Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Open Access: Profile of Eberhard Hilf

Eberhard (Ebs) Hilf is a true veteran of the Open Access (OA) movement. A theoretical physicist based in Oldenburg, Hilf began his advocacy at least eight years before the term Open Access was coined. Yet in contrast to prominent OA advocates like Stevan Harnad and Peter Suber, Hilf was until relatively recently little known in the movement outside his native Germany. Richard Poynder explains why.

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Eberhard Hilf

Although a dedicated OA advocate, Hilf's main focus from the very beginning has always been on the broader issue of how the Web can improve scholarly communication. OA, he says, is just the first step to enabling a bigger revolution.

Thus while he has approached OA from this broader perspective, Hilf's assumption has nevertheless always been that OA needs to be viewed as a given. As he put it to a group of physicists and mathematicians in Halle (East Germany) in June 1994, in an online world all scholarly papers "should be free for all to read".

(By a strange accident of timing Hilf gave his presentation on the very same day that — on the other side of the Atlantic — Stevan Harnad posted his "Subversive Proposal" calling on all researchers to start making their papers freely available on the Web).

The seeds of Hilf's advocacy were sown in an incident that occurred a year earlier (in 1993), when a student came into his office and remarked: "You professors sit in here while outside a revolution is going on — the World Wide Web."

The student in question was Heinrich Stamerjohanns, at that time an assistant to Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who — with Robert Calliau — is credited with having invented the World Wide Web in 1991.

When Stamerjohanns explained what he meant Hilf immediately saw the potential it offered to revolutionise scholarly communication and asked Stamerjohanns to create Germany's first web server, in his department at the University of Oldenburg.

Hilf then embarked on a fact-finding tour of America. There he visited scholarly publishers, US universities and a bunch of technology companies — including Microsoft, where he was reliably informed that the Web had no future, and so there was no point in engaging with HTML!

Fortunately, Hilf took this advice with a pinch of salt, not least because one of his other stop-off points in the US was the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL), where he called in on fellow theoretical physicist Paul Ginsparg.

In 1991 Ginsparg had created a centralised electronic service to allow physicists to share their preprints with one another. Subsequently renamed arXiv, it began life as an email-based service, but was subsequently ported to the Web. There it went on to become an essential component in the process of scholarly communication for physicists — and today many physicists, as a matter of course, post their preprints in arXiv prior to sending them to a publisher.

Currently arXiv hosts over half a million papers, and around 5,000 new ones are added each month. Moreover, it is no longer restricted to physics alone: arXiv now accepts papers in mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics as well.

Recalling his visit to Ginsparg, Hilf says, "At that time the entire content of arXiv was still on a single PC under Paul's desk in his office, a small room at LANL."

Arriving back from his trip in a jetlagged and somewhat febrile state, Hilf rushed to the lecture hall at Oldenburg University, ripped up the physics lecture he was scheduled to give, and enthused excitably for an hour about arXiv.

"As a result we all started reading papers on arXiv," says Thomas Severiens, then one of Hilf's students." He adds: "They weren't much use to sixth term students, but we read them with interest nevertheless." ...

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If you wish to read the interview with Eberhard Hilf 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.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Interview with BioMed Central Publisher Matthew Cockerill


Matthew Cockerill

The growing success of Open Access (OA) publishing has raised a number of issues. Perhaps one of the more contentious issues is how OA publishers ought to market their journals.

Under a subscription model, publishers sell subscriptions to libraries; with OA journals, by contrast, publishers sell a publishing service to researchers. This change has implications for the relationship between publishers and researchers, which surely becomes more complicated. And it is not entirely clear that everyone has fully thought through the implications.

To get ahead of the competition, for instance, some OA publishers are launching hundreds of new journals in a relatively short space of time. And the number of OA publishers continues to grow. As a result, it is estimated that two new titles are added to the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) each day.

Clearly these programmes require that publishers recruit editorial boards, reviewers, and author submissions quickly, and in large numbers. This has seen OA publishers engaging in large-scale bulk emailing programmes, with researchers often receiving multiple invitations.

The practice has angered some of the recipients. In March last year, for instance, one researcher — Gunther Eysenbach — became sufficiently angry about the flood of invitations he was receiving that he began posting them on his blog (e.g. here and here) in an attempt to name and shame the publishers concerned. At one point he also threatened to sue one publisher for "spamming" him, arguing that its activities were both unethical and illegal.

And as the publisher of his own journal (The Journal of Medical Internet Research), Eysenbach also played a leading part in the founding of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

When OASPA was launched Eysenbach commented on his blog: "OASPA has some important missions. One is to set standards and keeping the standard of OA publishing high (e.g. by creating and enforcing a code of conduct, which includes for example standards against spamming)."

Other co-founders of OASPA (which recently held its first conference) include OA publishers Public Library of Science, Hindawi and BioMed Central (BMC).

Since BMC is a founder member of OASPA I was surprised when, on 16th July, I received an email from one of its journals — Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling — inviting me (a journalist) to submit a paper.

When I contacted BMC's publisher — Matthew Cockerill — he said that I had received the message because, in 2002, I had signed up to receive updates from BMC. During the registration process, he added, I had expressed an interest in biotechnology.

I was not myself conscious of ever having opted in to receive invitations to submit papers, although I had signed up for the BMC Update, and I had signed on to its journalist list. I was also intrigued that — out of the blue and seven years after I had first registered my name on the BMC site — I should suddenly receive this invitation.

So I suggested to Cockerill that we do a formal Q&A interview. He agreed, and we began to swap questions and answers by email. With the summer holiday period intervening this proved a somewhat protracted process, but I am now able to publish the interview.

While Cockerill was away on his summer break I received two more email invitations from BMC. On 17th August I received an invitation to submit a paper to Microbial Cell Factories, and on 4th September I received one inviting me to submit a paper to Biotechnology for Biofuels. These messages were not sent to my current email address, but to one I rarely use now, an address Cockerill subsequently told me that I had used in 2005 when registering with another publisher altogether — The Scientist.

"At that time," explained Cockerill, "BioMed Central and The Scientist were part of the same group of companies and shared website systems, and a registration was valid across the entire BioMed Central and The Scientist network."

There is no suggestion that BMC is doing anything improper, or unethical. But one does wonder whether the email invitations being sent out by OA publishers are not in danger of proving counter-productive. After all, researchers have shown themselves to be somewhat sensitive to email solicitations from publishers (e.g. here).

What also seems evident is that the bulk emailing activities of OA publishers inevitably lead to a number of other questions: questions (as I said) about the relationship between publisher and author in an OA environment, but also questions about the relationship between editorial decisions and commercial decisions, and indeed questions about the relevance of the traditional journal format on the Web, and the role of commercial publishers in this brave new world.

I explored some of these wider issues in the interview with Cockerill. In doing so I was struck by one thing in particular that he said: "OA is not a religion. It's not just a 'movement' any more, either. It is a working, legitimate and sustainable business model for publishing."

Would everyone would agree with that definition of OA I wonder?

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If you wish to read the interview with Matthew Cockerill 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.