A couple of weeks ago, I attended the inaugural Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) conference at George Mason University – along with fellow chefs Rick Anderson, Todd Carpenter, Angela Cochran, and Judy Luther. OSI is a new, collaborative effort that brings together major stakeholders in scholarly publishing with the goal of improving the ways in which research information gets published, shared and accessed. With nearly 200 invited leaders from 12 countries, this forum was unique in that it was the first and only meeting to bring together publishers (of all kinds), scholarly societies, funders, librarians, and university administrators to talk about increasing openness and transparency globally. Did it live up to its billing? In this post, we share our perspectives on the discussions, successes and unanswered questions. (With thanks to Angela, Judy and Rick for their contributions to this piece.)
Did the meeting live up to expectations? What was most valuable?
We, like pretty much all of the delegates, approached this meeting with some degree of trepidation and uncertainly about goals and process, but ended up pleasantly surprised. As Judy noted, the end result was a remarkably civil discourse on the topic of open access to advance the thinking of all participants.
Rick: The meeting did live up to expectations for me, and actually exceeded them. I was afraid it might devolve into tribal shouting matches, but all of the conversations to which I was privy were constructive and collegial — which is not to say that there was universal agreement on how the issues should be addressed, or even as to what the issues were.
Angela: Nothing groundbreaking came out of the meeting, other than acknowledging that this diverse group of people, all with different ideas of what might work, seemed to talk to each other instead of at each other. The greatest value of the meeting for me was that everyone had an opportunity to learn from someone by being in the same space talking about a common end goal.
Were you surprised by anything in particular? Did your perceptions change at all from the discussions?
Angela: I was surprised to hear that there were people there who questioned the premise that “all OA” is the “best” option for humanity. I do think that is a very viable question. You could tell who had a science background by the way they asked about making evidence-based decisions and questioned the idea that all variables (open data, open publishing, open peer review, etc.) should change at once. The theory was that you would never change all variables at once in an experiment because you would not know how to evaluate successes or failures. My interest is in ensuring that an open process be fair and sustainable and I am not sure those questions have been answered yet.
Judy: No real surprises. It was useful to hear many topics discussed in the aggregate. Discussions about OA as the moral high ground miss the opportunity for a deeper explanation as to how we can achieve it. The real opportunity is to envision a world with OA on a global scale, including developing countries and possible paths to get there. Links to economic impact would help advance the conversation.
What/who was missing?
There was pretty clear consensus among the Chefs and many other delegates that our discussions would have benefited from stronger representation from two key groups:
- Actively publishing academics and researchers from across a range of disciplines. There were some in attendance, but often in their “other” roles (librarians, administrators, publishers, etc.). More on this below.
- Greater representation from developing countries in all stakeholder groups. Similarly, it was difficult to make assumptions about the needs and challenges of less well-funded parts of the globe, whether addressing issues of access or participation.
What are your top 2 or 3 key takeaways?
Angela: From the presentations of the different workgroups, almost all criticized the current incentive program and the university tenure and promotion process. Some groups clearly see this as the impediment to any real change in the scholarly publishing ecosystem. I have no idea if that is a true statement and I don’t know what this group assembled at OSI could actually do about it. Another interesting thing to watch was which stakeholders were “thrown off the island,” as one participant said. There was a recognition that collateral damage will happen in a move to all things open, but little consensus on how much is acceptable.
Judy: The inevitability of open access and that there can be creative ways to work towards it. It would have been interesting to hear more from the UNESCO sponsor in terms of the relationship between research and the economy since that was part of the EU’s rationale in supporting open access and wide distribution of research.
Which key issues remain unresolved in your mind?
Clearly, one meeting cannot answer all of the questions about such complex and wide-ranging issues, and the first OSI played a valuable role in creating a forum for discussion of heated and controversial topics. That said, in follow-up discussions we’ve identified a handful of critical problems that were not adequately addressed.
- The role of scholarly and scientific societies: Judy reminded us of the core roles that societies play. The society is central to the academic research framework – its members are the faculty who conduct the research, serve as editors, and lead the development of the discipline globally. And societies play a crucial role in publishing. As journal publishing has transitioned from print through print + electronic to primarily e-only, many societies have become dependent upon greater revenue and greater visibility of their publications in a global digital environment. Twenty years ago societies could rely on three relatively balanced revenue streams – membership, meetings and publications – but today publications frequently comprise the largest source of income that supports other society functions such as mentoring young scholars and advocacy. The idea that societies’ publishing operations should only break even comes at a time when societies are also faced with a dramatic shift in demographics as the boomer generation retires and the next generation is not necessarily replacing them. As Judy notes, while there was a general recognition among participants that the move to open would result in collateral damage, there was no real discussion of what kind or level of damage would be acceptable – a particularly pertinent concern for societies.
- The role of researchers/authors: As noted above, almost all of the working groups encountered critical questions about author needs, concerns and behavior and while adding more academics would still be anecdotal, they are critical to moving these issues forward. These discussions have rumbled on via email since the meeting and it is clear that there are entrenched positions centered around some of the most vexing issues in scholarly communication: choice, power and money. As has often been recognized, the underlying economics of the system are rarely a primary concern for authors. But to what extent can and should other stakeholders exert power over their options in order to effect change?
- Business models: Overall, there was a wide recognition that it costs money to create, review, and publish scholarly works; that the transition period to OA will be more expensive than the current system (even if the desired future state is cost-neutral or cheaper); and that there is unlikely to be any new money going into the system. Given these conflicting realities, it is still unclear who will pay, even in the world of science journals – let alone how that transition would work for other types of content or in fields that don’t have research funding. There are some thoughtful and well-argued cases for the economics of “the flip” , but many still doubt that the resolution is a simple case of economics and the redistribution of scholarly communication spend. It seems likely that the business models are a whole lot more complex – especially as one starts thinking beyond STM journals – to say nothing of the entrenched culture and values that would also need to change.
- Morality: This is a tricky and highly-charged issue, but one that was addressed in a thoughtful way across the workgroups. That said, it’s not clear if and how we can move this forward, given the wide variety of opinions as to what practices and behaviors are morally justified in the scholarly communication ecosystem. Diversity is a great benefit — if everyone believed the same things the conversation would be pretty boring and might not produce anything new or newly useful — but diversity of this particular type also a great barrier, in that we can never safely assume that we are discussing the relevant issues from a shared set of assumptions about which options are off the table and which ones are worthy of consideration.
- What is OSI trying to achieve, and what comes next?: This is perhaps the million dollar question. OSI was a step in the right direction, bringing groups together that don’t typically meet on these issues. But the ultimate goals of OSI remain somewhat vague. Is it simply “more OA”? How do we measure progress? And indeed, what do we mean by OA? As might have been predicted, recent email threads have found familiar ground in the polarized responses to Sci-Hub and Alexandra Elbakyan as hero or villain. But perhaps this misses the point, in that all we know conclusively from Sci-Hub is that researchers have enormous problems as consumers of content. It is not a solution in itself, and nor does it even point the way to sustainable solutions. And it remains unclear if there is indeed any way to develop mutually acceptable, sustainable solutions in an area where both economic interests and rewards are not easily aligned. That, for now, remains the elusive Holy Grail.
(Note: each of the Working Groups is preparing a paper on their discussions and recommendations, and these will be available later this month on the Mason Press platform.)