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Open Access & Copyright: A View from the South

Singapore Waterfalls
In all the discussions about open access and copyright, I want to add my story as someone from the Global South who strongly advocates for open access. Before I do so, I need to admit my privilege: my institution has a great physical and electronic library with additional free document delivery – so I can literally get any article or book chapter I want, for free, and during my PhD I had additional access to the University of Sheffield’s eResources library. However, I know that most Egyptian academics have no such access. Public universities have very limited library resources. We cannot achieve a more equitable global knowledge landscape when academics in some regions cannot even read what others before them have published (among other inequalities). This particular problem is shared by unaffiliated academics worldwide, of course.

Three things happened last week to prompt this post. First of all, someone called me out on calling copyright an unjust law. Lawrence Lessig’s arguments here and here express this better than I do: publishers and not authors are the main beneficiaries of copyright. Academics regularly publish in peer-reviewed journals and not get paid a dime (funny they can get paid for publishing in non-peer-reviewed magazines!).

A US or UK textbook is prohibitively expensive for most learners here in Egypt. Without third world edition textbooks which some publishers produce, learners have little choice but to buy pirated photocopies of books. Those individual articles that cost close to 30 USD are not accessible to everyone but the “knowledge elite” (who do not actually pay: their institution’s library subscribes).

Second, a reporter from Al-Fanar media interviewed me about my views on open access in the Arab world. I had written a couple of articles last year advocating for Open Access in the same magazine (I won’t repeat the arguments here). The part of my story that is missing is how I became a big open access advocate. During the last few weeks of writing up my dissertation, political unrest in Egypt closed down our university and library. During that time, I benefited greatly from open access versions of articles. I truly did not care if the versions I was reading were legal – I suspect the book chapter scans were not. But I needed some of these specific references, so I just used them. Some publishers have special systems whereby they allow open access to certain (developing) country IP addresses. This goes some way towards equitable access.

Third, someone from Taylor & Francis contacted me, letting me know that my recent article A New Scholar’s Perspective on Open Peer Review would be made free to access (publishing in a subscription-based, double-blind peer review journal was my attempt not to preach to my choir at Hybrid Pedagogy). I generally try to publish almost all my work in open access journals (the kind that don’t ask for author fees, because neither I nor my institution can afford these, nor, frankly, is my work that important that I would pay to publish it), or a publisher like Taylor & Francis that allows authors to immediately post their author manuscript on their personal website. While that is a great option, I realize that other researchers using Google scholar may not know immediately of the availability of a free-to-access copy unless it is on the official publisher’s website. So I am ecstatic that one of my articles has been made officially free-to-access. I am excited that a publisher is willing to promote my article that challenges much of mainstream academic publishing. And I respect that a publisher already has systems in place to allow some form of openness (in the form of author manuscripts made open) beside the model that brings them money, and that moreover, they choose some articles to make them open access from their own site, at no cost to the author.

What I would like to see is a mainstream model where researchers from developing countries have additional rights in terms of publishing open access (e.g. reduced or waived author fees, where applicable – because otherwise, third world researchers will not afford to make their work open access) or direct access to articles via IP (these models exist). Some publishers allow article viewing but not downloading for free. That’s a start. Some publishers have open access embargoes, i.e. you can publish your work openly on an institutional repository after a certain period of time. This is fine for some fields where developments take time, not so much for medicine or ed tech, where a year can make a lot of difference. Also, having the open access versions not on the publisher’s website means it takes some initiative and digital literacy on the part of authors and researchers to truly make the article openly accessible.

Still, I am optimistic that some publishers are opening up a little. Call me naive. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto is cool, but I would like to see this done more systematically and legally. I was much happier to have my article published open access with the publisher’s blessing. Maybe I’m not as revolutionary as I thought.

What are your views on open access?

Note: Thanks to fellow Prof Hacker blogger Amy Cavender for referring me to Lessig’s lecture on “Aaron’s laws – Laws and Justice in a Digital Age”

Flickr photo Sigapore Waterfalls by Eustaquio Santimano http://flickr.com/photos/eustaquio/9975603904 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license

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