Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The OA interviews: Arianna Becerril-García, Chair of AmeliCA

A professor in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM), Arianna Becerril-García is also the Executive Director of Redalyc, the Network of Scientific Journals from Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal. Redalyc is a regional open access portal for the social sciences and humanities that indexes 1,305 local journals and hosts the full texts of more than 650,000 articles. 

In addition, Becerril-García is the Chair of a new project called AmeliCA (Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South). AmeliCA’s goal is to propagate the Redalyc model to the more than 15,000 journals in the region and elsewhere in the Global South.

As Chair of AmeliCA, Becerril-García has become a vocal critic of Plan S – the European OA initiative announced last year by a group of funders that call themselves cOAlition S. While AmeliCA shares cOAlition S’s goal of achieving universal open access, says Becerril-García, it fears that, as currently conceived, Plan S would disadvantage researchers in the Global South and exclude them further from the international scholarly publishing system.

Historically, research institutions in the South have struggled to afford the fees necessary to buy access to international subscription journals. But a move to an OA system almost exclusively based on pay-to-publish (which Plan S seems likely to lead to), says Becerril-García, would see researchers in the South struggling to find the money to pay the article-processing charges (APCs) needed to publish their work in international journals. One problem would be replaced by another. 

Plan S would also further increase the control that for-profit publishers have over the scholarly communication system, which Becerril-García believes is undesirable.

What is needed, she says, is to build a “collaborative, non-commercial, sustainable and non-subordinated” system in which control is removed from commercial publishers and handed back to the academy.

The role that AmeliCA and Becerril-García have played in the discussion over Plan S has been important and influential. Interestingly, as the debate has played out, it is not only OA advocates in the South that have been reaching the conclusion that AmeliCA has.

Heeded and acted upon?

We will have to wait and see exactly how influential AmeliCA has been. Following a consultation process, cOAlition S is due shortly to publish an updated set of implementation guidelines for Plan S. For her part, Becerril-García hopes that the feedback that she and others have provided has been heeded and will be acted upon.

Amongst other things, Becerril-García believes that cOAlition S should commit some of its funding to help build the infrastructure and technology needed to allow the academy to regain control of science communication. So, for instance, she would like to see the funders provide money for “non-APC journals, academic open access platforms, technologies to support scholarly publishing, repositories and other scholarly communication tools.”

To support her argument, Becerril-García points out that Latin America currently publishes between 13% and 20% of the articles produced by European researchers. “If Plan S intends to pay APCs to for-profit journals then why are the costs of publishing European papers in Latin America not worthy of being funded by Plan S too?”, she asks.

The rumour on Twitter is that the new Plan S guidelines will be “less controversial” than initially proposed. Whether there will be sufficient changes to satisfy Becerril-García’s aspirations, or the needs of the Global South, remains to be seen. While cOAlition S has made sympathetic noises about helping the Global South, we must wonder if European funders will really prove willing to subsidise open platforms and OA journals in the Global South, or to create much in the way of a new scholarly infrastructure – not least because they have set themselves an extremely tight timetable to achieve 100% open access (2020).

And are they really committed to wresting back control from for-profit publishers?

What is surely also important, however, is that AmeliCA has independently set itself the goal of propagating the APC-free OA model that Redalyc has been developing since 2003. Amongst other things, this saw it partner recently with UNESCO and a group of other national and regional open access platforms to launch the Global Alliance of Open Access Scholarly Communication Platforms (GLOALL). The aim is to “democratise scientific knowledge following a multicultural, multi-thematic and multi-lingual approach”.

Interestingly, just weeks after the launch of GLOALL, AmeliCA joined with the Plan S funders to sign the São Paulo Statement on open access. Becerril-García stresses, however, that “our signature on the São Paulo Statement must be understood as a commitment to an agreement between diverse platforms that all have open access as a common goal”. She adds, “It would be wrong, or mere innocence, to believe that we have changed our mind about our goals and objectives.”

Whatever one’s views on Plan S, it has surely played a valuable role in focusing minds on the likely implications of moving to a pay-to-play publishing regime and the invidious position that researchers in the Global South find themselves in vis-à-vis the international scholarly publishing system.

All of which leaves us with what Becerril-García calls the “million-dollar question”: is it possible to build a global system of scholarly communication able to meet the needs of everyone, and on a fair and equitable basis? My suspicion is that this is unlikely to prove possible for so long as the Global North remains so deeply wedded to the principles of neoliberalism.  

To get a fuller view of AmeliCA’s hopes and ambitions please read the answers Becerril-García gives below to a number of questions I emailed her.

