Monday, December 03, 2012

The OA Interviews: Harvard’s Stuart Shieber

Stuart Shieber is the Welch Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University, Faculty Co-Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Director of Harvard’s Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC),  and chief architect of the Harvard Open Access (OA) Policy — a 2008 initiative that has seen Harvard become a major force in the OA movement.

When in 1989 Stuart Shieber became a Harvard faculty member he was, for reasons he never fully understood, appointed to a series of library committees. Whatever the reason for his appointment, it was to prove an educational experience: As he sat through the various committee meetings, Shieber began to see the world through the lens of the library, a perspective that led him to the inevitable conclusion that there was something amiss in the world of scholarly communication.
Stuart Shieber

As he puts it, “[I]t became increasingly clear to me that some of the problems that libraries faced in dealing with providing access to the scholarly literature were not library problems per se, but rather, problems in how the scholarly communication systems are set up.”

This is worth noting because when researchers face difficulties accessing scholarly journals they tend to assume that something has gone awry in the library, not that there is a fundamental flaw in the way research is communicated.

It was only in sitting through all those library committee meetings that Shieber came to realise the research community had a serious problem on its hands, a problem moreover that could only be expected to get worse unless action was taken. And it was clear to Shieber that researchers themselves would need to play their part in resolving the problem.

Stated simply, the problem is this: When researchers publish their papers, they routinely sign over the commercial exploitation rights in them to the publisher. The publisher then packages a bunch of papers together and sells them back to the research community in the form of a journal subscription. While publishers undoubtedly add some value to the end product, researchers do most of the work — not just in authoring the papers in the first place, but also in peer reviewing their colleagues’ papers (without charge). Yet, as any librarian will tell you, subscription charges are inexcusably high, and getting higher each year.

In short, publishers are overcharging for scholarly journals. And since it is they who pay the bills, it was librarians who first sounded the alarm. However, since the costs do not come from their budgets, and journals are made available in institutions on a free-at-the-point-of-use basis, most researchers have been unaware of the seriousness of the problem. For their part, publishers have consistently denied that they are overcharging.

Why are journals so expensive? They are expensive for a number of reasons, but mainly because there is a disconnect in the scholarly journal market: that is, the people who pay the journal subscriptions are not the people who use the journals. As we shall see, this means that there is no effective market mechanism to control prices.

And as the number of papers published continues to grow, and libraries face ever greater pressure on their budgets, so the struggle to provide faculty with access to all the papers they need has become ever more serious. This phenomenon is now generally referred to as the “serials crisis”.

As I hope will become apparent, it helps to see the serials crisis as a double-headed problem. As libraries are forced to cancel more and more journals each year, researchers face a growing accessibility problem. However, this accessibility problem is merely a symptom of the deeper problem — what one might call the affordability problem. The key challenge, of course, is to find a solution.

Open Access

Over the years various solutions to the serials crisis have been proposed. However, the one that has gained the greatest mindshare is Open Access (OA). And it is no surprise that librarians played a key role in the development of the OA movement — not least by co-founding the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in 1998, and constantly promoting the merits of OA.

Essentially, advocates for OA argue that all published research can and should be made freely available on the Web, either by means of green OA, in which researchers continue to publish in subscription journals but then self-archive their papers in their institutional repository (usually after an embargo period so that publishers can recover their costs), or by means of gold OA, in which researchers (or more usually their funders) pay publishers an article-processing charge (APC) to ensure that their paper is made freely available on the Web at the time of publication. The latter can be achieved either by publishing in an OA journal (the entire contents of which are made freely available), or in a hybrid journal (a subscription journal in which individual papers can be made OA if the author pays an APC).

Concluding that Open Access offered a viable solution to the double-headed problem facing the research community, Shieber began to advocate for OA at Harvard ...


If you wish to read the interview with Stuart Shieber, please click on the link below.

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Interview with the Scholarly Kitchen’s Kent Anderson

From the moment it was conceived, PubMed Central was controversial, and it has remained controversial ever since. The brainchild of Harold Varmus — the then director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the idea for PubMed Central was first mooted in 1999, but originally called E-BIOMED.
Kent Anderson

When Varmus published his initial proposal, publishers quickly concluded that it posed a serious threat to their livelihoods. Specifically, they were convinced that, if E-BIOMED went ahead, the US government would become a publisher, and they would be disintermediated as a result. So they launched a firestorm of protest.

Their protest delivered results. When the service was launched eight months later it had been re-branded as PubMed Central, and was a pale shadow of the revolutionary new “electronic publications” system that Varmus had envisioned. Significantly, Varmus had had to concede that publishers would have final say on whether the papers they published were put into PubMed Central — and most publishers chose not to participate.

Varmus later conceded that he had been naïve not to have anticipated the furore. “I must have known that I was not going to be at NIH for much longer,” he joked to New Scientist in 2003, “because this caused a tremendous political argument: what the hell was I trying to do to destroy the publication industry.”

