Publish and perish

This post is part rumination and part self-indulgent whining, but it’s just enough about publishing that I can barely justify putting it on this blog.

When I started my PhD, I never intended to pursue an academic position. What I’d hoped for was some dedicated time to learn more about plain language and knowledge translation so that when I returned to my editing and communication consultancy after graduating, I’d be equipped with research evidence and, frankly, the credential to be taken seriously by the academics I was hoping to work with to make their findings more accessible.

I still don’t want an academic position. But my transition back to freelancing has been much bumpier and more tortuous than I’d expected—in fact, I still haven’t completely gotten there. I was naive to have believed that I’d simply submit my dissertation to the library and dust off my hands, neatly closing that chapter of my life. As it turns out, I still care a great deal about my research topic and the people who could be affected by it, and in trying to make my own findings more accessible, I’ve spent the past two years in a kind of para-academic purgatory I haven’t managed to escape.

So here’s the convoluted story of my attempts to get my research published. Whether you learn from my mistakes, laugh at my misfortunes, find a cause to advocate for, or simply feel less alone, I hope you get something out of this brain vomit of a blog post. (For readers who aren’t in the academic world, I’ll be explaining some concepts that many academic publishing folks will already be familiar with.)

I’m deliberately avoiding naming specific people, publications, and institutions, but if you recognize yourself and want to be explicitly credited, please let me know. 

WARNING: Writing this post was necessary and therapeutic for me, but reading it will probably be incredibly boring for you. If the topic doesn’t interest you, I dunno, click on one of my cartoons or something.

TL;DR: The academic publishing system is bollocks, especially for unaffiliated para-academics. Continue reading “Publish and perish”

Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Open for collaboration—panel discussion (Open Access Week)

The second half of the Open for Collaboration event (I summarized the first half earlier) was intended as a panel discussion—but was more like five jam-packed mini-presentations—about not only open access but also open education and open source software. The theme of the evening was, “Is it time for Canada to implement a unified open strategy for higher education?”

Juan Pablo Alperin, Publishing @ SFU and Public Knowledge Project (PKP)

Juan Pablo Alperin is a faculty member in the Canadian Institute for Studies in Publishing and has worked with PKP for almost ten years.

“Open access to knowledge doesn’t just happen,” said Alperin. “And we need to do more. Open access is only one piece of the puzzle. We have to teach openness—to get students to understand what openness is—and we have to teach the practice of openness.” These students will become future faculty who are completely comfortable in openness and will teach it to the next generation.

Alperin’s guide to teaching openness in five easy steps:

  1. Make all the readings open access.
  2. Have students annotate them openly. Using a tool like, students can comment on an article and ask each other questions online.
  3. Have students publish all their work. Alperin asks his students to get into the habit of making their scholarly work public by publishing their work anywhere online, whether it’s on a blogging platform like Blogger or WordPress, the course website, or an open-access post-publication journal like The Winnower.
  4. Give students feedback through open annotation.
  5. Have students openly review each other.

An optional sixth step is, if your teaching involves data, to use open data.

“The number of students that would have done this on their own? Probably zero,” said Alperin. But the number of students who have resisted these steps is also zero. “Students don’t have a problem with doing this,” said Alperin. “Just get them into the habit of putting their knowledge out there.”

David Ascher, VP of Product for the Mozilla Foundation

David Ascher has been at Mozilla for seven years, where he manages software projects (other than Firefox) and tries to make them as widely available as possible. Mozilla is a global nonprofit with a thousand employees and tens of thousands of volunteers, and its mission is to promote an open internet. “Mozilla has a policy of open by default,” said Ascher. Most of its programs are open for participation and critique. “We have an imperfect view of the world,” he said. “And open drives many decision-making processes and lets the world tell us why we’re wrong. Open keeps us honest.” Part of Mozilla’s work involves pushing for open standards and open policies.

One of its projects most relevant to open access are Open Badges, a micro-credentialing system that allows people to earn badges for what they learn and display these badges online as a way to show their set of skills. Any organization can use the free software and open technical standard to create and issue badges to people who have learned from them. The ever-growing list of organizations issuing badges is diverse and includes 3d GameLab, the Dallas Museum of Art, NASA, and NOAA Planet Stewards, among many others. “A lot of good work went into that,” said Ascher, referring to the Open Badges initiative. “It pushes students to learn throughout their lives, and there’s a rich community built around promoting badges.”

