Monday, June 22, 2015

HEFCE, Elsevier, the “copy request” button, and the future of open access

At the 2001 meeting that launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) the newly-fledged OA movement outlined two strategies for making the scholarly literature freely available. Later dubbed green OA and gold OA, these are now the two primary means of providing open access, and both types have been mandated by research funders in the UK. For instance, in 2013 Research Councils UK (RCUK) introduced an OA policy that favours gold open access, and in 2014 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced what is essentially a green OA policy, which will come into force next year. So how does the future for open access look?
Just to remind ourselves: With gold OA, researchers publish their papers in an open access journal and the publisher makes them freely available on the Internet as a natural part of the publication process. With green, OA researchers continue to publish in subscription journals, but then self-archive a version of their work in an open repository, either a central repository like PubMed Central, or an institutional repository. Meanwhile, the official version of the paper (version of record) remains behind a subscription paywall on the publisher’s site.

BOAI did not specify that OA journals should levy an article-processing charge (APC), but while OA advocates point out that most OA journals do not charge a fee, the reality (unless something changes) is that the pay-to-play model is set to dominate OA publishing.

Importantly, this means that although BOAI attendees assumed OA publishing would be less costly than traditional subscription method, use of the APC will make scholarly publishing more expensive, certainly during the transition to open access (which could last indefinitely).

And to the chagrin of OA advocates, much of the revenue generated by APCs is currently being sucked up by traditional publishers like Elsevier and Wiley, especially through the use of hybrid OA.

In reviewing the figures for 2013-2014, for instance, Wellcome’s Robert Kiley reported that Elsevier and Wiley “represent some 40% of our total APC spend, and are responsible for 35% of all Trust-funded papers published under the APC model.” (74% of the papers concerned were published as hybrid OA).

The story is similar at RCUK. As the Times Higher noted in April: “Publishers Elsevier and Wiley have each received about £2 million in article processing charges from 55 institutions as a result of RCUK’s open access policy.” In total RCUK paid out £10m, which is in addition to the subscription fees universities are already paying.

In effect, it would seem, traditional publishers are in the process of appropriating gold OA, and doing so in a way that will not only ensure they maintain their current profit levels, but that will likely increase them. And the profits of scholarly publishers, OA advocates argue, are already obscenely high.

Almost OA

But green OA advocates maintain that this is not inevitable, and have long argued that if implemented wisely, and strategically, open access can squeeze out the excessive costs of scholarly publishing, and so reduce publisher profits. However, they insist, this will only happen if researchers self-archive their subscription papers rather than opt for pay-to-publish. If researchers do this, they say, publishers will have to compete with repositories for access provision, and so will be compelled to downsize their operations. This in turn will put downward pressure on costs (and thus any publishing fees). Only at the point where these costs have fallen, argue green OA advocates, should researchers consider paying to publish.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Open Access Interviews: John Willinsky

Born in Toronto, Ontario, John Willinsky taught school for 8 years before taking a doctorate in the study of education, and subsequently became a professor of education at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 2008, he moved to Stanford where he is currently the Khosla Family Professor in the Graduate School of Education.
John Willinsky
Willinsky’s interest in what later became known as open access began in 1998, with his efforts to bring the evidence of research to bear on local journalism. He quickly realised, however, that his ambitions were significantly challenged by the fact that most scholarly journals required a subscription to read, and many had yet to move online.

So he shifted focus, and instead began trying to convince journals and conferences that they should go online, in the hope that this would enable greater public access to research. To help persuade editors and journals to make the move he founded the Public Knowledge Project (PKP), which subsequently evolved into a partnership with the Simon Fraser University Library (which is where the development team is based, led by SFU Associate University Librarian Brian Owen) and Stanford University.

PKP’s first project was to develop an open source publishing platform called Open Journal Systems (OJS). This proved hugely successful, and by 2013 around 8,000 journals were actively using OJS as their online publishing platform.

PKP has gone on to develop a portfolio of other open source tools as well, including Open Monograph Press, Open Conference Systems and Open Harvester Systems.

Willinsky is greatly valued and respected by the open access movement, although he does not have the high public profile of OA advocates like Peter Suber, Stevan Harnad and Jean-Claude Guédon. This is partly because he was not present at key OA initiatives like the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), but mainly I suspect because he did not actively participate in the often-heated public discussions and debates that initially made the case for open access, and which brought the movement to the attention of the public.

