Friday, May 25, 2012

Open Access: The People’s Petition

(There is a short Q&A with OA advocate John Wilbanks below. Scroll down if you wish to skip this introduction)

**This petition reached the threshold 25,000 signatures on 3rd June 2012**

Earlier this month a group of Open Access (OA) advocates flew to Washington to attend a meeting with the US Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP). Their objective was to convince OSTP that it is vital the US government ensures that all publicly-funded research is made freely available on the Internet.

The omens seemed good: at the end of last year the OSTP had issued an RFI on Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting from Federally Funded Research, and the Obama Administration has been making positive noises about OA for a while now (although without introducing any new policies as yet).

Moreover, in February the OA movement had defeated a piece of publisher-backed legislation called the Research Works Act (RWA) that, if it had passed, would have slain the poster child of the OA movement — the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy. This policy requires that all NIH-funded papers are made freely available on the Web within 12 months of publication.

The same month a piece of bipartisan legislation — the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) — had been introduced in both US houses that would have the reverse effect of the RWA. If passed, it would  propagate the NIH policy to a dozen or so other US federal agencies, and reduce the current NIH embargo from 12 months to six.

Yes, the omens were good. To cap it all, says John Wilbanks, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship at the Ewing Kauffman Foundation, and one of the group that travelled to Washington, the meeting appeared to go well. “They listened to us, they clearly had studied the issues.”  

Nagging feeling

Flying home to the West Coast on a redeye, however, Wilbanks began to experience a nagging feeling that their job was not complete. After all, he thought, the OSTP had made no promises; and it would inevitably be talking to publishers as well. And publishers tell a very different story about OA.

“And it hit me — us, because I was with Mike Carroll, Mike Rossner, and Heather Joseph — that the redeyes and the meetings and the arguing were not carrying the day,” Wilbanks explained on this blog. “We needed to do something else.”

That something else became an initiative called Access2Research. The objective was to engage the public in the discussions about OA. As Wilbanks wrote on his blog, “The only thing missing from the open access debate is the public.”

The best way of engaging the people, it was decided, was to launch a petition on the “We the People” site — which was introduced on by the US government last September — and invite the public to sign it.

The petition which went live on the night of 20th May — reads: “Requiring the published results of taxpayer-funded research to be posted on the Internet in human and machine readable form would provide access to patients and caregivers, students and their teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other taxpayers who paid for the research. Expanding access would speed the research process and increase the return on our investment in scientific research.”

It ends by urging President Obama “to act now to implement open access policies for all federal agencies that fund scientific research.”

In order to receive a response from the US government the petition must attract 25,000 signatures within 30 days (i.e. 19th June). But here too the omens are good: within the first two and a half days the petition had attracted half the number of signatures necessary, with roughly 200 being added every hour.

At the time of writing the number stands at 16,443, two thirds of the way there, yet with 24 days still to run.

Long-standing tradition

In fact, calling on people to make a public statement in support of OA is a long-standing tradition within the movement, and has met with varying degrees of success.

In 2001, for instance, the Budapest Open Access Initiative attracted over 5,600 signatures in support of the concept of “free and unrestricted online availability” to research articles. The BOAI was undoubtedly successful, although its success was not a product of the number of people who signed the initiative, but the fact that it marked the birth of the OA movement, and articulated the two-pronged strategy (Green and Gold OA) that has enabled the movement to progress thus far.

The previous year (2000) an initiative called the Public Library of Science (PLoS) had garnered 34,000 signatures in support of OA. Scientists signing the PLoS Open Letter called for “an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse in medicine and the life sciences in a freely accessible, fully searchable, interlinked form.”

Those signing also pledged to “publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.”

While the initiative later led to the creation of OA publisher PLoS, most of those who signed the open letter subsequently reneged on their promise, and carried on as before. As such, the petition cannot be counted a success.

Back with a vengeance

Collecting signatures in support of OA came back with a vengeance earlier this year, when researchers were asked to boycott Elsevier for its support of the RWA by signing a pledge at the Cost of Knowledge site. Those signing committed to no longer submit to or edit/review for Elsevier journals “unless they radically change how they operate”.

It is too early to say whether the Cost of Knowledge signatories are likely to stand by their pledge, but the initiative has undoubtedly been a success, since it was instrumental in Elsevier’s decision to withdraw its support for the RWA. Meanwhile, the number of scientists signing up has continued to grow, and currently stands at 11,857.

Other petitions have fared less well. A January petition against the RWA, for instance, failed to reach its target 10,000 signatures. A similar petition launched on the We the People site the same month likewise failed to meet the signature threshold.

However, the petition most similar to Access2Research was one organised in 2007 that called on the European Commission to, “guarantee public access to publicly-funded research results shortly after publication.” This collected 18,500 signatures in three weeks (although subsequently the number grew to 28,000), and both startled and impressed European politicians.

“The EU petition was very influential, and helped to persuade the Commission to mandate OA for EU-funded research,” explains Alma Swan, director of European advocacy programmes at SPARC, who project managed the petition. “In other words, it ensured they took the matter seriously and gave them confidence to proceed.”

