Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by A.J. Boston. A.J. is the Scholarly Communication Librarian for Murray State University, located in scenic Western Kentucky, USA.

Watching cOAlition-S ratchet up urgency around open access has been an object lesson in the power that funders can wield when they coordinate around an issue. Spurred by the funder-led push for authors to make their works open access, research institutions have been signing read-and-publish deals and these have swiftly accelerated the total growth of articles published as open access. But if you look closely, you will find an ideological movement has arisen which objects to these deals (e.g., “Transformative Agreements & Library Publishing: A Short Examination” from Dave Ghamandi, “Message from the Grassroots” by Camille Marcos Noûs, and “Transformative agreements: Six myths busted” from a group of librarians and research funders) from those that otherwise favor open access. A common theme of these critiques, and related discourse more broadly, can be characterized with one word:  Equity.

Notice that the theme of International Open Access Week for the past four years has consistently included that root word, equity. Open access may be on the rise, but do mechanisms such as article publishing charges and read-and-publish deals keep equity a part of this transformation? Many in the open movement, “declare equity as a goal,” Ross-Hellhauer recently wrote, but he argued that, “without more critical thought, open science could become just the extension of privilege.” Ross-Hellhauer is correct to the extent that many current iterations of open access (and open science) need be tied to individuals’ or institutions’ ability to pay to play. This does not have to be the case. In fact, it should never be the case. What went wrong? Where did we lose the plot?

Feet wearing sneakers in front of arrow on road outdoors

The Wrong Solution

The original BOAI set out a goal for peer-reviewed journal literature to be made freely accessible online, either through self-archiving or open access journals. The complexity of the self-archiving route can be difficult to explain to authors or convince them to take action. On the other hand, while read-and-publish deals aren’t easy, they do help institutions remove some ambiguity about copyright, journal choice, and funding pools. Additionally, read-and-publish allows an institution to nobly address the need for global citizens to freely consume works, especially those produced by that institution.

While these may decrease ambiguity, what fills that vacuum may be ‘coercive nudges’ for affiliated researchers to make publishing decisions they feel bound toward from all sides. More broadly, if the institutions signing these deals consider themselves to be leading institutions, they expect others to follow their example. The logical endpoint for this path is an unsustainable open serials crisis for well-resourced institutions in the long-term. And in the short-term, we sacrifice equity, as it becomes more difficult for global citizens unaffiliated with such sponsoring institutions to freely contribute their own works.

Course Correction

Perhaps in recognition of this state of play, the BOAI Steering Committee used their recent 20th Anniversary Recommendations to help clarify the goal of open, stating that “OA is not an end in itself, but a means to other ends, above all,” the document continues, “to the equity, quality, usability, and sustainability of research.” Outside of the letter of the law of open access, so to speak, this document reminds that the spirit of the BOAI documents is/was also meant to encompass equity, quality, usability, and sustainability.

After six years of thinking about scholarly communication, I’ve come to think about what needs to happen to improve this system in ways that I believe are compatible with the high-level summary recommendations of BOAI20. What I believe is that:

  • no author should be asked to pay
  • no reader should be unable to access the record
  • the idea of “excellence” should be incompatible with exclusivity, artificial scarcity, or any other device not pertaining directly to the soundness of a scholarly activity
  • authors should be rewarded for behavior such as making usable data available whenever appropriate, for engaging with flourishing modes of experimental reporting or communication, or for exhibiting a history of collegial peer feedback.

In this column, I wish to offer a set of recommendations to funding agencies and research institutions as an alternative to our current course as I’ve described above. I believe my recommendations will work toward addressing not only the lack of access, but other entwined issues that have to be dealt with: wide failures to replicate existing studies; the relatively slow speed to communicate findings; suboptimal peer review systems with an accompanying under-trained and under-rewarded reviewer labor supply; the toxic interaction between research assessment and career advancement; and the increased privatization of infrastructure which is leading to less control and eventually higher prices for the academy. I believe, at this point, that funding agencies and research institutions are the appropriate levers of power to lead change. With that said, let’s dig into the recommendations.

