Sunday, September 29, 2013

Björn Brembs on the state of Open Access: Where are we, what still needs to be done?

One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Björn Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Brembs, who self-characterises himself as a “disgruntled user of a dysfunctional scholarly communication system”, believes it is time for the research community to take ownership of the scholarly communication system back from publishers, and build a “modern scholarly infrastructure”.
Björn Brembs
Like palaeontologist Mike Taylor (interviewed earlier in this series), Brembs is a second-generation OA advocate. His interest in OA began in 2004, ten years after self-styled archivangelist Stevan Harnad posted his Subversive Proposal calling on researchers to create their own local FTP archives and make their published papers freely available on the Internet. 

And two years earlier, in 2002, a group of like-minded people had gathered in Hungary to launch the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). Although the notion of making papers freely available had been around for a decade or more, it was in Budapest that the term “Open Access” was finally adopted.

We could also note that 2004 was the year that Springer launched Open Choice, pioneering the controversial form of OA known as Hybrid OA. The same year the UK House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee published an influential report recommending that all UK researchers be mandated to deposit copies of their articles in their institutional repository so that their research could be “read, free of charge, online.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Open Access in Serbia: Interview with Biljana Kosanović

Biljana Kosanović is Head of the Department of Scientific Information at the National Library of Serbia in Belgrade. Recently I spoke to Kosanović about the research environment in Serbia, about access to international journals, about local Serbian journals, about initiatives like doiSerbia, and about Open Access. It turns out that the situation is not quite how I had envisaged it.
Biljana Kosanović

Those who advocate for Open Access (OA) argue that in the age of the Internet the traditional subscription-based journal system used to publish scholarly papers is outdated, and so places an unnecessary barrier between researchers and published research.

Why? Because in order to have their work published, researchers freely give their papers to publishers, who then package them into journals and put those journals behind a subscription paywall so that they can recoup their costs, and make a profit. Many, however, believe that journal subscriptions are unreasonably high. Moreover, argue OA advocates, while this paywall may have been inevitable in a print world, in an online environment it is not, and simply creates a needless accessibility problem.

For so long as research libraries could afford to subscribe to all the journals they needed this accessibility problem was minimal, or non-existent. With the amount of research published growing year by year, however, it has become increasingly difficult for research libraries to afford all the journals they need — creating an affordability problem. And this affordability problem has led to a serious accessibility problem.

In an attempt to resolve the problem, in the 1990s publishers created the so-called Big Deal. Instead of selling subscriptions on a journal-by-journal basis, they started to sell discounted packages of (sometimes hundreds) of journals on an all-you-can-eat basis.

Librarians initially welcomed the Big Deal, since it gave them more for less. Subsequently, however, they concluded that it had exacerbated the affordability problem, and so made the accessibility problem much worse. Not only have prices continued to rise, but libraries have come to feel that they are locked into large over-priced contracts from which they are now unable to escape.


Underlining how serious the problem has become, last year the library of the wealthiest university in the world — Harvard — published a Memorandum in which it asserted that subscription-based scholarly publishing is now untenable. “Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive,” the Memorandum read. “This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers … to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.” [I.e. sell Big Deals, and at increasingly higher prices].

Even Harvard’s wealth, it would seem, is no longer able to afford to provide access to all the journals its researchers need. So Harvard Library proposed a number of solutions, most notably that researchers should embrace Open Access (OA), which ensures that research papers are made freely available outside publishers’ paywalls.

If the library of the world’s wealthiest university can no longer afford to provide its faculty with all the research they need, I thought, how appalling must it be for researchers in universities based in less wealthy countries? It was for this reason that I made contact with Biljana Kosanović.  Serbia, we should note, is a transition country. It is also classified by many as a developing country (e.g. here and here).

To my surprise, however, Kosanović, informed me that access to international research is not a serious problem in Serbia.

