Thursday, December 22, 2005

OA as instrumental good

Historically, Open Access (OA) has been viewed as primarily an issue for researchers in the sciences. Today, however, there is a growing debate about its relevance to the humanities. So when last week the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics (PSWP) site was launched it seemed an ideal opportunity to discuss OA in the context of the humanities with Josiah Ober, the professor of classics at Princeton who, in collaboration with Stanford's Walter Scheidel, created PSWP.

Q: I understand that the purpose of the PSWP initiative is "to make the results of current research undertaken by members of Princeton and Stanford Universities in the field of classics available in advance of final publication." Why? And who do you expect to download the papers?

A: The purpose is two-fold: first, to cut down the lag time between the completion of an article or chapter and its availability to the scholarly community (the lag can be considerable, especially in the case of edited volumes, which can proceed no more quickly than the rate of the slowest contributor), and to allow authors of work in progress to get feedback from other scholars.

My guess is that most downloads will be by students and professional classicists for use in their own scholarship.

Q: Which is the more important function of PSWP in your view: to enable authors to solicit comments prior to submitting articles to a journal, or to increase the visibility of research being done by the Princeton and Stanford departments of classics?

A: I regard soliciting comments as more important than publicity per se. I am perfectly happy to have the work of our two faculties receive extra attention, but that is not my main concern.

Q: Does the PSWP concept owe anything to the physics preprint server

A: I don’t know that server. My model in initially thinking through the site was social science Working Papers (WP) sites, in the first instance the WPs of the Princeton Economics Department. Gene Grossman, a professor in that department, discussed with me the history and operations of his department’s WPs. When their series began, it was distributed in hard copy. The ease of distribution via the Internet has subsequently made it a viable experiment for a relatively small humanities department like ours too — since we have fewer resources to devote to this sort of enterprise.

Q: What issues are raised when putting up a humanities preprint site?

A: I guess I don’t know yet. It is meant as an experiment — we should have a better sense of the issues in a year or so. I don’t initially see why humanities WPs would raise issues that do not come up in social science WP series.

That said, humanities fields do not seem to have as clear a hierarchy of prestige journals. Getting papers accepted at the best journals can be extremely important in promotion and tenure decisions in social science departments; humanities departments still tend to be more book and chapter driven. But whether that will make any substantial difference I don’t yet know.

Q: You maybe saw the comment made by OA advocate Peter Suber: "More OA is better than less, so I applaud this initiative. But I must say that a classics repository for all classicists would be more useful than one limited to faculty from two distinguished departments." Does he have a point?

A: Sure he does. Our initiative is constrained by two considerations: quality control and resources. The papers on the site are not refereed. So, for example, we depend on personnel decisions at our two departments, and the advice of our departmental colleagues, with respect to posting graduate student work; and we need to provide some guidance to users of the site about the quality of work they might expect to find there.

The resource constraint is both a question of staff time and of server space: We don’t currently have the resources (or for that matter the expertise) to host a high-quality site featuring the work of the worldwide community of classical scholars.

Q: Do you envisage classics departments from other universities being invited to deposit their papers at your site in future?

A: We have left that as an open question. When we began this project we knew that we would have to control costs, yet did not have an accurate sense of how much resource it would entail. Before adding other universities we would have to look carefully at the feasibility. Based on the history of economics WP series, however, we might expect other universities to set up their own sites.

The long-term answer might be for a professional association to become the primary site for hosting classics WPs. Our goal from the beginning was to run a scalable experiment in the hope that it would lead to something of genuine value to those interested in classical scholarship, and the field of classics as a whole.

Q: Suber also commented "[A]n OAI-compliant repository would be more useful than a non-compliant repository." Was there any particular reason why you chose not to adopt an open metadata harvesting standard when developing the site?

A: This is beyond my expertise level. Basically, we went with what looked to be the best cost/benefit approach, with the goal being to get a useable site up quickly, using existing resources. We assumed that we would get feedback from various quarters after mounting the site.

Q: So you have built the service using standard web tools, rather than a specialist e-print solution like Southampton University's EPrints software, or MIT's DSpace?

A: Right, the site was designed and mounted by Princeton’s great departmental IT specialist, Donna Sanclemente, using standard web tools. Walter and I are full time teaching faculty without prior experience in hosting open access sites and Donna’s time for this project is limited. Since our goal was to get a workable site up quickly in hopes of getting helpful feedback, we felt it was more cost effective to go with tools we already knew. 

Q: Another point made by Suber was that a repository for both preprints and postprints would be more useful than a repository for preprints alone. Do you have any plans to include postprints? Would providing postprints raise any particular issues in the area of classics?

A: I agree it would be more useful. But I would be very hesitant to get involved in posting material that has been published under copyright not held by the author. This is not a classics-specific issue, but a general intellectual property issue. I have no idea of what sort of legal clearances we would need to get from copyright holders, or what sort of arrangement for payment to copyright holders we would need to make.

Q: In connection with PSWP, Brian Simboli, a librarian at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, raised this question on the Liblicense mailing list: "What are the patterns in humanities fields regarding whether journal publishers will accept items if they have been previously published as working papers or 'preprints'"? You are perhaps aware of the Ingelfinger Rule, which has posed difficulties for those working in the life sciences who want to post preprints on the Web. Can you see similar problems for classicists?

A: Here, we are guided by the experience of the social science WP sites that were our models — in social science fields WPs have become an accepted part of the publication process. My assumption is that humanities will prove to be more like social science than the life sciences in this regard.

Q: You say the working model for you was that of the Working Papers sites pioneered by social scientists. Does that imply that you do not envisage PSWP as an "open access" initiative as such? Perhaps you are also not very familiar with the open access movement?

A: My own knowledge of the open access movement is that of a layman who has read a few news reports, and so I hadn’t initially thought of our project as an open access initiative as such. Our goal, as classics faculty, is to further classical scholarship. Creating a WP site seemed to us an interesting (because as yet untried in the humanities) and relatively low-cost way to do so. If along the way we can also promote open access — which I regard as a good thing on general democratic principles — that’s a plus.

Q: Certainly OA today is mainly viewed as a science issue. Why do you think that is so, and do you think that in the long term OA has less, the same, or perhaps even more relevance to the humanities than to the sciences?

A: Humanities scholarship is a small area compared to natural science scholarship. Humanities work tends to be comparatively low-cost (few big labs or big grants) and individually authored. OA's immediate benefits are perhaps harder to measure in the humanities than in the sciences. OA for humanities is still something of a “green field.” There are a number of OA experiments in the area of classics; see for example, the site being developed by the Center for Hellenic Studies.  I am optimistic that these and other experiments will help to keep humanistic scholarship a vital and important part of the overall intellectual scene.

Q: So is OA an inherently good thing for the humanities or just something that some researchers may find interesting to provide?

A: By calling something an inherent (rather than an instrumental) good, you set the bar pretty high. I tend to think of OA as an instrumental good, but it may be understood as an intrinsic aspect of inherent goods (freedom, democracy).

Again, I don’t see why humanities would be a special case — if humanists are producing work that is of value to others, that value is increased by its accessibility. OA is in this sense an instrument for delivering something that may be of inherent value.

Q: I get the feeling that researchers in classics have shown themselves more willing to jump into the Internet pond than those in other humanities areas (the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, for instance, was launched in 1990, making it the second oldest online scholarly journal). Do you think this is merely coincidental, or do classicists today tend to be more receptive to new ways of doing things than their colleagues in other areas of the humanities?

A: Well, it’s certainly true that classicists have been out there in the forefront of humanities computing for a long time: the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae was a revolutionary textbase (and remains among the biggest textbase projects going). Perseus began as a classics site.

So as a result, classicists have been pretty attuned to computing for a full generation now, and I would guess we are on average more computing-oriented than other humanists (though I don’t know of any actual statistics on that). It didn’t hurt that David Packard got his PhD in Classics and has been a big supporter of classics computing from the beginning.

Q: You are perhaps aware of the growing trend for science research funders to request/require that their grantees make their papers available on the Web (not least the National Institutes of Health's policy on Enhancing Public Access to Archived Publications Resulting from NIH-Funded Research). Can you see a logic for funders in the humanities adopting a similar approach, or is funding in the humanities sufficiently different that such an approach may not be appropriate?

A: Humanities funding is mostly personal grants for leave time to individuals, and humanists still tend to publish a lot of books. So I would guess that this sort of requirement would be unlikely in the near term.

