Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The OA Interviews: Taylor & Francis' Deborah Kahn discusses Dove Medical Press

The open-access publisher Dove Medical Press has a controversial past and I have written about the company on a number of occasions (here, here, here and here).
Deborah Kahn

When Dove was acquired by Taylor & Francis last September it was assumed (by me at least) that controversy had become a thing of the past for the publisher.

Seven months after the purchase, however, a medical technology company called Minerva Surgical took the unusual step of publishing a press release alleging that a paper published in Dove’s International Journal of Womens Health makes “material misleading statements” about the nature of a study funded by a rival in “clear violation of the COPE guidelines.”

As a result, Minerva said, the paper should be retracted immediately.

To discuss this latest incident, Dove’s background, and some of the “historical issues” the publisher has faced, Taylor & Francis’ Director, Medicine and Open Access, agreed to do a Q&A with me, which I publish below.

Of the latest controversy Kahn says, “our investigations show that the peer review was carried out to high standards and that the journal behaved well, and the authors responses have satisfied us that the complaints are unfounded.”

On the historical issues, she adds, the naysayers were wrong to have doubted Dove’s probity. “We went through very detailed due diligence, carrying out an extremely thorough process, when we acquired Dove Medical Press. We were satisfied that, after some historical issues, improvements had been made to their peer review process working with the OASPA membership team … Eight months on from our acquisition, Dove are performing well in all areas, we remain confident that we got value for money, and are delighted that they are part of Taylor & Francis Group.”

There are one or two places in the Q&A where readers may feel there is a little repetition. If so, this is because the interview was done by email in a staged way. I have, however, not edited the text as I am keen to publish Kahn’s answers exactly as she emailed them to me.

The Q&A begins …

RP: I am wondering why Taylor & Francis (T&F) decided to buy Dove Medical Press? I have seen the short press release published at the time, which talks of Dove journals having Impact Factors (and of T&F wanting to expand in OA and medical journals) but I am also aware that the perception in the market is that (as this article puts it), titles from Dove “tend to rank poorly on impact factor”. Can you say more about why T&F chose to buy Dove?

DK: Open Access and Medical publishing are both strategically important areas of investment and growth for Taylor & Francis. So we were delighted when we were able to enter into discussions with Dove Medical Press, as they fit so well with our plans.

Dove Medical Press is a small and entrepreneurial company, with staff based in Auckland and Macclesfield, all of whom are committed to excellent service to authors, and high-quality peer review. They publish around 100 journals, of which 12 have impact factors ranging from 1.7 to 7 –  almost all of them placed within the top two quartiles of the Journal Citation Report.

Two more titles are set to receive Impact Factors in the next release of the JCR. The vast majority of the rest of the journals are indexed in the DOAJ, PubMed and the Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI). All of these indexes perform in-depth checks on the quality and integrity of the contents of journals before accepting them for indexing.

We chose to buy Dove because we were impressed by the quality of their content, the quality of their peer review, their focus on author experience, and their loyal author following, with a high percentage of repeat authors. We rated it a very good business in its own right and knew that we would learn from them as we continued to develop our own open access offerings.

RP: How much did T&F pay for Dove?

DK: This wasn’t disclosed at the time of acquisition. Please see the press statement released by Informa, our parent company.

RP: Yes, I saw that, but I was hoping you could tell me anyway? Frankly, I don’t understand why this information needs to be secret, although I suppose it fits with the secrecy that has always surrounded Dove. When I interviewed Dove’s Tim Hill in 2008 he refused to tell me who the owners of Dove were and denied that (despite what some believed) there was any connection between Libertas Academica (LA) and Dove, or with him (aside from the fact that the owner of LA was his son).

Then, when in 2010 I emailed him to point out that New Zealand Companies House records that he had one time been the sole director and shareholder of LA, and had in fact  been a director of LA when he told me in 2008 that there was no connection, he responded, “Henceforth I will not be providing you with any comment or information on any subject.” In 2016, I tried to make contact with Dove directors Graeme Peterson and Kevin Toale, neither of whom responded.

Can you tell me why there has always been this kind of secrecy surrounding Dove? OA advocates argue that scholarly publishing is primarily funded by the taxpayer and so should be transparent both in process and financing. There is now also a widespread belief that there should be even greater transparency with regard to medical research, and those who publish it, not least because it is felt that pay-to-publish OA has made it easier for pharmaceutical and medical device companies to use scholarly papers as marketing tools. Do you agree that there are dangers here and that greater transparency is essential?

