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Peter Suber: The Imperative of Open Access

Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, is the undisputed authority on open access. He is also the unofficial, though widely acknowledged, leader of the worldwide movement to make published scholarly works—books and journals—open access, so they are “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” (Interview conducted: March 27, 2012).

His latest book, Open Access, has been hailed as a must-read by faculty, librarians, and administrators on campuses of all sizes. In fact, one university did just that. Shortly after Peter’s book was published, librarians at Georgia State University hosted an event to give copies of Peter’s book to all new faculty and administrators.

What makes Open Access such a gem of a book is Peter’s straightforward treatment of the complex issue of intellectual property and open access. He presents a discussion that is highly readable, pragmatic, progressive, and, at times, downright inspirational.

We interviewed Peter in February 2013. We discussed what open access means to scholarly communication, students, and libraries, and the work that lies ahead.

PIL: You tell a great story about how you became involved in open access. Years ago, you began to teach yourself HTML when the Internet was considered a place that you describe as full of “pornography, advertising, and crap.” It made sense to you, then as a professor, to post your own scholarly research to a site you were building on the fledgling digital frontier. What did you discover about the power of communicating in a digital space that was so different for you, as a scholar?

Peter: I discovered an audience. When I started putting my print publications online, some of them were over ten years old. But I'd received little serious or useful feedback on them from scholars. However, as soon as I started making my work OA, I started receiving serious, useful, stimulating correspondence from colleagues in philosophy and law, my two fields. I also started receiving serious correspondence from scholars in other fields where I never would have guessed that my work had implications.

My first interest in the web was geeky, not scholarly, I admit. But the evidence turned me around pretty quickly. The OA editions of my publications were reaching a larger part of my intended audience than the originals, even years after first publication. They were also reaching a larger unintended audience than would ever have found or looked for the originals.

Like other scholars, I didn't earn any money from journal articles, and I didn't lose money by making them OA. On the contrary, I enlarged my audience, my impact, and my connections to the researchers and research conversations on my topics. The feedback on my early experiments showed me that the web was more than a geeky playground. It could help authors find readers and help readers find authors. It could do both jobs better than print, and the web without paywalls could do both jobs better than the web with paywalls. It could accelerate research and deepen any inquiry that we were willing to conduct in the open. It could serve the purposes of publication better than conventional publication itself. I began to feel that OA was to conventional publication roughly what conventional publication was to handwritten correspondence.

PIL: Peer-reviewed journals are not new in academia. They have been around since the 17th century. For centuries, authors have received no pay for their contributions and, as you’ve explained,“they've worked for impact, not money.” How has the Internet changed this age-old paradigm? How many peer-reviewed journals are open access, freely available over the Internet without a price and copyright restrictions that limit their use? Which disciplinary fields, and their journals, are the leaders in making articles open access?

Peter: First, the internet has not changed the basic fact that scholars write journal articles for impact, not for money. And thank goodness. That basic fact makes OA possible for journal articles. As I argue in my book, it also frees scholars to write on the topics at the center of their curiosity and expertise, regardless of the size of the interested audience. It frees scholars from the market, or from the need to tie their income to the popularity of their ideas. It allows them to focus on what is likely to be true rather than what it likely to sell. Hence, it supports the deepening of research itself, and not just the sharing of research. In addition, it's one more layer of protection allowing scholars to criticize conventional wisdom and its powerful defenders. In that sense, it also supports academic freedom, not just freedom of access.

Authors of scholarly journal articles had already benefited from that insulation from the market for more than 300 years. In the late 20th century we found an unexpected new benefit, the freedom to make their work OA without economic risk or lost revenue. It was a beautiful opportunity that scholars didn't take long to notice or seize. It also happened to be a beautiful solution to the terrible, decades-long, pricing crisis in conventional or subscription-based journals.

Today the Directory of Open Access Journals lists more than 8,800 peer-reviewed OA journals in all fields and languages. They constitute about one-third of peer-reviewed journals overall. This fraction grew from zero in just over 20 years, and the curve is bending upwards. The growth is accelerating.

Some OA journals are very traditional and only tweak the access variable. That's useful for reducing fear and showing that OA journals can have all the virtues of traditional journals, plus wider access. Some are very unconventional and deliberately push the evolution of scholarly journals. That's useful for the ongoing project of figuring out how to take full advantage of the internet for the purposes of scholarship and research. Some use traditional forms of peer review, and some experiment with new and innovative forms of peer review that depend on networked peers and OA submissions.

Some are non-profit and some are for-profit, and among the for-profit journals, some are already profitable. Some are very high in quality, impact, and prestige, and some are very low. The internal variety of OA journals is much like the internal variety of non-OA journals.

Some OA journals charge author-side publication fees in order to recoup the costs of production. That's the best-known business model for OA journals, but not the most common. In fact, the majority—about 70%—depend on institutional subsidies and charge no fees whatsoever. Some OA journals use open licenses, such as Creative Commons licenses, to permit new kinds of reuse such as text mining. That's highly desirable, but unfortunately not routine. In fact, the majority—again about 70%, but a different 70%—still use all-rights-reserved copyrights.

PIL: Let’s shift to a discussion about different kinds of access. What’s “gold OA”? What’s “green OA”? How many US colleges and universities have digital repositories for making scholarly publications by their campus faculty freely available? Has there been any uptake in faculty’s involvement yet?

Peter: Green OA is simply OA through repositories, while gold OA is OA through journals. Most scholars understand OA journals, more or less, because they understand journals. But because repositories are relatively new in the landscape, green OA suffers more than gold OA from invisibility and misunderstanding.

