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We Don’t Talk about Open Access (But We Should)

Posted on Thursday, March 10th, 2022

Today's guest post is authored by Joyce Garczynski, Assistant University Librarian for Development and Communication at Towson University.

Joyce Garczynski headshot

A few years ago, I was invited to give a 30-minute presentation about scholarly publishing to my university’s Service-Learning Faculty Fellows, a community of practice for faculty who are new or relatively new to teaching courses with a community engagement component. Because this group is cross-disciplinary and I was the library representative to the team supporting community engagement, the presentation was mine to give. I went into it thinking I would give a brief presentation about open access journals dedicated to community engagement work, demonstrate how to search library databases for articles that mentioned service learning, and I would be on my way. 

I don’t think I made it more than five minutes into showing them my swanky LibGuide when a professor raised his hand with a question. He wanted to know what he should do since he submitted an article about his service-learning course to a leading journal is his field, but it was rejected. He didn’t want to go with one of the open access journals I had just shown because his promotion and tenure committee would think those journals weren’t as high in quality. So where should he publish? I was dumbfounded and wasn’t sure how to respond. I didn’t know his discipline, but the nodding around the table that I saw from the other fellows suggested this wasn’t just a problem in one field of study. It felt like a bigger question and I didn’t know the answer. I used the unique gift I have as a librarian—I said, “I’ll have to research that one and get back to you.”

In the song, “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” from the movie Encanto, the Madrigals sing about why no one should discuss their estranged uncle Bruno because difficulties seem to follow him whenever he arrives. This narrative seems to play out in academic librarians’ discussions of open access as well. When I gave this presentation to service-learning faculty, I knew the usual good versus evil narrative surrounding open access. This is the stereotypical story we tend to tell ourselves about how publishers are exploitative because they force universities to pay for journals twice through the labor of authorship and reviewing as well as through library subscriptions. Then open access rides in on a noble steed and saves the day by offering authors more ownership of their work, libraries a reduction in subscription costs, and researchers with more ways to access content. Indeed, I think I was so surprised by the faculty member’s story because I had thought that everyone knew this plot line. I didn’t consider that there might be an alternative narrative, and certainly not an alternative narrative that required a defense from me. I needed to see open access from faculty’s point of view if I was going to be able to convince them to consider open access.

After my presentation, I began to research open access publishing, focusing on the arguments against it that were published in places that faculty were most likely to read. For example, I read Jeffrey Beall’s 2015 AAUP piece “What the Open-Access Movement Doesn’t Want You to Know”.  This helped me better understand faculty objections about the quality of open access journals. I also began learning more about open-access institutional repositories. I spoke with our Copyright Librarian who told me how most journals will allow authors to deposit some version of their research in an institutional repository. I learned about the Sherpa Romeo online database where faculty and librarians can research journal publishing agreements and online access policies. I also researched the workflow of institutional repositories and what motivates faculty to contribute their work to one. A number of studies, including Jihyun Kim’s paper, “Motivations of Faculty Self-archiving in Institutional Repositories,” discussed how important addressing issues of digital preservation, ease of deposit, and even appealing to altruism can be in convincing faculty to deposit their work. Finally, I strengthened my knowledge about what my institution’s open access policies and services are. I learned what disciplines at my institution are open access pioneers (I’m looking at you, physics) and which ones charge hefty fees to publish open access (health science and medical science) so their faculty might be reluctant to go that route. I confirmed that we did not have funding to pay the hefty article processing charges (APCs) that some journals charge if faculty want to publish their work open access. I also confirmed that our institutional repository, ScholarWorks@Towson, just needed faulty to send them their CVs and they would handle depositing their work. I verified that they were fine with me heavily promoting the repository because they would, hopefully, receive an influx of submissions as a result.  

