This is the eighth Q&A in a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA). On this occasion the questions are answered by Peter Suber, de facto leader of the OA movement.
Philosopher, jurist, and one-time stand-up comic, Peter Suber was one of the small group of people invited by the Soros Foundation to the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) meeting held in Hungary in 2001. It was in Budapest that the term Open Access was chosen, and a definition of OA agreed.
And it was Suber who drafted that definition, doing so with words that still stir, inspire, and motivate OA advocates everywhere.
It was also Suber who chose to make the biggest sacrifice for the cause. In 2003 he gave up his position as a tenured full professor to become a full-time advocate for the movement, swapping secure employment for a series of uncertain, short-term grants.
But Suber’s commitment and hard work for the OA cause has been rewarded. In 2003 he was named Senior Researcher for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), in 2009 he received a joint fellowship at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and in 2011 he became Director of the Harvard Open Access Project. His relationship with Harvard deepened this year when he was appointed the new Director of Harvard’s Office of Scholarly Communication, replacing Stuart Shieber, the architect of the Harvard OA mandates.
Suber is also the author of the definitive book on Open Access, which is itself now available OA.
Who better then than Peter Suber to summarise the current state of Open Access, outline what still needs to be done, and suggest what the priorities should be?
Suber’s answers to my ten questions are published below. Personally, what I found noteworthy about them is that — along with most of the interviewees in this series so far — Suber singles out for censure both the Finch Report and the subsequent Research Councils UK (RCUK) OA policy, in which researchers are exhorted to favour gold OA over green OA, and permitted to opt for hybrid OA.
Like many OA advocates, Suber also argues that green OA is a more effective and efficient strategy for achieving Open Access than gold OA in the short term. As he puts it, “[I]t’s still the case that green scales up faster and less expensively than gold. I want us to work on scaling up gold, developing first-rate OA journals in every field and sustainable ways to pay for them. But that’s a long-term project, and we needn’t finish it, or even wait another day, before we take the sensible, inexpensive, and overdue step of adopting policies to make our entire research output green OA.”
He adds, “I still believe that green and gold are complementary, and that in the name of good strategy we should take full advantage of each. From this perspective, my chief disappointment with the RCUK policy is that it doesn’t come close to taking full advantage of green.”
And like the majority of interviewees in this series, Suber deprecates hybrid OA. “Bottom line: hybrid journals offer very little OA content and still charge subscriptions, and therefore offer very little help to authors or readers and no help at all to libraries.”
However, unlike earlier interviewees, Suber makes a point of deploring the phenomenon that has come to blight the OA movement like nothing else — what he refers to as the “cancerous growth of scam or predatory OA journals”.
But lest there be any doubt, Suber has much to say that is positive about OA as well, and he takes the opportunity to underline his continuing belief in its ultimate success, and the many benefits he expects it to bring. “A couple of years after Budapest, we already had worldwide momentum for OA,” he says. “Today policy makers agree that the question is not whether to make the shift to OA, but how.”
But don’t listen to me, read the careful, measured and informative words of Suber himself in the Q&A below.
Earlier contributors to this series include palaeontologist Mike Taylor, cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad, former librarian Fred Friend, SPARC director Heather Joseph, publishing consultant Joseph Esposito, Portuguese librarian Eloy Rodrigues, and executive director of the Australian Open Access Support Group Danny Kingsley.
The Q&A begins
Q: What in your view have been the major achievements of the OA movement since you helped draft the definition of OA in Budapest in 2001?
A: There are many small stories and one big one. First, there's a very large cluster of very concrete achievements: the launching of thousands of new OA journals, the conversion of hundreds of TA [Toll Access, or subscription] journals to OA, the launch of thousands of new OA repositories, the adoption of scores of funder OA policies, the adoption of hundreds of university OA policies, and the opening of millions of new and previously published works of scholarship. On top of that we can point to steadily improving stakeholder education about what OA is and what it is not.
