Older journal articles need to be open, too

Photo: Jan Velterop

By Jan Velterop

You may have seen it: “Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement”, as the recent headline in Science1 proclaims. Similar headlines appeared in other journals and on many web sites as well. As ResearchGate is based in Germany, it is a rather easier legal target than Sci-Hub, which is operated by the Kazakhstani Alexandra Elbakyan. Both ResearchGate and Sci-Hub make it easy to obtain articles by sharing in a social network (ResearchGate) or simply by making direct downloads available of PDFs obtained via institutional proxies (Sci-Hub).

The existence of these outfits, and particularly the widespread usage they enjoy, lay bare a fundamental inadequacy of the current scientific communication system: lack of universal access.

Initiatives to bring about Open Access to research literature have been around for almost two decades, and even longer if one includes the preprint server arχiv. The term Open Access was coined at the meeting in Budapest in December of 2001, which led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI)2, published in February 2002. Despite the advocacy of the members of the BOAI group and numerous people since then, open access research articles in scholarly journals are still not in the majority, even if one includes the various subsequent definitions of open access that many publishers felt suited them more (and are generally more restrictive than what the BOAI envisioned, particularly with regard to re-use). And even fewer are the fully open access ones, without any conditions attached other than the obligation to properly acknowledge the original author(s).

Whilst a minority of papers is fully open access according to the principles of the BOAI (freely accessible and re-usable as long as the authors are acknowledged), a recent preprint in PeerJ3 by Heather Piwowar, et al. reports that “Unpaywall users encounter OA quite frequently: 47% of articles they view are OA. Notably, the most common mechanism for OA is not Gold, Green, or Hybrid OA, but rather an under-discussed category we dub ‘Bronze’: articles made free-to-read on the publisher website, without an explicit Open license.” It should be noted, though, that much of what is called OA in this article is not OA according to the BOAI principles (which I prefer to call “full OA”), but just refers to access to read, and not to re-use.

Whether an article is published with open access or not, is principally a decision of the author(s). At least in theory. That said, authors are often constrained in their choices by the institutional pressure put upon them to publish in journals that have a recognised – or perceived – “prestige”, often in the form of a relatively high impact factor. And not only that, they are often constrained, too, by the lack of financial support for the payment of “article processing charges” (APCs), which tend to be particularly high for so-called hybrid journals (which publish a mix of open access and paywalled articles) that are seen to have this “prestige”. If authors are free of constraints and they choose to publish with open access, two main methods are commonly used: submission to an open access or hybrid journal, or by “self-archiving” a manuscript version of their article – though submitted to a paywalled journal – in an open repository (either an institutional one, or a discipline-oriented one). If “self-archiving” is done before the article has been peer-reviewed, we speak of a “preprint”. I – and others – have made the case that authors should always post a preprint first – even be mandated to do so – and then submit to a journal, if at all necessary4.

Sometimes open access journals are subsidised, and charge no APCs. Where this is the case, it mainly concerns smaller, lesser known journals, with notable exceptions, such as the journals in the SciELO system, which combines a mix of funding streams to enable the journals to be full open access without, or with very low, APCs.

That there is a “production” cost to formal publishing is a reality, although a quick look at profit levels of especially the larger publishers show that the actual production cost is nowhere near the level of many article processing charges – or to most subscription fees, for that matter. Paying for formal publishing is, though, in some way, comparable to paying for obtaining a certificate, such as a diploma, or a driver’s licence. Being peer-reviewed by, and published in, journal x is the “certificate” needed for career and general reputation advancement. This career and reputation focus of the formal journal publishing system would perhaps be acceptable if it did not slow down – to the point of “holding hostage” – the dissemination, free sharing, and re-use of research results. In a bizarre way, the current journal publishing systems are still “digital analogues” of the erstwhile system of printed journals. Especially subscription journals are stunted in their development by the anachronistic requirements of print journals, such as page limitations. As a result, decisions to publish are often not taken on perceived quality alone, but also – even primarily – on considerations of space. This may mean that good articles are rejected, or, in lean times in terms of submissions, less good articles are included for publication, leading to inconsistency of “quality”. I am putting “quality” in inverted commas, because it is very questionable if the true scientific quality – as opposed to technical, presentational quality – can even be established at the point of publication5. It usually takes time before the quality and importance of an article can be recognised. (One of the reasons why it takes so long before a Nobel Prize is awarded.)

Journals that are subsidised with fixed grants or subsidies face similar constraints as subscription journals. Only those sustained by open-ended grants or subsidies (such as the SciELO system), or by contributions (APCs) from authors or on behalf of authors (for example the “mega”-journals such as PLOS One), have the potential to escape these constraints.

All in all, open access is not yet making the progress it was supposed and expected to. Some put the blame on the open access “movement” and its advocates. That strikes me as a bit facile, and not really helpful. Open access advocates are often volunteers, making an honest and legitimate case, but they come with many different motivations. For some, the primary focus is open access, irrespective of cost or who provides it; some mainly focus on reducing the power of so-called legacy publishers, or at least of the for-profit ones; some on the practices of scholarly societies to use subscription income of their journals for other society activities (laudable, historically, but a barrier to open access in this day and age); some on reducing the cost of science communication; some on promoting specific alternatives, such as preprints, or “flipping” journals from paywalled to open. There are likely to be more and different motives than these, too.

Even if the proportion of current OA articles is growing, as Piwowar, et al. report, that is only true for new articles. All the “legacy” articles behind paywalls remain closed off, with the exception perhaps, as far as the freedom to read – though not the freedom to re-use – is concerned, of articles in PubMedCentral, after an embargo period. So let me make a suggestion.

