Thursday 31 January 2013

The Basics of Scholarly Communications in the UK

In the decade since the Budapest Open Access Initiative declared a new public good, there have been many expositions of the advantage and inevitability of Open Access and its consequences for new modes of scientific enquiry. Tony Hey (who has just claim to 'first cause' of UK open access in his position of Head of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton)  has recently started a series of blog posts A Journey to Open Access that gives a very accessible introduction to the topic. Stevan Harnad (who was given a chair in ECS by the same Tony Hey) also blogs extensively at Open Access Archivangelism.

In my lesser role of championing repositories and developing the capabilities of the EPrints platform, I have had the privilege of working with library and information professionals to try to explain the principles of Open Access to a broad range of academics and researchers, and I have been struck by the almost total lack of understanding of the UK scholarly communication infrastructure shown by my research colleagues.

To help those who have been too busy writing papers to appreciate how those papers appear and now find themselves ├╝ber-confused and offended by the Finch regime, I offer the following diagram as an introduction to Everything You Need To Know on the topic. Forget the dissemination of papers and the transfer of knowledge that form the scholarly publishing cycle, this is all about influence and power.
Publishing companies have pushed governments towards Gold Open Access (more money for publishers) and pulled universities away from Green Open Access (no-cost parallel dissemination).  Researchers themselves have sided with publishing companies and learned societies (who act like sub-branches of publishing companies) to try to maintain the stability of the publishing industry, irrespective of the health of the university sector on which it depends!

Consequently, we now have a government proposal (the Finch report) to pay publishers twice! Once to make UK research open access whilst still retaining subscription access to the non-UK material. It's a kind of Westminster Open Access Initiative stating that an old tradition of scholarly publishing and a new technology of the Web have converged to make possible an unprecedented injection of public cash for publishers

The only reasonable way forward is for researchers to take the initiative, and to show the kind of academic leadership that Professors Hey and Harnad demonstrated a decade ago - to start being proactive in their own scholarly communications. The easiest way to do that is to start using the existing repository infrastructure provided by their universities and supported by their libraries. 

Researchers already hold all the cards, they don't need to be held to ransom in this Finchian standoff. They are the producers and consumers and quality control agents that create every aspect of the literature, they are also the community that defines its own criteria for professional advancement and assessment. Everything they think that they depend on the publishing industry for, they can actually achieve for themselves.


  1. I would love repositories to be the solution to achieving universal Open Access, and in principle I think they can do it. In practice, though, they seem hampered by all sorts of problems that together render them inadequate.

    * Many institutions don't even HAVE an IR, or if they do it doesn't work.
    * Many scholars aren't associated with an institution and so don't know where they should reposit.
    * Many IRs have abject discovery facilities.
    * Many IRs impose unnecessary restrictions on the use of the materials they contain.
    * There is no central point for searching all IRs (at least not one that is half-decent; I know about OAIster).
    * The quality of metadata within most IRs variable at best
    * Use of metadata across IRs is inconsistent.
    * ... and, I am sure, many more that I've not thought of right now.

    Could these issues be addressed? Yes, probably; but ten years have unfortunately not done much to resolve them, so I don't feel all that confident that the next ten will.

    Do you guys have a plan for solving these problems? Because they are much more political/sociological than technical, and those always seem to be the hardest ones to solve.

    1. To be honest, my post tackles the single most inhibiting factor in the development of repositories: publishers. They petition government on the one hand and frighten authors with arbitrary, inconsistent and unfair rules on the other. Take the publishers' handbrake off OA and you'll see a huge upturn in adoption and innovation in the sector.

      My short responses to your points are:
      * enough do
      * ennough are
      * google
      * see publishers
      * google, google scholar, microsoft academic search...
      * true, but so?
      * equally true of all information systems. Libraries included.
      * See Harnad's list of 38 objections to OA.

    2. I'm with you that publishers attempt to do these things, but that is the nature of the beast and hence unsurprising. Cats corner mice, companies corner markets. From the point of view of a publisher, what they are doing is a matter of self-preservation.

      However, governments don't have to play nice with publishers. If you want to pinpoint the source of the rot, I would look for it in the world of politics. Unlike companies, their continued employment does not in general depend on acting to the advantage of any given industry. To do so is a matter of choice.

      Personally I would speculate that within a fairly short period of time an extra couple of arrows will be added to your excellent diagram: academics tell government and publishers to get knotted. However, I would also speculate that there will be something of a race between the development of the get-knotted attitude and the flip side of Gold OA: the likely financial abandonment of the IR infrastructure that would support the activity. It won't have escaped the notice of the funders that in paying upfront for Gold OA they are essentially giving publishers several thousand a pop to provide 'sustainable' ongoing access to research outputs, sustainable here being defined as 'it hasn't failed yet'. Presumably relevant funding bodies are already wondering why anyone would pay for an institutional repo as well. Why wrestle with the (soluble) problems of distributed infrastructure when one can cut the Gordian knot by abandoning it and outsourcing it to somebody else?

      The obvious IR funders probably wouldn't say this right now. They are not saying much about much. But from the point of view of central govt: they've put their mates in publishing in charge of open access provision; why would they support the ragtag piecemeal alternative too? Of course this could be entirely incorrect. However, it looks as though it's going to be a very tough time for existing open access infrastructure, which may need to fall back on local and regional university-level support for the get-knotted agenda to become a reality.

      We shall see...

    3. "However, governments don't have to play nice with publishers" <-- THIS.

      That is precisely the point, and the reason I am so desperately disappointed with the recent House Of Lords inquiry into open access.

  2. Ah, I should have said up front. I absolutely agree that so-called "publishers", who in fact inhibit publication as their business, are our enemies. I am taking it as a given that we can expect no help from them, and will have to overcome hindrances.

    The problems I listed above are in a sense more unfortunately, because they're the ones imposed by our friends. And I am afraid that "enough do"/"enough are" really doesn't cut it. If OA isn't for everyone, then we haven't achieved the freedom that is its primary aim.

    (I would like to see single, gigantic and properly resourced mega-repository -- something like arXiv -- for ideally all the research in the world, but if not that then at least all the research in the UK.)