Industry tackles polarisation in access debate

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At the ALPSP annual conference in September Fred Dylla of American Institute of Physics revealed how a new group from across the industry is seeking to find common ground in the open access stand-off, writes Siân Harris

Discussions about open access (OA) to scholarly information tend to be characterised by disagreement. Subscription publishers might argue against OA being a viable business model, while commercial OA publishers would disagree. Publishers are experimenting with different approaches, to varying degrees of success.

Some researchers argue that the best solution for providing access to everyone is to self archive, although they may not agree on the best place to do this archiving. Other researchers baulk at yet another task that is taking time away from their research, while some traditional publishers worry about the impacts on their businesses and issues such as embargo periods and version control.

Then there is the question of whether researchers have a problem with information access or know about the issues involved, and how much the public is entitled to access to scientific research – and whether people want it.

Into this complicated discussion, industry associations release position statements – and others release counter position statements – and funding bodies and governments make policies and announce mandates that are sometimes then disputed in court. Industry expert Mary Waltham has described the debates as ‘generating more heat than light’.

Fred Dylla, executive director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics, agrees: ‘I’ve been dismayed in the three years I’ve been in this business about the rancour I’ve seen on the “far left” and the “far right” in the open-access debate,’ he told delegates at the ALPSP annual conference held in Oxford in September. ‘Both parties need to support each other.’

After all, the different parties agree on the value of research and in communicating quality-assured research results. And there are some promising signs that the situation is changing, as Dylla observed. In May 2009, the International Publishers Association, STM and IFLA released a statement calling for a more rational, evidence-based debate on open access.

Another example is the PEER project, which is investigating the effects of the large-scale, systematic depositing of authors’ final peer-reviewed manuscripts on reader access, author visibility, journal viability, and European research. Meanwhile, in the USA, the Chicago Collaborative is promoting open communication and education among the primary stakeholders in the scholarly scientific communication area.

Dylla has been involved in another example of a project to try to find common ground on the subject of access – the US House Science and Technology Committee Roundtable on public access, which quietly began meeting over the summer. The lack of publicity was aimed at avoiding the political pressure that usually characterises such discussions.

Although this group was facilitated by the US government, policy makers have not been involved in the discussions and they did not set any agenda or goals. ‘It’s the academic community arguing with itself and so it shouldn’t have government interference,’ pointed out Dylla. “Government acted as a facilitator then withdrew and will listen to our recommendations.”

The group includes representatives from across the industry – publishers, the academic community and libraries – and the many different viewpoints on open access are represented. The people involved have to come to the discussions as ‘knowledgeable individuals’ rather than as employees of their parent companies.

‘We hope to come up with recommendations that should satisfy the middle ground. We are still deliberating but the first part of the activity has been a success,’ reported Dylla. ‘We sat down and examined our differences – and the common ground.’

Publishing is important to research

From these initial discussions the group agreed that economic pressures are stressing all sectors, and that scholarly publications are too important for scholarship to allow disruptive and unsuitable transitions in business models. It also agreed that polarisation in the debate has generated more pronouncements than documented evidence.

‘The consensus is that the publishing industry will evolve rapidly in the next five years and that predictions are unreliable,’ he said, adding that changes made to reach the goal of expanded access, interoperability and reuse should be incremental and based on a “do no harm” principle.

The group feels that governments should act as partners and facilitators, but not tell the industry what to do. ‘Government mandates tend to be one size fits all. This doesn’t work. Weekly journals are not the same as quarterlies. Science journals are very different from humanities,’ explained Dylla.

Other goals that Dylla highlighted for the industry include establishing metadata standards across the industry, which will help with reuse, and experiments into various OA approaches. Maintaining links to the versions of record is very important too, according to the group, which commended the work of CrossRef with its new CrossMark tool.

The group hopes that constructive dialogue will ‘re-establish the social compact’. After all, as Dylla pointed out, ‘What we do for the scholarly world is too important to jeopardise.’