Your guide to Open Access publishing and Open Science

Some open access advocates are like the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks

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On the occasion of the Open Access week I am pleased to present an interview with Bo-Christer Björk, Professor of Information Systems Science at the Swedish School of Economics and Business Administration in Helsinki, Finland, and one of the most prominent open access researchers, having more than 3300 citations and h-index 28, according to Google Scholar.

WK: You are the author or co-author of a significant number of peer reviewed papers on open access. What turned you to study this problem?

Bo-Christer Björk: I used to work in the field of information technology in construction, and I was working with an international, scientific network. In 1995, we realized that the Internet offers great opportunities for scientific communication. At this time there were no electronic journals published by mainstream publishers, thus we set up our own OA, on-line journal: ITcon – Journal of Information Technologies in Construction. The journal still exists and it is a voluntary effort – free for both authors and readers. I was the editor of ITcon for almost 16 years. It was because of this involvement that I started to promote open access in Finland and Sweden, and finally together with a colleague, I decided to start researching open access in 2002. We received a grant from the European Union and conducted a big research project, SciX. And slowly I turned from being a lobbyist to a researcher in the field.

This occurred because there are a lot of people who are promoting open access, talking or blogging about it, but there is relatively little empirical research about open access.

At this moment you are not a very active participant of Internet discussions on open access. What do you think about the current state of discussions on open access – is it rooted in problems that can be observed in research or not?

Some of the people who blog about and discuss OA are revolutionaries, and are split into factions like the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks who believe that they knows the truth and everybody else is wrong. They want to promote open access, but believe that the other guys who are also promoting open access are doing it in the wrong way. That is why my coworkers and I allow our results to speak for themselves. This is our participation in this discussion. Our works are downloaded and cited frequently and I think it is a very good way of participating in this discussion.

There are real problems that are discussed by the community, but these discussions are confusing. To give you two examples: one problem is the serial crisis, which manifests itself with high prices of journal subscriptions. Many believed that open access would solve this problem. Based on research, I do not think that open access will make the whole publication process much cheaper, the big savings come downstream in the usage phase. Secondly, there are also people who believe that predatory journals are a big threat to science, but I do not think that is true, except for them damaging the reputation of open access.

According to its opponents, open access is redundant because authors do not care about readership so much, they just want to publish in prestigious, high profile journals and receive rigorous peer review. Some OA opponents claim that too much attention is paid to problem of access, while the true problem of scientific publishing is quality. What do you think about this?

Different authors and different readers are in totally different situations. If you think about researchers working at wealthy universities in the United States, then they just do not feel the access problem. They have rich libraries that grant them access to all major journals. They are also very likely to make brilliant academic careers and to publish in high profile journals. Moreover, the people who are likely to cite them in their papers or who want to evaluate their works, will also have access to all major journals. For them, access is not a problem.

But in Latin America, for example, open access is a huge help for researchers that might not be able to get to the top American or European journals so easily, especially if they work in the social sciences or humanities. Publishing in open access journals makes their works discoverable to everybody around the world. Local, subscription based journals cannot offer them this. That is the huge advantage of open access.

Subscription fees again might not be a problem for big universities in industrial countries, but they are a problem for the rest of world, as well as for example, for small, innovative companies. There are many cases of young PhDs who leave a university to join a small biochemical or hi-tech company and in the process lose access to knowledge, since the companies can’t afford subscriptions. Then access becomes a big problem. Politicians and the general public for instance, may also benefit from access to research and they will not pay subscription fees. It really depends on whom you ask.

Is open access on the periphery of academic publishing, from a quantitative and qualitative point of view?

Pretty soon we are going to reach the point where open access journals have a 15% share of newly published articles. There are also (very often really high profile) journals that make all their content open access on their own websites, let’s say, after one year from initial publication. There are about 500 journals like that. When you count it together, there will be 22-23% of articles available for free on publishers’ websites, one year after publication. Together with green open access (copies that were self-archived by authors) it will be something around one third of all articles. Thus, approximately 33% of all scholarly articles are available for free one year after publication. This is not a small number.

As to the quality, I completed some research with David Solomon a year ago on the Scopus database, using the Impact Factor as a proxy of the quality. We noticed that the average IF for open access journals is almost the same as for all journals. Thus, quality is also not the problem of open access. Some very good open access journals exist, which are close to the top of their disciplines.

Open access is increasing every year and now it is one of the mainstream approaches to scientific publishing. It is not at the system’s periphery any more.

There is a lot of discussion about the so called “predatory open access journals”. What does it mean to you, what is the scale of this problem and is a “predatory approach” limited to open access publishing only?

Predatory journals are journals that are not backed by academics, and which are set up by entrepreneurs to make easy money on scholars by charging authors for publication. Usually they offer very quick review and do not care about the quality. They publish almost every article that is paid for.

This phenomenon occurs mostly in open access publishing, although I have to say that a lot of subscription based journals, set up by major publishers in narrow fields are very low quality. They exist only thanks to the big subscription deals, and would not be able to survive on the market as stand alone journals. I would not call them predatory, but they are low quality journals.

