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.