Nov 27, 2013

The State of Open Access


To celebrate Open Access Week last month, we asked people four questions about the state of open access and how it's changing. Here are some in depth answers from two people working on open access: Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication and the Harvard Open Access Project, and Elizabeth Silva, associate editor at the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

How is your work relevant to the changing landscape of Open Access? What would be a successful outcome of your work in this area?

Elizabeth: PLOS is now synonymous with open access publishing, so it’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, when PLOS was founded, most researchers were not even aware that availability of research was a problem. We all published our best research in the best journals. We assumed our colleagues could access it, and we weren’t aware of (or didn’t recognize the problem with) the inability of people outside of the ivory tower to see this work. At that time it was apparent to the founders of PLOS, who were among the few researchers who recognized the problem, that the best way to convince researchers to publish open access would be for PLOS to become an open access publisher, and prove that OA could be a viable business model and an attractive publishing venue at the same time. I think that we can safely say that the founders of PLOS succeeded in this mission, and they did it decisively.

We’re now at an exciting time, where open access in the natural sciences is all but inevitable. We now get to work on new challenges, trying to solve other issues in research communication.

Peter: My current job has two parts. I direct the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC), and I direct the Harvard Open Access Project (HOAP). The OSC aims to provide OA to research done at Harvard University. We implement Harvard's OA policies and maintain its OA repository. We focus on peer-reviewed articles by faculty, but are expanding to other categories of research and researchers. In my HOAP work, I consult pro bono with universities, scholarly societies, publishers, funding agencies, and governments, to help them adopt effective OA policies. HOAP also maintains a guide to good practices for university OA policies, manages the Open Access Tracking Project, writes reference pages on federal OA-related legislation, such as FASTR, and makes regular contributions to the Open Access Directory and the catalog of OA journals from society publishers.

To me success would be making OA the default for new research in every field and language. However, this kind of success more like a new plateau than a finish line. We often focus on the goal of OA itself, or the goal of removing access barriers to knowledge. But that's merely a precondition for an exciting range of new possibilities for making use of that knowledge. In that sense, OA is closer to the minimum than the maximum of how to take advantage of the internet for improving research. Once OA is the default for new research, we can give less energy to attaining it and more energy to reaping the benefits, for example, integrating OA texts with open data, improving the methods of meta-analysis and reproducibility, and building better tools for knowledge extraction, text and data mining, question answering, reference linking, impact measurement, current awareness, search, summary, translation, organization, and recommendation.

From the researcher's side, making OA the new default means that essentially all the new work they write, and essentially all the new work they want to read, will be OA. From the publisher's side, making OA the new default means that sustainability cannot depend on access barriers that subtract value, and must depend on creative ways to add value to research that is already and irrevocably OA.

How do you think the lack of Open Access is currently impacting how science is practiced?

Peter: The lack of OA slows down research. It distorts inquiry by making the retrievability of research a function of publisher prices and library budgets rather than author consent and internet connectivity. It hides results that happen to sit in journals that exceed the affordability threshold for you or your institution. It limits the correction of scientific error by limiting the number of eyeballs that can examine new results. It prevents the use of text and data mining to supplement human analysis with machine analysis. It hinders the reproducibility of research by excluding many who would want to reproduce it. At the same time, and ironically, it increases the inefficient duplication of research by scholars who don't realize that certain experiments have already been done.

It prevents journalists from reading the latest developments, reporting on them, and providing direct, usable links for interested readers. It prevents unaffiliated scholars and the lay public from reading new work in which they may have an interest, especially in the humanities and medicine. It blocks research-driven industries from creating jobs, products, and innovations. It prevents taxpayers from maximizing the return on their enormous investment in publicly-funded research.

I assume we're talking about research that authors publish voluntarily, as opposed to notes, emails, and unfinished manuscripts, and I assume we're talking about research that authors write without expectation of revenue. If so, then the lack of OA harms research and researchers without qualification. The lack of OA benefits no one except conventional publishers who want to own it, sell it, and limit the audience to paying customers.

