One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Ann Okerson, Senior Advisor on Electronic Strategies for the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), and a former Associate University Librarian at Yale University. Okerson also serves as a consultant on library projects.
Prior to joining Yale, Okerson worked as founding senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, DC, after having written the consultant report Of Making Many Books There is No End: Report on Serial Prices. Published in 1989, this was one of the early rallying cries to libraries and academia about the spiralling costs of scientific journals.
After arriving at Yale, in 1996, Okerson organised the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium (NERL), a group of 28 large research libraries (and over 80 smaller affiliates) that negotiates licences for electronic information (i.e. “big deals”) and engages in other forms of cooperative activity.
In 1997, with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Okerson and colleagues at Yale library mounted an online educational resource covering the topic of library licensing of electronic content, in a project called LIBLICENSE. In addition to web resources and tools, this includes the influential mailing list liblicense-l, which today has over 4,200 subscribers, including librarians, publishers and attorneys.
Describing her current job at CRL in a recent Wiley Exchanges interview, Okerson said, “I’m engaged with Bernie Reilly (CRL’s dedicated, creative president) and his senior staff to identify openings and opportunities for CRL electronic engagement: for example, playing a supporting role in some digital activities (such as supporting work for newspaper digitization projects) and a lead role in others (such as cross-consortial negotiations for significant archival and current e-resources).”
At CRL Okerson is leading a community working group tasked with rewriting the “Model Contract” originally pioneered at LIBLICENSE in the late 1990s. She has also just completed a two-year term as Chair of the Professional Committee of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) as well as four years on its Governing Board.
Okerson has been both a participant in and observer of the OA movement since the beginning. In 1995, for instance, she co-edited — with classicist Jim O’Donnell — the book Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: a Subversive Proposal for Electronic Journal Publishing. This consists almost entirely of e-mail messages, and covers an extensive multinational Internet discussion about the future of scholarly journals that took place across many e-lists. The debate was sparked by an online message that OA advocate Steven Harnad (interviewed earlier in this Q&A series) had posted in 1994 under the title “subversive proposal”.
Harnad’s message is now viewed as one of the seminal texts of the OA movement, although it (and the book it led to) was published before the various strands of the movement had coalesced into a single effort (and adopted the name “open access”) — which happened in 2001 at the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).
Today Okerson is a member of the international steering committee for SCOAP3, a project designed to transition the principle scientific journals in the field of high energy physics to an OA business model. SCOAP3 is set to go live in January 2014.
Given her background, Okerson is well placed to give an informed view on the current state of Open Access. Inevitably, she views matters through the eyes of a librarian.
What is striking to me, however, is that — at a time when many librarians have come to view publishers as the enemy — Okerson appears surprisingly balanced and objective in her views.
It is no surprise, then, that she views herself as belonging to the “pragmatic wing” of the OA movement. “I’m always thrilled with ‘better,’ but I also like ‘now’”, she says.
For that reason, she adds, her biggest disappointment is “the way that the desire for the best can get in the way of the really pretty darned good. The dialogue that we need to have among academics, librarians, publishers, and policymakers breaks down when it becomes ideological, and real opportunities can be missed.”
What in Okerson’s view is the current state of Open Access? “I remember getting my head around the concept of the asymptote back in Algebra II, that ideal line the curve is trending towards, closer and closer without ever absolutely reaching,” she says. “That’s my mental model for how we are progressing with open access. We’ll likely never get 100% there, but the trend and progress are real. If we were all a little less ideological, a little more pragmatic, there would be a variety of things we could be doing now that would advance our objectives and push the curve closer to the ideal line.”
The Q&A begins
Q: Would you describe yourself as an OA advocate?
A: Am I an advocate for OA? Not meaning to be disingenuous, I think today many in academia, libraries, and publishing are, for who could not wish for the widest possible readership and reuse of scholarly and research information?
I’d describe myself as in the pragmatic wing of open access advocates, eagerly desiring to see important cultural, scholarly, and scientific materials made as widely and freely available as possible, but I don't have a firm idea of just how far “possible” can go, or better to say, with what costs and benefits. We are all inventing this plane as we fly.
