Friday, July 01, 2011

Peter Suber: Leader of a Leaderless Revolution

The July/August issue of Information Today has published an interview I did recently with Peter Suber, the de facto leader of the Open Access (OA) movement. The interview is available online here.

Below are a few quotes taken from the interview. 

On why OA is necessary: 

“Authors need OA to reach all the readers who could build on their work, apply it, extend it, cite it, or make use of it. Readers need OA to find and retrieve everything they need to read and to allow their software prosthetics to process everything they need to process.

“OA doesn’t merely share knowledge. It accelerates research by helping authors and readers find one another. It’s compatible with intermediaries but not with intermediaries who erect access barriers to keep authors and readers apart.

“Basically we need it to solve a serious access problem hindering researchers both as authors and as readers. But we also need it to seize beautiful opportunities offered by the internet, especially the opportunity to distribute perfect copies of arbitrary files to a worldwide audience at zero marginal cost.” 

On the current situation with regard to Green OA: 

“To me, there’s no single finish line for OA. But we’re rapidly approaching the point where green OA is the default for new research articles, even if it coexists with TA [toll access, or subscription access] from conventional journals. Green OA is already the default for physics worldwide, and for medicine in North America, for different reasons.

“The pace of progress varies from field to field and country to country, but the direction of progress is the same everywhere. The curve is up everywhere. And the reason is the same nearly everywhere, namely, the rise of strong green OA policies at funding agencies and universities. Some policies are weak and have little effect, but the spread of strong policies is definitely enlarging the worldwide volume of OA research.” 

On the current situation with regard to Gold OA: 

“We’re making progress here as well. The number of peer-reviewed OA journals is growing fast, both among new journals and established journals converting from TA to OA. There are more OA journals making profits or surpluses. There are more OA journals earning reputations for high quality, high impact, and high prestige.

“There are more experiments with different business models for OA journals in different niches and more recognition that there are many different business models to experiment with. There are more universities and funding agencies willing to pay publication fees at fee-based OA journals—and significantly, these numbers are growing even in a deep recession.

“There’s more recognition that supporting OA journals is an investment in a superior way to support research, researchers, research institutions, and peer review. More OA journals are documenting that their conversion to OA increased their submissions and citation impact.

“The growing number of conversions from TA to OA suggests to me that small and medium-sized publishers are starting to see OA less as a threat and more as a survival strategy. The big deals are soaking up library budgets, library budgets are flat or declining, and journals excluded from the big deals have little future under the subscription model.

“In fact, I see a growing recognition that the subscription model itself is unsustainable in a world in which the volume of published knowledge grows rapidly, and subscription prices grow faster than library budgets and inflation.

I see more funding agencies and governments—not just libraries and universities coming to the conclusion that price barriers to this critically useful literature create harmful access gaps and undermine the public investment in research and peer review. These institutions have long been committed to green OA, but they’re increasing their commitment to gold OA as well. 

Suber’s message to publishers holding out against OA, especially those lobbying against self-archiving mandates: 

“I’d argue that they should accept the legitimacy of mandating OA for publicly funded research and focus their objections on the length of the permissible embargo. If they don’t, they’re putting their private interest ahead of the public interest and demanding that public agencies do the same. 

“If they don’t object to green OA mandates for publicly funded research and merely resist the idea of converting to gold OA themselves, then I have no objection. But I’d urge them to allow author-initiated green OA. I’d urge them to study the gold OA publishers who are paying their bills and making profits and study the real sustainability of the subscription business model in a world of rapidly growing research and flat or shrinking library budgets. But the choice is theirs, and I’ve never wanted government policy to go beyond regulating grantees to regulating publishers. 

“For me, the pitch to subscription-based publishers is fourfold. First, permit green OA. Second, study gold OA. Third, don’t stand in the way as public agencies act in the public interest. Fourth, don’t stand in the way as researchers and research institutions act in the interests of research.” 

On whether the PLoS ONE peer review model will become the dominant one for scholarly journals: 

“PLoS ONE is a significant model for a peer-reviewed journal, even against the background of other peer-reviewed OA journals. The rapid growth of PLoS ONE imitators is a significant development in journal publishing overall, especially in light of the fact that some of the publishers with PLoS ONE clones were formerly harsh critics of the PLoS ONE model.

“In any science where there is some professional consensus on methodology, it makes sense to separate methodological soundness from significance and to focus prepublication review on soundness. To try to cover significance as well as soundness increases the time and cost of peer review and introduces a subjective element into editorial judgment. 