Pretty satisfied

She added that this is because eleven years ago the Consortium of Serbian Libraries for Coordinating Acquisition (KoBSON) was created, and charged with negotiating and managing national licensing schemes (Big Deals) with scholarly publishers. The aim was to ensure that Serbian researchers had access to all the international journals they needed.

How do we know that access to international journals is currently satisfactory in Serbia? “Two years ago — when we celebrated the tenth anniversary of KoBSON — we did a big survey of our users,” Kosanović explained to me. “We got around 3,000 respondents — which is pretty good for a user population of 30,000. Based on that, I would say that our users are pretty satisfied with what we offer them. There were only a few publishers they mentioned that we don’t have in our collections.”

How can it be that access to research appears to be less problematic for Serbian researchers than it is for those based at Harvard University?

Read the interview with Kosanović below to find out. In doing so you will also learn something of the research information environment in Serbia, and you will learn about the current state of Open Access in the country — for despite Serbian researchers’ current satisfaction with their access needs, Kosanović is a committed OA advocate.

“KoBSON is not a long-term solution,” Kosanović explained, adding, “I am sure that OA is the future of scholarly publishing, but this future will not arrive in the next year or two — so initiatives like KoBSON remain essential.”

In the meantime, there is much to be done. Currently only one university in Serbia has signed the Berlin Declaration, there are no OA mandates, and there are few institutional repositories.

On the other hand, more and more Serbian journals are becoming OA, thanks in part to the efforts of Kosanović and her colleagues who manage the doiSerbia initiative.


If you wish to read the interview with Biljana Kosanović, 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, September 17, 2013

De Gruyter’s Sven Fund on the state of Open Access: Where are we, what still needs to be done?

Sven Fund
One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Sven Fund, CEO of Berlin-based scholarly publisher De Gruyter. Fund is the first representative of a traditional commercial publisher to take part in this series.

By any account De Gruyter can fairly be described as a traditional publisher (or as OA advocates prefer, “legacy publisher”). Created by Walter De Gruyter in 1919 by combining five existing publishers, De Gruyter’s roots go back to 1749 when the bookstore of the Königlichen Realschule in Berlin was given the right to print books by King Frederick II of Prussia.

In 1801 Königlichen Realschule was taken over by Georg Reimer, and Georg Reimer Publishers was one of the companies merged to form Walter De Gruyter & Co in 1919.

Today De Gruyter’s publishing program includes theology and philosophy, biology and chemistry, linguistics and literature, mathematics and physics, history and archaeology, as well as law and medicine. 

Please scroll through the introduction to go direct to the Q&A

Open Access to papers and books

Like other traditional publishers De Gruyter has in recent years launched a number of Open Access initiatives. In April 2009 — five years after Springer pioneered Hybrid OA when it introduced Open Choice De Gruyter announced the De Gruyter Open Library, introducing OA options for both its journals (pure Gold and Hybrid OA), as well as books.

In 2009 De Gruyter also announced that, from 2010, it would be publishing the “Topoi. Berlin Studies of the Ancient World” series, thereby expanding its OA efforts into the humanities. A partnership with the Excellence Cluster Topoi, with funding from the German Research Foundation, the series encompasses all the disciplines of Ancient Studies, from prehistory and early history through classical archaeology to antique philosophy, epistemology and theology.

As well as being published in print book form, selected titles from the Topoi series are also available as OA eBooks on the website. The Topoi initiative was featured as an Open Access Success Story by Knowledge Exchange in 2009.

Currently De Gruyter publishes twelve pure OA journals, and all of its 364 subscription journals now offer a Hybrid OA option. And to date it has published 47 OA books under its own OA books programme. This includes some that will be published next year.

De Gruyter’s most daring OA move, however, came in 2010, when it acquired the Polish OA publisher Versita, which currently publishes 439 pure OA journals — an acquisition reminiscent of Springer’s decision to acquire BioMed Central in 2008.

