Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Realising the BOAI vision: The view from PLOS

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), the meeting that led to the launch of the open access movement, and which defined open access thus:

“By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

A great deal of water has passed under the bridge since 2002, but as 2017 draws to an end what should the stakeholders of scholarly communication be doing now to fully realise the vision outlined at the Budapest meeting?

That is a question I have been putting to a number of people, inviting them to say what they believe the priorities should be going forward for the following stakeholders: researchers, research institutions, research funders, politicians and governments, librarians, and publishers.

Today I am publishing the response I received from PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt. Alison took over as CEO of the open access publisher in June this year. Previously she was Director of University of California Press (UC Press). And prior to that she worked at SAGE Publications, Blackwell Publishers and Taylor & Francis Inc

This is what Alison had to say:


Much has been achieved over the past fifteen years: open access has moved from a fringe concern to a central issue in scientific communication.

We’ve proved that open access research can match traditional models in terms of quality and impact, and we’ve seen OA adopted as a method of dissemination by countless authors demonstrating the premise of the BOAI declaration “...that open access is economically feasible, that it gives readers extraordinary power to find and make use of relevant literature, and that it gives authors and their works vast and measurable new visibility, readership, and impact.”

At a time when science and scientists are under attack, a focus on building wider public awareness, knowledge and trust is ever more important.

PLOS was founded in 2001 to realize the potential of digital technology to create and promote the most effective means of scientific communication possible, one that eliminates unnecessary barriers and fosters openness, quality and integrity. We’re proud of the principled leadership PLOS has provided and have been excited to welcome so many others to the market.

But as I’ve noted elsewhere, open access now finds itself at something of an inflection point. Although a significant portion of the literature is now published open access, this rapid growth is flattening, and it will take larger efforts to move OA adoption to the levels encouraged by the declaration.

We have also fallen short of BOAI goals in a number of other areas and are dealing with unforeseen consequences such as the rise of predatory journals.


Our vision at PLOS requires real change in scientific culture, the scientific reward system and longstanding practices to which scientists and publishers have become accustomed, but that no longer serve the community.

PLOS has always championed these issues but the entrenched value and reward systems of institutions – and researchers themselves – have mitigated strongly against meaningful change.

As open access expands towards a full open science agenda, there are positive trends among researchers across disciplines who are embracing the values of openness and transparency to address the very real challenges of reproducibility.

We’ve seen that with our data policy here at PLOS – as a result of implementing a rigorous requirement for data availability statements, we now have more than 80,000 of these published alongside their PLOS article.

Open science is good science, and so there are strong reasons for researchers not only to share their full research outputs but to ensure that they can be reused in various ways. Such activities among scientists need to be encouraged by new incentive systems that reward those who promote and practice this kind of openness.

At the same time, we recognize that researchers are under many different pressures, and that those vary enormously depending on discipline, career stage and geographical location. From PLOS’s perspective, our goal is to support researchers at all career stages, and to provide clear proof points of the value proposition of open, including accelerated discovery and wider reach of their own work.

I’m also encouraged to see new leadership emerging from the science community itself through organizations such as ASAPBio, as well as new solution providers who are firmly aligned with scientific values such as the Center for Open Science —change is far more likely to stick if it is community-driven rather than imposed.

Research institutions

As with researchers themselves, there is of course enormous variability but for the most part, institutions have been slow to change the ways in which they evaluate researchers for hiring and promotion.

By continuing to put unwarranted value on journal title, they ultimately distort the way scientists are evaluated and give journals undue power to demand terms of publication that are beneficial to them at the expense of the community.

PLOS is a proud signatory of the Declaration of Research Assessment, or DORA (which calls attention to the inappropriate and flawed use of journal impact factors and the community need for assessment tools to measure research outcomes other than peer-reviewed publications). I hope that the new efforts to revitalize DORA will move the many signatory institutions towards concerted action.

Having supported the principles of DORA, institutions now need to implement alternative or additional evaluation tools that recognize and credit the full range of research outputs, and that incentivize and reward openness and sharing. New DORA initiatives provide a framework for sharing concrete examples of positive change which will hopefully encourage and support other institutions who would like to move in this direction.

In addition to the key issues of incentives and rewards, institutions have a role to play via their own policies and infrastructure support. Many institutions have some form of open access policy at this point and I’d hope to see more follow the example of pioneering institutions (such as the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital) who are pushing this further and adopting a strategy of innovation through open science.

