Feature #02: Open Access by Geraldine Clement-Stoneham
#uklibchat are pleased to present the following guest post by Geraldine Clement-Stoneham. To continue discussing Open Access, join us for our next chat on February 5th, between 6:30-8:30pm.
For many years Open Access publishing was a topic of discussion reserved to a very small circle of enthusiasts. If anyone had told me only two years ago that the subject would make the front page of top newspapers, be on the news and attract so much attention that it generates a petition to the White House, I would have looked at them in disbelief. Not that I thought that open access wasn’t the right thing to promote, but I felt that much work was still needed to inform and convince people that the traditional model of disseminating scholarly knowledge needed changing.
So what has happened, and what is the hype about? What does it mean to “publish in open access”? Why is it so different?
At the beginning there were two key elements which triggered off the movement: the growth of the Internet as a fast way to communicate large amount of information at low cost; and the exponential increase in the costs of subscriptions.
These two factors, accompanied with a belief that public information, and therefore the outputs of publicly funded research, should be available to the public, lead the way to exploring new options for sharing scholarly findings.
And it is worth keeping in mind that any new model developed would need to respect two important elements: the peer review process, which provides assurance on the quality of the research; and the fact that researchers work in an economy of reputation – where acknowledgement and citation is directly linked to career prospects.
I don’t want to dwell too much about the history of open access, or the details of issues to be considered, as I’d rather focus on what has changed in the last few months. However, if you want a comprehensive summary of what open access is all about, I recommend the Wikipedia entry, itself one of the most beautiful example of what open access to knowledge can achieve. For a more in-depth account, Peter Suber’s recent book has become the reference source, and includes a compilation of many of the ideas he developed in his blog entries. (Note that the book is not in open access yet, but will be 12 months after publication, ie. Summer 2013).
However, for a more interactive experience, this short video, Open Access explained will give in you in less than 10 min a good snapshot at how absurd the current situation is. I recommend watching it!
So coming back to what happened in the last 12 months, and how the world gradually shifted to make open access such a hot topic, not only for librarians and researchers, but also for the mainstream press, research funders and governments.
The Cost of knowledge
Let’s get back to January 2012 and a blog post by Field Medallist and Cambridge mathematician, Tim Gower, in which he ponders on the high costs of Elsevier’s journals and the role that scientists themselves play in maintaining the status quo. Check out Alok Jah’s article in the Guardian for a good summary. Tim’s blog set the blogosphere on fire, and lead quickly to an online petition being set up to collect signatures of all those who, along Tim Gower, would make a public stand and refuse to work with Elsevier in the future. The Cost of Knowledge website attracted hundreds of signatures in no time, and today over 13000 researchers have committed in one way or another not to work with Elsevier.
The Research Works Act
So why did Gower pick on Elsevier in particular. Let’s face it, there are quite few large commercial publishers out there who have been increasing subscription prices steadily for years.
At the end of 2011, a new bill had been proposed in the US called the “Research Work Act”. In summary, the Bill was proposing to make the National Institute of Health open access policy illegal and stop it being extended to other publicly funded research in the States. As well as a the unveiling that Elsevier had supported financially the two politicians who were proposing the new bill, the American Publishers Association public letter explaining why the bill was a good idea had the tone of a declaration of war. The bad publicity turned out to be a big reputational risk for Elsevier, which eventually withdrew its support.
It was not the first petition, but in the days of social media, it made enough noise to be heard by many, and the fact that it was taking on a big player in the industry also attracted the interest of investors, not just in Elsevier, but other publishers too. Publications which only a few months ago would have never covered the topic suddenly were making it a big headline:
New York Times
Open Access policies in the UK
The discussion about economics has not been limited to assess the risk to the shareholders of large publishing companies, but has also considered the costs to innovation, the economy and society, not to have the results of publicly funded research available to all. Research, and the knowledge gained through research, is perceived to be a key element to economic recovery and growth. At the end of 2011, David Willetts, the Science Minister, announced that the results of publicly funded research should be free to access.
Recognising that some results were already available freely, a group of stakeholders’ representatives, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, was tasked to make recommendations on how to accelerate this change, whilst proposing sustainable solutions. The report was published in June 2012 and generated a lot of comment all around the world.
The government accepted all but one recommendation made in the Finch report.
Shortly after, the Research Councils published their new joint policy on open access to research outputs, which was informed by the Finch report and built on the existing RCUK Open access policy, first introduced in 2005. This was followed by a statement by DIFID, and HEFCE.
More recently, The House of Lord Science & Technology Committee announced that it would be holding a hearing in relation to the UK government and RCUK open access policy.
And only last week, the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has also announced its intention to inquire into the Government’s Open Access policy.
Whilst things were moving fast in the UK, in the US the momentum lost energy with the upcoming elections. The RWA having been withdrawn, a bill was re-introduced in support of expanding the NIH mandate to other federally funded research, and the White House is still to respond to a public petition asking for the President to make an official statement.
Recently the Natinal Institute of Health announced that they would enforce more strictly their policy, but the other large funder, the National Science Foundation (NSF), still does not have any official position on open access.
In July 2012, the European Commission issued a Communication in relation to the future funding programme Horizon2020 and a recommendation to member states recommending they put in place national open access policies.
Many universities have also been active all around the world and established institutional OA mandate. The most famous outburst of 2012 will probably remain that of Harvard University, who recognised openly that they could no longer afford to subscribe to all the journals needed by their scholars, and it was time to “move prestige to open access” (see also http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices)
Whilst many have accepted that publicly funded research outputs should be freely available, there are still many questions about how this can be achieved. Any changes to the current system will have implications for all the players involved and these can be perceived as important enough to challenge openness as a principle, particularly when big financial interests are at stake.
New opportunities arise too, and new ideas. A group of mathematicians has just announced that they would create “overlay journals” on top of ArXiv (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ArXiv) to provide an alternative to traditional publishers; PeerJ is a new OA journals which offers a life-time subscription to authors to publish; eLife is a new journal paid for by funders and free for authors to publish in; Social Science Directory is a new open access “mega journal”.
Much has to change simultaneously as open access touches on issues of copyright, intellectual property, freedom of the internet, publishers business models, researchers’ career path, etc.
No doubt we will be discussing some of these during our #uklibchat and the debate is far from being over.
Whilst I was drafting this blog, the sad news came in of the death of Aaron Swartz. Aaron was not a well-known figure to most, but an influential advocate for open access and his death brings to mind the uncomfortable reality that the principle of openness some of us value cannot be taken for granted.
Geraldine Clement-Stoneham is a knowledge manager for a large medical research funder. She tweets on open access and other KM related stuff at @geraldinecs. She writes here in a personal capacity.
This blog entry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.