In stepping away from the RWA, Elsevier acknowledged that it had made a strategic mistake. It clearly also made a serious PR gaffe. Whether the company has done lasting damage to its relationship with the research community remains uncertain, but the fact that researchers are continuing to sign up to the boycott Elsevier web site — created in protest at the publisher’s support for the bill — must clearly be a cause for concern.
What the RWA fiasco underlines is that while publishers are increasingly willing to embrace Gold OA (OA publishing), their antipathy towards Green OA (self-archiving) is growing, particularly where it is mandatory.
For that reason, Elsevier’s decision should be viewed as a political act alone, not a change of heart. Indeed, in announcing its withdrawal the publisher stressed that it remains firmly opposed to OA mandates.
Moreover, while OA advocates maintain that most publishers are now comfortable with the NIH policy this is surely only wish fulfilment. A week after the RWA died, after all, 81 publishers signed a letter opposing the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).
Introduced into both the US Senate and the House of Representatives on 9th February, far from outlawing the NIH policy, the FRPAA would propagate it — to around a dozen other US federal agencies. It would also reduce the embargo period from 12 months to six. As such, the bill would be a huge fillip for Green OA — although with the US elections approaching it seems highly unlikely to succeed, in the near future at least.
In short, the battle for OA goes on, but looks set to be fought primarily over Green OA henceforward.
Recent events on the other side of the globe would appear to confirm this. They also demonstrate that while the OA movement was victorious in the battle over the RWA, the war itself is far from over.
In a development generally under-reported outside Australia (pushed aside by the hubbub over the RWA perhaps), on 21st February the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced that it plans to introduce an NIH-style mandate — effective July 1st.
This is undoubtedly another win for OA advocates but, as we have discovered with the open wars, every success is often accompanied by a failure.
Let’s examine what happened in Australia.
The story appears to begin on January 5th, when Colin Steele, emeritus fellow of the Australian National University and convenor of the National Scholarly Communications Forum, published an opinion piece in The Australian. This alerted the research community down under to the RWA, and called on Australian universities to make a public statement in support of the NIH Policy and of Open Access.
With the title “Scholarly Licence to Print Money”, Steele’s piece concluded, “Ultimately, the prime issue is surely to disseminate university knowledge, which has been funded by taxpayers, as effectively and openly as possible, rather than for that knowledge simply to continue to be a source for large publisher profits and for manipulable metrics for research assessment exercises.”
Then on February 15th Justin Norrie, news editor at the Australian information service The Conversation, published a story about the Elsevier boycott, pointing out that 97 Australian academics had joined the pledge not to publish in or edit Elsevier journals.
In writing his article Norrie spoke to Danny Kingsley, the Australian National University’s manager of scholarly communications and e-publishing. And he quoted Kingsley saying, “The problem in Australia is that the research councils — the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council — award funding to academics who publish their work in the journals that are judged under a metrics system to have the most impact.”
As a result, Kingsley added, “if academics boycott those journals, it could really hurt their careers. It’s easier to give in to their extortionate efforts to extract money than to join a boycott.”
Kingsley’s remark stung the CEO of the NHMRC Warwick Anderson into responding: In a comment piece published in The Conversation six days later, Anderson denied that NHMRC funding decisions are based on journal impact factors. “This is not true. NHMRC removed journal impact factors from its assessments some years ago.”
And to demonstrate that he understands the rationale and necessity for OA, Anderson added that the NHMRC would soon be upgrading its OA policy. “One of the important benefits that the public expects from publicly funded health and medical research is access to the published findings of that research,” he wrote.
For that reason, he added, “From July this year, we will be mandating the deposit of publication outputs arising from NHMRC funded research into an institutional repository within 12 months of publication.”
For the moment the details of the mandate are not know, but the news was greeted enthusiastically. Since 2007 NHMRC has merely “encouraged” researchers to embrace OA, a policy now widely viewed as having failed.
Observers, however, were surprised at the turn of events, pointing out that it was an unusual way for a research funder to announce a change in policy. And the assumption was that Anderson’s announcement was a direct response to the controversy surrounding the RWA.
As always, of course, reality is more complicated than it seems. In fact, the NHMRC has been contemplating making OA mandatory for some years. Norrie had even signalled the policy change in his February article.
