These trailblazers are paving the way for Open Access

Ever since I joined the quest to break the vicious cycle that locks research behind paywalls, I’ve been asking everyone involved in the world of scientific publishing to share their views on what they think is necessary to achieve that goal. I’ve received a lot of great feedback already (keep it coming though), but also: a question.

A fair question. After all, if I’m starting a new initiative, it’s good to be aware of what’s already there:

  • Am I not duplicating efforts?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of other initiatives?
  • How can I complement what people are already doing?

So here we go: these developments have, in my view, the greatest potential to positively impact the publishing industry and its transition to fair Open Access.

arXiv.org / preprint servers

Started in 1991, arXiv is the grandparent of all Open Access initiatives, and even predates the Budapest Open Access Initiative by a decade. It allows researchers to share their articles free of charge before it has undergone peer review, typesetting, the whole shebang. It is wildly successful, with practically every article in fields such as physics or mathematics appearing first in preprint form on arXiv.

That said, as far as I’m aware, it hasn’t yet led to libraries actually being able to cancel their journal subscriptions. The fields in which use of arXiv is widespread are still largely dependent on the traditional publishing industry for peer review — especially early-career researchers who have yet to build a reputation for themselves.

It also focuses on a select few disciplines, limiting its reach. The question is whether this concept can be successful in other fields, where there is no preprint culture and researchers might be afraid of being “scooped”. A glimmer of hope is the great work the Center for Open Science has been doing recently in supporting the communities of more and more disciplines to set up their own arXives (SocArXiv, PaleorXiv, INA-Rxiv — you name it), and I’m looking forward to seeing how well they manage to scale up the preprint model.

Funders funding publishers

Another development that I think has potential is that of funders taking publishing in their own hands. F1000Research has worked with first Wellcome and later the Gates Foundation to launch Wellcome Open Research and Gates Open Research, respectively: publishing outlets in which all researchers funded by these foundations can publish their research, free of charge, free for all to read. Even more recently, the European Commission announced plans to launch their own publishing platform, Open Research Europe.

If all funders would maintain their own publishing platforms, there would theoretically be no barriers to read nor publish research outcomes. Thus, it will be interesting to see whether this model will catch on with other funders.

That said, this model can only work if funders step away from using the Impact Factor as a way to determine whom to award a grant or tenure — because right now, authors are under pressure to keep publishing in the traditional journals to avoid harming their career, and thus can be inclined to forego the funders’ journals.

Barring execution-specific remarks, however, the main reason I’m excited about this development is that funders have incentive to both keep costs low and the quality of research high. Thus, having them responsible for the publishing process is likely to be a good thing.

Journals flipping and collective funding

In 2015, the entire editorial board of Elsevier’s subscription journal Lingua resigned to start Glossa: a Fair Open Access journal. Theirs was arguably the most prolific case in a larger movement of journals “flipping”, now mostly organised under the banner of the Fair Open Access Alliance.

There are two things that have me enthusiastic about this movement. First, it‘s that it’s the researchers taking matters into their own hands. In the end, they are the ones who have to do the work of actually publishing in Open Access journals. In my opinion, the transition to Open Access is most likely to succeed if researchers themselves consider it an important goal to achieve.

The second notable feature — and this one’s mostly to the credit of the Open Library of Humanities — is that it’s paired with a new, bottom-up way of funding. University libraries joined together as a collective to fund OLH journals, freeing the editors from the task of fundraising and allowing them to focus on what they do best: ensuring the quality of the research published in the journal.

My main reservation is that journals flipping are still a relatively rare occurrence, making up not more than a handful of journals that I’ve heard of so far. This might have to do with the fact that launching a new journal is still a rather daunting task. Furthermore, Lingua was an important journal in a relatively compact field, allowing its editorial board to transfer its reputation rather unscathed to Glossa. Not every board might be willing to take that risk, though, however enthusiastic about Open Access they might be.

Another important question is how well the model is able to grow to sustain a large number of journals. It’s not quite clear yet how long the cooperative funding model will hold when more and more journals need to be supported this way.

And… Sci-Hub

On the one hand, I didn’t want to include Sci-Hub on this list. Sci-Hub is a website that uses credentials it received from researchers at institutions all over the world to download any article its visitors would like to read — whether that article is behind a paywall or not. I’m sure that Sci-Hub has been of great use to many people already, and I’m also fairly confident that it hasn’t (yet?) impacted the publishers’ revenues, despite its dubious legal position. However, Sci-Hub is not a viable future for Open Access publishing. It still relies on the traditional publishers publishing scientific literature, and by extension on the libraries funding them through subscriptions.

(It also doesn’t help that it’s mainly ran by a single person that is accountable to no one, e.g. when she blocks access for a large number of researchers after being offended by a few of them.)

On the other hand, there are things to be learned from Sci-Hub. People are using Sci-Hub even at universities with high subscription coverage, and sometimes even for articles that already are free to access. The takeaway is that researchers are humans too (obviously), and that ease-of-use still matters. If a researcher has to choose between jumping through hoops to get access to an article they need, or simply entering its DOI in Sci-Hub and start reading, they will be likely to choose the path of least resistance. And if you’re an Open Access publisher, you’ll have a leg up already.

It can also creates funding opportunities for new Open Access initiatives. If researchers are able to easily get access to the articles they want anyway, even if they’re not supposed to, they will put less pressure on libraries to buy subscriptions. In turn, this buys the libraries a stronger position in price negotiations with the publishers, making the threat of cancelling an actually realistic one. And the cancellation of subscriptions might lead to funds being freed up to support Open Access initiatives, like the Open Library of Humanities.

We might actually witness whether it plays out this way relatively soon, as more and more German institutions have cancelled their Elsevier subscriptions as part of its Projekt DEAL negotiations.

It’s not over yet

Despite the fact that Open Access movement has so far not succeeded in liberating all scholarly articles from behind the publisher paywall, the game is not over yet. The initiatives above show that there’s still hope for a future where all research is immediately available to use, without requiring excessive fees for publication.

Of course, this review is not comprehensive: there are many more initiatives that do things right and do things wrong. Which do you consider most promising, and why? And are there lessons to be learned that I missed? As usual, I’d love to hear from you: Vincent@Flockademic.com or @Flockademic.

I’m finding out how best to open up access to scientific articles. Sign up for the mailinglist or follow Flockademic on Twitter to join me on the journey.