It is generally the case that subscriptions and licences are paid in advance, and that that sales of individual articles after the subscription period amount to minimal net revenues (if there are revenues at all, the fulfilment costs and maintenance of fulfilment systems must be deducted to arrive at net revenues). So my suggestion is that all paywalled journal articles should be given an open access licence – the full works, including re-usability – after a period of no more than 12 months of the date of publication. By the publishers, as in most cases they hold the copyright to those articles and only copyright holders can legally attach an open access licence such as a CC-BY licence to an article. The period of 12 months could gradually go down, too. This would open up millions of articles and yet have a minimal effect on the publishers’ finances. It would remove the unnecessary control legacy publishers have, as a result of having the copyrights, over the free dissemination of articles that have already secured their revenues for the publisher. Libraries, library consortia, and national or state agencies should make this a condition of any subscription or licence agreement, without which they won’t do business with the publisher in question. Combined with mandatory preprint posting, it could dramatically change access to, and usability of, the world’s scholarly output.

I can foresee a few objections. First from the publishers, who will maintain that the “economic value” of articles is not depleted after 12 months, as they can sell access to individual articles to industry, for instance. They do, in particular to the pharmaceutical and medical equipment industry. Yet, those are precisely the articles most needed to be open access, and the revenue thus realised is mostly no more than some extra icing on the already abundantly iced cake.

The second objection is likely to come from some OA advocates, who may say this is not sufficiently different from “green” OA. It is different, however, as “green”, certainly the “green” as described in the aforementioned Piwowar, et al. article doesn’t usually come with open re-use rights. I quote from the article: “Most Green OA articles do not meet the BOAI definition of OA since they do not extend re-use rights”.

I am well aware that my suggestion is a compromise and not the ideal situation. But it is pragmatic and achievable and given the millions of articles still not freely available, a worthwhile compromise in my view. It also doesn’t address the cost element of the system, but then again, it seems to me that open access to research results is a higher priority for science in general than reducing library budgets. Large parts of ResearchGate and Sci-Hub would be completely legal, and the user convenience that especially Sci-Hub offers with its one-stop platform would be widely welcomed.

Notes

1. CHAWLA, D. S. Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement [online]. Science Magazine. 2017 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/publishers-take-researchgate-court-alleging-massive-copyright-infringement

2. Read the Budapest Open Access Initiative [online]. Budapest Open Access Initiative. 2002 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read

3. PIWOWAR, H., et al. The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. PeerJ [online]. 2017 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: https://peerj.com/preprints/3119/

4. VELTEROP, J. Science (which needs communication) first, careers (which need selectivity) later [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2015 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2015/10/29/science-which-needs-communication-first-careers-which-need-selectivity-later

5. VELTEROP, J. The best of both worlds [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/06/13/the-best-of-both-worlds/

References

CHAWLA, D. S. Publishers take ResearchGate to court, alleging massive copyright infringement [online]. Science Magazine. 2017 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/10/publishers-take-researchgate-court-alleging-massive-copyright-infringement

Read the Budapest Open Access Initiative [online]. Budapest Open Access Initiative. 2002 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://www.budapestopenaccessinitiative.org/read

PIWOWAR, H., et al. The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles. PeerJ [online]. 2017 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: https://peerj.com/preprints/3119/

VELTEROP, J. Science (which needs communication) first, careers (which need selectivity) later [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2015 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2015/10/29/science-which-needs-communication-first-careers-which-need-selectivity-later

VELTEROP, J. The best of both worlds [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2016 [viewed 7 November 2017]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2016/06/13/the-best-of-both-worlds/

External links

arXiv.org – <https://arxiv.org/>

Unpaywall, browser add-ons to locate freely available PDFs of scholarly articles – <http://unpaywall.org/>

 

About Jan Velterop

Jan Velterop (1949), marine geophysicist who became a science publisher in the mid-1970s. He started his publishing career at Elsevier in Amsterdam. in 1990 he became director of a Dutch newspaper, but returned to international science publishing in 1993 at Academic Press in London, where he developed the first country-wide deal that gave electronic access to all AP journals to all institutes of higher education in the United Kingdom (later known as the BigDeal). He next joined Nature as director, but moved quickly on to help get BioMed Central off the ground. He participated in the Budapest Open Access Initiative. In 2005 he joined Springer, based in the UK as Director of Open Access. In 2008 he left to help further develop semantic approaches to accelerate scientific discovery. He is an active advocate of BOAI-compliant open access and of the use of microattribution, the hallmark of so-called “nanopublications”. He published several articles on both topics.

 

How to cite this post [ISO 690/2010]:

VELTEROP, J. Older journal articles need to be open, too [online]. SciELO in Perspective, 2017 [viewed ]. Available from: http://blog.scielo.org/en/2017/11/22/older-journal-articles-need-to-be-open-too/

 

3 Thoughts on “Older journal articles need to be open, too

  1. Pingback: Weekly digest: what’s happening in open science? – Open Pharma

  2. Dear Jan Velterop, thanks for your plea with substantial arguments to promote OA. As a private dipterist I have found many articles and informations that would be hardly or not at all accessible for me, as I have no connection with any scientific institue. Except being alumnus of Amsterdam University.

    Especially the world of citizen science – and the world of underdeveloped science In southern continents – need OA. There is enormous power and capacity of devoted people, who are waiting for more instrumentation to do their thing.
    Enschede Jan H.C.Velterop 2017-11-24

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