May 26, 2017

An Interview with Peter Suber on Open Access | Not Dead Yet

Cheryl LaGuardiaPeter Suber is the director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication (OSC), director of the Harvard Open Access Project (HOAP), a Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and senior researcher at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). He holds a PhD in philosophy and a JD, both from Northwestern University; sits on the boards of many groups devoted to open access (OA) and scholarly communication; and has been active in promoting open access for more than a decade through his research, speaking, and writing. His most recent book is Open Access (MIT, 2012), which Choice named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2013.

I had the chance to hear Suber speak about OA here in the library not long ago, and I came away wanting to hear him say more about it. So I asked if I could interview him for this column, and he said yes. I set up an appointment for the interview and then did a little research about him.

By the time I arrived in his office for the interview, I was practically tongue-tied, having read the Wikipedia article linked above; his homepage; Richard Poynder’s “Open and Shut? 2007 Basement Interviews: Peter Suber” and his “Open and Shut?” 2013 interview, “Peter Suber on the State of Open Access: Where Are We, What Still Needs To Be Done?”; a brief summary of his book, The Paradox of Self-Amendment: A Study of Logic, Law, Omnipotence, and Change (Peter Lang, 1990); and a scan through the first three pages of his Northwestern University doctoral dissertation, Kierkegaard’s Concept of Irony Especially in Relation to Freedom, Personality, and Dialectic (yes, I had access to the entire dissertation through our wonderful e-resources, but a quick look at those three pages brought me once again the knowledge that, as Lord Peter Wimsey told the Warden of Harriet Vane’s Oxford college, “I have not the philosophic mind,” and I fled fearfully from further philosophical full-text). I was pretty much terrified of the man’s intellect.

So I did the only sensible thing: I confessed my trepidation immediately. Suber smiled and put me at my ease quietly. Here are paraphrased summaries of his answers to my questions.

What can librarians do to help the cause of open access?
Librarians can help by supporting efforts to adopt an OA policy at their institution and then by supporting the policy itself. These policies are generally adopted by faculty and need faculty leadership. But at many schools faculty councils were moved to act by compelling presentations from librarians. Plus, most institutional OA repositories are managed by the library. Not all librarians are well informed about OA, but as a class they’re much better informed than faculty. This creates opportunities for librarians to talk with faculty about OA, to help inform them about what it actually is, and to bring them into the conversation about OA. Librarians are also in the front line pushing for enlightened government policies, since they’re well organized nationally. Library associations have routinely lobbied for federal OA policies, and they’re unusually persistent and effective, more effective than the better-funded publisher lobbyists.

What can we do to discourage publication in “scam” OA journals?
First, scam OA journals do exist, just as scam subscription journals exist. On the other side, first-rate OA journals also exist, just as first-rate subscription journals also exist. There’s a full range of quality on both sides of the line. Authors often need help identifying the first-rate OA journals, or at least steering clear of the frauds, and librarians can help with that. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is a “white list” of trustworthy OA journals. The decisions to include journals in the DOAJ reflect the judgments of newly established editorial groups, not the opinions of a single individual. The DOAJ adopted new criteria in March 2014 for listing journals and was motivated by librarians’ scrupulousness to be careful and get it right.

Most folks know about green and gold open access but what about hybrid open access journals?
Hybrid OA journals are a subset of OA journals, or gold OA. A hybrid OA journal publishes some OA articles and some non-OA articles, when the choice is the author’s rather than the editor’s. Usually the OA option carries a fee, sometimes called an APC or article processing charge. The APC covers the publisher’s cost of production, so that readers or their libraries don’t have to cover those costs through subscriptions. Unfortunately, most hybrid OA journals don’t lower their subscription prices in proportion to the uptake of the OA option. Hence, they’re being paid twice for the OA articles, once by subscriptions and again by APCs. There are some exceptions, such as Cambridge University Press, whose OA journals actually do lower their subscription prices to cover just the non-OA content.

The hybrid OA model is no risk for publishers, since if the uptake on the OA option is low, they already have subscriptions to cover their costs. However, the author uptake is very low, only about two percent. Some universities have funds to pay APCs for faculty who choose to publish in fee-based OA journals. We have one at Harvard, for example, called the HOPE (Harvard Open-Access Publishing Equity) fund. But HOPE only pays APCs at full-OA journals, not hybrids. If we’re going to pay fees to an OA journal, we want to create an incentive for full OA, not just hybrid OA. We want more authors and readers to benefit from OA and libraries to save money now spent on subscriptions.

