Monday, December 23, 2013

Robin Osborne 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 Robin Osborne, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Earlier this year Osborne published an essay questioning one of the basic premises of the OA movement — that research funded by the taxpayer should be freely available to all. To claim as much, he said, was “a gross misunderstanding” of the nature of academic research and of scholarly publication. Yet this was the premise of the UK government-commissioned Finch Report, this was the conclusion of the UK government when it accepted the Finch Report’s recommendations, and this was the assumption of Research Councils UK (RCUK) when it subsequently introduced a new OA policy.

Robin Osborne
Osborne’s essay met with considerable hostility from OA advocates, who complained that it was elitist, that it was insular and arrogant, and that it was dim-witted. Doubtless Osborne could have been more judicious in his choice of language when challenging the OA movement. But then so could his critics when responding to him.

Be that as it may, in conducting the Q&A below with Osborne it seemed to me that three key questions arise from his intervention in the OA debate. First, of course, is whether the arguments he uses are valid. Second, we might want to ask how representative his views are. Third, we might wonder how Humanities and Social Science (HSS) researchers (and their societies) should respond to the growing demands that they make their research OA, particularly since OA policies are invariably based on the habits and practices of scientists.

As my thoughts on these three questions turned out to be somewhat lengthy, instead of publishing my usual foreword to this Q&A, I have attached an afterword below it. I do this in the expectation that some readers may only want to read the Q&A. At the very end is a further comment from Osborne in response to the afterword.

Q&A with Robin Osborne

Q: In an essay you wrote for the British Academy earlier this year you argued that Open Access “makes no sense”. You explained, “There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process — a process which universities teach (at a fee).” I think your point was that giving someone physical access to information is not the same thing as enabling them to make use of it (As you put it, “For those who wish to have access, there is an admission cost: they must invest in the education prerequisite to enable them to understand the language used.”).

OA advocates responded by accusing you of elitism. As palaeontologist Mike Taylor (interviewed earlier in this series) put it on his blog, “[I]t breaks my heart to read this fusty, elitist, reactionary piece, in which Professor Osborne ends up arguing strongly for his own irrelevance.”

Have I understood the point you were making about access correctly, and how would you respond to those who say that your argument was an elitist one?

A: Yes, you have understood correctly.

The charge of elitism seems to me extraordinary. If we did not think that there were some sorts of communication for which there is prerequisite training we would not have an education system. Once one has an education system one must treat those who have been through it differently from those who have not been through it — otherwise one is massively wasting their time. That means writing needs to be adapted to its readership. That way what is written is less likely to be misunderstood and is going to be more effective at making the points that it makes.

This is not to argue for the irrelevance of any form of scholarship, it is very precisely to argue the opposite — that scholarship has relevance within a particular context (that is, after all, what relevance means).

Q: You also argued that there is “no clear dividing line between projects funded by research councils and an academic’s daily activities of thinking and teach. If there are fees to teaching there should be fees for access to research.” And you further said that attributing any particular publication to a particular funding body “is simply impossible.”

I think you made these points in order to rebut OA advocates’ argument that publicly-funded research should be made freely available to the public. That of course is only one of the arguments used by OA advocates. I am struck, for instance, that the university that has done most to advocate for OA is a private US university — Harvard. When I asked Harvard’s Stuart Shieber why a privately funded university has become a leader in a movement whose main rallying cry is “public access to taxpayer-funded research” he replied, “Harvard’s activities toward openness are based on the mission of all universities, both public and private, to disseminate knowledge.” Would you agree that that is the mission of all universities? If so, should not all universities and all scholars be advocating for OA today, now that the Internet had made it possible?

A: The issue here is not whether scholars should make some of their work available free-of-charge to the world at large but whether scholars should be obliged to publish all work funded in a particular way or that is to count as research that can be graded in a REF exercise as OA.

I have no objection to making suitable research available to all on a suitable website. But in fact I know that I shall have greater impact — that is, be read by more people who are in a position to make the most of my research — if I publish within a particular framework.

So I am currently involved a) in making my research on Athenian democracy available in a ‘reader’ (‘LACTOR’) that will be widely used by A-level students in the classroom; b) in producing a magazine (‘OMNIBUS’) aimed at sixth-form students (now in its 34th year; I’ve been involved for 27 of those years) which commissions, edits and prints short articles in which scholars bring the insights of their research to bear on texts and topics relevant to Greek, Latin, Class. Civ. and Ancient History A levels.

Neither of these publications is free but publication in either LACTOR or OMNIBUS format will get read and studied by more people than posting on an internet site. And certainly my publishing the more technical research from which these publications derive would have no effect at all, since the length of exposition required for scholarly colleagues will turn off non-scholarly readers immediately.

