Sunday, 5 August 2012

Interesting times for Open Access

  Quite a heated discussion in Open Access circles has followed the recent release of the Finch Report on expanding access to published research findings in the UK and the endorsement by the UK Govenment and funders of its recommendation for making Gold Open Access the default standard for future scientific communication. The day after the UK Government announced it was assuming all but one Finch Report recommendations, the EC also adopted the Communication "Towards better access to scientific information: Boosting the benefits of public investments in research", in which a wider implementation of Open Access -both Gold and Green- to research publications and data was set as a goal for present FP7 and future Horizon2020 European research programmes.

Although usually welcoming its implicit support of Open Access to research outputs, the Finch Report has been heavily criticized within the Open Access movement for not acknowledging the opportunities the available OA repository network and Green OA in general offer to achieve extended access to research publications. The cost of the proposed transition to a Gold OA model was claimed to be disproportionate and most fervid critics dubbed the Finch Report a result of sheer publisher lobbying, while moderate ones pointed out the proposed transition model was unfit for international adoption, especially in developing countries.

However, proposing Gold OA as a default model for extending access to research is hardly a new argument. A couple of months ago at the PEER End-of-Project conference in Brussels -which incidentally had a wide number of publishers in the audience while practically no representatives of repository projects attended the event despite PEER involving both communities- the project managers highlighted one of PEER's main conclusions being that Green OA was not sufficiently popular among research authors and could therefore not be considered the best way for making research outputs widely available. Even if this conclusion may be considered biased and has also been extensively discussed, it is a fact that many researchers from various disciplines do not like open access repositories.

Some of the most conspicuous voices within the Open Access movement do however seem to favour [otherwise perfectly justified] protest against Green OA not being accounted for over self-criticism and analysis of what the reasons are for researchers' frequent preference for open access journals instead of repositories and what steps could be taken in order to overcome such repository shortcomings. Besides criticism of the very expensive alternatives, a clearer lobbying effort would also be desirable for explaining evidence-based advantages of Green OA and the lines the repository community is currently working at in order to improve the user experience. There are very ambitious indeed repository-related projects going on at the moment -such as the UK RepositoryNet+ or OpenAIRE in the EU- aiming to enhance currently existing repository networks so they'll best suit researchers' needs by building upon already large previous experience.

Having had the chance to extensively discuss with researchers what they do and what they don't like about repositories, there seem to be evident issues in the way these platforms have been developed that justify current distrust of them as sound research information sources by a significant numer of authors. Two of the main among these are the lack of metadata harmonisation and the lack of information about work versions filed in the repositories. Although their number is growing and various efforts are under way to improve this, still very few repositories are presently offering harmonised information about funding agencies and projects associated to specific papers or about the version of such papers that is filed in the repository. Other than that, insufficient information is available on the funder policy compliance rates and a significant effort remains to be done in the field of repository usage, where testing repository vs publisher usage for a given work could be quite revealing. All these lines are currently being dealt with by the abovementioned projects, and there will be interesting breakthroughs in coming months around repositories and Green OA.

As for Gold OA, its strong backing by funders and the Government in the UK -as well as implicitly by publishers- opens the door for a gradual transition process (to be mainly but not only tested in the UK as for now) from a subscription-based model to another one relying on Author Processing Charges (APCs), to be increasingly dealt with at institutional level. Two main shortly-arriving outcomes of this transition process should be: (i) new publishing business models for institutional funding of access to research papers -with the RSC 'Gold for Gold' initiative showing the way ahead- and (ii) some standard way of dealing with APCs at institutional level being proposed - with the JISC/Wellcome Trust call for proposals regarding a role in managing payment of Open Access APCs being a first step along that line and initiatives such as Open Access Key (OAK) starting to offer such required services.

These are undoubtedly very interesting times for following Open Access evolution -and the increasing impact of OA-related news in general-purpose media is a good evidence for that- and from a look at the detailed picture of Open Access in the UK recently provided by Nature it's not hard to conclude that Green OA and repositories are here to stay and that the transition process to a Gold OA-based publishing model is set to be a long and winding road.

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