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Open Access: Where Next?

Kim D. Gainer
Radford University

A few days ago my daughter was in her bedroom working on a paper about the French painter Edgar Degas. “You should go to the library,” I called from the kitchen. “I am in the library,” she hollered back. Clearly, my daughter and I have a different understanding of what it means to be “in” a library. Her university (which also happens to be my university) subscribes to over two-hundred databases, including many full-text ones, and after two years my daughter has yet to find it necessary to physically check out a journal. In some ways, this is all to the good. Our university’s bricks-and-mortar library, while a respectable size for an institution with 9,500 students, is still a finite structure with only enough shelving to accommodate a fraction of the journals that my daughter can access via online database. She has, moreover, become quite adept at making use of this type of resource. For one thing, she is skillful at picking out the specific databases that would be most useful for the particular project that she is working on. For another, she has developed the knack of combining search terms that will return hits likeliest to be relevant to her topic. As a mother, I find myself, as we say in my family, “grinning like an idiot” in my pride at her skill in navigating through various databases, each with different coverage, each set up slightly differently from the others.

On the other hand, as an instructor at a university that has experienced significant budget cuts, I worry about the cost of those databases. I also worry about the fact that, once our students graduate, some of them will no longer have easy access to these resources. In some cases, public libraries have joined in consortia designed to control costs, for example TexShare; still, the number of databases our graduates are able to access is likely to be significantly fewer than the number they can utilize now. Moreover, after they graduate, some of our graduates may need to redefine their understanding of what it means to be “in” a library as not all public libraries are able to support remote access to the databases to which they do subscribe. That fact will also reduce our graduates’ access to resources. While enrolled at the university, they do not need to subtract travel time from the time available to devote to their project. In addition, they are able to access databases via the university’s library portal twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In some online communities, it is not uncommon to see a blogger or a commenter broadcasting an appeal for a copy of an article published in a journal to which he or she does not have ready access even via interlibrary loan. The rationale for such requests is that the article is behind a pay wall and that the would-be reader finds the charge for access to one article to be excessive. (Indeed, charges of thirty dollars or more are not uncommon.) When owners of databases have locked up access to a journal, it is probably inevitable that readers unaffiliated with subscribing institutions are going to be faced with what are arguably excessive fees for access to individual articles.

Open access may be at least in part a solution to the problems described above. Open access resources are available free to any reader with access to the web. Of course, this fact does not mean that the resource is “free” in all respects. Someone or some organization must bear the expense of providing access to such resources. However, the cost is shifted from the reader. One way of doing so is through online institutional depositories open to the public. Another way is by charging the author a fee for publication (which may be subsidized by grant money or by the author’s institution). This author-pays model is the one that has been adopted by the non-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS), which in the space of a decade has become a major online publisher in several scientific disciplines.

One problem with relying upon open access at the present moment is the unevenness of coverage. Some disciplines are embracing open access more rapidly than others. The chart below shows the percentage of articles by area available via open access during a recent period. Open access availability ranged from a high of forty-five percent of articles in mathematics to a low of ten percent in the arts. (The humanities, including literature, came in at sixteen percent.)


Math 45%
Earth & Space Science 38%
Social Sciences 36%
Professional Fields 31%
Psychology 28%
Physics 27%
Engineering and Technology 24%
Biology 24%
Health 17%
Humanities 16%
Clinical Medicine 14%
Biomedical Research 13%
Chemistry 11%
Arts 10%


Another problem is that open access portals do not always succeed in matching the subscription databases when it comes to facilitating searches. Subscription databases often allow for the simultaneous searching of a plethora of journals. This consolidation of resources in one place has a monopoly effect on subscription fees, but it also is what makes the databases appealing to users. Moreover, the extensive indexing provided by subscription databases is something that their owners can point to as constituting “value added.”

For the potential of open access to be fully realized, funding models will have to be clarified, coverage within the disciplines will have to be increased, portals that consolidate resources will have to be created, and systems for indexing articles will have to be put in place. The task may seem rather daunting. At the same time, powerful forces are encouraging movement toward open access, including governmental regulations and institutional and professional pushback against high fees for subscription databases. When the success of the Public Library of Science, as well as that of the crowd-sourced encyclopedia Wikipedia, is considered, it is not impossible to believe that within a decade readers, whether or not affiliated with well-equipped libraries, will be able to access the resources that they need and want.

For additional IP Caucus/Committee coverage of open-access issues, see the following:

Intellectual Property Reports Main Page

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