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November 6, 2014

Faculty panel share their views on open access

In a discussion moderated by Brian Beaton, interim director of the Sara Fine Institute and faculty member in the School of Information Sciences, a panel of Pitt faculty responded with their own perspectives on open-access issues.

Access to scholarly research isn’t the only issue, Beaton pointed out.

“I think there are some larger infrastructure gaps needing to be addressed in committing ourselves to open-access principles,” he said. “Just because someone has access to something doesn’t mean they can really use that work.”

Beaton, who works with citizen groups and nonprofits that are trying to use scientific research and data, said, “Access to academic research does not necessarily mean understanding. Click counts and comprehension are not the same thing, downloads and deep understanding are not the same thing.”

As an example, he pointed to the British “Patients Participate!” project in which members of the public produced lay summaries of academic articles.

“As we discuss building out this open-access infrastructure, I think there’s a lot of work to be done in making the work intelligible to the broader publics,” he said. “I think there’s room at Pitt specifically to be doing this kind of work.”


Open access panelists from left: Speaker Erin McKiernan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario; and Pitt faculty members Brian Beaton, School of Information Sciences; Jackie Smith, sociology; Gordon Mitchell, communication and University Honors College, and Lara Putnam, history.

Open access panelists from left: Speaker Erin McKiernan, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario; and Pitt faculty members Brian Beaton, School of Information Sciences; Jackie Smith, sociology; Gordon Mitchell, communication and University Honors College, and Lara Putnam, history.

University Honors College Assistant Dean Gordon Mitchell, a faculty member in communication, revisited Cambridge mathematician Timothy Gowers’ 2012 “cost of knowledge” boycott (see March 8, 2012, University Times) against journal publisher Elsevier.

More than 14,000 individuals have pledged not to publish, edit or referee Elsevier journals in protest of its restrictive business practices. The movement succeeded in moving Elsevier to pull its support for the Research Works Act, which Mitchell said would have gutted the National Institutes of Health’s open-access policy.

The publisher still includes confidentiality clauses in its contracts, limits libraries’ flexibility in purchasing by bundling journals in subscriptions, and “double-dips” by charging both for article processing and for downloading articles, Mitchell said.

Gowers has since turned his attention toward collecting information on how willing faculty would be to do without Elsevier’s publications. It’s a timely question at Pitt, given the search for a new ULS director, Mitchell said.

“I think that in that context it’s important to realize that faculty and the library can work synergistically when it comes to things like negotiating these bundling fees,” he said. For library negotiators to drive a hard bargain with the publisher, they would need to risk losing access to its products. For faculty, the question is: “How willing would you be for them to take on that risk?” Gathering that data could help library systems negotiate, Mitchell noted.

“Our Pitt representatives are very hamstrung when they go into these negotiations because Elsevier can pretty much dangle the sword of Damocles and say: ‘We know that you’re not going to turn this contract down because your faculty would revolt and there would be no way that you could live with that,’” Mitchell said.

“This idea of the publisher conglomerate is now expanding to include social media type applications like Mendeley,” which Elsevier purchased in 2013, Mitchell noted. “It serves to really highlight the importance of Open Access Week and remind us of (ULS director) Rush Miller’s words back in 2012 … when he said it’s about time faculty woke up and realized that their interests aren’t different from those of the librarians.”


Lara Putnam, history department chair and a faculty member in Latin American and Caribbean history, said she is keenly aware of access disparities, having begun her faculty career in Costa Rica. She added that colleagues elsewhere on occasion will ask her to access resources on their behalf.

Putnam labeled herself “a guinea pig in a land of open access,” describing how she benefited from making her work available at an early stage. She learned that she could legitimately post some form of her scholarly work on d-scholarship@pitt through a presentation in her department by ULS scholarly communications librarian John Barnett, and she began doing so.

However, as she prepared an article for the American Historical Review, the leading journal in her field, she discovered that once it was accepted for review, she would be unable to post a copy to Pitt’s repository. “I wasn’t going to be able to post any version of this for another two years after publication,” she said.

To avoid that delay, she chose to first post a draft to d-scholarship@pitt, and later stumbled upon an online discussion of the paper. “Some people were saying really positive things and other people had really interesting, smart critiques,” she said, adding that she reached out to ask for their further critique.

“This was going on simultaneously with the formal peer review process,” she said. While that formal input will be useful when it arrives, she said, in the meantime, “I got an enormously revised paper with the input of all these incredibly generous scholars, whose feedback I would never have gotten if I had just thrown up the (published) article on d-scholarship.”


Sociology faculty member Jackie Smith, editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research, said the costs of publishing an open-access journal aren’t very high. The journal, which basically draws from the work of the members of the Political Economy of the World-System section of the American Sociological Association (ASA), has been open access since its start in 1994.

“It’s possible to have a cost-effective supported journal when people are committed to this model of publishing,” she said, noting that students and scholars do much of the editorial work on a volunteer basis.

“When I took on the editorship, I thought I was mostly going to be editing,” she said. “I’m finding that I’m spending probably half of my time being an advocate for open access.”

She said, “It’s important to do open-access publishing, to change the basic ways our institutions operate, to make them more equitable and to make research really accessible, and to really promote good scholarship.

“The very work of academic research is immensely enhanced by open-access research. It’s really constrained — and increasingly so — by the model of commercial publishing that is dominant in the field,” Smith said.

“Our readers are primarily outside of the United States. Even though we are publishing research from a relatively small section of ASA, our readers really are coming from places where they don’t have access to a lot of journals. That’s really motivated some of my commitment to pushing this struggle forward.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 6