Nevertheless, it was soon apparent that NIH did not intend to give up on its dream of having a large free full-text archive of biomedical and life science papers, along the lines of the physics preprint server arXiv. This resolve was only strengthened when, two years later, the Open Access (OA) movement came into being. The tide of history, it seemed, was flowing in NIH’s direction.

Socialized science

In 2004, therefore, Varmus’ successor at the NIH Elias Zerhouni published a draft policy entitled “Enhanced Public Access to NIH Research Information. The aim was to persuade researchers to post their papers in PubMed Central.

One again, publishers objected. In a 2004 editorial penned in the Chemical & Engineering News, for instance, C&N Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum complained, “Zerhouni’s action is the opening salvo in the open-access movement's unstated, but clearly evident, goal of placing responsibility for the entire scientific enterprise in the federal government's hand. Open access, in fact, equates with socialized science.”

For publishers the nightmare scenario was that research funders would gradually squeeze them out of the process of disseminating research. After all, the papers published in scholarly journals are written by researchers, and the peer review process is conducted by researchers — at no charge to publishers. In the age of the Internet, some were beginning to conclude, the need for publishers was beginning to look moot. At the very least, they reasoned, the role that publishers play could be reduced in an online world. This would help ease the burden on the public purse, which many believed was being gouged by publishers charging excessive journal prices.

But this time publisher opposition did not succeed. In May 2005 the NIH introduced its Public Access Policy. While this was initially only a request that researchers post NIH-funded papers in PubMed Central, it was later upgraded to a demand, and today researchers are required “to submit all final peer-reviewed journal manuscripts that arise from NIH funds to the digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication.”

Publishers continued to mutter about the Public Access Policy, but they had to learn to live with it. And faced with growing calls for research papers to be made freely available, many also began to experiment with OA.

But last year their fears of being disintermediated were reignited, when three large research funders — the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Max-Planck Society — announced plans to launch their own OA journal, eLife.

Since the funders indicated that they would not initially be charging a publication fee, publishers complained that it was anti-competitive. Writing on the Nature newsblog on the day of the announcement, for instance, Nature’s Declan Butler commented, “[F]rom what we know so far from today’s press conference, this new journal appears to offer few tangible novel innovations and may indeed disrupt the thriving open access environment. Its decision not to charge author fees, at least in the journal’s short and medium term, in fact could risk setting back the cause of open-access publishing by undermining — through what might be considered unfair competition — economically successful open access publishers”.

And when at the end of October, eLife announced that it had published its first few articles, critics were angered to see that the papers had been hosted not on the journal’s own website, but on PubMed Central.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The OA Interviews: Ian Gibson, former Chairman of the UK House of Commons Science & Technology Committee

Like all successful movements, Open Access (OA) has experienced a number of milestone events. Amongst the more significant of these were the creation of the physics preprint repository arXiv in 1991, the 1994 Subversive Proposal, the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and the introduction in 2005 of the first  Open Access Policy of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Ian Gibson
However, one of the more interesting but less celebrated events in the history of OA is surely the 2004 Inquiry into scientific publication conducted by the UK House of Commons Science & Technology Committee. The inquiry seems particularly noteworthy in the wake of this year’s controversial Finch Report, and the new OA policy that Research Councils UK (RCUK) announced in response.

The 2004 Inquiry was remarkable for a number of reasons, not least the way in which it managed to explore a deeply divisive issue in an independent and fair-minded way, despite intense lobbying from all sides.

This independence was all the more striking given that the Inquiry was itself a response to lobbying by OA publishers, origins that gave rise to a great deal of paranoid speculation.

On discovering that the Inquiry was a product of behind-the-scenes agitation by OA publishers, for instance, subscription publishers became extremely jumpy, fearful that it could lead to government intervention that would impact negatively on their profits. In their turn, OA advocates became increasingly concerned that the Select Committee did not understand the issues, and that the Inquiry was therefore in the process of being “captured” by subscription publishers.

The widening suspicion led to a great many rumours and conspiracy theories. When publishing consultant David Worlock was appointed as “specialist adviser” to the Committee, for instance, OA advocates assumed that his appointment had been masterminded by subscription publishers, with the aim of ensuring that the Committee ended up concluding that the status quo should not be disrupted.

What those outside the Committee and its support staff did not know, however, was that Worlock’s appointment was in part a tactical move intended to act as a counterweight to the fact that the Inquiry had been triggered by lobbying from OA publishers. Likewise, they did not know that another (more OA friendly) specialist had been interviewed for the position, but that the Committee had been more impressed by Worlock.

Those caught up in the rumour mill also failed to appreciate that the role of a specialist adviser is not to provide opinions, draw conclusions, or write reports, but solely to offer insights and contacts based on their expertise.

In this case, it was felt necessary to appoint an adviser because the Committee members had no personal experience of the publishing industry. As such, they needed someone with the necessary knowledge to answer the practical questions that they had about it.