“For an institution, teacher, and students who get open, it can work beautifully, collaboratively,” said Ascher. “If it’s forced through because of policy, the hierarchy of badge systems reflects the hierarchy of the institution’s power structure.”

Ascher touched on the Open Source movement, which he said “got stuck on licensing and software distribution as a topic and lost track of the social, societal impact of that work.” Powerful open source software is behind a lot of what tech giants like IBM and Google have developed. These companies “follow the letter of the law,” said Ascher, “but the reality is that people don’t interact with open source software. They interact with online products and services.”

“IBM embraced open source and used it strategically,” said Ascher. Meanwhile, players in the Open Source movement have spent a lot of time fighting one another and have missed opportunities to advance the movement’s core goals.

Clint Lalonde, senior manager of open education at BCcampus

Since 2013 Clint Lalonde has been with BCcampus, which manages the Open Textbook Project on behalf of the provincial government. Open textbooks are a subset of open educational resources (OERs), which are teaching resources with Creative Commons licensing and can be freely copied, shared, modified, and reused.

However, “we can’t assume that there’s a common understanding of what it means to be open,” said Lalonde. For example, a lot of MOOCs (massive open online courses)—such as those at Coursera—have open registration but are not openly licensed. There are still copyright restrictions on the material used in those courses.

Fourteen countries around the world have made commitments to OER, said Lalonde, with the view that “publicly funded resources should be openly licensed resources. We paid for something—we should make that something as widely used as possible.”

What complicates developing a unified open strategy is that whereas in other countries, post-secondary education is considered a national responsibility, in Canada that responsibility lies with the provinces. A promising step forward is that BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan have signed a memorandum of understanding for sharing OER.

Open textbooks have thus far saved BC students more than $1 million over the past two years. “Students using OER are doing as well, maybe even better, than students using textbooks from publishers. It would be nice to make OER the default, not the exception.:

Inba Kehoe, Copyright Officer and Scholarly Communication Librarian at University of Victoria Libraries

Inba Kehoe helped create the BCOER Librarians group, which began in 2013 with the aim of building a community of practice to address the question, “Why not open?” The group shared knowledge, participated in hackfests, created guides and posters, and developed a rubric for librarians reviewing OER resources. All of the discussions are open and take place online through forums such as wikis.

At the national level, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries is pushing toward sustainable scholarly publishing, and within the organization there’s a working group dedicated to open access issues.

Internationally, the SHERPA/RoMEO database at the University of Nottingham stores publishers’ policies about self-archiving and open-access repositories. Librarians can add to the database by looking into publishers’ policies and providing the evidence to RoMEO. “Canadian publishers are not well represented,” said Kehoe. “Let’s get our publishers’ policies into this database.”

By checking the member of the Canadian Association of Learned Journals against the list of journals in the RoMEO database, Kehoe and her collaborators hope to figure out which ones are missing and start collecting the data to fill in the holes.

Back at her home institution, Kehoe oversees the Journal Publishing Service, which uses Open Journal Systems to publish twenty-eight open-access journals. “Three-quarters of them are student journals,” said Kehoe. “Students learn the publishing process and learn about open access.” Kehoe also handles faculty requests to publish research and teaching resources, as well as open access books. “We work with the bookstore, which has a print-on-demand machine,” said Kehoe. “And I ask for research funds for the editorial work and design,” which usually runs from about $2,500 to $3,000.

Rosemary (Rosie) Redfield, UBC Department of Zoology

Since 2006, Rosie Redfield has run the RRResearch blog, an open science blog. She proposed a few top-down efforts that might help openness:

1. Pressure faculty to produce open resources wherever possible

“We need policies in place to make faculty justify it if they want to work with a publisher,” said Redfield.

2. Set top-down expectations that researchers will use OER by default

“There’s inertia among faculty about using open textbooks. Put in top-down policies to make faculty explain why” they decide to use non-OA textbooks. “The material on OpenStax is completely free, and it’s just as good.”

3. Support faculty when they have copyright issues with open-access publications

Open-access publishing requires authors to accept a CC BY licence, which means that anyone can use the material, even for commercial purposes, as long as the original author is credited. “Unscrupulous publishers like Apple Academic Press will take open articles, repackage them in a glossy book, and sell the book for more than $100 online. The people who wrote the articles have no idea this is being done,” said Redfield. Often the original publication is not mentioned. “To the scientific community, it looks like the researcher is trying to self-plagiarize. Authors can’t take these presses to court. Journals don’t own copyright so can’t take them to court. We need centralized support to defend researchers’ interests when we use OA.”

