Friday, June 20, 2008

The Open Access Interviews: Leslie Chan

Richard Poynder talks to Leslie Chan, Associate Director of Bioline International, co-signatory of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, supervisor in the new media and international studies programs at the University of Toronto, and tireless champion for the needs of the developing world.




Leslie Chan, Associate Director, Bioline International

Every revolution has its unsung heroes: those people who contribute a great deal to a cause, but who are insufficiently recognised for it — sometimes because their efforts take place behind the scenes, sometimes because they are unduly modest, sometimes for a combination of such reasons.

That would appear to be the role that Leslie Chan has played in the Open Access (OA) movement. Without fanfare, and with little public thanks, Chan has for over ten years now tirelessly promoted OA — travelling the world to give presentations on the topic, writing articles in support of it, and advising, assisting, and motivating others to play their part too, all voluntary work that Chan has had to fit around a full-time teaching post at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Who is Leslie Chan, why is he so committed to OA, and why does he believe it to be so important for the developing world? To answer these questions we need to look more closely not just into Chan's background, but into the development of OA itself.

The beginning

Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1959. His father had fled there from the Chinese coastal city of Swatow ten years earlier, departing just hours before the communists arrived to hang him for being a landowner. Chan's mother and older brother joined Chan senior in Hong Kong a few years later, where Chan and three further siblings were born.

Safe in Hong Kong Chan's father took on a series of odd jobs, and ended up working in a garment factory. In the 1960s, however, he founded his own factory, and went on to become a successful Hong Kong businessman.

As the time approached for Hong Kong to be returned to China, however, Chan's parents began to fret about the future. Repeatedly telling Chan "the communists are coming" they persuaded him to leave the island — and at the age of 16 Chan departed for Canada, to enter high school and then university.

Chan's ambition had been to become a biological researcher. But at university he found himself drawn to anthropology (in which he took his degree), and became a primatologist.

It was in trying to get his first paper published that Chan first suspected that all was not well in the world of scholarly publishing: Although his paper was accepted, he was dismayed to be told that if he wanted to include the photo of a blonde macaque that he had submitted with it he would have to pay $2,000 for the publisher to make up a colour plate. As a graduate student, he simply did not have that kind of money.

This was in 1994, just when the Web was beginning to take off. Convinced that the photo made an important point about hybridisation, Chan suggested to his supervisor that he publish the paper himself on the Internet — a proposal that earned him a stern lecture on the dos and donts of academic publishing.

But Chan could not but be struck at the absurdity of the situation: Researchers around the world were now able to communicate with one another instantly over the Internet and yet, as he put it, "they couldn't use the medium to communicate the results of their research to other researchers, and take advantage of the medium to conduct quality control such as peer review. That seemed kind of silly to me."

At the same time, Chan was frustrated by the difficulties he was experiencing accessing some of the key literature on macaques he needed for his thesis. Many of these papers were published in journals originating from countries like India, China, and Indonesia, but his university library did not subscribe to these journals, even though they were relatively inexpensive. He discovered that this was because many journals from developing countries were not represented by subscription agents, which made it difficult for libraries to subscribe to them.

Additionally, even though these journals were modestly priced, the library budget was so heavily (and disproportionately) tied to big commercial journal packages from Western publishers that there was little money left to subscribe to other sources. It seemed to Chan that knowledge from the developing world was as a result being systematically underrepresented.

Chan's second learning point came while reading 19th Century descriptions of primate behaviour. Intrigued by the divergent ways in which people from different cultural backgrounds had described what was clearly the very same behaviour (a phenomenon he also began to notice in contemporary descriptions) he concluded that our "cultural understanding of knowledge" means that researchers too often talk past each other. This, he felt, was getting in the way of scientific progress.

Here too, thought Chan, the Internet could help: Instead of trying laboriously to describe the complex behaviour of animals in words, researchers could simply place video clips on the Internet, enabling them to share their observations with other researchers in a culturally neutral fashion. Doing so would also have the merit of saving them a lot of time and unnecessary debate about who is seeing what.

Sadly, this too was deemed an unsuitable way of communicating one's research findings — particularly if one was hoping to get tenure or promotion.

Experimental Service

As he became more and more fascinated by the potential of the Internet to improve the way in which researchers communicate their findings Chan's research interests began to drift from anthropology to new media studies. Today, he says, "I am interested in the whole issue of how knowledge can be represented in this new medium, and how we can create communities to share knowledge. I am also interested in how we can train the next generation of students to use the medium to greater effect."

One initiative that Chan was especially drawn to was Bioline International. Founded in 1993 by UK microbiologist Barbara Kirsop and her husband Brian, Bioline was an experimental service created to distribute scientific papers online, and was run in partnership with Brazil's biological information service CRIA, which provided the technology infrastructure.

At that time few (if any) scholarly publishers had begun to think about making their journals available on the Internet, so the Kirsops were able to persuade companies like Taylor & Francis, Chapman & Hall and CABI to permit them to scan in journals and make them available online.

Like the revolutionary physics eprint server arXiv (which had been founded three years earlier by Paul Ginsparg), Bioline had begun as an e-mail service, but adapted to each generation of Internet technology as it became available. "When we started there was no Web, no OA movement — basically just email and ftp protocols," says Kirsop.

She adds: "Bioline is a fascinating story, mirroring the development of email, gopher and the WWW etc. I still meet publishers who came to our farmhouse in the early days to view rather dodgy connections to Brazil, and eat apple pie in the kitchen. How we laugh!"

For publishers Bioline was a learning experience that cost them nothing but taught them a great deal; so much in fact that when the Web started to take off they promptly withdrew their content from Bioline and launched their own Internet-based products. As Kirsop puts it, "The commercial publishers eventually realised that they could create their own infrastructure and do it themselves; and that they could make a nice profit in the process".

