Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The OA Interviews: Bernard Rentier, Rector of the University of Liège

What is striking about Open Access (OA) is that it so obviously the right and rational way for the research community to respond to the networked world. Indeed, one could aptly describe it as a no-brainer — or, as OA advocate Stevan Harnad likes to put it, OA is “raincoat science” (“It's raining, kids, and you're getting wet: Time to put on your raincoats!”).

What is odd about OA is that so few in the research community yet appear to have understood (or at least accepted) its inevitability. Such myopia is doubtless no accident — many have a vested interest in the status quo, while others instinctively fear change, and have an irrational abhorrence of the new.

As a consequence, what is surely “inevitable and optimal” has been delayed now for over a decade and a half: While universal OA could in theory be realised practically overnight, it is estimated that still only around 30% of the world's academic and scientific literature is freely available on the Web.

Fortunately some do “get it” the moment the concept is explained to them — as did Bernard Rentier, a professor of virology and immunology at the University of Liège (ULg), in 1998.

Rentier had been appointed vice-rector in charge of research policy and libraries at ULg the year before — a position that inevitably focused his professorial mind on a number of problems for which OA turns out to be the solution. This became apparent to him during a conversation he had with a science librarian, who introduced him to the concept behind the then incipient OA movement.

“[I]t was immediately obvious to me that this was the logical approach to take,” says Rentier, “especially as the new technology that was then emerging made it entirely possible.”

For a start, he says, he saw that OA could help alleviate the serials crisis — an unwelcome burden on universities that each year sees larger and larger chunks of their library budgets swallowed up by increases in journal subscription prices.

He also realised that by making their papers freely available on the Web, ULg researchers could increase both their impact and their visibility within the global research community — something that all researchers and their institutions desire.

Finally, Rentier could see that OA would allow ULg to demonstrate to the world the quality of the research its scientists were doing, and thus enhance its institutional reputation.

What was especially fortuitous about Rentier’s conversion to OA was that he is a man with unbounded energy and enthusiasm, and one in a position to create change more effectively than many OA advocates — particularly after he was elected Rector of ULg in 2005.

By now Rentier had concluded that although Gold OA (OA publishing) might prove to be a good long-term solution, the best short-term strategy was to embrace Green OA (self-archiving). In other words, instead of advising researchers to seek out an OA publisher for their papers, it was better to encourage them to carry on publishing as normal, but to make all their papers freely available on the Web — by self-archiving them.

To this end Rentier oversaw the creation of ULg’s own institutional repository (IR) — dubbed the Open Repository and Bibliography, or ORBi. This went live in November 2008, and the University’s researchers were invited to deposit all their papers in it. To help persuade them to do so Rentier began his own blog, and began a campaign of encouragement and exhortation.

Moreover, determined that ORBi should capture all the research being produced at the University, Rentier also introduced a self-archiving mandate — which requires all ULg researchers to deposit their papers in ORBi.

To further motivate compliance, Rentier announced that depositing papers in the repository was henceforth the sole mechanism for submitting them to be considered when researchers underwent performance review.

Fourteen months after it was launched ORBi had accumulated 30,000 bibliographic references, and more than 20,000 full text documents.

Today ORBi is the most active institutional repository of its type in the world (Ranking first of 1,418 IRs), and ULg researchers are beginning to see the benefits of embracing OA, both in terms of increased citations and prestige, and enjoying the excitement of seeing some of their older papers begin, as Rentier puts it, “to live a new life”.

But Rentier is not a man who would ever be content to see OA implemented in his own university alone: He wants the research community at large to seize the opportunities that OA provides. To that end he has also taken on the chairmanship of EnablingOpenScholarship (EOS).

Founded in 2009, EOS aims to persuade the world’s rectors, vice-chancellors and university presidents of the benefits of OA, and to tutor them in how best to achieve it.

He is also currently trying to persuade the National Research Fund of Belgium to adopt a green mandate, one that would require all papers resulting from research that it funds to be made OA.

Rentier was not the first senior manager in academia to introduce a green OA mandate (that plaudit must go to Tom Cochrane, deputy vice-chancellor at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, who introduced the world’s first university-wide mandate in 2004). Nevertheless, says Harnad, “Bernard is the first rector/VC to fully grasp and fully act upon OA”.

He adds: “Bernard understood, implemented exactly the right mandate at Liège (Immediate Deposit/Optional Access, linked to performance evaluation) and, in addition, immediately assumed the leadership in university OA policy, not just in Europe but worldwide.”

In short, Bernard Rentier is no armchair enthusiast of OA; he is an energetic advocate who has proved himself both able and willing to institute change at home and abroad. Indeed, says Rentier, it is not just change he seeks, but “a global revolution” in scholarly communication.


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