Acceptance of technological changes

If Open Access to electronic versions of the peer reviewed literature is regarded as a technological change (or, an ‘invention’, in comparison with toll access), then what factors might be expected to influence the acceptance of such ‘inventions’ within a society? On the basis of his examination of the literature on technological change, Jared Diamond identified four main factors. (See Chapter 13 of “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies“, W W Norton, 2005 edition).

The four factors: 1) Relative economic advantage compared with existing technology; 2) Social value and prestige (which can override economic benefit, or lack thereof); 3) Compatibility with vested interests; 4) Ease with which the advantages of the invention can be observed.

The primary producers of the peer reviewed literature (researchers and scholars) may differ in their perspectives, about a least some of these factors, from the perspectives of the institutions that support their work (such as universities, research institutes and funding agencies).

From the perspective of individual researchers and scholars, there’s no obvious economic advantage to themselves that can be attributed to OA. For example, any extra time (or funds) required to achieve Green (or Gold) OA could instead be devoted to research or scholarship.

If OA yields economic advantages, they are likely to be achieved at levels beyond that of the individual researcher, e.g. by leading to a much more efficient and effective system for the dissemination of research outputs. The institutions that support individual investigators are much more likely to be concerned about such economic advantages than are individual researchers or scholars.

From the perspective of individual researchers and scholars, social value and prestige are linked to the indicators currently used (e.g. by promotions committees at universities and research institutes) to assess research or scholarly productivity. The journal Impact Factor (IF) continues to be the main quantitative indicator that’s used for this purpose (in spite of it’s well-known defects when used to assess the productivity of individuals, and especially, when used to compare the research outputs of individuals who have contributed to different research areas). Long-established, high-IF traditional toll-access journals have an advantage over more recently-initiated Gold OA journals. The Green Route to OA (via OA repositories) is permitted by many of these high-IF traditional toll-access journals. However, compromises must often be accepted, such as an embargo period between the date of publication and the date of OA, and/or access only to the final post-peer review postprint, rather than to the ‘version of record’.

Compatibility with vested interests is obviously an important factor. As noted above, the use of quantitative indicators (especially IFs) to assess research or scholarly productivity is deeply embedded into the policies and procedures of promotions committees at universities and research institutes, and into those of peer review committees at funding agencies.  As a consequence, whatever their personal views about how best to assess research productivity, individuals supported by these institutions must take this vested interest in such indicators into account when they consider routes of publication.

Of course, the publishers of traditional toll-access journals have an even stronger vested interest in maintaining (as much as possible) a system that they have dominated, and from which they’ve benefited, both economically and socially.

Finally, again from the perspective of individual researchers and scholars, the advantages of OA may not be easy to observe. The extent to which OA provides a citation advantage continues to be controversial, and probably varies across different research areas. The likelihood that OA increases and broadens attention to research outputs is less controversial. However, appropriate indicators (such as ‘Article-Level Metrics’, designed to provide credible multidimensional quantitative measures of the impact of individual publications) are still at an early stage of development.

Institutions that support research and scholarship may be more interested in the uses that are made of the new knowledge produced by the individuals that they have supported than are those individuals themselves. This question is asked: Has this new knowledge led to useful practical applications, of the kind that may serve to provide evidence that the public investment in the supporting institutions has yielded identifiable social or economic benefits?

If these four factors are indeed applicable to the acceptance of OA, then it’s not surprising that OA hasn’t yet become the dominant route to the quality-filtered research and scholarly literature.

How best to foster changes in the ways in which these four factors influence the acceptance of OA? So far, institutions that provide support for research (and especially, funding agencies) appear to be playing leadership roles in fostering appropriate changes. Acceptance of OA does appear to be increasing, although slowly.


1 Comment »

  1. Jim Till said

    A recent survey carried out in Canada has indicated that, within the 21 major universities from which responses to the survey were obtained, “librarians feel a strong sense of mandate to carry out open access-related activities and provide research supports, while research administrators have a lower sense of mandate and awareness and instead focus largely on assisting researchers with securing grant funding“. See: University Supports for Open Access: A Canadian National Survey by Devon Greyson, Kumiko Vézina, Heather Morrison, Donald Taylor and Charlyn Black, Canadian Journal of Higher Education 2009; 39(3).

    Comment: It’s perhaps not surprising that, within these universities, it’s the librarians, not the research administrators, who are playing the more active leadership roles in attempts to influence the acceptance of OA.

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