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CurtRiceThere are tensions in the open access movement which are putting its sustained momentum at risk, argues Curt Rice. The enthusiasm for the movement’s ideals are now in conflict with what is needed for success, namely a clear message articulated by visible and visionary leadership. Wall Street analysts are predicting open access to be a fading threat to Elsevier profits due to a lack of focus. Can governments, research councils and universities provide the necessary leadership to ensure lasting change?

There’s a conflict, a tension, an inherent contradiction in the open access movement, and while it could be resolved, that seems increasingly unlikely. The inconsistency goes like this: the shift to open access publishing started idealistically, with enthusiasm and pressure from the grassroots. The business model for disseminating scientific results would be changed. Instead of putting research into journals that were expensive and exclusive, we would make articles available for free. No charge at all. Ready to be downloaded by anyone with an internet connection.

Shaking in their boots

We developed more and more arguments for open access — not just solidarity with colleagues in poorer countries, but also the (im)morality of paying first for research to be done (through salaries) and then for the articles to be reviewed and edited (through volunteer work for journals) and then paying once again to be able to read them (through subscriptions). Add to this the monopolistic price gouging of the biggest publishers, whose profit rates exceed those of oil companies, and change seemed inevitable.

Some of these arguments worked. Gradually, research councils pulled themselves over the gunwales and got on board. Governments articulated policies. Universities gave their researchers a nudge. The publishers started to shake in their boots. They really did. They got worried.

But then they got over it.

And this is where the other side of the inconsistency comes into play. The tension in the movement is that its idealistic and anarchistic origins are in conflict with what is needed for success, namely a clear message articulated by visible and visionary leadership.

Wall_Street_&_BroadwayImage credit: Fletcher6 (Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Wall Street analysis

The absence of clear leadership at the helm of the open access movement is made painfully clear in a recent report about Elsevier’s value as a company, entitled Goodbye to Berlin – The Fading Threat of Open Access. Why could the authors of this report at Bernstein Research let go of their earlier concerns and now upgrade their predictions about Elsevier’s stock? “The rise of OA,” they write, “has inflicted little or no damage on the leading subscription publishers.” And why is that? Their answer is important:

Stepping back to take in the big picture, we would be hard pressed, having spent six years networking extensively in the academic publishing and OA communities, even to articulate what problem is OA trying to accomplish [sic]. Ask a librarian, and you will be told that OA is meant to address the serial cost crisis (the rising cost of journal subscriptions and the impact this has on their capacity to fulfil the other missions of academic libraries). Ask a researcher, and you will be told that OA will allow more researchers to read their articles, leading to more citations and – ultimately – to better dissemination of knowledge. Ask an economist, and you will be told that OA will allow small and medium sized companies which do not have access to the latest research to do so, furthering the growth of the economy and job creation. Ask some activists, and you will be told that OA is meant to deflate the margins of capitalist exploitation of public spending. Ask an activist from emerging countries: you will be told that OA is meant to allow researchers and doctors in poor countries to have access to leading research. This lack of clarity on which problem OA is trying to solve, in turn, means that it is difficult to achieve any of these goals.

Think about what that last line means. You might dislike capitalism, you might dislike profiteering, but these guys have seen many organizations attempt to change; they’ve seen some succeed and others fail. What do they see for open access? Failure. Why? Lack of focus.

What is stopping us?

Our arguments are too many and we’ve assembled a pot-pourri of solutions. What is the barrier to finding focus? We are. The professorate. We like some of the ideals we hear about, but we only take it so far.

When you get a chance to publish a paper in Science or Nature, you take it. That’s a rational thing to do, especially early in your career, since hirings and grants are positively affected by having publications in high profile journals. When you’re evaluating applications and you see those prestigious journals on an applicant’s resumé, you bump that application up.

That’s what is currently stopping open access. No matter how many good arguments there are, no matter how many serious problems there may be with the way scholarly publishing happens today, the prestige of some traditional journals is so compelling for career advancement that open access can’t win. Well, it could. But that would take leadership that apparently costs too much.

What leadership could do

There’s a perfect example from Norway. Norwegian universities get part of their public budget as a function of how many scientific publications they produce. If the government would modify the system, such that only open access publications would count — or if they would at least count more — it wouldn’t take long for change to happen.

If the National Institutes of Health or the European Commission had policies that coaxed researchers into publishing in open access journals instead of setting up parallel systems with elaborate archiving rituals, they would show leadership that would move us forward. If research councils or universities would give extra weight to open access articles in tenure or grant-awarding processes, changes would happen overnight — at no necessary cost to quality!

But governments, research councils and universities don’t dare. Understandably so. Researchers would scream, careers would stall out, and professors would take to the streets. The leadership that is necessary to succeed with this publishing paradigm shift can’t be found today. It might emerge. I hope it does. But, for now, it won’t, and — because of us — it can’t.

So, there we are. Signing away the rights to promote our own work. Making the system more complicated than we ever would have imagined. Not saving any money at all. And, as a consequence, hearing a big sigh of relief from Wall Street.

This article was originally published on Curt Rice – Science in Balance under the title One big problem with open access and why the best way to fix it isn’t going to work., and at the LSE’s Impact of Social Sciences blog. Read the original article.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USApp– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

CurtRiceCurt Rice – University of Tromsø
Curt Rice is a professor at the University of Tromsø. He is also the head of the board for Current Research Information System in Norway (CRIStin), which works to promote open access in Norway. He also leads Norway’s Committee on Gender Balance and Diversity in Research.