Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fruit and frugivores

Publishers often don't seem to clearly see their real role in the world of scientific knowledge exchange, but libraries don't seem to, either. Both roles have evolved considerably in the last decade and a half.

For publishers it means that owning and selling content is now becoming a relic of the past, and only still exists because of the considerable inertia in the system. Their role is now clearly what it always was in disguise, namely a service to authors. The need for print and distribution made it perhaps inevitable to get a distorted view of the situation, and selling the carrier – paper – was easily confused with selling the content, but a publisher's real 'market' was, and is, authors. That's also – as appropriate for a 'market' – where the competition takes place. Only authors have a meaningful choice between publishers; libraries (readers) do not.

As for libraries, their role in the past has always included dealing with publishers. After all, they are in charge of the incoming collection of literature, and making sure that their constituency of readers has access to what it needs. Now that the role of publishers has become more clear, namely the role of service providers to authors (which is clearest with open access publishers), many librarians still feel the need to be involved, this time on behalf of their constituency of authors. But authors never were the library's true constituency, at least not when it comes to the authors' dealings with publishers.

So why should libraries take it upon themselves to play the intermediary between authors and publishers. Have authors asked for that? Have university administrators asked for that? Have funders asked them to take up that role? Or is it a consequence of the publishers asking libraries to support OA publishing? I suspect it is the latter. But libraries could decline. They are not in charge of research funding, so why should they be involved in paying for the necessary publication of research results, the cost of which is an integral part of doing research? It certainly isn't provided for in their collection budget.

There is of course nothing against libraries being in charge of the 'outgoing' collection – the papers written by researchers at the library's institution – as well as the incoming one. But it is my impression that a clarity of understanding of such a role is missing, particularly of the budgetary implications.

Take this blog entry in "The Scholarly Kitchen". It is fairly typical for such comments to take as read the idea that libraries pay for OA article processing charges. But logical it isn't. And any comparison between the cost of subscriptions and the cost of OA publishing is bound to be misleading, as it is, in the expression of Stevan Harnad, comparing apples with orangutans. (The analogy may be more appropriate than might first appear: fruit/frugivores – articles/researchers ['textivores'?].)

Library 'membership' of an OA publisher is a supporter-scheme for OA. A stimulus in OA's early stages. It can never be – and shouldn't be – a subscription substitute. Susan Klimley, the Serials and Electronic Resources Librarian in the Health Sciences Library at Columbia University, who is quoted in the blog post, got it right (I paraphrase): The library creating author funds to pay article processing fees helps to reinforce a fundamental disconnect between who creates, and who pays for, article publication. Setting up a pot of money is not going to solve that problem. Authors need to be more sensitized to the cost of producing information, and author publishing funds work against that aim.

Jan Velterop

Monday, November 09, 2009

Preparing for the previous war

Whilst ‘green’ OA and ‘gold’ OA may be equivalent when it comes to open access, to be frank, there is a difference in usefulness. The matter is one of practice rather than of principle. The issue is PDFs.

Gold OA almost always includes an HTML version as well as a PDF. And if anything is missing, it is the PDF. Green OA, on the other hand, more often than not offers just the PDF, and not a machine-readable HTML or XML version. Both are, of course, fine for the traditional form of knowledge intake, via the eye, by reading the articles. But they are not both suitable for computer-assisted intake, via machine-reading and text-mining. That is not easily possible, in practice, with PDFs, and not at all with bitmap PDFs (at least not without cumbersome procedures involving prints and optical character recognition, or OCR scanning).

Not having machine-readable access may not be a problem for everyone, but in disciplines where there is a growing over-abundance of new papers, traditional human reading is not an option if one wants to stay truly up-to-date. In areas such as the ‘-omics’ (genomics, proteomics, metabolomics), but not only in those, the ability to perform text-mining is of crucial importance.

There is no reason in principle that a machine-readable version of one’s paper is not deposited in one’s repository, and advocates of ‘only green OA’, ‘primarily green OA’, or ‘green OA first’, ought to encourage HTML deposits. They are readable by machine and human eye alike, and therefore vastly superior for the purpose of knowledge sharing.

OA to PDFs may be better than non-OA, and that of course remains the case. But relying on OA PDFs for knowledge sharing and dissemination is not dissimilar to ‘preparing for the previous war’.

Jan Velterop

Saturday, November 07, 2009

On OA, language barriers, and the meaning of 'ambush'

I missed the original “Open and Shut?” blog post, but reading Walt Crawford’s “Cites & Insights” for November 2009, I saw that Richard Poynder “seems to suggest that [I] have been an effective agent for ‘ambushing the OA movement’”. Ambushing? Not being a native speaker of English, I thought I’d better look up if ‘to ambush’ could have another meaning than “staging a surprise attack”, and to read Poynder’s original article. Actually, Poynder, in his post “Open Access: Whom would you back” of 10 March 2009, doesn’t just ‘suggest’ that I have been an effective agent for ambushing the OA movement, but he asserts: “Velterop began to mastermind stage two of the publisher's strategy for ambushing the OA movement: accelerating take-up of Hybrid OA in order to marginalise Green OA.” Perilously close to libel, Mister Poynder!

