Friday, December 22, 2017

Realising the BOAI vision, by disengaging from voluntary servitude

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 Florence Piron. Florence is an anthropologist and ethicist, and a professor in the Department of Information and Communication at Laval University in Quebec, where she teaches critical thinking through courses on ethics and democracy.

She is the founding President of the Association for Science and Common Good and its open access publishing house, Éditions science et bien commun. Piron has also founded Accès savoirs, a science shop in Laval University.

Florence is interested in the links between science, society and culture, both as a researcher and activist for a science, that is more open, inclusive, socially responsible and focused on the common good, which she interprets as the fight against injustice and environmental degradation. She has been responsible for the SOHA project (open science in Haiti and French-speaking Africa) from 2015 to 2017 and is now leading a research-creation project in theatrical writing and an action-research project on science shops in French-speaking Africa and Haiti.

This is what Florence had to say:

Dans ce billet, je réfléchis au chemin qui pourrait conduire vers une science authentiquement en libre accès dans les pays du Nord et des Suds. Au coeur de mon argumentation se trouve la nécessité que les scientifiques (surtout du Nord) sortent de leur servitude volontaire envers les éditeurs à but lucratif, refusent ou rejettent la pratique des frais de publication et s'efforcent de rapatrier la publication scientifique dans les universités, avec l'aide des organismes de financement, des bibliothèques et des logiciels libres.


Researchers are the key to the implementation of the vision proposed in BOAI, but this depends on their managing to collectively and definitively disengage from their “voluntary servitude” to for-profit scientific publishers, the one group that refuses to implement an authentic open science, despite their strategic recent shift towards pay-to-publish gold open access.

Currently, most researchers, including researchers in the North, seem to me to be in favour of open access, but for very different reasons, some of which may even be contradictory. Here is my list of the six main reasons for endorsing open access, categorised in two groups.

 The first group consists of technical or managerial reasons:

1.       Open access improves the circulation of studies and results, and so increases research productivity and the potential for discovery and innovation, while reducing duplication and unnecessary research.

2.       Publications made open access are more widely read and cited, and so increase the reputation and prestige of authors and labs.

3.       Everybody is already doing this, or will have to do so in order to comply with the open access policies that are being implemented in most countries in the North in the name of fiscal justice ( funded by citizens must be accessible to those citizens).

In addition to these reasons – which are perfectly compatible with the values of the knowledge-based economy that inspires most of the science policies in the North – there are three “social” reasons. These can be seen to oppose the former by favouring a “knowledge society”:

4.       Open access allows for a return to the classical practice of the free flow of scientific work and communication that was at the heart of the modern science ethos defined by Merton, but which has been subverted by the commodification of knowledge that began in the 1960s. This practice is defined as one in which “all scientists should have common ownership of scientific goods, to promote collective collaboration; secrecy is the opposite of this norm”.

5.       Open access makes it possible to democratise access to science and, consequently, to improve the quality and relevance of the public debate on science and future scientific orientations.

6.       Finally, open access improves the quality of higher education, especially in countries in the global South (where university libraries have very few resources) and the quality of teaching in general by allowing teachers to regularly update their knowledge. Open access science can also help all graduates stay informed and up to date.

Strangely enough, all these reasons can coexist in some Northern researchers’ minds with the idea that open access is impossible because the for-profit publishers won’t allow it. As if the latter were inescapable, irreplaceable and always able to triumph!

In addition to their persistent voluntary servitude, there remains in the minds of researchers some concern about open access, especially for those in the social and human sciences (SHS). Addressing them would help researchers move confidently towards more (green) open access.

One common concern is over the many independent scholarly journals, often connected to learned societies or innovative and original intellectual projects focused on a variety of epistemological positions.

Could open access destroy their ability to sell subscriptions and therefore cause their disappearance? If it did, it would work in the favour of journals produced by large for-profit groups that standardise publishing practices and thinking, and reproduce business models imposed by the United States and Great Britain, the two English-speaking countries that are at the heart of the world system of science.

In the global South, the fear of losing potential revenue from these publication is sometimes cited, but then often followed by the recognition that such revenue is more dream than reality.

More generally, this issue highlights a major epistemological dimension to the open access debate, one often ignored by (epistemologically-indifferent) open access scholars: there is today a real risk that the epistemological and linguistic plurality of science so essential for sustaining a worldwide innovative research activity could disappear. In other words, one consequence of an intensified open access environment could be to reinforce a homogenous unilingual type of science publication at the expense of the ecology of locally relevant knowledge

Another issue with open access as conceived in the North is that it could serve to reinforce the present "publish or perish” system, a system that is increasingly open to criticism, not least because of the shortcomings of the peer evaluation system, the increase of misconduct and fraud, the psychological suffering it causes and the Matthew effect, which leads to the concentration of funding in the hands of a small group of (male) researchers based in the North.

In light of all this, what can we do to advance the Budapest vision of open access?

In the North, the article-processing charge  the publication fee requested from authors by journals who want to convert to open access without losing profits – seems to me to be at the heart of the voluntary servitude to publishers that is blocking open access.

