Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Open Access Interviews: Dr Alma Swan

Dr Alma Swan

Last month it was announced the President Bush had signed the long-awaited omnibus spending bill that, amongst other things, will require the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to mandate Open Access to all the research it funds. While a few have expressed dissatisfaction with some of the details of the mandate, the news has been widely greeted as a major victory for the Open Access movement in the US — a victory, moreover, that came only after a long struggle.

In Europe, meanwhile the news was decidedly disappointing, when it finally became clear that over-cautious European politicians and bureaucrats had chosen not to act in the interests of science, and would not be pushing for Open Access.

The disappointment was all the greater given the enthusiastic way in which the research community had responded to a petition that Open Access advocates had organised earlier in the year urging the EC to act on the recommendations of its own report, and mandate all EU-funded researchers to make their papers freely available on the Internet. With the petition attracting 18,500 signatures in a matter of weeks, it was universally assumed that a mandate was inevitable. It turned out, however, that aggressive lobbying by self-serving publishers had persuaded EC officials to drop the mandate.

As project manager for the petition, Open Access advocate Dr Alma Swan was personally involved in events. When I learned that she was passing through Oxford, therefore, I tracked her down in Oxford's famous Randolph Hotel. Sitting in the (to me) somewhat incongruous surroundings of the Randolph's plush tea rooms, I asked Swan what had gone wrong, and where it leaves the Open Access movement in Europe.

Far from being fazed by developments, however, Swan was as confident as ever. "One thing that those who oppose Open Access must understand is that we are not going to give up," she assured me. "Moreover, we are going to be more tenacious than the people who oppose us."

Besides, she added, the battle isn't going to be won in the corridors of power, but in the meeting rooms and the labs of research institutions. Here, she assured me, the omens are good — as awareness continues to grow that Open Access isn't just a trendy buzz word, or even an end in itself, but the enabler for a much larger revolution; a revolution, moreover, that universities will find it increasingly difficult to resist.

Swan's quiet confidence is also hard to resist. What makes her arguments particularly compelling is that Swan is not an over-earnest ideologue, but a generous-spirited and witty woman with an infectious, and somewhat subversive, sense of fun.

Nor is she obsessed with demonising publishers. After all, she points out, in resisting Open Access they are only doing what businesses are expected to do in capitalist democracies — seeking to maximise their profits. But she adds that their hypocrisy is nevertheless depressing. While making public statements claiming to support the principle of Open Access, she says, publishers are constantly engaged in behind-the-scenes attempts to derail it.

In characteristic Swan style, when pushed to take a jibe at publishers, she ends our meeting with a humorous anecdote, remarking that one prominent member of the publisher lobby group STM has developed a sneaky habit of stealing the jokes from her presentations. With a mischievous twinkle in her eye she says, "I've told him that whenever he's in the audience when I'm presenting, it'll be a strait-laced show."


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