Three lessons from Michigan’s OA week

Molly Kleinman, Lessons from Open Access Week, Molly Kleinman, March 30, 2009.

As most of you already know, last week was Open Access Week at the University of Michigan Library….

Over the course of the week, I learned a few valuable lessons, and even changed my mind about a couple of things. Before I forget it all, I wanted to share them here.

Lesson #1: A formal definition of open access should include re-use rights

The Budapest, Bethesda, and Berlin definitions of open access all require not just free online access to the work for all users with an internet connection, but also a license that permits copying and redistribution of the work. Prior to Open Access Week, I believed that a definition of open access that required usage rights was sacrificing the good for the sake of the perfect, and that therefore all three of these founding documents were deeply flawed. In an environment where scholarly authors must often haggle mightily just to keep the right to deposit their articles in an institutional repository, such a requirement was asking too much. We shouldn’t disparage those who do the valuable and important work of promoting subject and institutional repositories just because in an ideal world we’d have something even better.

Discussions at the Open Access and the Academy panel have convinced me that the difference between a work that is freely available and a work that is freely reusable is tremendous, and that true openness does require the possibility of future adaptation and use. We can draw a distinction between free access and Open Access without demeaning those who have only been able to achieve free access. In very many situations, free access is enough….

Lesson #2: Undergraduates have an important role to play in advocating for Open Access

This is the second thing about which my mind has been changed. In the past, I have argued that Open Access outreach programs targeting students are misguided, because undergrads have nothing to do with any part of the publishing process….

While nobody spoke directly about undergraduate engagement during OA Week, the week made me think about it because it reminded me that it’s damned hard to get faculty into a room they’re not contractually obligated to be in….

So now imagine what a little undergraduate activism can do. The high cost of purchasing scholarly journals contributes to the rising cost of education, and the rising cost of education is a hot topic in these dire economic times. If we can get students riled up about open access – and that’s still a big if – they might have more luck influencing the behavior of their professors than librarians have. While before I thought that targeting students for open access outreach was a waste of time, now I believe it’s worth a shot. Some infrastructure for it already exists, and in the coming months I plan to look into how I can promote student participation here at Michigan.

Lesson #3: Never lose sight of the Great Conversation

Jean-Claude Guédon, one of the panelists on Tuesday, spoke of the importance of open access in facilitating what he called “The Great Conversation.” The Great Conversation is the purpose of all scholarship. It signifies engagement with knowledge, ideas, and a worldwide community of scholars. To frame the issue this way, open access is not about money or fairness or social justice, it’s about something more romantic. Perhaps the way to win over the hearts and minds of faculty is to put open access in loftier, more idealistic terms. People who do not have access to scholarly output cannot participate in the Great Conversation, and neither can people whose works are not widely accessible….

Update (3/31/09). Also see Stevan Harnad’s comments.