How much does De Gruyter charge for its different OA options? The article-processing charge for both pure Gold and Hybrid OA is currently €1,750 ($2,450). The cost of publishing a book is less clear. When I asked the publisher’s PR representative she said she did not know. So I emailed a few authors who had published OA books with De Gruyter. Those that replied said they had been given special discounted deals, with one citing a figure of €5,000. By way of comparison, we could note that Palgrave Macmillan currently charges £11,000 ($17,500) to publish an OA book, and Springer charges around €15,000.  

What about Green OA? According to the SHERPA/ROMEO database, De Gruyter is a “yellow” publisher rather than a green one. Specifically, it allows authors only to archive their pre-prints, and only on their own personal web site. It also imposes a 12-month embargo.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

UK House of Commons Select Committee publishes report criticising RCUK’s Open Access Policy

The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee has today published a critical report on the Open Access (OA) policy introduced on April 1st by Research Councils UK (RCUK).

While it welcomes the Government’s desire to achieve full OA, the Committee is critical of the way it is going about it, and critical of the way in which the Finch Report (which was commissioned by the Government) looked at the evidence and arrived at its conclusions — conclusions on which the RCUK policy is based.

Above all, the BIS Committee is highly critical of the Government’s and RCUK’s preference for Gold OA, and their failure to give due regard to the “vital role” that Green OA and repositories can play in moving the UK towards full OA.

“[A]lmost without exception, our evidence has pointed to gaps in both the qualitative and quantitative evidence underpinning the Finch Report’s conclusions and recommendations,” the report says, “most significantly a failure to examine the UK’s Green mandates and their efficacy.”

It adds, “This has been replicated in the formulation of the Government and RCUK’s open access policies and their mistaken focus on the Gold solution as the primary route to achieving open access at scale in the UK.”

Rather than the Gold-preferred approach that RCUK has adopted, the Committee asserts, “The major mechanism of transition must be Green open access, specifically through strong immediate self-archiving mandates set by funders and institutions, either as a funding condition or tied to research assessment as appropriate.” 

Commenting on the report, Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, and MP for West Bromwich West, Adrian Bailey said, “In a fully open access world, the benefits of Gold open access may well outweigh those of Green open access. We are not yet in an open access world, however, and the key to the success of open access policy is how we get there. The Government and RCUK have given insufficient consideration to the transitional period and the vital role of the Green route. The evidence suggests that the cost of unilaterally adopting Gold open access during a transition period are much higher than those of Green open access.”


RCUK’s Gold-preferred approach, explained Bailey, would be unnecessarily damaging for university budgets. “At a time when the budgets of universities are under great pressure, it is unacceptable that the Government has issued an open access policy that will require considerable subsidy from research budgets in order to both maintain journal subscriptions and cover article processing charges”.

He added, “It became increasingly evident during the course of our inquiry that some elements of the scholarly publishing market are dysfunctional. The Government’s open access policy risks making the situation worse, causing longer embargoes, restricting access, and inflicting higher costs on UK higher education institutions.”

Both the Finch Report and the subsequent RCUK policy have proved highly contentious, and subject to considerable criticism — not least during an earlier inquiry by the House of Lords Science & Technology Committeehere and here). 

In response to this criticism RCUK has made a number of changes to its OA policy, including lengthening the permitted embargo period. The BIS Committee is now effectively asking RCUK to make a complete U-turn.

The BIS Committee has recommended that, amongst other things, RCUK reinstate and strengthen the immediate deposit mandate that was in its original policy (and in line with the proposals outlined by the Higher Education Funding Council for England [HEFCE] in July), and that it revise its policy to place an upper limit of 6 month embargoes on STEM subject research and up to 12 month embargoes for HASS subject research.

It also recommends that the Government take an active role in promoting standardisation and compliance across subject and institutional repositories, and that it mitigate against the impact on universities of paying Article Processing Charges out of their own reserves.

If RCUK maintains its preference for Gold, it adds, the Government and RCUK should amend their policies so that APCs are only paid to publishers of pure Gold rather than hybrid journals to “eliminate the risk of double dipping by journals, and encourage innovation in the scholarly publishing market”.

