Thoughts on the Inaugural Open Scholarship Initiative Conference

OSI 2016

The Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) held its first conference (of what will be ten) in April 2016. As described in their foundational white paper, OSI “is a global effort to improve the future of science, discovery and society by opening vast new troves of research information to researchers, educators, policymakers and the public.” OSI’s lead sponsor is UNESCO.

Proceedings from the first meeting are now available. Approximately 200 delegates attended this meeting, drawn by their particular interest in OSI’s mission and a more general belief that the web can (and should) cause scholarly research to be more open, innovative and abundant.

There are many excellent reports sprinkled throughout the proceedings. Here I will focus on one report in particular, from the “Participation in the Current System” workgroup.

This group’s core question to answer was, “Do researchers and scientists participate in the current system of scholarly publishing because they like it, they need it, they don’t have a choice in the matter, or they don’t really care one way or another?”

I like this framing, because it does not assume that everyone is jazzed about open science and open access. I have been very committed to this cause for more than a decade now, which means I routinely overestimate how much others know — and care — about these issues.

If you are at an affluent university that licenses thousands of journals, and can get all other articles via interlibrary loan, the moral case for open access (that the current distribution system creates have and have nots) does not actually matter to you. And if you are a rising scholar in a discipline steeped with tradition, you will seek to publish your papers in Nature or Science, or your monograph with the leading press. Speechifying about the perfidy of the impact factor, or the anachronism of paper books in a digital age, will fall on the deafest of ears.

Despite these sobering truths, scholars do want to be discovered. The moral case for openness might not get traction, but with the right incentives the much more self-motivated argument that openness = greater reach/fame/glory can work. As stated in the work group’s report, “authors increasingly see open access (OA) publication as leading to wider circulation, greater visibility, and possibly more citations.”

What would those incentives be?:

  • From faculty leaders: A clear statement that good scholarship in any venue — established journal, new journal, new “born-digital” venture with no print antecedent — will be honored. It’s the content that counts, not the container. Or more precisely, our containers — leading journals, established imprints — have value as filters and heuristic tools, not as information conveyances in their own right. This is how the mind works, we all gravitate toward what is known and familiar. The message here would be that sharp thinking, regardless of container or delivery mode, is what matters. This cultural change can only happen among faculty leaders, not rising faculty. Librarians can and should be central to making this case.
  • From university administration: A clear directive that relying on flawed metrics like the impact factor can no longer be used as ways to avoid directly engaging with a scholar’s work when they are up for tenure review. Speechifying to rising scholars on this topic won’t work, but showing the Provost that the impact factor does not actually prove anything about the University’s research output could be effective. Here too librarians can lead the charge.
  • From library leaders: In addition to making the intellectual arguments for new dissemination tools and evaluation methods, re-structuring “collection development” dollars away from subscription/licensed content and toward sustainable support of fully open access content. Right now this means a shift toward APCs and away from licenses and subscriptions, over time other funding models should emerge. Such a shift would be extremely painful for all concerned at first, destabilizing for longer, and eventually so normal that nobody will remember it was ever any different. The conceptual point here is that the library, as a place devoted to maximizing access to information, is (finally) putting its money where its mouth is.
  • From publishers: A shift in business strategy, away from selling locked-down content and toward developing services that allow for sophisticated interaction with, and analysis of, scholarly content. There are some efforts along these lines now, but they are all within a paradigm that the article is king and will remain (in the main) pay-only. Sci-Hub shows that the writing is on the wall for that model, so it’s time to re-think the role of publishing as a service provider rather than content source.
  • From grant funders: A commitment to only pay for immediately open research, ending forever the concept of an “embargo.” Scholarly communication is not pre Obama-era Cuba.

In writing all of this up, I am reminded yet again of the extremely complex ecosystem that we call “scholarly communication.” There is no particular reason why a Provost will care about the impact factor, or why a faculty leader will demand an end to “scholarly containers.” This is all somewhat abstract and theoretical, and there is no sufficient convening power to compel all of the independent actors within this system to cooperate. [Insert big, sad, lengthy sigh here]

But if something is a good idea, that is true regardless of how hard it will be to implement it. And reinventing a scholarly communication system that was born in 1665, to take full advantage of the glorious and capacious internet, is the very definition of good idea.