Open Scholars Needed for Open Access

Richard White

3.5 inch floppy.  That’s the medium I stored my thesis on when I finally completed it in 1996.  I don’t have any of these disks left – or a machine that will read them for that matter – so the only copies I have of my thesis are the physical ones I got back with examiners’ scribbles on and one of the three hard copies I had to get bound.  Another of these will be sitting in the library here at the University of Otago on the reference shelves behind the front desks, unless it’s been moved into the archives for the benefit of posterity.

At the time it didn’t even occur to me that I could publish it in any other way that would allow anyone outside of Otago to find it, let alone read it.  After all these were the days of dial up, where high-tech web sites like the Yahoo! home page were made up of a series of text links.

Source: Wayback Machine, yahoo.com, 23 December 1996

I make these nostalgic meanderings to demonstrate how far we’ve come in such a short time.  Probably the first time it occurred to me that my magnum opus could be made available to all and sundry was when I discovered (by accident, when googling myself one day) that Google Books had indexed it.  Now, of course, students and staff can publish in their library’s institutional repositories, each with its own catchy title (ours being – excuse the bias – one of the better acronyms out there: the Otago University Research Archive or OUR Archive).  And these repositories are assuming increasing importance as the academic community discusses how open access publishing might work.  Anyone reading my ramblings here is likely to be familiar with the UK’s Finch report and subsequent declarations from UK and European research Councils that publicly-funded research will  soon be required to be published in some open form.  Australia’s two major funding agencies, the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) have made similar noises, with the latter careful to include the ‘Green,’ self-archiving model made possible by institutional repositories as one of the possible models.  (Librarians inform me, by the way, that Australia’s institutional repository infrastructure is built on the same technology New Zealand’s).

Internationally things are happening at a lightening pace (for academia anyway).  To me one of the most interesting recent initiatives has been the Open Access Spectrum discussion paper released by PLOS, SPARC and OASPA.  The general tenet of the document was to move the conversation from “is it open access” to “how open is it?”

We wait to see what the NZ government or our major funding agencies say.  The NZ Government has made its own Declaration on Open & Transparent Government and developed the Creative Commons-powered Open Access & Licensing Framework as a guide to open access and licensing for state sector agencies to realise the potential benefits of widening access to the “vast quantities” of information and data they hold.  Interestingly, the Framework specifically excluded tertiary education institutions from its remit (see section 7(c)), presumably largely because it is far more difficult to say who actually owns the intellectual property in this sector.  But as yet there is no sign of a mandate that publicly-funded research must be made publicly available, though commentators suggest this is inevitable.

So, in the context of all these developments, where are we at really in the NZ tertiary sector?  If this is inevitable, how ready are we for this fundamental shift in mindset?  Let me add some local colour by providing my own perceptions in my role as Copyright Officer at the University of Otago.

Since all of these developments are underpinned by Creative Commons licensing, I think it’s worth asking what does the average academic know about CC?  Well, in 2012 the University had to undertake a survey of certain types of copyright material, which I was in charge of, so I took this opportunity to ask this very question.  In a section of the survey that asked about their practices in relation to copyright, I asked staff to rate from 1 to 5 how true a number of statements were for them, 1 being not true at all and 5 being completely true.  Based on over 800 responses, this was the result for my question about CC:

1

2

3

4

5

I know about Creative Commons licensing

44.6%

(369)

13.4%

(111)

18.1%

(150)

9.8%

(81)

14.1%

(117)

Almost half of our teaching staff rated their knowledge of Creative Commons at the lowest level on the scale.  When I broke this down according to the seniority of the staff (imagining that an elbow-patch-cardiganed professor would know a lot less than an iPad-Tweeting teaching fellow), the proportions hardly altered.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised.  This result reflects the inquiries I deal with on a day-to-day basis.  I am often the first person to tell many about this thing called CC; with others it’s something they’ve seen or heard of but are not really sure what it is all about.

There is still little understanding of the distinction between open access and open access.

Then what about our own institutional repository?  With help from our Digital Services Co-ordinator (and fellow CC advocate) Allison Brown, we’ve tracked repository deposits over the last 12 months to see what sort of access rights people are assigning to their work.  On average each month more than 50% of our staff and students making deposits are choosing ‘open access’ (which in this context means anyone can access it online but that it may still be all rights reserved).  The remainder chose ‘abstract only’ or ‘abstract only / inter-library loan.’    There are hints that the percentage of those choosing open access is increasing.

