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Open Access: A Look Back

Open Access Week 2018 has begun, and as happens each year, I’m never quite sure how The Scholarly Kitchen should (or shouldn’t) participate. This blog has long (unfairly, in my opinion) been cast as “the enemy” of open access (OA). The reality is, as with most things OA, more complex once you get past the sloganeering.

To me, the questions have never been about the concept behind OA (more availability of high quality information is a good thing for the world), but rather the implementation. We’ve been stuck in something of a loop for the last decade, knowing that OA is a good idea, but never getting past flawed ways to put it into action (author-pays Gold OA, which merely shifts the point of inequity from the reader to the author; Green OA which, if efficiently implemented threatens to destroy the subscription journals upon which it relies; and an insistence on one-size-fits-all policies).

rear view mirror

Today’s OA world seems split between those who are actively experimenting with new models, looking for something better, and those determined to force change upon academic culture and business practices to fit the models already in hand.

To move forward, we must learn from the past, so I wanted to look back at our archive of writing on OA over the last decade (some favorites collected here). OA has long been a difficult subject to discuss — several times we’ve seen advocates who disagree with our authors do their best to shut down the conversation (e.g., here, here). Rational and rigorous debate is at the heart of everything the research community does, and I’ve been really happy with the progress that’s been made over time, moving away from ad hominem attacks and and doing everything possible to avoid rational discussion, to today’s more thoughtful climate where conversation has become common, even if not consensus has not.

One great benefit we’re already receiving from the recent announcements by cOAlition S is that researchers are finally starting to find their voices (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here). In the end, the needs of researchers must be paramount, and they’ve been strangely missing from the long-running conversation between advocates, publishers, administrators, and funders. Even among the committed, there is no clear consensus on just what OA is, what the goals are (here also), and how they will be measured.

The first mention I can find of OA on The Scholarly Kitchen is here, in a summary of a 2008 meeting of learned societies, where questions of academic freedom and how unwilling many are to recognize the true costs of running a high quality publishing program are discussed. Sound familiar?

Along the way we’ve regularly covered subjects like the question of whether OA offers any cost savings over the current system (here, here) and how this has led us to new “Read And Publish” models, meant to help mitigate these additional costs that funders have voluntarily chosen to take on. We’ve looked at the impact of OA on the Humanities (here, here, here) as well as research societies (here, here), unintended consequences of Creative Commons licenses, and the question of whether the focus should be on the actual research results rather than the stories written about those results.

Hopefully you’re as bored as I am with the latest “sting” repetitions, where someone sends a nonsense paper into a predatory journal and (surprise!) it gets accepted. Phil Davis and Kent Anderson did this back in 2009 and were among the first to raise concerns about the rise of predatory publishing. We also clearly predicted that the large, commercial publishers would co-opt OA to drive their own businesses (here, here, here, and here). Joe Esposito intriguingly offered a proposal for the use of preprints and post-publication peer review to replace journals back in 2010. We haven’t had as much predictive success with the idea of submission fees (here, here, and here) which offer a potential solution to Gold OA’s inability to support high rejection rate journals. Maybe next year.

At The Scholarly Kitchen we try to learn from our mistakes. After a great deal of initial skepticism, most of our bloggers have come around on megajournals, and we’ve called PLOS ONE, “without a doubt, the greatest success story in journal publishing for the current century.” Alison Mudditt recently authored a compelling case for why megajournals have become such an important part of the publishing ecosystem.

Perhaps the most interesting recent coverage of the impact of OA has been on how it has broadly changed the business direction of many publishers. Within the larger picture of new digital opportunities and the role that data and analytics offer, OA is certainly a driver in the shift of focus of the major market players away from publishing and toward workflow services. If OA ever does get to a point where it drastically devalues the work that publishers do, then the big companies will still have a valuable product line (and if not, then they’ll have two valuable product lines). But have no doubt that OA is playing a role in changing the business mindset of publishers.

It will be interesting to see how far that’s developed by next year’s Open Access Week. By then we’ll also have a handle on the early impact of Plan S, as well as further progress in the build-out of new, shared publishing infrastructure, which will hopefully open up new models or at least improve the possibilities for existing models. Academia moves slowly, and prefers evolution to revolution, but even when viewed in the frame of the last ten years of the The Scholarly Kitchen, significant progress is evident.

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