Open Access: journey without end?

The Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, the second chamber in the UK parliament, met this week to hear evidence from various stakeholders on the implementation of government’s policy on open access.

In three separate sessions, which you can watch on Parliament TV if you have the time, they quizzed representatives of universities, of funding agencies and David WIlletts, the minister for universities and science, on the Finch Report and the roll-out of the new RCUK policy which has set a new course for open access in the UK.

House of Lords Sci & Tech Committee 2

I was only able to catch brief snatches of the proceedings and so don’t have a global view. From what I did see, it was slightly disappointing to witness so much confusion on basic points. No-one seemed to be quite sure whether the journal Science is compliant with the new RCUK policy; it is. Rick Rylance, Chair of RCUK, even suggested to the committee that the RCUK open access policy document issued last summer following publication of the Finch Report was a draft (but it wasn’t – and a clarification had to be issued later in the day).

Those errors aside I was disappointed also not to see more enthusiasm for the ground-breaking stance that the UK has adopted. Leaving aside for a moment the ongoing arguments about the detail (which I don’t wish to discount), there was little recognition of the fact that the UK has drawn a lot of attention to the issue of open access in its recent policy developments and that part of the aim of that process is to help catalyse a global transformation in scholarly publishing.

Perhaps it is the primary duty of the committee to be concerned about the impact of the policy on UK research but there was a troubling preoccupation about global university rankings and possible limitations on UK researchers’ freedom to publish in ‘top journals’. This is a further demonstration of the corrosive nature of the journal impact factor on our research culture. At no point did I hear any declarations that is it the quality of the science itself that really matters. And so the deliberations of the committee came across to me as unnecessarily parochial. It fell to Willetts in the last session to try to talk up open access as a grand project, though even he was not wholly convincing on how the delated UK preference for gold OA is going to catalyse policy transformations in the rest of the world where there is a greater inclination to green.

I was left with the sorry realisation that there remains a great deal to do to make global open access a reality.

My spirits were revived somewhat by two pieces of news from outside the committee room. The first  was about the establishment of an Open Library of Humanities, which aims “to provide an ethically sound and sustainable open access model for humanities research”. After weekend reports of extreme disgruntlement among historians on open access, some of whom see open access as a threat to academic freedom, it was heartening to see others adopt a more constructive and indeed innovative approach.

The second was an excellent blogpost from Stuart Shieber, a key OA advocate at Harvard University, who laid out a clear case for the adoption of open access by scholarly societies, many of which are troubled by the perceived loss of subscription income from their journals. Shieber’s argument is clear and insightful and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It has already elicited a reaction from Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen that, to my mind, contains more mud than real criticism.


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21 Responses to Open Access: journey without end?

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  2. Frank says:

    I don’t know about ‘Journey without end’ but it certainly seems that the OA conversation is without end. It goes round and round and round, repeating the same things. There is progress yes, but as you say it is disheartening to encounter the same tired arguments and misinformation that should have been laid to rest years ago.

    To be positive, the reactions of some in the humanities are perhaps not surprising since there has been relatively little discussion of OA there to date. Compare with the biomedical community in 1999 – see this in Science (paywalled)

    Give them a few more years and they will start to see OA is not such a threat after all.

    • Stephen says:

      No, we shouldn’t be surprised. To judge from some of the questions raised by committee members, some of whom are venerable scientists, there’s still plenty of confusion within the scientific community. It was a bit of a reality check.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      “It certainly seems that the OA conversation is without end. It goes round and round and round, repeating the same things. There is progress yes, but as you say it is disheartening to encounter the same tired arguments and misinformation that should have been laid to rest years ago.”

      It does feel like that, and it does feel discouraging. But here’s what I keep reminding myself: we are having the exact same conversations over and over, but with different people every time. The idea is spreading. But those of us on the front line don’t really see that happening precisely because we are on the front line, where the battle is still being fought.

      (I’ll stop there before I exhaust Stephen’s supply of italics.)

