Sunday, November 25, 2018

The OA Interviews: Frances Pinter

In 2012 serial entrepreneur Frances Pinter founded a new company called Knowledge Unlatched (KU). The goal, she explained in 2013, was to “change the way we fund the publishing of quality content” for book-length publications, and in a way that would allow them to be made open access. 

With that end in mind, Pinter launched a pilot project in which research libraries were invited to pool money to fund the “fixed costs” of publishing monographs. By doing so, Pinter reasoned, PDF and HTML versions of these “unlatched” books could be made freely available on the Web, but print and other premium versions would continue to be sold in the traditional manner. And those libraries that contributed to the pool would earn the right to buy the premium versions at a discounted price.

In a spirit of civic-mindedness Pinter created Knowledge Unlatched as a UK non-profit Community Interest Company (CIC). And with Pinter’s formidable reputation as a publisher, KU quickly acquired mindshare and influence, and went on to play an important role in the thinking about the scope and opportunities for OA monographs, as well as in policy development – both in the UK and globally.

Above all, says Pinter below, KU went on to provide proof of concept for a new way of funding OA monographs, and perhaps of funding OA more generally.


Initial funding for KU came from (amongst others) the British Library Trust, Open Society Foundations, HEFCE, as well as a number of Australian libraries.

When that funding ended, however, as a non-profit CIC, KU struggled to raise further funds or capital. And with few assets to offer as collateral, commercial loans were equally hard to come by. Consequently, it was not immediately clear how KU could become financially sustainable, or even whether it could. Faced with this truth, says Pinter, she was minded to call it day.

Supporters, however, were urging her to continue and so Pinter drew down a six-figure sum from her pension savings and, with some additional funding from Australia’s Curtin University, she proceeded to a second pilot round. This saw increased support from publishers and a larger number of books offered for unlatching. But while this was encouraging, the sustainability issue had not gone away.

At this point, Pinter was approached by former De Gruyter CEO Sven Fund and invited to sell some of KU’s assets. She agreed, and Fund acquired the bulk of KU.

As a result, KU was transformed from a UK non-profit CIC to a for-profit GmbH based in Berlin, and KU is now owned by another Sven Fund for-profit company called fullstopp.

After acquiring KU, Sven Fund moved quickly to develop and launch a raft of new products and initiatives, including a journal collection, KU Partners, KU Select and KU Open Funding. The latter is a platform designed to act as a broker between research institutions, publishers, and authors who want to make their monographs OA.


However, KU’s change of status and its more aggressive stance in the marketplace has attracted criticism from the research community. This came to a head last month when former KU employee Marcel Knöchelmann published a post on the LSE Impact Blog in which he complained that KU had undergone a process of silent commercialisation. He also suggested that the decision by UK funder Research England to contract KU parent fullstopp to undertake a survey of the OA monograph landscape raised conflict of interest issues.

The problem, he said, is that “The parent company of the commercial entity which stands to profit from a future of open access book publishing is advising on what the future of open access book publishing in the UK should be”.

In a separate post two days later the Director of Open Book Publishers Rupert Gatti complained that KU was insisting that those publishers who use the KU Open Funding platform must sign an exclusive contract.

As a result, said Gatti, OBP would not be participating in KU Open Funding. “These types of exclusivity contracts can be used by digital ‘platforms’ as a strategy to monopolise and dominate an industry.”

Other OA monograph publishers have indicated that they too plan to boycott the KU Open Funding platform, including members of the ScholarLed consortium of academic-led, not-for-profit, open access book publishers.  

In response, KU has agreed to cease insisting on exclusive contracts and Research England and fullstopp have said that both the survey questions and (some of ) the responses fullstopp receives to that survey will be made publicly available (more from Research England here).

Nevertheless, it is not clear that critics are yet convinced that KU’s business model is the right one. Nor have they come to terms with its new for-profit status. “I feel crowdfunding from libraries to unlock back- and front-list titles merely funnels more money to conventional academic publishers, who don’t have to change their broken business models at all,” Eileen Joy of non-profit punctum books told me on Twitter. “In other words, it’s not a transformative approach to OA and it keeps broken systems in place.”