It doubtless helped that the petition was sponsored by a number of well-regarded European organisations, including the UK Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), SURF, Danmarks Elektroniske Fag- og Forskningsbibliotek (DEFF), Deutsches Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), and SPARC Europe.

“The White House petition is like the EU petition, agrees Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist at Université du Québec à Montréal. “It is citizens asking their government to mandate OA, unlike the PLoS (and Elsevier) boycott threats, which are aimed at publishers, or the BOAI or the Berlin Declaration, which are just statements of support for the principle of OA.”

More successful?

But will the Access2Research petition manage to steel the resolve of US lawmakers in the way the 2007 petition emboldened European politicians to act, particularly as publishers step up their lobbying against OA?

Peter Suber, OA advocate and faculty fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center, believes it might. Indeed, he thinks it could prove even more successful than earlier petitions — for four reasons.

“First, there is superb coordination behind it. Many of us were prepared on Day One to publicise it.

“Second, there is the lack of cost for the signatories. The petition doesn't ask people to change their practices for publishing, editing, or refereeing. It merely asks them to approve an idea and call for action.

“Third,” adds Suber, “there is the specific goal. Getting 25k signatures in 30 days is an identifiable target. It's not just "more and more and more". We can tell when we we're closing in, and we can tell how quickly we're closing in.

“Finally,” Suber says, “there’s the payoff. Getting 25k signatures in 30 days triggers an official response from the Obama administration. That matters in itself. In addition, this administration has twice solicited public comments on federal OA policy. It may not take much to elicit a major public statement or policy initiative.”

More effective strategy

What may also help is that the OA movement has learned that calling for “public access” to publicly-funded research can be a more effective strategy than demanding “open access” for researchers — and that is precisely what the current petition majors on.

Explains Harnad, “Public pressure on governments to mandate OA based on the slogan of public access to publicly funded research has been very successful; the slogan is appealing to both voters and politicians. The EU petition was instrumental in inducing the EU to mandate OA for EU-funded research. It is likely that the White House petition will have a similar effect on US-funded research.”

Swan also believes the omens are good. “This time, it’s the confidence that the message is coming from ‘we, the people’ that matters,” she says. However, she adds, timing will be crucial. “Let’s hope the US government acts, before the electioneering kicks in and brings everything to a halt.”

But whatever the outcome of the current petition, OA advocates are confident that it is only a matter of time. In an online environment, they maintain, OA is both inevitable and optimal. Nevertheless, it is clearly frustrating for them that there appears to be no straight path to OA, and sometimes it is a case of one step forward, two steps back.

As Wilbanks puts it, “It takes time to change a hidebound industry. There's a lot of money to be made in selling scholarly journals, and a long history of resistance to change. I think the movement's gone pretty quickly actually viewed in that light.”

Those wishing to sign the petition can do so here. It is not necessary to be a US citizen to do so.

For further background, SPARC has produced a video explaining the case for public access. As noted earlier, the deadline for signing is June 19th.

Below I publish a short Q&A with John Wilbanks.

Q&A with John Wilbanks.

Photo by Joi Ito

RP: There have been a number of petitions in support of Open Access in the past few years. What is new and different about the one you started on May 20th?

JW: First, it wasn't just me — it was Michael Carroll, Heather Joseph, Mike Rossner, too.

Second, I think what's new is that we realised the debate had hit a ceiling. We can argue for the NIH policy, we can argue against RWA. But we have to fundamentally change the dynamic of the debate, and you can do that by going straight to the people in an organised way. I'm not sure that's been done before in OA. Most of our declarations are inside baseball.

Third, we used the wethepeople platform. Carl Malamud was the first one that I know of who used it in the open space, and his petition showed how hard it is to get 25,000 signatures. But it has the potential to really open the debate up that we needed. We don't know what it will do, but it can't hurt to have a strong public vote in favour of OA.

RP:  This is very much a call for the public (rather than the research community) to support Open Access.  Why should the public care? What is in it for them? What, in a nutshell, is your message to ordinary citizens?

JW: I think we get at that in the petition itself. It's taxpayer funded research, taxpayers should all have the right to access it. Public funds should create public goods.

RP:  You need to get 25,000 signatures within 30 days. What does that win if you succeed: a response from the White House, a debate in Congress, new legislation, or something else?

JW: We don't know. At the least we get a response. Hopefully we get a policy change, a conversation about implementing the request in the petition. Once we hit our number we need to turn up the pressure on the Administration to make a meaningful response.

It’s just tough

RP:  I read that you came up with the idea of the petition after meeting the Science Advisor to President Obama John Holdren. What was that meeting, and what happened in it that led you to conclude that a petition was needed?

JW: Four of us — Mike Carroll, Heather Joseph, Mike Rossner, and me — met with the OSTP staff earlier in May. It was a very nice meeting. They listened to us, they clearly had studied the issues. But they can't make any promises. And it's tough, because you know the publishers have fulltime staff devoted to these meetings and we can pull off one every now and then. It's just tough.

