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Making the potential actual

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Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe discusses the finer points of putting policy into practice

Any attempt to provide an overview of the current open research landscape will be woefully outdated in short order in this era of significant experimentation with pathways for implementing open research policy. The kairos is one of potentiality and possibility for achieving the open research agenda.
 
Yet, at the same time, there are voices despairing of the passing time, relative to progress, and the harsh realities of the forces pushing against carving out protections for public goods in systems that tend towards private enclosure. What this reflects, I think, is the reality of the challenges of moving policy into practice.

Policy making

Open research policy has reached relatively strong convergence on the vision. One rarely hears any arguments against ideas such as open access publishing and open data per se.
There is broad consensus that open research ‘should be’ the way of the world. In addition, open research policy objectives are relatively consistently and clearly articulated. Plan S is a quintessential example of this convergence and clarity; there is little doubt about what cOAlition S wishes to achieve. Though, of course, one expects policy to be further developed and specified through the process of implementation.
 
But, what of the other components of putting policy into practice? Considerations related to authority for policy implementation, relationships among system actors, systems for communication and monitoring, and access to necessary resources give us insight into the range of challenges in delivering the open research agenda. 

Implementation challenges

In many ways, there is no shortage of actors in this policy arena. Universities/colleges, research institutes, libraries, publishers, funders, governments, quasi-governmental agencies, scholarly societies, scholars/researchers, students, and the public at large are all stakeholders in open research with varying degrees of influence and control over components of the system. But, identifying the organisations with authority in the system – particular those with sufficient authority to compel policy adherence – is rather more difficult.
 
Those who might have the authority to compel compliance through various rewards or punishments are reluctant, when doing so would be orthogonal to the other interests that they have. The result has been an intense period of developing coalitions, consortia, partnerships and so on, in an attempt to align interests and activities; however, developing this network of alliances requires intensive effort and continual cultivation of commitment to maintain the alignment.
 
The subscribe-to-open model being pursued by Annual Reviews and the library membership programme of the Open Library of the Humanities stand out as successful examples of this alliance development, but other attempts, such as the proposed Library+Funder model for flipping anthropology journals to open access, have stumbled.  
 
Communication of open research policy is facilitated by the clarity of goals and objectives but hindered by the multiplicity of players and lack of clear authority for policy implementation. 
 
This is brought into stark relief by recent reports that, even when open access publishing is a default option in a publishing agreement, and is available at no charge to the authors themselves, some authors – and sometimes a significant percentage of authors – are choosing to publish closed. 
 
Given studies show that authors are generally supportive of open access publishing, but do not want to be responsible for paying for it, a reasonable hypothesis is that communication to authors about the funding practices for open access publishing is failing to achieve the understandings that it seeks among scholars. 
 
Studies of compliance with open research mandates reveal challenges as well. Without compliance monitoring it is impossible for policy makers to know whether policy has been implemented effectively, or if adjustments to the policy mechanisms are needed in order to achieve the policy objectives. 
 
As just one example, the US Government Accounting Office recently reported that the majority of agencies reviewed do not have compliance measures fully developed, or implemented measures to ensure adherence to public access requirements. 
 
In addition, those who articulate mandates do not always provide sufficient detail on compliance requirements to provide certainty for authors who are seeking to comply. The value of clarity can be seen in the Plan S commitment to work with DOAJ, OpenDOAR, and others to indicate which journals, platforms, etc are compliant with the cOAlition’s requirements. In general, compliance increases with clarity of what counts as compliant. 
 
Finally, it must be noted that, for authors less inclined to the efforts that may be required to comply, limited – or even no – monitoring, much less enforcement, means the risks of non-compliance are low, or even non-existent. 

Improving Implementation

In spite of the challenges of implementation, great strides have been made in open research. A significant proportion of the scholarly journal literature is open access, open data practices are expanding, open peer review is gaining traction, and so on. Improving the administration and management of the open research policy will help continue this momentum and avert a plateau or backsliding. 
 
Even the cursory discussion above makes clear that there is tremendous opportunity to improve open research policy implementation through monitoring. It is striking in many ways that so many resources have been expended to developing policies and alliances, without parallel investment in infrastructures for making certain that the policies are resulting in changed practice. 
 
This is, of course, not unusual with respect to policy implementation but it is also a well-known phenomenon, and the open research community would do well to draw on the scholarship that documents best practices in policy administration. What matters in policy implementation is what does work, not what people hope will work or believe should work. Turning our collective attention to rigorous and outcomes-oriented assessments of policy approaches offers the opportunity to improve implementation, while also clarifying and perhaps simplifying the policies themselves.
 
We’ve agreed that delivering the open research agenda is a vision worth working toward. Now it is time to assess what works and abandon practices that, though ideologically sound, do not.
 
Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is a professor for information literacy services and instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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