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Talking to Students about Open Access

January 19, 2022

Last month I was contacted by a student at my alma mater – they oversaw the department’s newsletter and were looking for people to interview for their alumni column. Among the questions sent to me was an insightful one about open access. They wanted to know what I thought current students in the department, especially those on the Publishing & Editing track, should know about open access.

Often, as librarians we discuss open access with students through the frame of how it can affect the access and affordability of course materials (especially textbooks) and research resources. It can be easy to draw students in with the cost of textbooks, or a conversation as to why the library can’t afford a certain database or journal. What if students aren’t introduced to open access issues as just passive consumers of information, but as those who will have an opportunity to make a meaningful impact on the future of open access to information? With students on the Publishing & Editing track, we can assume they have an interest to work in the industry – at a journal, magazine, newspaper, or publishing house. They want to be part of the process that packages information and provides access points for the reader/consumer. How might that perspective change the conversation of open access and its relationship with the students?

As consumers of information (purchasers of textbooks or subscribers to magazines) a student has one view of open access – mainly how it saves them money or provides more value to the information gathering endeavors. Open access is often behind the scenes. A link they click in Google Scholar or in the library’s catalog may be open access, or it may be a subscription from the library – often they don’t know or don’t care. It is a means on an end that they don’t necessarily understand but can value when it is brought to their attention.

Some students may end up being authors or content creators, and in that frame open access might have more meaning, at least regarding their rights as a creator. They may worry about publishing in an open access journal or putting their content in an institutional repository because they are worried about someone plagiarizing their ideas or stealing their findings. The free availability that was so important to them as consumers isn’t as appealing. Though as content creators they may begin to consider the role publishers play in information access, at least considering whether they are willing to forego their rights to their content in exchange for publishing in a well known journal.

Rarely though do we have the opportunity to discuss open access from the perspective of future members of the publishing industry. The third, and potentially most influential, side of the issue. In the current structure, both content creators and information consumers are at the whims of publishers. They are the ones that have the distribution models in place, and name recognition, to still serve as influencers in the information industry. But open access model is slowly starting to move the dial, and students currently in the Publishing & Editing track will have the opportunity to be advocates for open access in their industry and active participants in furthering open access content and the cause of free/accessible information.

As an answer to the student’s questions, I brought up the example of misinformation or “fake news” and how easily that type of information, and the content creators of this information can spread their misinformation through social media. The monetary cost of “credible” information, especially those from more traditional newspaper/magazine sources results in a paywall that keeps that information from people. The lack of open access to credible and reliable information sources means that those more moderating voices are often missing from online discussions and social media posts.

This barrier to information access is affecting our society. Libraries often have been the stop gap, absorbing the cost of information and providing “free access” as a public good. But the rising cost of information, and increasing attacks on libraries’ roles in their communities, has become a barrier to this access. The rising costs of subscriptions have pit libraries and publishers against each other, but we need to work together if we are going to fight misinformation and restore the value of more measured information sources. The current model of publishing is quickly becoming unsustainable, but today’s students will be tasked with finding a different model for publishing and distributing information. So, it doesn’t hurt to start talking to them about open access early, and often.

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