Monday, December 10, 2012

Questions concerning open access research: my responses

Following are some interesting research questions from Joseph Kraus, University of Denver, and my responses.

Q 1) The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out.  These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold open access in the UK.  What are your thoughts on the issue of green vs gold open access policies?

R 1) Open access policy should be green, not gold. Here are a few thoughts on why.

I'd like to take a step back and talk about open access archiving (green) and open access publishing (gold). A healthy sustainable open access scholarly publishing system needs to have diverse components, because any one component will have vulnerabilities that other types are less susceptible to. A key limitation with open access publishing is that it cannot by itself look after ongoing preservation and access. Journals and publishers change over time. Journals cease to exist. Journals and publishers change hands; new owners may pursue a different business model.

The RCUK policy which prefers gold open access with CC-BY has a huge vulnerability or loophole. A researcher who publishes in a journal using the CC-BY license has met the requirements of the open access policy. However, the journal has no obligation whatsoever to continue to provide open access or to continue to provide a version of the article under a CC-BY license.  Creative Commons licenses make it possible to waive certain rights that we have under copyright; they place no obligations on the licensor. If each CC-BY licensed article is placed in one or more open access archives (I recommend more than one), then ongoing open access is secure even if the article does not remain open access on the publisher's website. 

Flatworldknowledge, an open textbooks publisher for 5 years which recently announced that as of January 2013 their books will no longer be free online, illustrates the danger - see their announcement about from free to fair.

Green open access archives are essential for a sustainable open access system.

The RCUK endorsement of CC-BY illustrates another problem with open access publishing mandates. It is understandable that RCUK would not want to fund open access options where publishers retain re-use rights for their own commercial purposes. However, CC-BY has other unintended consequences. CC-BY grants to anyone, anywhere commercial rights, and the right to create derivatives. Material provided by third parties may not be available for licensing via CC-BY. It would not be ethical to include material provided by research subjects (e.g. pictures, stories) under CC-BY without informed consent. Obtaining informed consent would require explaining the possible consequences; material using this license could be picked up by a for-pay image databank, for example, and so someone's picture could end up in an ad on the bus.

The RCUK policy is only one example of an open access publishing or gold mandate.

Where an open access publishing mandate makes sense is for funders that subsidize scholarly publishing per se, something that is common in many countries, but not the UK. Even here, a policy to make subsidized journals open or publicly accessible under fair use or fair dealing makes more sense than a more specific policy. That is, good policy provides the direction, the goal - it says what is to be done, but not necessarily how. The how is best left to the people who do the work (some might say the market).

Q 2) PLOS ONE is a well-known large open access journal that covers a broad range of disciplines.  Because it has been deemed successful, other publishers have also proposed or started similar journals.  What is your opinion of this new type of publication outlet?

R 2) It's about time that new forms of scholarly communication emerged! We can do so much more with the tools we now have available, it doesn't make sense to continue to publish online with the constraints that came with print. One important point to note about PLOS ONE is that it accepts all sound science. This just makes sense; the reason journals have high rejection rates (now seen as a badge of quality) is because in the print medium you can only fit in so many articles. This adds considerable waste to the system (rejected articles are usually still published, it's just that they tend to go through several rounds of review rather than just one). It's good to see competitors, too.

Q 3) Harvard University has recommended to their faculty to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” ( The concept of “moving prestige to open access” is an interesting statement to the Harvard faculty authors and researchers.  What do you think of this statement?

R 3) Kudos and thanks to Harvard!!! The impact factor, locking in prestige and hence negotiating clout for journal owners, has been a major barrier in moving forward with developing a new, open access scholarly communication system. 

Q 4) University presses and many societies are concerned about how the open access movement will affect their financial bottom line.  What concerns do you have about open access and society publications?

R 4) I share this concern. One of the key points of my research is that the economic support for the current system comes from academic library budgets. Libraries should prioritize transitioning support for the system to open access. This isn't easy, but it needs to happen. 

Q 5) AltMetrics is gathering steam as an additional method for faculty to determine the impact of their work. (  Do you plan to take advantage of this data for either your work, or for the benefit of your institution or department?

R 5) I have serious concerns about the rush for AltMetrics, particularly AltMetrics based on social media. Before anyone even begins to think about using such metrics for assessing the work of scholars, much work needs to be done. For example, I argue that it is reasonable to hypothesize that any AltMetrics based on social media (whose work is tweeted, promoted on Facebook, etc.) is likely to reflect and amplify existing social biases. Men will be tweeted more than women, ethnic majorities more than ethnic minorities. Then there is strong potential for bias, both artefactual - e.g. a pharmaceutical company is likely to promote a study showing that their drug is effective, but not the one demonstrating the side-effect - and deliberate. Consider how climate change denial or big tobacco smoking is good for you proponents could manipulate social media to make their preferred research and researchers look good. Altmetrics is an approach with tremendous potential as a research project, but should not be used for assessing the work of scholars.

Q 6) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK notes: "No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs." ( While this is a valid statement for UK based research evaluation, it would be impossible to get a majority of academic tenure and promotion committees throughout the United States to agree to a similar statement in the near future.  Since the UK has the REF, and the US does not, how much is this holding back the US from adopting greater OA policies at various institutions?

R 6) Open access is happening throughout the world. Each area can, does, and should, work within the context of the strengths, culture and history of its own region. The U.S. has been a very strong leader in open access policy, with the N.I.H. policy and the faculty permissions policies pioneered by Harvard, as well as open access publishing support by libraries.

On the topic of the REF - to me, the REF approach exemplifies what I call irrational rationality, something to avoid and not to emulate.

Q 7) Is there anything else you would like to say concerning open access publishing?

R 7) My recommendation is library support for scholar-led publishing as the most cost-effective solution for the future.

All this and much more is covered in my dissertation, "Freedom for scholarship in the internet age".