In inviting people to take part in this Q&A series I have been conscious that much of the discussion about Open Access still tends to be dominated by those based in the developed world; or at least developing world voices are often drowned out by the excitable babble of agreement, disagreement, and frequent stalemate, that characterises the Open Access debate.
It has therefore never been entirely clear to me how stakeholders in the developing world view OA, and whether their views differ greatly from those that have dominated the OA conversation since it began in around 1994. In the hope of gaining a better understanding I plan to invite a number of people based in the developing world to take part in this series.
To start the ball rolling I am today publishing a Q&A with Dominique Babini, who is based at the University of Buenos Aires. Readers will judge for themselves how, and to what extent, Babini’s views differ from those we hear so often from those based in, say, North America or Europe.
Personally, I was struck by two things. First, unlike everyone else so far in this series, Babini does not directly mention either the Finch Report or the controversial OA policy introduced earlier this year by Research Councils UK (RCUK).
Second, Babini is quite clear that commercial publishers should no longer be allowed to set the agenda for scholarly communication. Indeed, she sees little useful role for them in a world where research is now routinely shared and distributed online.
This latter point confirms a suspicion I have had for a while. That is, as the world increasingly moves to OA two opposing views of how scholarly communication should be organised appear to be emerging. One view says that the only way scholarly publishing can be efficient and effective is if market forces control the process. Of necessity, this implies that commercial publishers should continue to play a major role in the process of distributing research.
A second view says that since commercial publishers have shown themselves to be excessively greedy and controlling, it is no longer appropriate for them to be involved in the process of managing and sharing publicly funded research, particularly now that the online environment makes it possible for the research community to take back ownership of scholarly communication.
This second view appears not to be confined to the developing world. The impact of commercial publishers on scholarly publishing has been aired twice in this series already. In the first Q&A, for instance, palaeontologist Mike Taylor said, “I'm so frustrated by the compromises that researchers, librarians and even funders make to the legacy publishers. Those publishers are not our partners, they're our exploiters. We don't need to negotiate with them; we don't even need to fight them. We just need to walk away.”
And in the sixth Q&A, Portuguese librarian Eloy Rodrigues remarked “while I am convinced that OA is the future, I’m not completely sure whether it will be a ‘research-driven OA’, or a ‘publishing-driven OA’. Both scenarios are still possible, and the way in which we will transition and implement OA will make a world of difference.”
Specifically, Rodrigues suggested that the extent to which scholarly publishing proves to be cost effective in the future will depend on which form of OA emerges.
Of course, any suggestion that the role of commercial publishers in scholarly publishing should be curtailed, or ended, invites an obvious response: What alternative model is there? As publishers (and apparently librarians) believe that there is no alternative, this is an important question.
Could it be, however, that the developing world has an answer? In her Q&A Babini draws our attention to a number of online indexing services in Latin America and Africa that have over time developed into novel OA platforms — notably Brazil-based SciELO, Mexico-based Redalyc and South Africa-based African Journals Online (AJOL).
Babini points out that none of these are commercial services but local non-profit community-organised projects. And while initially they were created simply to index the content of local journals in order to raise their visibility, over time they have evolved into full text OA services and, for those journals that want it, some can even provide complete OA publishing platforms. (For instance, a number of the journals on AJOL — which is based on the open source software Open Journal Systems (OJS) developed by the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) — do not have their own web platforms, but manage the entire publication process on AJOL, including peer review.
Between them SciELO and Redalyc now index nearly 2,000 Latin American peer-reviewed journals, all of which are available in full-text and all of which are available on an OA basis. And AJOL offers access to 460 African journals, although only 150 of these are currently OA (45% of the individual articles indexed by AJOL are OA).
Most of the journals indexed by the three services do have their own web sites, but the services offer a unified platform to allow users to search across all the journals in one go. However, this is no longer the most significant point about these OA portals. What is noteworthy is that, with the exception of those journals in AJOL that still levy subscriptions, all the content is freely accessible to anyone, and (most notably) none of the OA journals indexed by the portals levies article-processing charges (APCs).
In other words, in this environment Gold OA does not imply “pay to publish/free to read”, but “free to publish/free to read”. So when OA advocates in Latin America say that they support Gold OA they do not have in mind the kind of model envisaged by Finch/RCUK (where researchers are able to access third-party content for free, but need funds to pay to publish their own research), but the model exemplified by SciELO and Redalyc (where research can be both accessed and published without charge).
In addition, research institutions in Latin America are busy setting up Green OA institutional repositories. These are viewed not as publishing platforms but the locus for researchers to self-archive papers they have published elsewhere (either in subscription or OA journals), as well as their theses, books, and research reports. That is why Babini talks below of both Green and Gold open access platforms.
Given the apparent success and popularity of non-profit OA platforms like SciELO, Redalyc and AJOL, and the growing disillusionment with the OA roadmap envisaged by Finch/RCUK, we might wonder whether the new model emerging in the developing world offers a better option for the developed world too.
Two different directions
Either way, right now OA publishing appears to be pointing in two different directions. One direction envisages a world in which scholarly communication continues to be moulded and driven by commercial interests (as envisaged by Finch/RCUK), the other points to a world in which scholarly communication is moulded and driven by the research community itself, and on a non-profit basis.
It may of course be that the Global North will end up adopting the Finch/RCUK model while the Global South adopts the SciELO/Redalyc model — and these different models might turn out to suit those respective parts of the world well enough. We might also see the development of mixed models; and additional new models could emerge too. Whatever the future holds, however, we should note that it is public money that is used to fund the process of scholarly communication. It therefore surely behoves the research community to spend that money responsibly, wisely and cost effectively.
The problem right now, as Babini points out, is that the research community seems to be sleep-walking into the future rather than planning it. What is needed, she suggests, is a global discussion on how best to build the future of scholarly communication.
Instead, what we too often see today is an OA movement at war with itself, or simply so focused on small details that it cannot see the big picture. And for their part, governments appear over keen to, as Peter Suber puts it in the eight Q&A in this series, “put the business interests of publishers ahead of the access interests of researchers.”
Meanwhile, legacy publishers are now working overtime to create OA in their own (profitable) image.
“Now that OA is here to stay we really need to sit down and think carefully about what kind of international system we want to create for communicating research, and what kind of evaluation systems we need, and we need to establish how we are going to share the costs of building these systems,” says Babini.
For her part, Babini believes that scholarly output should be treated as a commons, and so managed as a “shared social-ecological system”. Her thinking on this has been heavily influenced by the ideas of Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess, ideas they expounded in their book Understanding Knowledge as a Commons.
And that, it seems, is the kind of picture that starts to emerge if one asks an OA advocate based in Latin America to comment on the current state of OA. But please do read the Q&A below to get the complete picture.
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, Executive Officer of the Australian Open Access Support Group Danny Kingsley, and de facto leader of the Open Access movement Peter Suber.