What’s holding Open Access publishing back?

OpenPush.jpgAs a small business working in knowledge-intensive, research-driven areas, I’ve got first-hand experience of the frustrations caused by mainstream research publishing: you find a research paper that looks useful, but it costs $30 to read the 15 pages if you haven’t got some kind of institutional subscription. These costs keep going up, and even institutions are having to look critically at what they can afford, in what is known as the serials crisis. Recently George Monbiot stirred up a small storm by drawing attention to this — see one angry reaction, for example.

The Open Access movement in academia has been working for decades to overcome the kinds of problems I experience. As the name suggests, Open Access is committed to all research publications (and sometimes data too) being freely available to anyone for the public good. Momentum has grown in recent years as online tools have made the editorial and distribution functions of publishing much more agile. Nevertheless, there’s still a sense among many Open Access advocates that progress is stalling, or at least not nearly as rapid as it might be.

At the start of the summer I was commissioned, along with Seb Schmoller and Nicky Ferguson, to do a quick piece of work to understand why Open Access was not sweeping all before it. Given the short deadlines, the brief we were given was tightly focused: after a brief literature review, we spoke only to researchers in chemistry and economics.

This constraint was frustrating in one or two senses. Palpably, of course, our literature search was less comprehensive than it would have been had Open Access been the rule rather than the exception. But at least that didn’t prevent me finding Gale Moore’s survey of faculty awareness and attitudes towards Open Access at the University of Toronto. I was struck there by her observations:

While scholars are central, they are only one part of a scholarly communication ecosystem that includes publishers, librarians, university administrators as well as scholarly societies, associations, funding agencies and others. Today, as the economic, social and cultural landscape is being transformed by the turn to the digital that is evident in phrases such as the networked information society or the digital economy, it is timely to ask how does this turn affect scholars and other members of the scholarly communication ecosystem on which so much depends. How aware are scholars of the opportunities and challenges posed by the digital, networked environment in which they are situated, and the implications for their activities and those of others in the system? Are they aware of how the activities of others in the ecosystem affect them? [my emphasis]

“Scholarly communication ecosystem” — there’s that word again. Now here’s the real frustration. Despite this acknowledgement of the wider context of research publication, almost all the research on how to spread Open Access — including Moore’s and our own — seems to focus on researchers and not on the other players in the ecosystem.

To be fair, Nottingham’s Centre for Research Communications, who commissioned our work, have included Pro Vice Chancellors of research and Head Librarians in their own work. They report very little awareness of Open Access and its benefits among these groups. They quote one enlightened Vice Chancellor, who backs up case that the issue has been bottled up as specialist technical concern: “The issue of open access is being narrowly contained as a research issue around publications… We have been a victim of compartmentalisation.” Can you point me to research on the awareness and attitudes towards Open Access among publishers, librarians, university administrators, scholarly societies, associations and funding agencies?

As we wrote in our report, there seems to be a skew in the research on Open Access diffusion towards studying the attitudes and motivations of the “talent” in the research world, rather than the “managers” and middle (wo)men. I wonder if this is just another case of a general purblindness we have to the workings of intermediaries that leaves us unsympathetic and unappreciative of the value they add. Think of the crude musicians-versus-record-labels terms in which music industry crises are habitually framed, ignoring the wider ecosystem of publishers, managers, promoters, radio, reviewers, fan organisations.

One other key insight for me that we tried to draw out in the report is that “the main reason authors and researchers might want to make their work openly accessible — ‘to maximise their research impact’ — is also the main reason they give for having it published in journals that are not openly accessible.” There are all sorts of issues with the metrics for research impact in general and the Research Excellence Framework in particular, some of which the report touches on. However, I think I may have stumbled on one possible explanation of this paradox, through an interview with a Chemistry Professor. What became clear from talking to him was that he had a set of more nuanced ways of building his impact and reputation. It’s not surprising, really: who would imagine that a high-status career could be boiled down to a single measure? Reputation is built in multiple currencies. Some of them have a quick return on investment, others have career-long latencies. Researchers may be able to exchange between currencies, to some degree, and exchange rates vary. This is from the interview:

Speed is the deciding factor for me, especially if it’s something that I want to stake my claim and say that I’m the first one to have thought of this [laughs]. I think for the more traditional stuff I would go to the conventional journals, where I work in a specific area and I’m known there.

