Spurning the Better to Keep Burning for the Best

Björn Brembs (as interviewed by Richard Poynder) is not satisfied with “read access” (free online access: Gratis OA): he wants “read/write access” (free online access plus re-use rights: Libre OA).

The problem is that we are nowhere near having even the read-access that Björn is not satisfied with.

So his dissatisfaction is not only with something we do not yet have, but with something that is also an essential component and prerequsite for read/write access. Björn wants more, now, when we don’t even have less.

And alas Björn does not give even a hint of a hint of a practical plan for getting read/write access instead of “just” the read access we don’t yet have.

All he proposes is that a consortium of rich universities should cancel journals and take over.

Before even asking what on earth those universities would/should/could do, there is the question of how their users would get access to all those cancelled journals (otherwise this “access” would be even less than less!). Björn’s reply — doubly alas — uses the name of my eprint-request Button in vain:

The eprint-request Button is only legal, and only works, because authors are providing access to individual eprint requestors for their own articles. If the less-rich universities who were not part of this brave take-over consortium of journal-cancellers were to begin to provide automatic Button-access to all those extra-institutional users, their institutional license costs (subscriptions) would sky-rocket, because their Big-Deal license fees are determined by publishers on the basis of the size of each institution’s total usership, which would now include all the users of all the cancelling institutions, on Björn’s scheme.

So back to the work-bench on that one.

Björn seems to think that OA is just a technical matter, since all the technical wherewithal is already in place, or nearly so. But in fact, the technology for Green Gratis (“read-only”) OA has been in place for over 20 years, and we are still nowhere near having it. (We may, optimistically, be somewhere between 20-30%, though certainly not even the 50% that Science-Metrix has optimistically touted recently as the “tipping point” for OA — because much of that is post-embargo, hence Delayed Access (DA), not OA.

Björn also seems to have proud plans for post-publication “peer review” (which is rather like finding out whether the water you just drank was drinkable on the basis of some crowd-sourcing after you drank it).

Post-publication crowd-sourcing is a useful supplement to peer review, but certainly not a substitute for it.

All I can do is repeat what I’ve had to say so many times across the past 20 years, as each new generation first comes in contact with the access problem, and proposes its prima facie solutions (none of which are new: they have all been proposed so many times that they — and their fatal flaws — have already have each already had their own FAQs for over a decade.) The watchword here, again, is that the primary purpose of the Open Access movement is to free the peer-reviewed literature from access-tolls — not to free it from peer-review. And before you throw out the peer review system, make sure you have a tried, tested, scalable and sustainable system with which to replace it, one that demonstrably yields at least the same quality (and hence usability) as the existing system does.

Till then, focus on freeing access to the peer-reviewed literature such as it is.

And that’s read-access, which is much easier to provide than read-write access. None of the Green (no-embargo) publishers are read-write Green: just read-Green. Insisting on read-write would be an excellent way to get them to adopt and extend embargoes, just as the foolish Finch preference for Gold did (and just as Rick Anderson‘s absurd proposal to cancel Green (no-embargo) journals would do).

And, to repeat: after 20 years, we are still nowhere near 100% read-Green, largely because of phobias about publisher embargoes on read-Green. Björn is urging us to insist on even more than read-Green. Another instance of letting the (out-of-reach) Best get in the way of the (within-reach) Better. And that, despite the fact that it is virtually certain that once we have 100% read-Green, the other things we seek — read-write, Fair-Gold, copyright reform, publishing reform, perhaps even peer review reform — will all follow, as surely as day follows night.

But not if we contribute to slowing our passage to the Better (which there is already a tried and tested means of reaching, via institutional and funder mandates) by rejecting or delaying the Better in the name of holding out for a direct sprint to the Best (which no one has a tried and tested means of reaching, other than to throw even more money at publishers for Fool’s Gold). Björn’s speculation that universities should cancel journals, rely on interlibrary loan, and scrap peer-review for post-hoc crowd-sourcing is certainly not a tried and tested means!

As to journal ranking and citation impact factors: They are not the problem. No one is preventing the use of article- and author-based citation counts in evaluating articles and authors. And although the correlation between journal impact factors and journal quality and importance is not that big, it’s nevertheless positive and significant. So there’s nothing wrong with libraries using journal impact factors as one of a battery of many factors (including user surveys, usage metrics, institutional fields of interest, budget constraints, etc.) in deciding which journals to keep or cancel. Nor is there anything wrong with research performance evaluation committees using journal impact factors as one of a battery of many factors (alongside article metrics, author metrics, download counts, publication counts, funding, doctoral students, prizes, honours, and peer evaluations) in assessing and rewarding research progress.

The problem is neither journal impact factors nor peer review: The only thing standing between the global research community and 100% OA (read-Green) is keystrokes. Effective institutional and funder mandates can and will ensure that those keystrokes are done. Publisher embargoes cannot stop them: With immediate-deposit mandates, 100% of articles (final, refereed drafts) are deposited in the author’s institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication. At least 60% of them can be made immediately OA, because at least 60% of journals don’t embargo (read-Green) OA; access to the other 40% of deposits can be made Restricted Access, and it is there that the eprint-request Button can provide Almost-OA with one extra keystroke from the would-be user to request it and one extra keystroke from the author to fulfill the request.

That done, globally, and we can leave it to nature (and human nature) to ensure that the “Best” (100% immediate OA, subscription collapse, conversion to Fair Gold, all the re-use rights users need, and even peer-review reform) will soon follow.

But not as long as we continue spurning the Better and just burning for the Best.

Stevan Harnad