We put a man on the moon about half a century ago yet we still haven’t solved the problem of access to the scientific literature.
I was invited to speak at the New Zealand Association of Scientists meeting this year. The theme was “Science and Society” and I was asked to speak about Open Access from that perspective.
The timing was really good. Lincoln University published their Open Access Policy last year, Waikato University released their Open Access mandate a couple of weeks ago, and the University of Auckland is examining their position around Open Access. New Zealand is catching up.
I opened my talk by referring to the New Zealand Education Act which outlines the role of univeristies:
“…a university is characterised by a wide diversity of teaching and research, especially at a higher level, that maintains, advances, disseminates, and assists the application of, knowledge, develops intellectual independence, and promotes community learning”
[New Zealand Education Act (1989) Section162.4.b.iii] (emphasis mine)
I argued that those values could be best met by making the research outputs available under Open Access as defined by by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, that is, not limited to “access” but equally importantly, allowing re-use.
After summarising the elements of the Creative Commons licences that can support Open Access publishing, I invited the audience to have an open conversation with their communities of practice to examine what values each place on how to share the results of our work.
My position is that the more broadly we disseminate our findings the more likely we will achieve the goals set out by the NZ Education Act to maintain, advance, assist in the application of knowledge, develop intellectual independence and promote community learning. I am also of the position that this is what should be rewarded in academic circles. I think that. as a community , we should move away from looking for value in the branding of the research article (i.e., where it is published) and focus instead on measuring the actual quality and impact of the research within and outside the academic community.
How do we measure quality and impact?
At times I feel we have we become lazy. We often stick to using impact factor as a proxy for quality instead of interrogating the research outputs to understand their contribution and impact. Impact factor may be an easy metric – but it is not one that measures in any way the quality or impact of an individual article, let alone of the researchers who authored it. It is just an easy way out, a number we can quickly look at so we can tick the right box. As a metric it is easy, quick and objective. As a metric of value of an individual piece of work it is also useless and, because of that, it inevitably lacks fairness in research assessment.
What does this have to do with OA?
By the end of the conference I couldn’t shake the thought that the barriers to Open Access may not be financial and the costs of publication fees may be the least of our problems. (This issue of cost just keeps coming up.) I can’t but wonder if the cost Open Access might just be a red herring that lets us avoid the real (and bigger) issue: quality assessment. Open Access may help our articles have a wider reach but, except for a few titles, Open Access journals are not recognisable brands. If we are forced to stop looking at the “journal brand” we will be forced to assess the individual articles for their intrinsic value and impact. And, although it may lead to better, more valid, assessment, it is also a big and difficult job.
A lot of what was said today at the conference revolved about the value of New Zealand science (and scientists) to society and the importance of science communication. We spoke about the importance of evidence-based policy, the need to be the critic and conscious of society and the challenges of working with the public to build a trust in scientific evidence despite its uncertainties. We expect politicians and society to do the hard job of making decisions based on evidence. I couldn’t help but ask whether we, as a community of scientists, can live up to those standards.
Can we ditch the bad and easy for the good and hard?
We put a man on the moon. Solving the issues around open access and research assessment must certainly be easier to solve. Are we ready to put our money where our mouth is?
New Zealand has its first Open Access Policy thanks to Lincoln University. We have been lagging behind in the OA landscape when it comes to tertiary institutions, and Lincoln’s position is a great step.
From their website:
Lincoln University takes the position that if public funding has supported the creation of research or other content then it’s reasonable to make it publicly accessible. So our new Open Access Policy endorses making this content openly and freely available as the preferred option.
That the public should have access to the outputs of the work they fund through their taxes has been a compelling argument around other international policies. A similar position statement was made in the Tasman Declaration. New Zealand’s NZGOAL, released in 2010 provides a similar framework for State Service Agencies, but tertiary institutions are not included in the framework despite receiving substantial public funding in several forms. It has been then up to the individual universities to decide whether the principles of NZGOAL are adopted. Lincoln University has taken a leadership role for the tertiary sector, and I am hopeful that other NZ institutions will follow their lead.
I have been often asked where the funds to pay for Open Access publishing will come from, at least in relation to the publication of research articles. What we sometimes seem to forget is that we are already paying for these costs through the portion of the overheads of our grants that go towards library costs for access and re-use of copyrighted material. In many instances, too, the charges for publication of, say a colour figure, can be equal or more than what it would cost to publish the same article in an Open Access journal. The maths just don’t work for me.
What we also seem to sometimes forget is that most publishers will allow the posting of the peer reviewed version of the author’s manuscript in their institutional repository. Why aren’t researchers not doing this more widely is not very clear.
And here is where Lincoln strikes a nice balance: posting in the institutional repository (aka Green Open Access) comes at no extra financial cost to the individual researcher. IT will be interesting to see how the policy is implemented at Lincoln.
But is it enough?
It is a great start.
One of the issues with the Open Access discussion is that it sometimes the issue of copyright (and the resulting license to reuse) does not always feature prominently in the conversation. I (personally) consider that fronting the fee with a journal to make a paper open access when I still need to transfer the copyright to the journal is a waste of money. There is not much added value to the version of the manuscript that I can place in the repository and the final journal version (other than perhaps aesthetics). I am happy, however, to pay an OA fee when this comes attached with a Creative Commons licence that allows reuse, including commercial re-use, because that is where the true value of Open Access is. Lincoln University takes a good step by encouraging the use of Creative Commons licences – but In their absence the articles should still be made free to view through the institutional repository.
How is NZ doing in OA?
The articles that are deposited in Institutional repositories in New Zealand can be found through nzresarch.org.nz. Today’s search returned 14,273 journal articles. It is unfortunate that the great majority of them (13,986) are “all rights reserved” and only 232 allow commercial reuse. If we really want to benefit from our research to drive innovation, then we should be doing better.
So where to next?
Lincoln University has taken a great first step, and hopefully the other NZ research institutions will follow. I am also hoping we will start to see a similar move from NZ funding agencies encouraging researchers to adopt the principles of NZGOAL or to place Open Access mandates on their funded research.
Perhaps next time a funding body or organisation asks you to donate money for their research to help cure a condition, you might ask them if they have an Open Access policy