Open Access (OA) and all that jazz!

Next week I’m due to visit Humboldt University’s IBI in order to participate in a students’ seminar about Open Access. I’m very much looking forward to it and thought I’d do a bit of reading to keep me up to speed on the OA themes that are trending at the moment.

A recently published article has come to my attention through a LinkedIn group I belong to: Opening Doors, by Rob Virkar-Yates

It describes some of the technical issues that need to be solved, in order to support OA, both at the “upstream” end, where articles are processed for publication, and “downstream” where articles are discovered and read by researchers. Here are a few of the issues raised in the article, along with my comments and thoughts!

1) Direct author-publisher transactions are not part of existing submission processes.
I noticed this when working at the University of Warwick Library: we had to chase both authors and publishers to get Gold OA Article Processing Charges (APCs) paid in time to spend the money allocated to Warwick by HEFCE, and the authors and departmental administrators found the processes rather frustrating and onerous, to the point where at least one author decided not to bother with Gold OA.

The article states that “the majority of academic institutions remain unclear as to how to integrate APCs into their workflows” and I’m sure that many institutions are still working it out: classic issues would be whether to handle OA financial transactions centrally or in departments, whether to use an intermediary service (see the recent RIN report on that topic), and how to ensure a fair and effective distribution of the money.

2) “Open Access is driving some exceptionally contentious changes to the peer review process.”
Virkar-Yates gives eLife and F1000 as examples of OA journals who are innovating peer review by bringing in more transparency about the way an article has been reviewed. I’m interested in the possibility that peer review might evolve as access to content is opened up, but if peer review in its traditional guise is working for academia, then it can work for OA journals just as easily as for subscription ones. That seems to be the conclusion of the Open Library of Humanities project (OLH) in a recently published UKSG e-news article. I’m cautious of worrying academics that the peer review system is under threat, because it’s contentious enough to consider a switch towards OA itself, never mind causing worry that existing, established methods for ensuring quality are about to be abandoned by publishers!

OA publication models do tend to favour bulk publishing, and in a scenario where there are more articles and more journals out there, researchers will need ways to differentiate amongst all the articles, to find the highest quality: they need to do this fairly quickly and efficiently as their time is limited. I think that the existing signs of quality, such as journal impact factor, prestige of the editor and authors, peer review practices, established position in the discipline, etc are likely to remain important for the time being at least. Even PLoS publishes journals that are tailored to disciplines, have lower acceptance rates and achieve higher impact factors than the bulk, cross-disciplinary journal, PLoS One, and OLH seems to be proposing overlay journals, on the bulk of content.

I can see why Virkar-Yates included this aspect, though: publishers of OA journals may find that there are opportunities to develop other aspects of their journals alongside the move to OA, and if you know that quality filters are important in an OA world, then you might want to find ways to add those in: instead of or as well as the traditional peer review.

3) Different formats for content.
The article says “It is now not uncommon for articles to be published with their associated data sets (or links to the data held in OA data repositories), supporting video, animation and other textual resources.” The electronic age has long since allowed publishers to experiment with the format of the journal, or the journal article. Indeed this has been happening with some titles I’ve bookmarked on Diigo, and there have long been disciplinary differences in journal article length, referencing styles, etc: the electronic journal has the capacity to be very different from the traditional print one, but the issue as Virkar-Yates points out, is how to support the different types of output, file formats, etc, on the same platform.

I wonder if the answer is not to offer more specialised types of publication, for different disciplines. I’m a big fan of the e-Crystals repository, and I’ve often wondered what we might do with data repositories, because they seem to me to be most discipline specific types of output, and most useful when they have metadata schemas designed around a specialist type of data and data need. I believe that, in a world of vast amounts of free content, it will be the way that researchers are enabled to handle that content that makes a product worth paying for, and I think this could require an element of specialisation. It’s an interesting space to watch: in Virkar-Yates own explanation of Green OA he points out that “Forty-one percent of all repository usage is through the University of Cambridge’s DSpace@Cambridge platform” and I know that its a repository that has long had a policy of taking all kinds of content, across all kinds of disciplines: is this a model for publishers to follow or should they concentrate on offering something different than repositories?

