Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Open Access Interviews: Sir Timothy Gowers, Mathematician

As the use of green open access policies looks increasingly like a failed strategy, and as universities, research funders, and governments in Europe seek to engineer a mass “flipping” of subscription journals to gold OA, has the open access movement reached a watershed moment? 

If so, how will it develop from here, is it headed in the right direction, and who should be leading the way

One remarkable thing about the OA movement is that it has primarily been driven by people other than researchers.

The President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, José van Dijck drew attention to this recently when she pointed out that the debate about open access has been mostly about what university administrators, librarians, government, funding organizations and publishers think, not what researchers think, or need. 

Yet it is researchers who create, quality check, and consume the papers that make up scholarly journals. They are the originators of, and primary audience for, the literature, so should they not have a large say in how scholarly communication develops?

As the financial consequences of gold OA become apparent, and as researchers are confronted with ever more onerous bureaucratic rules (policies) requiring them to make their work OA, however, this is likely to change. Certainly we can see researchers beginning to take more of an interest in the topic, and the signs are that they are not at all happy with the mess and confusion created by the OA movement.

Might we, therefore, see researchers become the foot soldiers of the next battle in the revolution the OA movement began? And might they want to do things somewhat differently?

If so, given his credentials who could claim to be better qualified to lead the troops over the top than Sir Timothy Gowers? 

Read the Q&A in the linked pdf and see if you agree. The interview is prefaced with an introduction.

To download the text click here.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Michał Starczewski interviews Richard Poynder for the Otwarta Nauka site

I was asked recently by open science advocate and historian Michał Starczewski if I would do a Q&A on open access for the Otwarta Nauka site based at the University of Warsaw. 

Below are the first two questions and answers. The full interview can be accessed here

It is also available in Polish here.

Image result for otwartanauka

Michał Starczewski: Do you think that openness is already a new standard in the world of scholarly communication, or is it still an ongoing experiment?

Richard Poynder
: Well, openness is certainly fast becoming a new standard in scholarly communication. What we don’t yet know, however, is exactly what openness means (or should mean) in this context, and exactly what processes and outputs it should apply to (and to what degree). We also don’t know who should best fund it, provide it, and manage it.

The OA movement is more than 20 years old. What surprised you most during this period?

What has surprised me most is the OA movement’s lack of organisation, or clear strategy on how to make OA a reality. As a consequence, we are now some 15 years away from the Budapest Open Access Initiative (where the term open access was adopted), and much still has to be achieved, not least clarifying the issues listed in my last answer. Apart from anything else, we still have no conclusive definition of open access. Given this, it is no surprise that there is a great deal of confusion about open access.

I think there are two main reasons for the failure of the OA movement to take a more structured approach. First, the research community is not actually very good at organising itself, particularly on a global scale. And it doesn’t help that researchers are increasingly incentivised to compete more than co-operate with one another.

Second, OA advocates have tended to approach open access more as if it were a religion than a pragmatic response to the possibilities the network provides to improve both the research process and scholarly communication (which should surely be the ultimate goal of open access).

These two factors have generated unhealthy schisms and disputes within the movement, with advocates spending too much time arguing over doctrine. 

We have also seen OA advocates become addicted to cheerleading and the shouting of slogans, which has deflected them from devoting sufficient time to developing practical strategies and tools to achieve open access. The assumption was that all that was required was to “convert” colleagues. When the movement failed to do that it began lobbying funders and institutions demanding that researchers be compelled to embrace OA, essentially they sought to offload the responsibility onto others.

It also has to be said that the strategies proposed and/or supported by OA advocates have often been cockeyed — not least the concept of the article-processing charge (APC). That anyone ever thought pay-to-publish was a sensible way of disseminating research is most odd. Not only is it impractical, but it has played into the hands of profit-hungry legacy publishers, and indeed any fly-by-night cowboy able to create a web site

I have also been surprised at how disconnected OA advocates are from the views of the wider research community — a tendency exacerbated by their habit of gathering together in their echo chamber of choice (conference hall, social media etc.) where their beliefs, prejudices and misconceptions are reinforced rather than subjected to a reality check. 

The recent Berlin 12 meeting suggests that this ghettoisation is increasing. As the meeting was entirely focused on “flipping” subscription journals to OA models it was “by invitation only” and the organisers chose not to invite any prominent green OA advocates, presumably to avoid any dissenting voices questioning the premise of the plan (although we cannot state this as a fact since the delegate list was secret).

All of which is to say that I have been surprised at how open access has been treated as a “cause” rather than a solution. And despite what OA advocates like to claim, the movement is not by nature democratic, but evangelical.

The French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. OA advocates have sought to persuade colleagues by appealing to their hearts rather than their reason. 

