Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Open access and Africa

In November I reported that PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the open access publisher in order to take up a position as Senior Advisor for Science Communication and Advocacy at an African organisation. 

At the time, PLOS said it could not say exactly where Marincola was going as it had to wait until the organisation concerned had held its board meeting in December.

But last week Marincola confirmed to The Scientist that the organisation she will be joining is the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), based in Nairobi, Kenya. (I am not aware that PLOS itself has put out a press release on this). Marincola will be leaving PLOS at the end of the year (this week), with PLOS Chief Financial Officer Richard Hewitt serving as interim CEO from January 1st 2017.

We can surely assume that Marincola will be advocating strongly for open access in her new position at the AAS.

But where does this leave PLOS? I discussed this and the challenges I believe PLOS currently faces in November, but I was not able to get Marincola’s views. In a Q&A published yesterday, however, The Scientist asked Marincola where she saw PLOS’ place in today’s open-access publishing marketplace.

Marincola replied, “The first and primary mission of PLOS when it was founded was to make the case that open-access publishing could be a sustainable business, whether in a nonprofit environment or a for-profit environment. So the very fact we have a lot of competition now is extremely satisfying to us and it is, in itself, a major part of our vision. As Harold Varmus said when he cofounded PLOS, if we could put ourselves out of business because the whole world becomes open-access STM publishing, that would be the greatest testament to our achievements.”

Meanwhile at Elsevier

Marincola is not the only publisher to have developed an interest in open access, in Africa, and in the African Academy of Sciences. In 2014 Elsevier announced that it was partnering with AAS to support researchers by means of a publishing training programme. This, it said, would include offering access to Elsevier Publishing Connect and providing support for hosting live, online webinars.

And last year reported that Elsevier is planning to launch a new African open access mega journal (presumably in the style of PLOS ONE). This would be free to readers, but authors and their organisations would have to pay to publish – although indicated that internal discussions were taking place over whether publishing fees should be waived for the first five years.

One of the organisations Elsevier was said to be working with in developing the mega journal is the AAS. The other partners in the group are the African Centre for Technology, the South African Medical Research Council and IBM Research-Africa. anticipated that the new journal would be launched this year, with the first papers being published in 2017. If the journal is still planned, then presumably the launch date has slipped.

Clearly there is growing interest in promoting open access and OER in Africa. But some believe that the involvement of people and organisations from the Global North can be a mixed blessing, as they can end up setting the agenda in a way that is not conducive to local conditions. One African tweeter commented recently, “The agenda for, and lead in, African studies should be set by African scholars.”

The same sentiment is often expressed about publishing and publishers, especially when large for-profit companies like Elsevier get involved. In a blog post last year University of Cape Town OA advocate Eve Gray said of the planned new mega-journal: “Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the impact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?”

Certainly as it confronts growing hostility in Europe (and German researchers face the new year without access to its journals as a result), Elsevier must be keen to develop new markets in other parts of the world.

But as always with open access and scholarly publishing there are no simple answers, nothing can be predicted, and opinion is invariably divided.

Postscript: I emailed the African Academy of Sciences and asked whether Marincola will be working on Elsevier's new mega-journal in any way. As of writing this, I have yet to receive a reply.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Tracking Trump

While many, many words have already been spilled on the manifold implications of the surprise win of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, I am not aware that much has been written about what it might mean for Public Access, as Open Access is called in the context of research funded by the US Government.

I was therefore interested last week to receive a copy of the current issue of David Wojick’s Inside Public Access newsletter. Wojick has been tracking the US Public Access program for a while now, and the latest issue of his subscription newsletter looks at what the arrival of the Trump Administration might mean for the Program. Wojick agreed to let me publish an edited version of the issue, which can be read below.

Guest post by David Wojick 

The transition team

To begin with, the Trump Administration has gotten off to a very slow start. The transition team did very little work prior to the election, which is unusual. Federal funding is available to both major candidates as soon as they are nominated. Romney’s transition team spent a reported 8.9 million dollars before the election. The Trump team has spent very little.

The transition team has a lot to do. To begin with it is supposed to vet applicants and job holders for about 4,000 federal positions which are held “at the pleasure of the President.” About 1,000 of these positions require Senate approval, so the vetting is not trivial.

There is a transition team for each Cabinet Department and the major non-Cabinet agencies, like EPA and the SEC. In addition to vetting applicants, the teams are supposed to meet with the senior civil servants of each department and agency, to be briefed on how these huge and complex organizations actually operate. Something as small as Public Access may not be noticed.

