What Are the Next Steps for Open Access?

By: Kevin Smith, In the Open

Open AccessRecently there has been a spate of comment expressing frustration about the allegedly slow progress of open access, and especially Green open access. It is hard to disagree with some of this sentiment, but it is important that frustration not lead us into trying to solve a problem with a worse solution. The key, I believe, to making real advances in open access is to walk away from the commercial publishers who have dominated the market for scholarship. Only if we do that can libraries free up money from our collection budgets to do truly new things. A new business model with the same old players, even if it were possible, would be a mistake.

The most articulate call for an open access future for scholarship – the Budapest Open Access Initiative — was issued fifteen years ago, in February 2002. There is no one better qualified to speak about the meaning of that declaration today than Professor Jean-Claude Guédon, who signed the original Budapest statement and last month published a brilliant and compelling article about where we are and where we need to go next in the movement toward open access scholarship.

Guédon covers a lot of ground in his article “Open Access: Toward the Internet of the Mind.” I want to focus on two points, one I think of as a warning and the other a signpost.

As part of recounting the development of open access from the BOAI to where we stand today, Guédon talks about the development of the APC funding model, where authors, institutions, or funders pay per article charges to make journal articles OA. He notes, and although it is an obvious point it still struck me when I read it clearly articulated, that APCs developed as a way for commercial publishers to exploit the movement toward OA for their own profit. That is, this business model is only a sensible way to finance open access if one accepts that the traditional commercial players must remain part of the equation in an open access world. Not only is that assumption not obvious, it also has some unfortunate consequences.

As Guédon points out, so-called “predatory” journals (Guédon calls them “pseudo-journals”) can only exist because of the APC business model:

Such journals have exploited the APC-Gold business model. One could add that without APCs, the “predatory” journals could not exist. Part of the attraction of the APC model is that it provides a risk-free way to publish, since all costs are covered upfront… The first consequence of this illegitimate business strategy is a pollution of the scientific archive. The second result is more indirect: the presence of “predatory” journals makes all lesser-known titles more questionable (p.12).

This last point is especially important, I think. The APC business model does more than just provide a way for traditional commercial publishers to make money from open access, it also helps to delegitimize perfectly respectable forms of OA publishing because of the taint of “predatoriness.” There are, of course, predatory practices throughout the publishing industry, and they take a lot of different forms. But the attention given to “predatory OA,” which is the bastard child of the efforts by Springer and Elsevier to profit from OA, causes suspicion to fall on any journal that does not have the right branding.

In this context, it is easier to see why the proposal that came out of the Max Plank Institute to “flip” all subscription journals to APC-Gold open access is such a bad idea. It is the fruit, in my opinion, of frustration rather than careful reflection. Major commercial publishers like Elsevier and the STM Publishing association have already rejected the idea, and since their cooperation is key, that in itself should kill the plan.[1] But there is a deeper harm that would result from an all-APC approach to OA.

At the recent ACRL Conference in Baltimore, I attended a session about predatory publishing, which unfortunately focused exclusively on predatory OA practices, but did acknowledge that the root problem, APCs, was a creation of the commercial publishing sector. The interesting data for me, however, were expressed in a map showing that the “victims” of predatory OA journals were overwhelmingly from the Global South. That is, the high cost of “real” APCs is driving scholars from the developing world into the arms of those offering low APCs and little or no actual publishing support.

In a “flipped” OA world, APCs would have to rise further; this is a point made clearly by Elsevier and the STM publishers in their response to the Max Plank proposal. And that would make this problem for the developing world even worse. The “acceptable” outlets for scholarship would be even more closed to those scholars than they are now, and the lure of predatory publishing would be much greater. A proposal to flip scholarly publishing is actually a form of scholarly colonialism, shutting out the Global South, forcing scholars from half the world to chose between predatory publishing or the charitable whims of large Western conglomerates.

If a flipped model that depends on APCs is not the way forward, what is? Here Guédon gives us some clear signposts pointing forward. He calls on libraries to reimagine themselves “as interconnected nodes that help a knowledge infrastructure emerge (p14). ” He directs our attention to the OpenAIRE project in Europe, which, as he says:

While starting from a large set of repositories… has decisively moved to the level of a full network. This leads to the creation of a distributed server system making possible the recovery of any document deposited anywhere in the network. The network is built on top of national systems and it is woven together through a set of protocols and standards to ensure interoperability (p. 16).

Guédon goes on to outline some of the opportunities that such a network built on top of repositories make possible, including linking publications and their underlying datasets, open peer review, and text and data mining.

In the U.S. we do not have the advantage of national networks, of course, nor the investment of centralized funding, for the most part. But we do have a resource that might offer a starting point for this next step in making open access a more robust and sustainable approach to knowledge creation and sharing – the consortia to which many of our libraries belong.

Our consortia often function as primarily as “buying clubs” that negotiate to reduce the cost of purchasing commercial products. The future of that role, however, is doubtful; more and more libraries are backing away from “big deals,” either because they have to for financial reasons or because they realize that these deals, while good for commercial publishers, and not in the best interest of our universities. Consortia need to redefine their roles every bit as much as libraries do, as the movement away from commercial publishers accelerates.

I want to suggest three ways that library consortia can help universities begin to wean themselves from the unsustainable system of scholarly communication that developed in the era of printing and begin to usher in the next stage of open access scholarship:

  • Consortia are well placed to develop the infrastructure to connect our institutional repositories and to develop services on top of them. This step would increase the effectiveness of Green OA exponentially, and open up opportunities, such as text and data mining, that we currently seem to rely (wrongly, imo) on permission from commercial interests to exploit.
  • Consortia could help broker a coordinated approach to library publishing, where specific groups of universities take on particular disciplines in which to publish. Thus strong nodes of disciplinary expertise and a critical mass of materials could be created. Such coordinated publishing, undertaken in collaboration with university presses and scholarly societies, could be a key to breaking the grip that legacy publishers have over scholarship.
  • Consortia could organize conversations amongst provosts and presidents about how scholars and scholarship are evaluated. Libraries often think of this as an intractable problem, and political forces, as well as inertia beset our conversations on our own campuses. One way to break this logjam is to gather together a critical mass of campus leaders and guide them in a conversation with each other. For the most part they know that the current system is absurd, using surrogates for quality that were never intended for that purpose. In fact, we spend millions – billions, collectively – to purchase social capital from commercial entities, even while the work that builds that capital is done pro bono by our own faculty. More than anything else, this system cries out to be reclaimed by our universities. Consortial conversations, where our campus leaders have a chance to talk and bargain with each other, might be the way forward.

[1] I have read Elsevier’s “Thoughts on the Max Plank White Paper” and have a copy in my possession. I have been told, however, that it is a private document, and I was asked not to share it widely. The arguments it makes, about why publishers are unwilling to give up the subscription model and how APCs would have to rise in any “flipping,” are essentially the same as those expressed in the STM statement.

This article originally appeared on In the Open.

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