After the issue of open-access research had simmered for years, Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University in the UK, finally spat the dummy in January and wrote a blog post explaining why he'd been boycotting research journals published by Elsevier, the Netherlands-based publisher of medical and scientific literature. He complained that the company massively overcharges for its research publications and forces libraries into unfair and wasteful "bundling" deals on multiple subscriptions, many of which they do not want.
Gowers’ move led to the launch of the webpage The Cost of Knowledge as a hub of protest against Elsevier. Researchers were asked to pledge not to submit or referee papers or serve on an editorial board for the company’s journals. More than 11,000 academics have signed the pledge.
Elsevier is one of the most powerful players in the academic world, publishing more than a quarter of a million research articles each year in its more than 2,000 journals. The Economistreports that "the firm is certainly in rude financial health. In 2010, it made a £724m ($1.16 billion) profit on revenues of £2 billion, a margin of 36%." The publishing giant's portfolio includes prestigious journals such as The Lancet and Cell, books such as Gray's Anatomy, the ScienceDirect e-journals, and the Trends and Current Opinion series. Elsevier owns the ubiquitous online citation database Scopus, which generates data that many researchers rely on to demonstrate their competitiveness.
Such is the company's reach that a substantial proportion of the citations in Wikipedia’s medical and scientific articles rest on its publications. As many editors know, a frustrating aspect of using Wikipedia as a serious tool for knowledge acquisition is that article references often link to sources that require a credit card. The charge can be as high as $50 to access a single article, and readers don't find out whether there's a paywall until they've clicked multiple times. To explore such problems and their solutions, The Signpost has trialled the orange open-access logo, designed by PLoS, against references in our monthly Recent research, and a roll-out for wider usage on Wikimedia Foundation projects is under discussion.
Jimmy Wales gets involved
Wikimedia’s Jimmy Wales was widely reported in the press and electronic media earlier this month as having agreed to advise the UK government on how its plans to make taxpayer-funded research available gratis can promote collaboration and engagement. The Guardian suggested that the new model will be analogous to the access we now have "to lots of information through Wikipedia".
Wales told The Signpost that "traditional academic journals have had the same business model for decades—a model that made a lot of sense before the age of the Internet, just as the business model of the traditional hard-copy Britannica made a lot of sense before the age of the Internet." We asked him about the view that there's been a creeping privatisation of knowledge. He said that "it isn't 'the privatisation of knowledge' which has crept up on us, but the realization that there's a better way to fund academic publishing, a way that will allow for much broader distribution of results."
The Economist commented that Elsevier "insists it is being misrepresented. ... It charges average industry prices for its products, according to Nick Fowler, its director of global academic relations, and its price rises have been lower than those imposed by other publishers over the past few years. Elsevier's enviable margins, Dr Fowler says, are simply a consequence of the firm’s efficient operation." The Guardianreported Fowler as revealing that being portrayed as the "enemies of science" is "downright wrong. It's hurtful to spend your life trying to advance science and medicine and be told you're blocking it."
Wales responded to Fowler's points about pricing and profits in a diplomatic tone, unlike some contributors to blogs and online articles on the issue recently. He told us: "This isn't really what I think we should be interested in. What we should be interested in is the sharing of knowledge and the widespread dissemination of research results. We're in the midst of a major shift in business models in the research publication industry, and I'm sure that if Elsevier is an efficient operator, they'll do well under the new model."
An op ed in The Boston Globe last week said that "it is the persistent unwillingness of universities to address the fundamental misalignment between the interests of their faculty and their libraries that has allowed the situation to fester. Had the leaders of major research universities attacked this issue head on at any point since the deep economic flaws in system became apparent in the 1990s, we would not be facing this problem today."
So has the delay in recognising the problem been due to a lack of political will and organisation in the research sector? Wales emphasises a different angle: "In large part, there's been a time lag due to the need for open-access journals to prove themselves and build a reputation of quality, a process which has already happened to a significant extent and which continues today."
Whatever the reasons for the delay, one thing is clear: Just how the move to open access will be accomplished from here on is by no means straightforward. UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, who is behind the move to bring Wales on board, told The Guardian "we still need to pay for such functions, which is why one attractive model—the gold—has the funders of research covering the costs. Another approach—the green—includes a closed period before wider release during which journals can earn revenues." The BBC reported Willetts as saying "the challenge is how we get there without ruining the value added by academic publishers."