“Significance is better judged by the entire community in open discussion after publication than by a few referees in private before publication. The stakes are higher than they might appear, since the longer prepublication review takes, the longer we must wait for the peer-reviewed article to become OA. 

“The model will spread because it’s less expensive than traditional peer review. It may even have originated because it’s less expensive than traditional peer review. I appreciate the need to save money, especially at OA journals. But my own view is that the cost reduction is a weaker argument in its favor than its speed and focus on questions amenable to scientific judgment.

“As with any kind of peer review, it can be done badly. But I don’t worry that it means the end of rigor. We can judge methodological soundness with more rigor than we can judge significance, at least in those fields where there is professional consensus on method. The idea that postponing judgments of significance will reduce rigor is nuts. Where we find lapses of rigor, therefore, we can’t attribute them to the model itself but only to its implementation. 

“I agree with Stuart Shieber that the PLoS ONE model is bringing some high-prestige publishers to the world of gold OA, which will increase the number of high-prestige OA titles. I also agree that the number of new PLoS ONE clones will increase competition for authors, which will tend to improve terms, for example, with lower publication fees and less restrictive licenses.

“I also agree with Phil Davis that if PLoS continues to grant fee waivers no-questions-asked, and if the new PLoS ONE clones don’t, then PLoS could see a steady rise in the number of indigent authors, subtracting any savings it might currently realize from the model. I don’t see a good solution to this problem, except to make the case that all fee-based OA journals, including the new clones, should offer fee waivers in cases of economic hardship. But I don’t expect that argument to carry much weight with publishers who want to maximize profits and minimize the financial stability of a rival.” 

On whether OA will prove to be a cheaper way of publishing scholarly papers than the traditional subscription model: 

“There are good reasons to think that OA publishing costs less, and will continue to cost less, than TA publishing at the same level of quality. There are several studies suggesting this.

“However, there are also those who dispute the conclusion, generally without evidence or with misleading evidence, such as the experience of behemoth publishers with legacy overhead from the age of print and subscriptions. I’m happy to leave it an empirical question and wait for more decisive data to emerge. But my hypothesis based on present evidence is that OA publishing will cost less.”

There is much more in the 9,000-word interview, which is available in full here.

1 comment:

Stevan Harnad said...


Congratulations to Richard Poynder for another timely, incisive and insightful OA interview.

And heartfelt admiration and gratitude to the undisputed leader of the leaderless OA revolution, Peter Suber!

…Which doesn't prevent me from mentioning two minor strategic matters!

(1) It is a good idea to recommend that non-Green publishers channel any opposition or apprehension they may have concerning OA or Green OA self-archiving mandates into embargoing Green OA self-archiving instead of lobbying against Green OA self-archiving mandates, as Peter recommends.

But I don't think it's a good idea to encourage Green OA publishers like Springer (or Elsevier, or APS or any of the other 60% of publishers who are already Green on immediate, unembargoed Green OA self-archiving) to backslide into embargoes rather than lobby against Green OA self-archiving mandates!

Let those publishers who wish to lobby against Green OA self-archiving mandates do so, if they wish. The benefits -- to research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, the R&D industry, students, and the tax-paying public -- are so overwhelming that lobbying against Green OA mandates is extremely unlikely to be successful, especially regarding institutional mandates. For whereas not all research is funded, virtually all of it, funded and unfunded, originates from universities and research institutions. Anti-mandate lobbying has had some success in delaying the adoption of Green OA self-archiving mandates at the government funder level, but it has no leverage at the institutional level.

(2) The broad-spectrum, low-selectivity pass/fail mega-journal certainly has a potential niche today (whether OA or non-OA), but not only is that not the only way, the best way, or the most economical way for researchers to provide OA for their articles (Green OA self-archiving is), but it does not provide the level of quality control that the users of the top journals in each field need and depend on: Deferring that for "postpublication" peer review is not only the equivalent of embargoing it (and with a much less certain outcome), but it deprives authors of the level of immediate scrutiny and feedback that they expect and need from today's top journals, while also depriving users of the immediate indicators of a paper's quality level.

The immediate purpose of OA is to free the entire hierarchy of peer reviewed journals, such as they are, from access-barriers for all potential users: the purpose is not to flatten the peer review quality hierarchy and wait for pot-luck thereafter!

Stevan Harnad