While others were doing “the heavy intellectual lifting”, says Willinsky, “I was essentially tinkering away in the garage over the software, and scrambling with Brian Owen to find funding for the master builders of OJS.”

This of course is far too modest, if only because it ignores the fact that in 2006 Willinsky published one of the key texts of the open access movement — The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship.

The Access Principle, explains Willinsky was an attempt to establish open access as a worthy topic of scholarly treatment. “I wanted to assert that this was not simply a side line, like choosing the title of a journal, but really was part of what it meant to do research and scholarship, part of what it meant to claim to be producing knowledge for the benefit of the world.”  ...


If you wish to read the interview with John Willinsky, please click on the link below.

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Open Access Interviews: Publisher MDPI

Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or more usually MDPI, is an open access publisher that has had a challenging few years. It has been charged with excessively spamming researchers in order to maximise APC revenue, it has been accused of publishing pseudoscience, and it has been criticised for publishing papers of very poor quality. This has occasionally led to editorial board resignations e.g. here and here.

The criticism came to a head in February last year, when University of Colorado (Denver) librarian Jeffrey Beall added MDPI to his controversial list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”.

Today I am publishing a Q&A with MDPI. First however, in the way of background, I want to rehearse some key events (in date order). Please scroll down if you want to go direct to the interview.
From left to right: Alistair Freeland, Delia Costache, Dietrich Rordorf, Maria Schalnich, Martyn Rittman, Shu-Kun Lin, Franck Vazquez

A target for criticism, but favoured by some

MDPI AG was spun out of the MDPI Sustainability Foundation in 2010 by the owner of both organisations Shu-Kun Lin, along with the then CEO of MDPI Dietrich Rordorf. In the process a number of journals were relocated to MDPI, and since then MDPI’s portfolio of open access journals has grown to 137. Last year MDPI published over 12,000 papers.

MDPI’s difficulties appear to have started in December 2010, when one of its journals — Life — published a paper by Erik Andrulis called Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life. Aiming to present a framework to explain life, the paper was greeted with scepticism and ridicule. The popular science and technology magazines Ars Technica and Popular Science, for instance, characterised the ideas in the paper as “crazy” and “hilarious”.

The publication of the paper led to a member of Life’s editorial board resigning, and Shu-Kin Lin published a response to the criticism. In his response, Shu-Kin Lin conceded that he had taken over responsibility for the review process when the researcher assigned to the task (a Professor Bassez) has pulled out for personal reasons. But he insisted that the paper had been properly peer reviewed, and that it had been revised in response to the reports of two reviewers. His explanation, however, attracted further criticism.

In April 2011 a second controversy erupted when the MDPI journal Nutrients published a paper called The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity Have Increased. This too attracted criticism, and an Australian economist created a website in order to launch a campaign to have the paper retracted. (There is also a Wikipedia page on the paper here).

The Australian Paradox paper has not been retracted, but it has twice been corrected by the authors (in 2011 and 2014), and in 2012 the Editor-in-Chief published an editorial about the paper, along with a response to the criticism from the authors. In addition, in July 2014 the University of Sydney (the institution where one of the authors is based) published an independent report concluding that of the seven criticisms that had been levelled at the authors the “only allegation substantiated concerned two ‘simple arithmetic’ errors, specifically an inconsistency and an incorrect calculation”.

Notwithstanding these controversies, MDPI has attracted many supporters, not least amongst OA advocates and cognoscenti of open access. When, on 31st October 2012, MDPI launched a new open access journal called Publications, for instance, it was able to recruit well-regarded scholars who specialise in research on open access to its editorial board. Currently, membership of the board includes Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk (Björk has also published in the journal), and at one time de facto leader of the open access movement Peter Suber also served on the board.

OA advocates have also proved more than willing to publish in the journal. Contributors include Heather Morrison (here and here), Martin Eve (here), John Wilbanks (here), and David Solomon (here). And in 2013 Björn Brembs agreed to edit a special issue for the journal.

Also of note, the Editor-in-Chief of Publications is John Regazzi, a former CEO of Ei Inc. (where he founded the first professional engineering online community — the Engineering Information Village). Regazzi is also a former CEO of Elsevier Inc. (I interviewed him for Information Today in 1998).

Likewise, a number of open access advocates serve on the editorial board of MDPI’s journal Data, including Peter Murray-Rust and Ross Mounce (although the journal does not appear to have published any papers).