DK: I do believe that there should be transparency in all scholarly publishing, both in traditional subscription and open access publishing. COPE, OASPA, WAME and the DOAJ have collaborated to identify Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, and these principles form part of the criteria on which membership applications to those organizations are evaluated. All Dove journals are included in the DOAJ and have “the tick”, which means they have met the high level of compliance to these criteria.

All Dove journals are also members of COPE and have met their membership criteria also.

I don’t think that there has been secrecy around Dove Medical Press. Information about the company has been available from Companies House since they came into existence in 2003. Nothing in our due diligence suggested anything to the contrary.

Tim Hill (from Dove) is Tom Hill’s father, and he may have helped his son establish Libertas Academica in the first instance. However, Tim Hill was not involved in the direction or any of the operations of Libertas Academica. No current Dove staff have ever worked with or as part of Libertas Academica, nor do the two companies share any operations.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Six questions about openness in science

Recently I was contacted by a student from a Russian university who is writing a dissertation on the influence of open access on modern scientific communication. She sent me six questions. The questions and my answers to them are below. 

Why does society need science to be open?

Q: It’s a rather common opinion (at least among Russian researchers) that the research community has access to all the materials it needs, and non-scientists are not interested in this information as they can’t understand it or use it. Why does society need science to be open?

A: Yes, I think these are common views amongst researchers everywhere. Much has been said and written about why the world needs open science but for me, there are essentially two main reasons: transparency and efficiency.

Transparency has become important if only because science appears to be facing a major credibility crisis right now. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the so-called reproducibility crisis (also referred to as the replication crisis) that has become apparent in recent years. In addition, we have seen a rise in research misconduct and detrimental research practices (which of course is related to the replication crisis). There is also increasing suspicion of science and scientists within society. The latter is part and parcel of a global loss of faith in professionals, a phenomenon captured in an oft-cited statement by UK politician Michael Gove – who in 2016 declared that people “have had enough of experts”.

Coupled with the “fake news” phenomenon we are experiencing today this is a dangerous development as it suggests that emotions, prejudice and ideology may increasingly be displacing facts. Let’s not be mistaken, the new scepticism about professionals and distrust of scientists has real-world implications.

In fact, the seeds of the loss of faith in scientists were sown some while ago, as a result of things like the MMR vaccine controversy, the exaggerated claims that we have seen scientists and pharmaceutical companies make about the efficacy of drugs like Vioxx (scholarly publisher Elsevier was associated with this activity by producing fake journals, apparently intended to promote drugs), and conflicting claims over genetically modified food. Additionally (in the US in particular), we have seen a growing gap between the public and scientists over creationism-evolution, and political rejection of scientists’ warnings about global warming/climate change.

Mitigating the scepticism

We must hope that open science and the greater transparency it affords can play an important role in mitigating this scepticism and distrust of scientists. If, for instance, all research papers, and the data generated during the research process, were freely available online scientific results could be checked.

And if we are talking about the wider issue of open science (rather than just open access and open data), then I would point out that the growth of clinical trials registries and the pre-registration of studies will increase transparency too. In providing public access to information about trials and studies the greater transparency that results should help reduce or eliminate unethical practices like HARKing and P-hacking. It would also go some way to address the problem of positive publication bias, in which negative or null results are today far less likely to be published than positive results. Amongst other things, this helps pharmaceutical companies to hype their drugs inappropriately.

We can also hope to see increasing interest in opening up the entire research process – by, for instance, the use of open notebook science techniques. Here I am talking about the kind of things that Jean-Claude Bradley pioneered a decade ago. This too brings greater transparency.

In terms of making science more efficient, if research papers and data were all freely available online (particularly null results) it would be easier for scientists to avoid wasting public money by unknowingly repeating experiments. Freely available data also allows for cross-pollination between disciplines and enables other scientists to find patterns in data that the producers of the data did not, if only because these other scientists will be looking at the data from another angle.

Finally, if research papers and data were all made freely available it would be possible to deploy machines to text and data mine (TDM) them. Amongst other things, this would allow computers to provide far more substantive aid to researchers and, some argue, it would see machines start to make new scientific discoveries on their own. All these things would clearly make research more effective.

How one makes TDM commonplace is, of course, a very different matter, not least because of the continuing (and perhaps intractable) barriers that copyright imposes.

On the issue of non-scientists having access to research: I think the growth of citizen science suggests that it is no longer true (if it ever was) that members of the public have no need to access research, or that they cannot understand it.

True, most citizen science today consists of little more than recruiting members of the public to do grunt work (counting butterflies, bugs or birds, or staring at images of galaxies on their computer), and then have them hand the results over to professional scientists in the lab. I.e. the “real” science continues to be undertaken by professionals. I would hope, however, that we can move beyond this. Citizens can also do scientific work – even, it would seem, a 9-year old.

