Open access in theory and practice

A project within the Digital Societies research group.


This project investigated the theory-practice relationship in the context of a particular issue: open-access (OA) publication and dissemination of research.

Despite Kurt Lewin’s well-known maxim “there is nothing so practical as a good theory”, there is often a gap between theory and practice. The relationship between theory and practice (and theorists and practitioners) is not always harmonious, with theory often seen as remote from practice, and theorists (usually working in academic institutions) as having little to say of relevance to practitioners (in businesses, public sector organisations and other organisations outside academia).

Making research outputs (peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters etc) publicly available for anyone to access and use is now becoming increasingly common. Many research funders worldwide now require grant holders to do so. However, open access of this sort creates numerous challenges: economic, technical, and cultural, to name just some. These challenges can be investigated in various ways, but one potentially valuable way is to develop, use and test theory in relation to OA. Theory, encompassing, as Susan Gregor puts it, “conjectures, models, frameworks, or body of knowledge”, has the potential to help analyse and explain phenomena, even offer predictions on what could happen given certain conditions, or suggest what actions should be taken to achieve intended outcomes.

This project investigated the interactions between open access theory and practice. In particular, it addressed the question of the extent to which theory has been helpful in explaining the OA phenomenon and has been used to inform action by practitioners. It is investigating the value placed on theory in research on OA by both academic researchers and practitioners (including policymakers, publishers and librarians), and the way theory has informed OA practice. It is also looking at how OA practice has informed theory.

The project started by examining how theory has already been used in relation to OA. An initial analysis of the peer-reviewed literature shows that around 20 theories have been used in various ways in research on OA. These include widely-used theories like Game Theory (derived from Applied Mathematics) and Commons Theory (from Economics). Other theories used have included Innovation Diffusion Theory (which aims to understand ways communities adopt new developments) and the Unified Theory of Acceptance and Use of Technology (which focuses on factors affecting individuals’ take-up of technologies). The ways in which OA studies have generated theory is also being covered. The ways in which theories have been used or developed, which aspects of OA they have been used to explain, and what kinds of outcomes and recommendations have resulted from the studies are being analysed.

The project then went on to conduct detailed interviews with stakeholders involved in OA, examining the value and use of theory in informing practice, and how the practice of OA feeds into theory development. Policymakers, librarians, publishers, consultants and researchers were invited to share their attitudes to theory (positive and negative), with a total of about 40 interviews being conducted. Their views were analysed using well-established thematic analysis methods and other approaches enabling a detailed picture of the theory-practice relationship relating to OA to be built up.

This project addressed these issues in order to cast light on both the open access phenomenon itself and on the theory-practice question. It is hoped in doing so it helped to contribute a better understanding of OA, currently an important and controversial area policy development, and of the relationship between theory and practice, an issue which goes to the heart of the value of academic research and its impact on real-world applications in public policy, commercial innovation and professional practice.

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