She added, “We don’t want to see too many for-profit ‘middlemen’ between publishers and librarians. We want to build partnerships with libraries (and have already done that; e.g. punctum just inaugurated a two-year pilot partnership with UCSB Library at UC Santa Barbara).”

Eileen Joy concludes: “We are also troubled by the transfer of KU from a non-profit directed by Frances Pinter to a for-profit directed by Sven Fund in Berlin. Does anyone know anything about the details of that transaction / hand-over? Did Sven Fund buy KU from Pinter and for how much? What is her role now? Isn’t Fund a venture capitalist? Does he really have a commitment to the long-term health of a more equitable ecosystem for OA and scholarly communications or is KU a business venture for him?”

Hopefully, the interview below with Pinter (and what I have said above) will go some way to answering these questions.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The OA Interviews: Arul George Scaria

One common criticism of the open access and open science movements is that they tend to take a standardised view of science and scholarship, and so propose one-size-fits-all approaches when advocating for ways of making research and the research process more open and transparent. This often poses significant challenges for, for instance, researchers in non-STEM disciplines. It is also often deeply problematic for those based in the global South. 

This is one of the reasons why open access has become a source of considerable conflict and divisiveness, particularly as more and more researchers find themselves subjected to increasingly demanding and standardised OA mandates.

For instance, while many scientists (but by no means all) may be willing to make their work available with a CC BY licence attached, those working in arts, humanities and social science (AHSS) subjects often object strongly when told they must do so – usually for good reasons.

Likewise, the increasing move to pay-to-publish gold OA poses serious problems for those without access to the necessary funds to pay the associated publishing costs. With growing calls for a global flip of all subscription journals to a pay-to-publish model, this is now a very real issue. 

Again, it is those working in AHSS and the global South who are particularly challenged by this development. In addition, it presents those journals published by learned societies with an existential threat.

Global process

It is also important to bear in mind that scholarly communication is a global process and endeavour. As such, changes introduced in the global North tend to have implications for those in the South as well, often with harmful consequences.

This is the possible outcome, for instance, of the current European initiative dubbed Plan S. If it triggered a global flip to pay-to-publish (which currently seems very possible) Plan S would disenfranchise researchers based in the global South in a more fundamental way than the current subscription system does.

(For a more detailed exposition of the concerns researchers have over Plan S see this open letter, which has attracted the signature of over 1,300 researchers so far).

It is important, therefore, that advocates for greater openness do not assume the world of science and scholarship to be uniform when advocating for change, and that those implementing open policies consider carefully disciplinary differences, local needs, local conditions and local practices before seeking to force change on the research community.

In short, governments and funders need to understand both the global forces at play and local conditions prior to introducing new open policies and initiatives.

It is therefore to be welcomed that the Centre for Innovation, Intellectual Property and Competition (CIIPC) in New Delhi has conducted a landscape survey of the current situation in India as concerns open science (although due to feasibility concerns, the sample was restricted to a limited number of disciplines and institutions: Economics, Law, Mechanical Engineering, Medicine, and Physics were).

The study’s principal investigator was Arul George Scaria, Assistant Professor of Law and Co-Director at CIIPC, and he is currently working on a report based on the survey (available in draft form here).

In the interview with me below Arul George Scaria explains what the survey discovered and what recommendations the report will make as a result. He also answers some additional questions I put to him.

Here are a few quotes from the interview, but please read the full interview to get the complete picture. Those interested in the matter will clearly want to read the report too:

-        “The overall scenario with regard to open science practices in India is not that promising and we need to take a lot more steps to make science open.”

-        “Some of the most experienced scientists and policymakers in India maintain strongly that there is no crisis in science in India, despite clear evidence of the magnitude of the problem. Some of them might be taking that position because they think that accepting the existence of the crisis is harmful to the image of science in India.”

-        “It may not be advisable or possible to transplant the approaches being adopted for open science in the global North to a country like India, where access conditions and socio-economic situations are vastly different.”

-        “In the context of global South, it is also important to focus on creating offline resources and some of the specific suggestions put forward in the report include more focus on print media, community radio stations, and creation of shared physical infrastructures.”

