Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Access matters?

A question mark? Strange perhaps, to put a question mark in the title. When I posed the question at the recent RIN/DTI/RCUK scholarly journal workshop in London, a possibly stranger thing was that the resounding 'yes' that I expected didn't come. Instead, all that Richard Charkin (of Macmillan, Nature), who chaired the meeting, could come up with was "You've got us [the panel] stumped."

That being so, it is still a valid question. If we don't understand to whom access matters and why, we are not likely to achieve much. I can see two levels on which the question applies: one practical and one principle.

On a practical level, self-evidently, access matters to users. No access, no users, after all. But does it matter to authors, librarians, publishers, funders? If so, why? If not, why not? The question is also important. It is not users who are in a position to drive OA. Authors, librarians, funders, and perhaps publishers are.

Users find access important. Do authors, too? Although they are also users and thus part of the user community, I'm not sure. They should find it important, given that exposure of their articles is a prerequisite for being cited, which is the 'currency' that 'buys' them their future career and funding prospects. Various studies demonstrate that open access (i.e. increased - even vastly increased - access) enhances this exposure and results in increased citations. But do they care? Do they even think about access to their articles? It wouldn't be the first time that people react differently depending on the hat they're wearing at the minute. Some authors clearly do care, but it does appear to be a small minority growing only ever so slowly. Could it be that access and citations to their articles are being seen as a given, an environmental factor that's just there, like the weather, and just as impossible to influence? Or are the enhanced exposure and increased citation levels of OA regarded as no more than 'promise-ware', delayed gratification at best, in the 'am I bovvered?' category?

And librarians? I'm not sure they all find it important, either. The overriding concern that I hear seems to be about their budgets, not about access. In fact, I've even heard the argument that "less usage should mean lower bills." (Without the corollary, of course, that in such a model, increased usage would justify increased bills.) If one wants to go there, usage should logically be discouraged. Hardly the direction open access advocates will have in mind.

What about funders? They should have the strongest incentives and face the lowest hurdles. They spend money on research for the benefit of progress of scientific insight and, subsequently, of society as a whole. The widest possible access to the results of research they have funded, naturally matters to them. They don't even have to worry about cost. They pay for the traditional model of publishing, via the institutional overheads that are taken off every research grant, and earmarking a portion of those overheads for the purpose of providing open access to the peer-reviewed and formally published articles resulting from research they fund seems a no-brainer. Even 'prisoner-dilemmatoid' issues to do with a redistribution of costs that individual institutions worry about, shouldn't present a big problem for them, detached as they usually are from any given institution. They can afford the 'helicopter-view' – or if they prefer hot air over noise, the hot-air-balloon-view.

Where do publishers stand in this? There is a strand in OA-land that holds that the provision of open access has nothing to do with publishers: the self-archiving strand. They are right in some ways. Researchers can of course publish and self-archive to their hearts' content when it concerns so-called pre-prints (which doesn't mean pre-prints at all, but more something like pre-formal-publications). As soon as they involve publishers, by submitting their article for peer-review and formal publication – in order to make the article worth something for their careers and future funding prospects, for instance – the publishers are, well, involved. In a 'publish-or-perish' environment, this involvement is the difference between published and not published. Even though a 'pre-print' is published as soon as it is posted in a repository, in usual academic parlance – in the eyes of tenure committees, for instance – 'published' means 'formally published in a peer-reviewed journal'. The idea that publishers aren't involved at that stage, and therefore no party to the discussion, is nonsense.

Open access through self-archiving presents a dilemma for publishers. They fear for erosion of subscriptions. One of the self-archivers' responses usually is that there clearly isn't any issue because the vast majority of publishers allow self-archiving of the 'post-print' (another one of those strange words). They seem to be right, because indeed, most publishers do. They feel they ought to, as a gesture towards authors. But the way they usually phrase it – something like "authors are allowed to post the published article on their personal home page" – betrays that it is not exactly their intention to provide open access to the formally published literature in this way. The fact that a 'personal home page' or a public server makes no difference in a web environment is beside the point. They phrase it the way they do in order to try and keep a modicum of control. Because control is part and parcel of a subscription model.

Most open access advocates (moi incluis – mea culpa) have initially counted on authors to want open access. Elaborate arguments, some stronger than others, but clearly none of them 'killer-arguments', have been developed to present the benefits of open access to authors. From the hitherto slow and low uptake, it seems that most publishers, betting on the fact that authors probably can't be bothered, may have been right, at least so far. That's why the focus of open accessors is now on mandates.

Mandates express the funders' interest and may indeed accelerate the process. Ironically, to publishers, access only matters in a subscription model. In a 'payment for publishing services' model, access is irrelevant for income and can therefore be completely open. Publishers understand this and they are already offering more and more hybrid models, although until now few offer the open access choice for all their journal titles like Springer does, but this can be expected to continue to grow. At one point some will be in a position to make their journals OA-only, which entails being able to reject any articles that do not come with payment for the service of open access formal publication, much like OA-born journals like the PLoS and BMC ones do. Publishers have to concentrate on getting paid for the actual services they render. In the subscription model they get paid with copyright or exclusive distribution rights that authors transfer to them. In the article processing fee model they get paid with plain cash. Provision of access is becoming a very minor aspect in such a service model, as anybody can take the articles and run with them. Open access publishers differ from traditional publishers not because they 'provide' open access – what both provide is formal publication. They differ in that they do not rely on controlling access to secure their income.

On a principle level, access matters because knowledge generated with public funds is meant to be public. It certainly is by public funders. Why else would they spend the money on research if not for the common good? And isn’t the common good best served by the maximum possible access to the results and interpretations of that research? The access provided in the traditional subscription system is just not satisfactory, because it doesn’t ensure that anyone has it. The natural access limitations that come with subscriptions are a vestige of the print-on-paper past. Now that the means exist to achieve maximum access – the internet – it becomes an imperative. If a common disease hitherto could be kept in check by lifelong taking of medicines, that may have been a burden, but there was no alternative. If the same disease could now be completely, securely and quickly cured, and the average cost per patient of the cure would be the same as the average cost per patient of providing lifelong disease management, would we spend years discussing the price of the cure rather than go for it and deal with issues of cost later? Hard to imagine. And yet it seems that we are in precisely such a discussion with regard to open access.

We need the consensus that open access, in principle, is a good thing, and then focus our energies on finding ways to make it systemic and sustainable. Not on fudges.

Jan Velterop

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