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Open Access Days

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I attended the German Open Access days which took place in Göttingen this year.

The idea of Open Access is simple: Make texts, specifically scientific texts, ‘open’ in some sense of the word. Where the least sense is that anybody is able to read the texts. From that point-of-view publishing research papers in an ‘Open Access’ way seems like a bit of a no-brainer and not even worth mentioning. As most scientific research is paid for by taxpayers one would expect the results of those efforts to be accessible to the people who paid for it.

Unfortunately the truth is pretty far from that and most research is published in journals which cost an arm and a leg to subscribe to. Meaning that taxpayers have to cough up even more money, just to buy subscriptions to the journals, so tax-paid scientists can learn about what other tax-paid scientists found out. And, in most cases, Mr and Mrs Taxpayer will find it pretty hard to get hold of those results at all.

During the Open Access days, talks and sessions looked at the issue of Open Access from many different perspectives. The bottom line seems to be that pretty much everybody likes the idea of Open Access publications: Universities love the greater publicity for their scientists and have the hope/illusion that in the long term they should be able to save money on their libraries’ journal subscriptions. Publishers don’t care about what they’re publishing anyway as long as they can make some money, so they (or at least the progressive ones) can deal with that if the bottom line doesn’t change. And, ironically, scientists are the ones who are most reluctant to enter the world of Open Access publishing.

The elephant in the room explaining that is the fact that a scientists’ professional life is not about science but about convincing administration that he’s worth being paid. Administration has no clue about research, so they love measuring ‘impact’ instead and starting a competition who can get most of those ‘points’ (see the end of the opening talk at ICM for a note on this). Which in turn means that publishing in a well-established journal is good for tenure, while publishing in a new Open Access journal isn’t right now because new journals aren’t considered right away for the whole ‘impact’ business. A vicious circle, if you wish.

There are some attempts to break that vicious circle. A pragmatic one is taken by some publishers which offer authors to pay extra for their contribution to be available publicly rather than just for paid subscribers. That solves the money issue for publishers and the Openness issue for the public but increases publication costs in the short term. As the level of Open Access papers rises, publishers claim to reduce subscription costs accordingly.

Another, somewhat anarchist, approach is taken by the maths and theoretical physics communities. As many (one likes to think ‘all’ but that’s unfortunately not true) articles in these subjects are uploaded to the arXiv preprint server before being submitted to journals, many texts are de facto accessible to the public, even though they may not be capital-O Open if the final version of the paper is not published in an Open Access journal as well. The key here seems to be that the respective communities simply started using the arXiv without asking for permission and publishers only noticed after it was ‘too late’.

Quite interestingly these communities are quite divergent in the sense that maths are a low-budget affair – so journal subscriptions can make a real dent in the budget – while high energy physics have some rather well-funded branches where money is not the main concern (but perhaps appeasing taxpayers is?). People from other subjects claim that their journals might downright refuse accepting a research paper if it has been on a public preprint server before submission. I’m not sure whether that’s just successful FUD strategy or whether journals are really fighting that hard against their contributors.

Another – and apparently very successful – strategy vis-à-vis Open Access is making it mandatory. The United States’ NIH seem to be good at this: If you want to take their grant money, your results have to be Openly Accessible within a reasonable time frame. As NIH spends a huge amount of money, the publication culture – and infrastructure –  in the biomedical sciences has adapted accordingly. I suppose that (at least sufficiently big, rich, famous) universities could get away with similar policies, insisting that they have a word about where the research they pay for is published.

Unfortunately German universities, Germany’s Science Organisation DFG and all the other German science organisations don’t have the balls for similar moves. They may not have the same budget as their American colleagues but saying that they’re in favour of Open Access and then not using their power to enforce it but being happy with encourageing scientists doesn’t amount to much. That’s more a bad joke than a policy. In particular: forcing scientists down the Open Access route without room for negotiation would also remove in misbalanced negotiation powers between scientists and publishers. Of course a huge publishing company will be able to screw around with most scientists as they please. And scientist will give in because they didn’t care too much to begin with. If sufficiently many scientists are forced to stick to certain strict and simple rules, negotiations could be simple as well.

There are many other aspects to Open Access topics and one message to take home was that the publication culture in different subject areas is wildly different. They had organised a cool ‘red sofa’ discussion round with professors from economics, biology, law, mathematical physics as well as anthropology discussing the topic. There the differences in publication culture became apparent: The predominant style and rules of publications seem to cover every possible case. Two page ‘letters’? Short articles? Long articles? Conference proceedings? Books? Authors paying to support the publication of their articles? Authors not paying? Authors being paid? Journals being free? or even Free? Journals being moderately expensive? Journals being hugely expensive? The speed of communication being weeks? or months? or years? All of these options exist.

Likewise, the benefits of Openly Accessible research results go far beyond the proverbial taxpayer. In the current setup many other groups are cut-off from journals as well simply because they cannot afford – or cannot justify to afford – the high subscription costs. Be it researchers in poor countries – who may be smart enough to compete or collaborate with their rich colleagues but cannot do so because they don’t know about current results. A lot of the world’s interesting nature is outside of rich countries and having knowledgable locals probably won’t hurst. Or be it people working at companies who may benefit from results in some way; They may have the scientific background but lose access to most articles when they leave academia.

Another – unfortunate – message I took home was that work on Open Access solutions is pretty disorganised. Meaning that every university and research organisation wants to have their own repository for storing articles. Pretty much all of those projects seem to consume all their funding just to create the basic infrastructure needed and most of that work seems to be duplicated over and over again with plenty of technical overhead being created at each organisation. So the result is a bunch of mediocre solutions, with the wheel being reinvented over and over while more advanced topics (e.g. author identificiation) are never reached and plenty of additional infrastructure (central search, central usage statistics) is required to actually do anything useful with all those servers. The main benefit of this seems to be that each university president’s ego can feel good about having a server with their logo on it. Well done.

I’d like to close with a note on an unexpected talk I saw by an accessibility consultant. She used her short talk to highlight that Open Access should also imply accessibility for everybody – a goal which the gazillions of existing repositories seem to quite consistently fail. Bitter irony.

October 7, 2010, 1:09

Tagged as göttingen, open access.

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