Q: Certainly there are calls for this in the UK. The draft proposal from Research Councils UK (Access to Research Outputs), for instance, proposes mandating all publicly-funded researchers, including those in the humanities, to self-archive their papers on the Web. It's not yet clear what the final RCUK policy will be, but do you think this is how the future will look: that in the way that researchers have been required to "publish or perish" they will find themselves also being required to ensure that their papers are freely available to all on the Web?

A: My guess is that it will increasingly be the case that material that is not web accessible will be less likely to be consulted or cited, and that this will in turn result in a lot of pressure on authors and publishers to find ways to make academic work web accessible.

Yet the crunch is likely to come in quality control (to get back that issue). Academic publishing, personnel decisions, and indeed the entire modern enterprise of scholarship is predicated on detailed and careful peer review. That costs quite a lot (many hours of work by pretty highly paid people are involved).

The costs are now (in part) covered by the profits made by academic publishers. In current business models, those profits depend on ownership of intellectual property as defined by copyright law.

Q: Would you say that peer review is as important in the humanities as in the sciences?

A: Peer review is at least as important in humanities as in the sciences — maybe more so in that we do not run experiments that can be independently reproduced. The quality control issue seems to me to be a hurdle that needs to be got over in order for the OA revolution to be completed.

Q: Of course that assumes that OA and peer review are incompatible — a notion that OA advocates would strenuously reject. Commenting on PSWP, Margaret Landesman, a librarian at the University of Utah, suggested that the classics community maybe doesn’t need "formerly published" journals any more. As she put it: "Why not keep the preprint archives and dispense with the journals." Peer review could still take place, but the whole process could be done electronically — which is the Bryn Mawr Classical Review model isn’t it? Moreover, if authors retained copyright the need to obtain permission to archive postprints on the Web would go away. Does that make sense to you?

A: There are several issues here: one is the relative importance of journal articles as opposed to books or book chapters: As long as humanities remains strongly book-oriented (which may change, of course), shifting to electronic publication of humanities journals would be only a partial solution.

Bryn Mawr Classical Review is an important success story in electronic humanities publication, but peer review/quality control concerns are less demanding when publishing scholarly book reviews than when publishing scholarly articles.

The editorial work that ensures proper peer review for scholarly books and articles is very time-consuming. It must be done to a very high standard if the enterprise of scholarship is to be sustained. Following the Bryn Mawr model, universities (or professional organisations) might choose to provide senior scholars with appropriate incentives to do the necessary editorial work on electronic journals (or even books).

Universities work hard to cut “non-essential” costs. It is a matter of persuading universities and professional organisations that it is in their interest to assume costs that are currently paid for by the publishing market. That is a daunting, but certainly not an impossible, challenge.

Q: Does OA provide benefits to researchers that were not possible historically? If so, what benefits?

A: It seems to me that it a case of making things of value (the results of scholarship) readily available to a very wide audience of researchers (professional and amateur), rather than restricting them to the privileged elite that happens to have access to great research libraries.

Of course even those who do have access to major libraries may be encouraged to read more widely because the material is “right there” in front of them. So there is increased potential for cross-appropriation of ideas and facts.

Q: What future developments do you see for a) PSWP b) OA in the humanities in general?

A: I hope that our site will grow in the number of papers we offer and the number of downloads. Beyond that, I am keeping an open mind. If there is a substantial readership for the Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, then I would hope that it would promote similar (or better!) sites in other humanities fields — and thereby push towards the long term goal of making more and better scholarship available to bigger and more diverse audiences.

The extension of “what is potentially known” is, I believe, extremely healthy for democratic societies — indeed, that is the subject of my current research.

Q: Can you envisage value in, say, attaching blogs to specific articles, and encouraging feedback/comments etc.?

A: There might be value in that, but my very limited experience with the blogosphere doesn’t encourage me to move in that direction. Blogging at this point seems to be best suited to matters in which opinion is of greater moment than expert knowledge; in matters of scholarship, where expertise does have a big role to play, I’d prefer to leave it to individual commentators to contact individual authors.

Q: Finally, do you think that OA is "inevitable and optimal" as OA advocates often put it? If so, what are the compelling reasons for arguing that that is the case in the area of the humanities in general, and in classics in particular?

A: Inevitable is a strong word and one I tend to avoid when speaking of social phenomena, like politics, economics, or OA. I think that there will be strong pressure for more OA over time, as students and scholars become more and more used to doing their research online. Optimal must of course depend on implementation.

So I’d say that OA is a very good bet, and stands to be a lot closer to optimal than any prior information regime I know of.

Humanists, whose work can be made readily accessible across disciplinary lines (in a way that is more difficult for highly mathematical fields), are likely to benefit disproportionately from OA — and should, therefore, have every reason to support it.

Friday, December 16, 2005

A real tragedy

In writing my recent article about the Royal Society's position statement on open access I contacted a number of Fellows of the Society, including some of those who had written an open letter objecting to the "largely negative stance" taken in the statement.

After publishing the article I received an e-mail from Professor Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at New England Biolabs. Professor Roberts, who signed the open letter, had been travelling when I e-mailed my questions to him, so I was unable to incorporate his views into the article. Given the degree of interest that the Royal Society's position statement has generated I thought there would be value in publishing Professor Robert's response separately.

Professor Roberts is a Nobel Laureate, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a research editorial board member for the open access journal PLoS Biology, and senior executive editor of the journal Nucleic Acids, which is published by Oxford University
Press and in January 2005 became the first traditional journal to go open access.

Q: Why did you sign the letter to the Royal Society?

A: I signed the letter because it expressed my own sentiments perfectly. I am a strong advocate of open access, and write about it and speak in favour of it whenever possible. I was appalled when I first read the Royal Society's statement.

Q: The Royal Society says that the open letter is based on a misunderstanding, since the Royal Society's position statement is only a re-statement of views it published on 24th November, and that these views were arrived at after extensive discussions that took place in February 2004. At that time these views were also approved by the Council for the Royal Society. Were you aware of those discussions? Did you take part in them? Did you object at the time?

A: The first I heard of this was when BioMed Central's Matt Cockerill sent me the statement. I had personally contacted the Royal Society about this issue several years ago and had spoken with Lord May [the former president of the Royal Society] about it. I was basically brushed off. However, I was not consulted or even forewarned of this statement.

In fact, I first drew the attention of this matter to the Royal Society in January 2001 (almost five years ago). At that time I had written an editorial piece for PNAS about open access and was lead author, and main protagonist, of a letter to Science about the issue.  Now they call for a study — just 5 years too late!

Q: The Royal Society says that it has adopted its position on open access partly because of concerns raised by the mathematics, chemistry and physics communities within the Society, and that most of the signatories of the letter are from the life sciences. Is that your understanding?

A: I know that most of the signatories are from the life sciences.  I have no knowledge of who has expressed opinions against open access. However, I would note that the physicists have had a form of open access of pre-publication results for a long time (thanks to Paul Ginsparg and his preprint server).  The chemists seem to be held hostage by the American Chemical Society, which makes exorbitant charges for its journals and has firmly opposed open access, even to its older publications.

Q: The Royal Society says that the letter has been signed by just "a small number of the 1,274 Fellows." Is it fair to view the letter as representing only a minority view amongst Royal Society Fellows?

A: We won't know if it is a minority view because the Society has never been polled on this issue. Furthermore, I am still surprised that many scientists, and I suspect many Fellows of the Royal Society, are not even aware of the issue, or have not given it any real thought — so for such a poll to be effective there would need to be some education of the participants.

Q: How would you like to see the Royal Society respond to the letter?

A: I would have hoped to see a more conciliatory position taken and especially I would have liked to see some action. For the last three years there have been lots of words, basically opposing open access by calling for studies or more thought, but no actions.  My mother taught me that actions speak louder than words.

Q: Has the Royal Society lost touch with its Fellows on this issue?

A:  I think that the Royal Society has not only lost touch with its Fellows on this issue, but is out of touch with the pace of the younger scientists whose interests it should be looking after. Most young scientists don't even know where the library is these days. If they can't access the literature from their computer then it might as well not exist for them. So much for seeing farther by standing on the shoulders of giants! This is a real tragedy.

Q: The Royal Society's approach to open access is in stark contrast to that of the Wellcome Trust (which has mandated its funded researchers to make their papers open access). Why do you think that is? And what does the contrast signify?