But the Kirsops had learned a lot too. So instead of shuttering Bioline, they decided to do something more useful with the platform they had created with CRIA. "For us it was an experiment that changed along with the technology," says Kirsop. "We also came to realise how valuable such a model could be for science in the developing world."

So the Kirsops transformed Bioline from an experimental electronic platform for distributing Western science journals into an online hosting service for publishers in the developing world who wanted to make their content more accessible by putting it online.

In short, since most developing country (DC) publishers did not have the necessary resources to put their journals online themselves, the Kirsops would do it for them. In this way, they reasoned, they would make DC research more visible — benefiting not only the publishers, but also their authors, the developing world at large, and global science too.

For Chan Bioline was appealing for two reasons. First, it was a fascinating experiment in the use of the new medium to share knowledge and distribute research findings. Second, its focus on helping the developing world was of personal interest to him. "China is very, very close to home for me, and many people forget that it is a developing country," he explains. "Anyone who has travelled into the interior of China will know how much of the country is desperately poor."

Reflecting on his own childhood, he adds: "We grew up in what you would call a slum in Hong Kong. Really, it was a slum, and there were seven of us living in one small bedroom. I knew what it was like to be very poor as I was growing up."

It wasn't long, therefore, before Chan had become associate director of Bioline. And in 2000 he relocated the service from the UK to the University of Toronto, having persuaded the University to support it until he was able to secure funding elsewhere.

Funding, however, proved elusive. After failing to get a grant from the Canadian government, Chan introduced a pay-per-view system for Bioline. But two years later, after Chan had made just eight sales (at $8 a time), administrators at the University of Toronto pointed out to him that it was costing $5 to process each payment. Since Chan had agreed to pass 90% of all revenue back to the publishers this meant that processing each transaction was costing Bioline roughly five times more than it was earning from the sale.

Chan said to himself, "Wow, in order for people to register and pay we need to maintain all this technology. We then have to process that payment, and we have to keep track of the payments. Then we have to make sure we get receipts."

This was his third learning point. It was also Catch-22 — for Chan realised that even if his pay-per-view arrangement eventually took off, every sale would serve only to increase Bioline's overheads, and so further exacerbate the funding problem he faced.

Once again Chan was struck at the absurdity of the situation: leaving aside the inefficient economics of the ecommerce system he had created, Bioline had achieved the very opposite of its stated objective of making DC research more visible to the world — for by introducing a financial firewall between Bioline papers and potential consumers, Chan had simply locked out potential readers, not increased access.

At the same time he was conscious that while his pay-per-view system had only sold eight papers in two years, those Bioline publishers who had opted out of the payment system — insisting that their journals be made freely available to anyone who wanted to read them — had seen the number of papers downloaded from their journals grow exponentially.

One example of this was the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine (JPGM) — A publication of the Staff Society of the GS Medical College and KEM Hospital in Mumbai, India. JPGM had been freely available on Bioline from day one, and in two years the number of hits it had received had grown from 2,635 to 43,392.

JPGM had also seen a steady growth in annual author submissions, which in the first four years had risen from 190 to 629. Significantly, the number of submissions from foreign authors had also risen, from less than 10% to 38% in two years, demonstrating that the journal was increasingly being viewed as an international journal capable of reaching a global audience. This was precisely the outcome that Bioline had hoped to achieve for all the journals it hosted.

Compared with the performance of the pay-per-view journals on Bioline, the JPGM figures were a vivid demonstration of a lesson the Internet has taught many: When content is made available on the Web it can attract a much larger readership than in print, but very few people are prepared to pay for the privilege of reading it online. Consequently, any access barrier introduced is almost invariably counterproductive.

It also occurred to Chan that charging for scholarly articles on the Internet is doubly absurd, since the objective of researchers when publishing their papers is not to earn an income, but to have an impact. In short, the more eyeballs they can attract the better.

Given this, it was by now also evident to Chan that the traditional scholarly publishing system significantly disadvantages researchers in the developing world — for they are far less likely to have their papers accepted by high-prestige, widely-read journals like Nature and Science than researchers in the developed world. Since these journals are read by a very large number of eyeballs, Western-based researchers are able to reach a much larger audience, and their research has therefore a much greater impact on science.

This in turn tends to mean that Western-based research is more likely to get further funding, and DC research less likely — in a vicious circle that disproportionately benefits researchers in the West, and compounds the so-called 10/90 gap.

The 10/90 gap

The 10/90 gap is the phenomenon in which 90% of the world's R&D money is spent on the 10% of diseases that primarily affect people in developed countries, while only 10% is spent on diseases that mainly affect the 90% of people who live in the developing world. Explains Chan, "[W]e still don't have a good handle on malaria, on sleeping sickness and many other very common diseases that are found in the developing world. And we don't have a good handle on them because there just hasn't been enough R&D money spent on them. They are neglected diseases."

Of course there is more than one reason for this dollar-spend inequity (including the fact that Western-based pharmaceutical companies know they cannot make a large profit from selling drugs to treat diseases primarily affecting poor people), but since much of the research into the neglected diseases is undertaken in developing countries themselves, and the findings published in local journals with limited circulations, the relative invisibility of that research makes it far harder to get funding.

And since research tends to be a cumulative process — in which researchers build on the work of previous research in order to arrive at new understandings, and eventual breakthroughs — the invisibility (and consequent shortfall in funding) of DC research inevitably lengthens the time before cures are developed for neglected diseases.

Making this point, Chan cites a content-analysis study that a couple of researchers did on The New England journal of Medicine a few years ago. This found, he says, that over an eight year period, "less than 3% of the research articles, review articles and editorials published in the journal addressed health issues in the developing world." The researchers concluded, adds Chan, "that this gap in medical publications is even larger than the 10/90 gap."

We should note in passing that the obscurity of DC research has implications for all of us, since many diseases (e.g. cancer and HIV/AIDs) recognise no borders, and plague us all. As such, the obscurity of DC research into such diseases has implications for mankind at large.