4. Encourage faculty to assign coursework that goes behind the classroom

Make open access the expectation for students, not the exception. Get students used to having their work be open. Whether the work involves adding pages to Wikipedia or speaking at an Ignite event, which archives its five-minute talks on YouTube, “set an expectation that the work that students are doing for their grade are producing benefits outside the classroom.”

5. Help libraries escape the clutches of journal publishers.

Two major barriers to OA are that “big academic publishers combine strong and weak journals into exorbitantly priced bundles, and researchers protest when they lose free access to their favourite (often obscure) journal.” A possible solution is a nationwide program that gives all faculty and students at Canadian institutions free access to all paywalled journal articles.

Open for collaboration—John Willinsky on cooperation for open access (Open Access Week 2015)

For Open Access Week (October 19–25), SFU Library, UBC Library, BCcampus, and the Public Knowledge Project joined forces to host an evening of speakers and discussion about all things open. Ostensibly, the theme of the event was “Is it time for Canada to implement a unified open strategy for higher education?” but the speakers deviated from that theme quite a bit, which, in my opinion, ultimately made the evening more interesting. A summary of John Willinsky’s keynote is below. I’ll blog about the panel discussion in a separate post.

(An overly fastidious editor’s confession: I vacillated between uppercasing and lowercasing Open Access, feeling that open access as a concept is widespread enough that it doesn’t have to be capitalized. Just to be perfectly insufferable, I’ve retained the caps for the name of the movement. If you have strong feelings about this issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)


John Willinsky is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education  and the director of the Public Knowledge Project, headquartered at SFU. Award-winning author of books such as Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED, and Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End, Willinsky has been a champion of the Open Access movement for about two decades. “Open Access started to take on the name in 2001,” said Willinsky, but the idea emerged in the 1990s with the growth of the internet. “There was the sense that, if there is an internet, there should be more access to knowledge,” said Willinsky. “Information should be free, and now we have the means to begin sharing it.”

Until recently, open access has applied largely to research articles, although now more books are being made open access. “Open access means it is available to anyone,” said Willinsky, and in the past decade “We’ve had a great achievement”: Jamali and Nabavi (2015) found that 61 percent of all research articles were freely available. (Ironically, Jamali and Nabavi’s paper is not open access.)

“I have to add a qualifier,” said Willinsky. “Eighty percent of those articles are illegally posted online.”

“Fortunately, there has been very little prosecution in this,” he added.

“The movement has taken hold. The White House has a policy on open access: research supported by all federal granting agencies has to be open access. The Tri-Council in Canada [NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR] requires open access.”

Has open access had an impact on the public? “What happens when we start making these articles free? Will people care?” Willinsky cited research by Juan Pablo Alperin, who found that in Latin America, 20 to 25 percent of people who viewed peer-reviewed articles were not affiliated with universities, and Laura Moorhead, who gave doctors free access to research articles for one year and asked, “Would they be too busy to use these resources?” Moorhead found that, indeed, two-thirds of the doctors who signed up were too busy to look at research articles, but the remaining one-third consulted research to inform their practice, to confirm what they’ve known intuitively, and to resolve disagreements with their colleagues.

The next frontier, said Willinsky, is open data. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, he told us, has committed to making its patient-level information available to researchers and registering all of its clinical trials. “In the past,” said Willinsky, “pharma did not tell people about trials. They used to be very proprietary about data, which made it difficult to create generic drugs.”

“We cannot take [open data] for granted the way articles are taken for granted,” said Willinsky. The international community has to come together to develop standards that will allow us to take advantage of this open data. Personalized medicine is based on the ability to share and compile and analyze genomic data, he said, but right now we have no standards for sharing it in an interoperable way.

The spirit of cooperation that open data calls for builds on the cooperation that has helped open access succeed. “We’re no longer talking about whether open access is good,” said Willinsky, “but the final kilometre will be the biggest challenge.” Worldwide, we spend $12 billion on journal subscriptions, a number that isn’t decreasing despite open access. “We need to rethink the idea of subscription as a way to exclude,” he said. Subscription, at its birth, was a way to support the creation of a work. In 1612, when the Accademia della Crusca found that it had no money to print the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, the first dictionary of Italian, it called on people to contribute to the cost of printing in exchange for an acknowledgement in the publication. Subscribers directly supported the publisher, and this model of subscription as micro-patronage was borrowed to print similar works.

Willinsky calls on multiple stakeholders—libraries, journals, professional associations, presses, and funders—to create cooperatives that function more like this original subscription model. Some of the $12 billion we spend for subscriptions can surely be reallocated to pay for open access.