The interview begins …

RP: Can you say something about yourself, your institution and your research interests/specialism?

AB-G: I am a professor-researcher and computer engineer in the Science Communication and Dissemination Research Group of the School of Political and Social Sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM).

I hold a master’s degree and a PhD in computer sciences and my research interests are semantic technologies, information retrieval, artificial intelligence, technologies for science communication and open access, and data visualisation.

UAEM is a Mexican public university and a leading and pioneering institution with regard to open access. It is the primary funder of Redalyc and I am part of Redalyc’s founding team and currently its Executive Director.

RP: You are also Chair of AmeliCA. Can you say something about both Redalyc and AmeliCA?

AB-G: Redalyc is an open-access scholarly project, founded and ran by Eduardo Aguado (General Director) and me. Redalyc has developed technology to strengthen and provide visibility to journals in the region. Currently, there are 1,305 journals and upwards of 650,000 full-text articles available on the platform from which more than 100 million texts are downloaded per year.

Redalyc provides an indexing system. To be accepted for inclusion in the index, journals first have to go through a rigorous quality evaluation process. We also offer services to complement what journals provide on their own websites – e.g. tools to enable journals to generate XML that is compliant with ANSI/NISO JATS standards and to provide PDF, HTML and ePUB reading formats, as well as an article interactive reader for reading articles on desktop computers as well as on mobile devices.

We also provide interoperability and search engine optimisation services to enable the journals to be transparently integrated with the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Google Scholar and hundreds of content aggregators and libraries all around the world. The metadata are exported automatically to help maximize the visibility and impact of the content.

In addition, Redalyc has developed a set of metrics for regional scholarly publications, institutions and countries to indicate levels of collaboration, internationalisation and usage of scholarly content.

AmeliCA is a project launched by Redalyc with the support of CLACSO and UNESCO that aims to create a communication system – not an indexing system like Redalyc – for the more than 15,000 current journals from the region.

So, we offer the technology developed by Redalyc as part of a cooperative strategy in which dozens of institutions with various decentralised and coordinated projects at different universities and research groups from the region are able to participate. We all share the same goal: a collaborative, non-commercial, sustainable and non-subordinated open access system.

In control of the academy

RP: Should I conclude from what you say that AmeliCA does not believe commercial publishers ought to play a role in scholarly communication? If it does see a role for them, what role should that be?

AB-G: It seems to me that the way in which the question is posed suggests that the only alternative model to the one AmeliCA proposes is one that involves commercial publishers. From where I stand the situation is more complex, and even more complex when we observe the different regional contexts.

We know that before the Second World War the participation of commercial publishers was limited, and journals depended mostly on professional associations. In the late decades of the last century, however, and even in this one, we have seen an excessive concentration of scholarly publishing in a few publishing houses – the oligopoly.

Beyond the damage these publishers cause to the system of scholarly communication by their monopolistic activities (which is no small thing) we now face a situation where we are having to rely on a legitimation system based on metrics provided by two databases (Web of Science and Scopus) that belong to private enterprises and whose entire focus is on making a commercial return. These companies’ interests lie in making governments and institutions believe (through their various “advisory groups”) that only research that is indexed by them is of sufficient quality to be worthy of being supported with resources. This is the system of evaluation used today for researchers, for projects and for journals.

And this is a system from which Latin American scientific publications are largely excluded, especially those from the Social Sciences and Humanities. Consequently, researchers are forced to publish in journals owned by commercial publishers who are mainly based outside the region, and in order to make their work open access they now have to pay an APC.

The goal of AmeliCA is to support and consolidate a native model that has operated in Latin America for more than 30 years, a model in which the publishing process is financed in a structured and rooted manner with public resources provided via local universities. This is the starting point and our aim is to demonstrate that different models of scholarly publishing have developed than one controlled by commercial publishers.

What has also been happening in our region recently is that journals that have been locally founded and developed – with public resources – and then internationalised, are being acquired by commercial publishers; there are several examples where the publisher is not an academic publisher anymore. These are journals that were created and consolidated with public resources, and then supported by Redalyc for years in order to attain international visibility.

Our view is that this kind of appropriation, and the considerable restrictions researchers now face in order to share, process and publish their work open access, among many other characteristics of the models used by big commercial publishers, are unacceptable for the development of science.

The commercial strategies that for-profit publishers have adopted for open access are ravenous, exclusionary and unsustainable. This is entirely contrary to the vision of open access that AmeliCA supports.

I believe that developing a scholarly communication system that is in control of the academy is a much healthier strategy for science and society.