Obscurity of their own work aside, researchers in the developing world face a second problem: The bulk of published research is published in Western journals, and in order to access these journals it is necessary to pay subscription fees — fees that few DC research institutions can afford to pay. This puts DC researchers at a further disadvantage when conducting their research — since they are frequently unable to access the findings of others working in their field.

Further compounding the problem, Western journals are the first choice for DC researchers when seeking to get their own papers published. While the odds are stacked against them, some succeed. And when they do, although their research will be more visible to researchers in the West, it will be as good as invisible to their compatriots.

This means that DC researchers find themselves increasingly deprived not just of access to the latest research done in the West, but of the best research produced by their colleagues too. When DC researchers publish in Western journals, says Chan, it amounts to "locally-produced literature ... [going] ... outside the country, leaving it inaccessible to so many other researchers in their country."

As if that were not enough, says Chan, large Western publishers are increasingly buying up small DC publishers, further appropriating local research, and usually destroying local jobs in the process, since the editorial office of the acquired publisher is invariably closed and the work moved abroad.

But what JPGM had demonstrated was that if DC research is made freely available on the Web, its visibility (and therefore also its status) is significantly enhanced. In other words, the Internet allows DC researchers to have much greater clout.

It follows from this, of course, that if research from developed countries were also made freely available on the Web DC researchers would not only achieve greater visibility for their own research, but obtain equality of access to the work of others. As such, the research playing field would be levelled, helping to mitigate the 10/90 gap.

But how to achieve this?

Larger, more generalised crisis

Fortuitously, by the later 1990s it had become apparent that the access problem confronting DC researchers was but a symptom of a larger, more generalised crisis afflicting scholarly communication — one that Chan had had intimations of when trying to get his first paper published. In short, the research community at large was confronted with a growing accessibility problem.

Indeed, as a result of a phenomenon that has been dubbed the scholarly communication crisis even the wealthiest universities in the world were having to cancel journal subscriptions, leading some to conclude that the scholarly communication system created by Henry Oldenburg nearly 350 years ago was in danger of collapsing under its own weight.

When in 1665 Oldenburg had created the first printed scientific journal in the English-speaking world (The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) he centralised a process that had until then taken place in what we would today call a peer-to-peer fashion. That is, until then researchers had shared their papers with each by mailing them individually to their colleagues. Oldenburg invited them instead to send their papers to the Royal Society (RS), which had them reviewed by experts in the field (peer review), after which it published them in a print journal that it distributed to everyone. As such the RS became an intermediary — or gatekeeper — in the process of scholarly communication.

And as mankind's scholarly endeavours grew so more and more disciplines emerged, and new learned societies were formed to manage the consequent growth in research papers — a logical way of scaling up.

So why had a system that had served the research community well for 350 years begun to creak at the seams? Because eventually the amount of research being done globally grew to the point where the traditional intermediaries (learned societies and other not-for-profit organisations) were — for a variety of reasons — no longer able to scale up quickly or effectively enough.

Spotting a good business opportunity, commercial publishers moved into the scholarly publishing market. And since commercial organisations always seek to expand their market, they accelerated the process of growth, launching many new journals, and encouraging researchers to publish at a faster rate. This put increasing financial pressure on research institutions, who could no longer afford to pay the constantly growing subscription bill arising from the stream of new journals.

By now it had also become common practice for publishers to insist that, as a condition of publication, author(s) must assign copyright to them, thereby giving publishers ownership of the papers, and so exclusive distribution rights. Since all papers are unique, and researchers need access to everything published in their field, every scholarly journal effectively became a monopoly.

Further compounding the problem, journal subscriptions are funded by the institutional library, not by the researchers themselves. This means that while researchers make the purchasing decision, someone else picks up the bill, causing a disconnect between the seller and the consumer. For this reason the scholarly journal market is not subject to normal market forces, and publishers have generally been able name their own price.

The end result was a rapid increase in the number of journals, and constant and unsustainable price rises, with costs consistently rising much faster than the RPI. In a recent issue of C&RL News, for instance, David Lewis reports that the average serial price has over the last thirty years risen more than "six times the rate of general inflation and over two-and-a-half times the rate of increase of the cost of [US] health care."

In the specific case of journals in chemistry and physics, added Lewis, between 1975 and 2005 the average cost of a journal rose from $78.84 to $1,879.56.

In the meantime, library budgets have been static or falling.

Today the annual value of the peer-reviewed journal market is estimated at £25 billion [$50 billion], and consists of 23,700 journals, which between them publish 1.59 million articles a year.

In short, few if any research libraries in the developed world can now afford all the research they need, let alone those in the developing world. That is, they cannot provide their researchers with access to an adequate subset of those 23,700 journals.

It is important to stress again that this is a crisis of degree, and one that disproportionately affects DC researchers. As Chan points out, for instance, where the University of Toronto might be able to afford subscriptions to, say, 2,000 medical journals, the medical school in Nairobi will probably only be able to afford 30 or 40. This is a huge gap in accessibility; and one that puts DC researchers at a significant disadvantage in their research endeavours.

Consider this for instance: Recently Infochange reported that the total annual budget for one of the premier scientific institutes in India, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai (IMSc), is currently around Rs 13.3 crore, of which Rs 2.55 crore is spent subscribing to academic journals. "Around 55% of this Rs 2.55 crore is paid to the two largest publishing companies — Reed-Elsevier and Springer — for the privilege of receiving a selection of the journals that they publish," said Infochange.

In other words, added Infochange, "more than 10% of the total budget for IMSc (more than the entire budget for faculty salaries) is paid directly to these two multi-national companies."

We should add that while for the developing world this is a historic problem (and comparable to the problems it faces in providing researchers with labs) for the West it is a relatively new problem — although as we say, one that means even the wealthiest institutions in the world are now struggling to cope.

What we learn from all this is that the scholarly communication system created by Oldenburg is now broken, and the future development of science compromised as a result.