-        “We need to ensure that initiatives like Plan S do not incentivise a complete shift to the pay-to-publish gold open access model. This would certainly be detrimental to researchers in the global South, as it would mean that most would be unable to share their research due to the exorbitant charges imposed by publishers.”

-        “Predatory publishing is an important challenge that needs to be addressed in India.”

-        “What we are witnessing today is the capture of shared community resources by a handful of cash-rich conglomerates who want to monopolise every aspect of science communication. We as a community need to fight back against the monopolisation of our resources. As most researchers still appear to be unaware of the long-term consequences of such monopolisation, extensive campaigns are needed in order to create awareness among researchers.”

Monday, November 12, 2018

Plan S and Researchers’ Rights: (Re)Framing Academic Freedom

When in 1915 the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was formed, and published its Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, it was responding to a specific historical situation.

Today the historical situation researchers find themselves in is different and academic freedom faces new challenges. What complicates the picture is that there is considerable disagreement over what exactly academic freedom is, and what aspects of academic life it covers.

This lack of consensus has become all too apparent in the current discussions about Plan S. Indeed, some of those who support Plan S maintain that academic freedom is no longer relevant, or has ceased to exist in any meaningful way.

The key principle of Plan S – which a growing number of funders are signing up to – is that “After 1 January 2020 scientific publications on the results from research funded by public grants provided by national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”

Most (if not all) researchers would surely agree that this is a laudable goal. But for some (we don’t know how many) the way in which it is currently envisaged that Plan S will be implemented raises a red flag with regard to academic freedom. It does not help that those who devised the initiative dismiss these concerns out of hand. The main architect of Plan S –  Robert-Jan Smits – has even bemoaned the fact that people are citing academic freedom in the context of Plan S, “because it stifles a lot of debate.”

Be that as it may, it is clear that some researchers believe Plan S does have implications for academic freedom. And a growing number of them (currently approaching 1,000) are signing a petition that asserts, amongst other things, that Plan S “is a serious violation of academic freedom”.

Given the apparent disenchantment with Plan S amongst at least some in the research community, and given that researchers find themselves increasingly subjected to ever more demanding OA policies like it (in which new duties, new restrictions and limitations, and new responsibilities are imposed on them), it is surely time to look again at what academic freedom does and does not mean, and what it should and should not mean in today’s context, and try to redefine and/or refine it for today’s historical situation; or at least to, as Marc Couture puts it in his guest post below, seek to “reframe” it?

What seems clear to me is that there is a pressing need for a debate about the relevance, role and responsibilities of academic freedom in the context of the growing list of open access policies, with a view to arriving at some kind of consensus.

What also seems clear to me is that this discussion ought to take place amongst researchers before funders seek to impose radical initiatives like Plan S on them. After all, if academic freedom means anything, it surely means that it is researchers and their institutions who should be in the driving seat over this, not funders.

But why not read what Marc Couture has to say below and think about the questions he asks before reaching your own conclusion on these matters. It may well be that Marc’s views on whether and how Plan S has implications for academic freedom are different to mine. But I am not a member of the research community, so my views are not what counts here. What I think does count is what the majority of researchers think. And without a meaningful debate, we will never know that.

Plan S and Researchers’ Rights: (Re)Framing Academic Freedom

By Marc Couture
The announcement of Plan S has generated many much needed (and much heated) discussions. I’m pleased to observe that these don’t concern the relevance of open access, whose wide-ranging benefits now seem to be almost universally acknowledged, but only potentially negative side-effects of the massive, if not global, shift to open access that the plan hopes to bring about.

Though many aspects of the plan are somewhat unclear, and most details of its implementation are still being drafted, what we do know already raises various worries. One is a possible conflict with academic freedom.

Two requirements of the plan are specifically targeted: (1) publication only in compliant journals (full OA, no hybrid) and (2) dissemination under a licence compliant with the Berlin OA definition, which would require authors to accept ceding generous usage rights in their works to others.

I must say first that I firmly believe that academic freedom is important; it is at the very heart of higher education. Drawing from the numerous available definitions, I would formulate its basic, most general definition as follows:

Academic freedom (AF) is the right, for individual academics as well as their institutions, to decide by themselves the subjects and ideas they wish to investigate, disseminate or teach upon without fear of reprisal or censorship, with the ultimate purpose of benefitting both scholarship and the common good.