Q: In 1994 Stevan Harnad posted a message on a listserv that he headed “subversive proposal”. His proposal was that researchers should archive all their papers on the Internet so that they were freely available to all. Many now view this message as a seminal text of the Open Access movement. Certainly it sparked a heated debate, one that you subsequently captured in a book you co-edited with classicist Jim O’Donnell. Why did you feel the discussion was important enough to be published in book form?
A: When Stevan Harnad made the “subversive proposal”, we were still sharing files by gopher and ftp and getting at our e-mail with telnet. Mosaic had appeared a few months earlier, but few people had it and there wasn’t much to link to. Netscape didn’t appear until the fall of 1994.
I had done a lot of work on the academic library “serials pricing crisis,” as we named it in the 1980s, preparing a consultant report with recommendations for the Association of Research Libraries.
Next, in the role of ARL’s first scholarly communications officer, I inadvertently became the premier tracker and perhaps even house mother for some of the emerging band of innovators creating the very first online journals. (BTW, Harnad was Editor of one of those pioneer journals, Psycoloquy, which is how we first met.)
By 1994, we at ARL had convened three electronic publishing symposia in Washington, DC. These brought together publishers, scholars, societies, and journal editors, all trying to imagine our shared scholarly communications future. (Our directories of online journals from those days are now a historical record of the invention and growth of online scholarly communication.)
So Harnad’s proposal at the time was fresh, original, and well-argued. Also, it seemed to suggest a way to get a handle on the cost pressures affecting serials publishing. The book we edited and ARL produced, moreover, may be the first ever published that consisted almost entirely of e-mail messages!
Q: Open Access did not really coalesce into a movement as such until 2001, with the Budapest Open Access Initiative. What in your view have been the major achievements of the OA movement since then? And where do you think the biggest opportunity lies today?
A: There’s no question that the OA movement has been one of the defining topics in the discourse for scholarly and scientific publishing in our time. The liblicense-l list that I have moderated since 1997 has been the best ongoing seminar I’ve been lucky enough to take part in, and we’ve seen and continue to see there the most serious discussion of the issues of access as they emerge.
Members discuss the quantity and quality of publications, peer review, publish or perish, and now we discuss, with particular intensity, accessibility and what we can do to enhance it. If we’re not yet in a place where OA’s most ardent advocates want everyone to be, it can’t be denied that we’re in a very different place from twenty years ago because of such advocacy. And moving further forward.
Biggest opportunity? Perhaps monographs. We’ve been hearing in the last year, from sources like the Association of American Universities on the institutional side and from the start-up called Knowledge Unlatched on the other, that we may be getting to the point of thinking about ways that open access can support new or additional formats. The open access monograph has, in fact, gotten a toehold in countries such as the UK and Australia.
We’ve been preoccupied with making access to traditional journal publications as open and free as possible. But now there are early experiments with projects that aim to move open access business models into the publishing of scholarly monographs for young humanists and social scientists just entering the profession.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to address the question of the “tenure book” in a way that would genuinely enable and empower the production and dissemination of excellent work that is too hard to get published now? That would be just “huge,” and an example of unplanned consequences arising from an enterprise that was already good in itself.
Q: What would you say has been the biggest disappointment?
A: Biggest disappointment? It’s the way that the desire for the best can get in the way of the really pretty darned good. The dialogue that we need to have among academics, librarians, publishers, and policymakers breaks down when it becomes ideological, and real opportunities can be missed.
I’ve been deeply involved for the last couple of years in the SCOAP3 project, led by the scientists at CERN and their deep commitment to bringing the journal literature of their discipline of high energy physics into full OA accessibility.
It's a well-conceived, cost-neutral project to retain all the value-add of the peer reviewed version-of-record journals while achieving full and immediate open access. All it takes is for libraries to agree that what they’ve now paid as subscription fees for those journals will be paid instead to CERN, who will in turn pay to the publishers as subsidy for APCs. It's one way to go forward with an experiment well worth pursuing.
I’ve been frustrated that getting library participation can at times be so difficult. A zillion questions are asked, some unanswerable at this point in the project: some want the perfect answers to what will happen with the project 3 or 5 or 10 years out. Lots of people become nervous in different ways, and I’m really struck that some of our more outspoken advocates for OA in the library community, when faced with such a zero-cost, scientist-led initiative, have found it hard to give their assent.