Seeking a solution

As the problem had become increasingly apparent librarians and researchers around the world had launched various initiatives to try and resolve the situation. Bioline was one such initiative; another was The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).

Founded by the American Association of research Libraries (ARL) in 1998, SPARC's initial focus was on creating new low-cost subscription journals, and electronic platforms like BioOne.

In addition, a number of large library consortia were created (including OhioLINK and the Canadian CNSLP) in order to give librarians greater muscle when negotiating institutional subscription contracts with publishers.

But it was not until 2001, when George Soros' Open Society Institute [OSI] organised a meeting in Budapest that a concerted approach was taken.

We should note that OSI's involvement flowed from its belief that developing countries needed help to improve and upgrade their library systems, not from a concern about the scholarly communication crisis. The convenor of the Budapest meeting Melissa Hagemann, for instance, had worked on OSI's Regional Library Programme — created to provide assistance to former Soviet Union countries on a range of library issues, including library automation, preservation and conservation.

In talking to librarians, however, Hagemann was inevitably alerted to other issues, and to the various initiatives that were being launched at grassroots level in the West — including those focused on improving the speed and efficiency of scholarly communication, and those aimed at addressing the serial price inflation problem. As she put it to me in 2005, "Given OSI's long-standing support for libraries and publishing within developing and transition countries, we were quite interested in the development of arXiv, and the response that the Public Library of Science [PLoS] petition generated in 2001."

In other words, in seeking to help improve libraries in the developing world, OSI found itself swept up into a much larger movement — as indeed did Chan, who was invited to Budapest on the strength of his work on Bioline. Others invited included Stevan Harnad, Peter Suber, publisher Jan Velterop, and then SPARC Director Rick Johnson.

In the event, the Budapest meeting was a huge success. Indeed in retrospect we can see it to have been a seminal event, leading as it did to the launch of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and to the creation of the Open Access Movement itself.

As Chan points out, prior to BOAI there had been various initiatives looking at different parts of the scholarly communication crisis, but no comprehensive approach. After BOAI, there was a single (although somewhat argumentative) movement focused on all aspects of the problem.

So what strategy was agreed in Budapest? Those attending the meeting all agreed (as had Kirsop, Chan and Ginsparg a few years earlier) that the obvious solution was to exploit the Internet. But how?

After all, publishers had by now made a lot of their content available on the Web. Elsevier, for instance, had launched its ScienceDirect platform in 1997, and competitors had soon followed suit.

But despite this, serial price inflation had only intensified. It had also led to growing consolidation in the industry, as publishers rushed to create all-you-can-eat subscription packages (the so-called "Big Deal"). This allowed publishers to say to librarians, "Look you can get all the journals you subscribe to through a single online interface now, why not let us throw in a few more journals at a discount". Most in any case insisted that libraries subscribe to large portfolios of journals, rather than individual titles, further increasing the cost burden and locking libraries into a fewer and fewer number of large journal packages from a handful of companies.

And as the big publishers got larger and larger so they absorbed more and more of any library's budget, and so were able to elbow smaller publishers out of the market, increasing their monopoly power, and constantly raising their prices in the process.

As it became increasingly apparent that poorer nations were now effectively locked out of the scholarly journal market, a number of special packages were put together. In the same year as BOAI, for instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) persuaded a number of scholarly publishers to provide free or discounted access to medical journals for researchers working in developing countries — the so-called HINARI package. Two years later the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) negotiated a similar package (AGORA) of free or discounted journals covering agricultural, food and nutrition research.

But these arrangements have been increasingly criticised — not least by Chan — on the grounds that, at best, they create an unhealthy dependency on "information philanthropy" and, at worst, they have simply become vehicles for helping publishers test markets under the cynical pretext of providing charity.

It was clear to those attending the Budapest meeting,therefore, that electronic distribution alone would not solve the accessibility problem. Consequently, they adopted a dual strategy. BOAI-1 (Green OA) was intended to encourage researchers to self-archive copies of all the papers they published on the Web, either in a central archive like arXiv or in an institutional repository (IR). The aim was for authors to ensure that a "supplemental" copy of their papers was always freely available online for anyone whose institution could not afford to buy access to the publisher's official version.

BOAI-2 (Gold OA), meanwhile, aimed to persuade publishers to develop a new type of journal; one that instead of demanding that readers (or their institutions) pay a subscription to access the contents, would charge an upfront "article-processing charge" (APC) or "author-side" fee for publishing a paper. By front-loading their fees in this way, publishers would be able to make all the papers they published freely available on the Internet themselves, and from the moment of publication. This approach had already been adopted by the first OA publisher Biomed Central (BMC), which had recruited Velterop earlier in 2001.

By adopting this dual strategy BOAI envisaged that researchers wanting to ensure their research was freely available would have a choice: They could find the money to pay an APC, and have the publisher make their paper freely available on the Web for them, or they could continue publishing in subscription-based journals, and then self-archive their papers themselves.

Unsurprisingly, publishers initially bridled at self-archiving. But confronted by an increasingly effective OA movement, and a great deal of moral pressure (since they were making a profit out of public money, and in some cases enjoying a 35% margin), most eventually bowed to the inevitable, and today around 91% of scholarly publishers permit some form of self-archiving, although often only after a six or twelve month embargo.

The promise of OA, then, is that every paper published will eventually be freely available on the Web — either via Gold or Green OA. And since the traditional subscription model most disenfranchises DC researchers, they would appear to have most to gain from OA. Not only does it promise greater visibility for their own work, but if all the research produced in the West becomes freely available too, then DC researchers will enjoy true equality of access — something that the subscription system could never provide.

And as more and more papers have become freely available on the Web a new phenomenon has been noted — the so-called "OA impact advantage". That is, papers made OA are cited more frequently than papers locked behind a financial firewall. This means that OA authors can expect to have greater impact on their subject, and so enjoy better career prospects. Moreover, research suggests that, once again, it is DC researchers who will be the greatest beneficiaries of the OA impact advantage. Implicit in this, of course, is the possibility that OA will also boost research into neglected diseases, and so help the developing world at large.