So effective dissemination and OA simply are not the same thing. I’m an advocate of the former, which is why I oppose being forced into the latter.

Q: In reading your BA essay I formed the impression that your main objection is to pay-to-publish Gold OA, rather than OA per se. You may know that Harvard’s Peter Suber (interviewed earlier in this series) recently estimated that nearly 70% of journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals do not charge an article-processing charge (APC) so they are free to publish and free to read.

And of course there is also Green OA, where authors continue to publish in subscription journals, but then make their papers freely available by self-archiving them in their institutional repositories. In their submission to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee inquiry into Open Access earlier this year The Classical Association (of which you are a former President) and The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (of which I think you are also a former President) said that they supported the principle of Open Access to research, but argued that this can be achieved most effectively by Green OA, so long as an embargo period of 36 months is applied. They added that they do not feel that the subscription model for learned societies is “in itself flawed or unsatisfactory”.

Do the views of these organisations accord with yours? If not, in what ways do your views differ?

A: You are right that my BA article aimed primarily at Gold OA — partly because it was first written more than 6 months before it appeared, when I was trying to get the BA to take OA seriously, and at that point Gold OA was the chief game in town.

I’m more cautious about Green OA than the CA/SPHS etc. have been, partly because dispositionally I regard the approach that says ‘yes, but’ as politically problematic when there are points of principle that need making, and partly because there simply isn’t the experimental data to allow a judgement to be passed as to whether with scholarly journals in the humanities 36 months is too short or unnecessarily long. (The figure of 70% of journals listed in the Directory of OA journals does not move me since in the humanities journals serve niche markets, and so what matters is the practice of the journals serving your niche.)

The issue under debate is not whether a scholar should be allowed to make their work available OA — if it were I would be fighting for that possibility. The issue is whether scholars are going to be compelled to make their work available OA however unsatisfactory the OA options are for them.

If journals were being compelled towards a Green OA policy by market pressure, that would seem to me fair enough. But instead the pressure is being applied by research councils and by government when there is clear evidence that neither research councils nor government have seriously thought about the consequences or have any notion of the different publishing patterns in different subjects and disciplines.

Q: You prefaced your BA article by saying that the claims you were making about OA were limited to research in the Humanities. You added, however, that “very similar arguments apply to research in the sciences also”.

In the recent Guardian live chat on OA that you took part in I formed the impression that you found yourself talking at cross purposes with those with a focus on the sciences. Do you continue to think that similar arguments to those you used in your article also apply to the sciences, or might it be that the situation is actually rather different for the sciences (not least, perhaps, because there is much more funding available for the sciences)?

A: I’ve become convinced that there are some pretty fundamental differences between what publication means in the sciences and what it means in the arts.

I suspect that one sort of scientific publication is dominating the science debate, and that there are other sorts of scientific publication that are much closer to arts publications, but I do acknowledge that there is a big difference between arts and STEM (though I’m not so sure about Mathematics…).

Q: Another distinction we should perhaps make is that between journals produced by commercial publishers and those produced by learned societies. I suspect your focus is more on the latter (I think you are on the editorial boards of several learned society journals for instance). The Classical Association and The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies certainly drew the distinction when making their submission to the BIS Committee. And they pointed out, for instance, that excess revenue earned from their publications helps support the Institute of Classical Studies and their other activities (conferences, lectures, and seminars etc.).

Learned societies often make this argument. Critics respond by suggesting that such a strategy is back to front. If there is a shortfall in society funds, they argue, it is more appropriate to increase membership dues than to tax readers.

Others argue that scholarly publishing is currently inefficient and that OA offers the best long-term route to improving the efficiency of learned society publishing — see this Harvard blog post, for instance, which argues that society publishers would be under less threat from commercial publishers if they adopted Gold OA, since shifting from the reader-pays to the author-pays model would make the scholarly publishing market more efficient, and so help society publishers, many of who are currently threatened by the “big deals” offered by large commercial publishers. Do those who make these arguments have a point, or is their argument erroneous?

A:  In many learned societies the journal comes free with membership, so it is not a matter of increasing membership fees rather than charging for the journal. The journal is the major ‘good’ that the society produces.

The problem with the Harvard blog argument — that learned society journals would be better off under a Gold OA policy — is that it ignores the desire of such journals to be homes to contributions from independent scholars, retired scholars, and young scholars who are unlikely to have access to appropriate APCs. The more care a journal takes over its submissions the better they are for such scholars, who often have much less chance of quality feedback from other sources before submitting their papers, but by the same token that high quality of care means that the realistic APCs need to be very high.