My experience is that there is still little understanding of the distinction between open access and open access.  And, yes, I did mean to write it that way to illustrate the point that the term means different things to different people. It’s the same with the MOOCs that are taking the higher education learning world by storm, where the courses are open for anyone to access but the resources themselves are not open access that I could re-use if I wanted to.

The very helpful advanced search on nzresearch.org.nz, which indexes repositories across 10 NZ institutions, allows you to check which of these are recorded as having a licence that allows sharing, modification and commercial use.  Filtering by the University of Otago brings up 2,168 works in total: 2,146 of these are recorded as all rights reserved.  In other words, though all of these are open in terms of access, they are not in terms of re-use.  Do the advanced search for yourself, select the organisation of your choice, and you’ll find that you do not fare any better.  Of the over 30,000 works indexed only about 250 are recorded as having one of the more permissive licences.  And if you thought that choosing, say, only 2012 works would work out better, think again: that gives you 30 out of 1298.

These figures demonstrate the point that open access champions make about fostering a knowledge eco-system that enables re-use and re-imagining of knowledge, especially where its original purpose was to further human understanding.  As someone who people often come to when the time comes to deposit their thesis or research in OUR Archive, I can tell you that on a practical level all rights reserved copyright acts as a very real impediment to people choosing more open licences or even to allowing any sort of access to their work at all.  Often they need to remove parts that they have not been able to secure permission for and thereby reduce the effectiveness of their work.  I spoke to a PhD candidate just yesterday who had sought permission, heard nothing, and elected to remove graphs from his work for the OUR Archive version rather than keep trying.  This is particularly true of student researchers who lack the professional confidence of academic staff.  And if they do receive a response, a charge of $100 is enough to convince most students that they don’t really need to include that image in the on-line version.  Many times they could argue that their use was covered by fair dealing but even staff are very wary of the uncertainties of taking this approach.

I have only dealt with one formal complaint of copyright infringement in five years in this role.

Copyright fear – the vague but strong sense that I could be prosecuted for my use of someone else’s material: “I am just a lone researcher up against an organisation with (surely?) an army of legal advisors; there’s no-one here I can ask who will give me a straight answer (probably because they don’t really understand all the complexities themselves); and they are likely to be as afraid of giving me bad advice as I am of ‘risking it.’  Better to just play safe and forget about it.”  There are very few librarians or copyright officers who are legally qualified and it is therefore common for both these advisors and academic staff to err on the side of caution.  But I note here that I have only dealt with one formal complaint of copyright infringement in five years in this role.

Things are changing, though.  You can look at the question I asked our teaching staff about Creative Commons, turn the stats around, and say that over half do know something about it.  And there are a number of comments in the survey that indicate changes in practice, about staff becoming more aware of rights management in the light of technological changes in recent years.  There is even the odd evangelical comment bemoaning the barriers to advancing research and scholarship formed by subscription paywalls.  And we have a core collective of staff who are trying to spread the word, loosely organised around a blog and a copyright community of practice.  But as the statistics I’ve provided suggest these are still to some extent lonely voices among the crowd.  To me this says that we –  in NZ at least – have some way to go before we can really say that the conversation has moved from ‘is it open access’ to ‘how open is it.’

And, turning my mind back to my own situation just 16 years ago, I wish someone had said to me at the outset of my research that I should be thinking about making my work available to the widest possible audience to read and re-use.  While theses have traditionally been regarded as unpublished works, I think we now do our research students a disservice if we breed this attitude into them.  This simply perpetuates the frustrations they suffer in trying to use material themselves.  As academics-in-training, we need to train them to think the way academics should – it’s just that we might need to convince more to think this way first.  Only then will the knowledge eco-system flourish and we can begin to shift the accent from open access to open access.

Richard is Copyright Officer at the University of Otago and a musician who releases his work under CC BY-SA. You can listen to Richard’s music at his Soundcloud page and follow him on Twitter @rkawhite

[Image of Richard White, via Richard’s Twitter account, is used with permission.]
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