Friday, March 27, 2009

The Open Access Interviews: Hélène Bosc

Hélène Bosc

Former INRA librarian, convenor for the EuroScience Working Group on Science Publishing, and passionate champion of Open Access (OA) in France, Hélène Bosc began advocating for OA in 1995, before the term even existed and just one year after Stevan Harnad had posted his seminal Subversive Proposal on an Internet mailing list.

Like other librarians who have embraced OA, Bosc's starting point was the so-called serials crisis — the phenomenon that has seen the cost of scholarly journal subscriptions consistently rise faster than the retail price index. With their serials budgets unable to keep pace, librarians have found themselves having to cut the number of journals they subscribe to year on year, depriving their researchers of more and more of the peer-reviewed literature that they need in order to do their research.

Over time no library has been immune to these depredations, not even those in large research institutions lik INRA — the largest agricultural research institution in Europe and Bosc's employer until she retired in 2005.

Also like other librarians Bosc was hard pressed to see any obvious solution to the problem. Moreover, to her growing frustration, INRA appeared to be conspiring in the process: Although it had been publishing a number of its own journals since the 1950s, in 1989 INRA decided to outsource the task to Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher in the world, and the for-profit company that many believe had played a major role in creating the serials crisis in the first place. Either way, after Elsevier began publishing INRA's journals the cost of subscribing to them began to rise steeply.

In 1995, however, Bosc attended a conference at which French-Canadian academic Jean-Claude Guédon presented a paper on the serials crisis. Rather than simply describe the problem, Guédon proposed a solution: If the research community used the Internet as a publishing platform it could reduce the costs of producing journals, and make the contents freely available. Intriguingly, Guédon's proposal was not just theory; it was based on practical experience. In 1991 he had founded Canada's first electronic journal — Surfaces; a journal that continues to be published today.

Inspired by Guédon, Bosc determined to try and persuade INRA that it should stop being part of the problem, and start working towards a solution. In other words, rather than restricting access to its journals, and stoking the inflationary fires, INRA should make them freely available on the Web so that any scientist in the world could access them without being confronted by a paywall.

Explains Hervé Le Crosnier, OA advocate, former librarian, and currently computer science teacher at the Université de Caen: "Hélène tried to explain to INRA why they were heading down the wrong road by selling all their in-house publications to Elsevier, and that OA is the only way to return to having their research distributed around the world."

Le Crosnier adds: "By this time it was a tough fight between librarians and Elsevier, which had become the primary monopoly provider of scientific publications, and Hélène became one of the main warriors."

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