Open with Purpose: Open Access Week 2020

International Open Access Week 2020 is upon us, and the need for equitable access to research has taken on a new sense of urgency. Every year, libraries celebrate Open Access week to bring attention to issues related to scholarly communications. The theme, “Open with Purpose: Taking Action to Build Structural Equity and Inclusion” is intended to get us thinking about the ways our current systems marginalize and exclude.

Banner for Open Access week. Blue background with white text that says "open with purpose: taking action to build structural equity and inclusion"

This year, we celebrate amidst a pandemic that has completely changed how we do things. Usually, immediate access to scholarly research isn’t on many people’s minds. But, research about COVID-19 has made clear the importance of open access to research. This urgency has caused several publishers to open up their content related to COVID-19 and may be accelerating the shift towards open access as the default for scholarly publishing.

Making research about COVID-19 openly available speeds up the research process by allowing more people to access the data they need to find a solution to this crisis. The CDC, UNESCO, and National Institute for Health have all compiled open access information about COVID-19 for research and educational use to assist in this effort.

However, making research available for free is not enough. In her blog post “Opening up the Margins”, April Hathcock writes, “there are so many ways in which open access still reflects the biased systems of the scholarship in which it’s found, even as it can be used to open up scholarship at the margins” (Hathcock, 2016). Open access is still exclusionary if it maintains practices that privilege the publication of white, western, academic voices and centers those perspectives.

open access logo. orange open padlock

It is no secret that COVID-19 disproportionately affects African-Americans. A quick search of “COVID-19 and African-Americans” in Google Scholar reveals tons of studies demonstrating that fact. While the pandemic has made visible the need to address social inequalities that lead to higher vulnerability in black populations, these problems are not new and the solutions cannot be found under a microscope. The people living in these areas are not the ones conducting research, and yet their perspective is invaluable to knowing how the lived experiences of oppression contribute to this tragedy.

Researchers should not treat people as objects of study but as full people whose susceptibility to the disease cannot simply be linked to genetics. To address the pandemic, we must center the experiences of those most vulnerable. With open access advocacy, we must make sure to include voices that aren’t traditionally acknowledged as scholarly and recognize how those experiences inform the research process.

“Open with Purpose” means mindfully and intentionally creating systems that invite people in. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of this movement, but the social, economic, and political viruses of racism, sexism, classism, etc. had already made this urgency visible to those who are the most marginalized. Open systems need to not only unlock research, but also to question the very structures that keep it closed to certain people in the first place and rebuild them into something better that can more fully address the world’s problems.

Best Practices Resources: The Research Clinic

Mary Homans, John Staley and Edward Till, working on a model of a proposed NYA (National Youth Administration) training camp at the Landscape Architectural School. Iowa State College. Ames, Iowa

Jack Delano, “Mary Homans, John Staley and Edward Till, working on a model of a proposed NYA (National Youth Administration) training camp at the Landscape Architectural School. Iowa State College. Ames, Iowa.” Negative. May 1942. Library of Congress collection of Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives, Accessed September 6, 2016.

As a researcher, it can sometimes be difficult to draw the line between what is and is not appropriate behavior while working with those participating in your project. That’s why the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) and the Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) created “The Research Clinic,” an interactive training video, which can help researchers learn how to protect their research participants and to avoid misconduct.

Now, it’s not quite World of Warcraft, but you choose one of four characters (my personal favorite is Megan Boyle, “a research assistant who has difficulties obtaining informed consent and following research protocols” who has a lot of student loan debt) and work through different video scenarios as that character. The goal of the program is to go back in time, and figure out what steps your character should have taken in order to have done their research ethically. The tutorial also links the viewer to optional information about aspects of the research process they need some extra information on.

“The Research Clinic” manages to mix an ethics lesson with an online game that mimics a game of whodunit with engaging humor and personality. However, in order to use it, one needs an up-to-date version of Adobe Flash Player, as well as a good Internet connection, as the videos can take time to load. “The Research Clinic” has several accessibility options, including closed captions and text voice over, as well as several keyboard shortcuts for easy movement throughout the series.

An important aspect of “The Research Clinic” is the human aspect. Each character’s story begins with some information about their life and personality, which allows you to get to know them, and to sympathize with their situation. It humanizes the researchers, and reminds the viewer that people who engage in research misconduct may not necessarily be bad people, going out of their way to tamper with evidence as they laugh manically and twist their mustache. Rather, research misconduct can occur when people are put into stressful situations and make a bad decision (or three).

The right decision may not necessarily be the easy decision, but when you’re working with human participants, taking the time to think about what you will do can make all the difference.