Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Open Access: “Information wants to be free”?

(A print version of this eBook is available here)

Earlier this year I was invited to discuss with Georgia Institute of Technology librarian Fred Rascoe my eBook “Open access: Could defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory?” for Lost in the Stacks, the research library rock and roll show he hosts. 

Prior to the interview, Rascoe sent me a list of questions. As we did not have time to discuss them all during the interview, I decided to publish my answers on my blog. With the greater space available I also took the opportunity to expatiate at considerable length in doing so. This turned into another eBook!

Please note that what I say in the attached document is built on an interview. It is not intended to be any kind of prediction of the future; it is more an extended reflection after 20 years reporting on the OA movement, coupled with a heavy dose of speculation. Who knows, perhaps this will be the last thing I ever write on open access. Maybe this will prove my swan song.

I would also like to stress upfront that in the critique of the OA movement I make I don’t claim that my knowledge, or predictions, are superior to anyone else’s. This is just what I have concluded after many years observing the movement and reflects my current view on where I think we are today. It does also include a lot of factual data, as well as links and footnotes for those who like them. 

Importantly, while I do not consider myself to be an OA advocate, I admit that I was as naïve as anyone else about what the movement might be able to achieve.

Finally, while what I say might be slightly overweight in European developments, it may not matter if (as I believe is possible) events in Europe end up determining how open access develops globally. 

I say this because it seems possible that European OA initiatives will reconfigure the international scholarly communication system, and in ways that OA advocates will not be comfortable with. 

I would add that the main focus is on science publishing rather than HSS. 

The eBook can be downloaded here. (Health warning: it is 163 pages long). 

A short review of the eBook has been posted on Reddit here.


Unknown said...

Dear Richard, If this is your last piece on OA it will indeed be sad.

Richard Poynder said...

Dear Arun,

Thank you very much for your message. Time will tell!

Either way, I have much enjoyed all the interactions we have had over the years, and it was great to meet you at Berlin 3 in Southampton back in 2005.


Steven Hall said...

Dear Richard

I have read much of what you have written about open access over the years and have disagreed with a good deal of it, but I want to congratulate you on this brilliant survey of the open access movement. Again, I don’t agree with all of it (not least the lumping together of all publishers, when there are quite significant differences between us, especially between the big commercial publishers and learned society publishers like the one I run; and even more so the description of me and my colleagues, by extension at least, as ‘neoliberals’) but I don’t think I have ever read a more thoughtful and balanced overall analysis of the state of affairs in open access.

I represented one of the two ‘traditional’ publishers on the Finch working group, which you claim has had such a strong influence on open access: “That the UK set off down the “gold road” to open access was surely in part because the Finch committee was top heavy in publishers keen to preserve their profits. When the report was published, therefore, it recommended (for the first time) that pay-to-publish gold OA be the preferred strategy. Willetts immediately accepted Finch’s “excellent report” and all but one of its recommendations and the report went on to become highly influential, both in Europe and beyond. It was at this point I think we can say that power and control over the OA movement passed from OA advocates to publishers, funders and governments.”

I’d disagree with your conclusion that publishers dominated Finch. It was balanced between funders, librarians, university administrators, publishers and representatives of the academic community and was chaired with great skill and commitment by Janet Finch. The tone was set for Finch early in the first meeting, when one of the funders said forcefully ‘it’s going to be green, and it’s going to be immediate’. Immediate green, under CC BY, as Coalition S is pushing for under its ‘rights retention strategy’, implies that there is no cost in the management of peer review and the development of journals. Publishers on Finch advocated strongly for gold to preserve viability rather than profits: the ability to develop and run journals that researchers want to publish in and to manage peer review. These are far more important than copy-editing and type-setting but are the things that we do which immediate green would take for free, while they represent around half of our publishing costs. The whole of the working group supported the recommendations.

The one fundamental challenge with gold which your post didn’t address deeply enough is that of the redistribution of costs that gold would entail. It would move the fairly widely distributed costs of subscription publishing to a much smaller cohort of research-intensive institutions and countries. Plan S is silent on this; UKRI likewise in its consultation earlier this year. The transition to 100% gold oa cannot take place without the issue being addressed; indeed, it has come up in relation to Projekt DEAL in Germany, as the most research-intensive institutions have grasped its longer-term implications. We have made strenuous efforts at IOPP to support open access – around 31% of the articles we have published this year in the journals we manage editorially are open access – through the making of transformative agreements (we negotiated the first offsetting agreement in the UK starting in 2014), the promotion of hybrid and the launch of new open access journals. To achieve further progress however will require support for open access in much of the world outside western Europe and serious consideration of the redistribution of costs.

It's these nuances which are usually ignored in the debate and your piece captured most of them very well; even if it did, as you admitted, to some extent paint publishers as the evil forces standing in the way of progress. Speaking for myself and IOPP, we’re not.

Steven Hall, IOP Publishing

Richard Poynder said...


Dear Steven,

Thank you for your generous words about my review of the current state of open access (as I see it). I am particularly grateful to receive your comments given you do not agree with everything I say.

You may be right to argue that I did not stress enough the differences between publishers. However, I do make the point. I say, for instance, that “to assume that the top 5 publishers are representative of some 2,000 scholarly publishers might be wrong”, adding, “Perhaps the real questions are: how were 5 companies allowed to acquire such a large slice of the market and is anyone willing to do anything about it?”

Nevertheless, since that first point was made in a footnote it is probably fair to say that I could have highlighted the differences more. I did, however, discuss the problems caused by the dominance of the so-called scholarly publishing oligopoly in some detail later in the document.

Where I would want to challenge you is over your assertion that Finch was not dominated by publishers but “balanced between funders, librarians, university administrators, publishers and representatives of the academic community.”

You also say, “I represented one of the two ‘traditional’ publishers on the Finch working group, which you claim has had such a strong influence on open access”.

My understanding is that – aside from Janet Finch, a secretary, and an observer – there were 13 members of the main Finch working group, of which, by my reckoning, 5 can be considered to be traditional publishers: Springer, Wiley Blackwell, the Society of Biology, the Royal Geographical Society, and yourself (IoP). That suggests that 39% of those in the main working group consisted of publishers, compared to 2 librarians (15%) 3 funders (23%) and 3 academics (23%).

In addition, there were three sub-groups. Membership of these sub-groups included the five publisher members of the main working group plus three additional representatives from legacy publishers – namely, Elsevier, OUP and Taylor and Francis. As such, I think it is accurate to say that Finch was top heavy in publishers. Moreover, of the oligopoly, all bar one were represented on Finch. If one considers that there are around 2,000 scholarly publishers, this might seem to suggest that the oligopoly had a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the Finch Report.

I am struck by your statement that at the start of the process one of the funders (I think I can guess who that was) said, “it’s going to be green, and it’s going to be immediate’. That was not what the Finch Report eventually recommended. That would seem to support my claim that publishers won the open access battle in 2012.