Open licensing and bronze OA

Q: Databases like Web of Science (WoS) and Scopus now indicate if articles are open access or not, but publishers often open some materials for a short period of time and then close them again. It seems to be a bit misleading when articles drift from open to closed status and it also creates uncertainty over the current state of OA in different disciples. Does open access require the use of open licenses? Can we call “bronze” access “open”?

A: You draw attention to a couple of serious problems. The term bronze OA (where articles are “made free-to-read on the publisher website, without an explicit open license.”) stems from a paper published in PeerJ earlier this year. The issue of papers being made OA only temporarily (which is far more likely if a licence has not been attached to a work) was highlighted by Stevan Harnad as long ago as 2006 when he talked about what he called “peek-a-boo OA”. This reminds us that many open access issues are long-standing and hard to resolve!

But is bronze access really “open”, and does OA require the use of open licences? That depends on your point of view, and your definition of open access!

When those who attended the 2002 BOAI meeting adopted the term open access and set out to define it, they did not specify the use of a licence. In fact, if one looks closely at the actual definition of open access, it becomes apparent that two important words are missing – namely “immediate” and “permanent”. 

Thus according to BOAI, open access impliesits 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.

While the BOAI section on open access publishing suggests that publishers “will use copyright and other tools to ensure permanent open access to all the articles they publish” this is not in the actual definition. Moreover, as I say, no specific license was named.

Today OA advocates argue that the BOAI definition implies use of the most liberal Creative Commons licence (CC BY). But not everyone agrees. Perhaps part of the problem here is that at the time of the BOAI meeting the CC licences had not been released. 

Friday, May 04, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: Jeff MacKie-Mason responds from California

This is the last part of an experiment in a matched interview process. It consists of Q&As with two OA advocates, one from the global North and one from the global South, along with their responses to each other’s Q&A. 
Jeff MacKie-Mason

The first Q&A was undertaken with Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer, and can be read here.

The second Q&A was conducted with Mahmoud Khalifa, a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office and DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and can be read here.

Prior to that Khalifa responded to MacKie-Mason’s Q&A. This can be read here.

Today I am publishing the final part of the experiment. This consists of four sections. First (A), MacKie-Mason responds to Khalifa’s Q&A; second (B), MacKie-Mason comments on Khalifa’s response to his Q&A; third (C), Mackie-Mason comments on the “polemical” nature of the preambles I attached to the interviews; fourth (D), I respond to MacKie-Mason’s comments about my style.

(A) MacKie-Mason comments on Khalifa’s response

Mahmoud replies to one of my statements: “I have a different point of view! Subscriptions in the global South are paid by institutions; publication fees are paid by the scholars themselves. True, some universities provide financial support for their scholars when they publish internationally, but this is far from adequate, especially in light of the large differences between currencies. It is vital to consider the local economic situation and factor in the low salaries of researchers in developing countries.”

First, let me be clear, I am *completely* sympathetic to Mahmoud’s concerns. I don’t want a world in which there is less access or less opportunity to publish for global south scholars.

But I think his reply misses a fundamental point – as do many if not most discussions about flipping. Yes, the *current* system has subscriptions paid by institutions, and the gold APC model has charges levied on authors. (That is just as true in the north as the south.) But that isn’t written in stone! Social institutions adapt to changing circumstances.

Right now, universities and research labs and government agencies and NGOs etc. think that they should spend some money (not enough, but that’s a different issue) to enable global south scholars to participate in international scholarly communications. If the way we pay for those communications changes from paying for reading to paying for publishing, why do we think that the (smart) leaders of universities, funding agencies, etc., will simply walk away from their scholars and say, “tough, it’s your problem now”?

They don’t want the research enterprise in their countries to fail! And they’re not dumb: they know how to write checks to pay APCs rather than write checks to pay subscriptions. There are many ways to do that: they could create research funds for individual researchers to tap into when they publish, or they could do institution-level payments (what you, Richard, refer to as “OA big deals”), etc., etc. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: The view from Egypt with Mahmoud Khalifa

At the end of last year I was contacted by Jamila Jaber, Library Director at the Islamic University of Lebanon (IUL), who asked me 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).”
Mahmoud Khalifa
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. 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. He 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. The resultant Q&A with MacKie-Mason was published on April 8th (here), and a response to that Q&A from Khalifa on 19th (here). Today I am publishing a Q&A with Khalifa (below), which I will ask MacKie-Mason to comment on.

One topic I have been particularly keen to explore is the growing interest in Europe and the US in engineering a global “flip” of legacy subscription journals to a pay-to-publish open access model. I asked MacKie-Mason to take part partly because he is an enthusiastic advocate for journal flipping. In fact, he believes it to be the only practical way of achieving open access in the near term.

