Open Access Week: Beyond the Choir, or, How to get Researchers Involved

The highlight of the year for OA advocates is surely International Open Access Week; a central focal point when the worldwide community unites to celebrate achievements, to plan for the future and to extol the virtues of open access to new audiences. As a researcher heavily invested in open dissemination of research work, I always find it an important and interesting time.

It is also, though, somewhat problematic in a range of ways, most notably that the event is usually centred around the library. It is not surprising that it is frequently librarians who are coordinating OA events. Libraries have borne the burden of hyperinflationary cost increases for subscriptions for many years. Librarians are caught between researcher demands for material and publisher demands for funds. OA makes sense to many librarians as a way around some of these competing demands.

That OA week events are driven by libraries is not problematic in itself. In fact, it's great. The problem is that researchers often then perceive open access to be an imposition, an invention of the library to somehow make their lives harder. “Something the library is making us do”. My anecdotal experience is that this culture means that different groups of researchers (who, we must remember, don't for the most part find OA very interesting) act in the following ways:

  1. Attend events, but with many hostile pre-conceptions (have heard bad things).

  2. Attend events, but were already pre-disposed to like OA (know it all already).

  3. Attend events when they didn't know what OA was before (the best kind of attendee).

  4. Do not attend events because of hostile pre-conceptions (“I am going to ignore this imposition until it goes away”).

  5. Do not attend events because they are sick of OA (saturation).

  6. Do not attend events because they already know it (or think they know it).

This is hardly a comprehensive typology, but it gives us a start. The challenges are:

  1. To dispel hostile and erroneous pre-conceptions without letting them dominate the event (type #1).

  2. To ensure that over-enthusiasm from existing converts doesn't make OA appear cult-ish (#2). This must also involve genuine critical discussion.

  3. To maximise new attendees (type #3).

  4. To find ways to ensure that types #4, #5 and #6 are still reached by events.

I do not have a full set of answers on how to tackle all these problems, but here offer some thoughts that I hope might help others in planning events.

Dispelling Hostile and Erroneous Preconceptions

Some attendees of OA week events come misinformed. This ranges from the patently false “all OA is vanity publishing” through to the more subtlety wrong “I will have to pay to publish”.

A good facilitator should have a range of responses ready to hand to ensure that these debates do not dominate discussion. If these inaccuracies are not quickly and factually dispelled, preferably with references to reputable OA literature (faculty can be very stubborn in persisting with a line of argument), newcomers may leave with fear, uncertainty and doubt about OA.

This is not to say that anti-OA sentiment should be shut down, which brings me to the next area...

Ensuring that the Event is Critical

The term “critical thinking” is surely overused to the point of near-meaninglessness. However, OA advocates have it in them to sometimes wish to suppress the discussions that occur within our groups in front of newcomers. For instance, the green vs. gold debate. Likewise, there are ways in which the rise of the language of “transparency” and “openness” might be seen as part of a movement towards a universal discourse of economisation, or “neoliberalism” as some term it.

It is important that there is scope to critically explore these issues at OA week events, even while believing OA to be an ultimately desirable state. Academic researchers are far more likely to engage with a robust intellectual discussion than to being preached at or to being given a purely practical set of steps to “achieve OA”.

In other words: OA Week events should try, in my view, to avoid exuding a cult-ish positivity, even while they extol the virtues of open dissemination.

Maximising New Attendees and Reaching Beyond the Library

There is no single, sure-fire way to reach new audiences or to counter saturation, but I have a range of ideas that may help. The first is to avoid the phrase “open access” too much when publicising events. While this may sound strange, in certain cultures, like the UK, where OA is mandated by centralised funders, the term has reached saturation. Indeed, although we are only really at the start of an OA transformation, some researchers are sick of hearing the words (even while, I contend, they would still benefit from attending an OA Week event). On the other hand, those who are hostile to OA out of misconceptions may simply not attend if the event is about something on which they have already made up their minds. Re-pitching the event as being about publishing, the reach of work or dissemination to alternative/new audiences may go some way towards mitigating this.

The other aspect that may be worth considering is how the event can be distributed around a campus. Researchers are, I'm afraid to say, often more persuaded by one of their own, rather than librarians. Are there trusted researchers who could run an event in a school? Or, alternatively, is there a way in which OA could be presented at a faculty meeting? Are there spaces, in other words, where faculty are pre-gathered together at which OA might be raised? This mitigates the problem of relying on interested parties to assemble and may give you a captive audience.

I hope these thoughts prove useful in organizing an OA week event. OA has come such a long way but it is still the case that there are researchers who have never heard of it or wrongly fear it. We must, therefore, continue to reach new audiences, to spread the word and to refine our publication and advocacy practices.

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