The interview that I did for Jisc was conducted via Skype, by the very able Michelle Pauli. We talked for some time, and obviously much of what was said had to be cut for length (and no doubt some repetition).
To my pleasant surprise, though, Michelle prepared a complete transcript of our talk before the cutting started. So in the tradition of DVD movies, I am now able to offer the Deleted Scenes. I hope that some of what follows is of interest.
How would you describe the current state of play of open access in the UK?
I think there are two answers to that. One is it’s enormously encouraging that it’s come so far over the last few years. The other is it’s just terribly discouraging that there’s so very far to go and that so much of the control of how we go about publishing things is still in the hands of organisations that really have no interest — in the full sense — in how science progresses but really are driven primarily by what publishing can do for them commercially.
How about the level of debate in recent times?
The situation is that we have these huge, very well-established publishers that have been running and dominating the game for decades, and commercial consolidations have meant that even the relatively small number of publishers that dominated 20 years ago now are even fewer now — so people like Elsevier and Wiley and Taylor & Francis now control a vast proportion of the overall academic publishing market.
So those organisations obviously exist primarily to make money for their shareholders or their owners. I’m not saying they have no other motivations but that’s their primary motivation and certainly the executives that they hire to run the companies have that goal very much in mind. So it’s not surprising that those companies are desperate to hang onto what is essentially a cash mill for them,where they’re working with content that’s generated by very highly skilled professionals, where they pay no money in exchange for that content, and go onto sell it.
Obviously, they’re desperate to hang on to that market model and, as a result, what we often see from representatives of these publishers is statements that are, I think … charitably you could say are terribly misinformed; a more cynical and perhaps more realistic perspective would be that they’re deliberately misleading and clouding issues, trying to reopen discussions that have long been decided, casting doubt on things that really carry no doubt, forever equivocating and trying to add complexity to what are essentially simple discussions.
So what we end up is with situations where we have groups of people with an interest in open access and scholarly publishing more generally, when you have them gathered together, and we could have been having discussions about how precisely we want to push the whole thing forward; but you always find people from these major publishers as well, always impeding those discussions and throwing up road blocks and ifs and buts and maybes, and slowing things down or bringing them to a complete halt. So that’s what I mean about the quality of the discussion.
Although the quality of the debate within the open access advocacy field is also quite, I can’t think of the word. What word am I looking at here?
It can be disappointingly rancorous at times …
… and the reason is that we’ve got these two routes towards open access which we call Gold and Green. And each of those have advocates, who at times seem to be not so much open access advocates who favour one of the routes but advocates for one of the routes who are actively opposed to the other routes. And that can be unhelpful. But that said, they are some very difficult discussions to reach a conclusion on and I admit I go backwards and forwards on this myself, which of these two approaches is going to be better in the long term.
People talk about gold open access suffering from the fact that it’s expensive. Of course that’s only true if you ignore the money that they spend on subscriptions while they’re running Green open access. So I think a lot of the arguments that are used in favour of either of those routes against the other can be misleading, and probably to some degree is also tied up with the degree of emotional investment people have in the different approaches.
How are things going to move forward? What’s the best way to work with legacy publishers to keep things moving forward or is that not even possible, and then what happens?
Honestly, my take is that the existence of the legacy publishers is a net negative. If I could wave a magic wand and have those publishers cease to exist overnight, I would do it unhesitatingly. Then we’d have a period of two or three months of chaos and then we’d settle into an equilibrium that I think would be much better than what we have at the moment.
I’m not really interested in working with the legacy publishers at the moment. I have often tried to communicate constructively with people from Elsevier in particular and along the way I’ve written lots of blog posts about how I feel Elsevier could change its behaviour in a way that would make it not just tolerable but actively seen as a friend of progress. I’ve reached a point now where I’ve realized that just isn’t going to happen and I don’t really feel that there’s any … while there are individuals at all of those publishers who would very much like to do the right thing, the organisations they are working for just makes it impossible. Not going to work.
We won’t make good progress by for example persuading Elsevier to slightly loosen their requirements on which things can be published as green open access and how long the embargos are and what license they are available under. I think ultimately where we need to get to is somewhere where we just not beholden to these organisations at all and we’re doing what’s best for scholarship rather than what’s best for Elsevier.
Going back to infrastructure, and the possibilities that are there, does the community have to get to own its own infrastructure otherwise you’d have a situation with Elsevier and SSRN and Mendeley and it being taken over again. How does that work?
[Part of the answer was included in the published interview. Then:] Whatever we build absolutely needs to be wrapped around with these kinds of things, and that’s to do with the software being open for example so that if a bad actor does somehow gain control of the organisation then it can be forked and run elsewhere. It’s to do with having financial firewalls between various parts of the organisation. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that they’ve really thought through in detail.
I wonder if you could put on your futurologist hat now and finally say what do you think is going to happen next in open access?
I couldn’t pick one out. There are several possibilities. One is that we’re starting to see deals coming up now where large organisations are getting offsetting for open access article processing charges with the big publishers. What they’re doing is trying to make a sort of revenue-neutral conversion from the current system to a gold open access one. It may be that that eventually catches on and becomes the way that increasing numbers of organisations and countries make things happen. Would I be happy with that? Yeah, I would. Because although I still think it’s bad that these large corporations should have control over the scientific record, I think if it’s freely available to anyone that’s still a huge step forward from where we are now.
Another possibility we’re seeing is that every now and then we’re starting to get stories about universities just cancelling various subscription contracts — or, more realistically, not renewing them when they expire — and finding other ways to make do. Presumably, the money that they were spending on that, they’re investing in other more open forms of scholarly infrastructure. So the long term future that I suppose I would like to see is an increase, an acceleration in that tendency. Resulting in far more money being diverted from subscriptions and being put into other ways of disseminating scholarly outputs.
Will Brexit have any impact on this area?
Yeah, what a horrible thought. A lot of the really good things that have been happening in open access recently have been in the European Union. So you probably know that Horizon 2020 programme has an enormous amount of funding for open access, and for building open access infrastructure, it is responsible for the OpenAire repository which is joining up the scholarly record of European countries all around the continent. The idea of being isolated from all of that is just one of the many awful consequences of the most short sighted political decision in my lifetime.
So yeah, absolutely it’s a setback. Because everything we want to do in academia completely doesn’t respect national boundaries at all. By its very nature what we do is international and we have international collaborators and we work in other countries. So anything like this, that’s to do with rebuilding the historic borders that used to separate our various countries, is a terrible step back not only for academia but for civilisation.