And this is how we interpreted it in the report:

Here there is the “pioneer” currency of reputation — the ability to plant one’s stake in new territory for future reference — and another “contributing to the tradition” currency. The former is not expected to have an immediate impact, so doesn’t need to be widely read or cited, but represents an investment with the chance of big rewards if subsequent work shows it to be important — in which case a paper in a “conventional journal” can cite it as a demonstration of prescience and cutting edge work.

If this investment, exchange and accumulation of reputation is what is most important for the research ecosystem — not just for individuals but for the institutions that both back them and trade on their reputations — then having sophisticated and accurate metrics for reputation, with these metrics embedded in incentive frameworks, could be an important lever for change.

Those are just a couple of things that particularly resonated for me. See the full report on Centre for Research Communications page or go direct to the PDF version.

Photo licensed from dullhunk under creative commons.

2 thoughts on “What’s holding Open Access publishing back?

    Yes, it is an indisputable fact that open access (OA) is not growing nearly as quickly as it can and should, despite (1) OA’s equally indisputable benefits to research, researchers, research institutions, research funders, the R&D industry, and the tax-paying public that supports the research, and despite (2) the likewise indisputable fact that 100% OA is fully and easily within the reach of the worldwide research community at no extra cost and only a extra few keystrokes’ worth of effort.
    But one of the big things holding back OA progress is calling it, thinking of it and treating it as “OA publishing.” It is not. OA means providing free online access to research journal articles, but trying to reform publishing by converting the journals into OA journals (“Gold OA”) is just one of the ways to provide OA, and certainly neither the simplest, the easiest, the surest, the fastest nor the most direct way.
    The simplest, easiest, surest, fastest and most direct way of making journal articles OA is for their authors to make them freely accessible online by self-archiving them on the web, free for all, immediately upon acceptance for publication by whatever journal they publish them in (“Green OA”).
    Yes, it still remains a puzzle — indeed a koan — why authors have not been doing this spontaneously, ever since the advent of the web, of their own accord. (Only about 20% of them have been doing so.) The persistent misconception and misrepresentation of OA as being synonymous with just Gold OA publishing is one of the reasons (“gold fever”).
    And yes, providing more information, and more accurate information, rather than misinformation to the researcher-authors and the research community certainly helps. But neither information-gathering (through researcher surveys) nor information dissemination (through researcher alerting) will solve the problem of the glacially slow growth of OA. Nor will further brain-storming among “stake-holders” — (1) researchers, (2) their institutional management, (3) their institutional libraries, (4) their research funders, (5) the tax-payers who support the research and, least of all, (6) publishers (who are not really stake-holders in OA and its benefits at all, but just service-providers trying to preserve their current, ample revenue streams while trying to avoid conflict with their authors’ expressed and perceived interests).
    The solution to the problem of authors’ slowness in providing OA spontaneously is already known, and has already been tried, tested, and proven to work: institutions (2) and funders (4) need to mandate (i.e., require) Green OA self-archiving by their researchers (1) for their own good, as well as for the good of research impact and progress: http://roarmap.eprints.org
    After 20 years of needless, cumulative loss in research impact and progress, there’s no need for still more surveys and soul-searching. The hand-writing is on the wall (not in the anecdotal musings of an individual surveyed chemist or classicist):
    Green OA self-archiving simply has to be made into official policy by the only two stake-holders in a position to do so: institutions (2) and funders (4). Librarians (3) already know this; researchers (1) are clearly waiting for an official policy from their institutions and funders, making Green OA self-archiving mandatory in the online era, otherwise they will not bother (or dare) to do it for yet another 20 years; tax-payers (5) can do nothing directly; and publishers (6) are just reluctantly along for the ride: Mandating Green OA is in the hands of the research community alone.
    Stevan Harnad
    EnablingOpenScholarship (EOS)

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