Those wishing to go directly to the Q&A with Virginia Steel can access the pdf here and then click on the link at the top of the document.
Who would have thought in 2002 that the sixteen “open” enthusiasts who that year launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative were about to unleash on the world a chain of events that some believe will eventually upend the 350-year old scholarly publishing system, and has in the meantime thrown researchers, librarians, universities, funders, governments and scholarly publishers into what at times looks like a dance of death.
Of course, the key driver for the changes that scholarly publishing is currently going through was the emergence of the internet, since those changes would not be possible without the web. And in fact, publishers had begun to take advantage of the new digital network a decade before open access became a thing. Elsevier, for instance, launched its online database of electronic journals ScienceDirect eight years prior to BOAI. But publishers had assumed they would simply port the traditional subscription model to the online environment and carry on much as before, all be it a subscription model re-imagined as the now infamous Big Deal.
In other words, as the name suggests, what was radical about the BOAI was not its recognition that journals could now be put online, but the assumption that this could be done without the imposition of paywalls. In retrospect, we can see that this simple idea has ended up calling into question practically every aspect of traditional scholarly publishing, not excluding traditional peer review and the need for legacy publishers.
Yet for all its revolutionary potential, and the significant mindshare that open access has acquired over the past 16 years, some of the key aspirations articulated by BOAI have yet to be realised. And they may never be. Yes, today more research is freely accessible. But leaving aside the fact that the openness of that content is fragile, the truly revolutionary potential of making it open has not yet been exploited.
So, for instance, OA has yet to solve the affordability problem that BOAI promised it would, and in pursuit of which goal most librarians joined the OA movement in the first place.
More importantly, OA has failed to create the more equitable knowledge infrastructure envisaged by BOAI. Let’s recall: the promise was that removing access barriers would allow the world to “accelerate research, enrich education, 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.”
The reality today, however, is that paywalls are simply being replaced by publication walls, a development that threatens to disenfranchise those in the global South even more thoroughly than paywalls.
These failings are a product of the fact that the strategies adopted and promoted by OA advocates have too often had unintended consequences. Above all, they advocated for the use of pay-to-publish gold OA. In doing so they enabled legacy publishers to co-opt open access, and so lock themselves and their high profits into the new environment, not least by introducing overpriced hybrid OA.
The pay-to-publish model also gave rise to a plague of predatory publishers, and the accompanying tide of fake science now threatens to corrupt the scientific record.
The nub of the problem is that OA advocates too often fail to think through their ideas and strategies, with the result that their interventions often worsen rather than improve the situation. It does not help that they are susceptible to groupthink and tend to flock around any idea that has superficial appeal. The way that dissident voices are challenged and policed on Twitter is indicative of this tendency. Moreover, OA advocates will often cling to a faulty idea long after it has become clear that it is flawed.
And while there were plenty of warnings about likely unintended consequences, these were ignored or poo-pooed. In 2004, for instance, the world’s largest and most experienced publisher Elsevier cautioned: “By introducing an author-pays model, Open Access risks undermining public trust in the integrity and quality of scientific publications that has been established over hundreds of years.”
Elsevier added, “Because the number of articles published will drive revenues, Open Access publishers will continually be under pressure to increase output, potentially at the expense of quality.”
Elsevier is of course not a disinterested party. Nevertheless, its point was a valid one and should have been listened to since it is also an obvious one. (Ironically, as soon as it realised that gold OA would allow it to increase its profits Elsevier quickly distanced itself from its warnings, thus proving the point it had made!).
But the most knowledgeable and far-sighted commentator has been publishing consultant Joseph Esposito. True, Esposito is not a disinterested party either, and he has a habit whenever a change to the status quo is mooted of muttering darkly “be careful what you wish for” (e.g. here, here and here). Nevertheless, his warnings have generally been on the money.
In 2004, for instance, Esposito predicted that in an OA environment, “the overall cost of research publications will rise, though the costs will be borne by different players, primarily authors and their proxies.” This has proved accurate.
In the same vein, in 2014 Esposito predicted that open access would be additive rather than substitutive, and so further increase the costs of scholarly communication. As he put it, “revenue from OA will be additive to the revenue from traditional journals.” That is today’s reality.
And in 2105 Esposito predicted that open access would be co-opted by legacy publishers. Few would now deny that that too is today’s reality.
For open access advocates, this is all hugely frustrating and the cause of a lot of hand-wringing. The uncomfortable truth is that almost every initiative, idea or proposal introduced by the OA movement is rapidly derailed, subverted, or co-opted by publishers for their own benefit, or leads to undesirable developments like predatory publishing.
Too gloomy a view?
But is this to take too gloomy a view? While many of Esposito’s predictions may be today’s reality, it does not mean that they will be tomorrow’s. After all, we are in the middle of a revolution, and perforce seeing through a glass darkly. We may simply be witnessing the inevitable teething problems that any largescale social change can expect to experience.
To put my cards on the table: I am a sceptic by nature and so Esposito’s views resonate more with me than the perpetual Pollyannaism of many OA advocates. Nevertheless, I can see that it may just be that the research community is going to have to wade through a lot more mud before it reaches the promised land.
I assume, however, that whether the vision of BOAI is ever fully realised will to a great extent depend on whether those who support, promote and implement open access learn from experience and adapt and change their strategies as a result.
Here there are encouraging signs. Conscious that the institutional repository movement has failed, for instance, the Confederation of Open Access Repositories has developed a new strategy focused on creating what it calls a “Sustainable Knowledge Commons”.