Open access: stay on message
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.