A Few Takeaways From ‘Peter Suber On the State of Open Access’
October 24, 2016
Submitted by Gary F. Daught, Director of Libraries, Milligan College, TN
Last week, as a lead-up to this year’s International Open Access Week (October 24-30), the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) and The Right to Research Coalition organized a live OpenCon Community Webcast with Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication and longtime Open Access advocate. The focus of the webcast, which took the form of a Q&A session, was the state of Open Access academic publishing 15 years after the drafting of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). Peter Suber was part of the group that drafted the BOAI, the first formal articulation of Open Access as an alternative publishing model to traditional subscription-based scholarly communication.
The BOAI recognized the potential of the internet to facilitate “an unprecedented public good,” namely, “the world-wide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds.” The BOAI proposed two complementary strategies for achieving this public good: the self-archiving of scholarly literature in open electronic repositories (called “green” open access), and the establishment of new open-access journals (called “gold” open access). Peter Suber indicated that these are the primary strategies still in force today, though he encourages continuing experimentation with new “containers” and formats.
“[Suber] estimates that today 30 percent of all peer-reviewed journals are Open Access.”
A recording of the webcast is available on YouTube here, and I commend it to you for viewing.
Here are a few of my takeaways. The moderator asked Suber about the obstacles that have been overcome, and those that remain to be overcome for Open Access adoption since the signing of the BOAI 15 years ago. Suber replied that clear progress has been made. Open Access has moved from the periphery into the mainstream. He estimates that today 30 percent of all peer-reviewed journals are Open Access. But he still wishes adoption were faster.
Significantly, Suber admitted that he had not adequately accounted for the tenacity of institutional and cultural practices which has slowed adoption of Open Access in many disciplines. He pointed specifically to tenure and promotion committees as creating a bottleneck to adoption through the perpetuation of outmoded or mistaken notions of what validates scholarly research quality. Two such notions are journal impact factor, and the prestige of venerable journals.
Scholars, especially those early in their careers, feel enormous pressure to publish in journals that will help them build their academic reputations and advance their careers. While Suber’s criticism is not directed against the journals themselves, he stresses that neither impact factor nor prestige are actual metrics of research quality. They are at best surrogates for quality, and an unfortunate short-hand that supports the status quo in scholarly communication. He called this practice “outsourcing judgments of quality to publishers.” This status quo is prejudiced against Open Access journals that haven’t had time to acquire commensurate impact or prestige, even though the quality of their research content may be just as high. He recommends that tenure and promotion committees stop relying on surrogates and just “read the darn articles!”
“So Suber challenged libraries to rethink that traditional role and consider how they might shift some of their existing acquisitions budgets to invest in Open Access initiatives.”
Another barrier to adoption is a persistent misunderstanding, or failure of information that Open Access journals are primarily funded by shifting the cost burden from subscribers to authors through the imposition of article processing charges (APCs). It is a disincentive for scholars to publish in Open Access venues if they believe they must personally bear the cost of publication, especially if their institutions or departments otherwise lack funds to support them. Suber notes to the contrary that over 70% of peer-reviewed Open Access journals charge no fees at all. Alternatively, it is increasingly true that articles published in traditional subscription-based journals can also be made Open Access before (as a pre-print) or after publication (post-print) through submission to an open institutional repository.
Suber was asked what role libraries and librarians could play in helping to speed the adoption of Open Access. He answered that “as a class,” librarians are more informed about Open Access than their faculty colleagues and are generally in a better position to promote it within their institutions. At the same time, libraries have long assumed the role as subscribers and purchasers of information resources on behalf of their institutions. Open Access initiatives typically need funds on the front-end. So Suber challenged libraries to rethink that traditional role and consider how they might shift some of their existing acquisitions budgets to invest in Open Access initiatives. He mentioned the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as one example of a high quality online resource that is able to sustain itself as Open Access for everyone through the assistance of member libraries that contribute the equivalent of three annual payments to an endowment instead of paying an annual subscription fee indefinitely.
People who were born and raised with the internet — digital natives — expect to find everything they need online, and they expect to put all of their own valuable work online. Those two expectations will change the world.
In response to a final question about the role Open Access will play in the the next generation of scholars and scholarship, Suber declared, “Generational change is on the side of Open Access. We have everything to gain from it. People who were born and raised with the internet — digital natives — expect to find everything they need online, and they expect to put all of their own valuable work online. Those two expectations will change the world. They will create an Open Access universe. They will make Open Access the default.”
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