Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Has the open access movement delayed the revolution?

Last month I posted a couple of tweets that attracted some pushback from OA advocates. In the process I was accused of being a species of “Russian troll bot”, of having an unspecified “other agenda”, and then told that unless I was willing to engage in “constructive discussion” I should pipe down.

Amongst those to object to my tweets was PLOS co-founder, and feisty OA advocate, Michael Eisen (see below). 

Evidently dissatisfied with my responses, Eisen declared that it was silly to make inflammatory statements on Twitter and then say that the platform is a bad place for discussions. However, after a few rounds of back and forth with my critics, I had concluded that it was not going to be possible to debate the matter in short bursts without ending up simply swapping insults. So, I proposed to Eisen that we do a follow up to the Q&A we had done in 2012.

Eisen agreed, and last week I emailed him the text below by way of explanation as to why I had made the comments I had, along with a number of questions for him to answer. I plan to publish Eisen’s answers in the next couple of days. (Now available here).

What sparked the disagreement? It began when I tweeted a link to a confessional interview that Leslie Chan had given on the OCSDnet website. Amongst other things, Chan conceded that he had, over the years, given a lot of bad advice about open access.

In posting a link to the interview I commented, “I wish all OA advocates could be this honest, rather than repeating out-dated mantras & promoting failed approaches.” 

By way of background, Chan was (with Eisen) one of the small group of people who attended the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) meeting in 2002. It was from that meeting that the term open access emerged, and BOAI is viewed as the moment the OA movement came into being. As such, Chan’s confession seemed to me to be a significant moment, not least because it was made with more candour than I have come to expect from OA advocates.

OA advocate Stephen Curry responded to my initial tweet by saying, “Also true that OA has stimulated many to think seriously about & challenge current practices around research evaluation. Myself included.” To this I replied, “To some extent, I agree. But I would phrase it this way: the internet made a revolution possible, open access has delayed that revolution.”

Eisen denounced my comment as “one of the most ridiculous, misguided, and frankly ignorant statements about scholarly publishing ever.

Anyway, below is why I said what I did in those tweets.

As I see it, the internet opened up the possibility of radically reinventing the way in which scholarly communication takes place, and to entirely rethink the peer-reviewed journal – which, let’s face it, has changed very little in the past 350 years.

The open access movement was a response to that possibility and focused on two interrelated problems. First, it aimed to address the affordability problem (i.e. journal subscriptions are way too high so research institutions cannot afford to buy access to all the research their faculty need). Second, it aimed to address the accessibility problem created by the affordability problem. It is affordability that is key here because if everyone could afford all the subscriptions they needed there would be no accessibility problem, and so there would be less need for an OA movement. It is also important to note that the researchers most impacted by these two problems are those based in the global South, for reasons I hope are obvious.

How successful has the OA movement been in realising the revolution the internet made possible? Not very, I would say, even if we limit our purview to the accessibility and affordability problems alone. I say this because fifteen years after BOAI, legacy publishers are successfully co-opting both forms of OA outlined at the 2002 meeting (green and gold), and doing so in ways that suit them more than the research community (which, amongst other things, means they continue to charge excessively for their services). At the same time, they are diluting and delaying open access. It also now seems likely that they will co-opt the reinvigorated preprint movement, and eventually colonise the entire research workflow (the latter scenario is outlined here).

So, the situation today is that the research community finds that it is having to pay subscriptions as well as gold OA article-processing charges. This means that the costs of scholarly communication have increased rather than fallen (exacerbating the affordability problem). And with (according to Elsevier) 80% of articles still published under the subscription model, the accessibility problem has far from gone away. To make matters worse, many papers published OA also have an accessibility issue. For instance, papers published as hybrid OA are often buried in proprietary publisher platforms alongside paywalled papers, creating a new discoverability problem.