We’re seeing the first signs of how these kinds of cooperatives might work. Érudit, for example, is a consortium of universities in Quebec that makes the 130 Canadian journals in its collection available to all of those institutions’ libraries. And the Canadian Research Knowledge Network cuts a single cheque to a publisher and makes that publisher’s journal available to all member libraries. “There’s no advantage to libraries to have that knowledge locked up,” said Willinsky. “Let’s have the same cheque for subscription journals to make all of them open access, available to all Canadians and everyone in the world.”

Professional societies can also pave the way for more access: the American Association of Anthropology, for example, receives $500,000 a year in revenue from subscriptions to twenty-two journals that only library users can see. The association publishes with Wiley-Blackwell but owns its content and could work with any other publisher, including one that would support opening up access of those journals to the public, in a way that wouldn’t cost the organization anything in revenue. “The idea that we have to lock up knowledge to create value doesn’t work with research. Research is a public good like health is a public good. The quality of the whole is lost,” said Willinsky, if we divide it and put part of it behind a paywall.

“We know we have enough resources,” he said. “We are not powerless in the face of that challenge… On the basis of cooperation, we will get access to the whole.”

Authoring and delivery platforms for open educational resources (webinar)

The Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER) hosted a webinar about a few platforms for authoring and delivering open educational resources (OER). CCCOER was founded almost eight years ago to expand access to openly licensed material, support faculty choice, and improve student success. It has more than 250 member colleges in twenty-one states. The organization understands that faculty need user-friendly authoring tools, institutions had to integrate OER into their existing course management infrastructures, and students had to be able to easily search and use OER. Representatives from three OER platforms explained their tools in this webinar. I’ll cover all three, but my focus will be on Clint Lalonde’s presentation about Pressbooks Textbook, because it’s the most relevant to publishing in BC. (Slides of the session are on Slideshare.)

Courseload Engage, presented by Etienne Pelaprat, User Experience Director at Courseload Inc.

Courseload is a platform that offers students access to text-based OER, video, audio, journal articles, library content and catalogues, proprietary content, and other uploaded content through a single application that can be integrated into existing learning management systems. Courseload has the flexibility of allowing institutions to curate their own content based on learning objectives, and it manages all of the metadata (including library catalogue data and ONIX feeds). This metadata allows institutions to generate custom catalogues and course packs, and the system tracks content use via analytics that may help institutions optimize discoverability and respond to student demand to improve their learning outcomes.

PressBooks Textbook, presented by Clint Lalonde, Open Education Manager at BCcampus

BCcampus’s Open Textbook Project was launched to provide BC post-secondary students with access to free textbooks in the forty subject areas with the highest enrolment. Rather than start from scratch, said Lalonde, BCcampus wanted to take advantage of existing textbook content already in the commons. The focus would be on adaptation, although they would also create some new content.

For students, the open textbooks had to be free for students to use and retain and available in several formats. For faculty, open textbooks had to be high-quality material that would be easy to find and adapt.

Hugh McGuire had predicted that the book would merge with the web and that books would be created web first; he founded PressBooks with that idea in mind. PressBooks is an open source WordPress plugin that allows authors to write once but output in many different formats, including HTML, EPUB, and PDF.

BCcampus worked with a programmer to customize PressBooks for easy textbook authoring, and the result is the PressBooks Textbook plug-in. It works together with to allow students and faculty to annotate content. Lalonde and his team also added an application program interface (API) that facilitates searching and sharing with others on different platforms and allows the textbooks to become more than just static content. Unfortunately, Lalonde explained, PressBooks Textbook isn’t fully open source at the moment, because it relies on a proprietary PDF output engine, the license for which institutions would have to pay.

BCcampus’s next steps with this plug-in include

  • integrating accessibility features via the FLOE Project
  • finding an open source PDF engine to replace Prince XML
  • expanding the output formats to include Word-compatible ODT files.

Lalonde has blogged about PressBook Textbook’s architecture.

Open Assembly, presented by founder and CEO Domi Enders

Non-traditional students and adjunct instructors are less likely to be reached by OER initiatives because they may work remotely much of the time and are poorly integrated into an institution. As a result, they have limited access to their peer communities. Domi Enders wanted to develop open learning system that would not only give users access to OER but also give students or adjunct faculty the continuity and agency they need to remain engaged with their learning and teaching. Open Assembly can be integrated into existing learning management systems and allows users to collaborate in content curation. By offering users a space to meet and create new knowledge, it facilitates peer-to-peer learning in a way that helps remote students and faculty stay connected.

