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Challenges are 'signs of success' for OA advocates

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Penny Andrews reports from Berlin on open-access presentations to students and early-career researchers at the Berlin 11 Satellite Conference 

The key problem with academic publishing in the global North, according to Heather Joseph from the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), is that ‘we publish to get points - citations to get grants to get promotion to get tenure - not to share the work.’ She was speaking to around 70 students and early career researchers from 35 different countries at a satellite conference to November’s Berlin 11 conference, hosted by the Max Planck Society and the Right to Research Coalition.

Joseph also spoke about the challenges for advocates of open access [OA]. ‘We can map progress, and there has been a lot of it recently, but issues seriously threaten the progress and ultimate impact of OA.’

One of these issues at the time of the conference, was the so-called ‘Bohannon sting’, an article published in the journal Science by the journalist John Bohannon who had experimented with – and in many cases been successful at - contributing a bogus paper to OA journals. Joseph urged Berlin 11 Satellite Conference participants not to be defensive about the sting and to help tackle the collective quality issue.

Another problem that she noted is publishers guiding authors to use more restrictive Creative Commons licences such as CC-BY-NC, which she says are still so poorly understood by authors.

She continued: ‘We don't have the money to lobby with paid lobbyists in every state like the publishers, but we have the numbers to push back…Every gain we make will be fought; you can't rest on your laurels.’

Cameron Neylon’s presentation was a manifesto and call to action. ‘Don't forget our success,’ said Neylon, who is advocacy director at OA publisher PLOS. He pointed out that 50 per cent of articles published in 2013 are already or will become free to read within a reasonable timeframe. However, he said that researchers do not just need true OA but true technical reusability and systems that allow knowledge flow. Challenges around hybrid gold access and other disagreements are ‘just signs of our success’ as OA advocates.

Advocacy, he continued, is ‘in a transitional phase. We are converting idealism to practical things we have to do day to day. Activism is easy if it's in the future rather than what you live every day, where you publish when it actually does have an impact on your career.’

Access and knowledge

Speakers also focused on institutions’ need to track the research being published by their researchers. A university does not know and cannot easily know about all the papers written by its authors unless they are in the repository and/or current research information system (CRIS). A university has to know what research it is producing. ‘An empty repository is useless and a partly-filled repository is partly useless,’ said Bernard Rentier, rector of the University of Liege. The audience chuckled.

At Liege, promotions are discussed every two years and are tied to full-text deposits in the repository. Rentier noted that each year deposits are made earlier in the year, when authors have written a new paper rather than just before their profile is checked for promotion.

Other Belgian universities have adopted the Liege mandate but without incentives or sanctions for compliance/non-compliance. Librarians are doing the work in these universities in mediating deposits but there is no involvement from academics so they feel no ownership or responsibility.

Carl-Christian Buhr of the EU vice president Neelie Kroes’ office told the meeting that the goal for EU Horizon 2020 outputs is 100 per cent compliance with OA. Open data, he said, is felt to be more experimental at this time and only a small number of pilot projects must make their data openly available, but articles are mandated.

Open Access Button

I am one of the students working on the Open Access Button project and in Berlin I ran the social media for the launch. At the conference, David Carroll and Joseph McArthur from Medsin-UK, who are the joint project leads, gave a quick overview of the tool before demonstrating how it works and launching the beta version of the tool.

The Open Access Button is a browser-based tool that works on all platforms to track every time a “paywall” denies you access. The tool maps these incidents and currently uses Google Scholar and CORE to try to find frustrated users an OA alternative version of the research they seek. The tool was popular as soon as it went live.

I believe that the project is important because so often I meet authors who do not believe that many people lack access to the journal articles and book chapters that they need and that OA is purely an issue related to funding requirements in the UK and USA. The map on the website shows the scale and global nature of the problem, as well as trying to help users find a legal solution that does not involve paying for articles as individuals.

Mike Taylor, a library software engineer and an associate researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, UK, and Ulrich Pöschl, director of the Multiphase Chemistry Department at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, presented from the researchers’ perspective.

Taylor had six key points for authors: publish OA, edit OA, review OA, advocate for OA, deprecate journal rank, talk about OA whenever you can. Every career stage has excuses not to do it and it is up to researchers to break the cycle. Meanwhile, Pöschl spoke about the importance of improving peer review and interactive OA publishing.

The final panel took the publishers’ perspective, although not from a traditional angle.

Tom Pollard from Ubiquity Press and Datacite explained that “legacy publishers” obscure research. For a developing world issue like syphilis, research ends up being funded by the national institutes of health in the USA and Canada. This is then published at obscure prices, which is unsustainable and unusable to people in the affected countries. Non-disclosure agreements prevent institutions from talking about how much they pay for access to research.

Ubiquity Press integrates university staff into its peer-review database and powers university publishing. As well as articles it also publishes data and software and tries to connect OA and Open Education Resources (OERs) by publishing open textbooks.

Penny Andrews is studying an MSc in Digital Library Management at the University of Sheffield, UK