Finally, we could note that at one point Suber was also on the editorial board of Future Internet, an MDPI journal that in January 2010 published an article by Jeffrey Beall called Metadata for Name Disambiguation and Collocation (a contribution that Beall later said he regretted).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Co-publishing with Against the Grain

I recently agreed to co-publish four interviews with the ATG NewsChannel. The first of the Q&As is with librarian Marcus Banks, and can be read on the Against the Grain website here (or in the post below).

Marcus is a former editor-in-chief of the open access journal Biomedical Digital Libraries, a journal that had to cease operations in 2008.

Amongst other things, Marcus discusses the lessons he learned from his experience with Biomedical Digital Libraries, the economics of OA publishing, and the possibility of journals evolving into blogs.

Against the Grain publishes news about libraries, publishers, book jobbers, and subscription agents. Its goal is to link publishers, vendors, and librarians by reporting on the issues, literature, and people that impact the world of books and journals.  

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Life and Death of an Open Access Journal: Q&A with Librarian Marcus Banks

Librarians have been at the forefront of the open access movement since the beginning, not least because in 1998 the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) founded the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). Today SPARC is arguably the world’s most active and influential OA advocacy organisation.
Marcus Banks
It is important to note that librarians’ interest in open access grew primarily out of their frustration with the so-called “serials crisis” — the phenomenon that has seen the cost of scholarly journals consistently grow at a higher rate than library serials budgets.

SPARC’s initial strategy, therefore, was to encourage the growth of new low-cost, non-profit, subscription journals able to compete with the increasingly expensive ones produced by profit-hungry commercial publishers. As SPARC’s then Enterprise Director Rick Johnson wrote in 2000, “In 1998, after years of mounting frustration with high and fast-rising commercial journal prices, a group of libraries formally launched SPARC to promote competition in the scholarly publishing marketplace. The idea was to use libraries’ buying power to nurture the creation of high-quality, low-priced publication outlets for peer-reviewed scientific, technical, and medical research.”

In the wake of the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (an event attended by Johnson), however, SPARC began to focus more and more of its efforts on open access. The assumption was that this would not only allow research to be made freely available, but finally resolve the affordability problem faced by the research community. As the BOAI text expressed it, “the overall costs of providing open access to this literature are far lower than the costs of traditional forms of dissemination.”

Ironically, despite their high profile advocacy for open access many librarians have proved strangely reluctant to practice what they preach, and as late as last year calls were still being made for the profession to start “walking the talk”.  

On the other hand, many librarians have embraced OA, particularly medical librarians. In 2001, for instance, the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) began to make its content freely available on the Internet. And in 2003 Charles Greenberg, then at the Yale University Medical Library, launched an open access journal with BioMed Central called Biomedical Digital Libraries (BDL). One of the first to join the editorial board (and later to take over as Editor-in-Chief) was Marcus Banks, who was then working at the US National Library of Medicine.

Four years later, however, BDL became a victim of BMC’s decision to increase the cost of the article-processing charges (APCs) it levies. This meant that few librarians were able to afford to publish in the journal any longer, and submissions began to dry up. Despite several attempts to move BDL to a different publishing platform, in 2008 Banks had to make the hard decision to cease publishing the journal.

What do we learn from BDL’s short life? In advocating for pay-to-publish gold OA did open access advocates underestimate how much it costs to publish a journal? Or have publishers simply been able to capture open access and use it to further ramp up what many believe to be their excessive profits? Why has JMLA continued to prosper under open access while BDL has withered and died? Was BDL unable to compete with JMLA on a level playing field? Could the demise of BDL have been avoided?  What, if anything, does the journal’s fate tell us about the future of open access?

I discuss these and other questions with Banks below. The issue of affordability, it seems to me, is particularly apposite, as librarians are having to confront the harsh truth that, far from reducing the costs of scholarly communication, open access appears more likely to increase them.

It turns out that Banks has an interesting perspective on this issue. As he puts it, “At the risk of frustrating many librarian colleagues, I must say that the framing of open access as a means of saving money has been and remains a serious strategic error.”

He adds, “A fully open access world may not save any money and could cost more than we pay now — this world would include publication charges as well as payments for tools that mined and sorted the now completely open literature. That’s fine with me, because in this world we’d be getting better value for money.”

The interview begins …

RP: Can you say something about your background and career to date?

