Don't fear open access

May 21, 2009

Kathryn Sutherland appears to fundamentally misunderstand the goals and methods of the open-access movement ("Those who disseminate ideas must acknowledge the routes they travel", 30 April).

Her conflation of the purposes of humanities research, the approach to material, the credit gained by authors for their writing, the money flowing into academia and the various aspects of copyright is a mess.

The worst element is her suggestion that open access will automatically and inexorably undermine the careful reading of material and the attribution of ideas and words to their originators. This is nonsense.

Open access is about removing barriers to peer-reviewed journal articles that authors already give away for free. It is not about forcing authors to give their material away online for free. It is not about undermining controls on editorial quality. It is about making sure that scholars worldwide have access to each other's output.

Sutherland's complaints about the explosion of material have nothing to do with open access, but are a result of the increase in the number of researchers, the pressure to publish and the greed of publishing companies that are starting more journals in an attempt to cash in on these pressures.

Too many publications and too many papers published in them automatically create an access issue for most outside the richest universities. Open access is one of the solutions to this problem. Open access also provides the possibility of a huge improvement in tackling academic plagiarism. While electronic versions of articles may be easier to copy and paste into new work, the length of academic papers generally has never precluded retyping, and the huge array of material published now makes detection by peer review less likely.

However, if all articles are available online without publisher toll gates, checking for plagiarism could be as easy and automatic for journal submissions as it can be for student essays. Battling plagiarism and lazy academic writing and study is orthogonal to the question of open access. It requires academia to take a hard look at its practices and the pressures that lead to unethical behaviour. It does not require us to perpetuate the restrictions on access to peer-reviewed publications necessitated by the era of the printing press, which could be swept away in the online age.

Andrew A. Adams, School of Systems Engineering, University of Reading.

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