There’s some kind of disconnect here between overall strategy (move towards OA) and willingness to experiment in support of the strategy. (Another essential in this project has been to disentangle participating journals from their packages or particular “big deals.” We discovered quite a challenge here, in that libraries and publishers don’t necessarily calculate the value of journals within these “deals” in the same ways.)
I’m always thrilled with “better,” but I also like “now.” I remember getting my head around the concept of the asymptote back in Algebra II, that ideal line the curve is trending towards, closer and closer without ever absolutely reaching. That's my mental model for how we are progressing with open access.
We’ll likely never get 100% there, but the trend and progress are real. If we were all a little less ideological, a little more pragmatic, there would be a variety of things we could be doing now that would advance our objectives and push the curve closer to the ideal line. And, I believe there will always be books and journals we will pay for — and probably should pay for, as this will be the best option; we in libraries should be prepared to do that, so long as we are paying a fair price for quality work.
Q: There has always been a great deal of discussion (and disagreement) about Green and Gold OA. In light of recent developments (e.g. the OSTP memorandum, the RCUK OA policy, the European Research Council guidelines on OA, and the new OA policy at the University of California) what would you say are the respective roles that we can expect to see Green and Gold OA play going forward?
A: That kind of prophecy is beyond me: I’m sure both will have roles. To me the essential thing that risks getting lost when we have a variety of paths to OA is careful tracking of the version of record (VoR). I think it’s very important that for any given article, we know what that version is and where it is and how one can get to it.
Even if the VoR is behind a paywall and there’s an OA version otherwise available, it's important to know where that VoR is and to be careful to know if it’s been updated or corrected or modified. That’s essential. But that means it's also important that the OA version be the VoR. If not, we can work around it, but better not to have to.
I emphasize this particularly now when the CHORUS and SHARE proposals are gathering steam. To me an essential feature that each of them must have is that tracking of the VoR. It’s very relevant to what I say below about “open use”.
Q: What about Hybrid OA, which most of those in this Q&A series have expressed some concern about? What role do you expect to see that play?
A: We’re living in a time with a lot of experiments in business models and strategies, and the hybrid journal has certainly been an experiment worth making, but at the moment, to me, it looks as if it’s not going to be one that concludes successfully.
The confusions that can come from mixing OA and subscription materials in the same journal are too great in various ways (knowing what one can access or not, how to blend but keep separate the business side without double dipping, etc.), and it also looks as if there’s a kind of plateau that at least some of the hybrid journals are hitting and not getting beyond.
I predict we’ll see such journals evolve into something more like “full traditional OA” before too much longer.
Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?
A: Here’s a matter that I don't think gets enough attention, and it’s beginning to be pressing. Open access is a very good thing, but it’s nowhere near as good as it should be if it doesn’t come with what we might call “open use.”
Just putting up flat files containing content where one is free to read them, doesn’t provide users with all the desired meaningful access to the articles in those files. The value of scientific articles now lies in how one can find them, link to them, and perform all the functions one may wish: for example, mash up or mine the data for purposes that the article authors and publishers may never have thought of.
As we get to the point where we’re accepting the fact of OA, we need to be making sure that the structures and arrangements we make allow for open use as well. This is one of the current hesitations for now with regard to the CHORUS option being floated to US government agencies: post-embargo reading will be permitted, but other downstream uses are as yet undefined and full open use may not be permitted, or may vary by publication, publisher, subject, etc.
Q: What does OA have to offer the developing world? And do you think it is more or less effective than schemes like Research4Life, where publishers offer free or discounted access to subscription journals for institutions based in the developing world?
A: I've spent four years on the board of IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations), worked for years with eIFL, and done a lot of other international work with eIFL-like projects.
I return from those efforts excited by the impact that the digital revolution in publishing, mediated by a lot of smart librarians, can have in nations at every level of development.
The Research4Life (R4L) project is the same age (HINARI launched in 2001) by your definition as the OA movement beginning with Budapest. I was very much involved with that at Yale and am proud and excited by what we’ve done.
If something even better comes along, fine, but we’ve had a dozen years already of really good and important free access in a lot of places that wouldn’t have seen a page of such content otherwise, and it will be some time before we see it.
