Is Open Access grassroots or top-down? Cambridge Open Access Week 2016

Cambridge University library: Open Access panel

The Open Access movement has come a long way since I started working as an Open Access journal editor in 2003: nobody then knew if OA journals would catch on or even survive, PubMed Central was still new, the first NIH and Wellcome OA policies were two years away, the Harvard mandate was still five years away. It’s a sign of how far we’ve come that this year’s Open Access Week in Cambridge debated the question, “Is Open Access a grassroots movement or a top-down imposition?”. The panel on 26 October was organised by Hannah Haines of the Office of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge and by Cambridge University Press (CUP), inspired by journalist Richard Poynder and an article published last year that asserted “Open access started at the grassroots, as a bottom-up, community-driven model of open journals and repositories but today the driving forces are commercial, institutional, and political interests.”

Chaired by Dr. Danny Kingsley, Head of Scholarly Communication at the University of Cambridge, the speakers were:

Myself, Head of Research Integrity at Hindawi;

Dr. Mark Patterson, Executive Director of eLife;

Dr. Kirstie Whitaker, a Cambridge neuroscientist and organiser of OpenCon Cam;

Stuart Lawson, a Birkbeck Ph.D. student studying the politics of Open Access and a former Research Analyst at Jisc.

We discussed policies, politics, “flipping journals”, and more, and we still didn’t get through all the submitted questions. You can watch the 90-minute discussion on YouTube, see the tweets at #OAWeekCam, and see my summary below.

What does Open Access mean to us? (3:10)

We started with a softball question. Stuart argued it was about social justice in distributing research, Kirstie said it means anyone can see the output of her work, and I recited a version of the BBB definitions, i.e. “free and immediate reading and re-use online of peer-reviewed literature with no barriers other than accessing the Internet”. Mark agreed, noting the common use of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

“Academic freedom” and Open Access (4:32)

Stuart defined academic freedom as being able to say what you like within a research context without repercussions, not the ability to publish where you choose. Individual freedom is greatest at the grassroots, but collective freedom can be increase by top-down policies. Mark questioned the term “imposition” to refer to Open Access policies and asserted that the traditional publishing system is itself an imposition on researchers, with space limitations and clunky submission systems. In contrast, funder requirements for access are “rational and reasonable”.

Have the goals of the Open Access movement changed? (7:25)

I didn’t think so and neither did Mark; we still want universal access to the peer-reviewed literature. However, strategies may have changed from a focus on green OA (self-archiving and repositories) in the US, to more of a gold OA focus in Europe, for example with the 2012 Finch Report. This changes how activists and librarians work to achieve OA, but not the goal of OA. Government interventions, particularly from the NIH, have helped drive Open Access.

How to convince early-career researchers to publish in Open Access journals? (10:14)

Can they resist the lure of the Impact Factor? Kirstie would not try despite the limitations of the IF and space constraints in traditional journals, arguing this is something more established researchers need to do and this is out of ECRs’ direct control. ECRs should still make their data and code available, and Mark highlighted using pre-prints and a number of self-interested reasons to do open science. I agree it is a brave ECR who publishes wholly OA, though this can be done, e.g. those working in Mike Eisen’s lab – Danny noted Mike writes recommendation letters explaining this publication record – and Erin McKiernan has also made an open pledge. Open Access can be a part of a diversity of publishing options and articles not published under a free license can often be self-archived. Open Access does have advantages and the impact of OA work, both judged by IF and article-level metrics, can be high: there are no space constraints in most OA journals, there are no hidden charges – some subscription journals have page fees and colour figure charges – and you can re-use figures (with attribution) without worrying about permissions. I quite forgot to mention the evidence for an Open Access advantage in readership and citations.

What is the relationship between Open Access and journal subscriptions? (18:16)

Stuart noted we’re in a transition between a fully subscription to a (hopefully) fully open state. 85% of the spending on publications in the UK is still on journal subscriptions, and most of the money paying for OA is going to traditional publishers, running hybrid journals.

How are the humanities affected by OA? (20:16)

I’ve seen louder opposition to OA in the humanities than the sciences recently, including in the UK among historians in and a literary scholar in Germany. The German OA strategy, as with the UK, allows self-archiving and German copyright law already allows non-commercial posting, so reactions that OA is an “attack on academic freedoms” and has “features of the despotic” are hyperbolic. The Article Processing Charge, a common approach to funding in STM in the last 15 years, works less well in the humanities and other models have been explored. Stuart described the approach of the Open Library of Humanities, funded and governed by a consortium of libraries.

