Tensions and consensus characterise OA reality

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Alastair Horne reports back from open-access discussions at the UKSG One-Day Conference in November 

Open access (OA) has now passed a tipping point, according to Damian Pattinson, editorial director of the OA journal PLOS ONE and opening speaker at November’s 2013 UKSG One-Day Conference in London. With nearly 9,000 peer-reviewed OA journals already in existence, and more than 1,000 new titles starting up each year, his suggestion seemed persuasive.

This sense of a movement whose time had come was reinforced by Adam Tickell, provost and vice principal at the UK’s University of Birmingham when he suggested that a broad consensus had now been reached on the value of OA. Key amongst its benefits, he said, are increased visibility for research and enhanced public engagement. He also observed that broad consensus has been reached on the ‘mixed economy’ of gold and green OA, and subscription models.

A slightly different tone was struck by Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network. Previewing a report that was published the following day reviewing progress in the year since the publication of the Finch report in the UK, he drew attention to some of the tensions in the OA consensus.

Jubb reminded his audience that the original Finch report had endeavoured to draw a line of ‘best fit’ between the interests of a variety of players, and between the divergent aims of access, sustainability, and excellence. Keeping all parties on board and talking to each other has often been a challenge. He observed that, although the UK government had accepted the report’s recommendations – after two parliamentary enquiries – the pace of progress since publication had been challenging to some, and insufficient for others.

Moreover, Jubb pointed out, the complexities of implementing OA stretched beyond a single country. In striving to increase both access to UK-authored research worldwide and UK access to global articles, decisions elsewhere in the world have major implications. If the UK moved too far ahead of the rest of the world in implementing OA, it would bear a disproportionate share of the costs.

By far the most striking of the tensions to be seen at the conference was between publishers and the other players in the scholarly communications sector. Lars Bjørn‎shauge, director of SPARC Europe, and managing director of the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), suggested that the hybrid OA model might be concealing ‘double-dipping’ by publishers who take money from both authors and readers; while Jill Russell, digital assets programme manager at the University of Birmingham, suggested certain publishers were playing ‘semantic games’ over whether OA was or wasn’t mandated. The publisher-led proposal to offer walk-in access in UK public libraries to a majority of journals was also dismissed as ‘lip-service’, an experiment intended to fail in order to show that there was ‘no demand’ for wider access.

It was mostly left to Vicky Gardner, open access publisher at Taylor & Francis, to put the case for publishers. Highlighting some of the company’s experiments in OA – most notably its new OA division, Cogent, which publishes megajournals that complement its existing activities – she pointed out that conversion to gold OA would leave many journals unsustainable due to back-office overheads and processing costs for rejected articles.

She also questioned whether OA was truly a grass-roots movement, saying that Taylor & Francis received hundreds of phone calls daily from authors wanting to know what OA would mean for them.

A further tension could be found in the library sector, according to Bjørn‎shauge. Libraries, he reminded the audience, had always been about increasing access to knowledge, and so should be natural proponents of OA. Despite this, the library community, he suggested, found itself divided between OA advocates and licensing managers who have continued with ‘business as usual’. The latter, he said, take the form of ‘strait-jacket’ publisher licensing deals that package titles into massive bundles and thus turn libraries into mere renting agencies focused on preventing unauthorised users from accessing content.

Since supporting OA is putting further strain on library budgets already stretched by such deals, libraries should therefore, Bjørn‎shauge proposed, economise by centralising the systems for monitoring access and usage that are currently duplicated at every university.

Creating open resources

Steven Stapleton, project manager at the University of Nottingham, UK, offered the meeting some insights drawn from that university’s long-running project to create and publish open educational resources in order to support its social responsibility agenda, and to promote both the university and its staff. Launched in 2007 with funding from HEA and JISC, the project has expanded to include a search engine for online open education resources, with more than 70 per cent of university’s departments contributing resources published on Apple’s iBooks and iTunesU platforms, and on YouTube.

Caroline Edwards, lecturer in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck also shared some positive experiences of working with OA materials. She is co-founder and co-director of the new mega-journal the Open Library of the Humanities (OLH) and her presentation explored how the DIY ethos found in hacker culture might help create a financially-viable OA model for researchers in areas where free access is not deemed quite so important since ‘lives aren’t at stake’.

Article processing charges (APCs) can prove prohibitive to humanities researchers so OLH takes a different approach. Its business model, as she explained, is based around a combination of advertising revenue, open tools, labour offered for free by those who can afford to do so, and consortia deals similar to those currently being explored by Knowledge Unlatched (with whom the OLH is working). With three prestigious university presses also involved, and seed funding acquired for the next twelve months, the Open Library of the Humanities project should be worth keeping an eye on.