Research Funders

Funders hold a unique position in scientific communication as has been clearly demonstrated by their impact on OA output through mandates over recent years.

That said, the open flow of APC support from funders and their (understandable) reluctance to influence where research gets published is at least in part responsible for the significant growth of hybrid journals as the primary venue for OA (in turn keeping APC prices high and reinforcing the dominance of global commercial brands).

Managing OA policy and APC support has created a significant additional burden for funders, but I’d hope that they can develop frameworks that weed out bad actors without penalizing publishers who provide good service at a reasonable price.

In some cases, we’re seeing funders provide their own publishing options and closing the gap between mandates and compliance themselves.

I see two key areas in which funders can continue to play an influential and positive role moving forward, extending an open access framework into a full open science agenda:
  • Publishing research results only in formats such as PDF or HTML creates a record of scientific progress that does not adequately convey the diversity and complexity of scientific data and does not enable the most effective ways to represent and describe it. Funders are beginning to include data sharing requirements, but they have an opportunity to extend these requirements to an assembled and linked collection of digital objects that includes data in any form or code, and to focus more on infrastructures and policies to support sharing in FAIR ways.
  • As concerns grow about the potential for commercial monoliths to control end-to-end scientific workflow tools, there is also an opportunity for funders to support not only research itself but also the development of robust, open community infrastructure to support open science.
Politicians and governments

Over the past few years, the original BOAI goal of open access to peer-reviewed journal literature has expanded into a broader open science agenda.

Initiatives such the EU’s Horizon 2020 and Norway’s recently announced national goals for open access to research are deepening and broadening policy support for an OA agenda. This is really one of two key roles for policy makers: providing a framework that is conducive to open science.

The second issue is that of funding support. Clearly, this varies by country but in a number of European countries, government readiness to fund the transition to open access has had a significant impact on adoption rates.


Librarians have done much of the heavy lifting for open access over the past fifteen years, not only in terms of advocacy, education and implementation on campus but also critical research that has supported broader policy and decision-making.

Unfortunately, the anticipated freeing up of collections budgets from subscriptions in the BOAI declaration has not materialized and in many cases, budgets remain as tight as ever.

On top of that, the costs and administrative burdens for libraries have increased with support for institutional OA policies, managing repositories and more.

I think that the solutions for libraries are much like those for the rest of us. To me, it doesn’t make sense for each library to become a publisher (or even a repository) – we need to be thinking more about community action and infrastructure. I’m encouraged to see much more of this kind of thinking and action coming from organizations such as SPARC and ARL.

Finally, libraries have a key role to play in shifting market dynamics. Like funders, they control significant budgets and can use that power to encourage and support change. I’d love to see more libraries follow the example of those who are now top-slicing their budgets to fund open access, rather than relying on the crumbs left over from big deals.

There is, however, a danger in an initiative like OA2020 that the focus on using the spend on subscription dollars to reallocate to OA leaves native OA publishers out of the conversation, and I hope that we can find ways to address that.


As a publisher, I see a few core challenges and opportunities for both PLOS and open access more widely over the next few years.

The first is the issue of cost, affordability and sustainability. The Gold APC model has been wildly successful in extending access to the scientific record, but it has not succeeded in either driving down cost or shifting the power dynamics in publishing.

And while the goal of creating a more equitable system has been partially reached by opening access to the literature, it has not solved (and may even have worsened) the problem of participation, especially for the Global South.

We don’t yet have all of the answers at PLOS, but it’s clear to me that we need to be actively developing alternative business models.

Whether alone or as part of existing organizations like SPARC and OASPA, we see this as an important way to break down barriers and create greater equality between early-career and established scientists, and with a diversity of global voices.

To fully realize the Budapest Declaration, all stakeholders need to move beyond Open Access to the literature to Open Science to ensure that research outputs are all discoverable, accessible and available for interaction and reuse, and that science communication is constructive, transparent and verifiable.

As publishers, we should strive to implement policies and innovations that promote reproducibility, credit and accountability, as these priorities support establishment of an open science culture, with FAIR data, early sharing of work and clear contributor recognition.

We also see the benefit of open access content in relation to future advances in machine-readable formats and text and data mining—and the potential for open access to propel open science forward into new and exciting territory.


Earlier responses to these questions from Danny Kingsley, Lisa Hinchliffe and Richard Fisher can be read here, here and here.

A list of some of the more interesting OA developments during 2017 is available here.

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