These achievements were small, local steps taken in the hope that they would accumulate, inspire further steps, build on one another, and join up to create a critical mass for global change. The big story is that this is working. A couple of years after Budapest, we already had worldwide momentum for OA. Today policy makers agree that the question is not whether to make the shift to OA, but how.
Q: What have been the main disappointments?
A: I’m disappointed that so many hoary myths and misunderstandings about OA are still repeated by people who should know better. We still hear policy-makers, journalists, and Ph.D. academics assert or assume that all or most OA is gold OA, that all or most OA journals charge publication fees, that all or most publication fees are paid by authors out of pocket, that all or most authors who publish in conventional or non-OA journals must give up the chance to make the same articles OA, that OA journals can’t attain the quality of the best TA journals, that green OA must be embargoed, that green OA can't be libre, that permission for OA must be granted by publishers rather than retained by authors, and that the costs of OA exceed the benefits.
Just a minute ago I said that improving stakeholder education was one of our major achievements. That's true, but it’s just one side of a two-sided truth. The curve is up but the slope is shallow. Over the last decade, we’ve seen an unmistakable net rise in accurate understanding about OA. The rise has been respectable but insufficient. It’s especially respectable considering the depth of change we were proposing and the FUD we were opposing. But we still have a long way to go.
I’m disappointed by the cancerous growth of scam or predatory OA journals, by the assumption in some quarters that all or most OA journals are predatory, and by the spectacle of predatory OA getting more press attention than honest OA. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Outside the subculture of sports fans, dishonest athletes get more attention than honest athletes. But at least we can say plainly that this kind of coverage is unfair to the honest majority, and we can’t excuse the unfairness on the ground that the distinction between honest and dishonest athletes — or honest and dishonest bankers, politicians, and journalists — is somehow difficult to grasp.
I’m heartened by the steady growth in the number of OA policies and funders and universities. But I’m disappointed that too many policies are weak, and that too many disregard the experience of other institutions when drafting their own policies. I’m also disappointed that the number of funders and universities with strong OA policies is small compared to the number of funders and universities worldwide. I’m disappointed that virtually all universities create incentives to publish new work in specific journals, often based on bogus metrics, and that relatively few universities have policies or incentives to deposit versions of the same work in their OA repositories.
I’m disappointed that the majority of OA journals still use all-rights-reserved copyrights rather than open licenses. This is entirely due to misunderstandings by friends and allies, not lobbying by opponents. I’m disappointed that most OA journals don’t understand the benefits of open licenses, and don’t understand their own power to make use of them.
Finally — to cut the list short — I’m disappointed with the RCUK policy. I’m disappointed that the UK government put more publishers than researchers on the Finch Group. I’m disappointed that the group gave a higher priority to insuring publishers against risk than assuring public access to publicly-funded research. I’m disappointed that the government accepted this recommendation as fulfilling its responsibility to serve the public interest. I’m disappointed by the evident belief among UK policy-makers that if OA is good, then RCUK policy must be good, and by the growing belief among UK researchers that if the RCUK policy is bad, then OA itself must be bad.
Q: There has always been a great deal of discussion (and disagreement) about the different roles that Green and Gold OA should play. In light of recent developments (e.g. the OSTP Memorandum, the RCUK OA Policy, and the European Research Council Guidelineson OA) what would you say should be the respective roles of Green and Gold OA today?
A: It is still the case that green OA can be mandated without violating academic freedom, and gold OA cannot. If we ever reach the point when virtually all peer-reviewed journals are OA, then gold OA mandates will be as compatible with author choice as green OA mandates. But we haven’t reached that point and we’re not even close. That's why all OA mandates have been green, and why all OA mandates should still be green. Policy makers can encourage gold, pay for gold, and create incentives for gold. But when they require OA, they should require green.
Moreover, it’s still the case that green scales up faster and less expensively than gold. I want us to work on scaling up gold, developing first-rate OA journals in every field and sustainable ways to pay for them. But that’s a long-term project, and we needn’t finish it, or even wait another day, before we take the sensible, inexpensive, and overdue step of adopting policies to make our entire research output green OA.
