Thursday, April 19, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: Mahmoud Khalifa responds from Egypt

As I have previously reported, more and more countries in the global North are coming to the conclusion that if universal open access is to be achieved any time soon they are going to have to persuade or compel legacy scholarly publishers to convert all their subscription journals to gold OA, by means of a global “flip”.
Paywalls to Publication Walls?

This implies a future in which the pay-to-publish model will dominate. Instead of readers (or their institutions) paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors will have to pay to publish their own papers – by means of article-processing charges (APCs). Currently, APCs are around $3,000 a paper, although they can be both higher and lower than this.

The global flip strategy is being spearheaded by the Max-Planck-led OA2020 Initiative, and attempted in Europe by means of OA Big Deals. These are usually agreements negotiated with legacy publishers by national consortia of universities, with the aim of engineering a transition to OA by combining a large subscription payment for existing paywalled content with a large publishing payment to buy their researchers the right to publish their papers OA without having to pay APCs personally. 

It is intended that over time the OA component of these deals will grow to the point where all (or nearly all) new research is published open access, at which point it is assumed publishers will flip all their journals to an exclusively OA model.

This approach is gaining mindshare in the US too, and one of those advocating for it is Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. In a recent Q&A MacKie-Mason outlined why he thinks a global flip is the only practical way forward.

How practical?

However, not everyone agrees that a global flip is practical, or even desirable, not least researchers based outside Europe and North America. To get a sense of how this approach looks from the Middle East I asked Mahmoud Khalifa, a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office (and DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf) to comment on MacKie-Mason’s answers to my questions, which he does below. Khalifa is an OA advocate, but I think we can sum up his response to the global flip idea by quoting him thus: “I have a different point of view!”

Explaining his reasoning, Khalifa points out that under the current subscription model access to scholarly journals in Egypt is funded by local research institutions and/or governments, not by researchers themselves. By contrast, if authors want to publish their work open access they have to cover any costs incurred themselves. While having to find the money to pay APCs is a challenge for any author, for those based in the global South it is practically impossible, not least because of salary differentials. For instance, says Khalifa, a $2,000 APC is equivalent to six months’ pay for a professor in Egypt.

Khalifa speaks from the perspective of someone living in the Middle East. We can be confident that the situation is even bleaker for researchers in other parts of the global South.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) like Egypt could, of course, seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, and so take on the burden of paying the APCs for researchers. But how practical or likely is this? One could certainly imagine there would be political hurdles. It is bad enough that these countries currently have to pay extortionate sums of money to access research produced in the global North. To force them into a position where they have no choice but to pay the Northern-based publishing oligopoly thousands of dollars every time one of their researchers wants to publish a paper in an international journal is likely to to be viewed as discriminatory and retrograde.

Even if some LMICs did seek to negotiate their own OA Big Deals, it seems unlikely this would happen any time soon. Right now, the concept of an OA Big Deal does not even show up on the radar of journal licensing negotiators outside Europe and the US, far less the possibility of a mass conversion of subscription journals to OA. One Taiwanese researcher I contacted last year was intrigued when I told him that in Europe open access is being tied to Big Deal agreements. This was not an issue in the recent negotiations that Taiwan undertook with Elsevier, he said. The focus was entirely on licensing paywalled content.

One danger, therefore, is that a flip could take place without those in the global South being consulted, or the implications for them considered – it might simply be presented to them as a fait accompli.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: The view from California with Jeff MacKie-Mason

As anyone who has followed the story of open access will know, a multitude of issues has arisen since the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) adopted the term in order to promote the idea of research being made freely available on the internet. It has also led to a great deal of debate and disagreement over the best way of making open access a reality. 
Jeff MacKie-Mason

However, we seem to be arriving at the point where consensus is growing in the global North around the idea of persuading and/or forcing legacy publishers to convert (“flip”) all their journals from a subscription model to an open access model.

One implication of this would seem to be that we can expect widespread use of the pay-to-publish model where, instead of readers paying to access other researchers’ papers, authors will pay to publish their own papers – by means of article-processing charges (APCs). Currently, APCs are around $3,000 a paper, although they can be both higher and lower than this.

OA Big Deals

The argument for a global flip has been most fully articulated in a report published by the Max Planck Digital Library (MPDL) in April 2015. This concluded that “An internationally concerted shifting of subscription budgets [to open access] is possible at no financial risk, maybe even at lower overall costs.”

Using this report as a foundation, in 2016 MDPL established the OA2020 Initiative, which was launched at the (controversial) 12th Berlin Open Access conference. The stated aim of OA2020 is to “convert the majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to Open Access (OA) publishing.”

The MDPL report is also driving the current trend for OA Big Deals. These are being negotiated in Europe (usually by national consortia) with legacy publishers. The aim is to facilitate a transition from a subscription-based world to a pay-to-publish world, by means of agreements that combine subscription payment for paywalled content with a bulk payment to provide OA publishing rights for researchers to publish their papers OA without themselves having to find the money to pay APCs.
This model was pioneered by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), which is one of the OA2020 signatories.