Insiders report that the NHMRC mandate was first mooted after a visit to Australia by Harold Varmus in 2008. Varmus has been an advocate for OA for many years and is a former director of the NIH. He is also a co-founder of OA publisher Public Library of Science (PLoS).
Following Varmus’ visit, says Steele, “the NHMRC were much taken with following the NIH policy.”
As first conceived, the NHMRC mandate would actually have been more OA-friendly than the NIH policy, since it was planned to allow publishers to impose no longer than a six-month embargo before papers were made freely available — half the period the NIH allows. However, following lobbying by publishers, notably Wiley-Blackwell, the NHMRC delayed its decision, and eventually watered it down to a 12-month embargo.
“The new NHMRC policy is stronger than the old one,” says US-based OA advocate Peter Suber. “The earlier policy encouraged OA without requiring it, but asked non-complying grantees to justify their non-compliance. That extra request put it above ordinary encouragement policies, just as the explicit requirement in the new policy puts it above the previous policy.”
However, he adds, “The 12 month embargo is a disappointment. NHMRC is following the NIH policy, of course. But in this respect the NIH is the outlier, not the norm. To my knowledge, NHMRC is the first medical funder with an OA policy, after the NIH, to allow an embargo longer than 6 months.”
For all that, the announcement of the NHMRC mandate, if not the decision itself, does appear to have been triggered by the controversy over the RWA, although Steele puts it this way: “I don’t think their announcement was provoked by the Elsevier controversy, but rather by the interview with Danny Kingsley in The Conversation. But they were nearly ready to go with the mandate by then in any case.”
War of attrition
Whatever the reason for the timing, and the manner, of the announcement however, it serves to remind us that the path to OA rarely runs straight. Indeed, OA often seems more like a war of attrition than a movement. And sometimes it is a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Our Australian story demonstrates this well enough. Observers suggest that one reason for NHMRC’s delay was that the funder had hoped to be able to make a joint announcement with the Australian Research Council (ARC), as had been done in 2007 when they both announced their current policy of “encouraging” OA.
In the event, it appears that ARC is not prepared to move to a mandatory position right now. At least we have to assume that, since its public statements about OA tend to be more gnomic than illuminating, and somewhat contradictory.
A week after Anderson’s announcement, for instance, The Australian raised the issue of an OA mandate with ARC chief executive Margaret Sheil. Sheil responded that “open access publishing” by grant recipients was encouraged where appropriate, but not demanded, by the ARC.
She added that there was less need for the ARC to impose a mandate, since ARC-funded research was not generally of interest to the public. “In the NHMRC's case, by and large, what the public is seeking access to is information regarding health and that's quite appropriate. In many areas of our research there is no community interest in the outcomes until much further down the track.”
Sheil seemed to be implying that the primary purpose of OA is to make research accessible to the public, rather than to other researchers. She also seemed of the view that to demand that researchers make the output of their work OA would jeopardise their careers and/or was not possible.
“In the humanities and many other areas it can be difficult to get published,” Sheil told The Australian. “And what do you do about research for which the main form of publication is books? It's not that hard for a scientist to get papers into some sort of repository that's open access.”
In the hope of clarifying ARC’s position I contacted the funder. Responding by email, an ARC spokeswoman said, “The ARC funds a more diverse range of disciplines and end users than the NHMRC, some of which would not be in a position to comply with a mandate — health and medical is more advanced than some ARC-funded disciplines.”
And she added, “The ARC encourages researchers to disseminate their findings as broadly as possible to allow access by other researchers and the wider community. In Australia, institutions, in general, have their own repositories and researchers have other means of attaining access to the papers they need through coordinated library subscription. The Australian Government Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) system has advanced the cause of open access by providing funding for institutional repositories.”
As the answer I had received invited further questions I emailed ARC again. Why, I asked, does ARC believe that some researchers would not be in a position to comply with a mandate? “The ARC does not want to put further barriers up for those research areas that, and early career researchers who, find it difficult to get published,” I was told, but with no explanation as to what exactly these further barriers might be.
I also asked ARC if it could confirm whether or not it intended to impose a mandate. “Our comments relate to current policy, which is all we will comment on,” I was told.
