Open Access is just the Beginning…

By DeDe Dawson
Science & Scholarly Communication Librarian, University of Saskatchewan

Lately I have been making lots of presentations on open access (OA) to faculty, administrators, and other campus groups. Mostly these presentations are well received, but often there is some push-back too. The majority of the push-back is related to stubbornly persistent and widespread misunderstandings or misinformation about what OA is (and isn’t) and how it can be achieved. I can handle that. But occasionally, I also get the “OA is too radical” kind of push-back. This I can’t handle. Because really, OA is just the beginning…

Let me explain.

One of the main reasons we need OA is because the current system of scholarly publishing (especially for journals) is dysfunctional, unsustainable, and inequitable. It has become this way because academia has handed over control of the scholarly literature to large, commercial publishers that care primarily about ownership and revenues (some “non-profit” scholarly publishers are no better). These entities have systematically bought up smaller publishers and society publishers resulting in an oligopoly.

“This consolidated control has led to unaffordable costs, limited utility of research articles, the proliferation of western publishing biases, and a system in which publisher lock-in through big deal licenses is the norm.” (SPARC, 2017)

OA gave the possibility of some relief. But now these same publishers are co-opting OA. They have cleverly incorporated OA as an additional revenue stream in hybrid journals and new OA megajournals. And academia is spending more money than ever, not just on astronomical subscriptions – but now also on article processing charges (APCs) for “gold OA.” All to buy back, or make accessible, research that has already been paid for by grants and faculty salaries. This is not how it was meant to be! OA is still achievable without hemorrhaging more and more funds to commercial publishers. This money can be better spent.

We currently have a system for “green OA” – posting manuscripts in institutional or subject repositories at no cost to authors or readers. We could conceivably bypass traditional journals entirely and simply use networks of interoperable repositories as the infrastructure for scholarly communication, overlaid with platforms to manage peer review and promote discoverability, etc. Academics already provide the content (research papers), and the quality control (peer review, editorial work). And academic libraries can provide the technical infrastructure, curation, and long-term preservation. COAR’s Next Generation Repositories initiative advocates for something along these lines:

“COAR’s vision is to position repositories as the foundation for a distributed, globally networked infrastructure for scholarly communication, on top of which layers of value added services will be deployed, thereby transforming the system, making it more research-centric, open to and supportive of innovation, while also collectively managed by the scholarly community.” (COAR, 2017)

I know, I know, this is not exactly simple. We have considerable ingrained academic culture and incentive structures to contend with (prestige journals and Impact Factors anyone?); but it is worth striving for as a long term goal to free our institutions (and our research) from the commercial overlords. The enormous amounts of money currently tied up in overpriced subscriptions could eventually be redirected to supporting this infrastructure and there’d likely be remaining funds to reinvest in more research or student scholarships.

The trouble is commercial publishers are now seeking to control this infrastructure too. Elsevier has been pretty transparent about its new strategy of buying up software and platforms that support researchers at all stages of the research lifecycle. Examples include Mendeley, SSRN, and bepress. They have also developed Pure, a current research information system (“CRIS”), to sell to university administrators for research assessment and analytics. Elsevier is clearly attempting to enclose all key elements of the research enterprise – to sell back to us (at inflated prices no doubt). This feels strangely familiar… ah yes, it is what they’ve already done with the scholarly literature!

Academia must get ahead of this trend for once. We must be as strategic and cunning as the commercial entities. We must collaborate across institutions and nations. We must maintain control of the infrastructure supporting the research enterprise. The first and most basic step is to financially support open infrastructure as David Lewis suggests in his 2.5% Commitment:

“At the end of the day, if we don’t collectively invest in the infrastructure we need for the open scholarly commons, it will not get built or it will only be haphazardly half built.” (Lewis, 2017).

So, OA is just the beginning. Now we need to move on to supporting open scholarly infrastructure owned and controlled by the research community. We cannot allow this to be co-opted too.

Further reading:
Accelerating academy-owned publishing – In the Open blog post, Nov 27, 2017
Join the Movement: The 2.5% Commitment – In the Open blog post by David Lewis, Sept 29, 2017
The 2.5% Commitment – Short white paper by David Lewis, Sept 11, 2017
Elsevier acquisition highlights the need for community-based scholarly communication infrastructure – SPARC news release by Heather Joseph and Kathleen Shearer, Sept 6, 2017
Elsevier’s increasing control over scholarly infrastructure, and how funders should fix this – SV-POW blog post by Mike Taylor, May 22, 2016
Tightening their grip – In the Open blog post by Kevin Smith, May 20, 2016

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.