The crucial point here is that legacy publishers remain firmly in control of scholarly communication. Amongst other things, this means they can be expected to continue to plunder the public purse. And while most journals are now available in electronic form, the 350-year-old legacy journal remains relatively unchanged. In short, the potential the network offers for scholarly communication to be completely reinvented is still far from being realised.

But why do I say that the open access movement has delayed the revolution? Surely it is publishers who are responsible? It is they who for so long resisted OA, they who continue to drag their feet, and they who have failed to effectively leverage the network. I say it because OA advocates (and the strategies they recommended and adopted) have helped legacy publishers to a) co-opt and dilute OA and b) delay it. They have done this by, for instance, pioneering and promoting the use of APCs, and then encouraging legacy publishers to introduce costly hybrid OA (see here for an example).

As I said, publishers are also co-opting green OA. They are doing this by buying up repository platforms like SSRN and bepress, for instance, and by imposing lengthy embargoes before green OA papers can be made freely available. Again, the OA movement has assisted in this by, for instance, advocating for and supporting OA policies that accept publisher-imposed embargoes as a given, and by partnering with publishers in initiatives that turn repositories into little more than search interfaces. This has the effect of directing users away from repositories to legacy publishers’ sites (see here for instance, and here).

And with funders and institutions clearly frustrated at the slow pace of change, OA advocates in Europe are now promoting gold-OA deals that lock legacy prices and legacy journals into the new environment. They are also calling for subscription journals to be “flipped” to pay-to-play gold OA en masse. The problem here is that pay-to-publish gold OA simply shifts the accessibility problem from the end of the publication process to the beginning and so those without access to funds to pay publication fees are further disenfranchised. While they may be able to read more third-party research, many will struggle to gain access to journals as authors. As paywalls come down, publication walls go up. Again, it is those in the global South who will be most affected.

In addition, gold OA has opened the doors to the flood of predatory publishers. Here too it is those in the global South who seem most vulnerable.

Indeed, the gold fever now threatens to completely redefine OA, to the point where it is little different to toll access. In response to pressure in Europe, for instance, Elsevier has proposed what it calls “region-specific OA”. This would apparently see access to papers granted or denied on the basis of the requester’s IP address. As has been pointed out, this is not open access at all. Once again, it would be those in the global South who would suffer most from such a development.

One of Eisen’s objections to my tweets was that I am sitting on the sidelines suggesting I always knew better. Others implied that my views were somehow not valid because I was not offering an alternative solution (which I wasn’t). I don’t see it that way. I am not a member of the research community. I am an observer, an independent journalist who has been following the movement for some seventeen years. I do not (generally) see it as my role to offer solutions but to comment on what I see happening. And my observations have led me to conclude that while OA advocates undoubtedly have the very best of motives, they are naïve. I will concede that I too have made naïve assumptions over the past 17 years.

My point is that it is time to recognise this and, as Chan has done, admit that the OA movement has given “a lot of advice around Open Access that has turned out to be bad”. By having done so, and by promoting unthought-through strategies, OA advocates have helped delay the revolution. Instead of acknowledging this, however, most OA advocates continue repeating their faded mantras, and demonising and hurling accusations at publishers, without accepting their own part in the process. 

My view is that OA advocates (and yes, me) have been guilty of (as Chan puts it), placing “too much emphasis on the access of information and not enough understanding of the power structures and dynamics of control”. In addition (and following on from this), they have failed to appreciate that the real problem is not accessibility as such, but for-profit and legacy publishers –  whose only real motivation is rent-seeking, not the needs of the research community. Instead of aiding and abetting these publishers, the OA movement would have been better to focus on creating a scholar-led open infrastructure controlled by the research community itself.

All that said, I am still confident the revolution will take place. It has not been cancelled but postponed. And it has been postponed because by acting (or not acting) in the ways they have, OA advocates have allowed legacy publishers to re-define and dilute open access, and so delay the revolution that the internet made possible. True, some OA advocates are beginning to acknowledge this, but the problem is that the movement has ceded valuable ground to publishers. This ground will have to be won back if the revolution is to be completed. Achieving this will be extremely difficult, and suggests that the revolution is likely to be further delayed.

