Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Getting scientific about the merits of OA

Joe Esposito, Putting Science into Science Publishing, Publishing Frontier, December 11, 2007.  Excerpt:

...I am myself an advocate of many forms of OA publishing, so in criticizing some aspects of the OA agenda, I am not attempting to argue the other side, that is, the side of traditional publishing, especially by practitioners in the commercial sector. What I do not advocate is using baseless or incomplete arguments in support of anything, whether OA, WMD, or steroids in baseball....

There is a lot that is right (meaning well-argued, credible, and substantiated) about OA, but here is a partial list of what is not. For starters, there is the repeated insistence that librarians are stupid. The form this assertion takes is to argue that librarians will continue to pay for something that they can get for free....

[I]n a survey conducted by Alma Swan et al, it was found that 81% of researchers say that they would comply with mandates. Now, what does this prove exactly? More than 81% of Americans comply for the most part with the U.S. Tax Code, but that is hardly indicative of support for the current administration or the way tax monies are spent. What it does reveal is a healthy respect for the punitive powers of The Man. In OA circles, however, a forecast compliance with a mandate is viewed as the equivalent of democratic support.

A more complicated item, and one that is more susceptible to reasoned argument, is what is called the Open Access Advantage. No, this is not a frequent flier program but the notion that authors who work in OA formats are more likely to be cited than authors who work in proprietary or “toll-access” media. Superficially, this may appear to make sense; after all, if everyone can read an OA article, surely it has a better chance of getting cited than an article that has more limited distribution by virtue of the constraints imposed by subscription barriers. On the other hand, an article in the toll-access Lancet is much more likely to be cited than an article deposited in a no-name repository, with only Google keyword searching enabling the poor, already overburdened reader. Once again we find Alma Swan behind this.

The problem with the alleged Open Access Advantage is, first, it entirely ignores the overall marketing context of any particular work. The fact is that some OA venues are brilliantly marketed; I would point to the Public Library of Science in particular. But marketing is not a constant; it varies journal by journal, issue by issue, and article by article. Swan’s analysis does not take these variables into account.

More fundamentally, though, we have here the common but huge mistake of many people...[to believe] that the Internet has arrived, that its current state pretty much resembles its future state....Better to think of the current stage of the Internet (switching metaphors) as the second inning of a nine-inning ballgame. Before this game is over, entirely new and as-yet undreamed-of ways to call attention to content on the Internet will arise, and whatever advantage OA may hold today (in some circumstances for some articles) will be handed off to other publishing forms–which may, in time, hand them back to OA. The wheel goes ’round; where it stops, nobody knows.

Advocates of toll-access or traditional publishing should take no comfort from this. While many of the arguments for OA are offered in bad faith or with the best of intentions but the worst of reasoning, there is one stubborn fact about the Internet and OA, and that is that it is very, very easy for someone to connect to the Internet and upload content. OA is thus at a minimum an inevitable and unstoppable phenomenon. The justifications for it may be doubtful, but the fact of it is indisputable.

PS:  Before responding myself, I can save a lot of time by quoting Stevan Harnad's comments:  Putting Science Publishing Into Perspective, Open Access Archivangelism, December 15, 2007.  Excerpt:

Commentary on: "Putting Science into Science Publishing" by Joseph Esposito, Publishing Frontier (blog) December 11 2007.

The posting contains the by now familiar litany of lapses:

(1) Open Access is not only or even primarily about Open Access Publishing (Gold OA): It is about OA itself, which includes Green OA, the far bigger and faster-growing form of OA: Authors making their own published, peer-reviewed non-OA journal articles (not only or primarily their unpublished preprints) OA by self-archiving them in their own OA Institutional Repositories. Only 10% of journals are Gold OA, but over 90% of journals endorse immediate Green OA self-archiving by their authors -- with over 60% endorsing the immediate self-archiving of the author's final peer-reviewed draft.

(2) The question of whether librarians will cancel journals is not about Gold OA: It is about Green OA. Joseph Esposito contemplates whole-journal cancellations of subscriptions to Gold OA journals, whereas the speculations have been about whether and when librarians would cancel non-OA journals as Green OA self-archiving grows. Green OA self-archiving grows anarchically, not journal by journal. So not only is it hard for a librarian to determine whether and when all the articles in a given journal have become OA, but all the evidence (from the publishers) to date in the few areas (of physics) where Green OA self-archiving is already at or near 100% is that there are as yet no detectable cancellations as a result of 100% Green OA. (Rather, the publishers themselves seem to be adopting Gold OA in these areas: SCOAP3.)