Open textbooks and the BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (webinar)

In fall 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project was launched to reduce the financial burden on post-secondary students, who spend an average of $1,200 per year on textbooks. As part of Open Education Week, BCcampus hosted a webinar about the project as well as the associated BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit, created to help people who develop learning resources to make them as accessible as possible from the outset.

Open Textbook Project (presented by Amanda Coolidge)

In 2012, the BC Open Textbook Project received a grant of $1 million to develop open textbooks for the top-forty enrolled subject areas. It received another $1 million in 2014 to create resources for skills and trades training. BC has now committed to working together with Alberta and Saskatchewan to develop and share open textbooks.

Many people think open textbooks are e-textbooks, but what makes them open is their Creative Commons (CC) license: they can be copied, modified, and redistributed for no charge. Instructors can therefore change open textbooks to suit their courses, and students are able to get these books for free. In two years the project has saved more than five thousand students over $700,000 in textbook costs.

BCcampus carried out the Open Textbook Project in three phases:

  • First, they collected existing textbooks with CC licenses and asked faculty to review them.
  • Second, they modified these books based on faculty reviews. At the end of this process, they had covered thirty-six of the top-forty subject areas.
  • Finally, they funded the creation of four textbooks from scratch.

Open textbooks are now being used in fourteen post-secondary institutions across the province, and BCcampus has eighty-one textbooks in its collection. To create these materials, they use Pressbooks, a plugin that lets you write once and publish to many different formats.

Accessibility testing (presented by Tara Robertson)

Tara Robertson helps run CAPER-BC, which provides alternate formats of learning materials to twenty institutions across the province. They specialize in accommodations, including remediating textbooks for people with print disabilities. One reason the Open Textbook Project is exciting, said Robertson, is that instead of taking something broken and fixing it, she now has the opportunity to make the textbooks accessible from the start.

Seven students with special needs volunteered to test the open textbook resources for accessibility, reading selected chapters from textbooks in five subject areas and offering feedback on their usability. Robertson also ran a focus group with five students. She found recruiting testers challenging, and she acknowledges that the students who participated in the focus group, all of whom had visual impairments, were not representative of the many students that had other print disabilities. Still, the testers offered a lot of constructive feedback.

The chapters the students reviewed each had features that might interfere with assistive technology like text-to-speech software: formatted poetry, tables, images, quizzes, and so on. Testing revealed that the software would skip over embedded YouTube videos, so the textbooks would have to include URLs; formatted poems were problematic when enlarged because readers would have to scroll to read each line; and layout sometimes led to a confused reading order.

Robertson sees the accessibility consultation with students as an ongoing process to refine accessibility best practices.

BC Open Textbook Accessibility Toolkit (presented by Sue Doner)

BCcampus has just launched an accessibility toolkit for faculty, content creators, instructional designers, and others who “don’t know what they don’t know about accessible design.” Their aim is to build faculty capacity for universal design and to highlight the distinctions between accommodations and accessibility. Accommodations involve individualizing resources and providing alternative learning options for students who identify as having a disability. If we were proactive about creating materials that were accessible from day one, we’d have no need for accommodations.

Universal design recognizes that different students learn differently—some prefer visual materials, whereas others prefer text, for example. It offers students multiple access points to the content, and it’s better for all students, not just those who register with their disability resource centre. For example, aging students may appreciate being able to enlarge text, and international students may benefit from captions to visual material.

The toolkit offers plain language guidelines for creating different types of textbook content with a student-centred focus, using user personas to inform key design concepts and best practices. It asks content developers to think about what assumptions they’re making of the end users and how those assumptions might affect the way they present the material.

It might take a bit of time for creators of some types of content to catch up with all accessibility features—for example, video and audio should, as a rule, come with transcripts, but a lot of YouTube content doesn’t, and you may run into copyright issues if you try to offer material in different formats.

The next steps for BCcampus are to incorporate the toolkit into the development process for all new open textbooks they create, to modify existing textbooks for accessibility, and to encourage the province’s post-secondary community to formally adopt these guidelines. The toolkit, like the open textbooks, are available under a CC license and can be thought of as a living document that will change and grow as different types of content (e.g., math) becomes amenable to accessible design.

Doner sees these steps as “an opportunity to create a community of practice—a new literacy skill.”


This webinar (along with others offered during Open Education Week) is archived on the BCcampus site.

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.