Some definitions of AF include further rights, for instance the right – individually or as a community – to decide not only what is investigated, disseminated or taught, but how it is done.

Others add more specific freedoms, the most relevant in relation to Plan S being the freedom to choose the publication venue for one’s research results. One also remarks that the language used in some definitions can be very strong, qualifying such freedoms as “full”, “complete” or “without constraints”.

A quid pro quo

It must be pointed out that AF is neither an absolute, divine-like right, nor a “blank check” granted to researchers. It’s rather a privilege, bestowed to academia by society. Moreover, a quid pro quo is at work here.

On the one hand, society acknowledges that scholarship is the most powerful and trustworthy way to explain the world and solve its problems, as long as it is protected from ideological, political and economic vested interests.

On the other hand, scholars, both individually and collectively, must act in a responsible way, by living up to the values underpinning scholarship (rationality, critical thinking, honesty and respect in debates) and the common good (equity, inclusivity, human dignity).

So far, the discussions on actual or potential conflicts between Plan S and AF have involved specific freedoms found in one or another definition, with participants arguing that:

(1) This or that requirement of Plan S does (or doesn’t) concern, or conflict with, AF

(2) This or that measure proposed in Plan S may concern or conflict with AF, but other things as problematic, if not more, have been going on for years in academia without anybody complaining

(3) (Generally, in response to #1 or #2) this or that definition of AF is unclear, outdated or irrelevant, and must be dismissed, or interpreted in this or that way

My stance is that while more freedom is a priori preferable in the academy, the exercise of rights included in AF, especially the more specific ones found in its various definitions, may or may not contribute, in a given situation or context, to AF’s ultimate purpose of benefitting scholarship and/or the common good. In fact, it could even do the exact opposite, or entail both benefits and harms.

Thus, when a measure or a policy seems to conflict with those rights, one should not simply brandish AF as a “trump card” as an argument to counter it, but see this conflict as a warning, inviting one to examine to what extent the exercise of AF, in the situation at hand, effectively benefits – or hinders – scholarship and the common good.

Let me illustrate this approach by looking at the two issues I mentioned in relation to Plan S where the topic of AF has been brought forth.

(1) Constraints on publishing venues

Plan S puts severe constraints on the venues where research results may be published. This will reduce the choices available to researchers. However, to what extent it will do so is currently hard to assess, as it depends on publishers’ response to Plan S.

Here, any conflict with AF would be of utmost concern, since the right to disseminate one’s results is viewed as part of the basic definition of AF. One such conflict I could foresee in this context is if, when Plan S is finally implemented, researchers choosing marginal or unpopular, yet legitimate, topics or methods found they were unable to publish their results in peer-reviewed scholarly journals altogether, because not one, or too few of those complying with Plan S would consider, let alone accept, their papers.

However, I haven’t seen any mention of such a dire scenario in the discussions about Plan S; considering the ever-increasing number of OA journals in all fields, this is understandable. Rather, the major complaint is that Plan S will impede researchers from publishing in very specific journals, meaning highly selective, high impact ones.

This is viewed as conflicting with AF, on the grounds that definitions of AF either imply researchers must be the only ones to have a say in the way research is done (this may or may not include publication), or with reference to more specific freedoms, like “full freedom in publication” or the right to choose the publishing venue.

It is thus not surprising that critics have invoked specific rights associated to AF to oppose measures that could either (1) hurt leading, generally (for the time being) non-compliant journals or (2) impede researchers from publishing in them.

However, researchers wouldn’t lose the possibility of disseminating their results. Most papers submitted to these highly selective journals are rejected not for being faulty, but because they are deemed unimportant, not original enough, or unfit for the venue.

Nevertheless, most of them are subsequently published in other journals, often journals that focus less on criteria like relevance and potential impact and more on the general quality of the paper and the soundness of reasoning and analysis.

What those researchers who succeed in having their papers published in prestigious journals really fear is losing the ability to benefit, career-wise, from the so-called “prestige economy”, where journals are evaluated and ranked according to qualitative (perceived prestige) and, increasingly, quantitative criteria (rejection rates, impact factors), and where individual researchers are judged by their peers in large part on the number of papers and the journals in which the papers appeared.