The BIS report also highlights a number of negative consequences that the RCUK policy has already had, including the way it has encouraged publishers to seek to restrict Green OA self-archiving. “Current UK open access policy risks incentivising publishers to introduce or increase embargo periods. On the other hand, we saw no evidence that short embargo periods harm subscription publishers,” says Bailey.

In addition, the report expresses concern about RCUK’s insistence that when authors pay for Gold OA their papers should be made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Only (CC-BY) licence. It therefore recommends that the Government “keep an open mind on licensing requirements” and “commission independent research on the implications of the most common licences if necessary.” In the meantime, it adds, the Government should “monitor complaints by authors and institutions about breach of licensing conditions or inappropriate reuse of content.”

The Committee also deprecates the use of non-disclosure clauses by publishers when selling “Big Deal” subscriptions. “Non-disclosure clauses severely limit the negotiating power of universities over subscriptions costs,” it says. “If dialogue does not resolve the problem, the Government should refer the matter to the Competition Commission.”

The report concludes, “The Minister for Universities and Science [David Willetts] and members of the Finch working group are due to meet in September 2013 to assess impact and progress of open access policy. RCUK has said it intends to review its policy in 2014, to assess how developments compare to their expectations, and to meet annually after that. As part of those reviews, both Government and RCUK must fully consider and address the conclusions and recommendations set out in this Report.”

Key question

The key question, of course, is whether the report’s recommendations will be acted upon. By convention, the Government responds to select committee reports within two months. However, the Government is not bound to accept any recommendations of a select committee and it can reject recommendations when it responds.

Nevertheless, OA advocates are confident that the Government and RCUK will have little choice but to listen to the Committee. Writing on Google+ de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber puts it this way: “The BIS Committee has no formal or legal control over BIS policies, including the OA policy. But its report is a major political blow to the current policy. The government will either have to justify the current policy, in the teeth of the evidence produced by the Committee, or make concessions.”

Suber adds, “One reason is simply that this is the relevant oversight committee in Parliament. But another is the Committee's careful documentation. The current policy relied on a report that overlooked or misrepresented a host of key facts. The committee has done its homework, unearthed the facts, documented them, and drawn the right conclusions from them. In the name of evidence-based policy-making, as well as the public interest in open access to publicly-funded research, the government should acknowledge the weight of the evidence and modify its policy.”

When I contacted RCUK I was told that while a more considered response is likely to be issued in due course, its initial response is as follows:

Research Councils UK (RCUK) notes the report on Open Access from the House of Commons BIS Committee and will consider its recommendations carefully. We welcome the committee’s support for 6/12 month embargoes, reflecting RCUK policy.

Many of the issues around embargoes, APCs, licences and the international landscape will be considered, alongside evidence, as part of our 2014 review of the implementation of the RCUK policy and through subsequent reviews.

The Research Councils continue to be committed to ensuring that the outputs of the research we fund are widely available to a multitude of users.

We continue to have a preference for open access through “gold”, with its more immediate benefits for society, the economy and wider research, whilst continuing our commitment to supporting a mixed model for both gold and green routes for Open Access.

We will continue to work closely with BIS, other researcher funders, the academic communities and the publishers as we actively consider the evidence and outcomes from our planned reviews.

Further commentary

Below I attach comments from a number of other stakeholders, including David Sweeney, Director (Research, Innovation and Skills) at HEFCE, Alma Swan, Director of Advocacy, SPARC Europe, and three researchers who gave oral evidence to the Committee: Stevan Harnad, Martin Eve and Andrew Massey. 
  •      HEFCE’s David Sweeney comments:

We note the report and welcome the efforts of the committee in considering these issues in a way that is both thoughtful and quite detailed.

We welcome the report's recognition for the role that institutional repositories can play in the journey towards open access. We see many benefits of the increased availability of research outputs through repositories, including:

       (a) the increased potential of automated access through methods such as text-mining;

       (b) the increased ease of administration of a future REF.