RP:  The petition is for "free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research". Producing scientific journal articles is not a cost-free process is it? Are you asking the public to find additional money to meet the costs of providing free access, or is the money already in the system somewhere but needing to be re-allocated?

JW: This petition asks for a policy implementation of public access across the US Government — focused on access more than mechanisms. But in the NIH case and elsewhere, one method is to include the cost of publication in the funding itself. When you're looking at grants in science research they're tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. A line item of $2,000 for an article fee isn't a significant hurdle.

RP:  In 2001 a group of Open Access advocates called for the “free and unrestricted online availability" of journal articles. Why, eleven years later, are you having to make the same call? If what you are asking for were logical, feasible and cost-effective surely it would have happened by now?

JW: Because change takes a long time. And academic publishing is protected from some of the winds that have buffeted other content industries — the costs are hidden to the scientists at elite universities, and the desire to publish in the top journals is strong. But scientists are getting used to having the content they want in their personal life, and the gulf with how their professional content is managed is only growing.

On top of that, citizens are getting more and more likely to bump into paywalls and get frustrated. Entrepreneurs are unable to try and disrupt scholarly search and publishing. And we're all more densely networked than we were ten years ago. The screwed-upness of the system is getting harder and harder to hide. And the success of PLoS, BioMed Central, Hindawi, and other open publishers is showing that there's money to be made in different access models.

It takes time to change a hidebound industry. There's a lot of money to be made in selling scholarly journals, and a long history of resistance to change. I think the movement's gone pretty quickly actually viewed in that light.

RP:  What would be the best outcome of the petition in your view?

JW: The extension of the NIH policy across all US federal agencies. Even better would be a shorter embargo period.

RP: Thank you for your time.


Sandy Thatcher said...

Of course, all the heated debate could have been avoided, and the goal of public access achieved quickly, if the mandate had simply been to require posting by government agencies of final reports of research funded by those agencies, rather than the journal articles that are later written and published by the private sector. Why the OA movement decided to go after journal articles instead of research reports remains a mystery--unless it was in the hope that pressure could be brought to bear on publishers to lower their subscription prices to libraries.

fegatochirurgia said...

I'm sorry to bump this six month old thread, but I felt the need to reply to this argument (i.e. open access to research reports, not the papers) that tenets of the current paywall model seem to favour.

I addressed this issue in a post on a related blog at The Scholarly Kitchen
, and here I summarize some key points of that exchange.

I consider the writing process (including the peer-review) to be research at its best, and an integral part of the research process.

Two important points: a) Peer review, usually done on a voluntary basis (you must read "for free", or at least "not paid by the journals") by---yes---peers. And 2) publication costs are, in many cases, paid for by the granting institutions.

The funding agencies sensu latu (be them public or private) pay not only for data, but for the whole process of research. It is such a well established situation, that some funding agencies clearly and specifically target part of the grant to be used for writing (including contracting professional copy-editing services, but often is mainly for translations) and publishing the said research.

Let this point be clear: when the granting office is a government fund, the public (i.e. the taxpayer) pays the research work AND the publication in specialized journals.

Research papers are more than a summary of the researchers' work. It is a map through intricate knowledge networks that the authors used to build their work, interpret the results and link them to the rest of the vast web of research.

The purpose of journal articles is not only to document the results obtained, but to disseminate the knowledge to a larger audience, and to help in the building of the commons of human knowledge.

Research reports, on the other hand, do not have the proverbial “layman” in mind. These documents are not written to disseminate knowledge, but to document it. Thus IMHO, limiting open access to these reports alone would accomplish disclosure, not openness.

In other words, it would be the equivalent of giving someone a complex gadget in detached pieces without the assembly instructions.

A few general considerations:

1/ Knowledge (not journal articles) should be freely accessible. It is upon free exchange of knowledge and ideas that science is ultimately built.

2/ Publicly funded *research*, and not only the results, ultimately belongs to the public.

3/ Publishers have a right to sell their product. Its the product that needs redefining, and some beefing up.

There is an ongoing shift in scholar publications' business-model. However, as the OP clearly states, this change is not a product of this particular USA mandate or OA advocacy. It is a product of the internet, and its inexorable transforming force remodelling the way by which we obtain information, communicate and relate to each other.

In the internet epoch, wide and instantaneous distribution is already achieved. Diffusion is not enough a selling argument for scholar journals any more.

Citations of papers are a direct and well established method by which scientists recognize the relevance of each others work, and are the ultimate currency in scholarly publications: they give journals their impact factor, they give authors their h-rank.

An increasing body of evidence suggests that readily accessible information significantly increases the chances of any given research to be cited (know as the Open Access Citation Advantage – OACA). This trend, if confirmed, will bring many more authors towards journals with OA policies.

Ultimately we must keep in mind that knowledge not shared ultimately withers and dies.

Sorry again for beating a dead horse ;)