Gold OA has its own advantages of course. It provides its own peer review, and can bring its own revenue stream. While green OA can be unembargoed, gold is always unembargoed. And while green can be libre, it's easier for gold to be libre — even if most OA journals fail to seize that opportunity and still use all-rights-reserved copyrights.
I say more about the relative advantages of green and gold, and make the general argument that green and gold are complementary, in Chapter 3 of my book — which is now OA, by the way.
I still believe that green and gold are complementary, and that in the name of good strategy we should take full advantage of each. From this perspective, my chief disappointment with the RCUK policy is that it doesn’t come close to taking full advantage of green. As I argued last September, the result is that the UK will “pay more than necessary, make the transition slower than necessary, leave a regrettable percentage of publicly-funded research non-OA, and put the business interests of publishers ahead of the access interests of researchers.”
Q: What about Hybrid OA?
A: Hybrid is a risk-free way for TA publishers to experiment with OA, and many conventional publishers are offering it. However, they aren’t offering it because they support OA, but because it's risk-free and a growing number of funders are willing to pay for it. The uptake from authors is very low, and because hybrid journals can always fall back on subscriptions, publishers have no incentive to increase author uptake. Bottom line: hybrid journals offer very little OA content and still charge subscriptions, and therefore offer very little help to authors or readers and no help at all to libraries.
I completely support the policy of the Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity (COPE) not to pay publication fees at hybrid journals. For the same reason, I oppose the RCUK policy to pay publication fees at hybrid OA journals, and especially its policy to pay double-dipping hybrid journals. Funders willing to pay publication fees to support OA should use their leverage to get journals to convert to full or non-hybrid OA.
Q: How would you characterise the current state of OA, both in North America and internationally?
A: In the US, we have strong policies moving forward in both the legislative and executive branches. In Congress, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) has bipartisan support in both chambers. FASTR has new libre requirements which make it even stronger than its predecessor, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). As of today FASTR has three co-sponsors in the Senate and 11 in the House.
On the executive side, the Obama administration has ordered nearly two dozen federal funding agencies to adopt libre green OA policies for both publications and data. The policies are due late next month. Soon after that, we should see the acceptable ones start to take effect and the unacceptable ones sent back to the drawing board to be made acceptable.
While these policies are taking shape, the NIH policy is becoming more effective. After it announced new steps to enforce its mandate earlier this spring, its compliance rate has grown quickly and is now above 80%.
We even have strong OA bills popping up at the state level. A pro-OA bill was recently adopted in Illinois, and good bills are pending in California and New York. A pro-OA bill was introduced but defeated in North Dakota. An anti-OA bill in Mississippi was defeated last year, but back this year for another go.
The rest of North America is pulling in the same direction. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) strengthened its OA policy earlier this year. Now the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) are developing their own OA policies with the goal of harmonizing with the CIHR, the US, and the EU. The National Autonomous University of Mexico adopted a strong OA policy in 2011, and the Mexican Congress is currently considering a bill introduced by Senator Ana Lilia Herrera Anzaldo to require OA to publicly-funded research.
Q: What still needs to be done, and by whom?
A: My list of what we still have to do is a lot like my list of our accomplishments — more university policies, more funder policies, more OA repositories, more OA journals, and more stakeholder understanding. These are the same lists because on every important front we’ve come a long way and still have further to go.
Most of these actions can be taken by academics themselves, and by academics I mean faculty, librarians, and administrators. At private funding agencies, only the foundation managers can adopt OA policies, and at public funders only agency heads or elected officials can do so. But those elected officials listen to voters and major institutions, like universities, in their districts. Only publishers can launch new OA journals, or convert TA journals to OA. But one fact of life in the internet age is that the barrier of entry to the category of publishers has disappeared. Established publishers now coexist with lean and mean OA start-ups, and with libraries redefining what it means to share research with patrons.
Stakeholder education is everyone's responsibility. Speaking accurately is everyone's responsibility. Challenging misrepresentations, whether innocent or cynical, is everyone's responsibility.
Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?
