Open Access in Theory and Practice: The Uses of Theory in Research on Open Access and their Relationship with Practice

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Information School


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).

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

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 will investigate the interactions between open access theory and practice. In particular, it will address 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 will investigate 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 will also investigate how OA practice has informed theory.

The project will begin 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 will also be 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 will be analysed.

The project will then go 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 will be invited to share their attitudes to theory (positive and negative), with a total of about 40 interviews being conducted. Their views will be closely 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 will address 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 will 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.

Planned Impact

The proposed project is designed to make an impact both in relation to open access and the theory-practice relationship. It is expected, for example, to:

- impact on the professional practice of library and information service providers
- influence policy development amongst research funders and other policymakers
- enhance knowledge-exchange approaches amongst research managers
- interact with the work of consultants in the area
- provide context for commercial decision making for publishers
- inform practice of researchers and educators in the LIS and beyond

The proposal directly addresses the AHRC Digital Transformations Theme and the RCUK Digital Economy Priority Area, and is therefore expected to have impact in the ways anticipated in those areas. In particular, it relates to aspects of the Digital Transformations theme including: "changes in publishing...the democratisation of scholarship and the globalisation of the knowledge economy...transformations of disciplines and inter-disciplinarity...[and] questions of access and availability..."

Direct beneficiaries are expected to be library and information service providers, policy makers and funders, knowledge-exchange managers, consultants, publishers, researchers and LIS educators. For librarians, who are often on the front line of OA development in institutions, this proposed study will contribute to a better understanding of how theory is being (and might be) used to inform their activity in, for example, improving their understanding of user behaviours in relation to OA systems, or the influence of disciplinary differences in shaping researcher OA adoption. Policymakers and funders from government-funded agencies and charities, often responsible for forming policy in relation to OA, will benefit from a greater understanding of OA in general, and also the specific issue of the relationship between theory and policy formation. Knowledge exchange managers in HE institutions and elsewhere, responsible for developing KE policies, processes and relationships, are likely to have their activities informed, particularly in relation to the KE potential of theory (often assumed to be problematical). Consultants working on OA and KE, often carrying out research themselves which generates theory (including models, frameworks etc) - although not always be labelled as such - may benefit from an exploration of the relationship of their own work with explicitly theoretically-informed content produced by researchers. Publishers, who are making commercial decisions in relation to OA, will benefit from a greater understanding of OA and the role that theory might have in helping them understand the market, customer behaviours and commercial models.

It is important to note that researchers working in LIS in particular and the Social Sciences and Humanities more generally are also key potential beneficiaries of the project (apart from the direct academic benefits above). They will benefit by having practitioners' attitudes about theory reflected back to them in such a way as can inform their own practice. Consideration of the role practitioners have (or might) in forming theory, both by contributing data in various forms and through engaging in a deeper co-production process is also important. This reflective element of the project is central in order to ensure that that the theory-practice relationship is considered from both directions. Linked to this, LIS educators, who are in a position to encourage students (future practitioners) to consider the theory-practice relationship, will have their teaching informed by the work of this project.

Beyond these specific groups, there are a number of stakeholders from a variety of sectors (commercial, public, charity and educational) who will potentially benefit from a better understanding of the OA phenomenon and how it might affect their work and also about how their activities might be informed by theory in various ways.


10 25 50
publication icon
Wakeling S (2019) The use of theory in research relating to open access: Practitioner perspectives in Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology

Description The empirical work for the project has now been completed and we are engaging in analysis of the data and writing up the conclusions. The project has identified a number of key findings in the area of the theory-practice relationship which will be reported in forthcoming publications.
Exploitation Route The findings of the project will inform understanding of the open access phenomena but also wider debate about the relationship between theory and practice and theorists and practitioners. Practitioner groups particularly interested in this research are likely to be policymakers in the relevant area, and other practitioners including publishers and librarians.
Sectors Education