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Open access: a means to an end

20 Sep 2013

Martin Wolf, University of Liverpool

April fool?

As well as marking the more obvious milestone of seeing the introduction of the RCUK policy on open access to their funded research outputs, April 2013 also saw a more modest open access development here at the University of Liverpool, as I was ensconced in the newly-created role of Research Support Lead in the library.

This exciting new role has a wide remit, encompassing aspects such as: training for the full range of researchers (PhD candidates, early career researchers, supervisors, and so on); supporting the library’s work with other university departments on research data management; co-ordinating events and support for researchers; managing the staff in our Research Archive team (the Research Archive being our institutional repository); managing a project to develop and implement a new version of the Research Archive; and last, and at present most, leading on the administration of open access initiatives.

I had already been managing our Wellcome Trust open access payments for some months prior to 1 April, but the arrival of first Liverpool’s share of money from BIS for open access developments, and then the introduction of the RCUK policy, meant a step change in the level of activity.

It’s who you know and what you know

I hope you’re sitting down, because what I’m about to say will come as a real shock – when it comes to open access, communication with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible is absolutely vital (stick around, there’ll be more stunning insights like this to come!).

In this I’ve been lucky in that the University of Liverpool library very much encourages its staff to get involved with university initiatives out with the library and its immediate concerns as much as possible. As such, I’ve had plenty of experience in 'non-library' roles on various university projects and committees, such as the university’s 'Improving the Student Experience' project from a few years ago, and acting as project secretary for a recent review of one of our Health and Life Sciences institutes. This latter work in particular meant that I had already met, worked with, and provided non-library related services for some of the key players in the administration of research at the university prior to ever mentioning the words 'open access'. I’d very much encourage others to follow a similar path of getting involved with projects external to the library – doing so means you’re more likely to be taken seriously when trying to get buy-in for your own projects, and means that when you start discussing open access, the players are more likely to take seriously what you have to say.

It’s not enough simply to know the right people, however – you have to know your stuff as well, and here’s where the life of someone with responsibility for leading on open access initiatives becomes one of reading. Lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading. Barely a week goes by without some new major report on open access being published (as I write this, the BIS select committee report on open access is still reverberating around this open access world of ours). One thing I’ve found is that sometimes you just have to let go and recognise that it’s simply impossible to keep up with everything about open access, especially given the strength of ideology behind so much of what is written on the subject – you need to be wary of getting 'sucked in' to some of the more philosophical arguments. What’s most important is to have a clear understanding of the major issues, to be as mindful as you can of the different positions, recognising that while some of the anti-open access opinions you will encounter are based on ignorance of the facts, others are rooted in genuine, legitimate concerns, and finally to be able to communicate those differences and nuances in a clear fashion (wow, who would have thought my English literature degree would actually prove useful?!).

“Can’t we all just get along?”

Taking this theme further, I would argue that taking a balanced view of the for and against arguments surrounding open access is something that more of the major players should be doing. Yes, there is a lot of confusion and ignorance and, dare I say it, naivety out there about open access issues (if I may be permitted one rather harsh statement of my own, those who claim that green open access has been a 'tremendous success' are, frankly, way wide of the mark). Yes, there is certainly some extremely frustrating misinformation and obstructive policies and workflows are being thrown up by publishers and learned societies. However, the 'all publishers are b@5stards' attitude that I find all too prevalent amongst some is completely unhelpful as well. From the point of view of a great many academic researchers, current publishing practices work – just stomping our feet and saying 'no it doesn’t' won’t get anyone anywhere.

Another thing you learn when you’re involved with open access initiatives is that too many conferences and events on the topic consist of open access evangelists evangelising about open access to other open access evangelists. It all strikes me as something of an echo chamber, and we need to see some more genuine dialogue between the two sides of the open access debate, and hopefully move from a 'two sides' state of play to a 'different places on the same spectrum' state of play.

“Nobody knows anything”

Many of you will recognise the above quotation as being from screenwriter William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade. Much used and abused, in this context I’m using the quote to highlight the fact that all the parties involved are finding their feet in this new open access environment, and that over the next few years a lot of people are going to make a lot of frustrating mistakes. Things are going to be very messy for quite a while, and it is the nitty gritty of dealing with APC invoices, rather than any of the 'big picture' stuff, that I have found most frustrating in my role to date.

One of the things I’ve found in dealing with APC requests is the sheer variety of ways that publishers deal with (or, all too frequently, manage not to deal with) APCs. It’s interesting that that the c£1,500 or so that APCs run to, which is very frequently cited as an outrageously high sum of money, is, from a publisher’s accounts system point of view, a truly trifling sum, and the administration involved in processing these payments will look like a pretty steep overhead. Similarly, the use of a third party intermediary to handle APC payments, whilst in theory a path to greater efficiency, is at the moment causing more administrative work than it’s easing, as the amount of publishers who are proving incapable of reconciling payments received with the specific invoices those payments are funding has been depressingly high.

In a similar vein, the variety of ways in which institutions are dealing with the processing of APCs is extremely wide. Anyone reading this to learn about 'best practice' in the management of APCs will be sorely disappointed (but thanks anyway for making it this far!), as I don’t think there is 'best practice' in this field just yet. I’ve certainly heard about workflows in other institutions that actually strike me as examples of bad, or at the least needlessly obstructive, practice, but I’m not going to lie and say that Liverpool has cracked this particular nut either. Ours is currently a 'post-article-acceptance' workflow, which can cause problems when a paper has been accepted by a fully gold journal and I have the unenviable task of telling a researcher “your work wasn’t funded by an RCUK body, therefore we aren’t going to pay your APC from central funds”. However, from talking to colleagues at other institutions, we certainly appear to have had more success than many in encouraging the uptake of open access publishing amongst our researchers.

“There is no fate but what we make for ourselves”

Of course you recognise the line above from the Terminator movies (and if you don’t, stop reading and go watch them right now – well, at least the first two). What I’m driving at here is that there is no one, monolithic thing called 'open access'. Given that there isn’t (at least to my mind) one pre-ordained end point to open access, we can shift course, change direction if necessary, look at all the different options with an open mind, be prepared to negotiate, and end up working in an environment where different forms of open access to academic content can flourish. “We” in the quotation above means academics, publishers, library staff, university administrative staff, working together to explore the various different paths to open access. Remember that open access is not an end in and of itself – it is only a means to an end, and we mustn’t lose sight of that.

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