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  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Willetts did make one very good point in his evidence, which I’ve not seen reported. In light of the now well-established open-access citation advantage(*), British academics who are required to ensure that all their work is OA — far from being disadvantaged by the unavailability to them of a very few non-compliant journals — will in fact be at an advantage compared with non-UK researchers who continue to hide their work behind paywalls. I liked this because it was about the only time anyone giving evidence said something positive rather than merely defending against the negative.

    (*) A good summary is found in the meta-analysis of Swan (2010), which surveys 31 studies of the OA citation advantage, showing that 27 of them found an advantage of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 2.76 times as often as non-open.

  5. rpg says:

    ” more mud than real criticism”

    No change there, then :/

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  7. Ian Borthwick says:

    Question is what is the ‘end game’ for OA? Without the education that happens well in advance of this level of scholarship, what will OA to research papers achieve? The heady question of the balance of public funding for education vs research arises here – which audiences benefit from what funding, and where is it best to invest that money?

    Scientific study is based on data and hypothesis – data science is a widening area with modern tools that can offer more insight by crunching numbers, but this still needs context, skills, hypothesis, and trust (in the data, the method and the person running it) to work. That data isn’t an end in itself is increasingly being recognised; it’s just part of the process and not governed as papers are by copyright (but potentially by IP). I note a push for transparency, reproducibility, replication through use of data, but with that another argument has been to avoid (unnecessary) replication of scientific studies (and perhaps another one is arising against replication of funding for the same study?), and to hound out fraud or unethical practices.

    The deeper question of scientific integrity remains to be answered here, and again speaks more to the need for strong ethical guidance and a cultural imperative rather than a technological one.

    On the question of how can performance, or indeed ‘success’, can be measured, I note the dissatisfaction with the application of JIF, a function of citation, but formal citation still seems important to researchers, as informal citation (usage factor) increasingly seems to be. Just how new functions and metrics are applied and interpreted remains open to the same pressures as the JIF…

    As intimated above, funding science by public patronage alone can be a shaky foundation depending on who is granting it. The perennial question of value for money pops up here, and this can affect areas of pure science and scholarship – which have a much longer term gestation – more than for applied areas. Is the fight then for funding or doing what is right for different fields of science and scholarship and for wider society (if these indeed directly intersect) – nevermind impact, where’s the value?

    To conclude this little ramble, it seems to me that the core themes worth focussing on that surmount most of the arguments are for us all to focus on good scientific and scholarly practices, as well as to improve outreach and education. There are many ways to do this – including OA to research papers and opening up datasets – and so empowering choice is important. Just how this choice is made (imho) should be down to the individual, but with that they need to have confidence in the system. And that takes time, effort, and real vision to achieve.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Question is what is the ‘end game’ for OA?

      Everything open access. No more paywalls hiding research.

      Without the education that happens well in advance of this level of scholarship, what will OA to research papers achieve?

      We can’t possibly tell. That’s what makes it so exciting.

    • Stephen says:

      What a comment — deserves to be a blogpost in its own right.

      I completely agree that OA should not be seen as an end in itself. As you describe, it interacts with science, technology and society, in many different ways; the rise of the web, the constant political re-evaluation of what public science should do for the economy, the cultural value of science, the desirability of an informed populace, the pressures on scientists’ careers; those complex interactions are part of the reason why its deployment has been so retarded.

      (Apologies to researchers who are not scientists — my old habits die hard and all that has been said above applies to other areas of scholarly endeavour).

      But along with Mike, part of the appeal of OA is that it is disrupting current custom and practice, sometimes in unpredictable ways, and in doing so is causing the academic community to reconsider the way that it does things and the values it holds dear.

      To address just one point: yes, the inevitable competition between researchers will probably mean that they cling to citations as one measure of significance of their contributions to the body of knowledge but that would still be a step forward from the over-reliance on journal impact factors which, I hope I need not repeat too many more times, are a poor indicator of individuals or their work.

