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The Long Road to Open Access

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Cod. 38 fol. 18  [3]An intriguing, far-ranging perspective on scholarly publishing that ties early 3rd century revolutions in scholarly publishing with modern trends towards open access and digital archiving:

Instead of using the noble scroll, Origen decided to take advantage of the page structure of the humble codex. Dividing each of two facing pages into three columns each, he began placing six texts side by side to compare them word for word. This monumental undertaking ultimately required many codices and is known as the Hexapla.

Origen also introduced a form of critical reading that was rather uncommon in the 3rd century. Until then, writing was little more than a way to externalize memory. Reading was really a way to help reciting. The reader read aloud and, so to speak, was inhabited by the text projected by his own voice. Critical reading, by contrast, seeks to scrutinize the text and engineers a psychological space, a sense of distance, where the reader has an opportunity to exert his critical faculties.

The description above reminds me of the critical tie that exists between paratext, text and readers, something I’ve been fascinated about for years (and a connection I would love to carry into an analysis of legal writings and texts).

He continues into the modern world of academic publishing:

This very first phase in the transition to the digital world reminds us that in any communication system, it is important to look at who can produce documents, who can preserve them, who can organize them in order to facilitate retrieval, who has access, and what can be done with the accessed document. A number of rules long organized around copyright laws were suddenly superseded by licensing rules that are contractual in nature. Also, 10 years ago, the art of contracting licences was quite esoteric among librarians. Meanwhile, we academics were going on with our usual business, largely impervious to the sea change that was taking place under our noses. As authors, academics act largely like peacocks and want to be featured in the “best” journals, whatever the cost to the library; as readers, academics want access to everything and if it is not available, they view it either as the fault of the librarians or as the responsibility of the university administrators. Again, as readers, academics simply do not see publishers and pricing issues. The same is almost as true of academics as authors: how many know the publisher of a coveted journal title?

And a problem that those in libraries – especially anyone working on a budget in a library – knows all too well:

Very few firms dominate academic publishing, and they extract profits that can reach and even exceed 40 per cent before taxes. Let us remember that we are talking about research articles made possible by large amounts of public money supporting research and universities. They are given away by their authors when they sign their rights away. These articles are peer reviewed for free by other researchers. The result is then sold to libraries, often supported by public money.

Then he moves on to open access, a topic dear to my heart, and describes some of the recent moves towards open access (or, in terms of the NIH, what I prefer to call “public access,” since much of the freedom associated with open access is removed, leaving mostly – but arguably most critically and importantly – the freedom to read a work without paying an exorbitant fee):

For open access, the most essential step emerged when funding agencies began to realize that it was to everybody’s benefit, including their own, to have open access to the literature they funded. The Wellcome trust in the UK, was a leader in this regard, but some American and European institutions followed quickly. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States became a battle ground between publishers and open access supporters. Ultimately, open access won despite the deep pockets and lobbying efforts of the publishers. In December 2007, the large omnibus law signed by President Bush contained a provision stating that all research papers financed by NIH had to be deposited in NIH’s repository at most 12 months after publication. Other funding institutes began to follow suit, notably Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Canada.

(For more, see also the Taking the Long View: Guedon and Changing Technologies at Slaw.ca.)