An Open Access Tale

Directory of Open Access JournalsYou run a search for articles in your favorite digital journal database. Yeah, all the big hitters are there; lots of heavyweight authors and Brilliant™ ideas. Hmm, looks like the topic you’re dealing with is uncharted territory, or less generously, so obscure that no one else thought it worth writing about. You broaden your search to a few other—not so favorite—databases of journals and then try that fancy new cross-database search system the university offered but it still turns up nothing helpful.

Then you turn to Google Scholar and find that, though you have to wade through a sea of irrelevant articles from academic fields you can never seem to filter out properly with advanced search, you actually find a dozen articles directly related to your topic.  Clicking through you find six of them are in journals your institution doesn’t subscribe to, or at least not for the dates concerned. The rest of the links, however, deliver you right to an abstract page with a link to either a fully accessible HTML text or downloadable PDF version of the document.

You skim these remaining half dozen articles. Four of them are complete nonsense. One of them is void of anything original to argue but in its dry and detailed passages are a wealth of interesting new material and sources that are worth looking at if you happen to be doing research on just this particular topic. The last article is a gem. Though clearly not written by a native speaker it is not only full of interesting material but has a bold and thought-provoking thesis. Yet, somehow, you have never heard of this scholar or even the university she got her PhD from.

You finally notice the journal titles as you finish taking notes. Oh my, who has ever heard of the Shimokitazawa University English Language Journal of [Your Field Here] Studies? The other dry but wonderfully detailed piece comes from the Rogaland Journal of [Your Field Here] Studies. What kind of peer review process was at work here? How do you know it wasn’t half a dozen people who got together to publish each other’s stuff? You don’t, and you don’t have time to look into the pedigree of the scholars on the editorial board.

Whatever concerns you might have about the difficulty of establishing the trustworthiness of scholars who might be distracted by the hip Shimokita music scene or the scenic fjords of Rogaland, you are faced with the indisputable fact that one of the articles significantly broadened your thinking about your topic, while the other immediately doubled your source base and filled in gaps in your knowledge. You feel a nagging itch inside begging you to return to that ‘safe’ collection of a dozen or so respected journals whose authors you have seen walking the corridors of last year’s Association of [Your Field Here] Studies conference.

I think this captures one of the dilemmas scholars of the 21st-century face. While some of us roll our eyes at Wikipedia and blog postings that make the footnotes of student assignments, many scholars are probably rolling their eyes at graduate students or their own colleagues who cite publications from journals they’ve never heard of. Some of them are probably thinking, if this was an article worth publishing, it would’ve been published in *The* Journal of [Your Field Here] Studies, or at least in the Monumenta [Your Field Here]ica.

I’m sure our readers here come from all sides of that debate but the point is, we have only reached this point because of the rise of open access journals. Ten years ago the serendipitous discovery I described above was hardly possible at anywhere near the same scale.  That little feeling of triumph you feel each time that a Google Scholar search clicks through to an actual downloadable article? That’s a pure open access high.

To get an idea of their rise, click over to the Directory of Open Access Journals. There are 6,724 journals listed there (as I write this) that have met the selection criteria they have (and one open access journal I work with that was submitted for inclusion didn’t made the cut). There are over a hundred new open access journals added in just in the last month. I don’t recommend making this site your first stop for an article search, at least not yet, but the rise in availability of these journals is astounding, especially as many non-English language publications join. The increase in number is not, of course, any direct measure of an increase in the availability of ‘good’ scholarship. However, neither can it be denied that we are seeing a wave of small specialized journals with excellent scholarship come online, many of them using the Open Journals Systems platform which lowers the obstacles faced by any group of scholars with mutual research interests to creating an open space for the exchange of their findings in the traditional journal format. As this happens, even with the considerable disincentives of publishing in a (at least initially) lower impact publication, their relative weight in terms of citations grows as a natural consequence of their increased accessibility and visibility in directories like this and directly on large cross-database searches like Google Scholar (See Jason’s posting here back in April for more on this). Perhaps even more important, though it rarely converts well into academic career currency, is the increased readership of this research, often well beyond the scholarly community.

Wherever the economics of ‘green’ open access repositories or ‘gold’ open access publishing might stand at this moment in time, is it unreasonable to suggest that at some point, the increasingly common story I told above, and the rise of OA journals it depends on will come to have a significant bearing upon the decision of leading journals in our fields to sustain toll access? How has the availability of open access journals impacted your own research? Have you considered publishing something in an open access journal?

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