Why is it that commercial publishers are a pivotal actor in science communication – in many parts of the world – if most of the activities needed to generate knowledge are undertaken by the academy?

Why did commercial publishers shift from being the providers of publishing services to the owners of content, and now owners of the tools needed in all stages of the scientific communication process?

Which of these various roles is truly beneficial to science?

Free from paywalls

RP: In January, AmeliCA published a video directly contrasting the approach being taken by the new European OA initiative Plan S with what AmeliCA aims to achieve. The video argues that some of Plan S’s goals are “counterposed” with those of AmeliCA. For instance, it says, where Plan S simply aims to regulate commercial agreements, AmeliCA is focused on “building an infrastructure from and for the academy.” Can you say something more about how AmeliCA aims to achieve this and why it is concerned about Plan S?

AB-G: AmeliCA’s goal is that all knowledge should be free from paywalls and in that respect, its view coincides with Plan S, and with the BBB definition” of open access. It also agrees with Plan S that authors should retain the copyright in their works.

Where we would diverge is if Plan S seeks to replace the pay-for-reading model of subscription publishing with a pay-for-publishing one, and to do so in a way that leaves publishing in the control of commercial publishers (as discussed in the previous question). Currently, it seems likely that Plan S will lead to the near-universal use of APCs.

The Latin American model demonstrates that this need not be the outcome. For this reason, we are convinced that the strategies of Plan S, and of those countries with the economic power to change the current situation, should be focused on supporting a system in which open access journals are controlled by the academy – and without the payment of APCs. They should also be investing in the infrastructure and technology needed for science communication to be in the hands of academic institutions. This investment should aim to return resources to the institutions that generate knowledge.

So, AmeliCA seeks the same goal as Plan S but wants to achieve it by means of cooperation between multiple academic institutions. In other words, a strategy that emerges from the academy itself, not one devised by financiers or governments. And it should be one in which there are tangible developments in favour of open access – e.g. platforms, scholarly journals, repositories, technical infrastructure, books, groups of people such as editorial teams, policies, mandates, and so on, all working together, joining forces and sharing in order to build a sustainable model.

A clear example of this can be seen at the National University of La Plata in Argentina. There you can see a very strong, determined, and prepared group already using AmeliCA’s technology to sustain its journals and prevent the implementation of APCs, or the intervention of commercial publishers.

This group is composed of researchers and students and they are being trained in publishing matters in order to sustain the work in the future. Everything is financed with resources from the university and supported by the infrastructure and technology that AmeliCA offers and that Redalyc developed over many years.

RP: AmeliCA is focused primarily on Latin America. More recently, UNESCO announced the launch of the Global Alliance of Open Access Scholarly Communication Platforms (GLOALL). This brings together the coordinators of six platforms: AmeliCA, AJOLÉrudit, J-STAGE, OpenEdition, and SciELO, with the aim “to democratize scientific knowledge following a multicultural, multi-thematic and multi-lingual approach”. Aside from the geographical spread of the participants, and the emphasis on language diversity of GLOALL, what distinguishes its aims from those of AmeliCA and Plan S? Is GLOALL more about articulating an alternative vision to Plan S or are there real-life practical initiatives planned? If so, what kind of initiatives?

AB-G: GLOALL, in my view, offers the potential for great platforms to work together to create a non-commercial open access future. This need not explicitly oppose commercial publishers but could work from another point of view, one that conceives knowledge as a public common good.

But I should stress that this is my personal view. GLOALL is a new initiative and the scope has yet to be defined. We know that we share common goals and that these need to be realised in the form of policies, projects and strategies, and to be focused on achieving open access aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals established in the United Nations 2030 Agenda.

AmeliCA will willingly share its technology and experience with GLOALL members, and with any region that wishes to strengthen the model we believe in.

São Paulo Statement

RP: Three weeks after the launch of GLOALL, AmeliCA and the African Open Science Platform joined with cOAlition S (the group of funders behind Plan S) and OA2020 (a European initiative with the same goals as Plan Sto sign the São Paulo Statement on Open Access. This was done at the annual meetinof the Global Research Council (GRC). Can you say how this statement came about (i.e. who approached whom?) and how the statement fits with the goals of AmeliCA and GLOALL? How difficult was it to arrive at wording that all sides could agree on? What are the next steps if any?

AB-G: The question is wrongly posed: AmeliCA didn’t join with either cOAlition S or with OA2020. AmeliCA was invited by Science Europe to participate in an event. Several other platforms were invited and together we signed a statement reaffirming the common goal we all share of freeing knowledge from paywalls. This is the goal of dozens and hundreds of platforms. The São Paulo Statement does no more than state that.