MB: I have been a librarian since 2002. My first position after earning my Masters of Library and Information Science was as an Associate Fellow at the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), from 2002-2004. During this time NLM was developing PubMed Central (PMC) as a freely accessible digital archive of biomedical literature.

Growth at PMC was slow, as deposits to it were voluntary — this was years before PMC became the required repository under the terms of the NIH Public Access Policy. Publishers rightly worried that a fully open access archive would challenge their business model, a concern that persists today.

Watching this debate unfold raised my awareness of the various agendas in scholarly publishing, as well as of the potential for open access publishing to expand the reach of biomedical literature.

RP: What are you doing currently?

MB: My most recent position was as the Director of Library/Academic & Instructional Innovation at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, California. Since then my wife and I have returned to the Chicago area for both personal and professional reasons. I am currently pursuing employment while building a consulting practice devoted to transformation in scholarly communication. Even with “gainful employment” I would continue the consulting.

RP: You said that the growing debate about scholarly communication made you aware of the potential for open access publishing. You were later involved in the creation of an open access journal called Biomedical Digital Libraries, which I think was launched in 2004 but ceased operations in 2007. Can you say what your role at the journal was, why the journal was created, and why it did not succeed?

MB: Charles Greenberg, then at the medical library of Yale, launched Biomedical Digital Libraries (BDL) at the Medical Library Association meeting in May 2003. It was an open access title published by BioMed Central (BMC). His first task was to recruit an editorial board, and I joined in as an Associate Editor. Our first papers appeared in 2004. As Charlie moved on to other projects, I became co-editor and then sole Editor-in-Chief in 2006.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

UCL Vice-Provost comments on the Independent Review of the Implementation of the RCUK Open Access policy

Guest Post by Professor David Price, Vice-Provost (Research), University College London

David Price
Research Councils UK (RCUK) has today released the Report of an independent review body on the implementation of its Open Access policy.

It is not a review of Open Access policies and their implementation in the UK. The Report is quite clear about this – it is a review of the impacts of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access for its funded research outputs. This is a review which is being undertaken at an early stage in the history of that OA policy. As such, there is much that is good and helpful about the Report’s findings and I will touch on some of these points below.

Overall, however, the Report is a missed opportunity to look at the deeper implications of the move to Open Access in the UK. There are broader issues, in many of which RCUK is a leader, which would have benefited from a more confident treatment by the panel. There is still a great deal of work to do!

The Report looks in some detail at the question of embargoes. While the short embargoes of 6 and 12 months have been taken up by the research community, there is still unhappiness. As the Report says, some of this is due to poor communication of the policy and resulting confusion in the academic community. Another aspect of it, however, is a genuine concern among some communities, for example History scholars, that short embargo periods are harmful to academic freedom to choose where to publish. RCUK needs to look at the issue of embargo periods again.

The Report also highlights a number of problems with the RCUK recommendation of a CC-BY licence for research outputs. If this is the RCUK position, then compliance with the policy would require academics to use this licence. In its review of policy implementation, the Report shows that this has not always been the case. The Report also, quite rightly, highlights the unhappiness of the Arts and Humanities community in the requirement for a CC-BY licence. From the evidence presented, it looks as though this community feels they are being made to dance to a biomedical and scientific tune, where CC-BY is more acceptable. The Report is right to highlight the need for further investigation.

The Report has further nuggets of wisdom. It highlights the administrative costs for universities of implementing the RCUK Open Access policy, building on the London Higher Report supported by SPARC Europe. It also suggests that university and publisher systems should be developed to accommodate ORCID  (for author IDs) and FundRef (for funder information), which will help monitor implementation of the policy in future years.

Table 7 presents some really interesting data on the mean costs of Article Processing Charges (APCs).

OA journals published by non-subscription publishers

Full OA journals published by subscription publishers

Hybrid journals published by subscription publishers

5-year mean (2010-14)

Why are the costs in the final column for Hybrids so much bigger than the rest? It was beyond the remit of the review to investigate this in detail, but this question does need further study. RCUK derives its money from public funds and this is a question which the taxpayer would certainly have a right to understand in more detail.