Elizabeth: There is a prevailing idea that those that need access to the literature already have it; that those that have the ability to understand the content are at institutions that can afford the subscriptions. First, this ignores the needs of physicians, educators, science communicators, and smaller institutions and companies. More fundamentally, limiting access to knowledge, so that rests in the hands of an elite 1%, is archaic, backwards, and counterproductive. There has never been a greater urgency to find solutions to problems that fundamentally threaten human existence – climate change, disease transmission, food security – and in the face of this why would we advocate limited dissemination of knowledge? Full adoption of open access has the potential to fundamentally change the pace of scientific progress, as we make this information available to everyone, worldwide.

When it comes to issues of reproducibility, fraud or misreporting, all journals face similar issues regardless of the business model. Researchers design their experiments and collect their data long before they decide the publishing venue, and the quality of the reporting likely won’t change based on whether the venue is OA. I think that these issues are better tackled by requirements for open data and improved reporting. Of course these philosophies are certainly intrinsically linked – improved transparency and access can only improve matters.

What do you think is the biggest reason that people resist Open Access? Do you think there are good reasons for not making a paper open access?

Elizabeth: Of course there are many publishers who resist open access, which reflects a need to protect established revenue streams. In addition to large commercial publishers, there are a lot of scholarly societies whose primary sources of income are the subscriptions for the journals they publish.

Resistance from authors, in my experience, comes principally in two forms. The first is linked to the impact factor, rather than the business model. Researchers are stuck in a paradigm that requires them to publish as ‘high’ as possible to achieve career advancement. While there are plenty of high impact OA publications with which people choose to publish, it just so happens that the highest are subscription journals. We know that open access increases utility, visibility and impact of individual pieces of research, but the fallacy that a high impact journal is equivalent to high impact research persists.

The second reason cited is that the cost is prohibitory. This is a problem everyone at PLOS can really appreciate, and we very much sympathize with authors who do not have the money in their budget to pay author publication charges (APCs). However, it’s a problem that should really be a lot easier to overcome. If research institutions were to pay publication fees, rather than subscription fees, they would save a fortune; a few institutions have realized this and are paying the APCs for authors who choose to go OA. It would also help if funders could recognize publishing as an intrinsic part of the research, folding the APC into the grant. We are also moving the technology forward in an effort to reduce costs, so that savings can be passed onto authors. PLOS ONE has been around for nearly 7 years, and the fees have not changed. This reflects efforts to keep costs as low as we can. Ironically, the biggest of the pay-walled journals already charge authors to publish: for example, it can be between $500 and $1000 for the first color figure, and a few hundred for each additional one; on top of this there are page charges and reprint costs. Not only is the public paying for the research and the subscription, they are paying for papers that they can’t read.

Peter: There are no good reasons for not making a paper OA, or at least for not wanting to.

There are sometimes reasons not to publish in an OA journal. For example, the best journals in your field may not be OA. Your promotion and tenure committee may give you artificial incentives to limit yourself to a certain list of journals. Or the best OA journals in your field may charge publication fees which your funder or employer will not pay on your behalf. However, in those cases you can publish in a non-OA journal and deposit the peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository.

The resistance of non-OA publishers is easier to grasp. But if we're talking about publishing scholars, not publishers, then the largest cause of resistance by far is misunderstanding. Far too many researchers still accept false assumptions about OA, such as these 10:

--that the only way to make an article OA is to publish it in an OA journal --that all or most OA journals charge publication fees --that all or most publication fees are paid by authors out of pocket --that all or most OA journals are not peer reviewed --that peer-reviewed OA journals cannot use the same standards and even the same people as the best non-OA journals --that publishing in a non-OA journal closes the door on lawfully making the same article OA --that making work OA makes it harder rather than easier to find --that making work OA limits rather than enhances author rights over it --that OA mandates are about submitting new work to OA journals rather than depositing it in OA repositories, or --that everyone who needs access already has access.

