Friday, 22 March 2013

... and preaching to the non converted

  After quite a long time away from this blog due to various circumstances – with work overload probably being the most convincing one – I will try to catch up with various threads in the next day ot two – and I shall start the attempt with an answer to this request for explaining what Open Access is and what its aims are I was delivered from the interesting comments section of this “Whoops! Are Some Current Open Access Mandates Backfiring on the Intended Beneficiaries?” post by Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen blog. This is my answer – I tried to keep it as concise as possible, apologies if it may still be a bit long.

I am probably too busy trying to overcome the numerous challenges that stand in the way of Open Access implementation myself to provide a too detailed and accurate description of what Open Access is and what its aims are, but I'll give it a go. Let me start by quoting the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (2002):

"The Internet has fundamentally changed the practical and economic realities of distributing scientific knowledge and cultural heritage. For the first time ever, the Internet now offers the chance to constitute a global and interactive representation of human knowledge, including cultural heritage and the guarantee of worldwide access".

According to this, Open Access means ensuring this possibility is realised, and worldwide dissemination of research outputs should indeed be a shared goal for institutions (and its libraries) and for publishers. It means that any researcher anywhere in the world may have the opportunity for the first time in history to freely share her research results (and this includes research data) with the whole research community and beyond. Whether this is achieved through the so-called Gold route (Open Access or hybrid journals) or via Open Access repositories (the Green route) is secondary to some extent - although not of course if business models are our sole concern here.

Open Access deals with the have and the have-nots (which does not just mean developed vs developing countries, but rather privileged vs underprivileged researchers in terms of having or not an institutional coverage for accessing the research information they require for carrying out their own research). And Open Access deals with whether a freely available author's final peer-reviewed manuscript might provide a useful alternative to the much-preferable version of record for those underprivileged researchers who can't or won't afford paying the fees required to read the papers that will allow them keep up-to-date with advances in their own research area.

Research funders are well aware of the challenge, especially those in the area of biomedical research, and Open Access mandates are their attempt to tackle the access issue in an area where many institutions both in rich and poor countries lack the (quite substantial) budgets required to provide their reseachers a comprehensive access to publications in toll-access journals. What about publishers? They are indeed adapting their business models to fit the Gold route by taking Article Processing Charges from authors as a prerequisite to making research papers available Open Access so they can meet the funders' mandates – which is fine. But this adaption to Open Access has not at all improved their image in the eyes of institutions (and many researchers in them), who suspect some not-so-subtle form of double-dipping is taking place since they still need to pay for their journal subscriptions on top of the APCs.

What could publishers then do to stop the fight?

The European PEER Project was a 3-yr STM Publisher Association-lead attempt to assess the impact of Open Access repositories on the 'European Research ecosystem'. This was technically carried out by delivering a large amount of final peer-reviewed author manuscripts into a cross-European institutional Open Access repository network.

Publisher participation ensured the right research article version was deposited, and the whole exercise was also useful for them: not only they were able to become aware of the relevance of sufficient metadata (a concept that CrossRef has later extended among the wider publisher community), but also to harmonise their interoperability standards through the use of the NLM DTD. Furthermore, the conclusions of the PEER project assessment carried out by CIBER Research Ltd was that not only publishers were not harmed by Open Access repositories, but rather on the contrary the paper download figures from journal pages at publisher websites were much improved by their availability as final manuscripts at repositories (since it's the version of record any researcher will prefer to read and cite unless of course they have no means to accessing it).

PEER was a one-time exercise, but it also delivered a proof of concept for cooperation between publishers and institutions in order to provide researchers the service they require for meeting the funders' mandates they are subject to. And in fact some sensible publishers are still interested – and taking subsequent steps in this direction – in delivering their authors the deposit service they require to meet the mandates. The way these sensible publishers see it, this is a means to offer researchers competitive advantages at journal selection time and will ensure a steady number of submissions in an increasingly competitive market framework for journals.

In the meantime the institutional Open Access community (which reached a critical mass quite a long time ago) is taking steps to ensure the repository systems become fit for purpose in order to meet funder requirements in terms of offering OA to the outputs of research projects funded by them. There are indeed technical as well as cultural/political challenges, in fact quite a number of them, but there is also a sustained and persistent effort to figure out the best ways to gradually address them. Institutional Research Committees are suddenly becoming aware (and this is the concern comment #2 addresses) that institutional research publishing budgets won't reach for providing Gold Open Access via payment of APCs for the whole institutional research output, so they're instead turning their eyes to their institutional Open Access repositories and wondering whether it could be the way of meeting funder mandates in a much cheaper fashion. At the same time, some funders are starting to rule hybrid journals out of their mandates for compliance purposes on order to avid the abovementioned risk of double-dipping.

The landscape keeps hastily evolving and it seems further adaption will be required both from publishers and institutions. This could ideally happen through cooperation and not through struggle, but there seem to be too many prejudices and too little efforts out there for a constructive dialogue to take place in a sustainable way.

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