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Open access: stay on message

June 23, 2009

Last week the HTWK sponsored a day of talks on and around the topic of open access. Good talks, and many thanks to those who travelled to Leipzig to enrich our students.

I had the opportunity to hear the talks by Arne Upmeier, subject librarian at the TU Ilmenau library, and Achim Bonte, associate director of the SLUB in Dresden. Both did an effective job of covering a great deal of material in a fairly short window, and of making it interesting for students.

There were a couple of points, however, where I squirmed in my seat based on a couple of points they made. What I would like to do here is respond to those points, and invite commentary from any readers.

While offering a general overview of open access at the outset of his talk, Upmeier spoke of the well-known golden and green roads of open access. Perhaps it was just a matter of imprecision or my own bad hearing, but I believe he briefly made the connection between open access publication and lack of quality control (i.e.- absence of peer review), a position taken by many publishers in their attempt to discredit the open access business model. When speaking strictly of the green road, it is OK to make this connection. The green road is self-archiving, typically of pre-reviewed research, so, no, there is no quality control per se.

With the golden road, however, one must be unequivocal about the fact that the publishing model–whether open access or fee-based–has no inherent connection whatsoever to quality. The golden road simply means that the work is published in the first instance via open access. It can be as bad or as good as the publisher and scholars who create and publish it, just as with fee-based content. Fee-based journals have no lock on peer review, nor must one charge for a journal in order to have outstanding peer review. Fee-based publishers love to claim this, but it is simply lobbying, not fact. Open access advocates must stay on message and be blunt about this.

Upmeier mentioned the costs of peer review at one point, which is part of the argument that fee-based publishers make. Peer review does not universally cost money, that is, not all reviewers receive payment. It depends on the scholarly field and its traditions and revenue streams. One cannot even begin to claim that journals in, say, neurology and those in English literature have many similarities in business model nor expense generation. Peer review for a wide range of academic fields has no hard costs attached to it, across the entire spectrum of the humanities and in many social sciences as well. In fact, one could likely claim that in most fields reviewers receive no payment for their work and that peer review is part of being a scholar. Connecting the price of a journal to the “expense” of peer review is a dubious tactic at best, something the publishers know and keep quiet about to suit their ends.

While talking about OA financial models, Upmeier mentioned many but failed to mention the universities and libraries that have chosen to make publishing open access journals part of their core work. In other words, one funding source, so obvious it is frequently, as in this case, overlooked, is the operating budget of the institution. This means a budget line item, not an internal grant or subsidy. Many schools do this: University of Illinois-Chicago, Kansas State University, Simon Fraser University, University of Amsterdam, to name just a few. Many of these institutions used to subsidize the publication of print-based journals by their faculty and now put that money to better use by giving up paper and publishing online open access journals.

What  I found most interesting about Upmeier’s talk, and would have loved to had a longer conversation with him about, are the legal concepts that drive open access in Germany. For example, I am still not clear on whether Germany has the concept of “work for hire,” nor am I entirely certain that we have wrapped our brains around that concept in the US, either. What really begs discussion is the fact that scholarly publishing is so international. What happens when a scholar working in Montana writes an article for a journal edited by German and French scholars and published by a Dutch giant? How does one reconcile the publisher’s demands with the demands of the home institution. The short answer is one consults the RoMEO database, but that hardly answers all of the questions nor offers a durable solution over time. I for one think this is just ripe for some major pushback and precedent-setting cases.

Bonte’s talk highlighted the high level of activity in Dresden in the development of online library resources. Two items stuck in my mind. One was when I wanted to get up and cheer when he said that SLUB had decided to include only full-text items in their repository, and not to include simply metadata. Way too many repositories are soft on this issue, which means constant frustration for users who find a link via Google 0nly to be led to a dry record with no attached full text. Hooray, Dresden! Let’s hope others take your cue.

On another point, however, I was less enthusiastic. For their Deutsche Fotothek, they have added a Creative Commons license, but much as I recently described with the ETH Zürich, they have limited it to images with no more than 800 pixels on the longest axis. This restricts a great deal of potential scholarly usage and loads it up with bureaucracy and red tape, which of course costs money on both ends of the transaction.

Why can’t these organizations put the higher resolution image out there with a Creative Commons NC license on them? Any legitimate publisher who wants to use the image for a commercial product will contact them and pay the fee to avoid being sued over illegal use. It’s what they do and have done for decades, and are well-attuned to how this works. Sure, some people might take the higher resolution image and use it for commercial purposes without asking permission. What is the loss here? They wouldn’t have paid for usage anyway, and the rightsholder has the option to take legal action against them. I would argue that there will be no substantive damages. Besides, are libraries and archives set up to worry about revenue streams, or encourage use? The latter is what will sustain us over time, not the paltry fees we get by trying to sell our content.

Opinions go both ways on this topic, but clearly there is no definitive consensus as yet. Shouldn’t libraries, who preach open access and freedom of information, err on the side of openness, if we must err? We seem to ignore our own message.

