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The Difficulty of Making Students Care About Open Access

This week Gavin Baker came to talk to us and our students about open access. I wasn’t able to attend his formal talk, unfortunately, but the discussion session in the morning got me thinking… Why, when I hear that we should make sure students understand the benefits of open access, do I immediately think that it’s going to be a tough battle? After all, OA is free — students like free stuff — should be a no-brainer, right?

Wrong. Students have a hard time caring that OA is free because to them, everything is free. All our wonderful IP range subscriptions even populate Google links with juicy full text. So one answer might be to somehow make it clear which links uncover full text because the library paid through the nose for it to work that way, and which full text would be free no matter what the library does.

While there is some merit to that idea, I think there are some problems with it, too. For one thing, lots of our vendors would probably disown us if we broadcast what we pay them. They prefer to keep everyone guessing what a “good deal” actually looks like by keeping us from sharing information. But even if we could have a resource say “brought to you by your library for somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 dollars per year,” I’m not convinced this would be enough of a motivator for students to care about open access because most of them don’t realize that they’ll want access to this kind of thing later. They don’t associate “access to journal articles” with warm fuzzies, wonder, awe, or gratitude. They associate it with completing assignments. With this attitude, it makes perfect sense to them that the college would provide the materials they need to complete coursework, no matter the cost, just like the college provides professors and classrooms and projection equipment and academic support and all the other “free” things that they know full well cost money. So what we need to do is readjust the attitudes that students have about journal literature. We need to get them to associate it with something larger than coursework.

Actually, I think that it’s this problem of attitude that might be the trickiest to navigate. I spend my days trying to instill a sense of the wonder and joy of research into my students. I want them to see a great article and have them thrill to the possibilities of putting it to use. And they have to get to this point before they can possibly care that they won’t have access later, or that other people don’t have easy access now. So here I am, helping students fall in love with journal literature, but I know I also have to make the complicated move of problematizing journal publishers and arousing righteous indignation in my students that less privileged individuals simply cannot afford access to these treasure troves of research.

Combine all this with the reality that librarians (at least as we function here at my library) are almost purely opportunistic teachers, and the situation seems even more difficult. We don’t have very many built in soapboxes from which to trumpet the benefits and complexities of Open Access in any systematic way. I’m not saying it’s impossible, and I’m certainly not saying it’s not worth the effort. I’m just trying to wrap my head around the difficulties.

I’d love to learn if anyone else has been able to navigate these issues effectively.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. T Scott T Scott

    Over the years I’ve had a number of opportunities to work with students (ranging from undergrads to medical students) and, generally, I’ve found that they do care once the issues are explained. One of the things that we do is to be very explicit about the costs — we would never sign a license that bound us to not reveal what we paid for something. Most of the students I encounter haven’t had their idealism ground out of them yet, and I’ve not found it difficult to arouse their sense of injustice. What I have more difficulty with is getting them to really appreciate the complexity — that all publishers are not the same, that somehow all of this stuff does have to be paid for, that copyright protection is not inherently evil and that sometimes subscription fees are reasonable and appropriate. But starting by pointing out that pubmed is paid for by their tax dollars as a public benefit while a year of Brain Research likely costs more than the car they’re driving gets their attention.

  2. librarygoon librarygoon

    If you don’t tell them, they just assume. Why be afraid to tell them what you are doing for them and that it actually costs money! Libraries and librarians need to be out there promoting themselves unabashedly.

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