Even if this commercial innovation remains marginal in the ecosystem of journals, especially in SHS, it is becoming increasingly “naturalised” by the groups that practice it, and presented as obvious and unavoidable, even though it is highly questionable for many oft-cited reasons.

Consequently, I advise all those researchers who are sincerely committed to open access (at least in its “social” version) to refuse to pay APCs or to include them in their research budgets.

On the contrary, researchers and scholars need to collectively reclaim scientific publishing and repatriate it to the university, with the help of libraries and free software. Researchers have learnt to be managers of their grants and research units, they can (re-)learn to be publishers!

This vision of universities reclaiming scientific publishing is increasingly being publicly affirmed as the only path to true open science. Consider, for instance, these three very encouraging examples: the manifesto of Fair Open Access, the Radical Open Access movement (which brings together Open source books owned and run by academics) and the new OA2020 site.

However, in the global South, particularly in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is quite different. The risk of scientific neo-colonialism and cognitive injustice posed by open access is very real if the science being made accessible continues to exclude, or remains blind to, the epistemologies, works and research questions specific to these countries, or if the science produced in local universities is not scanned, uploaded online and made open access (which is currently the case).

The difficulties of regular electricity supply, or access to the web, concretely embody the difference between the technical accessibility of science and real access.

Be that as it may, all actions in favour of open access in the global South must absolutely take into account the need to preserve the epistemological and linguistic plurality of published science in order to better decolonise it and make it really useful and relevant for sustainable local development. The development of an African citations index by CODESRIA is good news from this point of view.

I also invite researchers from the North to rein back the current drift towards the ever greater professionalisation of scientific research as this leads to disproportionate importance being given to careers, CVs, grants and money, in favour of engaging sincerely in the construction of the knowledge commons (doing so would also be better for their health and happiness!).

Finally, to researchers who are members of Editorial Boards I would say: In addition to boycotting commercial journals, a number of other desirable actions should be considered: researchers need to create non-profit open access journals, reject the growing practice of paying APCs, and require that public financial support be provided for journals, as is the case in Canada, in Quebec and in France (with Openedition). Consider also that recently the journal Sociologie du travail decided to leave Elsevier (despite the “prestige” of being associated with this publisher) and move towards a more authentic open access policy. 

Journals can use open source software and share secretarial services to reduce their expenses. They can also seek help from university libraries, for example to directly archive the articles they publish. So, the journal deposits its articles in an open archive and then publishes links to the articles on its website. Practising open evaluation or post-publication evaluation in order to ensure the integrity of the process, and the absence of any conflict of interest, is also a possible path to open access.

Research Institutions

Obviously, research institutions must not lose sight of the need to adopt an open access policy in order to promote their institutional open archives, be it by means of a mandate or awareness-raising activities and, depending on the country, encourage faculty to take advantage of fair use rules whenever possible in order to save students money.

And since open access is an integral part of both the globalised system of scientific publication and the professional life of academics, universities in the North and the South should change their evaluation and promotion policies so as to enhance the quality of articles produced rather than chase after the impact factor. They should also incorporate open post-publication evaluation practices into their policies.

They could also count the number of open access articles produced per year in their research centre evaluations.

Universities need also to be aware of the Matthew effect, i.e. the risk of a concentration of funding and publications among a small number of (white male) researchers, to the detriment of the epistemological and linguistic plurality necessary for the ecology of knowledge.

Granting organisations

Notwithstanding the fact that policies vary from country to country, granting organisations must absolutely refuse to fund the costs of publishing articles by means of APCs. On the contrary, they should support (not-for-profit) scientific journals and repatriate them to universities. The 2.5% movement reflects this necessary shift.

Why pay money from public funds to for-profit journals when that money could support non-profit journals run by the same people? Granting organisations could also further support the infrastructure of institutional repositories and open archives, as well as all the collective tools of open access to ensure their sustainability (directories, in particular) and prevent them from being bought by for-profit groups.

They can also play a large role in favour of multilingualism by more generously funding multilingual open access journals.

Finally, by encouraging the use of Creative Commons licenses, they can help to maximise open access, that is, to encourage the circulation and reuse of knowledge.

By contrast, becoming publishers themselves seems to me to be a strange idea.

Politicians and governments

Politicians and governments must continue to support open access through their policies, but they should also abandon the practice of giving generous support for for-profit scientific publishers, while universities suffer from recurrent budget cuts.

They should also devote some critical reflection to the impact factor, and instead seek to support open access research in service to national issues, published in national languages.


Librarians’ role is crucial in supporting researchers as they exit from their state of voluntary servitude and in contributing to the repatriation of journal and book publishing to universities.

By recovering funds through cancelling subscriptions or taking the 2.5% path, librarians can offer help to journals by means of evaluation, hosting, archiving, post-publication review, digitisation of heritage, etc. They can also support the production of open access books.

In so doing, they can contribute to maintaining the epistemological diversity necessary for scientific production. In the global South, they can also help develop scientific digital literacy, which is currently deficient.

Scientific publishers

For publishers the choice is simple: Either they become non-profit entities run by academics, or they disappear.

Earlier responses to these questions from Danny Kingsley, Lisa Hinchliffe, Richard Fisher, Alison Mudditt, Dominique Babini and Peter Suber can be read here, here, here, here, here and here.

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

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