Sunday, November 27, 2005

Royal Society's Position Statement on Open Access

Recently, the Royal Society issued a Position Statement on 'Open Access', one of the few negative submissions to the RCUK consulation on open access. Many have already commented on this statement - Peter Suber succinctly states the major fallacies in his Nov. 24 comments on Open Access News, where links to many other responses can be found. Some thoughtful replies can be found on the American Scientist Open Access Forum thread, Not a Proud Day in the Annals of the Royal Society, initatied by Barbara Kirsop.

Here are a couple of notes on my perspective - in addition to agreement with comments by Peter Suber, Barbara Kirsop, Frederick Friend, Jean Claude Guedon, David Prosser, Adam Hodgkins, Iain Stevenson, Steve Hitchcock, Stevan Harnad, and others:

The Royal Society asserts that the goal of OA advocates is: "to stop commercial publishers from making profits from the publication of research that has been funded from the public purse. While some companies do appear to be making excessive profits from the publication of researchers' papers..."

Profits are not the issue, not even excessive profits! Access is the issue. Google is one commercial company that appears to be making lots of money from an open access approach, even if it's not primarily in the scholarly realm - kudos to google! BioMedCentral is a for-profit commercial open access publisher - I'm sure all OA advocates join me in wishing BMC nothing but success, including financial success.

Where the confusion may stem from is where a few organizations - both commercial publishers and not-for-profits - appear to be prioritizing profits over dissemination of scholarly knowledge. The fight of the American Chemical Society against PubChem is an excellent example of this. Making profits providing good service in the public interest (providing peer review and optimum dissemination of scholarly research - whether as an OA publisher or by providing full self-archiving rights) is a good thing. Using one's profits to actively lobby against the public interest, is something else altogether.

The Royal Society states, referring to repositories that: "Not all of these papers have been subjected to a quality control process, such as peer review and acceptance for publication by a journal". Comment: repositories may accept only peer-reviewed articles, or they may accept a wide variety of materials. The world wide web makes it easier to publish all kinds of material, not just peer-reviewed papers. Increasing publication of non-peer-reviewed material (conference presentations, working papers, student papers, etc.) is not a threat to the peer-review system. Peer-reviewed journals have existed alongside other kinds of publications for centuries in the print world - the existence of newletters and magazines has never been a threat to peer review, for example. It is important for readers to be able to distinguish content that is peer-reviwed and/or scholarly in nature, from material which is more popular in nature. This has long been true in the print world, and it will continue to be true into the future. This is one of the many reasons why information literacy is a essential skill for students to gain before they graduate.

The Royal Society states: "The Royal Society and other learned bodies currently use their publishing surpluses to fund activities such as academic conferences and public lectures..." This puzzles me, a little, and I would like to suggest a challenge for the Royal Society and other publishers following this approach. That is to say, in librarianship our associations run conferences on a cost-recovery or modest surplus basis, rather than subsidizing. We are not a well-funded discipline at all. Our associations need to keep membership fees and conference fees low, in order to be successful. If librarians can manage to make money from conferences, why does a well-funded discipline like chemistry need sudsidies? As for public lectures - unlike other disciplines, there are many highly profitable companies in chemistry, who have needs to promote and advertise their services. Also, many of whom are now focusing more on their social responsiblities. Why not ask these commercial interests to sponsor a public lecture series?

The Royal Society welcomes debate about open access. Debate has been going on for years, amongst funders, librarians, publishers, and scholars. While ongoing debate about the particulars is necessary, the time has come to shift focus from debate to action, from talking about open access to implementing open access, in my opinion.

I would like to point out one positive in the Royal Society statement: "The Society remains as committed now as it was when it was founded to promoting the exchange of knowledge, not just between scholars, but with wider society." It is good to see a scholarly society acknowledge that scholarship can benefit the wider public, not just scholars.

This post reflects my personal opinion only and does not represent the opinions or policy of the BC Electronic Library Network or the Simon Fraser University Library.

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