Robyn Hall, MacEwan’s scholarly communications librarian, talks about the importance of making research open and accessible. Open Access Week is October 22–28.

Tunneling through the research paywall

October 22, 2018 | Science, Society, Business, Arts & Culture
Back at the turn of this century when downloading free music on Napster was in its heydey and users were still installing the internet on their computers with CDs, the idea of free and open access to information anytime, anywhere made it seem like academic research was about to make its way into the mainstream.

Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how things turned out, explains Robyn Hall, MacEwan’s scholarly communications librarian. “The cost of academic literature has increased at a rate much higher than inflation. Academic publishers are big businesses with big profit margins that have turned research into a commodity, and they make a lot of money publishing research and selling it to libraries.”

Set aside the reality that providing access to research puts a strain on library budgets, and you’ll find several other issues, including the fact that much of the research libraries are paying to access was publicly funded in the first place – paid for with tax dollars, produced by faculty working in universities and then sold back to libraries. 

Open Access Week, says Robyn, is about universities coming together to draw attention to the issues around making research accessible, and to ensure students, faculty members and the greater community know why that’s important. The Library is kicking off the week with a free screening of Paywall: The Business of Scholarship, which questions the rationale behind the $25.2 billion a year that flows into for-profit academic publishers and examines the 35 to 40 per cent profit margin associated with top academic publisher Elsevier.

“When research is locked behind a paywall and costs $50 per article to access, not as many people can read it, engage with it and use it,” she says. “It limits innovation, discovery and our ability to find solutions to problems. We spend a lot of time teaching our students to use peer-reviewed scholarly journals for their research and to make evidence-based decisions, but when they graduate, their access to those resources is gone.”

Open access benefits researchers too. “There’s a lot of evidence that shows researchers get more downloads and citations when their work is open access,” says Robyn. “It actually lets researchers make more of an impact with their work.”

While there is no easy fix to the problem, Robyn says that there are two key ways to get research out into the public realm: publishing lower-cost, peer-reviewed, high-quality open access journals and establishing institutional repositories where universities archive online copies of articles, conference papers and other forms of research. 

When everyone can access research being done in publicly funded universities, we can use it to help solve issues in our communities.
—Robyn Hall

MacEwan’s research repository, ROAM (Research Online at MacEwan University), is an online warehouse of the university’s research output that includes peer-reviewed final drafts of articles submitted by faculty members. Almost all subscription-based publishers allow final drafts to be made open access, says Robyn, so it’s not necessarily a matter of choosing between a high-profile prestigious journal or open access – you can do both at the same time.

If faculty members and students are interested in publishing in open access journals MacEwan’s librarians can help present the options.

“There are really high-quality, credible peer-reviewed places that are also open access,” says Robyn. “We can help people make smart choices about where they choose to publish, and we can also host open access journals created by faculty and students. That’s a lot of work – setting up an editorial board, soliciting submissions and handling the peer-review process – but we are here to help."



Opening up on the past

Dr. Treena Swanston was part of a team of Canadian academics that researched the cause of death of members of the Franklin Expedition, then published their findings in the world’s first open access multidisciplinary journal, PLOS ONE.


There are already a few open access journals hosted at MacEwan, including Earth Common Journal and MUSe. And while there’s a lot of invisible labour that goes into making discovery public, it’s work that needs to be done, says Robyn.

“There are broad benefits to open access that are linked to social justice, including using research to make positive social and economic changes. When everyone can access research being done in publicly funded universities, we can use it to help solve issues in our communities, and that’s fantastic.”

If you’re interested in the movie but can’t make it to the screening, you can view the documentary free online. If you want to learn more about support for open access at MacEwan, check out the Library's publishing support services.  

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