Recommendation for Funding Agencies

This first recommendation is for funding agencies: Craft policies to redirect currently mischanneled energies (and monies). While the present set of sticks and carrots may allow for some to adopt behaviors and the use of tools that can help tackle these issues (like “preprint” servers, data and protocol hosting options, and open peer-review systems), the brightly-lit path still points toward maximizing publication in outlets regarded as high impact, open or not, with often little thought given to a project’s post-publication life.

Therefore, begin by decentering the peer-reviewed journal article. This doesn’t mean you have to forbid journal publishing for researchers, just take it out of your equation. By decentering the journal article, you can redirect an author’s energies from shoehorning their research into a particular publisher’s idea of a shoe. If you more deliberately foreground collaborative and collegial discussions, you will not just passively permit, but actively encourage researchers to post open access reports on their study findings, along with FAIR data, clearly-written interpretations, and a commitment to regularly, substantively, and collegially respond to peer comment.

The work researchers conduct should be a priority for funding assessment, and while this can be understood through a published journal article, it may be best understood through alternative reporting methods which incorporate direct, ongoing, and open communication with an audience of practitioners. We all incorporate proxies at some level in our decision-making, so we should stive to use sensible ones. Don’t just decenter journals, forbid inclusion of journal-based metrics from grants applications. Instead, ask grant applicants to show you a clear history of collaborative service,  peer-review, and responsiveness to good faith feedback on one’s own work. If you need a jumping off point that threads this needle for your updated policy, I tried drafting a bundle of funder policies & principles which I’m sure you can improve on.

If you redirect your funds away from publishing fees, this will leave you some surplus of non-earmarked funds. But don’t overlearn the lesson by taking your money entirely out of infrastructure support. Redirect that money to areas that researchers may become more active in as a result of the new incentive structure described here. And don’t just support any infrastructure, support open infrastructure. Over-reliant outsourcing to the big commercial vendors is always a mistake.

Recommendation for Research Institutions

This second recommendation is for research institutions: Discontinue signing read-and-publish deals or paying for individual APCs. As has been stated above, these transactions enshrine structural inequity. Take these pathways to expand access off the table, and consider funding these alternative options instead: Subscribe-To-Open (S2O) (requires neither payment from authors or readers during years in which the offer succeeds), university & library-based publishing (well-situated to host diamond open access journals), and Read & Let Read (R&LR) (caps article download costs for a subscribing institution allowing it to offer usage to researchers outside the institution). These initiatives will serve your users in a manner that is also to the benefit, and not to the detriment, of the global research community.

  • Support Subscribe-to-Open (S2O) models. Authors on this blog have offered overviews, critique, and interviews about this, but in the words of its architects, S2O “allows a publisher to convert journals from gated access to open access one year at a time” by offering its current subscribers continued access at a discount so long as enough subscribers participate in the offer. S2O is not a diamond model, but in years where the published articles are made open, neither the authors nor the non-subscribed readers are asked to pay. In successful years, this achieves open access in an equitable manner since the authors do not need to pay or have independently secured a sponsor who can pay.

Showing support for journals using S20 provides hard evidence that independently-owned journals run by scholarly societies have viable and sustainable paths to open access besides buyout by a larger commercial publishing company, which rarely if ever results in a publishing model without author-side payments. This may be a diminishing cohort of journals, but improvement is made at the margins.

  • Meet as much need for new journals as possible with university-based and library-based publishing. Publishing services coming from within the academy, led by mission-driven scholars, could meet some of the appetite for new titles and develop them under diamond open access models. While the recent Library Publishing Directory report does not reflect 100% uptake of APC-free open access journals, these programs are better positioned to offer it than commercial operations that report to stakeholders. The same holds for university presses. Research institutions should sponsor an increase in the overall share of open access articles by directing money toward these programs with funding tied to full Diamond Open Access outcomes. A well supported library publishing or university press staff could expand outreach to scholars working in emerging subdisciplines where new journal growth is most likely to be found.
  • Bulk-purchase article downloads and offer coverage to outside users. Under Read & Let Read (R&LR), a research institution/library prepays a publisher a base amount each year according to the total number of articles that institutional users downloaded during the previous year, multiplied by two. This prepays for an institution’s estimated article usage from a partnered publisher during the next year as well as provides an equal amount of article usage outside of the institution. More concretely, if the University of California implemented R&LR, it would buy 11 million article downloads for its own users during the next year, plus 11 million article downloads for the global public, all for roughly the same price as UC and Elsevier’s present deal.

