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The Year 2015 in Open Access – a subjective review

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My wish for the year 2015 came true. I wished the debate about open access would turn from asking “shall we shift toward open access” towards “how to ensure open access to academic knowledge and what kind of open access do we need?”. However, this debate is even more difficult and the open access movement seems to be more and more divided than in past. We enter 2016 with a lot of unsolved problems, but also with the another year of open access growth behind us. Here you have my subjective review of 2015.

The belief that open access is a good solution and follows the traditional values and principles of academia has become popular. But this development has brought about new dilemmas and thrown new light on some old ones, that seemed to be solved already. Unsurprisingly, the closer we are to the common acceptance of openness as a standard, the bigger the differences within the open access movement. For me the year 2015 was another year of the gradual growth of open access in numbers, which was especially true for De Gruyter Open, the company that I work for, but also a year of intense debate within the open access movement and between different parties engaged in the process of academic communication.

Open access means broader impact

However, before touching on the current open access debate, I would like to share with you some optimistic information. Open access is growing not only in terms of number of articles, but also in terms of its broad societal impact. The year 2015 brought not only a study that claimed a Wikipedia advantage for open access articles, but also increased the presence of open access papers in the Altmerics top 100 rank, which is a list of the most linked and discussed works on news, blogs and social media. Among this top 100 most discussed papers the share of open articles increased from 36% in 2014 to 48% in 2015. These figures suggest that open access works are very popular in tweets, blogs and news and that their impact on society is growing more and more.

Does the broader impact means bigger responsibility?

But 2015 was also the year when John Bohannon raised (again) concerns about how low quality publishers, might be used to manipulate the public. He (with co-workers) published a fake research paper in a low-quality open access journal. The paper was covered in a huge number of mainstream media which spread the fake results as legitimate science to a mass audience. Of course this was not the first fake research that received such mass media coverage, and there are examples of traditional journals that have published fake results which were subsequently publicized by the mainstream media. One can even say, that there are more reasons for researchers to publish fake science in popular journals than to publish anything ones of poor quality.. But another sting by Bohannon fueled new discussion about if we need to distinguish legitimate journals from the rest in a manner that would diminish the harmful influence of pseudo-science on public debate.

Therefore, here is the first major challenge to be solved in scientific communication in 2016. How to maintain research communication in the world of mass media, when all information, regardless its reliability, might be spread in seconds to the extent that will make its effective retraction almost impossible? Open access articles have a broader impact on society, because they are more accessible. But in fact, true openness and transparency, together with spreading the culture of organized skepticism, maybe more the solution to this problem than a part of it.

The quality issue is still on

More or less at the same time as Bohannon published his second “sting”, Jeffrey Beall started his attempts to diminish the importance of his own work, by attacking openness in an illogical manner. Beall is an exclusive maintainer of lists of “predatory” publishers and journals, the lists that are seen by some, as tools to filter out low-quality open access journals. Publishing biased attacks on open access of course weakens his legitimacy to decide who is a reliable open access publisher, which was never too strong. The situations with Bohannon and Beall have raised another important question for open access advocates. How to overcome the association between open access and low quality research, which is still lively among some open access opponents? And how to do it when some projects that used to be seen as a part of the solution (e.g. Beall’s list) reveal themselves to be a part of the problem? Do we need a reliable way to evaluate the quality of every journal, both with open and traditional models? Is a crowd-sourced rating system for journals a good solution? Or maybe we should try to stop treating the name of the journal as a proxy for quality research papers at all? But if so, how to do it?

The mainstream and the alternative

The idea of open access is mature enough that the European Commission has decided that it is time to organize an event concerned with “alternative forms of open access publishing”. If we are searching for alternatives, it means that we already have some mainstream open access, which we know quite well. I think this idea is a little bit over optimistic, but it is not absurd. Two models of open access have been proven to work well, but both in a very specific context only. The first one is journal-side open access for academic papers, funded by author side fees, that is proven to work smoothly in some fields of sciences, thanks to relatively good funding of these disciplines. Another one is “parasitic” green open access, based on open access copies of pay-walled content, self-archived by authors. It works well in several other disciplines, mostly in those which are highly mathematized. Everything else, including whole open access book publishing and the majority of open access journals, (these operating in less funded fields), is the alternative and still operates in an experimental manner and is not well researched. It is very possible that this “alternative” may tell us more about the future of open access than what we consider as the mainstream now. It is also very possible, that there will never be “one size fits all” path to openness, and we will learn to accept the coexistence of various models. The problem is that we still know very little about open access outside of several research fields.

I wish you more data

At this moment, we can observe a growing debate about what kind of open access the academic community should demand. The different positions in this debate are usually linked to various and complex visions of what Academia should be like, or even to various visions of a societal order. Regardless of the importance of this debate, we all still dramatically lack the data about open access, especially from outside the most well-penetrated disciplines and above all, outside of core countries. I hope that the debate about open access will be fueled by more complex information in 2016. I wish that our research project on the Key Challenges of Research Communication will contribute to this slightly. So this time I wish all of us to have access to more research on open access and open science, of course all backed with reliable open data. I will write a little about the a progress with our research project this month, and hopefully more research will come soon.

Image credit: New Year fireworks over Reykjavík, Iceland, photo by Börkur Sigurbjörnsson licensed under the terms of CC-BY 2.0, with a text added.

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1 Comment

  1. Speaking of data about open access, it would be a great start if De Gruyter Open would start making article level metrics openly available, as most other publishers already do. These are increasingly used to demonstrate reach and impact, and their availability at publishers like PLOS and Frontiers can be a reason to submit there rather than to a De Gruyter Open (mega)journal.

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