This then was the goal of the BOAI. So far as Bioline was concerned, Chan's attendance at the Budapest meeting led to an important decision: Publishers were told that from 2004 all the journals on Bioline would have to be made available on an OA basis, and the service has been 100% OA ever since. The impact this has had usage can be gauged from the Bioline statistics published on CRIA's site.

In total, Bioline now hosts 17,490 articles from 76 journals published in a wide range of DCs, including India, Uganda, Ghana, Turkey, Egypt, China, Iran, Venezuela, and Bangladesh. And today around 3.5 million papers are downloaded from the service each year.

The bottom line

We should note, however, that while it cannot be doubted that OA increases both the visibility and the accessibility of research, it is far from clear that either of the BOAI strategies can or will resolve the so-called affordability problem that continues to plague the global research community.

For some OA advocates this is proving a disappointment, since many had assumed that OA would also squeeze costs out of the system. Certainly to date there is no evidence that this is happening, or indeed going to happen. Librarians continue to pay subscriptions to publishers (and will continue to do so if Green OA is to flourish), and Gold OA simply transfers the costs from an institution's library budget to the author of the paper (or more usually to another source of funding within the author's institution, or his funder). Indeed, since Gold costs are now being paid in addition to traditional subscriptions, there has presumably been a step change in the overall costs of scholarly communication in the last year or so.

Certainly Gold OA is particularly problematic for DC researchers, since it means that they face the prospect of simply moving from a situation in which they cannot afford to access all the research they need, to one in which they cannot afford to publish all the papers they produce.

Aware of this, most OA publishers have introduced schemes to allow researchers without the necessary funds to request that their APC is waived, or discounted. However, not everyone is convinced that this offers a long-term solution. In a letter published in Nature last month, for instance, Raghavendra Gadagkar, a professor in the Centre for Ecological Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore argued that while page charges may be waived for authors who cannot afford to pay, "a model that depends on payment by authors can afford only a few such waivers."

For that reason, he warned, OA "could be disastrous for the underdeveloped world... [since it would encourage] ...people to remain as consumers (readers), rather than to become producers (authors) of knowledge."

DC researchers, he added, will inevitably prefer a "publish for free and pay to read" model over a "pay to publish and read for free" model. The fact is, he concluded, "If I must choose between publishing and reading, I would choose to publish. Who would not?"

Open Access advocates were quick to point out that BOAI's dual strategy means that it is not accurate to argue that DC researchers face such a stark choice, since they can continue to submit their papers to "publish for free" subscription journals, and then self-archive them using the Green OA strategy.

The problem with this, however, is that researchers have shown themselves to be extremely reluctant to self-archive, and today only 15% of authors do so spontaneously. And while OA advocates have persuaded some research funders and institutions to insist that researchers self-archive, there are today still only 44 self-archiving mandates in place worldwide, most of them in the developed world. Moreover, point out critics of Green OA, self-archiving will inevitably lead librarians to cancel journal subscriptions, causing the eventual failure of the journals on which self-archiving depends.

Other OA advocates insist that any concern about APCs is misplaced since, as Peter Suber puts it, "the majority of OA journals don't charge any author-side fees, and for the minority that do, the fees are usually paid by sponsors or waived."

The former point is one that Suber makes frequently. And in doing so he invariably cites a number of studies — including a 2005 report commissioned by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), a study Suber undertook himself last year with Caroline Sutton, and a self-described late night "hack" by OA advocate Bill Hooker, all of which studies indicate that the majority of OA journals do not charge author-side fees.

This line of argument, however, evades the underlying issue. That is, even if the majority of OA journals do not currently charge APCs it does not mean that the costs of publishing have gone away, simply that they are being allocated elsewhere. Importantly, it does not mean that publishers won't introduce a fee at some point in the future, since some publishers are treating Gold OA as a loss-leader. (A fact implicit in the decision by the American Physical Society to under price its Free to Read OA option to encourage take-up as APS treasurer/publisher Joe Serene conceded to me recently).

Likewise, just because Gold OA publishers offer a waiver today does not mean that they will continue to offer one, or will not start to ration waivers, which is precisely what BMC was accused of doing in 2006.

We should also note that while most traditional subscription publishers now offer "hybrid" OA options like Free to Read (where the journal will allow authors to choose to publish for free and allow their paper to go behind a firewall or to opt to pay an APC to ensure their paper is made OA), not one of these hybrid journals offers a waiver scheme.

For Bioline the OA affordability problem is real and pressing, if a little different. It also presents Chan with yet another Catch-22: Since publishers pay him nothing towards the cost of hosting their content on the service, every new journal added to Bioline further increases his overheads, without making any contribution towards costs. As a consequence, Chan has not been able to expand the service to help the many other DC publishers and researchers who would wish to benefit from OA.

True, in 2004 OSI provided a $30,000 grant to enable Chan to add 10 new journals to Bioline. But as a one-off contribution this was just a drop in the ocean, and has left hundreds of other DC journals unable to join Bioline.

To add to the pressure on Chan last year the University of Toronto informed him that it intends to discontinue funding Bioline in the near future. Consequently, not only is he unable to add further journals to the service, but unless Chan can resolve his funding problem soon Bioline itself may not survive.

His priority, therefore, has been to reduce costs as much as possible. And Chan has had some success in this. By persuading the journals he hosts to provide their papers in electronic format, for instance, he has reduced costs considerably, since scanning papers in from a print journal is very labour-intensive. In addition, much of the work is now done by student volunteers.

Nevertheless, there are still costs. As Chan puts it, "the bottom line is that it takes money to sustain Bioline". More specifically, it costs $80,000 to run the operation in Toronto, and another $35,000 to maintain the technology infrastructure at CRIA. And if it is to grow, and take on the many other DC journals clamouring to join, Bioline will clearly need a larger budget going forward.

