers to share their work, but now they have joined the publishing game with their own journal publishing short articles of between 800 and 1,600 words.

The new offering provides several other different takes on the traditional journal:

  • All articles are Open Access but for a lower fee than average (£300 in the UK)
  • Peer review times are promised to be “lightning-fast”
  • Articles are accepted or rejected at the first round, with only minor revisions required if accepted.

Now, some people reading this will ask themselves: “Doesn’t that sound like a predatory journal?”. However, it is very clear that Academia Letters is categorically NOT predatory in nature, because far from attempting to deceive authors into believing there is in-depth peer review, it is clear that the light-touch process and access to millions of users should mean the publishing process is both fast and cheap compared to other OA options. However, the quality of articles would not be expected to match those in a traditional journal given the brevity and lack of intervention from peer reviewers in the new model.

It will be interesting to see how many authors take advantage of the new approach chosen by the journal. If it takes off, it could open up other new forms from traditional publishers and other networking sites, and be held up as a clear example of innovation in scholarly communications. However, the journal may run afoul of its approach to marketing as authors have become increasingly wary of promises of fast turnaround times and low APCs from predatory publishers. For example, what happened when the ticking clock ran down to signify the end of a half price deal to become a premium member of Academia.edu? It simply reset to 48 hours for the same deal. Such marketing tactics may be effective in signing some authors up, but others may well be put off, however innovative the new proposition might be.