We warmly welcome the report's recognition that our policy proposals protect authors' freedom of choice, as do those of RCUK.

We appreciate the report's recognition of the close complementarity between HEFCE's proposals and the RCUK open access policy. We believe our policies working together will support a successful transition to sustainable open access publishing.

More generally the report manages to move beyond the adversarial view taken by some parties in the open access debate. The report notes particularly that unembargoed green open access in high energy physics sits well with a subscription model. The report also notes, in para 65,that proponents of green open access in a transitionary period recognize the potential benefits which may then accrue from an optimal gold environment as envisaged by the Finch Group.

In our view substantial further progress in open access will be achieved by a flexible approach in a transitionary period leading to a common goal. We believe that all parties have something to offer to make this transition successful and we look forward to innovatory approaches by both new and established publishers, working together with the academic community and with funders.

  •      SPARC Europe’s Alma Swan comments:

I am very pleased that the Committee has really taken evidence properly into account. A major disappointment of the Finch Group study and report was the ignoring or misrepresenting of the situation, even where data and evidence were available to be weighed up. Whether this was wilful or just incompetence we'll never know, but it was enormously damaging to OA. Now this Committee has collected and examined all the evidence available and drawn from it the sensible conclusions that Finch should have done.

The report pulls no punches in criticising both Finch and RCUK where they have failed in the evidence-weighing and also failed OA and the British taxpayer. This is right. Plenty of criticism in this vein was offered — I believe constructively — at the time to both Finch and subsequently to RCUK as it dithered and slithered through its contorted policymaking process, but neither took the suggestions on board. Nor did they appear to welcome the well-informed dissent as something that could be used positively to improve their work. This BIS Committee report represents the foundation of a cathartic process, hopefully.

Now what needs to be done is for Mr Willetts, Dame Janet and her group, and RCUK to accept the report's findings and recommendations and to use those to improve the policy. This is their opportunity to put the previous process behind them and work out a better solution. There is lots to use there to build a really great policy and I do believe that the world-leading policy that our Research Councils previously had can be re-found. RCUK can again be in the forefront of global policymaking. It is sad it lost its place, and it is true that around the world there is much bemusement at the direction the UK has gone in, but now this can be changed.

Mistakes happen. Their primary advantage is to be learned from. I believe RCUK can come out with a cracker of a policy if freed up from the constraints placed upon it by the twin demands of 'Gold first' and not disrupting the publishing industry. Disrupting scholarly publishing is the second part of the definition of Open Access. We want change, for the better. That doesn't come by leaving things as they are. RCUK has been working with its hands tied and hopefully the BIS report will result in the shackles coming off.

One could hardly have hoped for a better outcome from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee's Report. If BIS's recommendations are followed then the UK will regain its global leadership role in the Open Access movement -- the role the UK has been playing ever since the pioneering 2004 Report by Ian Gibson's Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology. That Report had recommended that UK's universities and funding councils should mandate Green OA self-archiving of all peer-reviewed research articles. In the ensuing years more and more of the rest of the world began to follow suit.

The 2013 BIS Report (I, II) now recommends mandating;

1. that the Green OA deposit in the institutional repository should be immediate rather than delayed, whether or not Open Access to the deposit is embargoed by the publisher (during any OA embargo the repository's eprint-request Button can then enable the author to fulfill individual user eprint requests automatically with one click each if deposit was immediate),

2. that an effective mechanism for monitoring and ensuring timely mandate compliance should be implemented, and

3. that Gold OA publishing should either no longer be preferred or hybrid Gold should no longer be funded.

The BIS recommendations now perfectly complement HEFCE's recommendation to make immediate-deposit a condition for eligibility for REF 2020 (thereby effectively recruiting universities to serve as the mechanism for ensuring timely compliance, following the highly successful mandate model of the University of Liège). This effectively fixes the flaws in the Finch Report. The UK's OA policy will now also be compatible with OA policies in the EU, the US and the rest of the world, doing them all one better with its explicit call for immediate institutional deposit and effective compliance monitoring.