Our concern is not over the goals of Plan S but how they are implemented. The purpose of the meeting we had with the Plan S architects was to discuss that. And at that meeting, I explained our stance (as discussed in the previous questions). I also presented our stance publicly in a panel held at the GRC event.

Aside from stating that we reject the APC model, I mentioned in that meeting the risk of disrupting the Latin American system by implementing a Eurocentric model, and I resolutely asked why institutions and governments in Latin America would be motivated to continue subsidising scholarly publishing if strategies are put in place that will end up driving more public money to commercial enterprises.

I pointed out that Latin America currently publishes between 13% and 20% of the articles produced by European researchers. And I asked: “If Plan S intends to pay APCs to for-profit journals then why are the costs of publishing European papers in Latin America not worthy of being funded by Plan S too?”

We have repeatedly expressed our concerns about Plan S. Now we are waiting for cOAlition S to announce its final implementation plans. We hope that the feedback phase has been useful, and that cOAlition S will adjust their strategy to enable an inclusive, participative open access model to be developed, one in which non-profit scholarly communication is taken into account when financial resources are distributed.

If they don’t, Plan S will only further weaken those publishing activities that are still in the control of the academy, and strengthen commercial publishers – to the point perhaps where the former will disappear altogether. 

AmeliCA’s goals are crystal clear: we want scholarly publishing to be in the hands of the academy – universities and professional associations. In other words, to continue working in the way that Redalyc has been working for decades.

RP: The wording of the São Paulo Statement is very general and does not specify much in the way of practical action. As you will know, cOAlition S has been struggling to get global buy-in for Plan S, and has attracted criticism in the Global South for attempting to foist a one-size-fits-all Eurocentric model (as you call it) of scholarly publishing on the world. I assume therefore that cOAlition S would see real PR benefit in getting the São Paulo Statement agreed, if only as a way of suggesting that there is no fundamental conflict of interest between Plan S and research communities in the Global South. From what you say, I assume you do still see conflicts of interest. Either way, from the perspective of AmeliCA what was the logic of signing the statement? What benefits do you think signing it might bring to the Global South?

AB-G: Scholarly publishing is a global ecosystem that already exists. Consequently, for a proposal to be established as global, and for everyone’s benefit, all countries and institutions need to participate in the discussion.

I would highlight several points about which I believe there is agreement in the South, although with some nuances: the present model is unsustainable, and knowledge must be freed from paywalls. Every stakeholder agrees with this other than those who benefit from the way things currently are. The only point of disagreement, as I said, is over how open access is achieved.

In the South, Redalyc, AmeliCA, CLACSO, Latindex, and LaReferencia (amongst others) have expressed their strong objection to the APC model. And I expressed this clearly and vehemently at São Paolo, so I hope that the final implementation guidelines will demonstrate that cOAlition S has listened to the feedback it has received and is prepared to provide resources for non-profit players. Here I am thinking of non-APC journals, academic open access platforms, technologies to support scholarly publishing, repositories and other scholarly communication tools. If this happens then our engaging with cOAlition S will have led to something positive.

And if Plan S ends up dismantling the current harmful system for evaluating research and researchers based on the false prestige bestowed on publications by the Impact Factor – as called for by the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) – there is no doubt that the South would benefit.

As to any PR benefits the São Paulo Statement may have: I wouldn’t like to think the meeting was only undertaken for media purposes. In signing the statement, we wanted to give a vote of confidence to the notion that communication and feedback between the North and South is a good thing. Plan S and the general public know AmeliCA’s principles and values. We unwaveringly affirm them and will keep working towards them.

RP: I believe AmeliCA plans to publish a public response to the São Paulo Statement. What will be the aim and purpose of that public response and when do you expect to publish it?

AB-G: We signed the declaration and we shared it. However, I would stress that several platforms signed it, some of which AmeliCA and Redalyc distance themselves from completely. It would be wrong, or mere innocence, to believe that we have changed our mind about our goals and objectives.

Together with other institutions AmeliCA and Redalyc are working towards, and hope to further, non-commercial open access (as I have explained) and we resolutely support DORA.

So, our signature on the São Paulo Statement must be understood as a commitment to an agreement between diverse platforms that all have open access as a common goal. I would, however, note that SciELO – another regional initiative in Latin America – has signed an agreement with Clarivate Analytics. In doing so they have chosen a different route, one that legitimises the Impact Factor as a way of ranking the importance of journals. They have also chosen ScholarOne (which is a proprietary Clarivate Analytics product) as their publishing platform in Brazil, rather than the open source software Open Journal Systems (OJS) developed by Public Knowledge Project (PKP). And they are encouraging the publishing of journals in English over local languages.