When recruiting advisers, select committee staff consult with in-house specialists, and then call up people in the field to ask for suggestions.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Open Access in the UK: Reinventing the Big Deal

A Q&A with co-architect of the Big Deal Jan Velterop follows this introduction

The scholarly communication system has been in serious difficulties for several decades now, a problem generally referred to as the “serials crisis”. The nub of the issue is that the price of scholarly journals has consistently risen faster than the consumer price index. This has seen research libraries increasingly struggle to meet the costs of subscribing to all the journals their researchers need.

In the early 1990s, publishers found themselves in a situation where every time they increased the price of a journal they were confronted with a wave of cancellations. In an attempt to recover the lost revenue they would raise the price again, which simply triggered another round of cancellations.

Conscious that their livelihood was under threat, publishers cast around for a way to lock subscribers in, eventually coming up with what became known as the “Big Deal”.
Academic Press Big Deal contract

With the Big Deal, libraries are asked not to subscribe to journals on a title-by-title basis, but to a pre-determined bundle of electronic journals, which they have to commit to for several years. Usually this bundle consists of the publisher’s entire portfolio, which might include hundreds of titles.

The attraction of the Big Deal for the publisher was that it promised to end the annual cancellation cycle. For libraries it provided access to a much larger number of titles for the same price as they had been paying for a smaller set — so long as they took the entire bundle, and so long as they signed a multi-year contract. For authors it provided a larger and more stable audience for their articles.

The Big Deal was pioneered in 1996 by Academic Press (now part of Elsevier), when it signed a three-year licensing contract with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The agreement meant that anyone working in a higher education (HE) institution in the UK got free-at-the-point-of-use access to AP’s entire journal portfolio. Moreover, since it was HEFCE that paid the bill (by means of top slicing), the deal brought the additional benefit of easing the pressure on the budgets of hard-pressed UK research libraries.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The OA Interviews: Ahmed Hindawi, founder of Hindawi Publishing Corporation

Founded in 1997, Hindawi Publishing Corporation was the first subscription publisher to convert its entire portfolio of journals to Open Access (OA). This has enabled the company to grow very rapidly and today it publishes over 400 OA journals. 

The speed of Hindawi’s growth, which included creating many new journals in a short space of time and mass mailing researchers, led to suspicion that it was a “predatory” organisation. Today, however, most of its detractors have been won round and — bar the occasional hiccup — Hindawi is viewed as a respectable and responsible publisher. 

Nevertheless, Hindawi’s story poses a number of questions. First, how do researchers distinguish between good and bad publishers in today’s Internet-fuelled publishing revolution, and what constitutes acceptable practice anyway? Second, does today’s Western-centric publishing culture tend to discriminate against publishers based in the developing world? Third, might the author-side payment model fast becoming the norm in OA publishing turn out to be flawed? Finally, can we expect OA publishing to prove less expensive than subscription publishing? If not, what are the implications? 

These at least were some of the questions that occurred to me during my interview with Ahmed Hindawi.
Ahmed Hindawi


After training in (and briefly teaching) High Energy Physics, Ahmed Hindawi decided he wanted to become a scholarly publisher — an ambition sparked by the advent of the Internet, his experience using the physics pre-print server arXiv, and a newly-acquired passion for typography.

Inspired by this dream, Hindawi and his wife Nagwa Abdel-Mottaleb returned from the US to their native country of Egypt and founded Hindawi Publishing Corporation. From the start they set their sights high, determined to “make a dent in the universe” by leveraging the potential of the Web to “disrupt the scholarly communications industry”.

Becoming a player in the scholarly publishing market was at that time, however, no walk in the park — not least because the subscription model traditionally used to publish scholarly journals had enabled a few large publishers to acquire near-monopoly powers.

Nevertheless, after several false starts, Hindawi and his wife did gain a foothold, taking over publication of the International Journal of Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences (IJMMS) in 1999.

Big break

Hindawi’s big break came in 2001 — when he made a daring bid to acquire the journal International Mathematics Research Notices (IMRN) from Duke University Press. Lacking the wherewithal to buy the journal outright, Hindawi proposed an instalment plan and, to his delight, Duke accepted his proposal. “This was the most significant journal acquisition that we had made up to that point, and it doubled our annual revenue,” says Hindawi.

Now established as a traditional scholarly publisher, Hindawi found himself increasingly frustrated with the limitations of the subscription system. Not only does it make it difficult for new entrants to break into the market, but it inevitably erects a paywall between reader and author, and so significantly limits the potential audience. As a result, many subscription journals have only a handful of subscribers. “[W]e were very concerned about the readership of these journals,” says Hindawi. “It just didn’t feel right to call this publishing.

So the publisher began experimenting with ways to make the research that he published available sans paywall, including inviting authors to pay a publication fee so that their papers could be made freely available on the Internet — a model that later came to be known as hybrid Open Access (OA).

By 2004, however, the pioneering OA publishers BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) had demonstrated that it was possible to build a viable publishing business from so-called gold OA. So Hindawi made the decision to convert his entire portfolio of journals to gold OA, a process completed by 2007 ...


If you wish to read the interview with Ahmed Hindawi, please click on the link below. 

I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.