A: This question gets to the heart of the matter. The Wellcome Trust has been bold and imaginative, and is to be applauded. I would note that they have no financial interests in opposing open access. The Royal Society by its own admission makes some profits from its publications, as do many scientific societies. If you really want to know why people do things I always think that one should follow the money first.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Not written in the stars

Like any good drama, the open access story is one full of twists and turns, dramatic unmaskings, and unexpected reversals of fortune. This has been so from day one, and it has been particularly so in recent weeks, as the spotlight has fallen on the Royal Society.

As previously reported, on 24th November the Royal Society posted on its web site a position statement on open access. Widely interpreted as an attempt to derail the Research Council UK's proposed policy on access to research output, the statement warned that OA could be "disastrous for the research community", and cautioned against introducing "policies that force researchers to adopt new models that are untried and untested" without first exploring "the likely costs and benefits to all."

Two weeks later, on 7th December, 42 disgruntled Fellows of the Royal Society — including James Watson, the scientist who discovered the structure of DNA, and Sir John Sulston, who headed the British end of the human genome project — responded by sending an open letter to the president of the Society, Lord Rees of Ludlow. Expressing disappointment that it had taken a "largely negative stance on open access", the letter urged the Society to support, rather than seek to delay, the RCUK policy.

More evidence

In its turn, the Fellows' letter elicited a reply from Lord Rees. "We certainly do not, as your letter implies," he wrote to the dissident Fellows "take a 'negative stance' to open access. We are simply concerned that open access is achieved without the risk of unintended damage to peer-review, quality control and long term accessibility of the scientific literature."

Lord Rees went on to list a number of specific issues he had with open access, and concluded that before the proposed RCUK policy was introduced "[W]e believe that a study should be commissioned to assess the relative merits of the various models that have been proposed under the rather broad banner of 'open access'".

OA advocates were quick to point out that since the RCUK was proposing self-archiving, not new publishing models, the Royal Society's stance was based on a misunderstanding. "[M]ost of the RS doubts focus on the viability of OA journals even though the RCUK proposal mandates deposit in OA archives, not submission to OA journals," commented a frustrated Peter Suber, on his blog Open Access News. "I can't count the number of times this misunderstanding has been corrected."

On the American Scientific Open Access Mailing List (AmSci), meanwhile, OA advocate Stevan Harnad was reminding list members that physicists have in any case been posting their papers into for fourteen years without any negative impact on journals. For that reason, he said, any further studies would be redundant, and would unnecessarily delay open access. "If 14 years of evidence of peaceful co-existence between self-archiving and journal publishing is not evidence enough, what is?" he asked.

Calls for more evidence, however, have become a mantra that no self-respecting supporter of the existing system can resist. Speaking to the BBCs' John Sudworth, for instance, the president of the Institute of Physics (and former vice president of the Royal Society) Sir John Enderby, said: "What the Royal Society has said — which seems to me to be blindingly obvious — [is] that before we abandon an economic model which has served us terribly well over the years we should make sure that any replacement is sustainable."

Once again, Sir John was clearly focused on economic models, not self-archiving. In short, the two sides appeared destined to continue talking through each other.

Greater vehemence

What was new in the discussion, however, was a greater vehemence. After asking the Royal Society for a comment on the Fellows' letter, for instance, I received a surprise e-mail from the Royal Society's senior manager of policy communication, Bob Ward.

Apparently convinced that he was unmasking the real villain of the piece he wrote: "[Y]ou may be interested to learn that the open letter from Fellows of the Royal Society on open access appears to have been at least partly co-ordinated by BioMed Central, a commercial publisher of open access journals. Matthew Cockerill, the publisher of BioMed Central, registered the domain name of the web page at which the open letter was posted for signature."

Moreover, when the letter had been sent to the Society, Ward added, it had named as contact person the marketing communications manager at BioMed Central, Grace Baynes.

The implication, it appeared, was that by co-ordinating the letter BMC had acted inappropriately, presumably on the grounds that it stood to gain financially from the successful implementation of the RCUK proposal.

"It is no secret that BioMed Central and others helped to co-ordinate the letter (for example by registering the domain name that was used)," responded Baynes, adding indignantly: "Given that many of the FRS's concerned are on our boards, or edit our journals, it was in no way inappropriate for us to do so."

As allegations about its involvement in the letter began to appear in news stories, OA advocates also leapt to BMC's defence, pointing out (again) that since the RCUK proposal called for self-archiving, not OA publishing, BMC had little to gain from co-ordinating the letter.

"I know that the Royal Society is confused about this issue, but in fact the RCUK policy does not mandate submission to OA journals, only deposit in OA archives," repeated Suber on his blog. "BMC has a financial interest in OA journals but not in OA archiving (apart from its small Open Repository service)."

Shot in the foot

As the debate raged it appeared clear that the Royal Society was in danger of shooting itself in the foot. One of the signatories of the Fellows' letter, Robin Lovell-Badge, for instance, told The Scientist that while he hadn't been aware that the letter was coordinated by BMC, it would have made no difference if he had known. "In fact it's rather insulting to [suggest] that I've been manipulated by BioMed Central," he added, "because I haven't."

Meanwhile, the number of Fellows signing the letter was continuing to grow. Within a week 61 Fellows (there are 1,274 Fellows of the Royal Society) had signed, including five Nobel Prize winners.

By now OA advocates were also keen to turn the allegation around, pointing out that the Royal Society had far more to gain from sinking the RCUK policy than BMC had from supporting it. "The Royal Society has a financial interest in maintaining subscriptions," commented Suber on his blog. "I believe that its subscriptions are not threatened by the RCUK policy. But if it wants to argue that its fears are justified, then it has to start by admitting its financial interest, which is much stronger than BMC's."

In his usual colourful way, Harnad speculated that the only people in the Royal Society who actually had a problem with open access were those working in its journal publishing division. "I'll bet this is not really the voice of the RS at all: It's just the pub-ops tail wagging the regal pooch."

Like a divorcing couple arguing over who gets the kids, both sides were now clearly locked in a dance of death, hurling accusations and insults at each other.

This reached its apotheosis when Sir John implied that open access was akin to communism. "I actually know of no economic model, apart from some extreme Marxist one," he said in an aggrieved voice to the BBC's John Sudworth, "where it is the producer who pays rather than the consumer."

Public good issue

In invoking the bogeyman of Karl Marx, Sir John appeared to underline how out of touch defenders of the traditional journal publishing system had become. However, when I e-mailed him to point out that RCUK was not proposing OA publishing, but self-archiving, and asked if he disagreed with the claim that 14 years of self-archiving without disastrous consequences suggested there was no threat to journal subscriptions, he replied: "If the version of record (as opposed to the partially edited and refereed version) were freely available, then with Google-type search engines all content can be both accessed and indexed, and [as a consequence] subscription income would dry up."

The truth, perhaps, is that publishers, and their apologists, understand only too well the difference between self-archiving and OA publishing, but have concluded that it suits their purposes better to focus on OA publishing.

On the other hand, one could argue that in constantly insisting that self-archiving offers no threat to publishers, OA advocates are being somewhat disingenuous. When the question was put directly to Robin Lovell-Badge by the BBC, he replied: "Clearly subscriptions will fall, yes."

And it's not as if OA advocates haven’t thought it through. As Harnad put it on AmSci: "Even if the imaginable risks were eventually to prove to be real, and self-archiving were to lead to cancellations and a transition to the OA publishing model, would that be grounds for renouncing the demonstrated benefits to research impact and progress?"

In other words, this is essentially a public good issue, not a question of whether or not OA represents a threat to science publishers. And who better to referee issues of the public good than the Government? Unfortunately, the UK Government appears to be deaf in one ear.

Level playing field?

We should recall that when, in November 2004, the Government rejected the UK Science & Technology Select Committee's recommendation to support open access it said it was doing so on the grounds that it believed its role should be to "facilitate a level playing field".

It now seems that what the Government meant to say was "Let's support the status quo". In any case, it has certainly not operated a level playing field when listening to the two sides of the OA debate — as evidenced by a recent Freedom of Information Act request made to the UK's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) by SPARC Europe's David Prosser.

Prosser asked the DTI how often the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation for the UK, and head of the DTI, Lord Sainsbury of Turville had met with publishers and researchers in the past two years.

This time the unmasking was far more interesting — for what Prosser learned is that Lord Sainsbury has a special place in his heart for Sir Crispin Davis, the CEO of the world's largest STM publisher Reed Elsevier.