So while Chan has demonstrated that OA can significantly increase the visibility (and credibility) of DC research, Bioline remains entirely dependent on the goodwill of the University of Toronto. And with no revenue coming in, and the University due any day to pull the plug, the service is in a very precarious situation.

In short, Bioline has no sustainable "business model". Moreover, Chan has neither time nor expertise to develop one. As he puts it, "We are on a life support system so it is hard for us to think big, and develop grand marketing ideas and business models."

Once again, Bioline's predicament is symptomatic of a problem that confronts the entire Open Access movement: For while few now doubt that Open Access is inevitable, no one has yet devised a convincing model for funding it over the long-term.

True, BMC is expected to break even this year, and the Cairo-based Hindawi is said to have successfully transformed itself from a subscription-based publisher to a 100% OA publisher, and yet still make a profit. Nevertheless from the perspective of the research community — rather than the commercial publishers feeding off it — many questions remain as to the long-term viability of OA, not least because there is no evidence that it will ever reduce the costs of disseminating research. As we saw, this is a particular concern for DC researchers, but one for the research community at large too.

Chan himself is by no means ready to give up, and has recently turned to SPARC for advice. In response, SPARC has tasked its senior consultant Raym Crow to advise him. "I'm confident that Leslie's commitment to Bioline's success will ensure the initiative's transition to a funding model that relies on earned revenue models (including, potentially, voluntary access fees and a sponsorship program) to supplement a reduced subsidy from Toronto," Crow e-mailed me recently.

He added, "Leslie has been remarkably successful in persuading the University of Toronto to subsidise much of Bioline's operating costs for the past six or seven years through cash subventions and in-kind subsidies, but the most stable funding models for Open Access initiatives will target the audiences that benefit most directly from them."

What will this mean in practice? That is not yet clear, but one strategy being considering is to approach those institutions whose researchers most frequently download material from Bioline and ask them to make an annual contribution — a model not unlike the institutional membership scheme introduced by OA publishers like BMC.

Another possibility might be for Bioline to rebrand itself. Today we are witnessing a rapid growth in the number of institutional repositories, but as director of publishing and strategic initiatives at the University of California Catherine Candee pointed out to me in 2006, not all research institutions will want to create their own institutional repository. They may, however, want to join a consortium. As she put it, "I doubt every single school will have its own institutional repository. More likely their content will be hosted by the larger schools like ours."

Meanwhile subject-based repositories like arXiv, RePEc, and PubMed Central continue to develop and flourish. Within this mix it would seem logical for a service like Bioline to position itself as a geographically-based repository. In other words — in addition to hosting papers on behalf of the 76 DC publishers it currently has a relationship with — it could invite DC researchers to deposit their papers in Bioline, regardless of where they had published them.

In fact, Chan has previously tried something similar, at one time inviting Bioline publishers and external researchers to post additional material into an experimental archive he created at the University of Toronto. But that was some years ago, when OA had a far lower profile. Moreover, Bioline would be a much more natural and obvious place for DC researchers to self-archive their papers than a small experimental repository without credentials.

Chan could then approach organisations like WHO and FAO and suggest that rather than continuing to prop up a small group of commercial publishers clinging to yesterday's publishing model through initiatives like HINARI and AGORA, they would be better supporting a next-generation non-profit service like Bioline. They could also do a little more to promote Open Access — both the Green and Gold varieties — at the same time.

What should not be doubted is that the traditional system of scholarly publishing has hit a brick wall, and the problems faced by Bioline are symptomatic of that crash. Consequently, the research community is either going to have to bite the bullet in order to continue funding scholarly communication, or be prepared to undergo a far more root and branch reform of the system that it inherited from Oldenburg than was envisaged at Budapest.

However, this is not an issue that the research community can decide on its own. Society at large will either need to find the necessary funds to make Gold OA possible, or the system created 350 years ago will need to be reengineered in a far more radical way — by, for instance, undertaking a radical re-appraisal of the way in which peer review is done. After all, peer review is the real bottleneck in the system.

But that's a discussion for another day. Let's finish with an assessment of Chan's personal contribution to the OA movement.

Harmony and cohesion

Chan could not (and would not) claim to be one of the OA movement's "thought leaders" — in the way, for instance, that someone like Steven Harnad or Peter Suber might. Nevertheless, he has played an invaluable role; one, moreover, that — since he primarily works "off stage" — has not always been apparent to the movement at large. Chan's low visibility can also no doubt be attributed to the fact that most of his energies have been focused on advocating for OA in the developing world.

But Chan has proved himself to be no mere foot soldier in the battle for OA, content to follow others and toe the line. The very fact that he insists on placing the stress on the developing world is a demonstration of this. After all, the movement has primarily focused on the needs of Western science, and many OA advocates express impatience when asked to take account of the specific needs of the developing world. Chan, by contrast, has consistently and persistently argued that OA has to be viewed as a tool for levelling the playing field in global science, as much as a mechanism for improving scholarly communication.

As fellow OA advocate Jean-Claude Guédon puts it, "Leslie has played an important role in insisting that the OA movement not limit itself to core, elite, Western-led science. He sees OA also (not exclusively, but also) as a way to help developing or emergent economies develop meaningful scientific capacity."

Of course, Chan is not the only person to view OA through the lens of the developing world. As Harnad point outs, "Along with Subbiah Arunachalam, Hélio Kuramoto and Sely Costa, Leslie is among the subset of OA advocates whose focus is not only on developing country access and impact (as Barbara Kirsop's likewise is), but who themselves originate from developing countries".

But what is distinctive about Chan is his willingness to roll up his sleeves and contribute in very practical ways, not only in his capacity as associate director of Bioline, but by constantly travelling around the world advocating for OA, often with considerable success.

For instance, says Arunachalam, Chan's advocacy work in India a few years ago inspired Dr D K Sahu of MedKnow Publications to launch 50 local OA journals, and several Indian librarians to create institutional repositories, including repositories at key Indian research institutions like the National Information Centre in New Delhi, the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela and the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune.

