The Open Access movement was taken by surprise this week when a petition suddenly appeared on the server of the German National Parliament (Bundestag) proposing an amendment to the pending changes in German copyright law that would require all scientific publications resulting from public funding to be made "openly accessible."
In effect, the petition is asking the German government to mandate all publicly-funded researchers to make their papers freely available on the Web.
The petition, drafted by Lars Fischer, a 31-year-old former chemist and now science journalist from Heidelberg, appeared from nowhere and sent the old guard of the OA movement into a bit of spin. It was, says German OA advocate Eberhard Hilf, "an audacious move by a young man".
Hilf immediately posted details on his blog and the German Coalition for Action "Copyright for Education and Research" rapidly put together a press release (English version here) in support of Fischer's initiative.
The petition has, however, attracted some criticism from OA advocates, who argue that it is vague and imprecise, and does not state exactly what the German government should do.
Nevertheless OA advocates have been flocking to sign it, and the number of signatures has been growing at a rate of 150 an hour. The petition can be viewed in German (and signed) here.
Intrigued by events, I contacted Fischer to find out more. He told me that he had tried to get help and advice from the OA movement when drafting the petition, but although some had shown initial interest they had subsequently "dropped the ball", leaving him to produce the final text.
No doubt it did not help that there is still no OA Foundation, or central organisation, to whom people with good ideas can turn for support — a point I made three years ago.
Below I publish my email conversation with Fischer.
RP: Who are you, what is your occupation, and why did you start the petition?
LF: I am a chemist working as a science journalist. I'm also editor at the German-language science blog portal scilogs.de, which is operated by Spektrum der Wissenschaft, the sister magazine of Scientific American.
The petition began with something called the Heidelberg Appeal, which was effectively a smear against Open Access. I learned that many scientists were as outraged as I was about the falsehoods in that document.
Because of that I prepared a draft that began a lively discussion in my blog. A few months later, during "Open Access Week" I submitted my text to the Bundestag server, where it was published last Monday.
RP: Last time I looked there were over 8,600 signatures. How quickly is the number growing?
LF: At one point there were about 150 new signatures being added each hour. Currently the rate has dropped somewhat, to about one per minute. I expect it to pick up a bit after the weekend.
RP: How does the petition process work: As I understand it if you get 50,000 signatures by December 22nd it gets debated in the German Parliament? Is that right?
LF: The goal is to get as many signatures as possible. The Bundestag FAQ says that if 50,000 signatures are reached within three weeks, the petition will be discussed publicly in the Bundestag Petition Committee, in a session where I'm entitled to take part. But even if fewer people sign, every accepted petition will be reviewed by two members of the Committee, so every vote counts.
Actually, other petitions have been accepted with far less than 50,000 votes, notably a dark sky petition this year, which had about 8,000 signatures. As far as I understand it, a hearing in the committee may lead to a legislative initiative, which will then be voted on by the Bundestag.
RP: Can the petition be signed by anyone in the world, only German nationals, or what?
LF: Signatures can be from anywhere in the world, but as far as I know only German nationals are counted. There are already signatures from Great Britain, France, USA, Australia and others, as well as from the German-language European countries.
RP: Do you think your proposal would succeed if it was debated?
LF: I don't know. I think it depends not only on the number of signatures, but also on the support of major scientific organisations and political parties.
RP: What is the purpose of the petition?
LF: The purpose is to demonstrate that there is broad public support for Open Access and to promote open debate about intellectual property laws in science. As far as I see it, Open Access has always been treated — even by its supporters — as a niche topic for experts. But that is wrong. It is an issue that in the long run concerns everyone, and many people understand that.
RP: As you say, your petition calls for Open Access. How would you define Open Access?
LF: There are two kinds of Open Access. My petition is about the so-called "green road to open access". This means that scientists always retain the right to make their publications freely available to the public, e.g. on their website or in some kind of repository. And they would be required by law to do so, too.
This doesn't change anything about the way scientific journals operate. Many publishers already offer such agreements to scientists.
The other option is the "golden road to open access", which means that the journals themselves offer their publications free of charge. This is not the goal of my petition.
RP: What exactly are you proposing?
LF: My proposal would require publications that came out of taxpayer-funded research to be available to the public. I also propose establishing a central digital repository that is searchable in a number of different ways. This would be to make the work of German scientists more accessible, since experience shows that papers that are publicly available and easy to find get cited more often.
