By: Goldis Chami, medical student at the University of British Columbia; and,
Gordana Panic, recent graduate of the University of British Columbia with B.Sc. in Life Sciences
We are two students who work with the University of British Columbia’s chapter of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (http://www.uaem.org), an international student-driven organization working to ensure that university medical research is accessible to the majority of the world’s population. We became interested in open access to research publications not long after UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office implemented Global Access Licensing principles (http://www.uilo.ubc.ca/about/initiatives/global.html) which allow for greater access to technologies patented at the university to those in low- and middle-income (LMI) countries.
Once we discovered that access to journal articles was hugely restricted for the general public, journalists, policy-makers, those in smaller universities and colleges and researchers and professionals in LMI countries, we balked. Why should taxpayers fund university research, only to have to pay again to read about scientific progress in journals? At the same time, we were inspired by UAEM’s success at campaigning for Global Access Licensing principles. We thought: “If we can convince UBC to make patented technologies more accessible, why not research publications?”
In the autumn of 2009 we launched an advocacy campaign to convince major UBC student bodies to voice their support for an open access mandate for the university. To date we have received written support from the following bodies:
UBC Alma Mater Society (undergraduate students)
UBC Graduate Student Society
UBC Science Undergraduate Society
UBC Arts Undergraduate Society
UBC Pharmacy Undergraduate Society
UBC Medical Undergraduate Society
These organizations together represent nearly all of the undergraduate and graduate students at the university.
The result has been that the faculty and staff who have been working hard to promote support for an OA mandate on the campus have been given some ammunition: with more than 40,000 students on our campus, we’re hard to ignore. We were also given a key and valued voice at these discussion tables. To be able to say that the student organizations representing all of the undergraduate and graduate students on campus have formally stated their support for an OA mandate has been incredibly useful to their negotiations.
And while we single-handedly would not be able to convince the university Senate to pass an OA policy, working with the individuals who might have the ability to, and helping them reach out to students has allowed us to make valuable contributions to the process.
After reflecting on our journey, we believe that three factors have been important to our success in this campaign:
1) Understanding the issues
We spent the better part of several months learning the ins and outs of the OA movement. This was incredibly important because while we were excited about what little we knew about the ‘open access movement’, we needed to understand the issue well enough to answer most questions that would come at us.
We started online, reading as much as we could about the issue (see our resource list below). It’s fortunate that the OA movement itself is intrinsically connected to technology: what allows ‘open access’ to exist is the ability to distribute publications widely on the Internet, and the proponents of OA tend to be tech-savvy and keen to build up a plethora of online resources. As a result you can find everything from straight-forward Q&A’s for someone just starting to learn about the issue, to complex documents outlining the many financial models that support open access journals.
Mentorship and guidance are also key. We needed to hear what the important points and challenges were from those who’ve already been long-time proponents, especially those involved at our university. Additionally, it was important to be in sync with their efforts. In the course of our investigations, we spoke with many thought leaders in the open access and scholarly communications field and we are especially appreciative of the guidance we received from Anita Palepu, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Open Medicine, Joy Kirchner, UBC Librarian (Collections, Licenses & Digital Scholarship), John Willinsky Professor of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, along with help from Nick Shockey, Director of Student Advocacy for SPARC.
The assistance that these experts provided us was invaluable. They imparted to us the insights, practical knowledge, and physical tools that we needed to make our goal a reality.
2) Carefully crafting our approach
We didn’t just go out and approach student societies without carefully strategizing first. We approached some past student leaders and asked for their thoughts on strategy: they suggested that what might help get our undergraduate and graduate student societies on board would be to get smaller faculty-based student societies to pass resolutions individually first. And that’s exactly what we did: we started small and moved our way up.
Not only did this approach help give us leverage when approaching the larger student societies, it also helped us practice delivering our presentation where it was a bit less intimidating (for example, when Goldis approached the Medical Undergraduate Society, she was on home turf).
Some student societies were easier ‘wins’ than others. There was one in particular that we spent the better part of several months sending gentle follow-up emails to. We are by no means exaggerating when we tell you that more than 15 ‘follow-up’ emails were sent that went unanswered. But we absolutely needed them on board, so we persisted, resorting to phone calls to drive the point home. We learned that it’s much easier to avoid an email than it is a phone call.
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Our work is not done yet.
Our next challenge is to engage UBC administration and faculty in meaningful dialogue around this issue. We believe that such widespread student support for OA across our campus is significant, and want to leverage this to encourage the university to adopt an OA mandate in partnership with others. Our journey has been an eye-opening and rewarding experience that - we believe – has brought UBC and Canadian universities as a whole closer to adopting their own open access principles. We encourage all students who are passionate about making scholarly communication widely accessible actively to advocate for it on their campus. Naturally, you can contact us if you are interested in pursuing something similar and would like some guidance and support. It’s not a short road, but it certainly one worth pursuing.
1. The Right to Research Coalition: Student-based OA advocacy group
2. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition: international coalition for OA
3. The Access Principle by John Willinsky