Again, this was done without any form of self-publicity, and often unbeknownst to the movement at large.

Chan is also notable (in a movement not short of grumps) for his user-friendliness. As fellow OA advocate Alma Swan puts it, "Leslie is one of the world's nicest people, with a 'do good' gene being expressed in every cell of his body." She adds, "He is very good at making connections, persuading people and influencing things in general."

A good example of Chan's persuasiveness was the role he played in getting Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to adopt an Open Access policy. Arunachalam had been trying to persuade IDRC vice president Rohinton Medhora to embrace OA for some time, with little success. Then one day Chan turned up and, as Arunachalam puts it, "clinched the deal".

Another Chan quality is his inclusiveness. This was personally evident to me when he summarily rejected my claim that the movement is bedevilled with warring factions — evidenced I suggested by the frequent arguments over the respective merits of Green OA versus Gold OA, or the disagreements over the relative importance of price and permission barriers.

"I would say that views within the Open Access movement are both looser and more diverse than might at first appear," he insisted, "and have always been. Moreover, they change over time."

In any case, he said, differences of opinion are important, as are a diversity of approaches and constant experimentation. The model he constantly invokes is that of evolution. As he put it to me, "What evolution tells us is that you are more likely to find success if you try three, four, or maybe five models than if you just try one. The more diverse ways we can develop to achieve the same end goal the better."

In short, the greater the number of experiments, the greater the chance of success, "because some of them are going to win out; or it may be a combination of them."

The point about Chan adds Guédon, is that "While strongly committed to the principles of OA, he is a pragmatist and can move tactically without insisting on the larger picture. Gradualism, small steps, etc., are acceptable as long as they move in the right direction."

This flexible approach, and his constant amiability, says Guédon, has contributed to the harmony and cohesion of the movement. OA advocate Susanna Mornati agrees. In Chan, she says, the OA movement has found "a fair and loyal spokesman."

If you ask Chan's friends and colleagues to describe his personality you can expect the replies to include words and phrases like energy, humour and generosity of spirit. "I suspect that these traits, coupled with determination and clarity of purpose, have made him especially effective in collaborating with other organisations and in marshalling resources to support and grow Bioline," says Crow.

Unsurprisingly — given his constant peregrinations — most descriptions of Chan are centred around a trip, or often a succession of trips. "Some of my fondest travel stories include Leslie," says Hagemann. "Along the way from Kiev to Vilnius to Beijing to Johannesburg I found Leslie to be an incredibly warm, funny and generous person."

So frequent and varied are Chan's trips, says SPARC executive director Heather Joseph, that before trying to call him she has always first to ask herself: "Now, where is Leslie today? What continent is he on? Who is he working with?"

Chan also invariably insists on organising his fellow travellers on these trips, arranging surprise boat excursions, or simply escorting them to the best location for obtaining a good view of, say, the skyline of Hong Kong.

And Chan makes a point of ensuring that his OA colleagues never feel stranded or alone in a foreign country. "During an OA conference in Hong Kong," says Hagemann, "Leslie invited me to join him and his extended family for dinner. This was the first time in years that he had seen many of his brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, but he included me in the dinner. And he insisted on organising a day of sightseeing for me the following day."

In short, hearing people talk about Chan's OA advocacy is a little like reading a picaresque novel, or watching a road movie! "I remember him dancing and playing ping pong at a conference", says Mornati. "And he takes thousands of pictures when travelling, so he is our official 'event recorder'."

Lucky Person

To top it all, Chan is modest to a fault. When I emailed him the draft text of the interview he replied, "I feel more than a little embarrassed in reading all those kind and flattering comments from my friends and colleagues. I have mixed feelings about putting them out there, likewise with the family details."

It is also typical that Chan attributes his successes to others rather than himself. "I would say that I am a lucky person," he told me. "I have always had good fortune, and met new people, and very knowledgeable people at that. And I think I have been able to draw a lot of energy and goodwill from these people."

When I asked Chan how old he was he replied, "1959; Year of the Pig". Unfamiliar with the Chinese Zodiac I turned to Wikipedia for enlightenment. "The Pig type," it reads, "is usually an honest, straightforward and patient person. They are a modest, shy character who prefers to work quietly behind the scenes. When others despair, they are often there to offer support". That, I thought, is one in the eye for those who question the accuracy of Wikipedia!"

But what is it that drives Chan? Why devote all his spare time to a cause that has brought him so much frustration and disappointment, and too little recognition? Partly stubbornness perhaps. When I asked Chan how he had kept motivated all these years he replied that it was the laughter that greeted him when he raised the topic of OA in the early days: the laughter of publishers — who said that he didn't know what he was talking about — and the laughter of senior colleagues, who responded, "You are wasting your time, you are going to kill your own career ... it is just not worth doing."

Indeed, what is most remarkable about Chan, suggests Joseph, is that he has had the inner strength to withstand this laughter, and the many disappointments over Bioline, on his own. As she puts it, "One thing that people don't realise about Leslie, and which is really very impressive, is that while he is a ubiquitous presence at conferences, and at meetings, he doesn't have an organisation like SPARC behind him supporting his OA activities."

What helps, says Chan, is that "I really believe in this stuff." Or as he put it during a recent email discussion I was copied into, "The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously reminded us that 'Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.' I would like to paraphrase Dobzhansky and claim that 'Nothing in Scholarly Communications Makes Sense Except in the Light of Open Access'."

What's at stake if Bioline has to close through lack of funding, and OA fails to deliver the goods for the developing world? We can't say, but consider this: Each year half a billion people are infected with malaria and over a million die as a result. Likewise, there are 300,000-500,000 cases of African trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) each year, which the World Health Organisation estimates leads to 66,000 deaths.