That is another idea behind the petition: to help German scientists to stay competitive internationally.
RP: Is your proposal just meant to apply to government research-grant-funded research, or also for government-funded institutions?
LF: The petition only deals with research that is funded with taxpayer's money. I don't think it would be helpful, or indeed possible, to force such a policy on academic institutions — at least right now.
RP: How do you envisage your proposal being achieved in practice?
LF: I will need the help of experts and members of parliament to create the exact legislative proposal. That is the purpose of the hearing in the Petition Committee, I guess.
RP: Would I be right in thinking you are proposing that Germany introduce a scheme similar to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandate (which includes a 12-month embargo on authors making their papers freely available), or something different?
LF: This is the basic idea. I think it is best to stick to what is known to be working. There may be some differences due to the different structure of research funding. Personally I’m no fan of an embargo, though.
RP: You talk of creating a central digital repository. You don't think researchers should make their papers available in institutional repositories then?
LF: In principle institutional repositories would probably be sufficient, but a central archive would certainly be in the best interests of German scientists.
RP: Why is Open Access necessary? Do you think that the issue is about a) researchers getting access to research papers; b) members of the public getting access; or c) both groups?
LF: Currently the publishing system requires scientists to give away their research to publishers, who sell it back to universities and libraries in the form of journal subscriptions. These subscriptions have become so expensive that even major libraries can't afford all of them anymore, thereby considerably reducing access, even for researchers at well-funded research institutions.
Open Access offers a way around this problem. I don't think there is much of a choice in this matter anyway. The Internet is changing the way the world works, and the increased importance of Open Access is part of this change. Science depends on openness and exchange of information, between researchers as well as between science and society. Thus, Open Access in some form comes natural to science.
RP: What does the petition mean when it says, "The general structure of the scientific publication system is not affected by this petition."
LF: It means that there is nothing entirely new in the proposal. Many scientists, publishers and institutions already practise "green" Open Access to a certain extent. The petition aims at expanding already available options.
RP: By, as you say, making it compulsory. I.e. a government mandate on researchers to self-archive their papers. Do you believe this would offer any threat to science publishers? Does that matter?
LF: Open access offers a fundamental challenge to scientific publishers. But the current trend toward Open Access is driven by technical innovation and economic realities, not by petitions. I recently did an interview with Bora Zivkovic of PLoS ONE, in which he discusses the matter at length.
The petition only acknowledges those realities and proposes a way to deal with them. Scientific publishers will have to deal with those changes, too, one way or another. The fate of the petition doesn't matter in this bigger picture.
RP: While the leaders of the international Open Access movement support your petition, there has been some criticism of it. For instance, Stevan Harnad has said, "Lars Fischer's statement is vague and thereby poses some risk of having no practical effect unless it is made clear exactly what the Bundestag is being asked to do, why, and how."
And the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber commented to me: "While the petition points in the right direction, it's a missed opportunity to be more specific and useful. It doesn't help OA supporters in parliament understand what steps would most help the cause. This matters, unfortunately, because experience has taught us that some of the steps that occur to people first don't help and could hurt (for example, mandating green OA with a loophole for resisting publishers or mandating gold OA). Moreover, it does less than a more focused statement could to answer the many misunderstandings about OA circulating in Germany as a result — but also as a cause — of the Heidelberg Appeal. I've signed the petition and support the strategy to sign it and add clarifying statements. But I wish the original language had been stronger from the start."
Do you, in hindsight, wish that you had consulted with the leaders of the international OA movement before drafting the petition? Might you not have had a better chance of achieving your objective if you had done?
LF: In fact I tried to get the attention of a number of German Open Access initiatives. I mailed several organisations about this, none of which responded. The petition was also open for discussion in my blog for several weeks and after that in a wiki. The issue came up several times on Twitter and was re-tweeted several times.
I completely agree that there could have been a better petition with expert help. But there was none, and not for lack of trying on my side. With hindsight I could have contacted the international movement, but that didn't occur to me at the time.
Nevertheless I'd like to express my thanks to the German Open Access Community and especially the Coalition for Action "Copyright for Education and Research" for the support they are giving now that the petition has gone public. I think, with the movement now behind the petition, we will make an impact and demonstrate that Open Access has considerable public support.
RP: Thank you for your time. And good luck!