Widespread acceptance of open access has progressed more slowly than many advocates had hoped. One such advocate, Dr. Peter Suber, explains the barriers and misconceptions, and offers some strategic and practical advice.
From its inception, the open access or OA publishing model has had two main driving forces. One is practical—a response to the ubiquitous, and typically free Internet. Like their counterparts in other publishing endeavors, academic authors and their publishing partners have had to find viable economic alternatives to protectionist subscription models. The other driver is altruistic. If peer-reviewed, academic research findings are freely available to more people, then subsequent research will be quantitatively and qualitatively improved. Humanity as a whole, it is argued, will benefit.
Despite this two-pronged argument, and despite significant backing from institutional and government funding sources, progress towards widespread OA adoption has been slow.
We spoke to long-time proponent of open access, Dr. Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Library Office for Scholarly Communication. We asked him to summarize the challenges and misconceptions surrounding OA publishing, and provide some guidance to his fellow advocates.
Library Journal: I’m sure most of our readers know who you are, but could you give us a glimpse of how you first became involved with open access?
Peter Suber: I got started in the mid 1990s when I began converting my philosophy publications to HTML and posting them on my web site. Immediately I started getting more feedback from my free online versions than I ever did from the print editions. That’s when I realized that the web could become a serious medium for scholarship. I began corresponding with other scholars who shared my excitement about this possibility, and this correspondence eventually morphed into my newsletter. In the beginning, I wished that someone else would write that newsletter so that I could read it and continue with my other work. But since no one was filling that niche, in a couple of years I became the expert I was waiting for.
LJ: Who should be promoting open access—other than scholars and those who read articles?
PS: Everyone who writes and reads research literature has good reasons to promote open access. But researchers are not the only beneficiaries. Because open access accelerates research, it accelerates the development of new medicines, new technologies, improved journalism, improved education, improved policies, and solved problems. Everybody who wants those benefits to accrue to the general public should advocate it.
LJ: In general, what are the best strategies or practices for OA advocates?
PS: I don’t think there’s one single set of best strategies. For example, there are moral arguments and practical arguments. Both are legitimate, and with different groups, both are persuasive. I support the moral arguments, but tend to focus on the practical arguments, perhaps ironically, since much of my work in philosophy was in ethics. I’ve found that that the practical arguments work better when addressing large audiences that may contain hidden or subtle moral disagreements. If you’re a publishing author, then open access enlarges your audience increases your impact. Scholars write journal articles for impact, not for money. Journals never bought their articles or paid royalties. For the author of a journal article, the overriding interest is to maximize that impact by distributing the work to everyone who might want to read it, apply it, cite it, or build on it. Online distribution does that better than print, and open access does it better than paywalled access. Only conventional publishers have an interest in limiting distribution, for example, to paying customers.
LJ: What about the strategic issues for readers of scholarship?
PS: Readers want to find new work relevant to their research, and when they find them, they want to retrieve and read them. But on the whole, we’re solving the discoverability problem faster than we’re solving the retrievability problem. With today’s powerful search engines, we can often discover relevant new work that we cannot retrieve. The works are not open access and our institutions do not subscribe. Readers want open access because it solves the retrievability problem. Not incidentally, it also helps solve the discoverability problem, by making more works indexable by more search engines.
LJ: You’ve talked about strategy. Is there any tactical advice you can give to OA advocates?
PS: It matters if you’re talking to junior or senior academics, or to those in the sciences or the humanities, or to those in the global north or the global south. So long as your arguments are honest, and you’re citing evidence, use the arguments that move the audience you’re talking to.
For example, to an audience that cares about citations, there is very good evidence that open access works are cited more often than others. Sometimes, the ethical arguments are the most effective. Sometimes, you have to appeal to self-interest. And of course, you need to be clear. Even if you’re talking to academics, you’re almost certainly talking to people outside your discipline. Try to overcome academic jargon and the idioms and colloquialisms of your field. You don’t have to dress up the benefits of open access. The plainer you can speak, the more effective you’ll be.