Unsurprisingly, ARC’s reluctance to mandate OA is deeply frustrating for local OA advocates. Since ARC manages around A$845 million ($900 million) of taxpayer’s money each year, they point out, it is a public interest issue, and one deserving of greater clarity.
“Unfortunately the lack of action by the ARC means that taxpayer funded research is hidden behind a price barrier for many people who might benefit from reading it,” comments Australian OA advocate Arthur Sale. “It also fails the acid test of accountability: taxpayer-funded activities ought to be transparent and visible to all, especially where, as in the case of research grants, no national security issues or political advantage arises”
There is also frustration at ARC’s apparent lack of understanding of OA. “The reasons ARC has given for not mandating OA seem very confused,” says Steele. “It also seems to be slightly confused between the gold and green paths to open access.”
For instance, explains Steele, open access book publishing, which is more common in the humanities, has enjoyed considerable success in Australia. “Yet ARC commentators do not seem to be aware of developments here.”
Steele adds, “It is also claimed that open access could be a barrier for researchers to getting published, and could restrict early career researchers as a result. However no evidence for this has been provided.”
In fact, suggests Steele, the evidence would seem to point in the other direction, as ARC itself has acknowledged. “Professor Andrew Wells, the deputy chair of the ARC, told a National Scholarly Communications Forum on the future of the monograph held in Melbourne in September 2011 that ARC data shows top humanities researchers experience no problems in getting published in this way.”
But it is ARC’s claim that ERA has advanced the cause of OA in Australia that most frustrates OA advocates. In reality, they point out, it is quite the reverse. “It is true that the Australian government — through the Australian Scheme for Higher Education Repositories (ASHER) program — provided funding for repositories to enable collection of data about scholarly output for the ERA program,” says Steele. “However, this funding did not specify that it be used for open access dissemination of research, and many universities used the funding for establishing ‘an enabling environment’ for reporting.”
The result was that, rather than leading to more research papers being made OA, ERA encouraged the creation of dark archives in which the content is used exclusively for internal reporting purposes invisible to the outside world. “While all Australian universities have institutional repositories partially funded by the ARC, most of them have dark contents,” says Sale.
Kingsley highlighted this problem in a paper she gave in Berlin last September. Citing surveys undertaken by the CAUL Australasian Institutional Repository Support Service (CAIRSS), Kingsley uncovered a worrying trend: “The CAIRSS Repository Managers Survey over the past three years (2009-2011) shows that the ‘percentage of material in repositories that is open access’ across Australian universities has fluctuated. It started strongly with 44% in 2009, dropped to 33% in 2010 and rose back up to 37% in 2011 (CAIRSS, 2011).”
She concluded, “While the preparations for ERA mean that all universities have a repository, ERA appears to be detrimental to the promotion of open access in Australia. It is no coincidence that the first round of ERA happened in 2010, which correlated with a drop in the number of open access items in repositories in that year.”
In retrospect, this is unsurprising. “University libraries in Australia are under-resourced, and many universities have a cross-over of repository and reporting staff, so the focus of these people was, by necessity, on complying with ERA reporting rather than open access during 2010,” explained Kingsley. “One Australian university (in personal correspondence) commented that their university repository held approximately 50% of all the preprints of work at the institution, but since the ERA reporting process had begun very few had been deposited.”
In short, ARC’s claim that its funding of institutional repositories has advanced the cause of OA appears to be erroneous.
Moreover, by failing to join with the NHMRC and impose an OA mandate, suggests Sale, ARC has done the Australian research community a disservice. “As Australia has just two research councils, the universities have been waiting to hear a parallel announcement from the Australian Research Council (ARC),” he says. “However, there has been total silence. This is astonishing, as the universities are entitled to expect the two research councils to have the same policy, so as to simplify the university administration of grants.”
What we learn from this perhaps is that successful OA strategies require a deeper understanding of the issues than ARC has demonstrated. We also learn that promoting OA half-heartedly or trying to combine it with other tasks (e.g. internal reporting) may have the opposite of the desired effect.
This too is unsurprising. The history of OA is littered with stories of well-intentioned stakeholders consistently misunderstanding OA, and how best to achieve it. It does not help that many of the actors in the scholarly communication process have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, while others are fearful of possible unintended consequences, or simply prefer to avoid doing anything that could prove difficult or controversial, or that might incur additional expense — regardless of the many benefits provided by OA.
