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 !


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1 Comment so far

  1. Anthony Watkinson on September 17, 2021 16:53

    Good stuff David. I also agree with you. Two heads if not two brains, janus or anus.