I plan to publish the Q&A with Eisen in the next couple of days. (Now available here).


Jon Baron said...


The journal I edit and produce, was founded (by me) in 2006 exactly to be part of the "revolution" as originally proposed. 11 years later, it is still going quite strong. We get many articles from the "global south" (and "global east").

No APCs. (Author hassles, yes, but comparablt to those of proprietary journals.)

I hoped it would be model for others, but that has not happened to my knowledge. I have lots to say about what the problems are, but right now I have too little time to say it. I'm too busy being an editor. (The production part is trivial compared to that, and I plan to do it as long as I can, whether I am editor or not.)

Jon Baron

editor Judgment and Decision Making

Stephen Downes said...

Change takes time.

IRRODL published its first open access issue in 2000 and waited two more years for BOAI to 'discovered' the concept. It publishes to this day.

But it can't be simply about publishing. The other important part of IRRODL is its international focus. It aims explicitly to include and disseminate voices from the global south and from (what we shall call) non-traditional perspectives.

I think that to understand open access we need to look beyond traditional publishing, and frankly, to stop listening to or even caring about traditional publishers.

Anonymous said...

Ironically there is an OA revolution taking place, but the OA advocates refuse to accept it. This is the New Wave of ultra low cost OA journals, which Beall has stigmatized as "predatory." By my reckoning these journals now probably publish something like 20 to 30% of all scientific and engineering articles. Plus they are focused on serving the global South.

That is a huge market share for a new business model. In any other industry it would be marveled at, but the OA movement both ignores and denounces these low cost journals, thus missing the wave. It is rather amusing to watch.

David Wojick

Björn Brembs said...

Dear Richard,

thanks for this post. It is, IMHO, spot on and I, too, take the blame for not radically enough pushing for a revolution. Frankly, I didn't know any better and it took me the better part of 10 years to understand the problem and its nuances. This experience brought me to believe that maybe the main mistake was to address scholars, rather than infrastructure providers to bring about change? Libraries pay subscriptions and provide repositories, etc. Aren't they the obvious candidates to approach for help?

Mark Wilson said...

Seems clear to me that you should be supporting Fair OA ( The key is independence of ownership, and publishers acting as service providers. APCs are completely unnecessary, payment for production costs should be done by libraries or funders directly. To be fair to OA advocates, if the research community and evaluators took content more seriously, we would have full Fair OA by now. There are plenty of good journals that are completely free, or rather cheap. People just keep submitting to older outlets that have been bought up by Elsevier et al, with no real analysis of quality of journal processes. The only reason those journals are still relevant is that people keep submitting good papers to them. Stop!

waltc said...

Responding to David Wojick's comment: Not everybody affiliated with the OA "movement" ignores or demeans the global south. But your point is well-taken, and demonization of Beall-listed journals (ppppredatory, if you prefer) continues apace, consistently ignoring the facts about the lists. A shame, really.

Monique Lamine said...

This is the topic of my MBA thesis so thank you for this post. One question; assuming the OA advocates are in academia and should get credit for aiming to improve the system but according to you have not succeeded, then why do you believe that academia is able to develop a better system? Why have they not done so in the last 350 years?

Monique Lamine said...

That would perfectly fit Clayton Christensen's theory of disruptive innovation

Richard Poynder said...

Hi Monique,

Three things I think are new: the internet, the scaling up of the global research endeavour, and the toxic consequences of the way researchers are now incentivised.

Perhaps these three things make it essential that a better system is developed.

Richard Poynder said...

Hi David, Hi Walt,

Whatever one's views might be on "Predatory Publishers" and/or "New Wave Publishers, I am thinking that pay-to-publish gold OA could be about to face some pushback.

See for instance:

This Latin American statement

This French statement

The possibility that India has begun to outlaw pay-to-publish