#citylis Student Perspectives: Kristina Macdonald – Open Up: knowledge sharing and open access, Reflections on a #citylis lecture

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students.

This post is by current #citylis Library Science MSc student Kristina Macdonald and is formed from her reflections on an Open Access lecture given by Stuart Lawson as part of the Library and Publishing in an Information Society module.

Stuart Lawson talking politics and OA. Photo: Ernesto Priego @ernestopriego

Stuart Lawson talking politics and OA. Photo: Ernesto Priego @ernestopriego

We’ve been looking at scholarly publishing within the Libraries and Publishing module at #citylis, and at the emergence and significance of Open Access (OA) models. Although we’ve touched on OA issues throughout the course, it’s been interesting to discuss it in the context of the history of publishing.  As LIS students and library workers we hold a timely position of influence over conversations about OA, and the relationship between academic publishing and libraries.

The push for Open Access is inspired by frustrations over existing scholarly publication processes which have historically meant that publically funded research (via universities, for example) is being bought back from publishers using public funds. Soaring journal subscription costs have left libraries unable to maintain journal resources, with even Harvard University famously having to cancel subscriptions due to outrage over costs. Another contributing factor is the restrictive nature of intellectual property laws which no longer realistically reflect digital scholarship, at least from the point of view of the research community.
The subject of OA is wide-ranging and interdisciplinary, concerning not just the removal of pay-walls but the ability to reuse and develop research. It’s a passionate issue for many involved in furthering the cause. Advocates often see it as a strong political movement, part of a wider necessity to break down elitism and accepted inequality of opportunity in academia, and diversify the knowledge society. For a powerful and inspiring example of OA activism, watch The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (freely available on Internet Archive). Although things have progressed since Aaron’s work, his story is an important one because it shows up the closed access system, practically and ideologically, for what it truly is; who it benefiting, and who it is failing. The below quote is from Aaron’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:


We recently had a guest speaker in to talk to us about the economics and politics of Open Access. Stuart Lawson is currently undertaking a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London on the Politics of Open Access, and has worked on analysing the economics of scholarly communication from a strongly pro-OA point of view. Confronting a lack of transparency in the financial flows behind scholarly publishing in the UK, Stuart and collaborators used FOI requests to gather data on how much higher education institutions spend on academic journal subscriptions (Lawson and Meghreblian, 2014).

Covering 10 major publishers, the dataset breaks down approximately £430m of expenditure. Another study collected information on Article Process Charges (APCs), a fee that is paid to enable an article to be published OA, by the author, an institution or funding body (such as the Wellcome Trust) (Lawson, 2015). 25 universities were included in the 2014 study, conducted to inform JISC on their subscription and APC negotiations (read more about their research here).

Model of Financial Flows in Scholarly Publishing in the UK, 2014. Slides by Stuart Lawson

Model of Financial Flows in Scholarly Publishing in the UK, 2014. Slides by Stuart Lawson

Together the data show that large portions of library budgets are being spent on gaining access to closed research, and highlight trends in university funding that allow for certain institutions to allocate more for APCs than others. Stuart’s work and the work of others in this area is essential in supporting the development of OA, but even this data fails to factor in those without academic privilege, who either attend institutions without substantial budgets for subscriptions under these terms, or operate outside of mainstream research routes for many intersecting reasons. The underlying driving force of OA advocacy is the belief in a better global community of knowledge made possible by the wide sharing of ideas, but also the basic liberation of publically funded research. Right to Research produced a useful breakdown of how OA benefits different social groups, from students to practitioners to patients. The positives are particularly clear for scientific fields – encouraging international and interdisciplinary cooperation as well as directly benefiting people’s health – but can be seen across the arts and humanities.