As Suber explained on his blog, the FOIA request shows that "Lord Sainsbury met with OA opponents roughly twice as often as with OA proponents, and met with the Reed Elsevier CEO three times more often than with any other stakeholder." The FOIA documents also show, added Suber, that "DTI apparently undertook no analysis of its own on OA."

Far from being level, it seems, the playing field is heavily tilted in favour of rich and powerful publishers.


There is here a telling parallel with the drama being played out in the music and movie industries. Confronted by the challenges posed by the Internet, not least the threat of P2P technologies, the entertainment industry has — like science publishers — been desperately clinging to the past.

To this end, David Holtzman recently argued in Business Week, "key industries [have] bamboozled Congress and much of the public into believing that their wares deserve the same protection that was awarded to say, a patent for blast furnaces in the 20th Century."

In the same way, it seems, science publishers have bamboozled the British Government, whose science policy is managed by the Department of Trade & Industry. All too conscious, no doubt, that STM journal publishing makes a significant contribution to the UK economy, the DTI has gone along with the thesis that industrial-age business models need to be protected from the harsh winds of the information age.

What this ignores, of course, is that businesses need to adapt to new conditions, not seek to outlaw or ban them when they pose a threat to the settled world of industry incumbents. Indeed, argues Holtzman, the consequences of doing so are "not just ethical or aesthetic. They are financial — and eventually will lead to economic isolation."

As Holtzman points out, while protectionism may provide a short-term lifeline to individual companies and industries, it often does so by risking the future prosperity of national economies, particularly those economies most heavily invested in outdated business models.

And, ironically, in the information age those economies most wedded to outdated business models are increasingly not the developing nations, but the developed nations.


Holtzman warns, therefore, that as we move from the industrial age to the information age, or from atoms to bits, developed countries "must avoid the trap of applying Industrial Era principles to businesses enabled by the Information Age — or face the consequence of becoming inconsequential."

In short, if developed nations insist on clinging to industrial-age business models then information-age savvy developing nations are likely to out-compete them, or perhaps merely bypass them.

For science publishers the signs are already there. On the same day that the Fellows' letter was sent (7th December), for instance, SciDev.Net reported that the Chinese government has launched a campaign to encourage Chinese researchers to publish their results in domestic — rather than international — journals, and to place their results in free archives.

Explaining the reason for the campaign, Wu Bo'er, director of the Department of Facilities and Financial Support of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology" told SciDev.NET: "At present, when the results of government-funded research is published in foreign journals, Chinese researchers often have to pay reviewing fees for their papers to be published in these journals. After that, China's institutes and other researchers have to spend more than 100 million yuan (US$12.4 million) each year to buy these foreign journals."

Good news

The good news is that, in the US at least, politicians in the developed world are beginning to heed the dangers. All too conscious that publishers succeeded in pressuring NIH director Elias Zerhouni to water down the NIH policy on enhancing public access to research — which policy Congress had instructed NIH to develop — there have been a number of recent new initiatives focused on fixing the problem.

Most significantly, on 7th December (there's that date again!), US Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) introduced a bill into the US Senate that would mandate OA to publicly-funded medical research within four months of its publication.

Officially titled the American Centre for Cures Act of 2005, but informally known as the CURES Act, the bill is concerned with more than just access to research. However, as Suber explained on his blog, it goes beyond the NIH access policy in several important ways:

"It requires free online access and does not merely request it. It shortens the permissible delay to four months. It extends the OA policy beyond the NIH to research funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Healthcare Research. Finally, it explicitly says that non-compliance may be a ground for the funding agency to refuse future funding."

Time will tell whether CURES will succeed. Either way, we can certainly expect a few more twists and turns in the unfolding drama of open access before the play is done.

An important turning point will surely come when governments fully accept that the public good is far better served by supporting open access than by listening to publishers' lobbyists — and then enact the necessary legislation to make it happen.

But the final turn in the plot will probably not come until science publishers accept that they are not — as they appear to believe — indispensable. As the founder of BioMed Central Vitek Tracz put it when talking to me last year, "It is not written in the stars that we have to have science publishers, and it is not a moral imperative for us to defend them."

Clearly most science publishers still have some way to go in their thinking. Indeed, it turns out that the reason why the final RCUK policy has yet to be announced is because it is still negotiating with the Royal Society.

Now we know why that venerable institution published a position statement in November!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Struggling with Agnosia

Last week the London-based Royal Society became the latest scholarly publisher to express grave concern over plans by Research Councils UK (RCUK) to mandate publicly-funded researchers in Britain to put their research papers on the Web. With irate publishers on one side, and a sceptical government on the other, will the RCUK be able to push through its radical proposals?

In the latest round of an increasingly bitter dispute over RCUK's draft proposal to require British researchers to make their scholarly articles freely available on the Web, the Royal Society has published a position statement in which it claims that Open Access could have "disastrous" consequences for the research community.

Clearly intended to derail the RCUK proposal, the Royal Society statement cautions against rushing towards "untried and untested" models, claiming that they may not be sustainable, and "could force the closure of existing peer-reviewed journals".

The Royal Society statement was immediately attacked by OA advocates, who denounced it as self-serving, tendentious and obfuscatory.

Profound reason to be ashamed

The opening salvo came from self-styled archivangelist Stevan Harnad. Posting to the American Scientific Open Access Mailing List (AmSci), which he moderates, Harnad thundered: "The Royal Society's statement is not only ill-informed, failing even to grasp what either Open Access or the proposed RCUK policy is about and for, but it is a statement for which the Royal Society, a venerable and distinguished institution, will have profound reason to be ashamed in coming years."

Harnad went on to accuse the Royal Society of "mixing up what the RCUK is proposing to mandate — which is Open Access (OA) self-archiving of articles published in conventional, non-OA journals — with what it is not proposing to mandate, which is publishing in OA journals. (RCUK is merely offering to help cover author costs for publishing in OA journals if they wish to publish in OA journals.)

Mixed up or not, it is nevertheless clear that the Royal Society is claiming that both forms of OA pose a threat to the research process. The problem with OA publishing, it argues, is that OA publishers are "having trouble balancing the books and their long-term survival is not ensured". Self-archiving, on the other hand, is encouraging some authors "to deposit papers in online archives and repositories without submitting to journals for peer review or waiting until they have completed peer review."

As a consequence, the Royal Society says, researchers may "stop submitting papers or subscribing to existing journals", thereby threatening the existence of traditional subscription-based journals.

"The worst-case scenario," it concludes, "is that funders could force a rapid change in practice, which encourages the introduction of new journals, archives and repositories that cannot be sustained in the long term, but which simultaneously forces the closure of existing peer-reviewed journals that have a long-track record for gradually evolving in response to the needs of the research community over the past 340 years. That would be disastrous for the research community."

Nothing to do with the way researchers publish

How seriously should we treat these apocalyptic claims? Not very, it seems. As Harnad pointed out, the RCUK proposal is not intended to stop researchers from using traditional subscription-based journals; nor does it propose they abandon the peer review process: the aim is simply to improve the research process — by ensuring that scholarly papers are freely available on the Web, rather than locked behind the financial firewalls imposed by journal subscriptions.

"The RCUK self-archiving mandate has absolutely nothing to do with the way researchers publish," insisted Harnad. "They publish exactly as they always did. They merely maximise access to their publications, by self-archiving them, to maximise their usage and impact."

Moreover, he added, claims that self-archiving poses any kind of financial threat to traditional journals simply cannot be substantiated: despite 15 years of self-archiving by physicists, for instance, there is to date no evidence whatsoever that subscriptions to physics journals have been negatively impacted.

All in all, concluded Harnad, it was "Not a proud day in the annals of the Royal Society."

Serious and systematic dialogue

The Royal Society, however, is not the only scholarly publisher predicting disaster if the RCUK proposal is implemented. In August, The Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) mounted its own attack on it. Writing to the Chair of the RCUK Executive Group, Professor Ian Diamond, ALPSP warned that the RCUK proposal "would inevitably lead to the destruction of journals" and thus to the "whole process of quality control, including (but not limited to) peer review."

In response, a group of researchers, including Harnad and the inventor of the Web Tim Berners-Lee, published an open letter rebutting the ALPSP claims.

The same month the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (STM) also wrote to Ian Diamond, complaining that the conclusions behind RCUK's proposal were "precipitous and lack scientific rigour". It suggested, therefore, that rather than mandating researchers, RCUK engage in a "serious and systematic dialogue" with publishers. This too attracted a letter of rebuttal.

But will this stream of dire predictions and gloomy prognostications derail the RCUK plan? Or will the rebuttals of OA advocates successfully neutralise them?