Spreading what is now paid for by 1,000 subscribers across 10 or 12 contributors has obvious consequences for the relation of APCs to journal subscriptions: essentially scholars would be paying up to 3 life-times of journal subscriptions for a single contribution…

There clearly are some small scholarly fields where readership levels are small and the particular readership so expert that it does not need much in the way of refereeing or copy-editing. But in fields with a significant readership in numbers and range (e.g. classics journals being read by school teachers and by students) high-quality refereeing, which not only sorts out the good from the bad but much improves the good, both refereeing and copy-editing are essential. Refereeing is done free of charge because it is in the interests of the journal and of the learned society that runs it.

But when a commercial publisher asks for referees’ reports it pays for them. If an author is paying for my refereeing services I am likely to think myself entitled to some of what he pays. If a reader is paying for the product, then I am proud to have had a part improving the product that the learned society produces.

Q: How would you characterise the current state of OA, both in the UK and internationally?

A: Lots of resignation here, and because Green is so much less horrific than Gold people have rallied behind it, forgetting the completely objectionable compulsion that is being applied. I’ve less sense of the position abroad, which seems to me to be much more varied, partly because there are many parts of the world (e.g. USA) where the scope for compulsion is much less.

Q: Assuming that OA is now inevitable, and recent developments (e.g. the US OSTP Memorandum, the RCUK OA policy, the European Research Council Guidelines on OA and the new OA policy at the University of California) suggest it probably is, what do you expect the respective roles of Green and Gold OA will be going forward, and how is this likely to differ between the humanities and sciences (if at all)?

A: Green is going to be prime in the humanities; gold may be bigger in sciences. But primarily I expect confusion as to what counts as Green, and a lot of multiple publication of essentially the same article, partly in OA form, partly in non-OA form.

People who want to be read in the humanities will stick with non-OA forms for some time to come, except when compelled to do otherwise.

Q: If you do support the general principle of OA, what do you think still needs to be done to achieve it, and by whom? If you do not support OA, what do you think should be done to resist it, and who should do that?

A: I think compulsion is to be resisted by everyone in all circumstances. I find the attempt to pretend that there is a moral issue here is itself morally repulsive.

Q: OA advocates argue that the greatest beneficiaries of OA will be those in the developing world, where many universities can generally afford no more than a handful of journal subscriptions. Would you agree that the developing world faces a serious accessibility problem, and do you think that OA can solve that problem?

A: There is no doubt about the access problems, and many journals have distributed copies free or at much reduced prices in certain parts of the world for a long time. But without an appropriate educational base most scholarly literature will remain ‘Greek’.

Q: The seeds of the OA movement (certainly for librarians) lie in the so-called “serials crisis”, which is an affordability problem. It was this affordability problem that created the accessibility problem that OA was intended to solve. Publishers argue that OA will be no less expensive. OA advocates, by contrast, argue that it will be less expensive than subscription publishing. What are your views on the question of costs? Does cost really matter anyway?

A: Yes costs matter. But high journal costs were a product of scholars needing a proxy for quality. Learned society publications provided that in small fields, but the problem in science was very different. OA has done nothing to help that problem. The problem of having a way in each field of sorting out the important research from the merely interesting (or indeed the mistaken) is one that remains to be sorted, OA or not OA.


Robin Osborne FBA is Professor of Ancient History in the University of Cambridge, Fellow and Senior Tutor of King’s College Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was Chairman of the Council of University Classical Departments 2006–2012, and President of the Classical Association in 2012–13. He is the Chairman of Sub-Panel 31 in the upcoming REF 2014. His work ranges over the fields of ancient Greek History, archaeology and Art History. His recent books include the second edition of his Greece in the Making, 1200–479 B.C. (London: Routledge, 2009); Athens and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and The History Written on the Classical Greek Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

His list of publications is freely available herebut you have to pay for his books.


Afterword: Background and futures

When commenting on Open Access, observers often (and rightly) point out that the OA movement has been driven primarily by scientists. One consequence of this, they add, is that when governments and research funders introduce OA policies they tend to build them around the research practices of the STEM disciplines, and then take a one-size-fits-all approach, regardless of any differences between the disciplines.

Critics argue that this is problematic, not least because it fails to recognise that the culture and practices of scholars working in, say, the humanities and social sciences (HSS) are very different to those of scientists. HSS scholars tend to use different research methods, and they generally communicate their scholarship differently. (Academics in the humanities, for instance, are more inclined to publish monographs than submit papers to journals — thus, in the UK’s 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, only 36% of the history submissions were of journal articles, the remainder being monographs or volumes of essays).

More importantly, critics add, HSS scholars do not have access to the same levels of funding as those working in the STEM disciplines. Consequently, they say, any model requiring that researchers pay to publish is impracticable for HSS scholars.

Nowhere have the potential problems of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach been more evident than in the UK, where earlier this year RCUK introduced a new OA policy (which was first announced in July 2012).