Our group has just started research on predatory journals. We went through the 600 publishers listed on the so-called List of Predatory Publishers and Stand Alone Journals maintained by Jeffrey Beall, and we counted their journals. As a raw estimate, we got that around 10 000 predatory journals exist at this moment, although a lot of these journals do not have any content at all. It is very easy for bogus publishers to start a new journal, much harder to solicit content, hence most of them are empty or have only few papers published in the last year. Thus in terms of the number of articles published, predatory publishers are not a big issue. These journals exist because of the pressure on scientists to publish or perish, but when you take a quick look at those who publish in these journals you will realize that they mainly come from developing countries. For instance, in Poland or Finland, publishing in a journal that is totally unknown has no value in a researcher’s CV, thus I do not think that predatory journals are a serious problem. There is little demand for publications in low quality journals.

The only problem is that serious academics who might consider publishing in open access, or joining the editorial board of an open access journal, form their opinions about open access based on spam emails sent by these publishers. I get two or three such emails a day.

Is the condition of open access different in the field of humanities than in science?

First of all, I would like to ask you to remember that in the humanities the pattern of publishing is a little bit different. In the humanities monographs and book chapters are more popular, and the emphasis on publishing papers is smaller. More is written in languages other than English, and more works deal with local problems, and so on.

In general, I think that the humanities and social sciences benefit a lot from open access, since a major part of the journals published in these fields are niche publications, dealing mostly with local content. Even if they are published in English, they might have difficulties with gaining subscribers from around the world. And thanks to open access, the articles they publish can be found by everybody around the world. This is exactly what happens in Latin America.

The problem with the humanities is that authors and their institutions cannot afford to pay for publications as much as in the fields of medical sciences, for example. It is quite clear that in these fields, journals have to charge significantly lower article processing charges (APC).

It is also worth remembering that subscription prices are different in various countries. At this time, the academic libraries in Serbia pay 10 or 15% of what the Finnish university libraries pay for access to scientific journals, because publishers extract about as much money from each country as the university budgets allow. And governmental and university budgets are smaller in Serbia than in Finland, mainly because of differences in GDP per capita. But article processing charges are the same globally, thus gold open access (publishing in open access journals) is relatively much more expensive from the perspective of lower GDP countries than for example the US or the UK. And I think this will have to change.

Do you think that so called green and gold approaches to open access are competitive or complementary?

Until now green and gold open access were complementary. The green way was good when almost all reputable journals were subscription based, because authors prefer to publish in high profile journals. However, today high quality OA journals exist. A lot of big publishers launch open access journals themselves or buy companies operating on the open access market. Gold open access becomes an important part of their business. Also all major publishers have launched hybrid programs where authors can pay to free their articles in otherwise closed subscription journals. That is why in the last couple of years major publishers made copyright restrictions stricter and partially withdrew their liberal green open access policies, by introducing long embargo periods.

In the long term, when open access journals and article processing charges become more and more popular libraries will be reluctant to pay subscription fees. And if in addition green open access would start to reach high uptake levels of say 50%, publishers would respond with a counterattack, to try to enforce longer embargo rules. There is an internal contradiction within the green model – if it succeeds it will kill the whole subscription based system. When you take into account the current economic situation it is clear that current embargo periods will not be enough to protect journals. Universities are looking for cost reduction, and will not be able to pay for journals that will be virtually free after a short period of time. In medical research, embargo periods are important for researchers, but in the humanities and social sciences for example, they are not that crucial.

Gold open access is so simple that is almost esthetically beautiful. It just reversed the subscription based model, making the author the client and every article available in its final version on the publishers website. With green open access it is much more complicated. You have to search for a green copy in various places, and a green copy may also have a different layout and page numbers than in the published version, which makes references more difficult. And it may come a year or longer after publication. People are lazy. If they cannot make a citation in just one click they will simply not do it at all.

What are your closest plans in terms of research and what is the subject of your current studies?

About half a year ago, I was contacted by Wojtek Sylwestrzak and I co-authored with his team the report: “Analysis of economic issues related to an open access to scientific publications”, which is going to be published very soon by the Interdisciplinary Center of Mathematical and Computational Modeling at the University of Warsaw.

With my team I also have an ongoing project about hybrid journals. We would like to determinate how many open access articles are published in hybrid journals annually. There are 8000 hybrid journals, published mostly by commercial publishers and they account for about 70-80% of all their journals. But there are no estimates of how many OA articles are published by them. We are also interested in whether the popularity of the open access option in hybrid journal depends on their scientific quality.

We are also examining megajournals a little bit more. And finally we would like to examine whether or not the publishing process in the open access model is faster than in the traditional one. It is important because a delay between manuscript submission and publication is a big problem of scientific communication. Previously, I completed some smaller research with David Solomon where we found that in our sample, open access journals publish articles much faster than conventional ones, due to the lack of delay between paper acceptance and publication. In traditional journals, a paper can wait even a year after the peer review process, while in open access once the paper is accepted it is usually published within a few weeks.

Thank you very much!

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