Why open access proponents should care about plain language

Virtually all academic research in Canada receives support from one of three federal funding agencies—the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), or Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR)—and researchers in other countries similarly depend to some extent on federal funding, whether from the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. or Research Councils UK. Advocates of open access (OA) have long argued that all of us contribute to this research as taxpayers and so should have access to its results—namely, the scholarly books and journals that report on the research—without having to pay for them. In fact, in 2007 CIHR became the first North American public research funder to mandate that all publications stemming from research it has funded must be published in an OA journal (known as “gold open access”) or archived for free use in an institutional repository (“green open access”). In fall 2013, Canada’s other two funding agencies followed suit.

There’s no question that the idea of OA is democratic and altruistic. (Whether OA can flourish given its financial constraints is another discussion.) Making peer-reviewed scholarly work available for free helps researchers broaden their reach and makes it easier for them to collaborate and build on the work of others. For the general public, free access to the latest research means that

  • people with health conditions can read up on the newest treatments
  • professionals who have left academia but still work in a related field can keep up to date
  • citizen scientists—such as hobbyist astronomers, bird watchers, mycologists, and the like—can learn from and contribute to our collective body of knowledge.

Making publications free, however, doesn’t go far enough. The way I see it, there are four levels of access, and if researchers fail to meet any one of them, they haven’t really met the overarching goal of OA, and we taxpayers are still getting shortchanged.

First level: Can readers find the work?

Discoverability, in this case, is an information science problem and falls mainly under the purview of librarians (major OA supporters), who have to make sure that their library’s catalogue links to all available OA journals and that they make their users aware of free, author-archived versions of papers published in traditional for-profit journals. However, plain language and clear communication have a role to play even at this level: authors are responsible for the title, abstract, and keywords of their articles. Journal publishers are usually reluctant to make substantive changes to the title and keywords in particular and rely on the authors to supply appropriate ones. All authors could benefit from plain language training that helps them craft succinct, unambiguous, and descriptive titles and distill their research into a handful of clear key terms that readers will likely search for.

Second level: Can readers get to the work?

Open access proponents focus mainly on this level, arguing that eliminating the price barrier would allow everyone to read and benefit from scholarly publications.

Third Level: Can Readers Read the work?

Beyond promoting standard concerns about design for readability—appropriate fonts, effective use of white space, and so on—this level should accommodate alternative formats that promote universal accessibility, including access for people with print disabilities, a demographic that will grow as the academic community continues to become more inclusive.

Fourth level: Can readers understand the work?

For the most part, language and comprehension don’t concern the OA movement, but I think they are key: who cares if your paper is available for free if it’s impenetrable? Specialized disciplines will use their own specialized language, to be sure, but scholarly writing could undoubtedly do with fewer nominalizations and less convoluted language. Researchers who publish for OA also have to understand that their audience isn’t the same as it was twenty years ago. Academics today are overloaded with information and simply don’t have the time to decipher dense writing. What’s more, OA has opened up the readership to people outside of their field and to ordinary (taxpaying) citizens who want to become more informed.

OA has an important presence in developing nations, too, where researchers often don’t have the means to pay for journal subscriptions, and clear communication is doubly important in this case. Although OA journals can be based anywhere, they’re largely published in English, and many authors in developing nations are writing in English as a foreign language. If they all model their writing on stilted, confounding academese, the problem of impenetrable scholarly language becomes self-perpetuating.

Sadly, clarity in language can be among the lowest priorities for OA publishers. As many people in scholarly publishing have pointed out, including Laraine Coates of UBC Press, free for readers doesn’t mean free to produce. Publications—particularly book-length monographs—still cost (quite a bit of) money to make, and that money has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, without being able to collect subscription fees from libraries and individual users, OA journals and publishers face more limited budgets, and many of them choose to forgo copy editing, leaving their articles riddled with stylistic and grammatical infelicities that can make a publication effectively unreadable. Peer review alone isn’t enough to ensure clarity and resolve ambiguities.

Ultimately, both open access and plain language movements have the same aim—to democratize information—and each would benefit from forging a stronger alliance with the other. I’m inspired by the story of Jack Andraka, who, at age fifteen and using resources he found online through Wikipedia, YouTube, and Google—including OA journal articles—developed a low-cost, accurate, paper-based test for a marker for pancreatic cancer. Not to take away from Andraka’s insight and resourcefulness, but I can’t help wondering how much more we could collectively accomplish if we all had access—on all levels—to the latest scholarly literature.

2 thoughts on “Why open access proponents should care about plain language”

  1. There is another level of ‘plain and obvious’, which is about re-findability. When a student or researcher opens their downloaded PDF (perhaps weeks after the browsing session) are they going to have to spend ten minutes on Google finding or (worse) constructing the citation? Journal editors need to ensure that the actual article PDF or HTML page always contains the full citation and the web URL. Many editors, especially from smaller learned society and graduate ejournals, don’t include this.

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