Removing access and reuse restrictions is a prominent issue for artists, musicians and teachers as well as academics. The licenses offered by non-profit organisation Creative Commons (CC) have allowed creators the flexibility in putting their work out there for others to build on, while still maintaining optional rights to restrict commercial use. The CC:SA (‘share alike’) license allows educators to use tools created by others freely, and encourages a supportive community of idea sharing and non-traditional education. The underlying attitudes supporting OA are much the same as those behind the movement that resulted in Creative Commons.

Art+Feminism, from a lesson plan PowerPoint available online under a CC:SA license. http://art.plusfeminism.org/works/introductory-lesson-plan/

Art+Feminism, from a lesson plan PowerPoint available online under a CC:SA license. http://art.plusfeminism.org/works/introductory-lesson-plan/

You can find Stuart’s work under a CC:BY license via his website. He has work in the Journal of Open Humanities Data, published by Ubiquity Press who are an OA, ‘researcher led’ publisher, and is co-founder of the OA Journal of Radical Librarianship. There are many ways for academics to create and share their work openly. Some publishers use hybrid models (where research is closed unless an APC has been paid), and others have switched to full OA, or have been created out of a need for more OA content. Science publisher PLOS (Public Library of Science), for example, champion their OA journal PLOS ONE, which uses the ‘author pays’ model and has initiatives in place to assist disadvantaged authors, ensuring that the ‘author’s ability to pay publication fees will never be a consideration in the decision whether to publish’.  As we touched on during the #citylis discussion of APC assistance however, these schemes are problematic, and encourage a charitable relationship between disadvantaged authors, communities, social groups (etc.) and the power structures in academic publishing.

Momentum is always growing, and there are systems now in place to encourage OA research, but naturally larger systems with larger sums of money need to be constantly evaluated. A recent post from the Wellcome Trust highlights ways in which publishers in receipt of APC funding grants aren’t keeping up their side of the bargain. Roughly half of articles from Wiley, and a quarter from Elsevier, for example, were ‘non-compliant’ with the funding caveat that requires articles to be deposited in the Europe PMC, a free archive of life science articles (Kiley, 2016). Although acknowledging that German and Norwegian funding bodies are recognising the same problems, and as a result choosing to abandon the hybrid OA model in favour of full OA, Wellcome insists they aren’t yet at that stage. It’s edge-of-seat stuff that is rapidly changing the way we interact with libraries, think about publishing, and what impact these knowledge processes have on our communities.


Thanks to Stuart  (@lawsonstu) for sharing his work with us.



Lawson, S and Meghreblian, B (2014). Journal subscription expenditure of UK higher education institutions [v2; ref status: indexed]. F1000Research 3: 274.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12688/f1000research.5706.2

Lawson, S., (2015). Article Processing Charges Paid by 25 UK Universities in 2014. Journal of Open Humanities Data. 1, p.e2. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/johd.2

Kiley, R., (2016).  Wellcome Trust/COAF spend on open access publishing (article processing charges) – 2014-15. Figshare. https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3118936.v1

Further reading

Johnson, Rob (2014) Counting the costs of open access.  http://www.researchconsulting.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Research-Consulting-Counting-the-Costs-of-OA-Final.pdf

Wellcome Trust blog posts on OA: http://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/tag/open-access/

A list of international blogs centered around OA advocacy: http://oad.simmons.edu/oadwiki/Blogs_about_OA

Dispelling Myths about Open Access. MIT. https://libraries.mit.edu/scholarly/mit-open-access/general-information-about-open-access/dispelling-myths-about-open-access/

Keep an eye on Twitter’s #OpenAccess.


Kristina Macdonald is on Twitter, @okmac__

Find out more about postgraduate study in Library and Information Science at #citylis, meet alumni, current students and staff on our next open evening on Wednesday 8 June 2016. Register here.


Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current #citylis students. If you are a current #citylis student or alumni and would like to contribute a post, please contact our Editor, James Atkinson.

For current and future Library and Information Science news, opportunities and events follow the #citylis blog on Twitter @citylis.

About James

Information Assistant (Academic Services) in the Library at City, University of London.
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