Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ann Okerson 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 Ann Okerson, Senior Advisor on Electronic Strategies for the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), and a former Associate University Librarian at Yale University. Okerson also serves as a consultant on library projects.
Ann Okerson
Prior to joining Yale, Okerson worked as founding senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in Washington, DC, after having written the consultant report Of Making Many Books There is No End: Report on Serial Prices. Published in 1989, this was one of the early rallying cries to libraries and academia about the spiralling costs of scientific journals.

After arriving at Yale, in 1996, Okerson organised the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium (NERL), a group of 28 large research libraries (and over 80 smaller affiliates) that negotiates licences for electronic information (i.e. “big deals”) and engages in other forms of cooperative activity.

In 1997, with funding from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), Okerson and colleagues at Yale library mounted an online educational resource covering the topic of library licensing of electronic content, in a project called LIBLICENSE. In addition to web resources and tools, this includes the influential mailing list liblicense-l, which today has over 4,200 subscribers, including librarians, publishers and attorneys.

Describing her current job at CRL in a recent Wiley Exchanges interview, Okerson said, “I’m engaged with Bernie Reilly (CRL’s dedicated, creative president) and his senior staff to identify openings and opportunities for CRL electronic engagement:  for example, playing a supporting role in some digital activities (such as supporting work for newspaper digitization projects) and a lead role in others (such as cross-consortial negotiations for significant archival and current e-resources).”

At CRL Okerson is leading a community working group tasked with rewriting the “Model Contract” originally pioneered at LIBLICENSE in the late 1990s. She has also just completed a two-year term as Chair of the Professional Committee of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) as well as four years on its Governing Board.

Open Access

Okerson has been both a participant in and observer of the OA movement since the beginning. In 1995, for instance, she co-edited — with classicist Jim O’Donnell — the book Scholarly Journals at the Crossroads: a Subversive Proposal for Electronic Journal Publishing. This consists almost entirely of e-mail messages, and covers an extensive multinational Internet discussion about the future of scholarly journals that took place across many e-lists. The debate was sparked by an online message that OA advocate Steven Harnad (interviewed earlier in this Q&A series) had posted in 1994 under the title “subversive proposal”.

Harnad’s message is now viewed as one of the seminal texts of the OA movement, although it (and the book it led to) was published before the various strands of the movement had coalesced into a single effort (and adopted the name “open access”) which happened in 2001 at the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).

Today Okerson is a member of the international steering committee for SCOAP3, a project designed to transition the principle scientific journals in the field of high energy physics to an OA business model. SCOAP3 is set to go live in January 2014.

Given her background, Okerson is well placed to give an informed view on the current state of Open Access. Inevitably, she views matters through the eyes of a librarian.

What is striking to me, however, is that — at a time when many librarians have come to view publishers as the enemy — Okerson appears surprisingly balanced and objective in her views.

It is no surprise, then, that she views herself as belonging to the “pragmatic wing” of the OA movement. “I’m always thrilled with ‘better,’ but I also like ‘now’”, she says.

For that reason, she adds, her biggest disappointment is “the way that the desire for the best can get in the way of the really pretty darned good. The dialogue that we need to have among academics, librarians, publishers, and policymakers breaks down when it becomes ideological, and real opportunities can be missed.”

What in Okerson’s view is the current state of Open Access? “I remember getting my head around the concept of the asymptote back in Algebra II, that ideal line the curve is trending towards, closer and closer without ever absolutely reaching,” she says. “That’s my mental model for how we are progressing with open access. We’ll likely never get 100% there, but the trend and progress are real. If we were all a little less ideological, a little more pragmatic, there would be a variety of things we could be doing now that would advance our objectives and push the curve closer to the ideal line.”