Repositories don't provide their own peer review, as journals do, but they can and do host articles peer-reviewed elsewhere. One of the early victories of the OA movement was to persuade a majority of non-OA publishers to give standing permission for their authors to deposit their peer-reviewed manuscripts in OA repositories. Hence, authors who publish in non-OA journals needn't give up on OA. More often than not, they can make their work green OA. Moreover, authors who retain key rights, on their own or under the terms of an OA policy from a funding agency or university, can always make their work green OA, without regard to what publishers are willing to allow.

The Directory of Open Access Repositories lists more than 2,200 OA repositories worldwide, and the Registry of Open Access Repositories lists more than 3,300. Although most universities don't yet host their own OA repositories, many existing repositories are consortial and many others are devoted to fields or topics rather than institutions. Moreover, even a much smaller number of repositories could easily scale up to host the total worldwide research output.

Individual scholars can make their own work OA by making it gold or green. Funding agencies and universities wanting their grantees and faculty to make their work OA almost universally mandate green OA. One reason is that green OA is compatible with author freedom to submit to their journals of their choice. In addition, green OA costs less than gold OA, scales better, and is compatible with any later efforts to add incentives or funding for gold OA. Today, about 80 funding agencies require green OA for the results of the research they fund, and about 160 universities require green OA for faculty research articles.

Faculty who hear about university OA mandates sometimes imagine that faculty have been coerced by administrative edicts. But the vast majority of university OA policies have been adopted by faculty themselves, at their own initiative, and more than 40 have been adopted by unanimous faculty votes. For institutions considering a policy, I can recommend the guide to good practices for university OA policies that I maintain with Stuart Shieber.

PIL: How are college students affected by open access and the availability of materials they need for courses? When we were conducting interviews on 10 US campuses for our Crunch Timestudy (2011), we noticed a fascinating trend in campus libraries. Some students were browsing the course catalog at the same time they searched the library’s online public access catalog (OPAC). Students explained they could only afford to take courses where the readings were on library reserve, because course texts were too expensive for them to buy. Is access getting better or worse for students?

Peter: There's a textbook pricing crisis analogous to the journal pricing crisis, and a movement for OA textbooks analogous to the movement for OA journals and journal articles. There are some other similarities as well, such as the elegant, obvious solution of using the internet to reduce distribution costs to zero while increasing the opportunities for use, reuse, multimedia, and interactivity. One big difference is that authors of successful textbooks can make ungodly amounts of money, while authors of journal articles are simply not paid. That's why OA journal articles are lower-hanging fruit than OA textbooks. But OA textbooks are not out of reach, and they're spreading fast, both in production by authors and adoption by teachers and schools. And just as with OA journals, OA removes access barriers without removing the filters or incentives for quality. The best OA textbooks are as good as the best non-OA textbooks.

PIL: In a February 2013 interview, you said the biggest challenge for the access movement was coordinating an effort to educate stakeholders—faculty, librarians, students, administrators, publishers, and policy officers—about the issues of open access. Why is educating people about open access been, as you put it, been such a “long, hard slog”?

Peter: One reason is that we can't address faculty as a bloc, since they don't act as a bloc. The same is true of other stakeholder groups such as librarians, university administrators, publishers, societies, funders, and legislators.

Another reason, as I argued in my book, is that the idea of OA is so simple that it's constantly being rediscovered. But people who rediscover it generally rediscover just the simplest version of the concept without any of the refinements that have evolved over the years to make implementation fast, easy, inexpensive, and lawful, and without any the nuances or details needed to give the strongest answers to frequently heard questions, objections, and misunderstandings. For example, many academics know enough about OA to support it, but don't know enough to explain how to pay for it, how to avoid copyright problems, how to write policies to assure OA without infringing faculty rights and freedoms, or—taking this a step further—how to assure OA through policies that respect faculty rights and freedoms even more than the policies and contracts now customary in the world of scholarly publishing.

For the purpose of educating stakeholders, the bad news is that OA is like any other subject, such as the Battle of Eylau or biological evolution. The simplest understanding of it doesn't answer objections very well, and more robust understanding takes a little study. The good news is that OA is much easier than the Battle of Eylau or biological evolution, and that only a little study or background is needed to answer objections and misunderstandings. In addition, of all the players in this drama, scholars have the best reasons to appreciate this role for understanding, just as they have the strongest motives for pursuing OA and the most effective opportunities for realizing it.

Peter lives in Brooksville, Maine. In addition to being the Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, he is a Faculty Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Senior Researcher at SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), and the open access Project Director at Public Knowledge. With a doctorate in philosophy and a law degree, both from Northwestern, Peter was a professor of philosophy and also taught computer science and law for over 20 years at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana.

Peter’s book, Open Access, is published by MIT Press (June, 2012). Note the book will become open access in June 2013, one year after its publication. This is a "living book" and Peter maintains an OA page of updates and supplements.

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing and national research study, supported with contributing funds from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the Institute of Museum and Libraries (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Smart Talk interviews are open source. No permission for use is required from PIL to share this interview, though we ask that this source be cited as Project Information Literacy, "Smart Talks," no. 14, Peter Suber, The Imperative of Open Access.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Peter and Alison are both fellows at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and are both involved in the Open Syllabus Project at Columbia University.

Creative Commons License

Peter Suber: The Imperative of Open Access (email interview), by by Alison J. Head, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 14 (27 March 2013), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License, .