While the Report contains much that is useful and thought-provoking, there are some big gaps that it should have covered. The Report consciously limits itself to the implementation of the RCUK policy, and does not look at the wider UK Open Access scene in detail. This is a mistake because the RCUK position would be more intelligible if such a wider comparison had taken place. The Report says that the RCUK policy position is broadly complementary to other UK OA policies. Any misunderstandings on this front may be due, it says, to poor communication of the policies. Really? Are there many universities who believe this? The new HEFCE policy for REF 2020 seems to me to be quite different from the RCUK policy, and it is the REF policy that is capturing university attention at the moment. It is only the REF policy which is insisting on ‘deposit on acceptance’. And it is the RCUK policy which encourages Gold OA publications and requires the use of a CC-BY licence. The REF policy is neutral, for example, as to the colour (Gold or Green) of the OA output. To say that the RCUK and REF policies are complementary defies logic. The RCUK Review panel needs to think this one through again.

The Report highlights the shortcomings of universities in gathering data for the review. It is right to do so. There needs to be more accurate reporting next time. In that respect, I would have expected the Review panel to draw up a template for reporting, addressing the issues it identified as weaknesses in the first set of reports. The Report recommends that a template be constructed, but why (when this is such an important issue) did it not draw up this template itself? Not good practice.

Finally, the Report cautiously advocates that RCUK look at the level of funding it gives to fund OA dissemination in future years. A welcome recommendation, but rather weak. Wellcome funds all OA outputs that emanate from its funded research. Why did the RCUK review not make a similar recommendation? As things stand, once RCUK funds are exhausted, universities either have to find monies for APCs themselves or advise the authors to publish their outputs as Green outputs. This is unsatisfactory and will lead to a fragmented publication framework for RCUK research which is in no-one’s interests.

To conclude: the independent Review panel which has produced the review of the implementation of the RCUK Open Access policy has only half done its job. It has produced a detailed analysis about implementation, which is useful. But, in walking away from broader policy issues, it leaves many questions unanswered which should have been tackled. Will future reviews take these issues forward? They should.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Open Access and the Request Eprint Button: Q&A with Eloy Rodrigues

Contrary to what one might expect, not all the items in open access repositories are publicly available. Estimates of the percentage of the content in repositories that is not in fact open access tend to range from around 40% to 60%. This will include bibliographic records containing only metadata, plus full-text documents that have been placed on “dark deposit” — i.e. documents that are present in the repository but not freely available, either because they are subject to a publisher’s embargo or because the author(s) asked for the full-text to be deposited on a closed access basis. To enable researchers to nevertheless obtain copies of items that have been placed on dark deposit OA advocates developed the request eprint button. But how does the button work, and how effective is it? Below Eloy Rodrigues, Director of Documentation Services at the University of Minho, discusses the issues, and outlines the situation at UMinho.
Eloy Rodrigues

RP: How many scholarly items are currently deposited in the University of Minho’s institutional repository RepositóriUM, and what are the growth rates?

ER: Currently we have more than 32,600 items in RepositóriUM, with around 5,000 being deposited yearly since the upgrade of our policy (effective since January 2011). Since 2011 more than 20,000 items have been deposited.

RP: Of these, how many are full text and freely available to the public (i.e. they are not metadata alone, not currently subject to publisher embargo, and not restricted to members of the university — as in requiring login)?

ER: Almost 26,000 (25,932) are freely available, which is more than 79% of the total.

RP: As I understand it, repository users can ask that a private copy of any document on dark deposit is made available to them by using the request eprint button built into the repository. In 2010 you co-authored a paper about this button, which was then more frequently called the “Fair Dealing” button. Your paper included data on “approval success rates” (i.e. the frequency with which authors sanctioned a copy of their work being made available to those requesting it). These data came from three universities: Southampton, Stirling and UMinho (your institution). The approval success rates were, respectively, 47%, 60% and 27%, with many requests simply ignored or lost. How has the situation at the University of Minho changed since then? What are the current figures?

ER: The overall response rate has remained basically the same, or even a little lower. In 2014 we had a global response rate of around 23%, with 21% sending the requested documents and 2% denying the request.

However the global response rate is highly “biased” by the effect of theses and dissertations. Theses and dissertations (T&Ds) account for around 21% of the total number of documents in RepositóriUM, and around 30% of the total number of restricted or embargoed access documents (currently around 6,700), but I estimate (based on some small “samples”) they represent far more than 50% (probably around 60% to 70%) of the requests received.

Because most authors of T&Ds don’t maintain any connection with the university after completing their thesis and dissertation, and they often change the email that was registered at the time the document was deposited in the repository (which is the email used to send the requests to authors), the T&Ds response rate is very low (probably lower than 10%), and that obviously affects the global response rate.

