Open Access: interview with Professor Peter Suber

When it comes to Open Access (OA), Professor Peter Suber is certainly dedicated to the cause. Having quit his position as Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College to work full time on OA, he wrote both the blog Open Access News for eight years and continues to write the SPARC OA Newsletter. Who better to talk to about the some of the perceived challenges OA could face?

As far as definitions go, OA is online research literature- free of charge and of needless copyright and licensing restrictions. As Professor Suber pointed out, the internet is key to OA.

First of all, OA is impossible without the internet, the way I define OA entails the internet. Even if you wrote some literature and gave it away on the street, it’s not strictly OA because it’s only for the people you’re giving it out to.

The internet actually originated- with scholars at the research institute within the US Department of Defence- in order to share research literature with one another. So you might say the original purpose of the internet was research sharing – what we now call Open Access. Congress didn’t permit commercial use of the internet for several years after the web came along. And when it did it took over and overshadowed all the academic uses. Those original researchers were pioneers in Open Access, but it took the rest of the academic world a long time to catch on that this was possible”

Another important facet of OA is the type of literature made freely available.

We’re talking about peer reviewed research articles, not necessarily books. Authors of books make money, authors of journal articles don’t. Authors of journal articles aren’t writing for money, they’re writing for impact; for influence. And they want the broadest possible audience- they don’t want to limit the audience to those who are paying for access, they want their work to be available to everyone who can apply it, build upon it or make use of it. So they have every interest in putting it online free of charge – that’s the author’s case for Open Access. The reader’s case is even more evident- they don’t want access barriers. Right now readers only have access to what their institutions are wealthy enough to pay for.”

With such a strong case for OA, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it had any opponents at all. But there are and they’re predominantly publishers. Although (as you can read in my previous post) the amount of publishers experimenting with OA is on the rise, there is still a hesitancy to fully embrace it, and Professor Suber is in no doubt as to the driving force behind this.

It’s fear. Fear that it will lead to cancellations of subscription journals. However, this hasn’t happened and in one field –physics- there has been Open Access to essentially 100% of new journal literature for close to 20 years. So if we were to see cancellations we would have seen them first in physics. But in physics not only are there no cancellations whatsoever that publishers can attribute to OA- the publishers in physics have even become symbiotic with OA.

The physics literature is deposited in an Open Access repository called the arXive at Cornell University. Most physics publishers now actually take submission from the archive directly and even host their own mirrors of the archive. There’s no proof that other disciplines will behave like physics but there’s only one discipline in which we have good evidence about the co-existence of high levels of Open Access archiving and subscription publishing and there’s no cancellations whatsoever.”

The removal of a subscription charge begs the question- where is the money going to come from? There is more than one business model for OA, but the best know charges a processing fee, used by Public Library of Science and Biomed Central. The bill goes to the author of the article, but he doesn’t necessarily have to pay it- the author’s funder, research facility or grant takes care of that.

A growing number of institutions- more than 30 now- have funds that pay these fees on behalf of their faculties. These funds have been growing even during the worldwide recession. So even though library budgets are cut they still think it’s a good investment to create these funds; it’s an investment in a superior distribution system of the future.”

But do publishing fees leave room for malpractice? In 2009, The Open Information Science Journal accepted a fake article created using a computer program. After paying the $800 publishing fee, PhD student Philip Davis along with Kent Anderson, executive director of international business and product development at the New England Journal of Medicine had a phoney paper published after being supposedly peer reviewed. But Professor Suber sees this as demonstrating that the OA community can police itself effectively.

First of all, that was a real scam. The authors who exposed that scam deserve our thanks for doing so. The important piece of background info here is that OA journals are just like subscription journals in the sense that they vary in quality from the first-rate to the pits. There are some excellent journals and most of them are honest and rigorous, but there are some bottom feeders that are just atrocious- and that’s true on the subscription side and the OA side.

Wherever there’s money to be made you’ll find scammers and there’s money to be made in subscription publishing as well as OA. So I’ll admit that there are some dishonest OA publishers-but they’re a small minority”

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