Remember also that efforts such as R4L have a much broader remit than free or very cheap reading for journals and now a growing number of ebooks. R4L grows out of librarians’ global commitment to provide access through numerous parallel means: content, online training in information literacy, research support.
In addition to publishers’ generous content contributions, R4L is in fact a celebration of librarians at the center of educational and research service delivery to hundreds of developing countries’ educational and government institutions. We hope for more and more free, unfettered access, and even with that, the need for R4L activities will continue to be essential over the next years.
In the context of developing countries and the “development agenda,” I worry, though, that the scholars and scientists in those rising countries are still having trouble making their own work public and accessible. Extending the culture and professionalism and quality of the first world’s journal publishing to the emerging powerhouses and near powerhouses of global culture and science is no small task and one that needs more attention now and in the years soon to come.
We are fortunate in some projects in Latin America and Africa that take this challenge seriously, by providing for open access outlets for journals from their countries and giving them global visibility. We need more of this.
Q: What are your expectations for OA over the next 12 months?
A: We’re in an exciting and bumpy ride moment, since John Holdren’s US-OSTP directive last February. I’m going to say that the most important development of the next twelve months, the thing to think about, is keeping a firm hold on the baby’s foot, as we’re pitching out a lot of bath water.
Discipline by discipline and country by country, scholarly publishing is deeply implicated in numerous cultural and business practices that add a lot of value to our common worldwide educational and research enterprise. There may be places in which paywalls must stay up a good while longer, perhaps indefinitely, perhaps only a little while longer.
We can’t let ourselves get so carried away with our excitement that we wind up breaking important things that just happen to be in the way or linked to older practices we’re eager to dissolve. There are real differences in how, for example, humanities scholarship and sciences research are funded and used. I worry that in “fixing” STM publishing we will break some of the rest.
Q: The seeds of the OA movement (certainly for librarians) lie in what you earlier referred to as the “serials pricing crisis”, which is an affordability problem. It was this affordability problem that created the accessibility problem that OA was intended to solve. Will OA in your view be any less expensive than subscription publishing?
A: Taking the long view back to 1994 and the beginnings of these conversations, I have to say we’ve learned just how large, complicated, and important this part of the world of publishing and communication is. Right now, today, when looking at, for example, the APCs that PLOS charges ($1,350/article for PLOS ONE and $2,900 for PLOS Biology), we are discovering that there’s no such thing as a “free lunch.”
We’ve survived nearly two decades of e-journal publishing and 15 years since the Big Deal has thrived — and the sky hasn’t actually fallen. We’ve incurred costs, no question, but the wings have stayed on the plane. Now we’re redesigning the plane, and we’re all excited by the results.
Here’s the fondest hope of the pragmatic OA advocate: that we settle on a series of business practices that truly make the greatest possible collection of high-value material accessible to the broadest possible audience at the lowest possible cost — not just lowest cost to end users, but lowest cost to all of us.
End of the day, the cost of the system that publishes and distributes scholarly/scientific information is going to be borne somehow or another by all in the academic and research community, including our funders, so it’s in our interest to find the models and strategies that get the most to the most for the least cost. We’re heading in that direction.
There are days on which it feels as if we’re only 1% of the way there, but I venture to say that historians will look at 1994-2014 (or some period like this) as one of the most amazing moments of innovation and transformation in human history, with just astonishing change in a mere blink of an eyelash.
I have a very firm memory of somebody nudging me in 1996 in an Arizona shopping mall and saying, hey, look over there, a soccer mom with one of those cell phones — you’ve never seen that before. And I hadn’t. Now on a normal day in our house, there are up to 14 wireless-networked devices doing their business — and all needing to be plugged in and charged at the same time. If it takes us a few years longer to get information access right(er), we will surely succeed.
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, de facto leader of the Open Access movement Peter Suber, Open Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences (CLASCO)Dominique Babini, Cameron Neylon, advocacy director for the non-profit OA publisher Public Library of Science, Philippe Terheggen, Managing Director, STM Journals at Elsevier, and Michelle Willmers,Project Manager of the OpenUCT Initiative at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa.
The full list of those taking part in the series is here.