The OA Cooperative. A programme to achieve OA?

Open access has a lot of manifestos.  A manifesto is an aspirational thing.  A programme is a way of achieving those goals.  The OA Co-operative project is a programme in development, a practical way to achieve an open access business model for scholarly communications, and the group that have been working on it have released their final report.

The findings of two years of what looks like pretty extensive consultation are summed up thus:

[W]hile the vast majority of the research libraries surveyed were prepared to explore the setting up of an open access cooperative with publishers that would initially be based on providing a subscription-equivalent level of support for the journals converting to open access, the journal editors and publishers were not nearly as inclined or prepared to consider such an strategy. [1]

So, that’s not surprising really.  Librarians want people to have access to information, and publishers want to continue to limit it and maintain their multi billion dollar cash cow of selling info they get given for free.

The report goes on to look at a series of fascinating case studies in converting to openness, very much looking at the infrastructure needs for journals.  The study has been done through the auspices of the very admirable Public Knowledge Project, whose main product, Open Journal Server (OJS), runs a lot of the independent Open Access journals.  Though I’ve recommended my institution doesn’t run OJS, I have no beef with it or them, it’s just we find it hard to resource any extra technical work right now, so we make do with what we have.

The study has a long list of diverse participants, but I notice a glaring exception, and it shows through in the final report.  The search stem ‘licen*’ only appears once in the entire document, and it refers to how publishers license their content for reuse by other commercial aggregators.  This is the nub of my major issue with the report.  Licencing must be at the heart of any OA endeavour, and the logical people to have involved are Creative Commons who don’t appear to have been consulted or involved. The list of aspirations for the project include ‘appropriate licensing’, but that sounds suspiciously like weasel words – a bargaining chip in the negotiation for the move from toll based access to what I call Openly Accessible –  where information is free only in that it doesn’t cost anything, but isn’t available for re-use.

This issue is very, very,  important, for the analysis contained in journals, but particularly for data.  Having data available for perusal is great for a modicum of transparency, but if it is not able to be re-analysed,  then even replicablility studies become impossible, because how do you compare datasets if you don’t reuse the original data, and fold it into the new data?

Also, as regular readers are aware, I’m a fan of layer journals – even as a potentially profitable way of applying editorial acumen and knowledge to the ever growing corpus of academic work being produced in order to solve some of the problems in the main scarcity in academia: time and attention.  Layer journals sort out the good and on-topic from the poor and the tangential, and I can see it worth some academic’s budgets to pay people to do that sorting for them.

This moves on to another issue with the project report.  As it focuses on infrastructure it ignores  – or at least elides over – the labour required to turn a manuscript into a publishable work.  Though most scholars can write, they are not selected to be writers, but researchers, instead. Any good writer appreciates the work of a good editor.  The advice and guidance of the editorial team (and I include the peer review process here) can turn an OK bit of prose into a tool to change our understanding of the world.  This labour, a lot of publishers claim, is what you are paying for in a high tier journal, and they do have a point, especially in the world of monographs and book chapters.

Having said that, the idea of the co-operative – a shared infrastructure for scholarly publishing – is a good one.  In fact, it’s essential, and PKP are nothing but heroes for the work they do in providing the technical platform.  However while concentrating on the technical, they begin realise that the other layers required are the hard ones – licencing, editorial and the recognition of where value lies in the scholarly publication business model.  These layers are being resolved in favour of OA – i.e. Creative Commons for the licensing layer – but slowly.

I’d recommend the report’s authors absorb some of the work of cultural and legal analysts of the move from an information economy of scarcity to plenty – Yochai Benkler for example.  Maybe then they can see a way through to provide a real programme for change, rather than documenting the currently immature  state of play for scholarly communication.

The upshot of the report is that incumbents gonna encumber.  The trick is finding the social cultural and political levers that unwedge those incumbents, and though libraries have the will, infrastructure, leadership and vision, I’m not sure they have the political momentum, or the bravery to throw down a gauntlet that provides the tipping point required.   The problem has never been technological.  Technology provides us the affordances to think Open Access thoughts in the first place.  The problem is political, and to achieve change there has to be the political will, and the programme to carry it out.

What I’ve written here is very critical, but I don’t want to detract from the content or the style of the report.  It’s eminently readable, and extremely useful in identifying the enemies of openness.  I’m fascinated to follow up on the theses and other work that has come out of this effort, and I’d like to congratulate them on their work.  If they’re ever in town, I’d happily buy them lunch!


[1] Naim, Stranack, Willisky 2017, Open Access Publishing Cooperative Study: Final Report


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