A Lunch BIT from The Reputation Society edited by Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey
The premise of Hassan Masum and Mark Tovey’s edited collection is that the internet has actively changed the way individuals and organizations are being perceived and treated. This process is an ongoing one, changing as the internet itself changes, often at bewildering speeds.
The subject of this BIT is the effect of the open access publication model on the formation of academic reputation. A few years before the book’s publication, the BIT’s author, John Willinsky, laid out a few of his thoughts on the topic in the Canadian online publication Slaw, and the article makes for a compact summary of the topic. He begins by explaining how journals built their own reputations under the print model: they gained intellectual prestige by having a distinguished board and relatively high rejection rates for submissions. A journal can then leverage that intellectual prestige into high subscription costs. The interesting thing, Willinsky writes, is that:
The actual contribution of the author’s article often ended up playing a secondary role compared to the credit the author received for getting a piece into the journal, which could well be, depending on the title, no small feat in itself. At the same time, the journal in many fields grew into the primary measure of reputation…
As you can probably guess, this model began to undergo a sea change with the advent of new publication strategies on the internet, which has allowed new journals to make their impact felt more quickly. Open access, which seeks to make some or all of a publication’s content available to readers for free, changes the whole equation of reputation, shifting the focus away from the journal’s prestige and putting it back onto the individual article’s scholarly worth:
What open access introduces into this picture–at least while only a limited proportion of the literature is open access–is the opportunity for authors to have their work evaluated, cited, and utilized by a wider readership than is experienced by comparable articles that have not been made open access. The open access article, in these circumstances, is open to a different level of scrutiny by this wider audience (and potentially through the further openness of its data and sources) and thus the reputation associated with such work might be thought of as a somewhat more reliable indicator of its worth and contribution, by virtue of this openness in the very spirit of science.
It also brings about wider dissemination, thanks to online search tools: “To search for papers on a particular topic brings up the most relevant articles no matter what journal they are in. And the articles that come up which are open access, whether through an archive or through a journal, can then be consulted in full and readily used by the researcher, whether the researcher’s library subscribes to the title or not.”
And finally, Willinsky concludes, open access has played an important role in democratizing knowledge and returning universities to their historic mission of educating and informing a wide swath of the public:
[O]pen access contributes to the broader reputation of science and scholarship as an open enterprise and public good in a digital era in which public expectations of access to information have greatly increased. Free access is the new standard for knowledge that has been publicly supported and which has been undertaken in an act of public trust, especially at a time when the reputation of the universities, with regard to the influence of commercial interests, has come under criticism. Open access would seem to offer the academic community at large a wonderful opportunity to reestablish the public mission of the universities in these often skeptical times.