Monday, 28 October 2013

Notes from 'OA: Understanding the New Environment' Event at Kent

Last week saw an international focus on Open Access (OA), and the University played a part by hosting an event to explore the brave new post-Finch world.

Dr Steven Hill
Dr Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy at HEFCE,  started the ball rolling. He traced current academic publishing practices back to 1665, when the first Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, set up Philosophical Transactions. It was the world's first scientific journal, and set the template  for almost half a millennium of academic publishing.

450 years is pretty good going, but the old machinery is beginning to creak. 1.5m articles are published every year, roughly one every 20 minutes. We no longer have the ability to read - or even know about - all of these. OA offers us the tools to access and 'mine' this mountain. If we ignore it then we risk being suffocated in an academic landslide.

Hill went on to describe HEFCE's current consultation on incorporating OA in a post-2014 REF. The ultimate goal, said Hill, was to get 'maximum access to research outputs whilst sustaining the scholarly communication system.' To do so HEFCE believed that outputs submitted to the REF should be OA, but the devil was in the detail: what should be the criteria? What the definitions? What should be excluded? Hill outlined HEFCE's current thinking, and the issues it was grappling with.

Prof Rosemary Hunter
Prof Rosemary Hunter (KLS, Kent) took to the podium next with an inspiring tale of how she and her editorial team had used an online OA journal to overcome some of the problems inherent in traditional academic publishing. These included a lack of control over style, format and production, little or no remuneration, and the resulting journal being inaccessible to most of the world.

They decided, in 2006, to grasp the nettle and founded feminists@law to publish research on feminist legal studies. The cost of doing so was low: they were already providing their labour 'free' to the publisher, and the Open Journals System (OJS) was relatively low cost. Information Services provided some seedcorn funding for the initial venture, and the online journal has not looked back since. Feminists@law retains a robust peer review system, but is now accessed from a huge range of countries across the globe, allowing a wide diversity of voices to join the debate, to inform, to challenge and to discuss.

What surprised Hunter, when the Finch Report was published, was the apparent lack of attention given to this type of publishing, despite the potential benefits it offered. The debate was all about green versus gold, and there was little room for alternatives.

This issue came up time and again throughout the afternoon, with a number of speakers expressing their exasperation with  this polarity. Not only should the OA debate not be seen as just Green/Gold, but the assumption should not be made that Gold means expense: over two thirds of Gold OA journals are free.

Hunter finished by highlighting how light and flexible this new form of publishing was. It was light in terms of expense (a single Article Processing Charge (APC) could pay for the cost of a whole journal, using online OA), and flexible in terms of the type of media that could be accepted (it no longer had to be solely text-based); but it was not lightweight in terms of academic rigour or seriousness.

Hunter was followed by Dr Mari Williams, Deputy Director of the BBSRC and a member of the RCUK Research Outputs Network. She was inspired by Hunter's talk, and I got the sense that she had been at times frustrated by the pace of change elsewhere in the sector. RCUK had been having 'robust discussions' with publishers. Perhaps inevitably some were seen to be dragging their feet over OA, or rather were making the most of being able to generate income from both charging subscriptions and APCs, whilst also relying on 'free' academic labour.

Nevertheless, change was in the air, and RCUK had made considerable progress on the back of Finch since the policy had come into force in April. The landscape was moving quickly, she admitted, but 'not always in the direction we would have hoped for.' RCUK were hoping for 100% OA compliance by 2018, with 75% of that being Gold.

You could almost hear the sharp intake of breath across the audience. Here's hoping.

Dr Caroline Edwards
After a brief break Dr Caroline Edwards took to the stage. Edwards is a lecturer at Birkbeck, and co-founder of the Open Library of Humanities (OLH). This project aimed to build a 'mega journal' for the humanities, in the style of the Public Library of Science (PLoS), as well as piloting a scheme for OA monographs. She put up a slide that showed the huge rise in the cost of serial publishing compared to inflation: it looked out of kilter and unsustainable.

Those involved in OLH had taken heart from the 'hacker' culture in the sciences since the 1960s, the idea of 'gifting' knowledge for the advancement of the sector, and peers sharing and commenting on each others work.  Edwards had also set up Alluvium, a journal that allowed for the sharing of articles prior to publication, along the lines of arXiv, developed by physicists Paul Ginsparg as a way of getting feedback quickly from peers on 'pre-print' articles.

Kevin Ashley
At first Edwards' successor at the podium, Kevin Ashley, appeared to have the toughest call of the day: explaining and making the case for research data management. But he was an engaging speaker, and made a very convincing case: open sharing of data prevents both deliberate and accidental mistakes by allowing experiments to be reproduced, or sources to be investigated.

 However, this is not without its challenges: many researchers and academics are reluctant to release what they had spent years collecting. Moreover, even if they are willing (or forced) to share, how can all this data be archived and curated? The Digital Curation Centre, of which Ashley is the Director, is helping with this, but the task is not to be underestimated.

After the aspirational and inspirational, Dr Michael Jubb, Excecutive Director of the Research Information Network, gave some perspective on actual progress towards OA. After 20 years of OA, why have we not got further? Whilst a passionate believer in the cause, he recognised many of the issues which needed to be addressed. Many - on both sides - had very entrenched views, and there needed to be more compromise along the road. Perhaps more importantly, the UK is a minor but important player in the research world: 94% of articles have no UK investigator. The UK cannot implement OA alone.

The second Finch Report was due to be published imminently, and would assess developments since July 2012. Certain of these had the potential to completely change the landscape. For instance, some publishers were giving public libraries 'walk in' access to all of their titles. This could have the effect of giving public libraries access to a better range of cutting edge research than those of universities. What was really needed was coordination: funders, researchers, universities, publishers and learned societies needed to work together if the vision was to have any chance of being realised.

The University's VC, Prof Dame Julia Goodfellow, drew the event to a close by pulling together the strands that had been explored throughout the day. Issues of Gold or Green (or Hunter's 'inbetween'), of coordination, of 'double dipping' by publishers: much needed to be resolved, but OA had the potential to change how research was accessed and knowledge advanced. After 450 years, it's about time.

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