That was the open access week that was

 A round-up of some of the issues that got an airing during Open Access (OA) Week and in the days that followed, including more rumination on the implementation and implications of the RCUK OA policy, more bad (and some good) publisher behaviour, ideas for new directions in OA publishing and, finally, an important African perspective on the rumbling debate. 

The start of open access week

From 22-28 October 2012 the world celebrated open access week and along with many others I played a part in getting the message out, using a mix of traditional and new-fangled ways.

Open Access article at Occam's Corner

My week kicked off with a Monday-morning blogpost at Occam’s Corner about a nicely timed paper from Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk showing that gold open access publications now account for 17% of the approximately 1.7 million research articles published in 2011. This figure, which is based on thorough and clearly-explained sampling methods, is significantly higher than previous estimates and suggests that progress in open access has reacher a higher water-mark than anyone realised.

That afternoon I participated in the Opening Research and Data meeting at Birkbeck (jointly organised by LSHTM, Birkbeck, LSE, SOAS and City University) to talk about the shape of the open access landscape following the Finch Report and the announcement of the new RCUK OA policy. There’s a video of the entire proceedings and, for the time poor, a nice summary at the City Open Access blog; (my slides are also available on Slideshare). I was particularly interested — and pained — to hear of the experiences of Antonio Gasparrini, an early career researcher who talked about the travails of trying to balance his budget with the systemic demands that he comply with OA and publish in journals that would enhance his career prospects, by which of course he meant journals with higher impact factors. I would much rather he took the advice of another speaker, Melissa Terras, who showed how a modicum of social-media driven self-promotion can get your work the attention it deserves.

Last to speak was Ben Ryan of the RCUK who sought to further clarify their new OA policy, particularly on the point that it is up to authors and institutions to choose whether to publish via green or gold OA routes (something I covered recently). In the questions that followed Ryan was also at pains to emphasise that the research councils will be putting in place measures to ensure that their funded researchers comply with the new policy, something they have done only half-heartedly, if at all, in the past. These compliance rules will apply whatever the colour of the OA route selected. It is to be hoped that they will be forceful since, as Stevan Harnad and colleagues showed this past week, the strength of green OA mandates is strongly correlated with rates of deposition.

However, Ryan was not in a position to spell out the full details of the new compliance procedures, or to give a clue as to how much RCUK will be allocating to fund its new policy which, as Ryan repeated, allows green while retaining a strong preference for gold OA. Those details should be forthcoming ‘this Autumn’.

More on the RCUK OA policy

The following Wednesday Mark Thorley sought to add further justification of the organisation’s preference for gold on the RCUK blog. It is refreshing that RCUk is engaging in this open mode of communication but the case presented was not wholly convincing. The case rests on the principle that “ideas and knowledge derived from publicly-funded research must be made available and accessible for public use, interrogation and scrutiny, as widely, rapidly and effectively as practicable”. From this principle flows the idea that payment of an APC to publishers ensure that the final peer-reviewed and formatted version of a research paper is made freely available from the date of publication and under a CC-BY licence that allows anyone or any organisation to re-use the content (so long as it is attributed), even for commercial products.

However RCUK seems to lack some conviction in either the worth of the CC-BY licence or in its right to enforce such a licence on the content of research published through the green OA route, since the policy allows RCUK-funded researchers to choose green or gold OA routes. For those who choose green OA, the RCUK feels it can only demand a CC-BY-NC licence. This still permits access to all and re-use by non-profit organisations, albeit after a maximum six-month embargo. For many users of the research literature, such a condition may well be practicable but I wonder how much confusion might be sown by justifying the declared preference for gold on the bases of a solemn principle.

Another oddity of the policy clarification is RCUK’s notion that potential readers might not be able to tell if the author’s post-review version of a paper in a green OA repository has the same content as that formatted for the journal where it is published. This is cited as another motivation for gold OA but to my mind under-estimates both the intelligence of readers and the ease with which authors can simply add a statement to the deposited version that makes its identity with the journal version clear. It also seems to forget that most publishers require authors to clearly link the deposited post-print to their journal version.

As is clear from the comment thread underneath Mark’s blogpost, I am not the only one with ongoing questions about RCUK’s direction of travel. Given the residual dissatisfaction, I don’t think this conversation is quite finished, but it is good at least that the channel of communication remains open.

Is the UK really leading on OA?

The rumbling confusion engendered by the unfolding of the RCUK policy stood in contrast to the announcement of Ireland’s new open access policy which is very green in hue, with gold being considered unnecessary but permitted should researchers or their funding agencies wish to pay for that option. The Irish policy declares itself to be based on ‘best practice’ and is compliant with policy statement from the EU, the OECD and the revised recommendations of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which were announced in September this year. Ireland’s alignment with the positions of these international organisations raises a tricky question about the UK’s claim to be in a world-leading position on OA policy, a claim re-iterated by the RCUK’s Ben Ryan at the Opening Research and Data meeting.

