• Open Insights: Social Work and the Necessity of Open Access

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2021-01-18


Social Work and the Necessity of Open Access

An Open Insights essay by Daniel J. Dunleavy


Daniel J. Dunleavy (PhD in Social Work) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Translational Behavioral Science at Florida State University's College of Medicine. In addition to his interests in behavioral health and public health policy, he has interest in the philosophy of science, open science, meta-research, open access, and data management. He can be reached at djd09e@fsu.edu or on Twitter: @Dunleavy_Daniel. ORCID iD: 0000-0002-3597-7714.

Access to research and scholarship is essential for the practice of social work and the development of intra- and interdisciplinary knowledge. Therefore “open access” is a necessity for the field of social work to function and thrive. This post explores some of these issues and makes suggestions for how the field may make its knowledge and tools more open. The consequences of this are non-negligible, as greater access will arguably aid in solving society’s most pressing problems.

Social work: Helping people, improving society

Historically, the profession of social work has been concerned with helping society's most disenfranchised, powerless, and vulnerable persons. Originating between the late 1800s and early 1900s, the first formal social workers could be found in America's largest cities, helping "settle" European immigrants and in military veteran's hospitals following World War II. Today's social workers continue in this vein by connecting their clients with needed resources, providing counseling and therapy, and by working to build stronger communities; among many other things. 

Social workers can be found working independently or within interdisciplinary teams across diverse settings, such as hospitals and doctor's offices, homeless shelters, child welfare agencies, schools, and nursing homes. Social workers also act in a broader sense, advocating for the rights of all peoples and the betterment of society at large. In this capacity, social workers often work to shape and inform local, state, and national social welfare policies and agendas. 

The role of research in social work

Regardless of their scope or area of practice, social workers rely on research and scholarship to inform their work and decision-making. It is not uncommon for a social worker, as part of the evidence-based practice (EBP) process, to search the empirical literature in order to understand a problem or in helping identify the most effective intervention or service for the complex problems encountered in their practice – for example how to best help a client presenting with a history of trauma (who is also currently homeless) or an adolescent child presenting with a learning disability (along with an affective disorder). Similarly, a social worker may consult or assess the evidence-base for a particular program or legislative policy before advocating for its adoption and implementation (e.g. on alleviating homelessness).

Social workers not only consume scientific information, they also act as producers of research and scholarship – aiming to build a knowledge base for understanding and ameliorating various social problems (e.g. Individual Development Accounts as one instance of this). This effort can be specific to the field of social work or (frequently) done in collaboration with interdisciplinary teams (i.e. social worker researchers often work alongside those in the fields of medicine, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, etc.). This work inexorably entails engagement with and access to the scholarly corpus. 

The necessity of open access

“Access to knowledge is a human right that is closely associated with the ability to defend, as well as to advocate for, other rights.” (p. 143)

-John Willinsky

The Access Principle 

The bottom line is this: Practicing social workers need access to the scholarly literature to do effective, informed work. And access to this literature is highly variable – especially upon exiting the higher education system. The inability to access it means that clients and communities are at risk of receiving suboptimal and/or non-evidence-based services – which raises various ethical concerns.

Likewise, social work scholars need access to this literature in order to conduct informed, rigorous, and innovative research and scholarship. An inability to access it means that studies and articles will rely on only a fraction of the professional-intellectual corpus. Still further, appropriate dissemination of such research findings is brought into question by closed access – creating a potential gap between research and practice, leading (perhaps) to the promotion of avoidable ignorance across social work education and practice. 

Embracing Open Access: A challenge for social work for the 2020s

Open access creates conditions for the democratization and spread of knowledge. Despite some recent attempts the field of social work has not fully engaged with issues surrounding open access. This is worrying, given that large swaths of the (formal) social work literature are not accessible.

In this piece I have argued that open access is both essential for the field of social work to function and thrive in daily practice and more broadly for it to conduct research aimed at solving society’s most pressing problems. Because of this, I challenge the field to fully embrace open access by 2030. 

Here are five actionable steps social work stakeholders can take, to help achieve this goal:

1. Social work scholars should engage in the use of preprints and the self-archiving (e.g. postprints) of published work (including data and other materials). Relevant preprint servers for hosting this type of work include, PsyArXiv, SocArXiv, and medRxiv; which publish preprints from psychology, the social sciences, and medicine, respectively. Examples of data repositories include the Open Science Framework (OSF) and Zenodo; among many others (for a list of various options see this list).

2. Current (and future) social work journals, in addition to other modes of reform, should move toward diamond/platinum open access. Diamond/platinum open access permits readers to access the article for free, and does not involve article processing charges (APCs), by authors, to publish. Given the finite and uneven distribution of research funding generally, and the fact that much important work is not funded, a move towards this form of access would immediately make all social work scholarship more accessible. 

3. Schools of social work should embrace the use open access textbooks and resources – Not only is this particularly relevant in a new era for online education, but it makes education more accessible and affordable for students.

4. Social work educators should ensure that students (as future practitioners and researchers) not only know how to perform literature searches, but how to effectively access the literature, before graduation from university. A variety of tools exist in this regard (e.g. Open Access Button and Unpaywall)

5. Professional social work groups (e.g. the National Association of Social Workers [NASW] or Society for Social Work and Research [SSWR]) should make explicit and actionable steps towards embracing and expanding open access of its publications, materials, and other resources. Such groups have profoundly shaped the standards and practices within the field and can continue to do so in the area of open access as well.



Our thanks to Daniel J. Dunleavy, and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon! 


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