This may sound like an unorthodox strategy since it does not actually enable open access. Instead, it simply enables access, enough for an institution’s own users plus an equal share for the rest of the world. R&LR allows readers access to articles by authors of any affiliation, giving no particular citation advantage to anybody.

The effort to transition journals to models with no author payments and no reader payments should be given priority wherever possible. The methods described here are three viable ways research institutions can sponsor that change across an encompassing range of journal types without immediate equity issues.

The Show Must Go On

What matters in a theater performance is not simply that dialogue is conveyed to an audience, but the quality of its delivery. Similarly, open access conveys research, but if that manner of delivery makes it more difficult for other actors on the stage to be heard, it’s no good. An effective actor will express emotion in a way that audiences can immediately unpack and replicate from where they sit, and that will allow generative response from fellow actors. This is exactly the sort of outcome that our research environments should be encouraging.

While researchers are the most important actors in all of this discussion, it is the funding agencies and research institutions who set the stage, provide the house, and signal many of their important cues. Choices that these latter two groups make do not necessarily determine the decisions that researchers will make, but they do determine many of the options that are available to start with. By setting our stage with plenty of equitable open access communication tools, it will not make researchers use those set pieces, it can only increase the likelihood.

If funding agencies and research institutions share a vision of a scholarly communication which is open and equitable, I hope the recommendations outlined in this column will be useful to your direction moving forward.

The author would like to acknowledge and thank Lisa Janicke Hinchcliffe for her guidance throughout the drafting process and recommend her 2018 invitation to Scholarly Kitchen guest authors found here:  ”Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest (Author)!

A.J. Boston

A.J. Boston is the Scholarly Communication Librarian for Murray State University, located in scenic Western Kentucky, USA.


7 Thoughts on "Guest Post: Open Access and the Direction Moving Forward"

On your recommendation for funders, #1 above, you don’t actually say that the researchers need to create a publication of some kind that can be placed in the funder’s and the performing institution’s repository, to be then used by others. The recommendation just vaguely talks about ensuring that the funded researcher has “collaborative and collegial discussions”. That does not ensure the funder that research work has been done for the funding, and that other can use the results of the research and the data from it.

I agree that the current open access with APC moves the payments from the users of the literature/research to the performing researcher, thus giving a free ride to those applying the research for applications and for profit. And it is not clear to me how, for example a pharmaceutical company, would gain access to an article published through a read-and-publish agreement. But a solution that deemphasizes publication of the results is not the answer. If you meant something more specific in that recommendation which also includes mandatory publication, you have not made that clear.

Hi Rob. I appreciate your engagement with the post! You are correct: the recommendation for funders is somewhat “vague” in that it focuses on some hoped-for outcomes without much explanation of the mechanisms to ensure them. For more on how I think that a funder might ensure that the work is completed and the results thoroughly shared and discussed, check out the link I have hyperlinked in the sentence that reads “If you need a jumping off point that threads this needle for your updated policy, I tried drafting a bundle of funder policies & principles which I’m sure you can improve on.” (Link: https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:44205/). Just to note: I don’t think a funder or institution need necessarily run their own unique repository for this purpose. In fact, I think the opposite. I would like to address your second paragraph, but I am not sure I understand the question completely…