  8. Uutra Stanos says:

    OA != informed populous, scientific engagement, public access to science

    The whole “debate” is just back-patting scientists telling each other of their heroic deed of publishing in PLoS ONE and admonishing others for not doing so. Does this make things better for the public? Was there a high demand to read this paper outside of academia? Of course not, because the public at late doesn’t read journals, they read blogs, Wikipedia, news… This “student activist” level of excitement (most notable from Mike Taylor) doesn’t address any measurable problem. But is just bounded back and forth on twitter to applause and admiration. Why my do some real outreach, go to schools as tell them why your work is great, edit Wikipedia pages, write a blog, appear at science festivals etc.

    Look at the commentators and the bloggers who perpetually advance this OA agenda, are holding petitions with hundreds of thousands of public names? Of course not, they don’t care about what the people actually want, but lets push through mandate reform regardless and “see what happens”.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      You are dead wrong. For just some of the many ways that open access to primary research improves the lives of artists, fossil preparators, independent researchers, nurses, patient groups, small businesses, teachers, translators, people with rare diseases and practical scientists in the developing world, see the site Who Needs Access?

      Instead of OA activism, you ask, “Why not do some real outreach, go to schools and tell them why your work is great, edit Wikipedia pages, write a blog, appear at science festivals etc.” We do all those things. Why would you assume an either-or?

      • Uutra says:

        I think the fact scientists put together propaganda site to tell the public it’s wrong that they don’t care about OA speaks volumes. The landing page is cringeworthy: “rhetoric, rhetoric, no figures or stats, no references, appeal to Lovejoy (think of the children!)”. Vague references to niche jobs that might benefit from the odd paper is an unconvincing argument for this national appeal to funding and government bodies to *mandate* change (by all means pour your own work into the PLoS ONE bucket).

        How would Joe Public, Sun reader respond to the headline: “NPG, Elsevier, Wiley et al. make all publications open-access!” …He’d turn to page three and then flip the paper over to see how Millwall did at the weekend, while the OA crowd sheepishly seek out a new hill to die on.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          I find it a bit surprising that you consider artists, nurses and teachers to be “niche jobs”, not to mention small businesses, people with rare diseases and practical scientists in the developing world. Do you honestly consider the needs of these people so contemptible?

        • Stephen says:

          @Uutra – Curious that you would see that site (which has plenty of links and invites contributions) as ‘propaganda’. Still not clear to me what your argument consists of.

        • Greg Burke says:

          Some of the ways I, a non-academic, have made use of open access papers in the past few months:

          Finding out about very specific things I’ve seen mentioned on science / historical documentaries, magazines. Even if I can’t understand everything in the paper, it often answers my specific question or curiosity, or gives me a sense of the evidence for different viewpoints, having failed to find what I’m seeking elsewhere;

          In arguments with people on-line, where I need a credible source to back up, debunk, or research a point made by myself or the other person. Open access reviews of research are especially useful to debunk proponents of various flavours of woo;

          When researching for blog articles on contentious issues, where readers are quick to jump on a lack of credible sources. Similarly when debunking proponents of woowoo, I’ve often found, thanks to open access, that they’ve misrepresented the sources they’ve cited.

    • Stephen says:

      “OA != informed populous, scientific engagement, public access to science”

      Very true — but it can certainly contribute to that goal, as I argued in New Scientist last year.

      Why [not] do some real outreach, go to schools [and] tell them why your work is great, edit Wikipedia pages, write a blog, appear at science festivals etc.?

      As Mike say, it is wrong to presume that OA advocates don’t also engage in these activities. You have left your comment on my blog; though it’s been a bit focused on open access these past twelve months, I do write on other topics (here and at the Guardian Science Blogs), aiming to make science (including my own) more accessible in the broadest sense. I have also spoken at science festivals and even went so far as to make a film.

      Your honour, I plead ‘not guilty’.

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