If it is true that increasing the visibility of research into diseases can shorten the time it takes to develop cures, then we should surely be doing everything we can to hasten universal OA. And if services like Bioline can play a special role in increasing the visibility of research into neglected diseases, then shouldn't organisations like the WHO and FAO be funding them? After all, if Bioline can help (in however small a way) to save lives, and reduce human misery, wouldn't it be money well spent to fund it?

As Chan points out, if funding agencies like WHO believe in their mission of public education and public health improvement, they should be prepared to support DC journals even if those journals are unable to develop a self-sustaining "business model". As he puts it, "They need to do so in order to ensure that [these journals] are well read, well circulated and that the research in them is built upon."

And by doing so the funding agencies can benefit too, he adds. "They can say that they are producing results: That they are putting money into these journals ... [and]... as a result, public health is being improved."

The same argument surely applies to funding Bioline?

Meanwhile, our unsung hero continues to circumnavigate the world spreading the word, giving papers and presentations, motivating others to support OA, and all the time racking his brains for a way of guaranteeing a future for Bioline.

And as if that were not enough to fill his days, Chan also finds time to chair The International Conference on Electronic Publishing (ELPUB) and, with OA colleague Swan, has recently co-founded a new OSI-funded project called OASIS.

"I'm pleased that Leslie's work within the OA movement will be highlighted through this interview," Hagemann told me, "for he toils away behind the scenes and supports so many others through his efforts, yet his own work rarely receives the recognition it deserves."

####

If you wish to read the interview with Leslie Chan please click on the link below. The PDF file that will download includes both the interview and this introduction.

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.

If after reading it you feel it is well done you might like to consider making a small contribution to my PayPal account. I have in mind a figure of $8, but whatever anyone felt inspired to contribute would be fine by me.

Payment can be made quite simply by quoting the e-mail account: richard.poynder@btinternet.com. It is not necessary to have a PayPal account to make a payment.

What I would ask is that if you point anyone else to the article then you consider directing them to this post, rather than directly to the PDF file itself.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at richard.poynder@btinternet.com.

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


3 comments:

Peter said...

Dear Mr Poynder.

I'm taking the liberty of forwarding to you a coy of an e-mail I recently sent to President Naylor of the University of Toronto regarding BioLine International. I've read an interview you did with Leslie Chan on BioLine and thought you might be interested. What Prof Chan does not make clear is that the promised funding for BioLine is being cut at the end of this month.




Dear President Naylor,

I recently heard that the University of Toronto is going to renege on its commitment to fund BioLine International. .

In 2006, U of T made a five year commitment to BioLine International for five years. I understand that the University's support for BioLine will cease at the end of this month, less than two years later.

Having made the commitment, U of T should honour it. Apart from being, in a pretty obvious way, the right thing to do, abandoning support of BioLine cannot be in the University's own self-interest. U of T will not only be undermining its own international standing with the scholars and academic publishers who are involved with BioLine, it will be turning its back on a successful undertaking in international community building. The University will be presenting itself as parochial in the extreme. That SPARC, of which U of T is a member, should be helping to lobby for the support of BioLine to help stave off its demise as a result of U of T's actions is more than a little ironic. It is difficult to see how a decision like this can do anything but harm the University's reputation and standing.

But public relations aside, BioLine has been a striking success. Last year there were over 3.5 million downloads from BioLine.

Since BioLine International is a relatively inexpensive, successful international project that encourages scholarly publishing, provides real and much needed assistance to the academic life of developing countries and has been manifestly successful, I would ask that the University's decision to withdraw its support be urgently reconsidered.

Thank you.


--
Peter Mitchell

Marla Miller said...

Dear Mr. Poynder,
I have read with interest the comment submitted to your blog. Mr. Mitchell does not have the timeline quite right, but he is correct when he says that funding promised to Bioline was revoked. Since I am the “silent partner” in Bioline, the librarian who made the 5 year funding commitment to the project, beginning with May of 2007, I would like to offer some clarification, in part to make sure that it is understood that I am not the person who withdrew the promised funding.
I manage an acquisitions budget for the University of Toronto. I try to manage the money with which I have been entrusted in a responsible manner. It seems clear to me that libraries have fallen into the mindset that our acquisitions money is meant to buy publications but really we should be open to any way of investing in making knowledge available to our scholars, and the more scholars who have access to the knowledge the better it is for all of us. Thus I have been supporting Bioline as long as it has been at U of T Scarborough.
The money pledged for 2007 -2011 was to run Bioline while also allowing for the development of a business plan to diversify the funding. U of T was not being asked to fund Bioline by itself forever. We met with the head of my division, the Chief Librarian of U of T and she gave her consent to our 5 year funding plan.
However, when the new budget year came around in May of 2007, to my complete surprise, the Dean of Leslie Chan’s campus stated that he was rescinding the approval of funding previously granted by the Chief Librarian. The transfer of funds I had requested was never completed. Neither I nor the Chief Librarian report to this Dean, I might add.
I am of the opinion that Dean acted improperly and that the University should fulfil the commitment that was made. With representation from my Faculty Association, I am now pressing for a review of the Dean’s decision. I am hopeful that the senior University administrators will understand what is at stake, and will agree to restore funding to Bioline as was originally agreed to by the University Libraries.



Yours truly,

Marla Miller

Richard Poynder said...

Thank you both for the additional information.

I requested interviews with both Professor Franco Vaccarino, Principal of the University of Toronto Scarborough and Vice-President of the University of Toronto, and the Vice-Principal (Academic) and Dean of the University of Toronto Scarborough. I understand that it was the latter who withdrew the funding for BioLine.

Yesterday I received the following reply from the University:

Dear Richard,

Your request for an interview with the Dean of University of Toronto Scarborough has been forward to my department. I regret that we are unable to grant your request for an interview at this time since the matter is the subject of a grievance that is being handled internally and confidentially.

If I can be of any further assistance, please don't hesitate to contact me.

Laura Matthews

Manager, Marketing and Communications
University of Toronto Scarborough