“The ARC is not in a position to monitor researcher compliance should open access be mandated,” I was told by the ARC spokesperson, “nor could the ARC fund publishing costs above the two per cent of total non-salary funding provided under ARC funding rules to support the publication and dissemination of project outputs.”
Here some OA advocates would point out that providing money for researchers to publish in gold journals is in any case a misdirection of scarce resources. Besides, they might add, most researchers prefer to spend their grant money doing research, not paying publishers to disseminate it. “The 2% funding is welcome but one wonders how many researchers will remember or want to use the current underfunding of the majority of the grants,” says Steele.
It also turns out that the 2% allowance is not what it seems, and ARC has been accused of “moved backwards” on its commitment here.
In short, argue Green OA advocates, throwing more money at publishers, rather than mandating researchers to self-archive, is a counter-productive activity, and in the long run can only feed the anger that the RWA controversy uncovered — anger, that is, at the way in which publishers like Elsevier appear to be growing rich at the expense of the research community. This, after all, appears to have been the primary motivation for the Elsevier boycott. As the boycott site puts it, “They [Elsevier] charge exorbitantly high prices for subscriptions to individual journals.”
What those pledging to boycott the publisher incorrectly assume, however, is that Elsevier is the only culprit. They also fail to see that OA publishing looks set to prove just as expensive as subscription publishing. As such, it will not solve the underlying affordability problem that has the research community so tightly in its grip.
Acute shortage of local champions
Achieving OA in Australia, suggests Steele, is proving difficult because there is an acute shortage of local champions. “No vice chancellor since the retirement of ANU’s Professor Ian Chubb — now Australia’s Chief Scientist — has come out to support public funding, public access, or public knowledge.”
In addition, he adds, “There is no equivalent in Australia of the UK JISC and the US ARL SPARC to promote open access over and above the individual universities. While the Australian government has espoused open access to government information, the relevant department — Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education — has not been significantly engaged in this policy area.”
Sadly, the frustrations experienced by OA advocates in Australia are not unique. Inertia, foot-dragging, sabotage, misunderstanding, confusion, and misdirected anger remain widespread everywhere. It is for this reason that, some 20 years after OA advocate Steven Harnad posted his Subversive Proposal calling on researchers to make all their papers freely available online by self-archiving them, still so few papers are being made OA today. Had Harnad’s call been heeded, universal OA could have been achieved many years ago.
In short, history suggests that the struggle for OA has to be viewed as a brick-by-brick process. Moreover, even after a brick has been laid it may subsequently be ripped out, or prove too friable to hold. Consequently, successful OA advocates require both huge patience and persistence.
We should not doubt that OA is inevitable. The danger is that if the research community throws money at OA journals, while allowing Green OA to be subverted and held back, it will discover that publishers increasingly adopt Gold OA, but price it at a level that simply protects their current income. This will see the affordability problem at the heart of the crisis in scholarly publishing simply relocated to the new OA environment.
Green OA, by contrast, holds out the hope of forcing publishers to downsize their operations to the provision of basic peer review services alone, and reduce their prices accordingly.
This is a topic I have explored elsewhere, where I suggested that one way of viewing the current situation is as a race between Gold OA and Green OA. As I put it, “If Green OA wins the race, the research community can hope to finally free itself of both the access and affordability burdens that have for so long dogged it, and publishers will be forced to give up some of their profits. The research community will have won the war. However, if Gold OA wins the research community will have freed itself of the access burden, but failed to free itself of the affordability burden. Publishers will have won the war.”
It is for this reason, of course, that publishers are rushing to embrace Gold OA, while becoming more and more antagonistic towards Green OA. And it is for this reason that the announcement that NHMRC is introducing an NIH-style mandate is good news, while ARC’s dilatoriness is bad news.
Meanwhile, back in the Northern Hemisphere, Research Council’s UK is planning to insert a strong new brick into the Green OA infrastructure — in the shape of an upgraded OA policy. Amongst other things, this will reduce the time publishers are permitted to hold papers captive behind paywalls. As the Enabling Open Scholarship web site puts it, “the Research Councils will no longer accept embargo periods imposed by publishers, but instead stipulate an embargo period of no more than 6 months except in the case of humanities and social science.”
Brick by brick.