How Open-Access Scholarship Improves the Internet

Good for scholars, better for anyone who uses Wikipedia
Boston Public Library/Flickr

Updated August 6, 2013.

After a college professor writes an academic journal article, it usually has a long but vivid transit to publication. The professor sends it to a journal, where it endures rounds of reviews and edits by other academics. Eventually, it's scheduled for publication, and it waits, not yet born. Then its big day comes--it's published!--and formatted, printed, bound and mailed to subscribing institutions, and uploaded to a journal's servers. Perhaps the professor's home college or university receives the print copy, perhaps they've purchased server access, but, regardless, they pay twice: Once for the research, and once for the product of that research.*

Last week, the faculty of the University of California -- some 8,000 professors who work at the highest tier of a massive public education system -- adopted an open-access policy, making their work available to "the people of California and the world" free of charge. About 40,000 publications a year will now flow into the web's digital common, sitting in the university's online institutional repository, eScholarship.

And that, just by itself, is welcome. Instead of having to subscribe to an academic journal, or travel to a research library, hopeful readers of a UC-authored academic paper can visit eScholarship and download the paper, for free.

But the policy may be even better news for the public than it is for threadbare academics. Institutional repositories like eScholarship, intended to preserve the full academic output of a research university, nurture second-order Tupperwares of scholarship, like Wikipedia. A 2011 paper from the University of Victoria at Wellington found that, though less than a percent of any repository's articles were cited in Wikipedia, "institutional repositories were a useful source of research information to support" the free encyclopedia. The more bountiful a repository is, especially with journal-published scholarship, the more useful it could be to the site.

Without access to academic papers, Wikipedia editors have to rely on writers to create articles that they can use as sources for articles. But most bloggers and journalists don't have access to the papers, either. They end up relying on abstracts or summaries, if they are even in the habit of looking for (mostly closed) academic research in the first place. So it is that claims long vanquished in the academy flourish unchecked in the public information ecosystem. 

With open-access repositories, the highest-quality and most labor intensive research becomes the primary source for the sixth most popular website in the world, Wikipedia, as well as all the services that use big chunks of Wikipedia's structured information, like Apple's Siri and some types of Google searches. The permeability of scholarship increases.

That includes work that would not have been visible or usable to the outside world before like PhD dissertations and master's theses. Now, they can become part of the public commons. All this to say: the second-order effects of open-access, and these institutional repositories, may very well exceed the primary.

* This is simplified, of course: different disciplines treat publication differently, but fees -- imposed by for-profit publishers on not-for-profit institutions -- surround and permeate the academic publishing process.

An original version of this article mis-identified the origin of a 2011 paper on Wikipedia and institutional repositories. The paper is from New Zealand, not Australia.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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