Undoubtedly OA stalwarts can out-argue their critics. When one brave member of the Royal Society wandered into the AmSci mailing list to confront Harnad, for instance, he was instantly surrounded (virtually that is) by a group of angry OA advocates, including Harnad and Adam Hodkgin,  who quickly saw him off.

The OA movement has also become increasingly adept at managing the press (and many journalists now monitor the AmSci mailing list). Consequently, most news reports covering the Royal Society statement also included the dissenting views of OA advocates. Indeed, when it published its story The Guardian did so under the headline "Keep science off web, says Royal Society" — an interpretation of their press release that must have sent shivers up the spines of Royal Society staffers.

But while OA advocates are clearly more than effective at publicly countering the self-serving arguments of publishers, can they prevent the RCUK proposal from being throttled in the womb?

For the bigger challenge confronting the OA movement is the continuing scepticism of the British Government — specifically, the mandarins that inhabit the Department of Trade & Industry, and their boss Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who are responsible for science and innovation in the UK.

Healthy and competitive

To fully understand the turbulent waters the RCUK proposal is having to negotiate we need to remind ourselves of the back story. This begins in December 2003, when the UK Science & Technology Select Committee announced an enquiry into scientific publishing. Seven months later the Committee published a report —Scientific publications: Free for all? — which recommended that the British Government create a network of institutional repositories, and mandate all publicly-funded researchers to deposit a copy of their articles in these repositories, thereby making their research accessible to all “free of charge, online.”

The outcome was immediately hailed as a successful outcome to ten years of OA activism. In their celebrations, however, OA advocates failed to appreciate that Select Committees have no executive power. Their role is not to make things happen, but to scrutinise what the Government is doing (or not doing), and to make recommendations to it. Specifically, the Science & Technology Committee's purpose is to examine "the expenditure, administration and policy of the Office of Science and Technology and the Research Councils."

Given its role as scrutiniser, the Committee's recommendation that the Government support OA was received with about as much enthusiasm as one might receive a request to turn down the stereo system from a much-hated neighbour. Moreover, publishers had by then begun heavily lobbying the Government — and so had provided it with a string of arguments (ill-founded as they were) to justify rejecting the Committee's advice without seeming unreasonable.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Government declined to intervene. Characterising the publishing industry as “healthy and competitive", it said that it was “not aware that there are major problems in accessing scientific information" and so did not intend to “intervene to support one model or another”. Rather, it said, its strategy would be to “facilitate a level playing field."

Policy framework

In what was presumably intended to be seen as a concession, however, the Government added: "RCUK are currently producing a policy framework on the dissemination and preservation of the information outputs of research. The Government will assess the implications of this advice once it has become available."

The message seemed to be that while the Government saw no need for action, it was happy for RCUK to explore ways of improving the dissemination of research.

Committee members were furious; moreover, convinced that the DTI intended to lean on RCUK in order to get the result it desired they accused the Government of seeking, through the DTI, to exert pressure on dissenting voices. Specifically, they charged the DTI with forcing the Joint Information Systems Committee to amend its response to the Committee's report.

In a statement published on 1st November 2004, the Committee said: "It is clear to us that, in the Government Response, DTI has sought to neutralise some of views put forward by the Joint Information Systems Committee and other organisations and departments. This will prevent the Government from making any significant progress on this issue."

The chair of the Select Committee, Ian Gibson MP, was particularly irate. “DTI is apparently more interested in kowtowing to the powerful publishing lobby than it is in looking after the best interests of British science.This isn't evidence-based policy, it's policy-based evidence."

RCUK nevertheless went ahead with developing its policy framework, and in June this year it produced a draft proposal. To the disgust of scholarly publishers and, no doubt, the surprise of the DTI, this called for mandatory self-archiving, and proposed introducing the mandate in October.

Faced with increasingly hysterical criticism from publishers, and no doubt growing pressure from the DTI, however, the final announcement of the policy was later delayed until November. And as the temperature has continued to rise, so the timetable has continued to slip. A final announcement is not now expected before next year.

Pulling the strings

So has the DTI been seeking to control the outcome, I asked a spokesperson from the DTI press office. "The DTI has not played a role in formulating, or helping to formulate RCUK's position other than responding to their consultation earlier this year", came the response. "The DTI recognises them as experts on the research community, and we will review our position once we have received revised guidance from RCUK."

However, it's hard not to take such statements without a pinch of salt When Lord Sainsbury gave evidence to the Select Committee on 19th October, for instance, he told Committee members that the draft policy put forward by RCUK had required some further development. For this reason, he said "I urged them and the publishers to get together to see if they can formulate a policy as to what that in practice means. Those discussions are taking place and I hope we will soon reach agreement on that."

Rather than waiting for its "experts on the research community" to arrive at a policy framework, Lord Sainsbury's comments would appear to imply that the DTI has taken a very hands-on approach to the matter. Certainly this remains the view of the Science & Technology Committee. "When the inquiry was running, the Committee very much shared your suspicion that DTI was pulling the strings on open access publishing — not RCUK," comments a former clerk in the Science &Technology office. "I'm not aware that the situation has changed since then. [In fact] anecdotally the same problems are still occurring."

I also asked the DTI whether it would it be fair to conclude that officials had not liked the draft proposal, and so had told RCUK to rewrite it. "The DTI suggested to them they may want to speak to publishers and discuss their concerns," the DTI press office replied obliquely. "I understand these discussions, and other discussions with the learned societies are still ongoing, so RCUK have not provided their final position."

Publisher apologists

Interestingly, during the flurry of e-mails on AmSci sparked by the Royal Society statement the most telling comment came from Iain Stevenson, Professor of Publishing Studies at City University, London.

Earlier in the week, he said, he had attended an invitation-only conference sponsored by the DTI aimed at "bringing together stakeholders in the research communication process."

One might wonder why, if it is truly playing no role in helping to formulate RCUK's position, the DTI is sponsoring invitation-only conferences. Indeed, the suspicion must be that it is also seeding such meetings with what Harnad immediately characterised as "publisher apologists"?

The good news, however, seems to be that — do what it will to control the process — the DTI is struggling to quell the groundswell of support for OA. Complaining at the way the meeting proceeded Stevenson said: "I was deeply disturbed to hear a succession of funders and information managers affirm their faith in OA and repositories as the way forward without — when pressed — having any evidence that this is what the research community (and let us not forget that funders and information managers exist to support the research enterprise not the other way about) actually want."

As it happened, Stevenson's complaint about lack of evidence could be easily refuted. As David Prosser immediately pointed out, the JISC Disciplinary Difference Report, undertaken by Rightscom, has already surveyed the attitudes of UK researchers. This, added Prosser, had found that seventy-four percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "Research funding bodies should mandate all researchers to deposit their results in open archives."


But jousting with publisher apologists in an online forum is one thing; affecting what happens in the offline world is another. The problem facing the OA movement is that Lord Sainsbury and the DTI appear still to be highly sceptical about the merits of Open Access.

Will they eventually give way to the inevitable? While RCUK is currently reluctant to discuss progress, privately insiders say that they remain hopeful that they can implement a mandate, in some shape or form. They concede, however, that their work is being hampered by the lobbying efforts of publisher organisations, particularly the ALPSP.

Indeed, a glance at the ALPSP web site gives some sense of the intensity of the lobbying taking place, if only those efforts being publicly acknowledged. Interestedly, the web site also implies that ALPSP has come to accept that a mandate is inevitable. It claims, however, that the organisation has extracted a commitment from RCUK that publishers will be free to impose embargoes. If true, this suggests that even if the mandate is eventually imposed it could be seriously handicapped by publishers insisting on unreasonable time delays before papers can be made publicly available.

Ultimate power broker

So what do we learn from this protracted and painful process? What seems clear is that the DTI has only been listening to one side of the debate. Whether this is because it simply doesn't want to hear the other side, or whether the OA movement has failed to communicate its message effectively we don’t know.

It may be that the OA movement has spent too much time rebutting publisher criticism, rather than directly lobbying the DTI — which is, after all, the ultimate power broker here.

It is instructive to compare the current jostling over Open Access with the long-running debate over software patents. When, in 2001, I was commissioned by the DTI to write a guide on the patenting of software I was surprised at the degree to which DTI personnel were shy of offending or alienating the Open Source Movement. Clearly open source advocates had lobbied the department with considerable success, and somehow convinced them of the merits of their case.

