From Paywalls to Creative Commons

Below is one of a series of posts by participants in the 2020 Open Pedagogy Fellowship. Fellows will share their unique insights to the process of converting a syllabus to open or zero-cost resources, and/or review a workshop from the Open Educational Resources Bootcamp held in mid-January 2020.


Maria Barrera-Vilert is a doctoral student in Criminal Justice at The Graduate Center / John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). She received her bachelor’s degree in criminology and Public Prevention Policies from Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona) and her master’s degree in Criminal Justice from John Jay College (NYC). Her research interest focuses on the impact of terrorism on prevention policies in public spaces. She currently teaches Research Design and Methods at John Jay College. In her spare time Maria enjoys wandering and taking pictures.


From Paywalls to Creative Commons by Maria Barrera-Vilert 

We are so used to navigating through paywalls, upgrades and getting premium alerts with padlock icons that appear in every browser, streaming service, or magazine front page. When I was a student, seeing restrictions to access academic journals and resources, I never stopped to think about the gears behind scholarly publishing, an industry that produces massive profits for publishers at the expense of authors, reviewers, and readers.

At the back of my mind, it bothered me that the articles academics create (often through funded research), provide disproportionate profit margins for publishers, while many students and researchers cannot get access to this content. At the same time, being a young scholar who had recently entered academia, I assumed this to be part of the normal process. I would try to access the journals through the Graduate Center Library, and if the journal was not available, I would ask a friend from a different Institution to access it for me.

I recently published an article in Society (Springer) that costs $39.95 to access online (the journal subscription is $99 per year). Every time I click the link, my eyes unconsciously jump to the shiny blue button for paid access, rather than to the title and abstract of my own work. More than an academic journal website, it looks like a pop-up window, for spam. 

I did not seriously start thinking about the implications until I attended the Open Pedagogy Fellowship, and the January Bootcamp. In particular, Jill Cirasella’s presentation opened up a whole new perspective – allowing me to reflect, and do something tangible, in regards to a previously opaque process. She emphasized that the traditional system of scholarly communication is outmoded, expensive, and exploitative: how faculty give away rights and copyrights to publishers for free, who then materialize a set of enormous profits (for instance, Elsevier and Springer have higher profit margins than other big companies such as Google, Apple, BMW). They own platforms where collaboration and citation management take place, selling information to other companies by spotting new research trends. All of this is done to create opportunities for profit within the research life cycle, not to shed light upon new areas of knowledge.

The big challenge is to move from a system that benefits publishers at the expense of faculty, research grants, and students, towards an open-access alternative that is community-owned. We can hope for a values-drive version of open access that does not concentrate power among the same, high-profit publishers.

The transition is not easy. However, the vast amount of resources presented during the OER fellowship discussions make this an  attainable goal. Even within open access, there is a wide range of options. For instance, while Gold open access makes resources automatically and immediately available at no cost, without fees for authors, and usually released through Creative Commons Licenses, the Green open access allows the authors to get some rights back and post some version of their own manuscript (usually post-reviewed version). While authors are not able to share it on another person’s website or in academic social networks, they can use disciplinary repositories and their own (personal or institutional) websites.

I found particularly interesting the idea behind Creative Commons, which enables the sharing of certain rights that would otherwise be exclusive to the owner. A common misconception, which I myself previously held before entering this Fellowship, is that the author is giving up their rights by making it open access to everyone. It is about bringing back the rights to the creators and allowing them to employ their ability to grant rights to others, removing the step of needing to ask permission for usage. A focus on OA requires a change in the mentality in the way we perceive and understand scholarly publishing. 

When I converted my Research Methods course to OER (in which I heavily relied on single book that costs students around $100), I put much more energy and interest in looking out for good research articles, examples, and textbooks. To my surprise, I found a lot of quality resources, and was able to filter by discipline, licenses, and peer-reviews. Open access not only enables a fair system but also helps to be more self-aware, learn how to properly attribute people’s work (e.g. image sources), think critically, and include voices and perspectives that are frequently silenced. It allowed me to think more critically about the widespread assumption that publication fees are an indicator of a journal’s overall quality.

By offering my students open resources and creating a CUNY Academic Commons site for the course, they can access and reflect on the material in a flexible way, think critically about different perspectives, question and reflect, and engage into discussion with their classmates. All of this work to find open resources will lessen their existing financial burden of tuition, and other expenses. 

About the Author

Elvis Bakaitis is the Interim Head of Reference at the Mina Rees Library.