A global flip would imply a future in which the pay-to-publish model would come to dominate the scholarly publishing environment. Instead of readers (or their institutions) paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors would have to 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.

Not conformant with the philosophy of OA?

Many in the global North remain sceptical about the global flip proposal – for reasons I have explored here. For those in the global South the prospect of all international subscription journals converting to pay-to-publish gold OA is particularly daunting, and would surely be discriminatory since researchers in developing countries could expect to see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls, threatening to further exclude them from the global scientific endeavour.

Indeed, Khalifa believes the use of APCs is not actually conformant with the philosophy of OA. And he says: “One of the aims of open access is to provide access to information free of charge, and that is much needed in developing countries. If APCs start to be widely applied it will create new hurdles for researchers in the global South looking to contribute to science.”

To support his argument, Khalifa points out that a $2,000 APC is equivalent to six months’ salary for a professor in Egypt. In light of this, he suggests developing countries might be better to build up their local journals and focus on publishing in them.

The problem here, however, is that researchers in the developing world are increasingly being told by their governments and institutions that they must publish in international journals.

A further problem, says Khalifa, is that local journals are not generally indexed in international citation databases like Scopus and Web of Science. This means that they are not visible to the global research community.

The journals could, of course, try and persuade these indexing services to include them. And they could apply for an impact factor (IF). But this could backfire, says Khalifa, because most of the citations that local journals attract are from resources that are also not recognised by the global indexing services. “As a result, the total number of citations a journal will be seen to have received will be very low, and so it will not get a good IF.”

So even if local journals managed to gain greater visibility, they could find they are deemed to be low-quality journals in the process.

Another possibility, says Khalifa, is for the global South to develop its own own regional tools and databases. “This would enable us to evaluate our own journals and develop our own IF reports and other metrics.”

But this would be a big task and would presumably require substantial funding. Currently, governments and research institutions in the South appear more focused on having their researchers publish in international journals than building up local solutions.  

It is therefore hard not to conclude that a global flip of legacy subscription journals to open access would be bad news for the developing world. For more on the issues please read the Q&A with Khalifa below.

One further thought: Those who maintain that publishers of international journals do not (as frequently claimed) overcharge for their products might like to ponder on the fact that it costs Khalifa just $250 a year to publish his journal.

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?

MK: I work at the Library of Congress Cairo office. In 2002 I also established a non-profit organisation called cybrarians.org. This is focused on the library field in Egypt and other Arab countries.

I have been involved in open access since 2004 as a publisher of an e-journal in library and information science. We adopted open access as our primary publishing model.

In 2016, I was selected as DOAJ ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. As such, I am in charge of promoting a culture of open access in the region. I also review all the applications submitted to DOAJ from the area. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: Mahmoud Khalifa responds from Egypt

As I have previously reported, more and more countries in the global North are coming to the conclusion that if universal open access is to be achieved any time soon they are going to have to persuade or compel legacy scholarly publishers to convert all their subscription journals to gold OA, by means of a global “flip”.
Paywalls to Publication Walls?

This implies a future in which the pay-to-publish model will dominate. Instead of readers (or their institutions) paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors will have to 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.

The global flip strategy is being spearheaded by the Max-Planck-led OA2020 Initiative, and attempted in Europe by means of OA Big Deals. These are usually agreements negotiated with legacy publishers by national consortia of universities, with the aim of engineering a transition to OA by combining a large subscription payment for existing paywalled content with a large publishing payment to buy their researchers the right to publish their papers OA without having to pay APCs personally. 

It is intended that over time the OA component of these deals will grow to the point where all (or nearly all) new research is published open access, at which point it is assumed publishers will flip all their journals to an exclusively OA model.

This approach is gaining mindshare in the US too, and one of those advocating for it is Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. In a recent Q&A MacKie-Mason outlined why he thinks a global flip is the only practical way forward.

How practical?

However, not everyone agrees that a global flip is practical, or even desirable, not least researchers based outside Europe and North America. To get a sense of how this approach looks from the Middle East I asked Mahmoud Khalifa, a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office (and DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf) to comment on MacKie-Mason’s answers to my questions, which he does below. Khalifa is an OA advocate, but I think we can sum up his response to the global flip idea by quoting him thus: “I have a different point of view!”

Explaining his reasoning, Khalifa points out that under the current subscription model access to scholarly journals in Egypt is funded by local research institutions and/or governments, not by researchers themselves. By contrast, if authors want to publish their work open access they have to cover any costs incurred themselves. While having to find the money to pay APCs is a challenge for any author, for those based in the global South it is practically impossible, not least because of salary differentials. For instance, says Khalifa, a $2,000 APC is equivalent to six months’ pay for a professor in Egypt.

