Tuesday, October 04, 2005

China Mulls Open Access

As Research Councils UK (RCUK) continues to deliberate over its policy on public access to scholarly papers (a final announcement has been delayed until November), the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) has also begun mulling over the question of open access (OA).

"According to my contact in China," says Jan Velterop, director of open access at the STM journal publisher Springer, "the Chinese Academy of Sciences is now in the process of organising a group of prominent scientists to issue an open call to Chinese funding agencies, and research and educational institutes, to promote open access."

To this end, adds Velterop, the Academy is currently working on a draft document for scientists to review. It is also in the early stages of developing institutional operating policy guidelines for CAS to enable it to support open access.

These developments come in the wake of an international meeting held at the Beijing-based CAS in June. Since then, staff at the Academy's Library — led by Dr Xiaolin Zhang — have been considering various ways of ensuring that Chinese researchers deposit copies of their research reports and journal articles in academic repositories.

For the moment, says Wu Yishan, of the Institute of Scientific & Technical Information of China (ISTIC), there is nothing specific on the table. "So far I haven't seen any concrete measure, let alone mandate, to promote open access in China," he says, "Only a lot of calling."

Many, however, are convinced that it is only a matter of time now. One of those attending the Beijing meeting was Frederick Friend, a consultant who works with the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) and the Open Society Initiative (OSI). It was quite clear, he says, that there was already a strong commitment to open access in China prior to the meeting. "Particularly striking were the words of Professor Qiheng Hu [Vice Chair of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology], who in her keynote address referred to open access as 'a necessity to promote capacity building in science and technology'"

Nevertheless, says open-access advocate Stevan Harnad, a lot of lobbying remains to be done, "both of the high-level administrators and of the researchers." It also remains unclear what kind of policy might be implemented.

The hope, adds Harnad, is that China will opt for a similar (but improved) model to that currently being considered by RCUK, rather than emulate the policy introduced in May by the US National Institutes of Health. "If China copies the flawed embargoed-access 'recommendation' along the lines of the NIH, then it will be setting open access back instead of moving it forward," says Harnad.

The NIH policy was watered down following aggressive lobbying by STM publishers. Thus where the initial proposal had been to mandate NIH-funded researchers to make their papers available six months after publication, the final wording only "strongly encourages" grantees to authorise public release of their papers "as soon as possible" after publication, and at least within 12 months of publication.

What open-access advocates would like to see, therefore, is for Chinese researchers to be mandated to self-archive their papers immediately on publication, with no embargoed period. Open-access publishers like BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science would also clearly like Chinese scientists to be told to prefer open-access journals over traditional subscription journals when they publish their papers.

Since China is watching the UK closely, says Harnad, much will depend on the final RCUK policy. "If it retains the [currently proposed] two fatal opt-out loopholes ('self-archiving is mandated only if/when your publisher allows and only if your institution already has a repository') then it too is yet another opportunity lost."

He adds, however: "I am still optimistic that the Brits will manage to sort it out — and that China will emulate a loophole-free RCUK policy. Then the other nations can follow the green lamps of Britain and China."

If China does embrace open access, says Friend, the potential benefits to research are considerable. "Open access to the vast quantity of research undertaken in China will benefit not only the people of China in their economic and social development, but also communities across the world, particularly if open access to research reports from other countries continues to grow."

Regardless of any official policy, says BioMed Central's Matthew Cockerill, Chinese researchers are already embracing OA. "Until now, China's best researchers have tended to publish in foreign subscription-only journals, which are often inaccessible to Chinese researchers. Open access has the potential to rectify this situation, and Chinese researchers are recognising this. BioMed Central has seen a rapidly increasing number of submissions from China this year, and also recently signed up its first independent open-access journals based in China."

This is not surprising, says Key Perspective's Alma Swan, who gave a presentation at the Beijing meeting. "The amount of Chinese science being published is growing rapidly but much of it remains largely invisible to the rest of the world. Although some of the best is published in 'western' journals — there has been a 1500% increase in the number of Chinese articles indexed by ISI over the last 20 years — an enormous amount of Chinese research is tucked away in Chinese journals that are hard to get at. There are 2000 Chinese university journals, for example, and the vast majority of those are not indexed by any of the major indexing services. Chinese science is hiding its light under the proverbial bushel."

In fact, the potential benefits of OA for China could be greater than might at first seem. In a self-archived preprint due to be published in the journal Research Policy, Ping Zhou and Loet Leydesdorff argue that while China is the fifth leading nation in terms of its share of the world's scientific publications, its total citation rate is still low compared to other nations. This suggests that if — as is frequently maintained — open access increases citation levels, then in embracing OA China could not only increase the visibility of its research, but the impact of that research too.

Some traditional publishers have also welcomed developments in China. "The Chinese call to funding agencies, scientists and institutions to promote open access is a most encouraging development," says Velterop. "Springer has very good contacts with the Chinese scientific community and looks forward to serving the community by offering the option of publishing with full open access in our journals." (Although it remains a traditional subscription-based publisher, in July 2004 Springer launched an "Open Choice" option for researchers wishing to embrace open access. And in August this year it recruited Velterop from BioMed Central to head up the company's open access initiative).

Others, however, will be less enthusiastic, not least, perhaps, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP), which has been actively lobbying against the proposed RCUK policy, on the grounds that it would "inevitably lead to the destruction of journals"; a claim that has been refuted by open-access advocates.

Indeed, it is hard not to conclude that the ALPSP is behaving somewhat irrationally over OA. When, for instance, the Wellcome Trust — the UK's biggest non-governmental funder of biomedical research — posted details of its own mandate on the Liblicence mailing list yesterday, the chief executive of ALPSP, Sally Morris, immediately responded: "I'd like to ask how the Wellcome Trust feels about the fact that it appears to be inciting (nay, forcing) its researchers to breach the terms of the contracts some of them they may have signed with publishers."

The Wellcome Trust mandate requires that — from 1st October — all papers emanating from grants it has awarded will have to be posted on PubMed Central (PMC),the free-to access life sciences archive developed by the National Institutes of Health. The papers will also have to be made freely accessible within 6 months of publication.

It wasn’t immediately clear what Morris meant in accusing the Wellcome Trust of forcing researchers to breach the terms of their contracts with publishers, but what is surely clear is that the ALPSP's increasingly aggressive resistance to OA threatens to alienate it from the research community.

As one of the delegates who attended the Beijing meeting — speaking on condition of anonymity — put it: "Whatever the outcome of the current initiatives in the UK and China, those commercial publishers and learned societies who continue to resist open access are holding their fingers in a dyke that will, sooner or later, inevitably burst. The only issue for them now, therefore, is whether they learn to swim in the open waters, or choose to drown."

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