Indeed, so effective did open source lobbying efforts prove in Europe that in July European politicians finally threw out a controversial bill that, had it been passed, would have seen a snowstorm of software patenting in Europe — a development that would have posed a significant threat to open source software.

Zero grounds

Is it now too late to make the OA case to the DTI? Harnad is confident that, were he given the chance, he could persuade anyone of the merits of OA.

"If you put me in a room full of people who think they have either legal or logical or financial or practical or ethical grounds for opposing an RCUK mandatory immediate-deposit policy, it will take me fifteen minutes at most to force them to concede that they have no grounds at all," he says. "Not some grounds, not weak, indecisive grounds: zero grounds."

He adds: "For my own part, I would still be quite willing, despite the odds, to try a chat deep within the bowels of DTI agnosia, but no one seems inclined to invite me!"

The question is however: are the DTI courageous enough to take on Harnad? If they were brave enough, what better venue for doing so than the debate being organised by the Science & Technology Committee?  To be held on December 15th, this will discuss the Committee's report and, inevitably, the draft RCUK open-access policy. It will take place between 2:30 and 5:30 in Westminster Hall, London.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Springer acquires Current Medicine Group

The deal

Springer Science+Business Media (Springer) has announced the acquisition of the Current Medicine Group (CMG) from entrepreneur and open-access advocate Vitek Tracz.

A portfolio of healthcare publishing businesses, CMG has operations in the UK and the US. These include Science Press Publications, a London-based medical print publisher; Science Press Internet Services Limited, which offers web site hosting services, medical CD-ROMs, and an educational content and news service called MedWire; Philadelphia-based Current Medicine LLC, which produces medical atlases, and an image library called Images.MD; and Current Science Inc, which publishes a series of review journals.

CMG, says Springer, will complement and expand its existing medical programs, particularly in the areas of critical care and emergency medicine; primary care and family medicine; and geriatrics.

The acquisition will also give Springer access to an attractive new market — doctors and medical professionals. “Springer is of course already active in medical publishing," explains Springer CEO Derk Haank, "but the focus is mostly on academic audiences."

CMG's approximately 100 employees will all join Springer. However, since they address different markets the two companies' operations will not be integrated, and Abe Krieger and Jane Hunter — the managing directors of, respectively, the US and UK businesses — will continue in their present roles.

Financial details of the sale were not released. The Springer press release, however, states that during the last twelve months CMG's sales were around $20.5 million.

Build and sell

Why has CMG been sold? Because, explained Hunter in a telephone interview, Tracz's modus operandi is to build and sell companies, not to run them. "Vitek creates something, he builds it to a certain point, he sells it on, and then he reinvests in another business."

Or as Tracz himself put it when I interviewed him earlier this year, "I get bored quickly, and I get particularly bored once things are running smoothly."

Certainly Tracz's build-and-sell model has paid dividends over the years. He sold his first publishing business, Gower, to Harper and Row in 1984 for a very attractive price — enabling him to, amongst other things, build his fabled triangular house in Barnes. Likewise, he sold his Current Opinion journals to Thomson in 1996; his Internet business BioMedNet to Elsevier in 1998; and Current Drugs to Thomson in 2002.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, CMG managers have been preparing for a sale for some time. "The US and UK businesses used to be quite separate, but since we all do the same thing, and we use each others' content, it made sense to sell them as one unit," explains Hunter. "We have, therefore, spent the last couple of years building synergies within the group — a process that has seen our revenues and profits grow too."

For Springer, there are clear benefits to buying CMG, adds Hunter, not least the opportunity to work more closely with cash-rich drug companies.

Attractive alternative model

It is likely that the greatest benefit of CMG to Springer, however, will prove to be the sponsored publishing model that it has perfected. This consists of selling publications not to end-users or intermediaries like librarians, but to drug companies, who then give them to doctors and medical professionals as gifts.

The beauty of the system is that it offers CMG a profitable business, it provides medical professionals with information products, and it gives drug companies a range of excellent PR tools. "Drug companies need to be able to reach out to doctors, and they can do that by sticking a gift for the doctor in the hands of the rep," explains Hunter.

Moreover, she adds, since these are high-quality medical information products — books, journals, medical atlases, CD-ROMs, PDA content, and access to web sites — they are genuinely valuable gifts, not throw-away promotional toys.

Perhaps the significant point here is that users of CMG's information pay nothing to gain access to it. As open-access advocates, and increasingly research funders, continue to demand that research articles be made freely available on the Web, sponsored publishing will surely seem like an attractive alternative model to a company like Springer. Certainly, with its profits currently heavily reliant on selling subscriptions to peer-reviewed journals, its traditional business is looking more and more vulnerable.

The obvious solution to this threat, of course, is to embrace open access (OA), and adopt the OA author-pays model, where researchers (or, in most cases, their funders) pay to publish articles, which are then made freely available on the Web — a model pioneered by Tracz's OA publishing company BioMed Central (BMC), and by the Public Library of Science (PLoS).


The problem is that author-pays remains an unproven business model. When giving evidence to the UK Science & Technology Select Committee last year, Tracz predicted that BMC would be self-sustaining by the end of this year. This estimate, however, may prove to have been over optimistic. During the same session, Harold Varmus, co-founder and chairman of PLoS, said that he did not expect PLoS to be self-sustaining until the end of 2006. Moreover, when I interviewed Varmus recently, he told me that PLoS is currently in the process of reworking its business plan.

Given the uncertainties over author-pays, BMC has also introduced an institutional membership scheme. However, many have drawn unhelpful parallels between this and the much-maligned "big deal" solution introduced by commercial publishers some years ago. For this reason alone, institutional membership faces an uncertain future.

Nevertheless, clearly conscious of the shifting sands, last year Springer launched its own open-access option Open Choice. This allows authors to elect to pay $3,000 to publish in Springer journals, on the basis that their paper will then be made freely available on the Web. And as a further concession to OA, this August Haank appointed former BioMed Central publisher Jan Velterop as director of open access at the company. Velterop's job is to make sure that "open access gets the required attention both internally and externally”

It must be doubted, however, that Haank's sceptical views on OA, expressed to me in 2004, have changed significantly. As he put it then, "I remain sceptical about people's ability to undertake the massive redirection of money flows — both within each single institution, and within every country — that open access requires."

The problem is, however, that the world is moving rapidly to the point where it will not be possible for publishers to charge people to access primary research information. To continue in business, therefore, commercial publishers will need to find alternatives to the profitable subscription-based publishing model they have long enjoyed. In this light, CMG's sponsored publishing model is likely to have proven intriguing to Springer, not least because if applied to peer-reviewed journals it could avoid the "massive redirection of money flows" within research institutions that Haank referred to, and yet still deliver OA.

Whether the model can be adapted to peer-reviewed literature is not clear. But publishers face little choice but to explore all the options. Indeed, one might ask: "Since corporations are sponsoring more and more of the research conducted in universities, why should they not also sponsor peer-reviewed journals?" Likewise, if IBM can donate patents to further the cause of the open source movement, why should not companies help facilitate open access?

If such questions haven’t already occurred to Springer, once it has had a chance to examine CMG's business model in more detail they surely will. It is worth noting, after all, that PLoS has itself begun seeking sponsorship, although as a not-for-profit organisation it clearly has an advantage over commercial publishers when seeking financial support. The challenge for publishers would lie in convincing potential sponsors that there was sufficient value to them in sponsoring an open-access journal.

The likelihood is, of course, that a successful long-term OA model would include a range of different financial models.

Long-anticipated IPO

What we do know is that Haank has to focus on bringing Springer back to the market via a long-anticipated IPO. This is a certainty because Springer — which was created as a result of the integration of the former BertelsmannSpringer and Kluwer Academic Publishers — is currently owned by venture capital companies Candover and Cinven, both of whom will surely want to exit the business in the near future.

Undoubtedly a successful IPO will require persuading investors that the company has a sustainable business model. The growing success of OA has put that in question. If nothing else, then, CMG may help Springer to convince investors that it is looking beyond its traditional business model, and that it is not putting all its eggs in one basket.

For Tracz, presumably, the sale of CMG provides vital new funding to enable him to continue the OA experiment he began when he launched BMC five years ago. As has been said elsewhere, OA is inevitable. Publishers, therefore, must now find ways of making it work, or get out of the academic journal publishing business.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Comment on "Time to take the red pill"


I was going to add a comment to your Open and Shut? blog article, "Time to take the red pill", but I don't have a blogger account and I don't want to sign up just to comment. So I'm sending my comment to you.

