Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Open access and Africa

In November I reported that PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the open access publisher in order to take up a position as Senior Advisor for Science Communication and Advocacy at an African organisation. 

At the time, PLOS said it could not say exactly where Marincola was going as it had to wait until the organisation concerned had held its board meeting in December.

But last week Marincola confirmed to The Scientist that the organisation she will be joining is the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), based in Nairobi, Kenya. (I am not aware that PLOS itself has put out a press release on this). Marincola will be leaving PLOS at the end of the year (this week), with PLOS Chief Financial Officer Richard Hewitt serving as interim CEO from January 1st 2017.

We can surely assume that Marincola will be advocating strongly for open access in her new position at the AAS.

But where does this leave PLOS? I discussed this and the challenges I believe PLOS currently faces in November, but I was not able to get Marincola’s views. In a Q&A published yesterday, however, The Scientist asked Marincola where she saw PLOS’ place in today’s open-access publishing marketplace.

Marincola replied, “The first and primary mission of PLOS when it was founded was to make the case that open-access publishing could be a sustainable business, whether in a nonprofit environment or a for-profit environment. So the very fact we have a lot of competition now is extremely satisfying to us and it is, in itself, a major part of our vision. As Harold Varmus said when he cofounded PLOS, if we could put ourselves out of business because the whole world becomes open-access STM publishing, that would be the greatest testament to our achievements.”

Meanwhile at Elsevier

Marincola is not the only publisher to have developed an interest in open access, in Africa, and in the African Academy of Sciences. In 2014 Elsevier announced that it was partnering with AAS to support researchers by means of a publishing training programme. This, it said, would include offering access to Elsevier Publishing Connect and providing support for hosting live, online webinars.

And last year reported that Elsevier is planning to launch a new African open access mega journal (presumably in the style of PLOS ONE). This would be free to readers, but authors and their organisations would have to pay to publish – although indicated that internal discussions were taking place over whether publishing fees should be waived for the first five years.

One of the organisations Elsevier was said to be working with in developing the mega journal is the AAS. The other partners in the group are the African Centre for Technology, the South African Medical Research Council and IBM Research-Africa. anticipated that the new journal would be launched this year, with the first papers being published in 2017. If the journal is still planned, then presumably the launch date has slipped.

Clearly there is growing interest in promoting open access and OER in Africa. But some believe that the involvement of people and organisations from the Global North can be a mixed blessing, as they can end up setting the agenda in a way that is not conducive to local conditions. One African tweeter commented recently, “The agenda for, and lead in, African studies should be set by African scholars.”

The same sentiment is often expressed about publishing and publishers, especially when large for-profit companies like Elsevier get involved. In a blog post last year University of Cape Town OA advocate Eve Gray said of the planned new mega-journal: “Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the impact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?”

Certainly as it confronts growing hostility in Europe (and German researchers face the new year without access to its journals as a result), Elsevier must be keen to develop new markets in other parts of the world.

But as always with open access and scholarly publishing there are no simple answers, nothing can be predicted, and opinion is invariably divided.

Postscript: I emailed the African Academy of Sciences and asked whether Marincola will be working on Elsevier's new mega-journal in any way. As of writing this, I have yet to receive a reply.


Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Marincola was never truly involved in PLoS ONE. Actually, revenue tanked while she was there because she never prioritized PLoS One needs. She was an ineffective CEO and was forced out because she didn't engage with the staff or the community. She alienated everyone in the organization that was interested in growing or innovating the publishing operations. If someone was asking for help in creating a PLoS One clone, she would be the least experienced PLoS veteran to work with.

Anonymous said...

It's true that Elizabeth Marincola was an ineffectual CEO and was eventually drummed out by both senior staff and the Board after hanging on far longer than was expected by insiders. And it’s likely that her position with the AAS is merely a face-saving, titular role convenient to her for personal reasons.

More importantly, her characterization of PLOS’ mission is sadly limited. If PLOS’ mission was to prove that OA could be sustainable, it would have achieved that years ago when PLOS ONE took off. The mission is about transformation, which PLOS has fallen very short in delivering on. Now, with a CFO in charge, a failing revenue base, the same Board in place that appointed Marincola, and a misdirected goal of spreading its technology far and wide rather than OA, it will hardly be any more likely to transform STM publishing in the future.