The Man Who Mistook Open Access for a Windmill

An Open Letter to Richard Charkin in response to his column in Publishing Perspectives (

Dear Richard. You know well the warmth and affection that I feel about your work and for you personally . But just at the moment , having read this piece ( doubtless written to irritate !) I feel like Sancho Panza . I am sitting heavily on my mule behind you , Master . I see you applying the spurs to Rocinante’s lean flanks , I see the direction of your lance , and I must cry out , though in your enthusiasm you will not be able to hear me , “ Those be Windmills , sire”. Sixteen long years have passed since I , as Chief  Researcher on the House of Commons enquiry, invited you to give the evidence that you cite here . In that time Open Access has ceased to be an innovation and has become a norm . This is not a battleground any more . In the five day Geneva Workshop on Innovation in Scholarly Communications , organised by CERN and the university of Geneva , and attended by 1400 scholars last week, I heard no voice that even questioned the hegemony of Open Access . 

The battle ground is elsewhere . Lets stable Rocinante and give her a good feed of corn and listen to some market  voices . Like the ScholarLed consortium , and the COPIM partners , who spoke in Geneva of pooling publishing software solutions online to create infrastructure and scale for scholarly self-publishing Open Access monographs . Or like Knowledge Unlatched in Berlin , using the subscription business model you so love to “Open “ books subscribed by libraries . Or the MicroPublishing work sponsored by CalTech which publishes short evidence -based articles , many by post-grads and early career researchers , which address one of the problems of the day – how do young scientists get recognition and build up a portfolio of work when the great branded journals are barred to them by elitism and economics . 

Or we could go and talk about Open Science – really the subject of which OA is but a tiny sub-section . As publishers we always shrank from understanding how scientists worked , but since all the processes of that work are now contained in seamless digital networks we cannot avoid it . The Professor of BioSemantics at the University of Leiden is very clear . He says that the Data is  now more important than the Article . His peers elected him President of CODATA, the International standing committee on research data , and he chairs the High Level Expert Group  of the European Science Cloud . One of his  problems , as he works to proliferate the FAIR protocols and the Global Open FAIR mandates , is that publishers rushed to publish articles but ignored the Data . There is no business model for Data . Yet its metadata and mark-up are urgent publishing problems . In a world where more machines than people are reading both articles and data , it is no good just marking up the narrative bit so a machine can serve it up to a human . Machines do not do narrative . They do RDF . They understand triples . Publishers really do have a long way to go until anyone, man or machine , reading an article can find the evidence and vice versa , and both humans and machines can find and fully interact with both . 

And then of course , Open Science would restructure the article . Ethical considerations may yet demand that the hypothesis and the methodology be openly available before experimentation commences . Are publishers generally good , do we think , on the ethical side ? Are retracted articles clearly marked as such in databases so that no one would ever mistake one in a search ? Are articles marked to show where work has been done to reproduce their results , and is that work linked to the original paper ? Publishers really do need to understand how science is changing and work with it to provide the process tools it needs in terms of analytics and discoverability and reproducibility. Shifting to Open Access but postponing the real impact through transitional deals buys time , but that time has to be used to re-invent and  re-invest the future . Above all , we need to recognise the scale of what has changed . The 450,000 Covid related research articles of the past two years defy human analysis . There is no time left for a decent tilt at a windmill  , dear friend !

Scientific Communication as a Volume Business

Last week’s  OAI 12  ,the Geneva Workshop on Innovation in Scholarly Communication, hosted as always by CERN and Geneva University , was a delight . Real scientists talking with real passion . Genuine case studies that underlined some critical issues where science can do better . A good sample of “ citizen science “ involvement to remind us that real people , not just scientists , can perform science as well as experience it and benefit from it . Once again the meeting was truly international and once again , it featured not just the performance of Open Access but the much wider implications , seen  through the wider lens of Open Science . And it was immediately clear that Open Science is not just a lens but a prism , and those who look through  it  experience some very different emotions . 