  •      Martin Eve, Lecturer in English Literature, University of Lincoln comments:

The BIS Select Committee Inquiry into Open Access report is to be praised for addressing several important issues that arose during the inquiry. The most striking part of the report, however, seems to be the focus on creating a manageable transition period.

The strong support for green route mandates coupled with the recommendation of greater support for OA-only journals (but not hybrid publications) sets out a five-year path to begin working towards sustainable gold. It is also excellent that the committee has recommended a competition inquiry against the cartel-like practice of non-disclosure agreements on big-deal bundling if the matter cannot be eliminated through dialogue.

For those in the humanities who feared the gold route (perhaps because it has been erroneously equated with APCs, or even for other reasons), this should come as a welcome reprieve. That said, it will be interesting to see whether we can develop acceptable methods for citing versioned deposits in institutional repositories and whether these will hold up on the world stage; after all, if citation practices in humanities disciplines strongly require reference to the publisher's version, rather than the accepted version (that HEFCE looks set to mandate), then the benefits of green OA could be under-realised.

It is, however, extremely heartening that the inquiry recommends an upper embargo limit of 12 month for HASS subjects, which will ensure that those working on rapidly changing fields are not overly damaged through lack of access.

Overall, there is much of merit here. Based on my reading of the summary recommendations, I feel that the panel has understood `the core issues and given sound guidance on a route forward (although I was unable to see evidence of alternative proposed gold business models and was worried that the panel seems to propose propping up publisher coffers through additional APC funds).

I remain convinced that open access holds great benefits for our institutions and researchers and that the gold route is, ultimately, the best way to achieve that. In our quest to get there, though, this report has recommended the middle way while also firmly steering the agenda forward. I may not like their transparent title — “achieving a functional market” — but I do cautiously welcome the report, with the above caveats.

  •      Andrew Massey, Professor of Politics, University of Exeter comments:

I welcome the Report of the HoC BIS Committee on Open Access. It is measured and acute in its analysis and recommendations. The depth and breadth of evidence from all perspectives of the Open Access debate was properly weighed and reflected in the Committee's Report.

The key issues from the perspective of Humanities and Social Science were given proper credence and in the evidence and discussion it was rightly observed that the model of OA that has been applied to STEM may not readily transfer across to the HSS disciplines without there being due regard paid to the different structure, culture and economic models that apply to these disciplines.

While I accept that many OA adherents believe to the contrary, it remains true that ‘one size does not fit all’ and it is important that this has been debated by the Committee. The points and recommendations regarding “Gold” and “Green” and the blind dash for Gold without proper consideration of Green routes and without full and proper consultation of the preferences of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and their representative professional associations is a welcome part of the Report. As is the recognition that in HSS subjects there simply is not the money to pay for APCs. Indeed, to force researchers to pay for these would amount to a pay cut as they would have to do so out of their own pocket.

Furthermore, the initial acceptance by Finch, RCUK, HEFCE and the Government (since somewhat modified) of CC-BY as the preferred licensing option across all disciplines has been rightly criticised as being imposed without consultation, debate or proper evidential reason.

While I believe the 12 month embargo for HSS papers ought to be 24 months, I accept the case for this needs to be made. I also note the Committee has questioned the belief of Government, RCUK and others that the rest of the world is going gold and that the UK needs to maintain its lead here. As the Committee point out, there is very little evidence for this claim. Indeed, the rest of the world appears to have opted for the green route.  

Overall I welcome the analysis and recommendations of the Committee which has demonstrated the importance of evidence based policy making, with a need for policy to be based on analysis, empirical evidence and wide consultation. It is only to be regretted that the Government, HEFCE and RCUK did not engage in this prior to their various initial policy statements on OA.

Coverage elsewhere:

A Nature news story is available here.
A news item from The Bookseller is available here.
Commentary by researcher Stephen Curry is available here.