Are transformative agreements “The wrong solution” to peer-reviewed journal literature? Hmm. I wonder if identifying the problem is what we’re getting all wrong. Like you, I’ve been thinking about scholarly communications for a number of years. In fact, I remember when the problem was called ‘the serials crisis’ rather than ‘open access’. Because, the central problem, which has been with us since the 1980s, is this: the funding going to libraries has not kept pace with cost of paying for the ever-growing number of articles seeking publication in our journals-centric scholarly communication system (and I’m confident this would be true even if every publisher ran their programme at break-even). So why are we getting the problem wrong? Because pretty-much every proposed solution keeps the journal at the heart of the system. What if the journal is the problem? So, it’s refreshing to see your first recommendation – that funders ‘decenter journals’. Of course, this is already the case for research done by IGOs, research centres, NGOs, and think tanks (not all research is done in academia!). Consider two economics papers published over the past couple of days. Both are hitting headlines in the UK’s mainstream and social media. Neither were published in journals and I doubt their authors will bother submitting them either. Both are available for anyone to download and read (links at the end), free of charge. The cost of publishing them has been met by the respective research centre/think tank under whose name they are published. In both cases, the authors are associated with an academic institution (LSE), indeed, one of the papers is published by a research centre at the LSE. So, to all intents and purposes, they are just like any paper published in an economics journal – except the entire cost has been borne outside the scholarly communication system. These are two examples of the thousands of papers and reports released every year by research institutions outside the ivory towers of academe which never make their way to journals. Your second recommendation, however, keeps journals at the heart of the communication system for “research institutions”. If funders and NGOs can publish successfully without journals, then why should research institutions stick with them? What if, like IGOs, research centres, NGOs and think tanks, research institutions simply took responsibility for publishing the research undertaken under their roofs? That would usher in a wholly new show. One that might allow the spotlight – and our energies – to focus not on a business model, but on the challenge of getting research results shared, debated and better known. Something those behind these two economics papers achieved.
For the curious, the papers are here: https://bit.ly/POCO-37NeNLs and https://bit.ly/POCO-3MyzGsj
Disclosure: I am one of the founders of Coherent Digital LLC, where our mission is to help gather together informally published content, such as that published by NGOs and research centres, so it can be integrated in scholarly communication discovery systems, research workflows and the like.

This type of publication is not new. Librarians traditionally call this type of publication “gray literature” because historically they were hard to find, not indexed anywhere, and one often couldn’t find a copy of it in the paper-based world. That distinction may be less useful now in the digital world, but I still see discussions of gray literature and it being harder to find.

For US Federal government funders, this type of publishing for intramural research is done in technical reports, which may often be public. Technical reports are often longer and more detailed than a journal article can be, but does not generally give the status that publishing in a journal gives the author, due to the peer review aspect of journals.

Yep I certainly wouldn’t co-author ‘reports’ very often – they certainly don’t have the seal of approval that a well refereed article does. They may be OA but they have short half-lives too [I worked in African development for many years, and reports 10 years old are all but forgotten in my subfield]. Of course they can be influential in certain fields [and economic development is one of them] but ‘contributing to a report’ is not great on a cv, rightly or wrongly. It is interesting to look at what research reports are cited a lot from a place like the CGIAR or International Institute for Environment and Development, and it is a small number. http://www.iied.org

Many assume that reports published outside the realms of books and journals are not, as you put it, ‘well refereed’ – sadly, this assumption is wrong, many are indeed ‘well refereed’. As Lawrence noted in her 2018 paper (DOI: 10.3233/ISU-170857), “a significant amount . . . of grey literature is formally peer-reviewed” and my experience working with IGOs confirms that. (Worth bearing in mind that IGOs, NGOs etc put their reputations on the line when they publish something and their future funding depends on their reputation. So they have every incentive to make sure they don’t put out poor-quality reports, which is why they get them checked first.) I wonder, too, if their half-lives are really very different from a typical journal article in the same field (that would be an interesting study!). Certainly their accessibility half-life is shorter, but that’s because they lack the support of publishers and librarians when it comes to long-term archiving and preservation (and this is one of the things we’re trying to address with Policy Commons). I’m also hoping that Policy Commons will boost the discoverability and use of this content so that it is has an equal chance of being cited as a typical journal article (another interesting angle to study!). Maybe if we can help make grey literature more discoverable, more useful, more citable, more authors will be proud to add them to their cvs!

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