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Why going Open is critical for the future of the university

7 min read


Pedagogical innovation and support has been a much discussed topic in academia, especially at this juncture, where an increasing number of universities are discussing what the university of the future should look like. The urgency of the world’s post-secondary education needs is moving faster than universities can keep up, and hence, new models of diverse scholarship not only have to be piloted, but also modeled for mainline pedagogy and scholarship.

Academic culture that endorses and supports an open and free exchange of information, ideas, and output has the potential to not just increase research, but transform the scholarship that is an outcome of that research. Open access, which provides unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed research, has been touted as a model that will reform the scholarly publications of the world, or at least of our country, since 2002[1].

Yet, despite this grassroots movement to promote open access by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) to build unprecedented opportunities to create an open access environment, promotion and tenure committees have been slow to adopt (if at all) the output of scholarship in open access models over the traditional monograph publishing. A survey led by information scientists [6] found that 60% of the faculty respondents felt that publishing via open access would damage their chances of tenure and promotion.

From my own experiences, observations and discussions with faculty colleagues, this issue becomes more profound in disciplines such as humanities and even some social sciences where the research output has traditionally been a monographic print publication.

Preaching to the choir

Libraries have been vocal proponents of open access publishing and have tried to helm the movement of aligning open access publishing with promotion criteria into mainstream tenure processes, as well as work with faculty to ensure that open access publications get the same credibility as their mature and traditional print counterparts.

Given the rising costs of journal subscriptions [2] and the nightmare of author rights (where most authors sign away their rights to the publishing vendors), libraries have long realized that reforms in scholarly publishing are due. Their support notwithstanding, until those open access reforms and alternative models are adopted, instituted and applied by universities and faculty, these models will stay just that — models, and not policies.

New publishing also means social media

Another consideration for reimagining publishing in this digital age is how social media affects scholarly research. Instagram and Twitter rule the roost in the modes for instant exchange and flow of information and SnapChat is the de facto insta-output channel. The question of how universities and libraries can capture the research and immediate outcomes that our researchers and faculty disseminate is becoming pivotal to the advancement of research goals.

For example, a research lab outcome that was shared between two researchers using Snapchat, Instagram or Twitter could be crucial to another group of researchers in another part of the world; but without a communal platform to share this open access research or these building blocks of scholarship, the moment of collaboration is lost. Also, per traditional norms in academia, scholarship that is not in an H-index journal is not credible scholarship that can be used for furthering research in a meaningful way.

Fortunately, this entrenched mindset about scholarly publishing is increasingly coming under question by younger faculty who see the future of scholarship in a much different way than their academic forebears.

All hope is not lost

A growing number of junior faculty are experimenting with dynamic and more engaging ways to collaborate and distribute their creative scholarship. As Stevan Harnad argues in his 2003 article on the research cycle in Information Services & Use: “Researchers do research in order to make an impact — so that their findings will have maximal effect on the present and future course of learned inquiry” [3] Harnad is being joined by more and more like-minded academics to make a decisive case (and rightly so) for universities, scholarly societies and faculty to move towards publishing that is not bound by the shackles of vendors and publishers.

For instance, the California University System actively encourages faculty to publish in open access journals [4] to ensure that authors retain the rights to their works, and faculty promotion and tenure portfolios are not put at risk for publishing in open access journals.

Indeed, there is an additional case to be made for publishing on non-journal open access platforms; for example: academic writing in blogs, on websites or even in e-laboratory notebooks is on the rise. Libraries are currently making efforts to capture this data as part of e-archives and institutional repositories, but these innovative channels have yet to seep into the promotion and tenure criteria as acceptable forms of scholarship.

Moving into the future

Needless to say, there are ample questions that surround scholarship produced via these emerging channels. Yet, aren’t these the same questions that have plagued traditional print publishing (and still do)? To cite only one example, quite a few high index journals have had to, in recent years, retract articles they published when these articles became marred by controversy thanks to plagiarized data or unreproducible or flawed data [5].

Scholarship can be flawed, no matter if the publishing platform is open or closed. If anything, when scholarship is published in an open access mode, there are more eyes looking at the information and vetting it, thereby allowing for a more thorough analysis and dissection over a blind, three-person, peer-reviewed process.

Promotion and tenure committees and rank committees at universities, which are comprised of peers of the same discipline, should analyze the quality of the content and not just the h.index of the journal that it was published in, and need to be mindful that open access journals (depending on their structure) can have a peer review process which is just as stringent as that of those journals that are behind a paywall. Committees should also be conscious of the considerably higher impact of scholarship disseminated through open publishing, as it lends itself to more exposure over subscription-based journals or pricey hardcover monographs. And this should be a criterion that factors into the promotion and tenure policies.

Beyond the tenure process, each discipline’s academy also needs to consider more than just  traditional faculty research and start to look to interactive projects and experiments which could lead to new research projects. Information, when shared openly, spurs unexpected human interaction, which leads to more complex intellectual developments, and open access is the driving mechanism. Open access is just a conduit, but what it opens up is a far more robust dialogue about teaching, frameworks, interactions and inter-connected research. And that is one of the many vital things that academia needs to focus on as it shapes up for the “university of the future.”

Salwa Ismail is the department head of library information tech at Georgetown University.


  1. Open Access Directory. (2014). Timeline of the Open Access movement. [Online]. Accessed March 28, 2015 at
  2. Corbett, H. (2009). The Crisis in Scholarly Communication, Part I: Understanding the Issues and Engaging Your Faculty. Technical Services Quarterly, 26(2), 125-134. doi:10.1080/07317130802268522
  3. Harnad, S. (2003). The research‐impact cycle. Information Services & Use, 23(2/3), 139.
  4. Roscorla, T. (2013). Open Access to Scholarly Work Gains Steam in California Universities. Center for Digital Education. [Online]. Accessed March 30, 2015 at
  5. Cyranoski, D. (2014), Papers on ‘stress-induced’ stem cells are retracted. Nature News; Nature Publishing Group. doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15501
  6. Pain, E. (2007). Minds Closed to Open Access. Science, 315(5818), 1479.

This article is part of a content collaboration with eCampus News. The article also appears on eCampus Symposium.

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