Unintentional Benefits of Open Access: The broader impact of making publications free


The Carleton University Library. I spent many hours here, studying, photocopying, sleeping. Photo via Emilybean

When I was in undergrad, we would photocopy articles down in the basement of MacOdrum library at my alma mater, Carleton University. You’d have to find the call number of the journal, head down into the basement, find the right row, then bookshelf, and finally discover someone had already taken the journal to photocopy it. I learned quickly to check the photocopy room first to see if someone already had the article rather than looking for it first.

But now we’ve moved into a world where everything is done electronically. Through the power of PubMed, Google Scholar and numerous others, you can obtain PDFs of many articles via your institution. And now, many of those articles are available under Open Access rules – so anyone can access them, regardless of academic affiliation.

Restrictions around accessing articles have several major consequences for those of us teaching courses in higher education. These range from the mundane, such as how it prevents us from emailing journal articles to each other, to the dramatic, in that it limits how easily we can share lecture notes and discussions with the public at large.

One of the most apparent consequences of restricted access to articles is that we can’t simply send out articles to students. While before I could get access to the class mailing list, attach the PDF and send out the article, I can (or rather, should) no longer do this. This is largely a consequence of journal subscriptions: since Universities have to pay for access to journals, they need to see which are the most popular when they make decisions. If I find a journal publishes papers that are useful teaching tools, then having all my students access it shows that their subscription should be renewed; if I was the only person to access it and then I pass that article around the journal looks unpopular even though it might be quite useful. But this is relatively minor.

For medical professionals, there are more serious benefits to papers being published under open access licences. Healthcare professionals, such as those in medicine, nursing, physical therapy and other fields can keep up to date, without having to purchase expensive articles (which can be range from $5 to $50+ each). Thus, they can keep current with their field, without having to spend a small fortune on papers. This has particular relevance for doctors who may want to learn about a new drug before making a decision about whether or not to give it to their patients. But these benefits can start even earlier. For students of these fields still in school, they can get the latest information easily, and share that information with others. This is of particular relevance for those taught using Problem Based Learning, which is where they are given a scenario and, under the guidance of a tutor, develop their knowledge about that particular condition. While they may have access through their school to some articles, they may be unable to access others.

Boalt Hall Lecture Hall

I’m assuming everyone who was supposed to be in this class is learning from home. Photo via umjanedoan

Perhaps the most drastic consequence is if we then want to make our courses and notes available to anyone. One of the great “dreams” of the internet is that anyone who wants to learn about a subject can. Sites such as SlideShare and YouTube have led to a proliferation of lectures and seminars. If you want to learn about something, odds are someone has a video or PowerPoint on the internet that you can access. I recently bought a ukulele, and through the power of YouTube and UkuleleMike, have been able to teach myself how to play a number of songs. And the same applies for science. Someone, somewhere has taught the subject you’re struggling with. With Open Access and Creative Commons, that person can have their work freely available, and still be credited for their effort (click here for a great post on the 10th Anniversary of Creative Commons by PLOS CEO Peter Jerram).

At a bigger level to this would be Massive Open Online Courses – university level courses that are available for free. It’s great for those who are tangentially interested in the material, or are at other institutions that may not have a focus on the subject you want to learn about. MOOCs are becoming very common in the higher education sphere – sites such as EdX, a non-profit led by MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley and Academic Room, from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, Duke and Carnegie Mellon, have lectures freely available for those who are interested. However, this is only possible when the source papers are freely available. If the course uses papers that can’t be freely accessed, then you can’t publish the lectures openly, and the audience is limited.

Open Access is still relatively new for those of us in higher education, and we’re still seeing just how far the reach of it can be. It’s self-evident however, that this is the way forward, and can revolutionize how we view and share information in the digital age. And with this comes its own set of challenges and problems.

How about you readers? How has open access impacted your teaching experience in higher education?

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12 Responses to Unintentional Benefits of Open Access: The broader impact of making publications free

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  4. Isma says:

    Many universties and institutions of higher learning in the developing world will benefit tremendously from Open Access. It should be applauded and supported by all.

    • Absolutely! The cost of journal subscriptions is prohibitively high for many institutions, and I imagine those in the rest of the world face even more significant barriers.

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    From the very beginning, the purpose of Open Access (OA) has been to maximize research uptake, usage, and impact. The primary intended users of research findings are researchers themselves, so they can apply and build upon it, in further research. These users grade continuously into post-docs, graduate students, undergraduate students, professionals and the general public that funds the research.

    Harnad, S. (1995) A Subversive Proposal. In: Ann Okerson & James O’Donnell (Eds.) Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads; A Subversive Proposal for Electronic Publishing. Washington, DC., Association of Research Libraries, June 1995.

    Gargouri, Y., Hajjem, C., Lariviere, V., Gingras, Y., Brody, T., Carr, L. and Harnad, S. (2010) Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research. PLOS ONE 5 (10) e13636

    • Hi Steven! Thanks for your comments. You’re right – many of the benefits of open access were completely intentional. And those benefits have a “halo effect” that manifest in ways we could never have predicted 10 years ago. The advent of YouTube, SlideShare, science blogging etc all make sharing information even easier, and because we have open access and Creative Commons, we can do it in a way that is still scientifically sound.

  9. Hi Atif,
    Medical translators are another group of unintentional beneficiaries of open access you haven’t mentioned. When we translate articles on clinical trial results we have a list of references that should give us more insight into the subject, but invariably link to pay-only access to the full articles. There may be an abstract, if we’re lucky.
    Open access would not only make our job easier, but would also improve the quality of the translation.

    • Hi Emma!
      I’d never considered medical translators as a group that would benefit from open access. But you’re absolutely right – the translation could be much more accurate if you can clarify any confusion with the source article. Thanks for your comment!