Monday, April 22, 2013

Open Access in Poland: Interview with Bożena Bednarek-Michalska

Bożena Bednarek-Michalska is an information specialist and deputy director of the Nicolaus Copernicus University Library in Torun, Poland. She is also a member of Poland’s Open Education Coalition (KOED), a board member of SPARC Europe, and the EIFL-OA country coordinator for Poland.

Bożena Bednarek-Michalska
While conducting the interview below with Bednarek-Michalska three things struck me as noteworthy about the current state of Open Access (OA) in Poland.

First, Bednarek-Michalska reports that access to research information in Poland is “not bad”. In light of Harvard University’s 2012 Memorandum arguing that subscription-based scholarly publishing is now “fiscally unsustainable” this is striking. Harvard is the world’s wealthiest university. If Harvard is struggling, why are Polish universities not struggling too?

Of course, Harvard is a private university, and so has to fund its own information needs. In Poland, by contrast, most subscriptions to international journals are paid for (or at least subsidised) by the Polish government — by means of national licensing schemes, or Big Deals.

So if the traditional subscription-based system is providing reasonable access to research in Poland why are Polish researchers being asked to embrace OA?

Because, says Bednarek-Michalska, it would be foolish to assume that the Polish government will continue to pay the increasingly expensive toll charges that subscription publishers demand. Moreover, she adds, the large electronic journal bundles that commercial publishers offer do not generally include titles published by transition and developing countries. Consequently, she says, it is vital that the research community builds its own open resources. (In fact, the information needs of Polish researchers are already being supplemented by open resources).

In addition, adds Bednarek-Michalska, there are unselfish reasons why the research community should aim to make OA the norm — not least because institutions in the developing world can generally afford to buy access to only a handful of international journals. As a result, their researchers are being deprived of the essential raw material they need in order to contribute to the research endeavour. In short, the developing world has a great deal to contribute, but for so long as it is excluded from much of the global exchange of scientific knowledge it will struggle to play its part effectively.

Not a source of revenue

The second thing to strike me in talking to Bednarek-Michalska was that, unlike most journals published in Western Europe and North America, Polish journals are not viewed as a source of revenue. Indeed, since it is assumed that the role of scholarly journals is to disseminate research, rather than make money, they tend to be subsidised. For this reason, no doubt, many Polish journals are produced not by commercial publishers, but by the organisations that generate the research in the first place — universities and institutes.

The appeal of OA for Polish research institutions, therefore, is not just that it can the increase the visibility of their research output, but (thanks to the frictionless nature of the digital network) it can reduce costs too.

As Bednarek-Michalska explains, “[T]he costs associated with distributing titles (to both Polish and foreign libraries) are huge. As such they represent a significant financial burden for universities, and everyone is looking to reduce this expenditure today.”

She adds that OA encompasses two intertwined issues. “Open access has to be understood as an issue of cost (without charge) as well as an issue of accessibility. If you have a printed version of a journal sitting on the shelf in the library but researchers can only use it in the reading room, accessibility is low. Open access means that journals can be digitised and placed on the open Internet.”

One consequence of the Polish approach is that home-grown publisher Versita (acquired by De Gruyter last year) has introduced an OA model that it calls “publisher pays”. Here publication costs are met by the university or institute that produces the journal, not by its authors (or their funders). 

When learning this it occurred to me that, in light of the increasingly controversial nature of article-processing charges, this approach — were it to be widely adopted — would make Gold OA far more palatable to the research community (Although whether, if commercial publishers were involved, the  cost of distributing research in this way would prove any more sustainable than the subscription system might be doubted).

However, Polish OA advocates are not overly taxed with this issue today. As Bednarek-Michalska explains, right now Green OA has a good deal more traction than Gold OA, and Polish universities are busy setting up institutional repositories to facilitate it. Partly for this reason, perhaps, the highly controversial RCUK OA policy — which expects researchers to “prefer” Gold OA — has attracted little attention in the country.

By contrast, developments in both the EU and the US — including the OA requirements of Horizon 2020, the successful NIH Public Access Policy, the recent White House Memo on Public Access, and the proposed US legislation known as the Fair Access to Science & Technology Research Act (FASTR) — are being watched closely, and have encouraged the Polish government and its ministries to take an interest in OA. (We could note that OA efforts in the US are primarily focused on Green OA, not Gold OA, and the EU, unlike the UK, has expressed no preference.)

Broader movement for openness

Third, it would appear that activists in Poland tend to view OA as just one component of a much broader movement for openness. This is perhaps because they became interested in the topic at a later stage than those in the West (where OA has been an issue for some twenty years now). As a result, they entered the debate at a point where a number of different open movements were beginning to coalesce.

This broader approach is reflected in a new draft bill called the “Act on Open Public Resources”. If the bill were to become a reality it would apply to all publicly-funded scientific, educational and cultural resources. That is, it would cover not just scholarly papers and scientific data, but (where they were publicly-funded, or produced by a  public institution) “maps and plans, photographs, films and microfilms, audio and video recordings, opinions, analysis, reports and other works and subject-matter of related rights in the meaning of the law of 1994 on copyright and related rights, as well as databases in the meaning of the law of 2001 on the legal protection of databases.” (As translated by Tomasz Targosz of Jagiellonian University).

This suggests that if the proposed bill were enacted, Poland could find itself taking a leadership role. As Targosz points out, while as it is currently conceived the proposed Act can expect to face significant difficulties, it does nevertheless take a novel approach. For this reason, he suggests, it would benefit everyone if the experience of the wider movement could be brought to bear on the bill. “As the Polish attempt seems to be one of the first of its kind, certainly in the EU, insight from other countries could perhaps help to make it better and consequently to have a model law for the rest,” he says.

Unfortunately, the bill appears to have attracted little or no attention outside Poland, certainly in the West.

Read on to discover more about the current state of OA in Poland.