Each team is also supposed to begin to formulate specific policies for their organization. Given how vague Trump has been on policy specifics, this may not be easy. Or it may mean that the teams have pretty broad latitude when it comes to specific agency policies. There seems to be little information as to who makes up each agency team, so their views on public access are unknown at this point.

Moreover, the head of the Energy Department transition team was recently replaced, which has to slow things down a bit. DOE has been a leader in developing the Public Access Program. But in the long run the fate of Public Access is in the hands of the Department and Agency heads, and their deputies, not the transition team. Science related nominations have yet to even be announced.

The Science Advisor and OSTP

Then there is the issue of OSTP and the 2013 Memorandum that created the Public Access Program. The Office of Science and Technology Policy is part of the Executive Office of the President. It is headed by the President’s Science Advisor.

At one extreme the Memo might simply be rescinded. President Obama issued a great many orders and executive memos, in direct defiance of the Republican led Congress. Many of these orders seem likely to be rescinded and Public Access might get caught in the wave and wiped out. Then too, Republicans tend to be pro-business and the publishers may well lobby against the Public Access Program.

On the other hand, a public access policy is relatively non-partisan, as well as being politically attractive. The new OSTP head might even decide to strengthen the program, especially because Trump is being labeled as anti-science by his opponents.

The OSTP situation is also quite fluid at this point. No Science Advisor has even been proposed yet, that I know of. The vast majority of academic scientists are Democrats. The last Republican president took a year in office before nominating a Science Advisor, and he was a Democrat.

The American science community is watching this issue very closely, even though the Science Advisor and OSTP have very little actual authority. The Public Access Program is really something of an exception in this regard, but it is after all largely an administrative program. In the interim, OSTP has over a hundred employees so it will keep operating. So will the Public Access Program if the Memo is not rescinded.

In fact, the slower the Trump people are in taking over, the longer the Government will be run by civil servants who will favor the status quo. This will be true of all the Departments and Agencies. The worst-case scenario would be if OSTP were eliminated altogether. There is some discussion of this, but it seems unlikely as a political strategy. It would be viewed as a direct attack on science and it has no upside.

In any case, given that their internal Public Access Programs are well established, the agencies could decide to continue them, absent the OSTP Memo, or even OSTP.


Then there is the funding issue. The Public Access Program is generally internally funded out of existing research budgets. If these are cut, then Public Access might be internally defunded.

Both the Trump people and the Congressional leaders are talking about cutting funding for certain research areas. A prominent example is NASA’s Earth Science Division, which grew significantly under President Obama. If funds are actually cut, rather than simply redirected, then Public Access might take a hit.


On the other hand, every new Department and Agency head and staff will be looking for flashy new ideas, especially if they do not cost much. Public Access has a populist aspect, which is Trump’s theme, so it could well be presented this way.

The agency civil servants are missing a bet if they do not see this opportunity to pitch public access. “Science for everyone” is a central theme of open access. So is accelerating science and innovation, which fits into the “Making America great” slogan of the Trump campaign.


More deeply, Congress is likely to be unleashed, after many years of partisan gridlock. This may be far more important than what the new Administration does. Congress controls the money and makes the laws and the lack of statutory authority for most agencies has been a vulnerability for Public Access.

In other words, while the OSTP Memo can be rescinded, a law is permanent (unless repealed of course). The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) introduced a mandatory Public Access Policy in 2008, but other agencies proved shy to follow its example, which is why we saw the OSTP Memo. This reluctance (along with a desire to provide Public Access with a more solid foundation) has also seen growing pressure for a statutory Public Access requirement for US Government departments.

Section 527 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 required that the Departments of HHS, Education and Labor introduce a Public Access Program along the lines of the OSTP Memo. More importantly, the proposed Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act is waiting in the wings.

FASTR would require that all US Government departments and agencies with annual extramural research expenditures of over $100 million make manuscripts of journal articles stemming from research funded by that agency publicly available over the Internet. First introduced in 2013, FASTR was reintroduced in 2015.

It is worth stressing that FASTR is a bipartisan bill, and was introduced to the Senate by Republican John Cornyn. As such, a Congressional mandate is well within reason.


If the Public Access Program disappears then CHORUS will need to redirect its efforts. It already has several pilot efforts going in that direction. These include working with the Japanese Government and several US universities.


In short, interesting times lie ahead for the US Public Access Program, as the Trump Administration emerges and begins to act, along with the now unfettered Congress. Inside Public Access will be tracking this action.

Information about Inside Public Access can be accessed here.

David Wojick is an independent engineer, consultant and researcher with a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science and a forty-year career in public policy. He has also written 30 articles for the Scholarly Kitchen, mostly on OA. From 2004 to 2014 Wojick was Senior Consultant on Innovation for the US Energy Department’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), a leader in public access.