But there are strong reasons to believe, and mounting evidence to that effect, that this prestige-based evaluation system, as deeply ingrained in academia as it may be, is deeply flawed on many accounts.

In addition, the “publishing oligopoly” of large publishers has skillfully used it to increase its stranglehold on scholarly publication and to justify its skyrocketing costs.

One can even argue that the current system conflicts with the freedom of choice in research included in AF’s basic definition. After all, giving prominence to the number of papers and restricting journals that really “count” towards evaluation to leading, high impact ones may in practice make researchers, if they hope to remain in academia, avoid research topics or methods that take too much time to produce results, or that won’t be considered by these highly selective journals.

Here we face a peculiar situation where, in the very name of AF, the research community hesitates to let go of, or significantly reform, a system that is far from optimal and that, quite paradoxically, may well limit the AF of individual researchers.

The Preamble of Plan S alludes to this prestige economy, by speaking of a “misdirected reward system” and by endorsing the DORA Declaration, which proposes that researchers are judged upon the quality and impact of their research, both multi-faceted notions not reducible to numbers and journal names. And while its principles don’t refer explicitly to this system, Plan S has certainly the potential to disturb, or even disrupt it, again to an extent difficult to assess.

Thus, one has to put into balance two consequences of the drastic change Plan S hopes to achieve.

On the one side, there could be drawbacks for some researchers, though one can think that under a new evaluation paradigm, many if not most of them would still see their valuable work recognized.

The importance of high-impact journals, possibly imperilled by Plan S, for assessing the quality of scholarship has also been highlighted, although studies (like this one) draw a more nuanced picture of the efficiency of the gatekeeping they provide.

On the other side, there are potential benefits to scholarship, in terms of efficiency (e.g., the overall burden of peer-review being reduced, publication delays shortened), and to society (e.g. fewer public funds diverted towards publishers’ revenues and profits, universal access to research results).

(2) The requirement to publish with a liberal licence

Plan S also requires that the main research results are disseminated under a licence with minimal restrictions (CC BY or similar). Since deciding the way in which one’s works are used may be part of “full freedom in publication”, this requirement may also be viewed as conflicting with AF.

True, some researchers don’t like to see their works used by others to “make money”; many are also reluctant to let others adapt them, fearing that this may endanger both the quality of scholarship and the author’s own reputation.

Again, we might wonder to what extent allowing researchers to decide how their works are used (this includes, ironically, letting publishers become the ones to decide) is beneficial to scholarship and society.

What contributes more to AF’s ultimate purpose: protecting works against uses researchers dislike or fear, or allowing those works to be easily used and adapted?

There are numerous studies and discussions on this topic, covering issues like fear vs actual risk, the fuzziness of the various usage restrictions, and their effects on potential users, that could feed the discussion (see for instance here, here and here).

In short, what I propose here is to reframe the role that academic freedom plays in discussions about the proposals put forth in Plan S, by assessing both their potential consequences on scholarship and the common good as well as the nature of their actual or potential conflict with AF, keeping in mind that the raison d’être of AF is, after all, to benefit scholarship and the common good.

While this leaves much room for interpretation and discussion, notably how we define quality in scholarship and what constitutes the common good, I believe it would help answer questions like: Is Plan S a sound, or reasonable proposal? How can it be improved and implemented in order to reach its stated goal, that is flipping to OA a sizable part of scholarly communication, while bringing benefits to both scholarship and society?

These are crucial issues, and I see a real danger that a strict, almost dogmatic stance on AF could cause Plan S to fall short of its potential to pave the way towards a less costly, yet more fair, full-OA scholarly publication system.

The author thanks Marie-Josée Legault and Richard Poynder for their helpful comments.


Marc Couture was until recently science professor at TELUQ, University of Quebec distance education arm. He views himself as a generalist, having over his 30-year career had his areas of interest and activity evolve from physics (his PhD was in optics and lasers) to the application of IT in science education, to intellectual property in academia and, above all, open access, for which he remains a dedicated and shameless advocate.