But we really don’t have data on this (we would need to “manually” look into the request logs we have, as we are not registering the document type from the requests) but based on some anecdotal evidence I estimate the response rate from UMinho members (professors and researchers) will be at least two times higher than the global average. So, excluding T&Ds, I “guess” the current response rate will be around 50%, or even a little bit higher (from 50% to 60%).

Eprint fatigue

RP: In 2010 you made the following comment on a blog: “Our experience is that authors get ‘tired’ of replying to copy requests, especially when requests are very frequent. The consequence is that some start not replying at all, and others ask to change to open access articles/papers/theses there were in closed/embargoed access. We had more than 20 of those requests just on the last year…” Is that still your experience, or have author’s attitudes and behaviour changed since then?

ER: In the last couple of years I haven’t had regular conversations or feedback from Minho researchers about the copy requests, in the way I did in the first few years after the introduction of the button. But I know we still receive frequent (approximately on a weekly basis) requests to change the access status of closed/embargoed documents to open access.

RP: Presumably if a paper is on closed access as a result of a publisher embargo it is not possible to change the status to open access?

ER: Presumably yes. But there this a wide variety of behaviour from UMinho authors. While some are confident and fearless, others are fearful at the time of deposit, especially with papers published in journals or conference proceedings which do not have well formalised self-archiving/OA policies. Afterwards they tend to become less timid about their publications.

We inform authors about possible access permissions or restrictions to their deposited publications, but we respect their wishes about the access status.

RP: I assume most institutional repositories now have a request eprint button. But I think not all IRs implement the button in the same way. Can you talk me through the process at RepositóriUM once a user hits the eprint button? Is it fully automated, or is there some manual intervention? What happens behind the scenes when a user requests a copy of an item in the repository?

ER: The way we implement the process in RepositóriUM (and I assume it will be similar in other DSpace based repositories, as the request-copy addon to DSpace was developed here at UMinho) is the following: When users hit the button (actually it is a closed access logo) and fill in a form with their name and email (and an optional message), an automatic email is immediately sent to the author.

That message contains a token URL, directing the author to a RepositóriUM page, where there are two buttons – Send copy / Don’t send copy. After choosing one of the options another page is displayed with a template message, which can be edited by the replier. The final step is hitting the send button.

So, in summary, the text is always provided by the author (and not automatically or by the repository staff), and the process requires just 3 clicks, plus editing the reply message if the author chooses to do so.

RP: Advocates for use of the button believe that it is a much more effective way for researchers to get access to papers on dark deposit than, say, by directly emailing the authors. I note a paper published in PLOS ONE in 2011 tested the email approach. A group of researchers sent out a number of email requests for papers in the area of HIV vaccine research. The success rates they reported were between 54% and 60%, which is perhaps a little higher than the rates described in your 2010 paper. What do we make of that?

ER: I can only speculate about it. The button simplifies the process, both for the requester (who only needs to make two clicks and, if they want, customise a model message to the author) and for the author (who receives an email from the repository and just needs to make three clicks, and if they want customise a reply message). But maybe, at least for some people, this may appear completely impersonal and they prefer the more personal and human direct email contact.

That said, I’m not convinced that email contact will get a higher response rate than the button, and you cannot infer that from the PLOS paper. To test that hypothesis you would need to test both approaches for the same universe of publications and authors.

RP: The PLOS ONE study reported that two thirds of the papers (where the author responded positively) were received “on the same day or the next. However, the other third of respondents took on average 11 days to reply (median 3 days, maximum 54 days).” Do you have any information on turnaround time for those who use the button at UMinho?

ER: We just have data on the mean response time. In 2014 the mean response time was near six days for accepted requests, and 3.5 days for rejected requests. Again I think this result may be slightly biased by a higher response time from T&Ds authors, but that would need to be investigated.

User friendly?

RP: On March 2nd I tried to access a paper in RepositóriUM called “Academic job satisfaction and motivation: findings from a nationwide study in Portuguese higher education”. On trying to open the paper I was told that it was on restricted access and invited to request a copy of it, which I did. As the image below shows, I was informed that my request had been successful. However, I never heard anything further, and was left in the dark as to what had happened to my request. It is not a very user-friendly system is it? Might not most readers be inclined to give up after even a couple of such failed attempts to get a paper?

