This week is Open Access Week, celebrating and promoting the importance of OA research. According to SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition):
"Open Access is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles combined with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open Access is the needed modern update for the communication of research that fully utilizes the Internet for what it was originally built to do—accelerate research."
Open access ensures that research — all of it, including the original data, and not just the final published article — is accessible to the public. Currently, much research produced by academic scholars and industry researchers is locked behind paywalls, which are only accessible if you're part of an academic institution or willing to pay anywhere from $20 - $150 for one article. For educators, journalists or researchers who don't work for a major institution, this means that accessing research is very difficult.
Also, researchers are heavily encouraged by their institutions to publish in major journals, because it reflects well on their department. However, these journals typically don't pay researchers anything for their contributions; in fact, there's often an entry fee required. Open access, while free, can help researchers break out of this old-school system of the research to publishing funnel.
A common argument against OA is that it's not as rigorously peer reviewed as many established journals. But this isn't the case, and there's a concerted effort in the research field to expand upon peer review, and let more people participate in the process.
Why is it important?
Open access is fundamental to the work we do as researchers: to be critical thinkers and writers, and conduct studies that can lead to advancements and improvements in peoples' lives. It also lets the general public access research and draw their own conclusions from original data.
What you can do
Whether you're a researcher or not, you can still participate in OA advocacy by contributing your research to OA journals, or requesting that your local library or educational institution include OA publications in their databases. Sign up at OpenAccessWeek.org.