"Fair" open access and the future of scientific publishing

  • Celina Ramjoué profile
    Celina Ramjoué
    18 December 2015
    Total votes: 3

When researchers, funders, universities and libraries started thinking about open access and improving scholarly communication in the late 1990s, the focus was on access. Indeed, the most immediate challenge was to make it possible to access scientific literature resulting from public funding.

Today, an increasing number of funder policies mandate open access, e.g. the EC's mandate on open access to publications in Horizon 2020. This type of policy often indeed focuses on access, is quite open regarding 'how' that access should be reached (green v. gold OA), and therefore sets few extra conditions regarding open access publishing and scholarly communication in general.

We have now arrived at a moment in the history of open access when we can afford to ask for more. We can request access, but we can also specify what kind of access we want. We can attach conditions to open access publishing, and, more generally, we can develop principles for scientific publishing. We can be more ambitious than we were a decade ago: we can design scholarly communication for the future. 

The 12 October 2015 EC Workshop on alternative OA business models (AlterOA) made a first step in this direction by bringing together information on existing AlterOA publishing models.

On the same day, a statement by Research, Science and Innovation Commissioner Carlos Moedas and Dutch Secretary of State Sander Dekker called on scientific publishers to adapt their business models to new realities, for example by ensuring fair and transparent business models. Moedas also warned that excessive Article Processing Charges (APCs) would no longer be acceptable.

But what is "fair" open access? What are "fair" scientific publishing conditions? The time has now come to address and discuss these questions.

* Fair open access could mean transparent, particularly regarding costs. This could drive down APCs and could as a result exclude hybrid journals (subscription-based journals offering APC-based OA).

* Fair open access could mean equal in terms of who can make use of open access solutions and models. APC-based OA solutions may be inaccessible to less wealthy countries and/or may not make sense for countries that have invested heavily in green infrastructure, i.e. repositories.

* Fair open access could also be seen as a question of ownership. Who owns publications? Who has the copyright? Probably authors. As a matter of principle, copyright should therefore probably not be signed over to other actors such as publishers. Therefore, open access publications should be licenced in adequate ways. Creative Commons licences could be a good way to do this systematically.

* Ownership issues can go further still, for example regarding ownership of the journal title. For instance, should fair open access and fair publishing in general mean that journal titles remain with the editorial board?

* Fair open access is also linked to infrastructure. Where do we want publicly funded publications to be placed and stored? In publicly accessible infrastructure that can be easily federated and connected in a cloud (e.g. repositories) or in publishers' databases? If we choose publicly accessible infrastructure, let us not forget that there is of course a role to be played by all actors, including publishers, to fill and curate the content of those infrastructures. More broadly, we should ask which actors should take which roles and whether roles need to be redefined.

* All of these thoughts regarding fair open access and, more largely, the future of scholarly publishing, point towards one broader issue: governance. We need to figure out how open access publishing solutions will actually be run and governed.

So, in conclusion, we suggest that it is time to move beyond the issue of "access" in open access, and towards the larger questions of what we want open access and scholarly publishing to look like in the future.