Friday, March 14, 2008

Onwards from open access

As many of my readers will already know, I have recently decided to leave my position of Director of Open Access at Springer for that of CEO of Knewco Inc. Several reactions that I have since received indicate to me that my move is not necessarily understood by everyone, and I’ve even seen speculations that my leaving open access might mean that it is not going anywhere at Springer.

Let me say the following to that. First of all, OA has developed some very solid roots within Springer and I am most confident that OA is being further developed with alacrity by my successors at Springer.

Secondly, I don’t feel that I am leaving open access. Open access is not some club that one is a member of or not; it is a 'thought form' that one adheres to. And open access is only one of the ways in which the speed, efficiency and quality of scientific discovery can be enhanced.

Looking back on my career, I feel that my motives haven’t changed much. When I was working on IDEAL/APPEAL* (at Academic Press) in 1994-95 and later, I did this on the premise that there must be better ways to disseminate the research papers published in journals than just via relatively small numbers of subscriptions. The IDEAL concept (derided at first, but then imitated by just about all publishers, and often nicknamed BigDeal) was brought about by the realisation that if access to electronic journal articles could be pooled by larger numbers of institutions, then for the same publisher’s income – the same cost therefore to the academic community – the articles would be accessible to vastly more researchers. If ever the cliché
win-win was appropriate, it was here.

Open access logically follows on from that. The challenge was – still is – to find appropriate economic models to sustain professional scientific publishing with open access. The recently agreed arrangements between Springer and the Max Planck Gesellschaft, the UKB (all the Dutch universities plus the Royal Library), and Göttingen University, may point to a way forward. All articles from these institutions in Springer journals are published with open access under these arrangements.

If the underlying motive is, however, to get the most out of the scientific knowledge that has been gathered, which it is in my case, then moving on from open access to the semantic web – the concept web, if you wish – feels, at least to me, an entirely logical step. Not all knowledge after all is captured in journal articles. There is much more besides those, in databases, for instance, and in less formal web conversations. (A case can even be made that journal publishing ‘destroys’ data, for instance by reducing them to simple pixels in graphs, taking away the underlying richness of the data). Also, the connections between knowledge fragments are not always easily made purely by reading journal articles, in may areas a problem exacerbated by the sheer numbers of articles published. And all relevant. We are in a situation of overwhelming – and growing – abundance of scientific information, and methods that deal with that abundance are clearly needed. This is what Knewco people are working on, and I am very excited to join them.

Jan Velterop

*IDEAL: International Desktop Electronic Access Library – APPEAL: Academic Press Print and Electronic Access Licence

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Charity and recycled paper

I don't think that assertions such as "...not all OA journals charge anything from either authors or readers..." or even "...the majority of OA journals do not charge anybody..." are very helpful for achieving widespread open access. One does come across them regularly, though. It seems more to do with the desire not to spend anything, or rather, to see that if any money is to be spent, it's done by 'someone else'. They may be mathematically correct, though.

The trouble is, 'journal' is in many respects the wrong entity in this regard. It may be a convenient one, but that doesn't make it right. Journals come in all different sizes. They range from publishing a few articles a year to publishing thousands. The variability is such, and the tail of minuscule journals so long, that I wouldn't even be surprised if it turns out that the smallest 50% of journals altogether represent less than 10% of articles published (I didn't do the calculation, but that's my sense).

I wonder, therefore, if the assertions above hold up if one looks at modal journals (i.e. journals with a modal number of peer-reviewed articles published per year; or perhaps journals with a modal impact factor).

Even if that should be the case, there is another issue. A while ago, I publicly pondered the question whether any of the non-charging OA journals (the ones that charge neither author nor reader) would be acceptable venues for articles that are the subject of funder mandates, such as the NIH or the Wellcome Trust. Not too many, I suspect. So far, I've heard or seen no answers to that question.

The non-charging OA journals are likely to operate on the fringe of scientific and scholarly publishing, and although they no-doubt have their function in the landscape, drawing this kind of attention to them at best takes away the focus from the mainstay of the academic peer-reviewed literature, and at worst, destroys these small journals, as there would be no way of coping with a flood of submissions without charging anyone.

It is relatively easy to sustain small fringe journals (some of them may be of very high quality, of course, though those are likely to cater to very small communities) on what the Dutch would call "charity and recycled paper" (liefdewerk oud papier). That's not scalable to the peer-review literature as a whole. Open access deserves to be taken more seriously.

Jan Velterop