You said: "Clearly there is a valuable potential role here for information professionals, should they choose to seize the opportunity. After all, what better way for disenchanted librarians to make themselves indispensable in a new and relevant way - not by playing their traditional role as gateways to information (putting themselves between the information and the user), but as facilitators able to help researchers and other data creators collaborate and share information. If this means abandoning some of their traditional skills for new ones then so be it. Now there's a topic for discussion at Internet Librarian International 2006!"

Yes, and if librarians want to learn how to do this sooner than late 2006, and in the context of (EPrints-based) institutional repositories, they can sign up to the new series of EPrints Training Courses.

The next one in the UK will be announced soon and will be around the turn of the year. Watch this space.

Or contact Alma Swan or Siobhain Dales for more information.

I wouldn't describe these courses as a 'red pill', but you can if you wish.

Steve Hitchcock

Monday, October 17, 2005

Time to take the red pill

Listening to presentations, and talking to delegates, at Internet Librarian International 2005 (ILI) last week, I was reminded of the film The Matrix. In the movie, the main character is offered an opportunity and a choice: he can take the red pill and see the truth; or he can take the blue pill and return, comfortably unaware, to the illusion that is the world of the Matrix, and life will simply carry on as before.
With the Internet continuing to challenge their traditional skills and roles, information professionals face a not dissimilar choice: embrace the reality of the new world they inhabit, or seek to deny it, clinging to a now outdated illusion of reality.


For while information professionals initially welcomed the arrival of the Internet, many have become increasingly concerned that it poses a significant threat to their settled world.

This concern was all too evident at ILI, with both delegates and presenters clearly of the view that many traditional notions of information science are under attack from the Web. Long-standing classification systems, for instance, are threatened by newer notions of categorisation; hierarchical indexing is having to give way to the flat indexing of the Web; and taxonomies face growing pressure from new-fangled concepts like folksonomies.

For information professionals — who pride themselves on the many skills and techniques that they have developed over the years — this is both disorientating and distressful. If that were not enough, the Web challenges the very notion that information intermediaries have a role to play any more in a networked world.

None of these anxieties are new, of course, but the depth and intensity of the pain information professionals are experiencing was all too palpable at the London event. Certainly there was a desperate need to appear relevant. As one librarian plaintively put it, "We need to find ways to put ourselves back between the information and the user."

That said, some information professionals — generally the younger ones — are embracing the new world. Michael Stephens, a special projects librarian at St. Joseph County Public Library in Indiana, for instance, gave a presentation in which he talked with great enthusiasm about how libraries can exploit wikis, instant messaging, and podcasts to enhance the services they provide for patrons.

Stephens also bravely volunteered to defend folksonomies from the caustic tongue of UKOLN's Brian Kelly who, amongst other things, publicly critiqued Stephen's "inadequate" use of tags when labelling photographs of his dog Jake on the social networking site Flickr. Kelly's aim was to demonstrate that folksonomies are a pale shadow of traditional classification, even in the hands of a trained librarian.

Grumpy old men

All in all, it felt at times as if ILI was awash with grumpy old men muttering bad-temperedly about the good old days, and the shocking ignorance of the young.

This attitude was best exemplified in the keynote given by information industry personality Stephen Arnold. In a paper entitled Relevance and the Future of Search, Arnold complained that the traditional view of relevance in online searching was under siege on the Web.

Specifically, information science's notion of precision and recall (where precision measures how well retrieved documents meet the needs of the user, and recall measures how many of the relevant documents were actually retrieved) was being destroyed by the practises of web search engines, particularly Google.

This state of affairs, he argued, is being driven by the desire to monetise the Web, not least through Google's pioneering of advertising-driven search models. When a user does a search on Google, for instance, the resulting pages of "organic results" (i.e. the product of Google's search algorithm) are placed alongside links paid for by advertisers. Unfortunately, said Arnold, over 90% of users do not differentiate between the paid listings and organic results.

Entirely alien

The situation is aggravated, he added, because people don’t generally click through many pages of search results. This encourages owners of web sites to exploit Google's search algorithms in order to push links to their sites higher up Google's search page. Indeed, said Arnold, a large and powerful Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) industry has been created precisely in order to sell services aimed at "fixing" search results on Google and the other main search engines. As a consequence, he complained, relevance on the Web is now a concept entirely alien to anything understood by information professionals.

As the market leader, and primary innovator, it was Google that attracted the full force of Arnold's ire. “Indexing is not what you learned in library school," he said. "It’s what Google wants. Effectively, SEO is the new indexing model."

In other words, the notions of comprehensiveness and objectivity long promulgated by information professionals as central to online searching have given way to a process whose raison d’être is to falsify search outcomes to satisfy commercial interests. "The SEO market has grown up to take advantage of this new idea of relevance," said Arnold.

To underline the extent to which traditional notions of relevance have been undermined, Arnold cited research done by the UK-based Internet magazine .net, which found only a 3% overlap in search results listed on Google, Yahoo and AskJeeves when the same search term was input. "When is a hit relevant?" Arnold asked rhetorically. "Where is the boundary between SEO and ‘real indexing?'"

Worse, added Arnold, Google's dominance is growing all the time. Whereas in the previous quarter it had had a 51% share of weblog referrals in the US, for instance, this figure is now 62%. (blog referral logs collect information on who visits a website and how they arrived there).

Intellectual dishonesty

After his presentation I asked Arnold why he objected to these developments. "It's intellectually dishonest," he replied. "These shortcuts trivialise indexing." Moreover, he added, it is dangerous. "If a medical term is misused, it could affect a person's life if the appropriate article is not found. Likewise, if a company doesn’t find the right patent document it could cost that company a lot of money. So I really disapprove.”

But is it really likely that a corporate lawyer or a doctor would rely on Google for an exhaustive patent or medical search? And are information consumers really as naïve or stupid as Arnold implies?

As Arnold himself acknowledged, most users probably don’t care if their search results are paid-for ad links, or the product of Google's algorithm. If someone is looking for a restaurant, for instance, what they want to find is a good-enough restaurant, not a long list of every possible eating house available, categorised by thirty different criteria, and listed by the number of available tables! After all, most of the sponsored links turn up on pages where users are looking for products or services. In this case Google is simply acting like a yellow pages directory.

Moreover, even if it is true that web users don’t always understand the way search engines work, they are learning all the time. In fact, as a general rule, users know as much as they need to know, and this is usually more than information professionals give them credit for knowing!

All in all, it was hard not to conclude that Arnold reflects the grumpy old man school of information science. As he himself admitted. "I'm old. I'm dying out."

For all that, while deprecating SEO techniques, Arnold was happy enough to offer the audience five "cheats" they could use in order to ensure their web sites received higher rankings on Google.

He also included in his presentation what amounted to a sponsored link. After explaining his five cheats, he told the audience they could find another five in his eBook on Google (The Google Legacy, How Google's Internet Search is Transforming Application Software), and invited them to buy it ($180 to you Madam!)

Essentially, Arnold's view seemed to be that much is awry on the Web, but there is little to be done but accept it.

They're watching us!

But Arnold had a second point to make. While many still view Google as a search company, he argued, it was now far more than that. Currently offering 56 different services, he explained, Google is in the process of creating a completely new operating system — one moreover up to 40 times faster than anything that IBM or HP could offer, and based on anything between 155,000 to 165,000 servers.

This too Arnold clearly deprecated, explaining that this "Googleplex" (a term he has appropriated from the name of Google's Mountain View headquarters) now encircles the world like the carapace of a tortoise — making Google the new AT&T; an AT&T, moreover, not subject to any regulation. Clearly in likening the Googleplex to a new operating system Arnold was also portraying Google as the new Microsoft.

At this stage Arnold's presentation began to sound more like a conspiracy theory than factual exposition. Confiding to the audience that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had refused to speak to him once they realised his was a critical rather than adulatory voice, and referring to a series of patent thickets that Google has built around its technology (patents which his lawyer had, for some inexplicable reason, advised Arnold not to put up on the Web), he went on to complain that he had never provided his address to Google, yet the company nevertheless knew it. "Google knows where I live," he said dramatically. "I didn’t tell them. They are watching me!"

And for those librarians still harbouring any illusion that by scanning books and making them available on the Web Google represents a force for good, Arnold depicted Google Print as a smokescreen. “The scanning of books is a red herring," he said, adding that Google was like a magician into whose hand a quarter suddenly appears as if from nowhere. "Everyone looks at the quarter, not the magician.”