While this approach may make sense in the context of deciding whether to believe in God (aka Pascal’s Wager), it is not very helpful when trying to persuade people of the need to change the way that research is disseminated. 

And it is my belief that this approach has not only slowed progress but is allowing legacy publishers to co-opt the movement for their own ends ...

The full interview (11 questions and answers) can be read on the Otwarta Nauka site here.

It is also available in Polish here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Why I won’t be doing that video interview about open access

Recently I was contacted by Library Journal (LJ) in connection with a series of video interviews it is conducting with open access “VIP’s and leaders”. The first interview – with the Director of Harvard University’s Office for Scholarly Communication Peter Suber – has already been published. Would I have some time to do an interview myself, I was asked? The project is for a new section of LJ’s web site sponsored by the open access publisher Dove Press.

I liked the idea of doing a video interview but I was instinctively shy of being associated with a project that has a large Dove Press banner on the top right hand corner proclaiming it to be the “exclusive sponsor” of the site, along with a list of featured articles with “Sponsored by Dove Medical Press” in prominent red ink strapped across the top of each one. I felt that taking part would amount to endorsing Dove Press, which for reasons I will explain below I did not want to do.

I emailed LJ back to say I was not comfortable with doing an interview for a site sponsored by Dove Press, and asked whether it would consider posting any such video elsewhere on the LJ site. Strangely, I received no reply to this. As I was now intrigued as to how this site had come about, who had suggested the idea, and what its purpose was I also emailed LJ’s Managing Editor. To this too I received no reply.

So what are my reservations about being associated with Dove Press? There are a number of issues here, including a discomfort with the publisher’s marketing and PR activities, a concern with its editorial processes, some puzzlement over its lack of transparency, and a suspicion that its commitment to open access is not as deep as I would like.

Let’s be clear, while some have accused Dove Press of being a “predatory” publisher, I am making no such claim here. Nor could I, since I don’t have sufficient information to make a judgement either way. I am just stating the reasons why I personally do not want to be associated with the company.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The OA Interviews: Kamila Markram, CEO and Co-Founder of Frontiers

Based in Switzerland, the open access publisher Frontiers was founded in 2007 by Kamila and Henry Markram, who are both neuroscientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Henry Markram is also director of the Human Brain Project.
Kamila Markram
A researcher-led initiative envisaged as being “by scientists, for scientists” the mission of Frontiers was to create a “community-oriented open access scholarly publisher and social networking platform for researchers.”

To this end, Frontiers has been innovative in a number of ways, most notably with its “collaborative peer review process”. This abjures the traditional hierarchical approach to editorial decisions in favour of reaching “consensual” outcomes. In addition, papers are judged in an “impact-neutral” way: while expected to meet an objective threshold before being publicly validated as a correct scientific contribution, their significance and impact are not assessed.

Frontiers has also experimented with a variety of novel publication formats, created Loop – a “research network” intended to foster and support open science – and pioneered altmetrics before the term had been coined.

Two other important components of the Frontiers’ concept were that it would operate on a non-profit basis (via the Frontiers Research Foundation), and that while it would initially levy article-processing charges (APCs) for publishing papers, this would subsequently be replaced by a sponsored funding model.

This latter goal has yet to be realised. “We dreamed of a zero-cost model, which was probably too idealistic and it was obviously not possible to start that way”, says Kamila Markram below.

Frontiers also quickly concluded that its non-profit status would not allow it to achieve its goals. “We realised early on that we would need more funds to make the vision sustainable and it would not be possible to secure these funds through purely philanthropic means,” explains Markram.

Consequently, in 2008 Frontiers reinvented itself as a for-profit publisher called Frontiers Media SA. It also began looking for additional sources of revenue, including patent royalties – seeking, for instance, to patent its peer review process by means of a controversial business method patent.

The patent strategy was also short-lived. “We abandoned the patent application by not taking any action by the specific deadline given by the patent office and deliberately let it die,” says Markram, adding, “we soon realised that it is far better just to keep innovating than waste one’s time on a patent.” (Henry Markram nevertheless remains an active patent applicant).

By the time the peer review patent had died it was in any case apparent that Frontiers’ pay-to-publish model was working well. In fact, business was booming, and to date Frontiers has published around 41,000 papers by 120,000 authors. It has also recruited 59,000 editors, and currently publishes 54 journals. By 2011 the company had turned “cash positive” (five years after it was founded).

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The OA Interviews: Mikhail Sergeev, Chief Strategy Officer at Russia-based CyberLeninka

Пока рак на горе не свистнет, мужик не перекрестится

Mikhail Sergeev

While open access was not conceivable until the emergence of the Internet (and thus could be viewed as just a natural development of the network) the “OA movement” primarily grew out of a conviction that scholarly publishers have been exploiting the research community, not least by constantly increasing journal subscriptions. It was for this reason that the movement was initially driven by librarians.