Because hybrid is no-risk, it has spread like wildfire. I used to think that was good, since at least it gave publishers firsthand experience with the economics of fee-based OA journals. But I changed my mind about that years ago. Because these journals still have subscriptions, they have no incentive to make the OA option attractive. The economics are artificial. Moreover, as I mentioned, most hybrid OA journals double-dip, which is dishonest. But even when it’s honest, it’s still a small OA step that’s often mistaken for a big one.

About 70 percent of OA journals charge no APCs at all. We’ve known this for a decade, but it’s still widely overlooked by people who should know better. If you look at the OA landscape you’ll see a variety of ways these no-fee OA journals raise the revenue they need to publish. Most get subsidies from institutions such as universities, foundations, museums, hospitals, scholarly societies, government agencies, and sometimes even for-profit companies. The journal Nature experimented with this and published many OA “supplements” for which for-profit companies provided the needed subsidy. Other no-fee OA journals get their revenue from ad hoc coalitions of organizations with an interest in seeing a high-quality peer-reviewed journal thrive in a certain field or on a certain topic. Unfortunately, no one has yet done a systematic study of all the different ways that no-fee OA journals raise revenue.

What would it take to convert the bulk of subscription journals to OA?
Money already spent on journals by academic libraries is more than enough to pay for high-quality OA journals in every scholarly niche. We don’t need new money, we just need to redirect the money we already spend. There are large and small redirection efforts going on right now. The most ambitious is probably the Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics (SCOAP3), which is trying to convert all the subscription journals in particle physics to OA. It has succeeded in bringing all the stakeholder organizations together, including the labs doing the research, the publishers that publish the results, and the libraries that pay for the publications. It’s now in its implementation phase. It’s the first attempt to convert all journals in a field to OA, and there’s good reason to think it could work in other fields as well.

A smaller kind of redirection takes place whenever a single subscription journal converts to OA. While more than 2,000 journals have already done this, so far there has been no systematic study of what paths they took and which paths work best in which fields. The Harvard Library grant from Arcadia is now funding a literature review to fill this need. We’re supervising it in the Office for Scholarly Communication. It will document the actual pathways to conversion taken by journals that have converted, as well as proposed pathways of conversion. It will gather data on the consequences of conversion in different niches. When it’s done, we’ll open it for public comment. We’ll also ask a panel of experts to review it and endorse certain pathways for certain scholarly niches and perhaps advise against others. Then we’ll make the whole thing OA, of course. Phase 2 of the project will take the results to publishers and ask them to consider the conversion pathways documented in study for journals of their type.

Many kinds of journals are now contemplating a conversion to OA—for-profit and nonprofit, sciences and humanities, in the global north and global south. The goal of our study is to help them deliberate with better information. Of course, the more journals that convert, the more we accelerate the general redirection of funds from subscriptions to OA and the more we change author and publisher expectations. Some OA publishers are for-profit, and some of the for-profit OA publishers are profitable. Some conventional publishers are just waiting for evidence on different conversion options, and we plan to provide it.

Read eReviews, where Cheryl LaGuardia and Bonnie J.M. Swoger look under the hood of the latest library databases and often offer free database trials

Cheryl LaGuardia About Cheryl LaGuardia

Cheryl LaGuardia always wanted to be a librarian, and has been one for more years than she's going to admit. She cracked open her first CPU to install a CD-ROM card in the mid-1980s, pioneered e-resource reviewing for Library Journal in the early '90s (picture calico bonnets and prairie schooners on the web...), won the Louis Shores / Oryx Press Award for Professional Reviewing, and has been working for truth, justice, and better electronic library resources ever since. Reach her at, where she's a Research Librarian at Harvard University.

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  1. An excellent interview. Pleased to see Peter S. has concluded that “hybrid” journals aren’t the way forward…and his note that there are questionable and good journals on both OA and subscription sides. Also love his understated comparison regarding librarians and faculty! (Hmm. If “2% takeup” is across the board, then hybrid OA might add around 40,000 articles to the 480,000+ published by reputable Gold OA journals in 2014. Interesting.)

    • Thanks for writing, Walt, and for the nice words about the interview. Keep your eyes open for a sequel to this, since Peter and I were really just getting started on the discussion when I had to run to a public service desk, and he’s invited me to continue our conversation. I plan to take him up on his kind offer.
      Best wishes, and good to hear from you,