Meanwhile, following the publication of a report from the University of California, there is a similar trend emerging in North America. The UC report concluded that a move to an APC model “could be successful over time, following a necessarily complex transition period.” The University of California is also a signatory to OA2020.

To encourage other US universities to go down the flipping road, in March this year the University of California launched its Pathways to OA initiative. Among other things, this proposes emulating the European OA Big Deal model (or offsetting agreement, as it is alternatively called). As a group of University of California OA advocates explained recently in Nature, “UC libraries will explore negotiating offsetting agreements to drive the transition of hybrid journals to becoming fully open access. The strategy involves setting transformation benchmarks and then, during the transition period, offsetting an institution’s spending on open-access article processing charges against the total price of its subscription package.”

OA Big Deals are nevertheless controversial, not least because there are concerns that they will consolidate the malevolent hold that some believe legacy publishers currently have over scholarly publishing.

Certainly, researchers in the global South view a mass flipping of subscription journals to OA with considerable concern. Since most have little or no access to APC funding (and are extremely unlikely to benefit from the hugely expensive OA Big Deals) they can expect to see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls, making it extremely difficult for them to publish in international journals.

Alternatively, in response to European demands for flipping Elsevier has mooted what it calls “region-specific” open access. This would see European articles made available as immediate gold open access within Europe, but restricted to “green open access outside of Europe”.

Two points of view

One of those concerned about the implications that these developments could have for the developing world is Jamila Jaber, Library Director at the Islamic University of Lebanon (IUL). Last year she contacted me to ask if I would consider doing an interview “with two researchers, one from a ‘developed country’ and one from a ‘developing country’ (from the Arab world for example).”

The aim, she explained, should be to allow for a discussion about scholarly communication and open access from two geographically different points of view.

It seemed like a good idea, so I asked Jaber if she could propose a candidate from the Arab world, and she suggested Mahmoud Khalifa, who works as a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office and is DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Khalifa is also President of Cybrarians, which publishes an information science journal and runs two conferences.

To provide a voice from the developed world I invited Jeffrey MacKie-Mason to take part. MacKie-Mason is UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer. He is also an enthusiastic advocate for journal flipping. MacKie-Mason argues that engineering a mass conversion of subscription journals to OA is currently the only practical way of achieving open access in the near term, and that while a global flip presents challenges for those in the global South, the current paywall situation for them is “awful”. He adds that we cannot expect open access “to remedy all inequities”.

Elsewhere, we could note, Leslie Chan, has argued that “The institutions and countries adopting the OA2020 initiative express very clearly that it is not their problem that scientists from developing countries can publish or not. It is a very selfish attitude, individualistic and even nationalistic.”

The challenge for me in organising a discussion between two people from, respectively, the North and the South was how to combine input from the two interviewees in a formal interview process. After thinking through various possibilities, I decided to do two separate interviews, and then invite each interviewee to comment on the answers provided by the other interviewee. 

It is not an ideal approach, but it might at least help focus (much needed) attention on the South/North question and give us a sense of how open access (and strategies for achieving it) can look very different in different parts of the world.

I would hope that others will comment too, since if these issues are not discussed fully now those in the global South could find that OA has made things worse rather than better, and that they have become locked out of the global research conversation in an even more insidious way than they are with the subscription system.

I think we are also invited to ask whether a global OA solution is actually possible. If it is not possible, then we might wonder how the BOAI’s promise that OA would enable the world to “share the learning of the rich with the poor and the poor with the rich … and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge” can hope to be realised.

Below I publish the first interview, with MacKie-Mason. As well as being University Librarian at Berkley, he is Professor of the School of Information and Professor of Economics. He was formerly the Dean of the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

MacKie-Mason has been a pioneering scholar in the economics of the Internet, online behaviour, and digital information and has authored more than 85 publications in economics, computer science, law, public policy, and library science journals.

Note: I realise my reference to The Lord of the Rings in the penultimate question below may be a little obscure for a global audience. And as Jaber pointed out to me, Tolkien saw the “one ring” as a malevolent force. However, I think there was some ambiguity in his portrayal of the ring, and I want to make the point that any force unleashed by trying to manufacture a global solution for open access could prove malevolent or benevolent, depending on its impact on the entire research community (an impact that we can only really guess at right now).

I think it behoves us, therefore, to consider carefully what those implications might be before rushing ahead. And to appreciate that, unless a global solution has the interests of all researchers in mind, it cannot hope to fully realise the vision articulated by BOAI.

The Q&A begins …

Q: Can you say something about yourself, your institution, and why and when you started to take an interest in open access?

J M-M: I am currently the University Librarian for UC Berkeley, but I have a somewhat unusual background. I have a PhD in economics, and was a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan for 29 years. I came to Berkeley as Librarian two years ago; I’m also a professor of information and economics.

Since the early 1990s, my research has been on the economics of information production, dissemination and use, and the behavior of individuals in online environments. I’ve been studying access to scholarly communications for about 20 years; for example, I was the research director for the PEAK project, which experimented with different pricing models for access to 1200 Elsevier online journals, before Elsevier had released ScienceDirect.

I’ve been a strong open access advocate for at least 25 years; all of my research outputs have been available open access at the Michigan institutional repository since the 1990s.