Sunday, January 17, 2016

The OA Interviews: Mikhail Sergeev, Chief Strategy Officer at Russia-based CyberLeninka

Пока рак на горе не свистнет, мужик не перекрестится

Mikhail Sergeev

While open access was not conceivable until the emergence of the Internet (and thus could be viewed as just a natural development of the network) the “OA movement” primarily grew out of a conviction that scholarly publishers have been exploiting the research community, not least by constantly increasing journal subscriptions. It was for this reason that the movement was initially driven by librarians.

OA advocates reasoned that while the research community freely contributes the content in scholarly journals, and freely peer reviews that content, publishers then sell it back to research institutions at ever more extortionate prices, at levels in fact that have made it increasingly difficult for research institutions to provide faculty members with access to all the research they need to do their jobs.

What was required, it was concluded, was for subscription paywalls to be dismantled so that anyone can access all the research they need — i.e. open access. In the process, argued OA advocates, the ability of publishers to overcharge would be removed, and the cost of scholarly publishing would come down accordingly.

But while the movement has persuaded many governments, funders and research institutions that open access is both inevitable and optimal, and should therefore increasingly be made compulsory, publishers have shown themselves to be extremely adept at appropriating OA for their own ends, not least by simply swapping subscription fees for article-processing charges (APCs) without realising any savings for the research community.

This is all too evident in Europe right now. In the UK, for instance, government policy is enabling legacy publishers to migrate to an open access environment with their high profits intact. Indeed, not only are costs not coming down but — as subscription publishers introduce hybrid OA options that enable them to earn both APCs and subscriptions from the same journals (i.e. to “double-dip”) — they are increasing.

Meanwhile, in The Netherlands universities are signing new-style Big Deals that combine both subscription and OA fees. While these are intended to manage the transition to OA in a cost-efficient way, publishers are clearly ensuring that they experience no loss of revenue as a result (although we cannot state that as a fact since the contracts are subject to non-disclosure clauses).

More recently, the German funder Max Planck has begun a campaign intended to engineer a mass “flipping” of legacy journals to OA business models. Again, we can be confident that publishers will not co-operate with any such plan unless they are able to retain their current profit levels.  

It is no surprise, therefore, that many OA advocates have become concerned that the OA project has gone awry.

Alternative models

As the implications of this have sunk in there has been growing interest in alternative publishing models, particularly ones that hold out the promise of disintermediating legacy publishers.

So, for instance, we are seeing the creation of “overlay journals”, and other new publishing initiatives in which the whole process is managed and controlled by the research community itself. Examples of the latter include the use of institutional repositories as publishing platforms, and the founding of new OA university presses like Collabra and Lever Press.

Others have cast their eyes to the Global South (where the affordability problem is both more longstanding and far more acute) for possible alternative models. In doing so, they frequently point to Latin American initiatives like SciELO and Redalyc. (See, for instance, here, here, and here).

Both these services started out as regional bibliographic databases, but over time have added more and more freely-available full-text journal content. Today SciELO hosts 573,525 research articles from 1,249 journals. Redalyc has more than 425,000 full-text articles from over 1,000 journals.

But does Western Europe need to look as far afield as Latin America for this kind of model? The Moscow-based CyberLeninka, for instance, reports that it currently hosts 940,000 papers from 990 journals, all of which are open access, and approximately 70% of which are available under a CC BY licence. Moreover, it has amassed this content in just three years.

Significantly, it has achieved this without the support of either the Russian government, or any private venture capital, as CyberLeninka’s Chief Strategy Officer Mikhail Sergeev explains in the Q&A below. The service was created, and is maintained, by five people working from home. Their goal: to create a prototype for a Russian open science infrastructure.

What struck me in speaking to Sergeev is that many of the problems the Russian research community faces today are strikingly similar to those facing the research community everywhere, if somewhat more extreme in both scope and effect. So could CyberLeninka be developing solutions that the West could learn from?

On one hand it would seem not, since CyberLeninka does not currently have a business model, and so no income. It is also not entirely clear to me how the 990 journals it hosts fund and manage themselves. One would also want to know more about the quality and topicality of the 940,000 papers on the service. What is clear is that the most prestigious Russian journals are not freely available today. We in the West can certainly identify with that problem.

On the other hand, to focus on business models alone is perhaps to miss the point. Surely the Russian government should be funding CyberLeninka, and surely it should be seeking to get the prestigious journals published by the Russian Academy of Sciences on CyberLeninka too? Admittedly the latter could present challenges as the journals were in, effect, (and mistakenly) “privatised” in the 1990s. But that does not mean it should not happen.

The point to bear in mind is that the OA strategies currently being pursued in the West appear to be no more sustainable than the subscription system. Better solutions are therefore needed, and so the more experimentation the better.

And remember, CyberLeninka says it has achieved what it has achieved with no source of revenue. Moreover, in the process of loading journals on its system it is making them OA without the costs normally associated with journal “flipping”. That should focus minds on the cost of scholarly publishing.

In the meantime, of course, CyberLeninka continues to face a serious financial challenge. If it is to prosper, and to embark on the many new initiatives it has set its sights on — including developing overlay journals and offering other repository-based publishing services — some source of funding will be essential.


If you wish to read the interview with Mikhail Sergeev, 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.

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