At an ‘Open Science Meetup‘ in Berlin, held in the basement bar of a local brewery, one of the attendees asked us all a simple hypothetical question: ‘If I was a research funder going through our budget and saw that we were spending millions on Open Access (OA), how would you justify that expense to me?’ You might think people attending an Open Science meetup would have all the answers to this. Heck, even I thought I should be able to answer that! But we actually failed. Each of us made our individual cases, and we failed. Our answers were incoherent and lacking in convincing evidence. I couldn’t even convince myself at the time, and would like to think Open Access is one of the things I know a bit about.
And when you think about it, it’s a very good question. I bet every one of you could give me an answer to this off the top of your heads. Something about OA increasing citations, or being good for copyright, or because access to knowledge is a human right, or how it saves money, or because your funder told you to, or whatever. But how do you make a convincing, comprehensive, evidence-informed answer to this question? It’s difficult.
So I took the same question to OpenCon in Brussels, an event for students and early career researchers to spearhead the ‘open movement’. Everyone I asked failed there too. I pretended to be an impartial funder, and asked the OA advocates present to justify OA to me. And we all failed. Small chunks of useful evidence, but overall incoherent, and underwhelming. This little experiment told me that there’s too much varied information, and too few of us who are well-informed enough, to have consistently reasonable, progressive, and evidence-based discussions around OA. I want people to be as well informed as possible about the issues, so that we can have reasonable policies, rational discussions, civil debate, and progressive decision making in the scholarly publishing ecosystem.
So how do you fix this? The world of ‘open’ is complex and multi-dimensional, with evidence mixing with anecdote, fear combating against data, and misinformation blending with reality. If OA was a simple issue, we’d have resolved it already. The fact remains that the global research community remains largely disorganised with respect to OA, as some like Richard Poynder have pointed out recently*. The reasons for this are likely as multi-faceted as the problem itself, but one point in this sticks out: OA ‘advocates’ need to take responsibility for the ‘open movement.’ I wrote a bit about this and accountability in a previous post here, and this is very much a related issue. But part of solving this issue entails equipping ourselves with sufficient knowledge to make the case for open.
So we wrote a paper. I started it after OpenCon, and put out a public call for contributors through my social channels. Anyone could join at any point. Initially it was just a Google Doc where people could contribute sources, but then I shifted it to Overleaf, a public collaboration platform that uses latex and a version control system to seamlessly integrate contributions from multiple authors at once. So it was an entirely open process, and a cadre of awesome people joined me. Mostly PhD students, but also a librarian! Each contributed their own perspectives, and watching the paper organically evolve was a magical experience.
I set out to ‘make the case for open’, and it ended up being a multi-dimensional critical review with contributions from around the world. We ended up discussing copyright law, issues with OA in the ‘Global South’, innovating beyond traditional publishing models, the cost of OA, and the need for OA in fueling society, the global economy, and research. People offered comments on Twitter, via email, and on annotations on PDF versions of the article as it was being written. The process was open and dynamic, and it totally rocked!
And we ended up with something I hope you all think is pretty awesome, and which I hope will become a valuable resource for all involved in OA discussions. It was published with F1000 Research, with the submission taking about all of 5 minutes with Overleaf’s integration. It was accepted after about 2 days with a light copy edit, and published after being typeset about 9 days after submission. And as part of the Future of Scholarly Publishing channel, it was free too! (Why isn’t this the normal process for publishing, again?)
At the moment it’s awaiting formal peer review (F1000 Research uses a post-publication system, designed for open and rapid research communication. Again, awesome.). In the mean time, commenting is strongly encouraged! We’ve already been ‘Mounced’ in the comments, and I’d love more feedback. There are 5 referees looking at it already formally (yikes..), but that’s no reason why we can’t have everyone’s opinion, thoughts, and expertise influencing this paper. I’ll have to save a breakdown of the key points for another post, as this one is already hella long, but in the mean time we would all love any feedback (positive or negative, irrespective of who you are or who you work for), and if you could share the article with your friends and colleagues that’d be just swell.
We are stronger as a community if we take the responsibility to equip ourselves with the knowledge required to advocate for change.
So the final question is, is there a case for Open? You’re damn right there is (citation needed).
*I don’t agree with Richard on all of this, but he makes some pretty insightful points.
Ongoing debates surrounding Open Access to the scholarly literature are multifaceted and complicated by disparate and often polarised viewpoints from engaged stakeholders. At the current stage, Open Access has become such a global issue that it is critical for all involved in scholarly publishing, including policymakers, publishers, research funders, governments, learned societies, librarians, and academic communities, to be well-informed on the history, benefits, and pitfalls of Open Access. In spite of this, there is a general lack of consensus regarding the advantages or disadvantages of Open Access at multiple levels. This review aims to to be a resource for current knowledge on the impacts of Open Access by synthesizing important research in three major areas of impact: academic, economic and societal. While there is clearly much scope for additional research, several key trends are identified, including a broad citation advantage for researchers who publish openly, as well as additional benefits to the non-academic dissemination of their work. The economic case for Open Access is less well-understood, although it is clear that access to the research literature is key for innovative enterprises, and a range of governmental and non-governmental services. Furthermore, Open Access has the potential to save publishers and research funders considerable amounts of financial resources. The social case for Open Access is strong, in particular for advancing citizen science initiatives, and leveling the playing field for researchers in developing countries. Open Access supersedes all potential alternative modes of access to the scholarly literature through enabling unrestricted re-use, and long-term stability independent of financial constraints of traditional publishers that impede knowledge sharing. Open Access remains only one of the multiple challenges that the scholarly publishing system is currently facing. Yet, it provides one foundation for increasing engagement with researchers regarding ethical standards of publishing. We recommend that Open Access supporters focus their efforts on working to establish viable new models and systems of scholarly communication, rather than trying to undermine the existing ones as part of the natural evolution of the scholarly ecosystem. Based on this, future research should investigate the wider impacts of an ecosystem-wide transformation to a system of Open Research.