With my knowledge of the good, bad, and ugly of open access, I was now ready to talk about open with service-learning faculty in a way that was more likely to be effective. Here is how I approach these conversations now:

Start with Shared Values. In Encanto, the Madrigals’ magic cannot be restored until they come together as a family and value each other’s contributions. When it comes to open access, I think a good place to start the conversation is by talking about how open access aligns with service-learning faculty’s values. At my university, diversity, equity, and inclusion is a presidential priority and part of our university strategic plan. As such, incorporating an equity lens into all our community engagement work has become paramount with faculty, staff, and administrators examining how to implement best practices. From my experience with community partnerships on my campus, most faculty create and teach service-learning courses because they want to engage students in learning about and supporting their communities. I have noticed that faculty are increasingly adopting an equity lens to their community work by allowing community members to help shape the projects that students complete. When it comes to the publication of the research that results from these community engagements, however, much of that scholarship ends up locked behind a journal subscription paywall because of where faculty choose to publish and their inability to pay costly APCs. This means the communities that played an integral role in shaping the service-learning experience cannot access the work resulting from their labor. I tell faculty that if they truly want to approach community engagement from an equity lens, they need to apply that lens to the entire engagement, including the dissemination of resulting scholarship. Thus, I let faculty know that if they are concerned with creating equitable and just community-engaged service-learning experiences for their students, they need to consider making their research open access.

If this appeal to altruism isn’t effective, I then focus on a self-preservation angle. I point faculty to research that has found that in many cases, open access publication increases citation. Langham-Putrow, Bakker, and Riegelman’s 2021 meta-analysis of meta-analyses, “Is the open access citation advantage real? A systematic review of the citation of open access and subscription-based articles” is a favorite resource in this situation.  I talk about how, in many disciplines, open access publishing increases their impact metrics which can be helpful with promotion and tenure. For the faculty who value self-preservation, this argument usually piques their curiosity to at least want to learn more about what open access publishing entails.

How to Publish Open Access. Just as the Madrigals need to start talking about Bruno in order for their magic to be effective, I needed to start talking knowledgably with service-learning faculty about how they could publish open access if I wanted them to adopt the model. After faculty have expressed an interest in learning about open access publishing, I try to gently break it to them that we cannot pay APCs and I offer to work with the subject-specialist librarian in their discipline to develop a list of open-access journals that have published community-engaged scholarship in that field of study. If they push back that those journals are not prestigious enough, I listen to their concerns and then I shift the conversation to our institutional repository.

In order to be more effective at selling service-learning faculty on adding their scholarship to our open access institutional repository, I did some pre-work in marketing and sales to help make the IR a more appealing option. When we first piloted a full-service model for our institutional repository (faculty only have to give us their CV and we handle the copyright checks, uploading the content, and digital preservation), I was asked to help devise a strategy to increase faculty deposits. I made the recommendation that we first approach some of the thought leaders on campus, including the faculty member who has championed community engagement efforts on our campus for over a decade. I approached him and started talking about what our institutional repository is and how it could preserve his scholarship and make it more accessible. I then discussed the need for an equity lens and described how our full-service deposit model would make it extremely easy for him to deposit his work. I concluded with how I would follow up with an email connecting him with the administrator of the repository to answer any additional questions. This approach worked and this faculty member now regularly contributes his scholarship to our institutional repository. Now when I approach a service-learning faculty member about adding their scholarship to our institutional repository, I can not only make compelling arguments for why and how faculty should add their work; I can seal the deal with a small dose of peer pressure too.

In the movie Encanto, when the Madrigals move beyond the storied narratives of their family’s gifts and embrace one another as they truly are, their home and magic can be restored. The same is true for my story of talking about open access with service-learning faculty. At first, I was afraid to talk about open access because that would expose the flaws in the traditional storyline. Once I learned about those flaws, embraced them, and developed ways to talk about alternatives, I developed new magical powers of open access advocacy.

I was never able to convince the faculty member in my first presentation to publish open access, but that’s ok. As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to subside and new service-learning programs start up, there are many new opportunities to talk to faculty about open access. Indeed, my own open access advocacy story is really just beginning. In a few weeks, I have another chance to talk to the current cohort of service-learning faculty fellows about scholarly publishing. Hopefully this story will have a happy ending.