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The state of Open Access to Law in the UK and Ireland

I’ve just finished reading John Willinsky’s book The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship. In it he outlines the case for open access to academic publishing, and cites several reasons for open access. I want to highlight two:

  • Greater citation and research impact - more access means more people see your work and therefore it has the potential for greater impact. This is better for your career.
  • Cost to libraries and taxpayers - current models meant that the public pays twice for research: once for the academic to produce it (through salary or research grants) and twice (more than twice) for everyone else to access it through subscriptions (electronic or on paper) to the journal the research is produced in.

Roughly speaking, open access publishing are models based on having a freely (as in free beer) accessible copy on the web of an article, with a certain set of liberties associated with that article, usually through granting specific copyright permissions through an open content copyright licence.

I like the book and highly recommend it because it ties together a lot of material that I had previously read elsewhere all into one place, and puts it all in context. While I was already sold on the idea of open access publishing — I’m an early adopter of the Open Access Law Pledge and work on an open access law journal as well as having several open access publications — it did however make me really think about the state of open access in law in the UK, Ireland, and Europe more generally.

My thoughts are that we are in a pretty poor state of affairs over here and I would like to issue a “call to arms” on kick starting open access to law. Here is why.

Where are the UK and IE open access law journals?

I know that SCRIPTed is open access — it is online and allows publication under a variety of open content licences.   We are not the only one, but I haven’t found a comprehensive list of just UK and IE law journals.  This will be the subject of my next post on open access, but after a quick look at the following two sites, I think that we can do much better.

The Science Commons - the Creative Commons offshoot focused on open access — maintains an Open Access Law Program. As part of this project, they list law journals that follow the Open Access Law Journal Principles. There are only two publications listed as adhering to open access in the UK and none in Ireland. There are over 30 listed in the US. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) has a handful out of the 53 journals from the UK and IE.

If you are on one, please email your journal details so that this list can be built out quickly. I may be wrong — there may be tons of you out there.  But until we start to get things together, we may miss some great opportunities to work together.

UK and IE web-based journals can gain from cooperation

It has been my experience that the UK and IE law journals publishing in a web-only format (open access or not) do not try to cooperate or assist each other in any way.  I think that we could all benefit from better quality and increased reputations and more importantly citation and impact if we do so.  Here are a few ways in which we could work together:

Submission process - we could standardize the submission process to our journals to make it easier for authors to submit work.  If we all agree on a format, then there is more incentive for authors to actually adhere to that format when submitting to the journal, which saves us time when reviewing the articles.

Web development - Sharing ways to increase our search engine presence (SEO) and best practices for our sites can lead to greater impact and quality. Some of the web design, as I’ve blogged about before, is pretty poor and we need to do everything we can to present professional looking sites. Having professional sites with clean copyediting will raise our profile immensely.

Indexing - I think that this is probably THE most important area.  I’m not sure right now how people are finding our work when we publish on a web-based journal in the UK/IE/EU. I know that SCRIPTed isn’t indexed in either Westlaw or Lexis Nexis at the moment (a situation I’m hoping to change soon).  So students and staff searching on these sites won’t find us. The only way for researchers and lawyers to find our work is by a general web search (like Google Scholar) or if they already know about our journal and do a site search. If we can’t get found, we won’t get cited, and if we can’t get into someone else’s index (such as Westlaw’s), then we should just form our own.

Relevance of legal academia

I’d like to start this with asking a question:

When you publish an article in a legal academic journal, is it solely to get some points for the RAE or advance your career, or is it have an impact on the field of law?

We would have greater impact if more people read our journals — even beyond lawyers and other academics.  Make these journals accessible to the public and I firmly believe that more people will be interested in the law.  Again, I can only speak from my experience in the IP and IT field, but people are very interested in the work that we produce in this area, and would read more of it if only they can easily find it.  Working together to produce higher quality journal websites and an index service for our journals would go a long way in that regard.

One example in my experience has been with the Open Rights Group. Public interest organisations are interested in what we legal scholars are producing, but they have no access to our papers because they do not have expensive Westlaw subscriptions or educational institutional affiliations.

RAE benefits

If you are not a UK academic, I apologise for the opacity of this next part. So the next RAE is (supposedly) going to look very different, and it is certainly too late to start a revolution in open access law publishing in time for this year’s cutoff date for RAE 2008. But we can make some real changes in time for the next RAE.  Not only that, but we can raise the profile of these journals and thus help out our own careers by publishing in them. There is some pretty solid research that open access leads to greater citation, and as these journals grow, you will have a greater impact by publishing in them.

Where do we go from here? — A UK open access law conference.

I think we need our own conference or a stream at a conference to explore ways to work together on open access publishing. We can figure out what works for us, and how we can grow our journals and increase our impact.  I have a couple of suggestions on how this could take place:

  • A series of panels at BILETA 2008 in Glasgow.  BILETA is an IT and the law oriented conference.
  • A meeting or presentation at the Society of Legal Scholars Conference in 2008.

And finally, create our own conference! I suggest an Open Access Law stream at a new UK conference on open content and open access.  I’ve been in discussions with some people, and I think that a conference on open content and open access in 2008 is a real possibility.  The need is there — there is no venue for these discussions at the moment — and informally I’ve gotten some positive responses, including some with proposed financial backing.
I think that we need to see a greater push for open access to law in the UK, and we need to get together to start that push.


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