As anyone who has followed the story of open access will know, a multitude of issues has arisen since the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) adopted the term in order to promote the idea of research being made freely available on the internet. It has also led to a great deal of debate and disagreement over the best way of making open access a reality.
However, we seem to be arriving at the point where consensus is growing in the global North around the idea of persuading and/or forcing legacy publishers to convert (“flip”) all their journals from a subscription model to an open access model.
One implication of this would seem to be that we can expect widespread use of the pay-to-publish model where, instead of readers paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors will pay to publish their own papers – by means of article-processing charges (APCs). Currently, APCs are around $3,000 a paper, although they can be both higher and lower than this.
OA Big Deals
The argument for a global flip has been most fully articulated in a report published by the Max Planck Digital Library (MPDL) in April 2015. This concluded that “An internationally concerted shifting of subscription budgets [to open access] is possible at no financial risk, maybe even at lower overall costs.”
Using this report as a foundation, in 2016 MDPL established the OA2020 Initiative, which was launched at the (controversial) 12th Berlin Open Access conference. The stated aim of OA2020 is to “convert the majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to Open Access (OA) publishing.”
The MDPL report is also driving the current trend for OA Big Deals. These are being negotiated in Europe (usually by national consortia) with legacy publishers. The aim is to facilitate a transition from a subscription-based world to a pay-to-publish world, by means of agreements that combine subscription payment for paywalled content with a bulk payment to provide OA publishing rights for researchers to publish their papers OA without themselves having to find the money to pay APCs.
This model was pioneered by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), which is one of the OA2020 signatories.
Meanwhile, following the publication of a report from the University of California, there is a similar trend emerging in North America. The UC report concluded that a move to an APC model “could be successful over time, following a necessarily complex transition period.” The University of California is also a signatory to OA2020.
To encourage other US universities to go down the flipping road, in March this year the University of California launched its Pathways to OA initiative. Among other things, this proposes emulating the European OA Big Deal model (or offsetting agreement, as it is alternatively called). As a group of University of California OA advocates explained recently in Nature, “UC libraries will explore negotiating offsetting agreements to drive the transition of hybrid journals to becoming fully open access. The strategy involves setting transformation benchmarks and then, during the transition period, offsetting an institution’s spending on open-access article processing charges against the total price of its subscription package.”
OA Big Deals are nevertheless controversial, not least because there are concerns that they will consolidate the malevolent hold that some believe legacy publishers currently have over scholarly publishing.
Certainly, researchers in the global South view a mass flipping of subscription journals to OA with considerable concern. Since most have little or no access to APC funding (and are extremely unlikely to benefit from the hugely expensive OA Big Deals) they can expect to see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls, making it extremely difficult for them to publish in international journals.
Alternatively, in response to European demands for flipping Elsevier has mooted what it calls “region-specific” open access. This would see European articles made available as immediate gold open access within Europe, but restricted to “green open access outside of Europe”.
Two points of view
One of those concerned about the implications that these developments could have for the developing world is Jamila Jaber, Library Director at the Islamic University of Lebanon (IUL). Last year she contacted me to ask if I would consider doing an interview “with two researchers, one from a ‘developed country’ and one from a ‘developing country’ (from the Arab world for example).”
The aim, she explained, should be to allow for a discussion about scholarly communication and open access from two geographically different points of view.
It seemed like a good idea, so I asked Jaber if she could propose a candidate from the Arab world, and she suggested Mahmoud Khalifa, who works as a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office and is DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Khalifa is also President of Cybrarians, which publishes an information science journal and runs two conferences.
To provide a voice from the developed world I invited Jeffrey MacKie-Mason to take part. MacKie-Mason is UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. He is also an enthusiastic advocate for journal flipping. MacKie-Mason argues that engineering a mass conversion of subscription journals to OA is currently the only practical way of achieving open access in the near term, and that while a global flip presents challenges for those in the global South, the current paywall situation for them is “awful”. He adds that we cannot expect open access “to remedy all inequities”.
Elsewhere, we could note, Leslie Chan, has argued that “The institutions and countries adopting the OA2020 initiative express very clearly that it is not their problem that scientists from developing countries can publish or not. It is a very selfish attitude, individualistic and even nationalistic.”
The challenge for me in organising a discussion between two people from, respectively, the North and the South was how to combine input from the two interviewees in a formal interview process. After thinking through various possibilities, I decided to do two separate interviews, and then invite each interviewee to comment on the answers provided by the other interviewee.
It is not an ideal approach, but it might at least help focus (much needed) attention on the South/North question and give us a sense of how open access (and strategies for achieving it) can look very different in different parts of the world.
I would hope that others will comment too, since if these issues are not discussed fully now those in the global South could find that OA has made things worse rather than better, and that they have become locked out of the global research conversation in an even more insidious way than they are with the subscription system.
I think we are also invited to ask whether a global OA solution is actually possible. If it is not possible, then we might wonder how the BOAI’s promise that OA would enable the world to “share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich … and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” can hope to be realised.
Below I publish the first interview, with MacKie-Mason. As well as being University Librarian at Berkley, he is Professor of the School of Information and Professor of Economics. He was formerly the Dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan.
MacKie-Mason has been a pioneering scholar in the economics of the Internet, online behaviour, and digital information and has authored more than 85 publications in economics, computer science, law, public policy, and library science journals.
Note: I realise my reference to The Lord of the Rings in the penultimate question below may be a little obscure for a global audience. And as Jaber pointed out to me, Tolkien saw the “one ring” as a malevolent force. However, I think there was some ambiguity in his portrayal of the ring, and I want to make the point that any force unleashed by trying to manufacture a global solution for open access could prove malevolent or benevolent, depending on its impact on the entire research community (an impact that we can only really guess at right now).
I think it behoves us, therefore, to consider carefully what those implications might be before rushing ahead. And to appreciate that, unless a global solution has the interests of all researchers in mind, it cannot hope to fully realise the vision articulated by BOAI.
The Q&A begins …
Q: Can you say something about yourself, your institution, and why and when you started to take an interest in open access?
J M-M: I am currently the University Librarian for UC Berkeley, but I have a somewhat unusual background. I have a PhD in economics, and was a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan for 29 years. I came to Berkeley as Librarian two years ago; I’m also a professor of information and economics.
Since the early 1990s, my research has been on the economics of information production, dissemination and use, and the behavior of individuals in online environments. I’ve been studying access to scholarly communications for about 20 years; for example, I was the research director for the PEAK project, which experimented with different pricing models for access to 1200 Elsevier online journals, before Elsevier had released ScienceDirect.
I’ve been a strong open access advocate for at least 25 years; all of my research outputs have been available open access at the Michigan institutional repository since the 1990s.