David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, who deserves credit for driving the UK policy on open access, said back in May that he would be having discussions with international partners. He rightly recognises that fully operational open access requires global cooperation. But we have yet to hear any reports of the progress of those discussions and given the various developments that have occurred in the last several months and the growing sense that the UK may be on a different track from most other nations, it would be good to have an update. Unfortunately, unlike Mark Thorley at RCUK, Mr Willetts is not a blogger.

The end of Open Access Week

On Thursday of Open Access Week, I tried the mod-con that is known as a Goole hangout and chatted online about OA in a PLOS-hosted event organised by Cameron Neylon. From my London office I discussed the most important events of the year gone by with Cameron in Cambridge, Mike Carroll in Washington, Heather Piwowar in Vancouver and Marina Kusko in San Fransciso. Using a technology unthinkable 10 years ago, we discussed changes to the publishing landscape that themselves used to seem unthinkable. Such is the power of the web.

You can see the whole conversation below, though be warned: it’s nearly 50 minutes long. (Such is the power of the web. ;-))

The next day I participated in an even more modern form of web-based conversation — a live twitter chat on open access organised by BioMed Central to address the questions:

Q1 – What are the main factors that have led to the steady growth of OA publishing?
Q2 – How do you think this trend will develop over the next decade, and explain why?
Q3 – What challenges does the growth of OA publishing face in ensuring that it reaches its full potential?
Q4 – Where will the funding for OA publishing come from?
Q5 – Do subscription journals offer benefits that OA journals do not?

It was fairly fast-paced but, as you might expect for something twitter-based, restricted to fairly pithy remarks. You can track the edited highlights in the Storify version (worth following all the way to the end, if only to read OpenAccessHulk’s closing remarks).

Those questions reflect both the continuing growth of OA and the continuing uncertainty attached to it. Nobody can quite figure out what the future will look like. Of course, Open Access Week was a good opportunity to think about the issues some more but even though the week is over, the debate is far from done and there have been some interesting contributions and observations since the week came to an end.

Publishers: more bad and some good behaviour

Last week the Times Higher Education magazine ran a commentary by Simon Lilley of Leicester University highlighting not only the comfortable operating profit margins (19-41%) of several major publishers (whose gross profits on journals are reckoned to be even higher) but also the fact that Informa PLC, owner of Taylor & Francis and Routledge imprints, re-organised itself in 2009 to become a Jersey company that is domiciled in Switzerland, apparently to save itself £12.3 million in tax. I guess that makes economic sense but such actions will earn these publishers no credit with the academic community in the UK. Elsevier is still struggling to restore its reputation following the debacle of the US Research Works Act.

The actions of Informa only serve to remind us of the hard-nosed attitude that some companies take to the business of publishing, however much they like to portray themselves as partners in research. They are out of kilter with the public’s sense of justice, already riled by news of the tax avoiding strategies of the likes of Starbucks, Apple and Amazon. In this case the sense of unfairness is exacerbated by the fact that Informa’s tax avoidance deprives public coffers of funds that help to pay a large fraction of the UK share of the publisher’s profits!

Not all are quite so hard-line. Deborah Kahn of BioMed Central articulated a more reasonable view of the value of the service that publishers can bring to researchers. This is clearly a move in the right direction, though all publishers still need to be mindful of charges and profits. Some in the academic community are not prepared to wait for all publishing companies to change their spots and want to take matters into their own hands. Deborah Shorley, Director of Library Services at Imperial College, argued a passionate and personal case for universities to reclaim control of the publication of the work that their researchers do, hoping that they might at the same time re-discover their original purpose. Physicist Peter Coles is doing just that and plans to launch a new open access astrophysics journal, as yet unnamed, in January 2013.

Change is coming, and at all levels. Nature Publishing Group announced during Open Access Week that it is embracing article level metrics for its Nature-branded journals. The metrics will include citation data and page views, as well as mentions of the article on social media sites. This move isn’t directly relevant to open access but it may help in swinging the tide against the mis-use of journal impact factors, which continues to act as an impediment to publication in open access titles.

