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Open Access: just where are we today?

Just as you think that Open Access has come of age:  discussions have all been concluded, funding and administrative bodies such as the EU (in Europe) and HEFCE and RCUK (in the UK) have mandated it, you attend an event like this and realise that Open Access is by no means fully agreed. Nor have publishers, based on the representatives here, fully worked out how to respond to it. The event, held at the Cambridge Union, was billed as for researchers at Cambridge; unfortunately, given the lack of researchers at the event, it revealed some of the event conclusions by their very absence (see below).

This fascinating half-day event was organised by Hindawi Publishing, one of the success stories of open-access publishing, with sessions from other publishers (Cambridge University Press, Elsevier) as well as from other interested parties (notably Danny Kingsley of the Cambridge Office of Scholarly Communications).

Paul Peters, CEO of Hindawi, gave a valuable overview of open-access, from its origins in the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002 to the present day situation with over 100 members of the OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association), which he chairs, and more than 160,000 OA articles published in 2015.

Does this mean the situation is now static? Anything but! Usefully, Paul Peters ended his presentation with three ways in which OA has a changing ecosystem:

1.All interested parties (authors, publishers, funders) now have to interact far more than before

2.Several new standard identifiers are emerging that are enabling OA articles to be published more easily and discovered more successfully (CrossRef funding data, ORCID)

3.Several new startups are helping to disseminate and to track research outputs.

There followed a session on Open Access models. Sara Grimme of Heliyon, an OA publisher set up by Elsevier, and Matt Day of Cambridge University Press, both described their OA initiatives in optimistic and glowing terms (Day: “Our mission is to convert as much of our content as possible to OA”), but their celebratory tone was punctured rather dramatically by Peter Murray-Rust revealing that neither publisher was complying fully with OA principles, since they did not allow text mining. Rupert Gatti of Cambridge Open Access questioned if either of these commercial publishers was using a fully open institutional repository, without which the publication did not appear to be fully OA compliant either.

Hence one could perhaps describe these two publishers as a partial OA model, or perhaps less charitably, as jumping on the bandwagon. Lara Speicher, of UCL Press, described a genuine alternative model: University College London pays publishing fees to UCL Press for its own academics. In this way, it is fulfilling its mission of helping its staff to publish their material. It may not be everyone’s model, but Open Access can be a pluralistic universe.

From an institutional perspective, Open Access still gives rise to many issues. Danny Kingsley gave an impassioned talk outlining not only the considerable achievements of the Cambridge Office of Scholarly Communication, which she founded, but also the many challenges and obstacles faced by universities such as hers trying to make life easier for their staff to publish via Open Access. [I interviewed Danny Kingsley for the June issue of eLucidate, the UKeiG journal, which you can find here).  

Among the problems the OSC faces are the sheer complexity of the Cambridge structure: 114 libraries, 29 colleges, without mentioning schools, faculties, and departments, none of which seem to talk to each other. This problem may be specific to Cambridge (and Oxford), but more generally “the Open Access requirements of the different funders is a dog’s breakfast” – each of the funders states different guidelines to follow, leaving the OSC in an unnecessarily complex situation. Moreover, there appears to be blatant manipulation of author processing charges in hybrid journals: the APC for articles in hybrid journals is 64% higher than the average APC charged by fully OA journals.

Her recommendations? Some of them overlapped with Paul Peters (“the academy should wake up and take an interest”), while some of them were more fundamental (“the whole scientific communication system isn’t working, since everyone is focused on publishing in the high-impact journals”).

Carolyn Alderson of JISC described JISC’s role in negotiating better prices for journal subscriptions, which it has done with great success for many years, and described some initiatives to try to contain costs for publishing OA articles in hybrid journals; a commendable attempt, but clearly (based on Danny Kingsley’s comments) this initiative does not seem to have had much effect as yet.

Two further presentations revealed more limitations of the current system. Liz Allen described how the F1000 initiative was enabling a better and faster workflow for OA articles, moving towards continuous publication rather than the increasingly outmoded concept of a journal “issue”. Euan Adie of Altmetric pointed out that many valuable citations, such as those by non-governmental organisations such as NICE and WHO, are not counted in the impact factor measurement.

Finally, Geoff Bilder of CrossRef raised some points that were even more fundamental than subscription versus Open Access. By blocking out all the words from the first page of a printed journal article, he revealed very clearly that we nonetheless recognise it is a journal article, and where the title, abstract and author information is place. The same is not true of a Web page: it does not have a fixed layout, with an immediately intelligible iconography. In his words, “A whole bunch of things haven’t navigated from print to web.” Among his other recommendations, he stressed, quite rightly, the need for “open identifiers” (those using open standards).  Unfortunately, publishing is an area where publishers tend to fund a standards-type initiative, and perhaps it is not surprising that such initiatives don’t always result in a fully open environment (or even the most effective approach to standards, but that is another matter for another post).  

So everyone left the event with a clear remit to review and to rethink the existing publishing models. Do we need to be perpetually in thrall to the impact factor, which looks at journals rather than articles?  Should scholarly societies take more of a role in overseeing the scholarly process, as they once did? What metrics should we apply, and should they belong to the publisher? Questions such as these mean that the debate over scholarly publishing continues, and quite rightly so.