On more than one occasion in the past year, I’ve overheard a publisher or librarian note that there is an important topic in the library world, one that has major implications for libraries’ futures, and for librarianship in general. Yet, these observers have noted, very few librarians are willing to publicly discuss this topic.
The topic is how open access (OA) threatens to defund libraries and marginalize their librarians and staffs.
The silence surrounding OA isn’t limited to libraries and librarians. It exists in governance bodies, within publishing houses, among business people, and among editors.
It seems a chilling effect was created when the initial firebrands of OA sucked the air out of the room, leaving an environment unable to support mature and realistic evaluations of the risks and benefits associated with the various OA models and approaches.
I think we can all agree it’s important to test the assertions around OA and explore the consequences, no matter where you are on the OA spectrum. The challenge is creating an environment for those discussions. Such an environment may be slowly emerging as awareness of OA increases, ushering in new perspectives who are evaluating OA as it is now.
Cameron Neylon, the advocacy director for PLoS, also seems to sense a wider discussion on the horizon, judging from a recent interview with Richard Poynder:
As these new players come to the debate it can be frustrating to go over issues we thought resolved or at least defined years ago. But this is actually a positive thing because it shows wider engagement. At the same time the movement is struggling with the transition from what was essentially a protest movement to the centre of policy making. Policy making is a political process and it does involve compromises. As we move into implementation we have to expect that some of the disagreements within the movement become more important. If we can remember that these problems arise because we’re being successful then we can continue to actually implement increased access and start to reap the benefits that it will bring.
More than a decade old, the Budapest Open Access Declaration and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access both are showing their age and their fossilization. Updates, when they exist, are mainly recapitulations, and don’t fit the facts and broader perceptions of OA that are emerging. Meanwhile, some of the consequences streaming from the claims made in these documents are becoming clear, and the consequences are not necessarily as harmless or beneficial as first imagined. It’s entirely possible Neylon may be underestimating the degree of compromise that may be required in the years ahead.
The time may be ripe for more discussion because, after more than a decade of advocacy, OA is only now arriving on the radar screens of mainstream societies, editors, researchers, academics, and administrators. It’s poorly understood by many of them, as a recent editorial in Nature from by a professor in Austria demonstrates.
The lack of critical discussion is leading some to believe that OA has been well-vetted, has been determined to be inevitable, and provides an acceptable substitute to subscription-model publishing.
For others, the OA movement’s seeming inability to address the practical concerns of editors, society leaders, funders, researchers, and others is making some of these people extremely skittish and uncertain. Younger scientists are expressing some strong concerns about being pressured to divert promising results into obscure OA journals, while also noting the hypocrisy of OA advocates who preach radicalism from comfortable tenured positions and fill their labs with scientists who have used traditional publication outlets to establish their bona fides.
Saying that we should be able to discuss openly the pros and cons of OA is not a pro-OA or an anti-OA position. It is an pro-planning and anti-mistake position. Open discussion usually leads to better decisions and outcomes.
The discussion for libraries is especially urgent, as their funding as a percentage of university budgets continues to fall, with OA certainly contributing to the environmental message that subscription-based journals and purchased books could be a thing of the past, and that subscriptions are unaffordable, despite evidence that the serials crisis is as much about library funding and the inherent growth in science as a vocation as anything else, along with evidence that OA actually focuses expenses on higher education institutions and governments, making OA a more expensive path than subscriptions for research universities.
For governments and policymakers, the politics of OA are somewhat irresistible. After all, how often does a political movement arrive with nothing but apparent upside? Free scientific content for no extra money is the proposition, and the notion that politicians can return value to the taxpayers around science and technology is seductive. However, the discussions here need to deepen, as we’ve seen not only increased government outlays to support OA but an emerging environment with Gold OA that seems destined to increase publishing’s dependence on government funding. Both of these emerging tensions could easily backfire into a greater tax burden. Taxpayers in the UK have already caught wind of this, and there is reason to believe a similar conversation may occur someday in the US.
For professional societies, the discussions are as urgent and existential as they are for libraries. Subscription-based publishing and traditional copyright or licensing approaches deliver many financial advantages to these organizations. A primary benefit is that relatively small societies can play bigger than they are — there’s a quality amplification effect with subscription publishing that just doesn’t exist with OA. Higher quality is incentivized and often pays off in the market. In OA publishing, the money comes from work for hire — there is no money to be made beyond processing articles, which flips the scale of success from quality to quantity. Any amplification effect becomes one based on volume, and a linear relationship takes over. It also leads to uncomfortable recognition of size limitations. Why would society publishing programs survive if large commercial publishers already have the scale to succeed in a volume-based publishing economy? And might a publisher scale up to be “too big to fail”?
For editors, the discussions are important, as their role in OA seems diminished, when it exists at all. Editors-in-chief have become token or been marginalized in a number of situations, and sometimes replaced with staff after a start-up phase. This phenomenon is not limited to OA publications, especially as budgets tighten and margins shrink. But with OA mega-journals, peer-review is more about validation than filtration (finding an audience) or designation (determining importance). And OA has not improved the lives of reviewers, who still work for free or for the equivalent of OA coupons.
But the conversations that aren’t occurring are most notable among OA advocates themselves — as Neylon notes — even as more and better questions are raised about OA and its underlying premises. There seems to be a “reality distortion field” at work, one which was probably established by the radicalism and rebelliousness of OA’s early days. But reality can’t stay distorted for long. Based on listening to real-world editors and publishers talking about OA, reading discussions and commentary from practicing scientists, and conversing with librarians and policy experts, the topics that need urgent discussion include:
- What can the OA community do about so-called predatory OA publishers? Is the author-pays model to blame for their existence?
- Is OA publishing going to cost taxpayers more?
- Is OA publishing cutting into research grant funding?
- Is OA publishing truly sustainable without the subscription model providing major infrastructure and cross-subsidy support?
- What is the proper level of transparency and disclosure around APCs?
- Is OA publishing more easily corruptible?
- Does Gold OA inhibit the publication of “minor” findings and results?
- Can OA ensure the vibrancy of professional societies?
- How does OA create firewalls against corporate, funder, or author self-interests?
- Is OA publishing actually more affordable for society?
- Is OA publishing capable of supporting younger scientists in early career stages? Or does it hurt them?
- Is moving publisher revenue sources from library budgets to grant budgets good for science in the long term?
These are important questions that the OA movement must answer before it can become mainstream and accepted as on par with current publishing practices, or potentially as an improvement. However, partially because OA stated its case more than a decade ago and has coasted on those statements since, the questions are not being seriously discussed, even as the limitations of OA publishing as it currently exists become more apparent with each attempt to take a solid step forward.
Like Neylon, I don’t know what the outcome of such conversations would be — but I dislike hearing that people are afraid to discuss a topic. We exist to get information out in pursuit of scientific facts. OA is something we need to understand and evaluate, not a destiny with unavoidable consequences. Let’s not be afraid of discussing topics that concern us and our role in that process. Let’s not be afraid if a hypothesis needs to be restated.
We need to feel free to discuss what various visions for OA might mean — for libraries, for librarians, and for the information sciences; for readers, for researchers, and for academic institutions; for professional societies; for editors; for publishers; and for the integrity of the scientific literature.
The atmosphere that has emerged from the “protest movement” days of OA — where questions were discouraged, skeptics were hunted down on social media, and valid points were brushed aside — needs to shift to become one that welcomes reasonable questions and valid evidence. We need to feel there is freedom — even an obligation — to openly discuss open access, and a responsibility to respond to the conclusions we reach, even if they don’t match the initial blueprints.