OA advocates reasoned that while the research community freely contributes the content in scholarly journals, and freely peer reviews that content, publishers then sell it back to research institutions at ever more extortionate prices, at levels in fact that have made it increasingly difficult for research institutions to provide faculty members with access to all the research they need to do their jobs.

What was required, it was concluded, was for subscription paywalls to be dismantled so that anyone can access all the research they need — i.e. open access. In the process, argued OA advocates, the ability of publishers to overcharge would be removed, and the cost of scholarly publishing would come down accordingly.

But while the movement has persuaded many governments, funders and research institutions that open access is both inevitable and optimal, and should therefore increasingly be made compulsory, publishers have shown themselves to be extremely adept at appropriating OA for their own ends, not least by simply swapping subscription fees for article-processing charges (APCs) without realising any savings for the research community.

This is all too evident in Europe right now. In the UK, for instance, government policy is enabling legacy publishers to migrate to an open access environment with their high profits intact. Indeed, not only are costs not coming down but — as subscription publishers introduce hybrid OA options that enable them to earn both APCs and subscriptions from the same journals (i.e. to “double-dip”) — they are increasing.

Meanwhile, in The Netherlands universities are signing new-style Big Deals that combine both subscription and OA fees. While these are intended to manage the transition to OA in a cost-efficient way, publishers are clearly ensuring that they experience no loss of revenue as a result (although we cannot state that as a fact since the contracts are subject to non-disclosure clauses).

More recently, the German funder Max Planck has begun a campaign intended to engineer a mass “flipping” of legacy journals to OA business models. Again, we can be confident that publishers will not co-operate with any such plan unless they are able to retain their current profit levels.  

It is no surprise, therefore, that many OA advocates have become concerned that the OA project has gone awry.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The OA Interviews: Toma Susi, physicist, University of Vienna

Since the birth of the open access movement in 2002, demands for greater openness and transparency in the research process have both grown and broadened. 

Today there are calls not just for OA to research papers, but (amongst other things) to the underlying data, to peer review reports, and to lab notebooks. We have also seen a new term emerge to encompass these different trends: open science.
Toma Susi

In response to these developments, earlier this year the Research Ideas & Outcomes (RIO) Journal was launched. 

RIO’s mission is to open up the entire research cycle — by publishing project proposals, data, methods, workflows, software, project reports and research articles. These will all be made freely available on a single collaborative platform. 

And to complete the picture, RIO uses a transparent, open and public peer-review process. The goal: to “catalyse change in research communication by publishing ideas, proposals and outcomes in order to increase transparency, trust and efficiency of the whole research ecosystem.”

Importantly, RIO is not intended for scientists alone. It is seeking content from all areas of academic research, including science, technology, humanities and the social sciences.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first grant proposal made openly available on RIO (on 17th December) was published by a physicist — Finnish-born Toma Susi, who is based at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Susi’s proposal — which has already received funding from the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) — is for a project called “Heteroatom quantum corrals and nanoplasmonics in graphene” (HeQuCoG). This is focused on the controlled manipulation of matter on the scale of atoms.

More specifically, the aim is to “to create atomically precise structures consisting of silicon and phosphorus atoms embedded in the lattice of graphene using a combination of ion implantation, first principles modelling and electron microscopy.”

The research has no specific application in mind but, as Susi points out, if “we are able to control the composition of matter on the atomic scale with such precision, there are bound to be eventual uses for the technology.”

Below Susi answers some questions I put to him about his proposal, and his experience of publishing on RIO.

The interview begins …

RP: Can you start by saying what is new and different about the open access journal RIO, and why that is appealing to you?

TS: Personally, the whole idea of publishing all stages of the research cycle was something even I had not considered could or should be done. However, if one thinks about it objectively, in terms of an optimal way to advance science, it does make perfect sense. At the same time, as a working scientist, I can see how challenging a change of mind-set this will be… which makes me want to do what I can to support the effort. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The open access movement slips into closed mode

In October 2003, at a conference held by the Max Planck Society (MPG) and the European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO) project, a document was drafted that came to be known as the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities.

More than 120 cultural and political organisations from around the world attended and the names of the signatories are openly available here.

Today the Berlin Declaration is held to be one of the keystone events of the open access movement — offering as it did a definition of open access, and calling as it did on all researchers to publish their work in accordance with the open principles outlined in the Declaration.

“In order to realize the vision of a global and accessible representation of knowledge,” the Declaration added, “the future Web has to be sustainable, interactive, and transparent.”

