Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The state of Open Access

One has to admire people like Richard Poynder. Since 2001 he publishes a series of Open Access interviews. And the series is, of course, Open Access (OA), under a Creative Commons BY NC ND license.

The latest, February 2012, installment is an interview with Michael Eisen, one of the founders of Public Library of Science (PLoS).

The interviews tend towards tl;dr, the one with Eisen is a 19 page pdf file, that begins with a 6 page introduction and continues with an extensive interview for the latter 13 pages. However, and I have read most of the interviews in the series, the reader is always rewarded with a fresh view on the ongoing OA debate. My interest in the subject dates to way back 1994 when I gave a talk about electronic journals at the INET conference that year in Prague. This resulted in an article in the next year in the Journal of Information Networking, itself also probably tl;dr, these days (13 pages if you’d print the html file).

As in many interviews in the series, central questions are about the apparent contradiction between green (authors self archiving their research papers) and gold OA (OA journals); business models - yes, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch although Eisen thinks the costs could approximate zero if faculty do all the work (the costs for PLoS, that would be); and how the future of OA will develop - what with the recent commotion about the Research Works Act (RWA) in the USA, which led to harsh but justified criticism of Elsevier.

My main takeaway from the interview is that Elsevier’s support for the RWA is a (not so) covert attack on green OA. After all these years they are obviously really worried about Steve Harnad’s 1994 subversive proposal. If you were looking for a strong argument for green OA, here you have one. Whether most of the scientists that signed a pledge will indeed refrain from submitting or reviewing articles to or for Elsevier journals remains to be seen. The Poynder interview references a similar venture in the past that didn’t make any difference at all.

What worries me more though is that I don’t see really much progress in the OA field. And it has to do with the deep conservative attitudes of both faculty and libraries. Earlier this month I came across a dissertation titled: "The Influence of the National Institutes of Health Public-Access Policy on the Publishing Habits of Principal Investigators". The abstract of the dissertation said: there's no influence. I didn’t / couldn’t bother to read on.

My point is, why do we need journals anymore? And yes, I know all the answers why we still need them, but somehow, I find these answers less and less convincing as the years in this debate pass. Physics has arXiv since the early nineties, why would funding bodies and libraries want to take over particle physics journals (SCOAP3)? Surely, in 2012, it should be possible to overcome our outdated tenure procedures based on bad metrics like impact factors. That’s the conservatism on the faculty side. But there’s also a conservatism on the library side where collection size and collection budget are still regarded as the main ranking parameter.

Faculty and libraries are deeply committed, in ways they don’t often realize, to keep the current system alive. It reminds me of the famous quote by Daniel C. Dennett: “A scholar is just a library's way of making another library.”

There’s much more interesting stuff covered in the latest Poynder interview with Eisen, go and read it, I’m worried about a tl;dr blog post ;-).


A couple of days after I originally wrote this post in February, Elsevier withdrew its support for the RWA, see the press release from February 27:

However, they also note the following: “[W]hile withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.” That'd be the FRPAA.

To be continued …

No comments:

Post a Comment