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The year 2016 in open access. Cracks in the mainstream – a subjective review

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Looking back on the past, we can be more optimistic when we talk about the future of openness in academic research.

The end of December gives a natural opportunity to look back on the passing year. For me this is the fourth time that I write “The year in open access” summary for blog. And, as usual, I am really moved when I think about how much progress has been made by the open access community in last 12 months.

For the first time I have decided to add a subtitle to this review. I think that at the end of 2016 we, without much exaggeration, can talk about “Cracks in the mainstream” of scholarly communication. During last several years the debate on open access has changed its main subject from “do we need open access” to “how we should make research open”. I am far from triumphant, however the number of national research funding bodies world-wide that have started to support and promote open access publishing in recent years really makes me optimistic. We, the open access advocates, have seen this trend for some time now. However, the year 2016 brought some very serious symptoms of cracks and fractures inside “the status quo”, that previously might have appeared to be quite monolithic.

The pirates anchored in our bay

The first serious symptom was a discussion that erupted around the case of Sci-Hub, a pirate website that hosts academic papers unlawfully downloaded from subscription journals. The website is live from 2011 and in 2015 was sued by Elsevier for copyright infringement and, despite multiple take downs, it is still available under several domain names. The case of Sci-Hub got mainstream media coverage in early 2016, which triggered an avalanche of polemic articles written by scholars, activists and publishers. Some debaters focused on the legal issues, (and indeed the website is breaking the law), while the others discussed the problem from an ethical perspective, often pointing out that the most unethical thing that one can do with an academic paper is to hide it behind a paywall.

Yet, whether we like it or not, the main point about Sci-Hub is that scholars use it. I was pretty confused when a principal investigator in quite a rich research group dealing with natural sciences told me that when he cannot access papers that he needs, he simply downloads them from Sci-Hub. This service is now famous, and it is hard to simply ignore it. In July 2016 research appeared saying that only 1 in 5 students access all educational resources (s)he uses legally. The broad acceptance of copyright infringement is just a symptom of a deep crisis in the scholarly communication system. Of course, open access is the solution and I think it has never been more obvious than now. Faced with Sci-Hub’s popularity, even the most conservative commenter would have to agree with that.

The fall of impact factor

Another crack in the mainstream appeared within weeks of the announcement of the most recent impact factors. On July 5th 2016, researchers provided some additional evidence for the fact that judging individual articles on the basis of a journal’s impact factor is pointless. This should not be surprising, since DORA has been around for 4 years, and various people have been raising voices like that from time to time. But again the reaction of the blogosphere and even some big publishers was very strong. Some publishers claimed that we need an “alternative to impact factor”. And impact factor is not just a numerical indicator that could be easily replaced by something else. The journal-orientated logic that lays behind it is one of the major circumstances petrifying the monopoly of vogue journals. Pursuit for impact factors is one of the major barriers that handicap the growth of new open access journals.

Standing on the shoulders of the penguin

The thing that made 2016 important for me was also the 25th anniversary of Linux, an operating system built by the open source movement. And now, after 25 years, when 96.55% of all web servers run Linux, open access advocates should remind themselves of their common roots with open source movement. We can now see how mature open source is; the older brother of open access, and be more optimistic when we talk about future of openness in academic research.

More personally, this year I have been busy with the De Gruyter Open Author Survey. Analysing the results I saw two contradictory, but both very clearly defined, concepts that crash on the field of scholarly communication. One is the need to communicate research findings to an appropriate and broad audience, which results in the acceptance of the principles of openness among scholars around the world. Another one is the necessity to follow the rules of academic career evaluation, which currently make majority researchers to publish in toll access journals mostly, despite their support for open access.

There are cracks in the second concept.

Image: Let The Old Year Out. The work by Roaring Jellyfish Designs, with the lettering added, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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