LJ: How should OA advocates deal with barriers, particularly inertia within institutions and among researchers and faculty?
PS: There are several causes of this inertia. One is unfamiliarity. Many scholars simply don’t know what their open-access options are, or they only know one or two options, not the full range. Another cause is the set of existing incentives. For example, many promotion and tenure committees create incentives to publish in journals with a high impact factor, regardless of its quality and regardless of its access policies. But the impact factor is not a good metric for journal quality, article quality, or author quality, and it inadvertently creates disincentives to publish in newer journals. This disincentive hurts even subscription journals on new topics. It hurts open-access journals as a class since on average they are younger than subscription journals.
LJ: What about other barriers, like misconceptions about OA itself?
PS: One misconception is the notion that all OA is gold OA, or OA through journals. That was never true. Green OA, or OA through repositories, existed before any OA journals. For at least a decade the majority of subscription journal publishers have explicitly permitted green OA in their publishing contracts. But the permissibility of green OA, and even its existence, are still among the OA movement’s best-kept secrets. Scholars too often assume that if they cannot publish in an OA journal – because they cannot afford an APC, or because they cannot find a good one in their field, or because their tenure committee wouldn’t be impressed – then they cannot make their work OA at all. That’s false and harmful.
Another misconception is that all OA journals levy article processing charges or APCs. In reality, only 30% of peer-reviewed OA journal charge APCs. The majority charge no fees at all. Also, where an OA journal does charge a fee, many scholars believe that the author is expected to pay it out of pocket. This happens in only about 12% of cases. Most of the time, these fees are paid by funders or universities. These false assumptions have been exposed and refuted dozens of times for more than a decade. But progress has not been rapid.
LJ: Do you have hope that this will be resolved at some point?
PS: I do. If you could chart the growth of OA, you’d see that the curve is rising, and has been rising since the birth of the internet. The same is true for the growth of good understanding about OA. In both cases, the growth is slower than OA advocates want, including me, and it’s slower than our opportunities permit. But these curves are up, not flat or down, and we should not mistake slow progress for non-progress. There are many reasons for this slowness. Among them are the difficulty of making deep institutional change, and the difficulty redirecting money from subscription access to open access. Another, an ironic side-effect of progress, is that newcomers are entering all the time. This is unquestionably good, but it means that we need to continue to correct newcomer misunderstandings. However, whenever we identify the obstacles we face, and step back, we see that we’ve been making steady progress in overcoming them. That’s why I’m an optimist. Moreover, not all progress faces large obstacles. It’s very easy for individual authors to make their own work OA, either through a journal or repository, and if they did that systematically, the larger problems would disappear.
LJ: Practically speaking, how can the workflows for open access be summarized?
PS: As I just mentioned, authors have two large choices. They can select an OA journal in their field. After that, the process is essentially the same as publishing a conventional journal. If the journal charges a fee, the author has to find the right source —usually the author’s funder or employer. On the other side, the choice is to publish anywhere, then deposit the peer-reviewed manuscript in an OA repository. That step is new — new 20 years ago, not new today — and it’s not difficult. It takes 5-10 minutes to do it the first time, and less time after that. You need deposit rights in an OA repository. There are now almost 4,000 universities with repositories in which their faculty may deposit. There are also disciplinary repositories, such as the arXiv at Cornell, SSRN in the social sciences, and PubMed Central in biomedicine. People in the right field can deposit these without regard to their institutional affiliation.
LJ: In the face of inertia and slower than expected growth, what do you say to encourage other open access advocates?
PS: When talking to authors, I tell them, look at the good you just did or could do by providing OA to your work. The OA that you can provide through your own decisions benefits you, benefits the people who care about your work, and benefits your field. We could dwell on the percentage of work that’s not yet open, and be daunted by the size of the task, or we could look at the work that’s already open —which is much larger than it was a couple of years ago— and celebrate.