Khalifa speaks from the perspective of someone living in the Middle East. We can be confident that the situation is even bleaker for researchers in other parts of the global South.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) like Egypt could, of course, seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, and so take on the burden of paying the APCs for researchers. But how practical or likely is this? One could certainly imagine there would be political hurdles. It is bad enough that these countries currently have to pay extortionate sums of money to access research produced in the global North. To force them into a position where they have no choice but to pay the Northern-based publishing oligopoly thousands of dollars every time one of their researchers wants to publish a paper in an international journal is likely to to be viewed as discriminatory and retrograde.

Even if some LMICs did seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, it seems unlikely this would happen any time soon. Right now, the concept of an OA Big Deal does not even show up on the radar of journal licensing negotiators outside Europe and the US, far less the possibility of a mass conversion of subscription journals to OA. One Taiwanese researcher I contacted last year was intrigued when I told him that in Europe open access is being tied to Big Deal agreements. This was not an issue in the recent negotiations that Taiwan undertook with Elsevier, he said. The focus was entirely on licensing paywalled content.

One danger, therefore, is that a flip could take place without those in the global South being consulted, or the implications for them considered – it might simply be presented to them as a fait accompli.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: The view from California with Jeff MacKie-Mason

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. 
Jeff MacKie-Mason

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. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Open Access Big Deal: Back to the Future

On a superficial reading open access is intended to do no more than what it says on the can: provide an internet-based scholarly communication system in which research is made available sans paywall – in other words, a system offering improved accessibility over the traditional subscription system. 

On a deeper reading, however, we learn that the OA movement was a response to the unsustainably high costs of the subscription system and that it was based on a conviction that open access would be a more cost-effective way of sharing research – in other words, a system offering improved affordability.
In addition, it was argued, open access would be a more transparent way of doing things than the subscription-based system. 

Essentially, the argument went like this: If researchers paid an article-processing charge (APC) every time they wanted to publish a paper (rather than librarians paying the costs of publishing by purchasing subscriptions to large bundles of journals courtesy of the so-called Big Deal), then not only could research papers be made freely available to all, but authors would be able to make price-based decisions when choosing where to publish. 

This price transparency, argued OA advocates, would introduce market forces into scholarly publishing that are absent in the subscription system. It would also allow new open access publishers to enter the market with lower-priced products, which would help drive down prices.

In short, OA advocates promised that open access would not only provide greater accessibility but a more cost-effective scholarly communication system, thereby solving the affordability problem that has long dogged scholarly publishing. And to achieve this, they said, transparency is key.

Transparency is key

Transparency is key because in order to make price-based decisions buyers need to be able to compare prices. While APCs allow this, Big Deals do not, because with the subscription system researchers have no idea whatsoever what costs are involved, and librarians (who buy on their behalf) do not have a published price list to work from and do not know what other librarians are paying for their Big Deals, since publishers insist on non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). In such an environment pricing is opaque and everyone bar the publishers has to fly blind.

As OA developed, however, it became apparent that most researchers do not have access to the necessary funds to pay APCs, so libraries have again had to start acting as intermediaries. In doing so, however, they have found the task of managing hundreds of APC payments on behalf of researchers difficult, time-consuming and expensive. For this reason, they have struggled to cope.

At the same time, European governments, funders and university leaders have become increasingly impatient at the time it is taking to achieve widescale open access.

These two things have led to the emergence of the OA Big Deal. Here agreements are signed with legacy publishers that combine bulk journal subscription fees (as with traditional Big Deals) plus bulk OA publishing fees so that authors can publish without personally having to pay APCs. Those librarians and university leaders signing these deals have therefore come to view the OA Big Deal as the best way of transitioning to a fully OA publishing environment. And while today the OA Big Deal is more of a European issue, it looks set to become the model of choice elsewhere in the global North (also here).

As we shall see, however, there are good reasons to doubt that this strategy can provide a satisfactory outcome. 

Strikingly, it is the most vocal critics of legacy publishers and their prices (librarians and national university associations) who are promoting these deals, either because they fail to understand (or accept) the implications of what they are doing, or because they have been mesmerised by the EU’s rash  and unthought-through commitment to make all European research freely available by 2020.

It is also concerning that the negotiators of these OA Big Deals appear to have little appetite for transparency. What these agreements consist of, what they cost, and what kind of value for money they offer (or don’t offer), therefore, is generally unknown to anyone outside the small group of people taking part in in the negotiations.