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2 Comments
  1. June 26, 2009 11:39

    I am flattered that my little talk in Leipzig caught your attention – and apparently I did not wholly fail your expectations 😉 . First of all: I basically agree with everything you wrote. I am sorry if I made you squirm in your seat on some points. Occasionally I may not have been as clear as I wish. As you correctly remark a great deal of material had to be covered in a fairly short window. I might add that I addressed an audience that by majority had never heard much about OA before. Therefore my two main aims were a) to give some sort of very general introduction and b) to raise a general awareness for some of the more sensitive issues. (I often found that there is great deal of enthusiasm when students hear about OA for the first time. “Wow, everything for free from everywhere – what a dream!”) I did not intend to add any new or original aspects to the OA-debate. (Keep in mind that my main topic were the legal aspects of OA. To deal with them however, I needed my audience to have some kind of reference base within the OA-debate).

    Here an answer to some of the points you made:

    a. Quality. Quality is an issue. I wholeheartedly agree that golden road publications can be of highest quality and that the intensity of peer reviewing is independent on any particular form of publication. But I found it important to stress to the students that there are a few major differences if you publish a text on your own private homepage or in a context that promises at least some kind of quality-control. I personally see quality as the main challenge that the open access movement has to accept (and fortunately meets the challenge with growing success).

    b. Costs of peer review. It is true that those costs are a popular argument among fee-based publishers. However, like it or not, the argument carries some weight. The peer reviewing by itself may not cost anything (few if any reviewers are actually paid for their reviews) but the organisation of a stable reviewing-system does cost. Open Access is not as free as it looks from the reader’s perspective. This is simply another of those “sensitive issues” to which I tried to raise our students awareness. I therefore concluded this part of my talk (actually this was still the introduction) with a few OA financial models. You observe that I failed to mention OA journals by universities and libraries. – Yes, I should have mentioned them.

    c. Legal aspects. As in most other legal systems German copyright law is difficult and sometimes unclear. You ask for “the legal concepts that drive open access in Germany”. – Frankly speaking I do not see any such concepts. Copyright law is the main obstacle and definitely not a driving force. The question for us practitioners is what we are entitled to do within the tight legal framework (or cage).
    There is little discussion about “work for hire”. On the other hand the concept of “academic freedom” (a high constitutional right in Germany!) plays a much larger role in the German debate. The idea that “free” academic researchers should be treated like other employers in the sense that their employer (i.e. in Germany’s predominantly public University system the state) can control research (even if only by deciding in what form the results should be published) is alien and controversial. – That German academic researchers are particular touchy on this point has to be understood on the background of our historic experiences with state-controlled education and research.
    But talking of concepts: The main problem I see in comparison to the US is the lack of “fair use” in German law. The idea that something might be a breach of copyright in the strict sense but somehow justified by predominantly positive results is strange to us. As you know, US-courts have often been able to “liberalise” copyright law where it seemed inappropriately strict for the internet age by reference to “fair use”. European courts lack this instrument.

  2. Dale permalink*
    June 26, 2009 15:52

    Hello, so glad you found my post. Part of the reason I encourage people to blog talks and conference papers they find interesting is to stimulate discussion beyond the day of the presentation. As you said, your talk introduced the topic to most people in the audience, so even if there had been time for discussion, these kinds of narrow points that I raised would not quite have fit the purpose.

    Sounds like we agree on the quality issue. I may have just misunderstood your comments on the topic, or you may have been mildly distracted by the lack of sleep (I, too, have young children and can empathize!). What bothers me about some open access critics is that they put all open access publications together in one basket, failing to distinguish between peer-reviewed journals and self-published papers on an individual scholar’s Web page. It’s a disingenuous argument on their part (and also assumes that everything issuing from a commercial publish is high quality–a very dodgy assertion), and they know better.

    We also agree, it sounds like, on the “soft” expenses involved with peer review. I just did an exercise with a class where we walked a batch of faux articles through the publication process using the software Open Journal Systems. As they discovered, the hardest part of the process is assigning an article to reviewers and then actually motivating the reviewers to do the work, and on time. And this was with the reviewers in the room with them!

    I used the phrase “hard costs” deliberately in my original post, since there are, as you correctly point out, any number of costs that lack clear price tags but certainly require effort and energy on the part of a journal’s editors. What irks me to some degree is that publishers tend to want to talk about their role in the process, when the heavy lifting of peer review is done by editors and, of course, by the reviewers themselves, none of whom are affiliated with the publisher. As I do for my journals with OJS, the publisher simply creates the infrastructure. There are expenses associated with that, but I would assert that publishers overestimate those.

    Thanks for the brief response on the legal issues. This is where I think the library profession has a lot to learn, since I hear so much disinformation coming from, in particular, my US colleagues on the subject of copyright. As you noted, fair use and work for hire are essential components of the puzzle in the US, and I suspected that the latter didn’t exist here and that the former was discussed but not established. Fair use, as you know, is the wedge we have to defend access to information in the US. Sadly, this is also the area where many American librarians fail to assert their users’ rights out of fear of litigation. A little knowledge would work wonders in that regard.

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