The word transparent is surely important here, and indeed the open access movement (not unsurprisingly) prides itself on openness and transparency. But as with anything that is precious, there is always the danger that openness and transparency can give way to secrecy and opaqueness.

By invitation only

There have been annual follow-up conferences to monitor implementation of the Berlin Declaration since 2003, and these have been held in various parts of the world — in March 2005, for instance, I attended Berlin 3, which that year took place in Southampton (and for which I wrote a report). The majority of these conferences, however, have been held in Germany, with the last two seeing a return to Berlin. This year’s event (Berlin 12) was held on December 8th and 9th at the Seminaris CampusHotel Berlin.

Of course, open access conferences and gatherings are two a penny today. But given its historical importance, the annual Berlin conference is viewed as a significant event in the OA calendar. It was particularly striking, therefore, that this year (unlike most OA conferences, and so far as I am aware all previous Berlin conferences) Berlin 12 was “by invitation only”.

Also unlike other open access conferences, there was no live streaming of Berlin 12, and no press passes were available. And although a Twitter hashtag was available for the conference, this generated very little in the way of tweets, with most in any case coming from people who were not actually present at the conference,  including a tweet from a Max Planck librarian complaining that no MPG librarians had been invited to the conference.

Why it was decided to make Berlin 12 a closed event is not clear. We do however know who gave presentations as the agenda is online, and this indicates that there were 14 presentations, 6 of which were given by German presenters (and 4 of these by Max Planck people). This is a surprising ratio given that the subsequent press release described Berlin 12 as an international conference. There also appears to have been a shortage of women presenters (see here, here, and here).

But who were the 90 delegates who attended the conference? That we do not know. When I emailed the organisers to ask for a copy of the delegate list my question initially fell on deaf ears. After a number of failed attempts, I contacted the Conference Chair Ulrich Pöschl.

Pöschl replied, “In analogy to most if not all of the many scholarly conferences and workshops I have attended, we are not planning a public release of the participants’ list. As usual, the participants of the meeting received a list of the pre-registered participants’ names and affiliations, and there is nothing secret about it. However, I see no basis for releasing the conference participants’ list to non-participants, as we have not asked the participants if they would agree to distributing or publicly listing their names (which is not trivial under German data protection laws; e.g., on the web pages of my institute, I can list my co-workers only if they explicitly agree to it).”

This contrasts, it has to be said, with Berlin 10 (held in South Africa), where the delegate list was made freely available online, and is still there. Moreover, the Berlin 10 delegate list can be sorted by country, by institution and by name. There is also a wealth of information about the conference on the home page here.

We could add that publishing the delegate list for open access conferences appears to be pretty standard practice — see here and here for instance.

However, is Pöschl right to say that there is a specific German problem when it comes to publishing delegate lists? I don’t know, but I note that the delegate list for the annual conference for the Marine Ingredients Organisation (IFFO) (which was held in Berlin in September) can be downloaded here.


Transparency aside, what was the outcome of the Berlin 12 meeting? When I asked Pöschl he explained, “As specified in the official news release from the conference, the advice and statements of the participants will be incorporated in the formulation of an ‘Expression of Interest’ that outlines the goal of transforming subscription journals to open access publishing and shall be released in early 2016”.

This points to the fact that the central theme of the conference was the transformation of subscription journals to Open Access, as outlined in a recent white paper by the Max Planck Digital Library. Essentially, the proposal is to “flip” all scholarly journals from a subscription model to an open access one — an approach that some have described as “magical thinking” and/or impractical (see, for instance, here, here and here).

The Expression of Interest will presumably be accompanied by a roadmap outlining how the proposal can be realised. Who will draft this roadmap and who will decide what it contains is not entirely clear. The conference press release says, “The key to this lies in the hands of the scientific institutions and their sponsors”, and as Pöschl told me, the advice and comments of delegates to Berlin 12 will be taken into account in producing the Expression of Interest. If that is right, should we not know exactly who the 90 delegates attending the conference were?

All in all, we must wonder why there was a need for all the secrecy that appears to have surrounded Berlin 12. And given this secrecy, perhaps we should be concerned that there is a danger the open access movement could become some kind of secret society in which a small self-selected group of unknown people make decisions and proposals intended to impact the entire global scholarly communication system?

Either way, what happened to the openness and transparency inherent in the Berlin Declaration?

In the spirit of that transparency I invite all those who attended the Berlin 12 to attach their name below (using the comment functionality), and if they feel so inspired to share their thoughts on whether they feel that open access conferences ought to be held in camera in the way Berlin 12 appears to have been.

Or is it wrong and/or naïve to think that open access implies openness and transparency in the decision making and processes involved in making open access a reality, as well as of research outputs?