A: University and funder policies. It’s still the case the pace of OA depends on author decisions, because authors decide whether to submit their work to OA journals, whether to deposit it in OA repositories, and how to transfer their copyrights. And it's still the case that universities and funding agencies are in the best position to influence author decisions.
Funder policies cover a larger swath of research, and university policies cover a larger swath of researchers. If I had to choose, I'd give a slightly higher priority to university policies. Apart from reaching more authors, they have a better chance of creating a research culture in which OA is rewarded, habitual, second-nature. However, I'll also add that we don't have to choose, and should work energetically for both kinds of policies.
Most university policies since 2008 have been adopted by faculty votes. Hence, putting university policies at the top of my priority list also puts faculty education about OA at the top of the list alongside it.
Q: What does OA have to offer the developing world?
A: Access! The demand for OA is greatest in the developing world, where subscription access is least affordable and where subscriptions donated by HINARI-like programs don't close the gap. Researchers in the global south know this well and are among the most determined advocates for OA.
But there’s another layer to this demand. OA doesn’t merely share the research published in the north with researchers in the south. It goes beyond north-south and north-north access to south-north and south-south access. Again, researchers in the global south know this too. They don’t want OA merely as readers. They also want it as authors. They want to read cutting-edge developments in their field, regardless of where the research was undertaken or published. And they want their own work to be known to colleagues elsewhere, whether those colleagues work in affluent or indigent institutions, and whether they live across the world or in a neighbouring city.
Priced access is stratified and unequal access. This isn’t merely a frustration to those excluded. It’s a brake on progress in every field of science and scholarship.
Q: What are your expectations for OA in 2013?
A: Nearly two dozen federal agencies in the US will adopt green OA mandates, both for peer-reviewed articles and for data. The EU will adopt a green OA mandate for €70.2 billion worth of EU-funded research. The RCUK policy will continue to cost needless money, enrich incumbent publishers, and antagonize researchers who would otherwise be the natural allies of OA.
Thanks to initiatives from Global Research Council (May 2013), Science Europe (April 2013), and the G8 Science Ministers (June 2013), there will be many new OA policies at other funding agencies around the world. Thanks to ongoing work by groups like Electronic Information for Libraries (EIFL), Enabling Open Scholarship (EOS), SPARC, and, if I may, the Harvard Open Access Project (HOAP), there will also be many new OA policies at universities around the world.
Q: Will OA in your view be any less expensive than subscription publishing? If so, why/how? Does cost matter anyway?
A: If it’s implemented well, OA will be less expensive. Here's how I put it in my book (at p. 143).
“There are reasons to think that OA journals cost less to produce than toll-access journals of the same quality. OA journals dispense with subscription management (soliciting, negotiating, tracking, renewing subscribers), dispense with digital rights management (authenticating users, distinguishing authorized from unauthorized, blocking access to unauthorized), eliminate legal fees for licensing (drafting, negotiating, monitoring, and enforcing restrictive licenses), and reduce or eliminate marketing. In their place they add back little more than the cost of collecting publication fees or institutional subsidies.”
In the book I cite several studies supporting these conclusions, and in my updates to that section of the book I cite several more.
On the other hand, OA could be at least as expensive as subscription publishing if it’s implemented badly, for example, by putting policy in the hands of publishers with a track record of opposing OA.
There’s a sense in which cost doesn’t matter. I’ve often argued that OA brings so many benefits to authors and readers that it would be a bargain even if it cost more than TA. However, there’s another sense in which cost matters a great deal. When OA is badly implemented and needlessly expensive, then people who are only paying partial attention can easily conclude that OA itself is needlessly expensive, when they should conclude that only a poor implementation is needlessly expensive.
Moreover, there’s no doubt that we’ll make faster progress if the academic and public-good arguments for OA are joined by economic and bean-counting arguments for OA.
Peter Suber is the Director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, a Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Senior Researcher at Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, and a non-practicing lawyer. His most recent book is Open Access (MIT Press 2012). For more information, see his home page.
For anyone interested in finding out more about Peter Suber I have previously conducted two interviews with him, first (2007) as part of the Basement Interviews series, more recently (2011) for Information today.