I noted some of the concern may be due to the uncertain fate of subscription journals in an OA world, but journals can be flipped, such as happened in particle physics and was done by Hindawi with 9 Wiley journals in June this year.

What role do librarians have in promoting Open Access? (26:17)

Kirstie has realised a key role for librarians is in educating researchers in what libraries do – the stereotype is they are for stamping in and out books, forgetting that librarians also arrange online access. Early-career researchers and librarians can be “key allies” in Open Access. Mark argued open infrastructure like ORCID and Publons can be promoted by librarians. I picked up on Kirstie’s comment about managing subscriptions to highlight the role of librarians in managing institutional membership agreements with Open Access publishers.

What is the role of funders in making Open Access happen? (32:40)

We had our first question from the floor, from Paul Simpson of PLOS Medicine. Some grant outputs from funders with an OA policy are still paywalled as compliance is not always high, so are the funders really imposing? Do we need sticks as well as carrots? Mark and Kirstie applauded the tougher position of Wellcome in withholding the last 10% of the grant if the outputs are not open and making publishers comply too – see is persuaded by the moral argument for OA and it drives her “crazy bananas” to see no consequences for those not complying. Mark stretched the carrot and stick analogy to say what we need is a “really smooth road, with no boulders or pot holes in it, and the cart to have frictionless, round wheels” – having the right infrastructure in place.

Will Brexit affect research and funders in relation to Open Access? (38:34)

Stuart predicted it may mean less money for funders, leaving less for OA. Stuart and I noted currency fluctuations have already had an effect on payments, both subscription and OA, and Mark highlighted the worries for European researchers being able to work in the UK.

If Open Access is a top-down imposition, who is best placed to establish grassroots OA infrastructure? (41:35)

Stuart noted “things have to be paid for” and Mark picked up on Stuart’s earlier mention of OLH and raised SciELO, centrally funded by governments in Latin America, as a potential model. I challenged the premise of the question, noting the role of grassroots movements in getting us to the point we are at in Open Access: the Public Library of Science petition in 2000, lobbying to get PubMed Central. This was brought about by a hard fight of researchers and patient groups over two decades: the government and funders didn’t suddenly wake up and go “let’s do Open Access”. Kirstie agreed it is a success of grassroots movements to get us here and argued that it isn’t co-opting if the outcomes are the same as those wanted by the grassroots. I noted we now have publisher groups like OASPA and infrastructure like CrossRef to facilitate open publishing, and government involvement is widening – NASA will now be depositing work in a part of PMC called PubSpace.

Is a lack of direction from the top is becoming a barrier to progress? (50:15)

From the floor, Matt Day of CUP noted gold and green OA are quite separate approaches – is there a lack of direction? Stuart argued gold and green are complementary and not in opposition, but separate HEFCE and RCUK policies make it difficult for researchers and institutions – though the additional access makes this worth it. Mark hoped policies like the NIH mandate would evolve towards full Open Access, though this has not followed through.

I pointed to the resistance among publishers to both forms of OA, with publishers worried about loss of subscriptions, whereas there is little evidence that institutional repositories threaten this. You wouldn’t design the system like this, but we’re changing the engine while the car is running – we’re starting from subscriptions and green OA has helped to provide access in the transition to OA. Publishers have opposed OA journals, with myths like “it’s not peer reviewed”, “it’s communist”, and efforts like the fake grassroots campaign PRISM and the hiring of “PR pit bull” Eric Dezenhall, both in 2007. There has been a shift since then, as every big publisher has an open access division. OA2020 is a plan to flip journals worldwide, which I raised because the disagreements in the library community about this have not been about whether OA is the right goal, but how to get there. The same point was made last year by Stephen Pinfield: “current challenges now focus on how OA can be made to work in practice, having moved on from the discussion of whether it should happen at all.”

Has Open Access become a dirty word? (56:37)

When asked this by Danny before the panel, Mark looked surprised and said “no!”. Kirstie thought it is positive or neutral; OA comes below career progression and scientific achievement, but she doesn’t want people paying $50 to access a paper.