ER: Yes, I recognise that. It is not very user friendly, and people may be inclined to give up after a couple of “non-answers”. We’ve focused the development of the addon on making it very easy and simple to use by external readers and especially by UMinho authors.

At the time of development we really didn’t consider the issues around monitoring, reporting, collecting statistics on the use of the button, or providing feedback to requesters. And after the initial development we have really just made some minor improvements/adjustments (like spam control through a captcha feature) and upgraded it to the newest DSpace releases.

RP: My experience with the ORBi repository at the University of Liège was somewhat different. I tried the button there twice. On both occasions I received the full text (or a link to it) within 24 hours. Paul Thirion, Head librarian at the University of Liège, reports that the approval success rates for requests made using the button built into the ORBi repository are higher than average, ranging from 67% in 2009 to 81% in 2014. Do you have any sense of why Liège is more successful at getting researchers to approve eprint requests than other universities?

ER: I really don’t know. I imagine that, apart from some subjective aspects (like cultural and organisational differences and/or a different relationship to and perception of open access and the institutional repository between researchers at Liège and Minho etc.), there are some objective factors to explain it: probably the T&Ds effect is not present at ORBi, and I can speculate that there is a difference in the percentage of closed/embargoed access documents in ORBi (which I think is higher than in RepositóriUM), and maybe there is also a lower percentage of documents for which the access status is changed to open after deposition. [RP: Paul Thirion reports that around 62% of the documents in ORBi are full-text].

To what end?

RP: The paper you co-authored in 2010 goes on to say, “Given a significant number of button requests which are ignored or lost, one might be tempted to assume that it has not worked. However, this is not true. The principal impact of the Button has been to enable the adoption of institutional IDOA mandates.” This left me wondering as to the point of the button. I had assumed the sole purpose was to ensure that those who want access to papers under publisher embargo can nevertheless obtain a copy of them. For instance, in commenting on the open access policy being introduced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England Stevan Harnad described the purpose of the button as being to “tide over the usage needs of UK and worldwide researchers for the deposited research during the allowable embargo.” Your paper, however, suggests that the objective is rather to encourage funders and institutions to introduce OA mandates. What are your views today on the purpose of the button?

ER: I think the introduction of the button had both the immediate and practical objective of providing access to papers which were deposited with temporary (embargo period) or definitive access restriction, and the more strategic objective of helping in the introduction of mandates (by creating a mechanism that allows mandating universal deposit, regardless of eventual access restrictions, while offering a “second class” access procedure).

In my opinion both purposes remain important today.

RP: How would you describe the success of the button today, and what do you predict for its future success?

ER: I don’t know what the global response rate to the button requests is.  But even if it is closer to the UMinho 50% estimate, than the Liege 80% result, it means that tens or hundreds of thousands of papers were made available to many readers that otherwise would not have access to them.

So, I think the button is relatively successful, both in actually providing access to closed/embargoed access publications and in helping institutions and funders to define self-archiving mandates, without pushing themselves into spending yet more money by paying APCs, on top of their subscription costs.

For the immediate future, I predict the button will remain useful and hopefully more successful, as the number of mandatory polices, as well as embargoes, grows.

RP: One thing I find striking is that advocates for the button seem to have done very little research into its efficacy. Why do you think that is?

ER: I can only reply for myself and for UMinho’s RepositóriUM. I think the first reason is that our main focus is on managing and running the repository as a critical service of the university, with limited capacity to do research and development. So we use that limited capacity for very practical and applied developments and not on “non-applied research”.

The second reason is that, despite being important and useful, the button is not on our top three priorities for work on the repository. We’ve devoted much of our efforts on improving the repository interoperability and integration with other services/systems, on facilitating and simplifying the deposit/self-archiving of publications into the repository, on collecting and providing usage statistics to authors of publications in the repository, on guaranteeing/improving repository visibility in the global search engines (especially Google), etc. All those issues have higher strategic relevance for us given the current state of policy implementation and repository development at UMinho.

RP: Do you think there is a danger that if the button were to prove too successful publishers might seek to curtail or prevent its use in some way?

ER: I don’t think so. It is at least very questionable that publishers would have any solid legal ground to act against the button use, and, on the other hand, it would give them very bad publicity. So, from a cost-benefit point of view, I think the button is not a high priority for publishers either.

RP: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

I am currently working on a longer document about dark deposit and the request eprint button. As such, I would welcome people’s thoughts about and experiences of these two things. I can be contacted here.