In a recent article in The Guardian I corrected six of the most widespread and harmful myths about OA. In a 2009 article, I corrected 25. And in my 2012 book, I tried to take on the whole legendarium.

How has the Open Access movement changed in the last five years? How do you think it will change in the next five years?

Peter: OA has been making unmistakable progress for more than 20 years. Five years ago we were not in a qualitatively different place. We were just a bit further down the slope from where we are today.

Over the next five years, I expect more than just another five years' worth of progress as usual. I expect five years' worth of progress toward the kind of success I described in my answer to your first question. In fact, insofar as progress tends to add cooperating players and remove or convert resisting players, I expect five years' worth of compound interest and acceleration.

In some fields, like particle physics, OA is already the default. In the next five years we'll see this new reality move at an uneven rate across the research landscape. Every year more and more researchers will be able to stop struggling for access against needless legal, financial, and technical barriers. Every year, those still struggling will have the benefit of a widening circle of precedents, allies, tools, policies, best practices, accommodating publishers, and alternatives to publishers.

Green OA mandates are spreading among universities. They're also spreading among funding agencies, for example, in the US, the EU, and global south. This trend will definitely continue, especially with the support it has received from Global Research Council, Science Europe, the G8 Science Ministers, and the World Bank.

With the exception of the UK and the Netherlands, countries adopting new OA policies are learning from the experience of their predecessors and starting with green. I've argued in many places that mandating gold OA is a mistake. But it's a mistake mainly for historical reasons, and historical circumstances will change. Gold OA mandates are foolish today in part because too few journals are OA, and there's no reason to limit the freedom of authors to publish in the journals of their choice. But the percentage of peer-reviewed journals that are OA is growing and will continue to grow. (Today it's about 30%.) Gold OA mandates are also foolish today because gold OA is much more expensive than green OA, and there's no reason to compromise the public interest in order to guarantee revenue for non-adaptive publishers. But the costs of OA journals will decline, as the growing number of OA journals compete for authors, and the money to pay for OA journals will grow as libraries redirect money from conventional journals to OA.

We'll see a rise in policies linking deposit in repositories with research assessment, promotion, and tenure. These policies were pioneered by the University of Liege, and since adopted at institutions in nine countries, and recommended by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the UK House of Commons Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, and the Mediterranean Open Access Network. Most recently, this kind of policy has been proposed at the national level by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. If it's adopted, it will mitigate the damage of a gold-first policy in the UK. A similar possibility has been suggested for the Netherlands.

I expect we'll see OA in the humanities start to catch up with OA in the sciences, and OA for books start to catch up with OA for articles. But in both cases, the pace of progress has already picked up significantly, and so has the number of people eager to see these two kinds of progress accelerate.

The recent decision that Google's book scanning is fair use means that a much larger swath of print literature will be digitized, if not in every country, then at least in the US, and if not for OA, then at least for searching. This won't open the doors to vaults that have been closed, but it will open windows to help us see what is inside.

Finally, I expect to see evolution in the genres or containers of research. Like most people, I'm accustomed to the genres I grew up with. I love articles and books, both as a reader and author. But they have limitations that we can overcome, and we don't have to drop them to enhance them or to create post-articles and post-books alongside them. The low barriers to digital experimentation mean that we can try out new breeds until we find some that carry more advantages than disadvantages for specific purposes. Last year I sketched out one idea along these lines, which I call an evidence rack, but it's only one in an indefinitely large space constrained only by the limits on our imagination.

Elizabeth: It’s starting to feel like universal open access is no longer “if” but “when”. In the next five years we will see funders and institutions recognize the importance of access and adopt policies that mandate and financially support OA; resistance will fade away, and it will simply be the way research is published. As that happens, I think the OA movement will shift towards tackling other issues in research communication: providing better measures of impact in the form of article level metrics, decreasing the time to publication, and improving reproducibility and utility of research.

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