Slow war in Congress
Some US legislators have attempted to create a freer environment for the open-access publication of taxpayer-funded research, notably through the Federal Research Public Access Act, unsuccessfully proposed in 2008 and 2010, and reintroduced in 2012. But there is a strong countervailing push: many Wikimedians may not be aware that around the same time they were debating the SOPA blackout proposal, Congress was considering another bill for the Research Works Act (RWA) that would have forbidden open-access mandates for federally funded research. This bill, and two predecessors proposed in 2008 and 2009, move in the opposite direction to the current UK plans.
The RWA bill did not succeed, even though it was supported by powerful industry groups, including Elsevier—one of Gowers' original gripes against the company. Elsevier's statement on withdrawing support from the bill suggested the company was responding to the potential for bad publicity, talking in terms of creating "a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders." A related statement by the company's Dr Alicia Wise suggested the company will continue its lobbying against open access.
We asked Jimmy whether politicians will continue to be vulnerable to lobbying by the publishing industry, and whether there's a danger that such moves will re-emerge in legislatures:
Yes, there's always a danger. I believe one of the key issues here is 'the tyranny of the status quo', which was termed by economist Milton Friedman. When something new emerges that is widely beneficial to a lot of people (although in a modest way for each individual), but is very costly to a small group of people who have benefitted from the status quo, it's very likely that the small group will find it worthwhile to band together and spend resources to pass unjust laws, while the widely dispersed benefit will receive little interest or support because the general public has a hard time getting organized. So time and time again, we'll see groups who've achieved a privileged position that no longer makes sense, working to try to outlaw innovations that will benefit almost everyone, except themselves.
How does Wikimedia fit into this scenario?
Daniel Mietchen is a biophysicist and since July 2011 has been Wikimedian in Residence on Open Science. Mietchen told The Signpost that licencing is a major issue for the relationship between the movement and open-access research publications: "Open access was defined 10 years ago as imposing only one limit on access and reuse: proper attribution. That's why a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY) is the standard in open-access scholarly publishing. Wikimedia's CC-BY-SA licence—virtually never used in academic contexts—insists that any re-use must also be under the same licence, guaranteeing openness in perpetuity."
So why is this a problem, we asked. "The two licenses are one-way compatible: CC-BY materials can be used in CC-BY-SA environments, but not vice versa. Critically, many research journals recently launched by traditional publishers and marketed as open-access use licences that impose additional restrictions that are incompatible with both the open-access definition and re-use on Wikimedia projects. In other words, if a publication can’t be re-used on Wikipedia, it ain’t open access."
Mietchen explained that publishers don't factor in the possibility of derivative work. Once an article is published, that's typically the end of what anyone cares about—authors or publishers—except for citation counts later on. "If a scholarly article is available under CC-BY, for example, you can take its text or any of its figures or supplementary multimedia files and use them either unchanged or modified in Wikimedia projects or elsewhere. Users can still freely modify, share or otherwise re-use them."
"Scholarly publishers are only just starting to ponder these possibilities, whereas the few existing attempts to render scholarly publications updatable—most notably Scholarpedia and Living Reviews—don't employ re-use–friendly licences. The relevance of Wikimedia to the open-access movement has so far not been on the radar, and highlighting this is one of the most important aspects of the publicity surrounding Jimmy's advisory role."
"Enabling users to freely modify material such as images was an important part of the Research Committee’s recent submission to the US administration on public access to scientific publications. The issue of re-use has come up very rarely in the open-access debate, as it was secondary to the goal of providing researchers with read access to the scholarly literature. Wikimedia is now uniquely positioned within the world of free and open knowledge to champion the re-use case."
Hosted by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Mietchen's residency has focused on the English Wikipedia, where WikiProject Open Access is now actively working on open-access matters. He says now is the time to extend this to other projects, where the topic of open access is less well-developed, such as Wikimedia Commons and the German and French Wikipedias. "One of the advantages of getting academic publishers to adopting re-usable licences is that you can freely translate their material into other languages. Spreading knowledge across language barriers is vital to both the Wikimedia and open-access movements."
"While a number of policies and practices here keep standing in the way of systematic expert involvement—see this current example—Wikimedia provides one of the few models to build on in terms of freely spreading scholarly knowledge. At stake are not just the ability to update, retouch, recontextualise, translate and remix scholarly resources, but the searchability, the enormous exposure, and the speed of making materials available for education in science, medicine, and scholarship more generally. It simply makes sense to bring Wikimedia and open access closer together!"