4) Lack of authentication when access is open
“A signed-in user is a known user, so publishers need to get more consumer-savvy and work out ways to incentivise registration under OA.” Good point, but I think that a lot of publishers have got this covered with their alerting services, saved lists of references and saved search history options that researchers need to sign in for. Joining this sign-in process together with other social media authentication would probably be better for researchers than signing in through institutional logins, and with many platforms the publishers don’t know so much about researchers other than what institution s/he belongs to after authentication, in any case. But perhaps that is precisely what they need to know, so that they can tell Libraries what an invaluable product they are subscribing to!

5) Optimisation for Google by removal of paywalls
Well, this makes sense to me, even though I am a Librarian. I don’t think we’ve been burying our heads in the sand, as the author claims that we have: we’ve simply been trying to point out to researchers that Google doesn’t access all the content that they need, and that there are more powerful ways of searching than the simple keyword that Google uses, when it comes to scholarly content. That doesn’t mean that we would be against Google indexing that scholarly content, if it did it well. In fact, Librarians have also been trying to teach researchers how to get the most out of Google and Google Scholar.

6) Multiple & portable devices
“…all content platforms, and particularly Open Access platforms, need to face up to the very real and pressing technical challenge of how to seamlessly deliver content across multiple untethered devices.” Says it all, for me!

7) Hybrid journals where some content is OA, some is behind a paywall
I’ve never been a fan of hybrid journals as an OA solution, because there isn’t a way for our researchers to know when an article is available to them as an OA one, when their institution doesn’t subscribe to that particular journal. One of the things I used to tell researchers to do when they wanted an article, was to search Google for an OA version. It’s one of the things that I used to have to check document supply request forms for, and frequently found, even some years ago. Hybrid is better than no OA at all, but as Virkar-Yates points out, there is a real issue around the metadata at article level, to make sure that open access content is in fact accessible!

Virkar-Yates’ article prompts much thought and that touches on some very important issues, but there are more that I’d like to consider:

a) Monographs
This topic is suggested in Virkar-Yates’ article, when he discusses output format variety, but monographs seem to me to be a specific issue. OLH are investigating this topic over the next few years, Open Book Publishers have just won an award and the Wellcome Trust have just announced plans to extend their OA policy to include monographs and book chapters, according to this Times Higher Education article, although I note that this extension does not include the CC-BY (Creative Commons Attribution) requirement that exists for journal articles.

b) Copyright
One of the hurdles for OA is to differentiate between access by a reader and access that allows further copying: five years ago, when I was establishing Warwick’s repository, WRAP, it seemed clear to me that the priority was to allow readers to have access. Every item in WRAP had a cover sheet explaining that the copyright remained with the publisher or author and that copying of the repository item was not granted by the repository. Allowing Creative Commons licences to be attached to items was a development that I would have liked to have added (and I know that Loughborough University’s repository has always asked for one), but I knew that there were already a lot of hurdles to deposit and that frankly, a requirement to add a licence that the author had never seen before and quite often did not understand would be one hurdle too many.

I expected that WRAP could overcome it in time and indeed I can see amongst the latest additions to WRAP that some do have cover sheets explaining that a CC licence applies. The RCUK OA policy expects the copyright issue to be addressed, as they have followed the Wellcome Trust in making requirements for not only OA, but also CC licences. A large national body like the RCUK has a way of reaching and influencing researchers that a new repository manager does not have!

c) Platinum OA
This was described in an Information Research article from 2007, and it’s essentially where researchers publish OA journals for themselves. It doesn’t quite fit the remit of Virkar-Yates’ article, in the sense that most researchers won’t be able to do this and be at the cutting edge of technology in publishing practice! But in the rise of OA, there has been a rise in the number of OA journal titles (as evidenced by the reported titles listed by the DOAJ, which the Virkar-Yates refers to), many of which originate from the research community.

My final thought is that I should read the recent JISC/RLUK survey report, on the attitudes and behaviours of researchers, which apparently reveals their reliance on open access… but that’s too much for one sitting!

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