Poynder is entitled to his views, of course, but it would be nice if he could expound them without misrepresenting and insulting people (yes, I am offended, and an apology on his blog is appreciated!). He doesn’t do OA any favours, either, with a blog post that is teeming with inaccuraces, conjectures, and mistaken inferences, and given that, it doesn’t surprise me that he even misses the fact that BioMed Central, now Springer, actively promotes repositories (green!) and offers services to universities to install them. Fortunately for OA, there are many more people like me, who truly work on advocating OA in its wider sense, and who are not drawn into what in my view is a narrow-minded pseudo-orthodoxy that only sees green.

The idea that whatever I did or advocated with regard to accelerating gold OA was in any way an ‘attack’ on green OA (“…in order to marginalise…” even) is preposterous, and that it could be a surprise is nothing less than absurd. The surprise is more likely that anybody could see advocating OA in general and working on gold OA as an attack on green OA.

How advocating gold OA as one of the routes to OA could be an attack on green OA is a complete mystery. The original Budapest Initiative recommended two, complementary, strategies, that later came to be called ‘green’ and ‘gold’ open access by Stevan Harnad. Both were hailed as welcome strategies to achieve Open Access, and Harnad, as well as I, and all the other participants of the meeting that effectively kick-started the ‘movement’, signed the Initiative. Poynder was not on the OA scene yet. Although the Budapest Initiative spoke of ‘OA journals’, a little while later the Bethesda Statement clarified that Open Access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers. Poynder has a problem with so-called hybrid journals, but according to ‘Bethesda’, the OA articles in hybrid journals are true open access. No surprises there, no attack on the OA movement, no ambush. Just genuine, pure OA. Of articles in otherwise traditional journals.

Hybrid journals were an attempt at transiting existing journals to OA. In some cases it worked (Nuclear Acid Research), and in other cases not (yet). I would be the last to deny that the hybrid model is problematic. Because it gives a choice to authors, it cannot impose either the traditional model or the OA publishing model. And because of the widespread, but naïve, perception that a journal’s subscription price is, or should be, proportional to the number of papers published, it is not understood and sometimes severely criticised. Publishers, therefore, have good reason to dislike the hybrid model as well. They will, I suspect, move in the direction of full OA (what might be called the “pay-or-go-away” or “POGA” model), or revert back to subscriptions/licences (the “licence-sphere”, or “L-sphere” model).

Poynder brings up the affordability issue. And he complains about the level of article charges. That’s to the point, and fair comment. But it seemingly hasn’t dawned upon him that gold OA is open to competition, and these charges are bound to converge on a level that reflects this competition. Green OA, on the other hand, relies on the L-sphere, with its monopoloid characteristics, remaining intact for the foreseeable future. Dismissing the role of gold OA publishers in moving OA forward, because they see it as a business opportunity, is deeply misguided. It is like dismissing companies for making equipment to generate clean energy and reduce CO2 emissions on the grounds that they may benefit from doing that. Or venting the opinion that what these companies do is bad, because there might be even better techniques. Quite absurd.

Poynder seems to have it in for publishers, any publishers, be they OA publishers or not, and sees any differences between OA publishers and traditional subscription publishers as “a figment of OA advocates' imagination.” As one of the early OA advocates, I couldn’t disagree more. Besides, if OA is about publisher bashing and money only, then it’s bound to fail. Sure, a more economical system may be a desirable side effect of OA, but can’t be the core aim of it all. The mistake Poynder (and, I’m afraid, his guru Harnad) make(s) is to see so-called ‘green OA’ – seemingly not even OA as such ­– as an end in itself. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. The ultimate goal is to universally share (scientific and scholarly) knowledge, in what I call the noösphere (a term taken from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin), a ‘knowledge-sphere’ around the world that everyone can ‘inhale’. And OA is just one of the methods to share knowledge. Any OA. Including gold OA, and even ‘delayed OA’ (after all, ignoring the value of opening up older knowledge is devaluing older knowledge). Is delayed OA ideal? No, of course not. But OA itself is not ideal and is no more – or less – than one of the first steps to be taken to come to true knowledge sharing, to a true noösphere. OA is mostly about sharing documents, often enough just in PDF format. Access to documents is great, but it still leaves formidable barriers to knowledge sharing intact. One of the examples I have in mind is the language barrier.

English may be the lingua franca of scholarly exchange; the notion that there is no unique scientific knowledge available in other languages is absurd. And even the notion that if it is available in English its true availability is universal is a wholly unrealistic one.

But it’s not just the barrier put up by different languages. Even between native speakers of English a lot of knowledge that is published and openly available in English is nonetheless lost. Lost in ambiguity. Researchers are famously (infamously?) sloppy with their language. And publishers, although they sometimes ameliorate the worst excesses, do not, on the whole, seem to set a lot of store by disambiguation of scientific literature. OA publishers are no better than traditional ones in that regard.

Open Access is a most significant element in getting to a global noösphere, and although it’s clearly not the only element, all efforts to promote OA, in any form, help. Unlike dismissing gold OA, which doesn’t.

Jan Velterop