There is , for example , a chasm of intent between those who embraced Open Science as the democratisation of science , and those who worried about the purity of scientific performance . There is now a strong and practical demand to open up a wider understanding in the general public about scientific conclusions and what they mean . This has been given sharper point by the pandemic , but it is worth noting that while professorships in the public understanding of science go back 30 years in many countries , and we have had many very distinguished science journalists , politicians and the press have real ( and sometimes deliberate ) difficulty in explaining what science means – and admitting its limitations . People who rally under this banner tend also to believe that all research funded by the state should have its results published by the state , so that all citizens and taxpayers can have access to it . They are met with voices who hold that too much science is published , too little selectivity is exercised , and too much duplication of identical experimental results is permitted in an Open Access context .

This tribe in turn is confronted by a fervent lobby who believe that the publishing research results is notoriously incomplete . Where , they ask , is the data , evidential or not , that surrounds the scientific process ? Certainly not lodged with the article , too often not even linked to it , too often not even available , just because commercial publishers never found a way to monetise it . And even when it is in a repository or linked to the article , it is often not presented in a way that makes it usable , either to another scientist using different analytics , or to another computer trying to reproduce the experiment . What hope , they then say , for “ Open Science “ when so much science is closed even to the re-use of other scientists ?

Beyond these knowledgeable Geneva conference attendees are the worried ranks of working researchers who have a suspicion that not everyone is following the same basic rules . Does evidence sometimes get distorted to meet the claims of the hypothesis ? Is someone gaming the citations in order to get tenure or preferment ?  Is someone distorting what was actually put on record to create panic and discord ? ( It is hard to attend these meetings without being given a case history of anti-vaxxer conspiracy ) . As in any community , rumour takes flight , and while it is impossible to talk about the extent of malpractice , Open Science now also means “ open up science “ and shine a more public light on retractions , on plagiarism , and upon the claims of experimentation that defies reproducibility .  

One striking conference session featured the very vigorous crop of small presses developing OA books programmes and sharing infrastructure to do so . ( ScholarLed , COPIM).  They may point to the increasingly comprehensive and available  workflow software for publishing , which may serve the desired democratisation by enabling every research team to report results and data to open platforms , subject to automated primary peer review , leaving the eventual status of the work in the hands of its readers and users across time . The proponents of ‘too much ‘ will be appalled , but this has been the drift since Open Access itself began – a fee-based business fuelled by APCs can only be a volume business .And if the future really is Diamond OA , it may cease to be a business at all . This will please some and not others , and the fault lines became clear in the final session .  Under the chairmanship of Tracey Brown , the Director of Sense about Science , Geoffrey Boulton  of Edinburgh University and Kent Anderson of Caldera Publishing debated what had gone wrong . Would that they had debated what to do about it , because there is now a tendency in these sessions to search for a villain . For Professor Boulton the universities are to blame . They created the “ publish or perish “ world and cannot retreat from it fast enough . It is they who have “ lined the pockets “of major publishers with profits from articles read by “ about 0.5 readers “ per article . For Kent Anderson it is the techno-utopians ( a term he has kindly used on me in the past !) and the Tech companies .  Academic Publishers are the virtuous  providers of journals  “ whose focus on rigour and quality “ is so lacking elsewhere . He points especially at  the irresponsible pre-print servers . ( “ MedRxiv and ArXiv are funded by Facebook essentially “). At times , while condemning Google and Facebook for  amplifying conspiracy theories it almost sounded as if , by connecting Steve Bannon, anti-vaxxers  , CERN and predatory journals in the same context , we were knitting a few of our own  . A sad lapse in a very interesting session . 

 It was a really interesting and informative five days , with many voices heard that are normally silent or ignored . Our urgent needs for finding more effective means for evaluating research and researchers ,  for giving  scope to the ongoing evaluation of science research as it changes over time ,for  ensuring and recording its reproducibility and safeguarding its accessibility, and getting the evidential data in place and reusable by both man and machine engages all of us in scholarly communications – publishers and software developers and data and analytics companies as much as researchers , funders , institutions and librarians . Our path to a new concession will be eased if we concentrate on the debate and avoid the smears . ( )

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