One of the things that pleasantly surprised me when I came to Virginia Tech (and there are many!) is access to literature. The first day that I checked out a book for the library, I did a double-take when I saw the due date; in my University back home, students – undergraduate and graduate students alike – can only borrow a book for two weeks, and renew once. So the 6-month due date came as quite a shock, although as a faculty member I actually can borrow books for the duration of a semester. But the other thing that caught me by surprise was the number of books that I could borrow; once again, I couldn’t help but compare. I was used to students being able to borrow 5 books, faculty 25; so 150 books and 3 renewals was like heaven to me!
But that was just the tip of the iceberg. When I started navigating the library databases and accessing Google Scholar using my VT ID, it was like finding the door to Narnia. I have never been able to access so much literature; our library had limited subscriptions, and I have become used to seeing that you-do-not-have-access wall between me and full journal texts of most of the interesting studies that I find when doing research. When that changed, I felt like singing the hallelujah chorus.
It is for this reason that I found the concept of Open Access interesting. When PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola talked about the segregation of some Universities in terms of access to scholarly work, her words hit home and rang true, because I lived in that situation for years. It was difficult to bridge that need to engage in research and scholarly work as part of my role as a higher education faculty, and doing that work well with limited resources – financial and access to scholarly literature alike.
To be honest, I feel like the exorbitant costs and apparent inaccessibility of published scholarly work defeats the purpose of engaging in scholarly work to begin with. I believe that research work should be shared and disseminated as widely as possible, and the prevalent structure for accessing these articles prevents that from happening. It is therefore not surprising that when we look at University rankings around the world (not that I consider these as the be all and end all of everything), the institutions that are ranked higher are those that come from countries that can afford to provide their faculty and students with access to practically all the key, high impact journals in the fields and disciplines that the members of their community work in. For as long as the current model prevails, those institution names are not going to change.
It is interesting that I had to travel halfway across the world to gain access to material that are essentially a mouse click away. I certainly look forward to the time when scholarly work is more accessible to anyone, everywhere, and I do see the impact that Open Access, given the right model, can have on accessibility and wider dissemination of research results.