As several speakers at SSP’s recent annual conference commented, Open Access is now a given. In the first six months of this year alone, we have seen a memorandum on OA from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a request for information from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE), the introduction of the Research Councils UK (RCUK) mandate, a position statement from Science Europe, and an Action Plan towards Open Access to Publications from the Global Research Council (GRC). Like rock and roll, OA is here to stay but, as with rock and roll, it doesn’t always live up to its own hype.
One obvious example of this is the notion that, to quote Robert Kiley of the Wellcome Trust, speaking at a recent Copyright Clearance Center webinar, “Open Access is simple.” While it’s certainly true that the messaging around OA is simple (and has, therefore, been very effective), in reality OA can be quite complex for everyone involved – authors, their institutions, and publishers/societies alike. For one thing, moving from the subscription model of publishing, which has been around for centuries, to a new and completely different one, is not straightforward. In addition, different subject communities have different needs and finding a way to meet all their requirements is far from easy – it is certainly not a case of one size fits all. Likewise, mandate requirements vary from funder to funder, for example, in terms of embargo periods, licences, maximum Article Publication Charges (APCs), and so on. This will inevitably make the publication process more complex for authors, especially those working on international and/or multi-funder projects. None of this is to say that OA is a bad thing, only that it’s far from as simple as it’s claimed to be.
A new, but equally unsubstantiated, claim is contained in Science Europe’s recent position statement. Their member organizations say that “the hybrid model, as currently defined and implemented by publishers, is not a working and viable pathway to Open Access.” I’d love to see their evidence for this statement, since other funders (such as the GRC) don’t seem to feel the same way, and it’s certainly not been our experience. Submissions to Wiley’s hybrid journals (Online Open) have tripled in the last year, and from informal conversations with colleagues at other publishing companies, they are seeing a similar pattern. Hybrid journals are a sustainable way of enabling researchers to publish in their journal(s) of choice while complying with funder requirements to make their articles available OA immediately on publication. This seems to me to be a great example of publishers developing a new business model that meets the needs of researchers and their funders – a win for all of us. What has Science Europe got against the hybrid option – and why?
Perhaps it has something to do with another Science Europe statement – that publishers should “apply institutional-, regional-, or country-based reductions in journal subscriptions, in line with increases in author- or institution-pays contributions.” I confess I don’t understand the logic here; these are two completely different payments for two completely different services. An article publication charge (APC) is a fee paid to make one article freely available to everyone on publication; a journal subscription is a payment made to provide access to all articles in a journal (or collection of journals) for everyone at the subscribing institution. Asking for a rebate on the latter as a result of purchasing the former is like buying everyone a round of drinks in the pub and thinking that this entitles you to drink there for free whenever you like. Clearly, there are some legitimate concerns about “double dipping” (charging libraries for content where a fee has already been paid to make it available open access) which, to continue the analogy, would be like the bartender charging individual customers again for that round of drinks you bought. However, many publishers, including Wiley, have already developed or are developing solutions to this.
One of the most irritating claims made by funders is that short embargo periods won’t harm journals. We are frequently told that there is no evidence that shorter embargoes will lead to cancellations, but, as Phil Davis pointed out in his SK post on the topic, there has been no rigorous scientific study of the issue. Until there is, the only evidence I know of – the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) survey of c200 librarians – indicates that short embargo periods are likely to lead to significant cancellations. We are clearly in an experimental phase at present, with a whole range of views on what is appropriate and sustainable, from the UK’s Medical Research Council, which is insisting on a six-month embargo, to the UK’s history community, which believes that 36 months is appropriate. The danger is that, by the time this particular real-time experiment provides us with the data needed to make an informed decision about embargo periods, it will be too late and some journals, especially in the social sciences and humanities, will have gone out of business – an unintended, unwanted, and unpleasant proof of the pudding . . .
So what’s the solution? Gathering more rigorous, scientific metrics – qualitative and quantitative – on OA publishing would be a good start, including monitoring the impact of changes to the traditional publishing model on all stakeholders and across all disciplines within the global scholarly community. Equally important is listening – and responding to – the needs and concerns of all stakeholders, positive and negative. I’m happy to say that this does seem to be happening more – see, for example, the recent announcement about CHORUS. This proposed project would bring together publishers, societies, vendors, and other stakeholders in a partnership to provide public access to the results of US-funded research, as required by the February 22 OSTP memo – just the sort of collaboration that will be increasingly important in future.
Perhaps most important though, is for all of us to be open to change. The move to OA publishing is a major change in and of itself, but it will only be successful in the long term if everyone involved is willing to acknowledge OA’s weaknesses as well as its strengths, and to ensure that it continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of all the communities it serves. To quote Kristen Fisher Rattan of PLOS, speaking on Open Access: Its Promises, Challenges, and Future, at SSP’s annual meeting: “we have to learn to adapt and survive”.