This interview allows us to take a deeper look at the complexities of these issues, which we’ll also share in a publication on the AmeliCA web site and via other means and forums in the coming days.

Plan S may sign general declarations with dozens or hundreds of actors, but it is clear that the real detail and discussion must be found in the “small print” – that is, in the implementation guidelines. We are all waiting for news from Plan S about that. Let’s see how they’ve enriched their understanding and stance after the multiple conversations they have had.

Terribly alarming

RP: I sometimes think that OA advocates in the global North have spent 17-odd years working towards a solution that (as AmeliCA puts it) “simply aims to regulate commercial agreements” and are now realising that this approach is creating a system no more financially sustainable than the subscription system. Would you agree? If so, how can this be resolved at this point in time? Might it be too late?

AB-G: If the focus of any new initiative is on replacing the model of paying-to-read with one based on paying-to-publish, it will inevitably create an unsustainable and non-inclusive system.

What is clear is that at this point in time the control of scholarly publishing is in the hands of commercial publishers, and so any planned change must necessarily include them. However, in the process of change control needs to be transferred to academia – to academic institutions, to universities, to academic associations, and to other stakeholders whose focus is on the development of science rather than promoting private commercial interests. And if this is done in a collective manner and in a distributed and fair way the value and power of scholarly communication can be maintained and enhanced.

This means building infrastructure, taking advantage of the great benefits that communication and information technologies now offer, professionalising institutions so that they can create a publishing tradition, and anything else that can further the task of taking back control of scholarly communication which is currently dominated by private interests.

As things stand, the South cannot escape the perversion of the system. It saddens us to see how more and more national systems of journal assessment disqualify local journals if they don’t rank in the first quartiles of Scopus or Web of Science, no matter how much they have contributed to the history and problem solving of the discipline or region concerned.

As a consequence, local journals are now receiving fewer direct resources. And they are receiving fewer contributions because researchers are discouraged from publishing in them. Researchers are discouraged because local journals do not fulfil the requirements needed to be considered “mainstream”, and researchers’ salaries and incentives depend on being published in mainstream journals.

This has happened in Colombia, in Mexico and in many other countries. The agreements between SciELO and Clarivate Analytics, the appropriation of journals by commercial publishers, the hiring of SpringerOpen by public universities to dictate how and where to publish, the list of such examples is vast. Right now, we are looking at an ecosystem at risk of total collapse. And that is terribly alarming. 

Million-dollar question

RP: Is it in your view possible to build a global system of scholarly communication (and an open-access infrastructure) able to meet the needs of all countries in a fair and equitable way, both countries in the Global South and those in the Global North? If so, what might it look like?

AB-G: That is the million-dollar question. Thank you for asking, and for thinking that I could provide even the draft of an answer. Undoubtedly, that is what we all want, and because of that we gather together and debate the issue. But let me share my viewpoint on that with you.

We need to start by asking: what science communication model or paradigm can be considered a suitable one for humanity?

This is not necessarily a matter of South or North. We must go back to basics and recover the essence of what science communication is and should be. Is it to communicate research, and to do so to the limit of what is possible in order to attain the greatest efficacy and efficiency in putting scientific and technological advances at society’s disposal?

We must remind ourselves that the goal of publishing is to make our research available for the public, to submit findings to public scrutiny, and to do so in a way that allows everyone to access knowledge without restriction.

We need to facilitate a global conversation that focuses on both the large and small problems humanity faces and to ensure that all researchers are able to participate in that conversation, not only those who can pay to take part in it.

Current information technologies enable us to rethink what is now taken for granted. We can deconstruct what we know does not work and we can decide what engine is needed to further the agendas and work of researchers. And we can be more creative in planning how to distribute resources.

While many efforts have been made to do this around the world, there hasn’t yet been enough determination and resources put into uniting these isolated and disparate efforts. Open access and scholarly communication find themselves at a key historical moment and we are now in a position, and have a great opportunity, to redraw the system of scholarly communication.

I imagine a web of data for science, a knowledge cloud – sustainable and open – that promotes a participatory and inclusive science communication system, one in which every institution that is generating knowledge is able to connect it into a giant graph of knowledge.

In order to do that I strongly believe that academic institutions must not only be the generators – as it were – of this asset, but also the owners and transmitters of it.

RP: Thank you very much for answering my questions. I look forward to seeing how the various initiatives you are involved in develop going forward.

No comments: