Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Open Access Interviews: Professor Jack Meadows

Jack Meadows
Photo provided by Dr Ramaiah
Any movement dedicated to changing long-established ways of doing things is likely to engender a heated debate, and a debate that inevitably produces polarised views. Thus it is with the Open Access (OA) movement.

But what is distinctive about the OA debate is that it has produced not a simple juxtaposition of those who support the old and those who support the new. It is more complex than that.

On one side of the OA rift, of course, are the traditional subscription publishers. They are determined to protect their business interests, and fearful that OA might threaten the high levels of profitability to which they have become accustomed.

On the other side, however, is to be observed not a single movement (or even a single OA organisation), but rather a disparate collection of factions — all of whom want change, all of whom are passionate in their advocacy for OA, but most of whom end up constantly disagreeing with one another — about objectives, about strategy, and even about definitions.

In fact, the more passionate OA advocates tend to disagree with one another even more violently than they do with their publisher opponents. And the resulting internecine warfare has only intensified as publishers have begun reluctantly to provide OA — because in doing so publishers are invariably providing it in ways, and at a cost, that pleases some OA advocates while displeasing others.

The debate is further complicated by the fact that much of the discussion about OA tends to lack historical perspective. It is also frequently based on unfounded claims and unfulfillable expectations, on all sides. 

Potential quagmire

One consequence of all this is that politicians and bureaucrats are frequently confused when trying to work out what to do about OA. This can lead to badly-thought-through and controversial policies, which appears to be what happened with the Finch Report — now official UK government policy — and the subsequent OA policy announced by Research Council’s UK (RCUK) last July. RCUK’s new policy was immediately attacked from all directions.

The upshot is that OA must be viewed as a potential quagmire for universities, for research funders and for politicians. The problem they face is that it is no longer possible not to respond to the clamour for OA. Yet the wrong response can end up making matters worse. It does not help that the abundance of advisers and consultants willing to offer advice on OA invariably have their own agenda, and often a vested interest in a particular outcome.

All in all, one is left wondering if there is anyone in the world able to provide an objective assessment of the current state of play of scholarly communication and its likely future development, including OA’s role in that development.

But perhaps there is someone. What about Jack Meadows, Emeritus Professor of Library and Information Studies at Loughborough University?

Before retiring in 2001 Meadows was, at different times in his academic career, a physicist, an astronomer, an information scientist, and a historian of science. During that time he also ran a number of different academic departments, and was both a Dean and a Pro-Vice Chancellor. In addition, he is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, and Permanent Vice-President of the Library Association. And we could mention in passing that he has an asteroid named after him too — asteroid 4600 Meadows to be precise.

Vitally, Meadows has devoted a great deal of time during his life to thinking about and researching the history of scholarly communication.

“Jack Meadows’ contributions to the study of the history of science, and of scholarly publishing trends are outstanding,” says Charles Oppenheim, who took over as head of the Library and Information Statistics Unit at Loughborough University when Meadows retired. “He was involved in the very earliest experiments with ejournals, and his book Communication in Science is a model of how to write a well-researched but fascinating history. He also edited The Origins of Information Science, which is also a model history.”

In total, Meadows has published some 250 articles and 24 books, including (as noted by Oppenheim) Communication in Science and Communicating Research. And he continues to research and write on such matters in retirement.

No particular dream to sell

Who better then to offer an objective assessment of the revolution sweeping through the world of scholarly communication, and to do so with an informed historical perspective? Importantly, although he has observed the development of OA over the years, Meadows is not an advocate for any specific form of OA. As such, he has no particular dream to sell, and no horse in the OA race.

Moreover, Meadows is no dry academic without any understanding of the beatings of the human heart, or the need for moderation in the pursuit of one’s goals. And he is able and willing to dispense sound advice. Meadows, says Oppenheim, is “a very wise and supportive man who has time for everyone.”

Former Loughborough student  Chennupati Ramaiah — who now heads up the Department of Library and Information Science in Pondicherry University, India — can testify to the soundness of Meadows’ advice.

“Professor Meadows is a true human being, and an excellent teacher, researcher and administrator. He is the only person who told me not to work too much, and advised me to go on holiday so that I could recharge my batteries. This helped me work more effectively, and allowed me to get my PhD degree in on time.”

Doubtless a few overheated OA advocates could benefit from such wise counsel. And those participating in some of the more fervid online exchanges about OA could surely profit from a dose of Meadows’ humour. “He has a dry wit (his corny jokes are famous),” explains Oppenheim. Readers will perhaps spot this trait in some of the answers Meadows gives in the interview below.

One is also inclined to suggest that some of the more confused politicians and funders could do worse than give Meadows a call and ask for some advice.

But let’s give Ramaiah the last word on Jack Meadows. “Professor Meadows thinks deeply and explains simply”, he says, “Three people have had a lasting influence on my life: My Guruji, Bhagavan Sri Viswayogi Viswamjee Maharaj — who has assisted me in my spiritual life — Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, who has provided me with a role model in my daily life, and Professor Meadows, who has been a true mentor for me in my research and teaching activities.”

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If you wish to read the interview with Jack Meadows, 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.


Alicia Wise @wisealic said...

Congratulations to you both on a refreshingly balanced look at open access and scholarly communication!

Richard - one question for you. I'm curious about why you describe the White House OSTP policy as a green open access policy. A quick search of the document suggests that the word green does not appear within it. The policy's scope suggests the door is open to both gold and green as I have outlined here:

With kind wishes,

Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Universal Access

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that "he has ... no horse in the OA race," since his daughter's the one to have filed the Wiley-Blackwell (quite anti-OA) response to the White House RFI last year. But great interview all the same.

Richard Poynder said...

Thanks for this Alicia.

The same point occurred to me last week. So I asked an OA advocate why they call the White House directive a Green policy. This is the reply I got:

"Yes, it’s Green because the requirement is to use a repository to provide OA -- although authors can certainly fulfil that requirement by publishing in an OA journal and self-archiving (or having the publisher do that for them)."

I note in your article you say that the memo “leaves open the option of gold open access” but “supports green open access”. That sounds more Green than Gold to me.

Much will presumably depend on whether the funding agencies concerned agree to provide funds for Gold OA. As you say, there will be "some difficult discussions ahead".

A related issue from my perspective is the percentage of papers that are currently going into PubMed Central that have been published as Gold OA.

Unfortunately, these figures do not seem to be available. When I put the question to NIH last year I was told, "We do not have a simple way of generating counts of which papers are from subscription based journals and which are not."

It would be good if PubMed Central began providing better analytical tools and more raw data. I suspect you might agree with me on that.

Richard Poynder said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, Jack Meadows told me that his daughter works for Wiley-Blackwell. Does that mean he has a horse in the OA race? People will need to read the interview and judge for themselves I think.