(3) The OA citation impact advantage is not about unpublished or low-impact Gold OA journal articles versus high-impact non-OA journal articles: It is about the additional citation impact provided by OA, for any non-OA article, including those articles published in high impact journals! They don't lose their non-OA citations: they just gain further OA citations....  [PS:  Here omitting a chart.]

(4) The international, interdisciplinary survey evidence of Swan and Associates did not just tautologically confirm that people comply with requirements if required: The point was that over 95% of researchers report that they would comply with a Green OA self-archiving mandate from their employers or funders and 81% report they would do so willingly. (Only 14% said they would comply unwillingly, and 5% said they would not comply.) Arthur Sale's comparisons of actual mandates and compliance rates confirmed these findings, with spontaneous (unmandated) self-archiving rates hovering around 15%, encouraged self-archiving rates rising to about 30% and mandated, incentivized self-archiving rates approaching 100% within two years. (Not surprising, since academics are busy, and would be publishing much less too, if it were not for the existing universal publish-or-perish mandate.) Self-archiving is rewarded by the resulting enhanced research impact metrics, which their institutions also collect and credit, if researchers self-archive....  [PS:  Here omitting a chart.]

Comments. I support Stevan's responses and would only add a couple of my own.  Joe claims that OA advocates believe "that librarians are stupid. The form this assertion takes is to argue that librarians will continue to pay for something that they can get for free."

  • This is a careless reading of OA advocates.  First, let's separate predictions about what librarians will do from facts about what they are doing now.  Physics is the field with the highest levels and longest history of OA archiving.  If high-volume OA archiving causes librarians to cancel journals, we'll see it first in physics.  But after 16 years of phenomenal growth at the physics arXiv, the American Physical Society (APS) and Institute of Physics (IOP), have publicly acknowledged that they cannot identify any cancellations attributable to OA archiving.  In fact, both the APS and IOP even host their own arXiv mirrors. 
  • Joe must believe that librarians are stupid for not cancelling physics journals (and that APS and IOP are stupid for hosting mirrors of arXiv).  I don't pretend to know all the variables explaining the absence of cancellations in physics.  I've repeatedly called for a study of them, in part to help us predict whether other fields will or will not be like physics.
  • But there are good reasons why smart librarians might not cancel journals even after funder OA mandates raise the levels of OA archiving to the high levels we now see in physics.  I outlined four of them in an article in September 2007:

    First, all OA mandates include an embargo period to protect publishers....Libraries that want to provide immediate access will still have an incentive to subscribe.

    Second, OA mandates only apply to the final version of the author's peer-reviewed manuscript, not to the published version....Libraries that want to provide access to published edition, or the published version of the text, will still have an incentive to subscribe....

    Third, OA mandates only apply to research articles, not to the many other kinds of content published in scholarly journals, such as letters, editorials, review articles, book reviews, announcements, news, conference information, and so on.  Libraries that want to provide access to these other contents will still have an incentive to subscribe.

    Fourth, funder OA mandates only apply to articles arising from research funded by the mandating agency.  Very few journals publish nothing but articles from a single funder or even from a set of funders all of whom have OA mandates.  Libraries that want to provide access to all the research articles in a journal, regardless of the source of funding, will still have an incentive to subscribe.  (This incentive will weaken as more and more funders adopt OA mandates; but we're very far from universal funder mandates; unfunded research, which predominates in many fields, will still fall outside this category; and the other incentives above will still stand.)

  • Publishers who oppose OA mandates like to predict that mandates will cause journal cancellations.  But they invariably disregard the counter-evidence from physics and the four factors I've listed above.  Joe does too.  My own position is that other fields may or may not turn out to be like physics.  That is, I don't predict that rising levels of OA archiving will or will not cause cancellations in fields outside physics.  Stevan's position is virtually the same.  Instead of making a prediction, as I put it in the same September article, I prefer to "(a) point out that high-volume OA archiving has not caused cancellations in physics; (b) acknowledge that other fields may not turn out to be like physics in this respect; and (c) argue that if other fields do turn out to differ from physics in this respect, then mandated OA archiving is still justified."