The Robin Hood of academics - open access publishing debate series

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Samara Bissonnette

In "Open Access and the future of academic publishing", the second installment of a three part debate series on copyright and the modern academic, Glen Rollan and Michale Geist attacked the highly controversial academic subject of open access publication. Once upon a time, open access - defined here as free and accessible sources for the masses - was the dominant means of publication. Since then however, academic sources have become harder for authors to publish and in turn, harder for the average reader to access. In the last few years, there has been an on-going struggle to bring back open access once again! A sort of Robin Hood movement in the academic world, I suppose. Gallantly bringing knowledge and learning to those who can't afford to access it themselves. As a freshly graduated Honours student AND an individual with aspirations to get into the publishing world, I am well acquainted with the struggles in finding open access sources for my research projects and also interested in my future as a publisher. So needless to say, I was eager to hear what these gentlemen thought of the fate of academic resources for new students in the years to come.

The question for debate was this: "Should open access be the primary model for Canadian academic and research publishing?"

In the ring today we had two champions battling for their competing answers; Michael Geist versus Glen Rollans in a battle for the ages.

In one corner, was Michael Geist, who in turn, was FOR open access. He delivered a terribly compelling argument, putting on that Robin Hood mask and crying out for the poor. "The public pays taxes for funding publications", he argued, "so those people should have access to it!" There was a lot of nodding heads and murmurs of agreement while Geist gave his introduction, the audience clearly marching to the same tune when he declared that "availability increases readership" and "researchers write to be read and influence, not to be paid huge dollar amounts". 

In the other corner however, we had Glen Rollans, who was AGAINST open access becoming the main format. While the audience was already swayed in favour of Robin Hood for the most part, Rollans approached the mic and asked for open minds, saying that his negative stance was not negative in a bad way, but merely to provide a realistic counter argument. He introduced his argument by agreeing that open access sources are indeed a good thing, but that there are dangers to the future of quality work if authors are forced to publish for free. One of his main argument points was that money from users empowers the users. In other words, by paying for a book or journal, the user is saying that the quality is good and that a lack of user feedback determines the future quality of what is to be published. He argued that authors lose prestige with open access publishing, and get 'stuffed through the same channels as self-publishers' making it harder for the users to sift through the work and determine good quality.

While Geist returned by saying that quality is not lost because of things like peer review and good researchers, and that authors publish to be read, not to gain prestige, Rollans came right back by saying that yes, in an ideal world, authors would be selfless and publish for free, but unfortunately there are authors that exist that do appreciate the prestige of having done something worth noting, and they need to be able to make a living off of the work that they do, which is not possible with open access publishing.

In the end, both parties effectually agreed that a world can exist where open access and funded publications work harmoniously, though they still clearly had mouthfuls to say on the topic. Needless to say though, Rollans 'negative' argument held a great deal of weight with the publishers and authors in the room, and there were many heads nodding in agreement once he had made his stance.

So in the end, perhaps we are still a considerable distance away from open access dominating the publishing world. The same debate exists for music. Do we illegally download for free, just because the technology is there? Or do we acknowledge the work and talent of the musicians by paying for the album. While technology provides ample opportunities for free journals, articles, and sometimes entire textbooks, it is still worthwhile to acknowledge an author's hard work by paying for it. 


Michael Geist is an academic from the University of Ottawa, where he hold the position of Canadian Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law. His newest book is called "Copyright Pentalogy: How The Supreme Court of Canada Shook the Foundations of Canadian Copyright Law". 

Glen Rollans is a consultant for book-publishing and was director of Alberta University Press, and is currently taking his knowledge of the publishing world and imparting it to his students in the business of publication. 


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