Monday 11 December 2017

OA: Challenging the Status Quo

In some ways open access doesn’t do itself any favours. It should be a no-brainer: an idealistic movement to unshackle knowledge from the citadels that imprison it, making it free to all those who want to learn. A people’s movement to challenge power. It’s Robin Hood and the Peasants’ Revolt. It’s David and Goliath. It’s the Levellers and the Chartists. It’s the French, American and Russian Revolutions rolled into one. But without the oppression and the terror.

And yet. And yet it’s a hard movement to really love. Possibly it’s all those acronyms, arcane differentiation and complex licensing options.

‘What do we want?’

‘CC-BY! Or possibly CC-BY-SA. Okay, maybe CC-BY-NA at the very, very least.’

‘When do we want it?’

‘Wait! I haven’t finished. I really think we should push for Green OA, and use the CASRAI principles for the underlying data management. Oh, and using ORCIDs, of course. But that’s a given, right?’

‘Okay. Right. When do we want it?’

‘Now I’m assuming no embargo, yes? And are we going OA from date of publication or acceptance?’

Yes, it would be tough to spray paint that on a banner to wave at the barricades. At times it feels like a revolution for bureaucrats.

But then, just because it’s not loveable, doesn’t mean it’s not important. Open access has the potential to revolutionise the sharing of knowledge more radically than at any time since Johannes Gutenburg forged moveable type. The fact that it is somewhat mired in detail and acronyms is the fault not of open access, but of the world into which it was born.

We live in a world of ownership and attribution, like Blake’s ‘London’, where each street is ‘charter’d’, and we’re beset by ‘mind-forged manacles’. To try and set ourselves free from them is, inevitably, going to disrupt and upset, and such changes needs to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

This is because the two groups who need to change their practices—the publishers and the academics—are generally not in any hurry to do so. The publishers don’t want to kill the golden-egged goose. They benefit from academic free labour in editing and reviewing their journals while also levying article processing charges (APCs) if they want to make their work free to others through the same journals, and then charging their institutions a subscription to view the rest.

You can’t help but admire their chutzpah. However, the academics are complicit in this. For many of them, publication in the most prestigious journals is far more important than the principles of open access. After all most of them belong to institutions that can afford the subscriptions to the journals, and so have no problem with access.

The revolution will never take hold if we rely on the publishers or academics, and to my mind the current situation is not sustainable. Putting aside the economics, the restrictions placed on the authors (or their institutions) by the publishers have a deleterious effect on the knowledge ecosystem, as most academics sign away their rights when their articles are accepted for publication.

As my colleagues in the Templeman Library put it, this restricts the reuse of their own scholarly outputs by academics for teaching and research, and puts them at risk of litigation should they use their own outputs in ways not allowed by the publisher. It means institutions retain no rights to most of the scholarly outputs of their staff and makes compliance with funder open access mandates more difficult or more expensive. Moreover, it creates unnecessary and time-consuming work for those having to administering publisher embargoes and prevents or delays open access, limiting the availability and impact of institutional research.

In 2008 Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences decided that it needed to change the underlying model of ownership to overcome this. Since then, 80 similar policies have been adopted by institutions globally, including MIT, California, Princeton, Caltech, Duke, and Boston.

Where publishers or academics object to the licence they can request a waiver. At Harvard the waiver rate is below 5 per cent. No publisher has refused to accept a paper from any of the institutions that have adopted this policy nor have they legally challenged licence or deposit.

Imperial College London is leading the push for adoption in the UK. In March this year Chris Banks, the director of library services at ICL, set out the rationale for adopting such a policy, and the challenges she saw in implementing it. “It remains, though, that the elephant in the room, the root cause of the challenge we face, is at the point of signing with a publisher. So at the bottom of my grid [of open-access challenges] was ‘new licence?’”, she said.

Interestingly, in digging deeper around the issue, she recognised that early open access publication, which such a licence would allow, does not affect either the commercial interests of the publisher or the citation count: rather the opposite, as evidenced in high-energy physics with arXiv.

Won over to the argument, she has taken the Harvard model as a starting point, but adapted it to the requirements of UK law. As ever with open access, progress has been slow, and she has been working to get major funders and the Higher Education Funding Council for England on board as she goes.

“During those discussions the concept of a ‘moving wall’ licence was developed whereby, on deposit in a repository, metadata is made immediately visible and, over a period of time, the output itself transitions until it is available under a CC-BY licence. Depositing under the terms of this licence would mean that outputs would be compliant with RCUK, HEFCE and Wellcome requirements, and with the major European funders with open-access mandates. At the same time, the citation advantage of early scholarly communication of the research findings would begin to accrue.”

This feels to me like the way forward: creating an opt-out rather than an opt-in system. However, there is still a nervousness about incurring the displeasure of the publishers, and a sense that institutions are looking at each other and not wanting to step out of line and be singled out for blacklisting for having the audacity to challenge the status quo. But it’s only by challenging it that we hope to have any chance of effecting a step change in knowledge dissemination, and finally throw off the mind-forged manacles of an outdated publishing model.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in October 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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