And finally — the view from Africa

And finally, lest we get carried away that all the activity in Open Access Week was focused on the UK, the EU and the US and the debate about gold vs green, let me point you to this informative and poignant blogpost from Eve Gray in South Africa, who highlights out the particular challenges faced by African researchers. Controversially perhaps, she argues that green OA, favoured by many campaigners in the developed world, may not be the best solution for Africa. It is an excellent, heartfelt piece that brings an important perspective to the debate (my emphasis in bold):

…at heart [the debate] takes us back to the question of whether we are seeking access to or participation in the production of global literature. Which policy path would most effectively give voice to research from Africa, largely silenced in the current system? Access to world literature is also important, but is inadequate on its own, risking perpetuating a neo-colonial dispensation that casts the dominant North as the producer and the developing world as the consumer of knowledge.

I have come to think that the green/gold debate is in fact a distraction from dealing with more insidious issues in our research publishing systems. These include the dominance of journals at the expense of other forms of publication; the almost universal adoption of the ISI and its Impact Factor as the basis for recognition and reward; and, most insidious of all, the marginalization of great swathes of global research through the implementation of this commercialized ranking system.

I urge you to give Eve’s post the time and attention it deserves. It is a powerful reminder that open access is a global necessity and that the issue has even more dimensions than most of us realise.

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11 Responses to That was the open access week that was

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “[David Willets] rightly recognises that fully operational open access requires global cooperation. But we have yet to hear any reports of the progress of those discussions.”

    Sure it would be nice to hear reports of discussions. But I am much more excited about the stream of new open-access policies — skipping gaily past the discussion stage and getting things done. You mentioned Ireland. Belgium and Hungary have both also taken important steps. I think that the evidence at the moment is very positive as indicating that the UK’s stand has catalysed movement elsewhere in the world.

    • Stephen says:

      I take your point Mike — and apologies for overlooking developments in Belgium and Hungary — but I would still like to be reassured that the UK is participating in meaningful dialogue on OA with its international partners.

    … UK can easily regain its lead if its RCUK mandate compliance mechanism is optimized

    1. Across disciplines and nations, the immediate need for (and immediate reachability of) CC-BY (Libre) OA (free online access plus various re-use rights) falls far short of the immediate need for (and immediate reachability of) Gratis OA (free online access). (I ask those who are minded to promptly dispute this to reflect instead, first, and realistically, on both needs and means.)

    2. 100% Gratis OA can be reached, almost immediately, by (effectively) mandating Green OA immediately.

    3. There is not only no inconsistency, but a good deal of good sense, in not gratuitously raising the goal-posts unreachably high, by insisting that Green OA, too, must be CC-BY rather than just Gratis OA.

    4. (That compounding of Finch Folly would clinch the UK elimination of the UK for contention in the worldwide OA sweepstakes! Authors and publishers alike would rightly refuse to comply with this gratuitous over-reaching.)

    5. Yes, the UK — which has been the worldwide leader in OA since the outset — is currently no longer the leader, but at odds with the rest of the world, because of the publisher lobby-shaped Finch Report and the currently somnambulistic RCUK policy.

    6. However, the UK can definitely regain its leadership by optimising the RCUK OA policy as follows:

    The RCUK mandate has to be integrated with institutional mandates have the following 8 shared conditions:

    (i) immediate-deposit (even if access to the deposit is allowed to be embargoed):

    (ii) of the author’s final peer-reviewed draft

    (iii) on the date of acceptance by the journal (which is marked by a verifiable calendar date)

    (iv) and the immediate-deposit must be directly in the author’s own institutional repository (not institution-externally — central repositories can harvest from IRs)

    (v) so that immediate-deposit can be monitored and verified by the author’s institution (regardless of whether the mandate is from a funder or the institution)

    (vi) as a funding compliance condition and/or an institutional employment condition

    (vii) and institutional repository must be designated as the sole locus of deposit for submitting publications for institutional performance evaluation, funder conditions and national research assessment.

    (viii) Repository deposits must be monitored so as to generate rich and visible metrics of usage and citation, so as both to verify and reward authors for deposit and to showcase and archive the institution’s and funder’s research output and impact.

    An instance of mututally reinforcing funder and institutional policies is the FRS-FNRS policy in Belgium.

  3. Joey says:

    Thanks for posting this.. It’s been a pleasure to read 🙂

  4. I was particularly intrigued by the idea that Open Access is taking sides with internet policy. Almost as if OA is the Net Neutrality law for academic publishing. I totally relate to this idea and feel like it is the best new way (I have heard of) to draw the more angry tech audience into the discussion (not that academics aren’t fiery).

    Another thought that crossed my mind while considering the past year in open access is that the UK is gambling that the rest of the world will follow. Albeit I believe it to be a good gamble, they do run the risk of becoming the guinea pig of the international scientific community. It should be noted that the returns of OA are much much higher with increased participation. Or am I missing something?

  5. r says:

    I encountered this web site via the Biomed central blog; interesting to read, thanks!

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