What are the objectives of funder policies? (58:44)

As Danny outlined, are they to force faculty to make outputs freely available or do they nurture a culture of sharing? I argued the point of funding research is not to have top labs get papers in high-impact journals, but to get the work read and used. OA means you don’t need to worry about logons, other researchers can build on it, those outside research can pick it up and do something useful. You don’t widen knowledge by locking it behind paywalls, only giving a few tidbits to the press. Stuart quipped that “your question is basically my Ph.D. question” and demurred: his interest is in social justice and collective sharing, and these are not the government’s reasons for supporting OA. The RCUK and HEFCE policies came out of the Finch Report, which he characterised as “written to say what David Willetts, Minister of Science, wanted it to say” – all about money, not what the research actually is. Mark highlighted Wellcome launching Wellcome Open Research for their funded researchers to publish in. Kirstie says she wants access not just to journal articles, the “story with the bow around it”, but also data and code.

The paywall is the tip of the iceberg (1:07:05)

From the floor, a Ph.D. student noted methods descriptions being lacking and no access to original data sets, not helped by funders not enforcing policies and researcher resistance. Kirstie thought the grassroots advocacy fight has moved on from OA, to fight a “lack of incentives to do science properly”. Extending mandates to open data would make research permanently useful, and this falls under the broader umbrella of open science. Kirstie’s aside that “I worry exactly no part of my day about academic fraud” made me smile, as worrying about this is a large part of my job!

Do we need publishers at all? (1:10:50)

Also from the floor, it was asked why we don’t simply post research on a server. Danny mentioned Stevan Harnad’s Subversive Proposal of 1994, which urged this. Mark agreed with the vision of dispersing functions, saying we should break down the functions of publishers (as in Jason Priem’s idea of a decoupled journal) and ask what is valuable: peer review and other quality control; improved formatting and XML; additional content like context and summaries; I added building editorial boards; developing policies. With pre-print servers, you can ask editorial boards to assess the work and run peer review, then update it on the same server – this is called an overlay journal and Tim Gowers founded one called Discrete Mathematics. Others beyond publishers may provide recommendation engines and added-value publishing services like digests to navigate the “massive sea of literature”.

I noted physics journals have co-existed with ArXiv since 1991 and overlay journals are not necessarily that radical – there is still an editorial process, only with the hosting platform centralised. In comparison, F1000 Research has public, distributed review and no editors, risking reviewers friendly to the authors giving the thumbs up. Do we want to strip everything away or have a structured assessment process and editors? Journals can be run on a shoestring, but to scale they hire in staff – and then they’re a publisher. I predicted if we got rid of publishers, scientists would reinvent them and Kirstie argued for pragmatics: we already have all these publishers, so we might as well co-opt them for how we want to publish. She felt that though peer review may be flawed we still need something like it.

Do traditional publishers have a role in an Open Access future? (1:19:29)

Andrew Hyde of CUP asked how publishers can transition from one model to the other. Stuart picked on the earlier mention of flipping journals and said he’s more interested in flipping publishers. I noted there is a precedent: Hindawi began as a subscription publisher in 1997 and completed a transition to Open Access nearly a decade ago in 2007. Hindawi has also flipped journals acquired from traditional publishers. Journals can succeed in OA where they struggled in a subscription world as these are different markets.

Should Open Access publishers make a profit? (1:24:06)

Mark said this is reasonable, but we need a more effective market, and Kirstie added that she wants more transparency around finances. Mark pointed out that subscriptions insulate researchers from costs and each subscription publisher has a mini-monopoly for that content. Article-processing charges have the potential to introduce a functioning market. The entrepreneurial approach, such as that of Vitek Tracz who founded the early OA publisher BioMed Central, is a type of grassroots. Stuart was blunt, opposing the role of capital in the system as a radical socialist.

Wrapping up (1:27:45)

Danny raised Richard Poynder’s query from Twitter, “Why has a discussion about OA become a discussion about publishers?” and answered it: infrastructure is needed for Open Access and this is now held by publishers. She summed up that the grassroots started the process of Open Access off, but it is a necessity to have top-down approaches to have OA happen more broadly – this is a sign of success. Coming from different places doesn’t matter if we end up in the same place and get OA. The answer to the question “Is OA grassroots or top-down” is “It’s both. And that’s OK.”

The text in this blog post is by Hindawi and are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Image copyright: Cambridge University Library, via YouTube.