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The Year 2014 in Open Access – a subjective review

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Open access is still growing; the number of its supporters is growing, along with their influence in many decisive bodies. On the other hand, people still cannot get access to works funded with public money. Here is a subjective review of 2014 and some thoughts on what can be made better in 2015.

The sad coincidence is that the usual time for writing summaries and end of year reviews falls just weeks before the bitter anniversary for open access advocates, the anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s death. This is what turned my attention this year not only to the glorious victories of the OA community, but also to the hardships that we still face. A huge share of human knowledge, the development of which continues to be supported by public money, remains hidden behind pay walls. Access to this knowledge is still problematic for a big part of the research community around the world. What is even more shocking is that unauthorised dissemination of publicly founded research can still lead to criminal charges.

One of the most important events of 2014 was the revelation of the Diego Gomez case, a biology student who might be sent to prison for sharing on the Internet a master’s degree thesis that he found in the library. As he claimed „My main motivation to share this work on the Internet was to give access to this information to a biodiversity group study in my region”. The case of Diego Gomez is clearly something that should not have happened. No one should face criminal charges for fostering scientific research and it is sad that something like that occurred in the year that was on balance another good one for open access.

Institutional support for open access

What makes the case of Diego Gomez even more bizarre is that it has become clear to many lawmakers around the world that unimpeded access to research, usually publicly funded, is obviously correct. At the global level, 2014 was the year of substantial growth of institutional support for access to knowledge. Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 mandated that all researches funded by agencies in the US Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Labor to be open access. “This is big” as Adi Kamdar, Electronic Frontier Foundation activist called it.

The graph on the homepage of ROARMAP shows a gradual increase in the number of open access policies adopted by universities, funding organisations and others in every quarter, starting from 2005 until now. In 2014 policies requiring open access to the research output were introduced, for example, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Health Organization. In Europe we had an opportunity to celebrate the official launch of the Horizon 2020 funding program, with 80 billion euro to be spend on researchers in a broad range of disciplines, and which has strong open access and reasonable open data policies.

The year 2014 has shown that support for openness in central administration and governmental bodies is not limited to the right to read. Starting from 1 June, thanks to new legislation, content mine is treated as fair use in the United Kingdom and therefore it is legal to mine with analytical software every piece of content, regardless of how it is licensed and who is the copyright owner. There is no need to ask for any additional permission if the mining is carried out for non-commercial purposes. Although the concept of “commercial use” is quite fuzzy,this legislation may become a milestone for European researchers who are trying to validate their hypotheses or develop completely new ideas using automated analysis.

The discussion on licensing

The problem of copyright and licensing continued to be one of the most widely discussed among open access community, and 2014 saw the strengthening of the role of Creative Commons as a standard for open access academic publishing. This took place when the International Association of Scientific, Technical & Medical Publishers (commonly referred to as STM Association) tried to introduce another model of Open Access licensing, proposing it as the new option for academic publishers. This initiative provoked widespread criticism and led to an open letter signed by more than 60 organizations (funders, universities and publishers, including De Gruyter publishing group) calling for the STM Association to abandon its licensing project, and to promote Creative Commons licenses as a standard for Open Access academic content. This should be seen as a very positive development because it prevented the further growth of the legal Tower of Babel. On the other hand, we cannot forget that there are still many debatable aspects of licensing in academic publishing. The 2014 author survey by Taylor and Francis reports that only 39% of authors would agree to include their work in an anthology without their prior acceptance. What is more, only 44% accept translations without permissions, and finally only 53% want their content to be mined by other scientists, which shows a disparity of attitudes between the advocates of open access and a big segment of the scientific community and triggers a problem with choosing between the different versions of Creative Commons licenses.

The discussion about the quality of open access academic content

In 2014, we could still feel the aftereffects of the most discussed event of 2013, which was the so-called John Bohannon’s sting. Thanks to the broad discussion about the lack of “quality signs” for new open access journals, The Directory of Open Access Journals was closed for new submissions for several months in 2014. DOAJ came back with a new application form, designed to prevent ‘predatory journals’ from entering its database. Is this new application procedure selective enough? It is hard to say at this moment, although the whole problem of ‘predatory open access publishers’ seems to grab more attention that it deserves. As Bo-Christer Björk told me in an interview, referring to his very recent research „(…) a lot of these journals do not have any content at all (…) 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.” At the same time it appears that the Impact Factor (which is a popular, but not perfect proxy of quality) for open access journals is almost the same as for all journals. For those who are still uncertain about the quality of open access publications, 2014 brought the conversion of top-tier Nature Communications to the OA model.

Emergence of De Gruyter Open – a leading publisher of open access books

On January 1, 2014, De Gruyter introduced its new imprint: De Gruyter Open. Versita, a publishing company based in Warsaw, Poland, with a strong position on the Central European publishing market, was acquired by De Gruyter in 2012, and was fully subsumed under the new imprint. Thus, De Gruyter Open also became the publisher of this blog, which was previously owned by Versita. Of course, this was a very important event for me, the blog author, although it also has some consequences that are vital for the whole scientific community. De Gruyter Open converted 9 established journals, which were previously published by Versita and distributed in the subscription model by Springer, to open access. We are talking here about the Central European Journal of Mathematics, Central European Journal of Physics, Central European Journal of Chemistry, Central European Journal of Biology, Central European Journal of Medicine, Central European Journal of Geosciences, Central European Journal of Engineering and Central European Journal of Computer Science and Translational Neurosciene, which published in the 2013 volume more than thousand articles.

De Gruyter Open published more than 50 open access books in 2014, which made the company one of the leading publishers of open access books worldwide. These books were published in the so-called “author pays model” (De Gruyter Open charges authors or their institutions Book Processing Charges, although the fee was waived for works summited before 1st January 2014). De Gruyter also participated in the Knowledge Unlatched Pilot project, which aimed at developing a different path to open access for books in which the costs of publishing are covered by a consortia of libraries. The KU Pilot and the great publishing output in the first year of DG Open are two reasons for calling 2014 a good year for OA in book publishing. Some research and discussions in the publishing community make me believe that academic monographs will continue to have an important role for disseminating knowledge, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Open access to books is possible and reasonable, although it needs much more attention and increased support from funders and policymakers.

Open access is not a revolutionary idea

Open access is still growing; the number of its supporters is growing, along with their influence in many decisive bodies. On the other hand, people still cannot get access to works funded with public money. What we should do in 2015 to foster our move towards a better world? I think that a small change in our thinking might be helpful. We should stop to think and talk about open access as something extraordinary, as something that is very different from what we are used to. This way of thinking is enforced by opponents of OA. We should remember that fostering access to research output is one of the key values of a tradition as old as the first scientific journals. The free sharing of the fruits of one’s work, had allowed us in the past to stand on the shoulders of giants. That was a part of the academic ethos. Access to knowledge became a problem after the proliferation of higher education and after the serial crisis that skyrocketed the costs of academic articles. Scientists never saw limiting access as something good or even neutral. The limitation of access to scientific knowledge which is so noticeable now might be seen as a temporal vitiation, which might be overcome thanks to the technical opportunities provided by the Internet. Thus, by fostering open access we do not support any kind of revolution. We simply follow the old precepts of academic work.

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