Fortunately, Arnold's presentational mode appeared to owe more to his predilection for drama — and a canny sense of how to market a new book — than to paranoia. It also had moments of humour. Fifteen minutes into his presentation, we were all evacuated after the hotel fire alarm was set off, giving Arnold the opportunity to yell: "You see — I'm so hot! This is what I use in bars to get women."

Later, when we were allowed to re-enter the hotel to hear the rest of Arnold's presentation, the conference organiser announced that the alarm had been triggered by an old man smoking a cigar in his bed. "And that old man," promptly quipped Arnold, "is none other Gregorovich Brin, Sergey's uncle."

Not only is Google watching Arnold, it seems, but its founders have deployed their extended family to silence him!

Real or perceived threat?

But how seriously should we take Arnold's prognostications? He is, after all, not the only commentator to depict Google as the new Microsoft, or AT&T, and thus a significant monopoly threat.

Interestingly, most now view Microsoft as somewhat grey at the temples. This more relaxed view, moreover, is a consequence not of the antitrust case against the company — after all, Judge Jackson's order to break up Microsoft was subsequently overturned by a federal court — but from the growth of new competitors like Google, and the rise of the open source software movement.

That said, Arnold is right to deprecate the growing commercialisation of the Internet, and now that Google is a public company we can surely expect its "do no evil" ethos to come under increasing pressure from shareholders keen to see the return on their investment maximised.

But leaving aside Arnold's dire predictions of an all-seeing, all powerful Googleplex encircling the world and pulling everyone into its monopolistic grasp, it is certainly worth asking how much of a monopoly threat Google represents to web searching. The answer seems to be: "Not as much of a threat as Arnold implies". Many, for instance, believe that large generic search engines are set to see their dominance diminish rather than increase.

Commenting in an EcommerceTimes article earlier this year, the associate editor of Chris Sherman argued that the bigger the Web grows, the less useful generic search engines become. As a consequence, he said, "We're seeing a real rise in vertical search engines, which are subject-specific or task-specific — shopping, travel and so on." He added: "We're going to see more of that going forward as people become more sophisticated and as these specialised search engines become better at what they do."

Neither is Sherman a lone voice. Commenting in the same article Gartner Group's Rita Knox said: "People still need information on the Internet, but a more generic search capability like Google is going to be less useful."

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Time will tell. But the fundamental problem with Arnold's dark view of the future is that conspiracy theories tend to have a debilitating effect on our ability to act. We become less inclined to ward off the object of our fear if we believe it to be inevitable, creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Arnold is not the only one to be disenchanted with the growing commercialisation of the Web. Nor is he the only one to deplore Google's role in this. In a recent paper called The Commercial Search Engine Industry and Alternatives to the Oligopoly, for instance, Bettina Fabos, from the Media Research Center at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, makes very similar points. Her conclusion, however, is very different.

Rather than portraying the situation as inevitable, and advising us to get over it, she concludes: "[T]o realize the web’s educational and non-commercial potential, educators and librarians need to move away from promoting individual skills (advanced searching techniques, web page evaluation skills) as a way to cope with excessive commercialism" and instead "address the increasing difficulties to locate content that is not commercial, and the misleading motives of the commercial, publicly-traded internet navigation tools, and the constant efforts among for-profit enterprise to bend the internet toward their ends."

In other words, rather than rushing around like Private Frazer in the BBC Sitcom Dad's Army shouting "We're all doomed",  information professionals should adopt a more positive approach. Why not take the initiative and turn the technology in a more desirable direction? Why not fill the web with non-commercial content, and then build non-commercial tools to help users locate that content?

Indeed, says Fabos, some are already at work doing just this. She commends, for instance, the activities of initiatives like the Internet Scout Project, which enables organisations to share knowledge and resources via the Web by putting their collections online; she commends Merlot, the free and open resource providing links to online learning materials; and she commends tools like iVia, and Data Fountains, designed to allow web users discover and describe Internet resources about a particular topic.

Open Access

As it turns out, one of the more organised and advanced initiatives with the potential to help create a non-commercial web is the open access (OA) movement — a movement, in fact, in which librarians have always played a very active role.

For while the movement's original impetus was solely to liberate scholarly peer-reviewed articles from behind the subscription firewalls imposed by commercial publishers, there are grounds for suggesting it could develop into something grander, in both scope and scale. How come?

As scholarly publishers have consistently and obdurately refused to cooperate with the OA movement in its attempts to make scientific papers freely available on the Web, the emphasis of the movement has over time shifted from trying to persuade publishers to remove the toll barriers, to encouraging researchers to do it themselves by self-archiving their published papers, either in institutional repositories (IRs), or in subject-specific archives like the arXiv preprints repository and PubMed Central, the US National Institutes of Health free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences papers.

And to assist researches do this, the OA movement has created an impressive collection of self-archiving tools, including archival software like Southampton University's Eprints, and MIT's DSpace; a standardised protocol to enable repositories interoperate (the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting , or OAI-PMH); and OAI-compliant search engines like Michigan University's OAIster, which harvest records from multiple OAI-compliant archives to create a single virtual archive. In this way hundreds of different repositories can be cross-searched using a single search interface — much like Google searches the Web. Essentially a vertical search engine, OAIster currently aggregates records from over 500 institutions.

But while the initial purpose of the Open Archives Initiative (OAI) was limited to scholarly papers, it has become apparent that its aims and its technology could have wider potential. As the OAI FAQ puts it, OA advocates came to realise that "the concepts in the OAI interoperability framework — exposing multiple forms of metadata through a harvesting protocol — had applications beyond the E-Print community." For this reason, the FAQ adds "the OAI has adopted a mission statement with broader application: opening up access to a range of digital materials."

How might this work? Two years ago Clifford Lynch published a paper in which he argued that there is no reason why an institutional repository could not contain "the intellectual works of faculty and students — both research and teaching materials — along with documentation of the activities of the institution". It could also contain, he said: "experimental and observational data captured by members of the institution that support their scholarly activities."

Indeed, Lynch added, repositories in higher educational establishments could also link with other organisations in order to extend and broaden what they offer. "[U]niversity institutional repositories have some very interesting and unexplored extensions to what we might think of as community or public repositories; this may in fact be another case of a concept developed within higher education moving more broadly into our society. Public libraries might join forces with local government, local historical societies, local museums and archives, and members of their local communities to establish community repositories. Public broadcasting might also have a role here."

Need not end there

And it need not end there. Why not use the OAI technology as the framework for an alternative non-commercial web; one encompassing as much as is deemed sufficiently valuable that it could benefit from being accessible outside the confines, constraints and biases of the commercial web. If users wanted to find a restaurant they could go to Google; but if they want to do a medical search then the non-commercial web would be a better choice. Data searchable within this alternative web would no doubt need to meet certain standards — in terms, for instance, of provenance, and depth and range of metadata etc.

Self-archiving purists discourage such talk, fearful that it may distract the movement from the priority of "freeing the refereed literature". But the reality is that as research funders like the Wellcome Trust and Research Councils UK begin to mandate researchers to self-archive their research papers, so the number of institutional repositories is growing. And once a university or research organisation has an institutional repository there is an inescapable logic for that repository to develop in the kind of directions proposed by Lynch.

It may be, of course, that in the end OAI technology is not appropriate for this job. It may also be wise not to distract the OA movement from its primary aim. But it is perhaps now only a matter of time before some such phenomenon develops. Initiatives like Google Print and Google Scholar have served to highlight growing concerns at the way commercial organisations are now calling all the shots in the development of the Web. And it is these concerns that are encouraging more and people to think in terms of non-commercial alternatives.

What we are beginning to see, says Fabos, is a "small but growing countervailing force to the commercialisation of 'the universe of knowledge.'" What will drive these efforts, she adds "is the understanding that, in our commercial system, educators, librarians and citizens interested in nurturing a public sphere must work together to control the destiny of the internet — or somebody else will."

Clearly there is a valuable potential role here for information professionals, should they choose to seize the opportunity. After all, what better way for disenchanted librarians to make themselves indispensable in a new and relevant way — not by playing their traditional role as gateways to information (putting themselves between the information and the user), but as facilitators able to help researchers and other data creators collaborate and share information. If this means abandoning some of their traditional skills for new ones then so be it. Now there's a topic for discussion at Internet Librarian International 2006!

The fact is, it's time for information professionals to stop bemoaning the loss of some perceived golden age, and take control of the Web. In short, it's time to reach for the red pill!

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