Scholarly Publishing and the Open Access Ecosystem

As part of the Catholic University of America Libraries speaker series on Open Access for International Open Access Week, our final presentation occurred on October 28th, 2015 at the Busboys and Poets across the street from CUA. The panel discussion was devoted to answering the question, “What do scholarly authors and researchers need to know about Open Access?

Kim Hoffman, Coordinator of Scholarly Communications at Catholic University, introduces the panel.
Kim Hoffman, Coordinator of Scholarly Communications at Catholic University, introduces the panel.

Moderator: Dr. Rikk Mulligan, ACLS Public Fellow and Program Officer for Scholarly Publishing, Association of Research Libraries.

Faculty Panel:

  • Dr. Trevor Lipscombe, Director of the Catholic University of America Press
  • Dr. James Greene, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies, The Catholic University of America
  • Dr. Jennifer Paxton, Assistant Clinical Professor, Department of History, and Assistant Director, Honors Program, The Catholic University of America

Rikk provided a historical overview of Open Access (OA). Many of his points can be found in the excellent overview of Scholarly Communication: Transformation of Scholarly Communications.  Research Library Issues, no. 287 (2015) published by the Association of Research Libraries.

Scholarly communication began in 1665 with the Royal Society of London collecting notes and letters from members. These items were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. As scientific research increased, more journals began to sprout up. Peer review and editorial practices were specialized and done by a few individuals for non-profit. Given the small size of the audience, sales of the journals were modest and generally not sufficient to cover production and labor costs. Consequently, much of the labor became essentially an act of reputation and prestige (i.e. this process later evolved into assessment, promotion and tenure for faculty). Universities became non-commercial publishers as scholarship and research expanded and increased in output.

Public funds are given to libraries to purchase. When the budget cuts took place in the 1970’s, the commercial interests bought up small publishers which has led to the situation we have today: most scholarship is owned by commercial publishers. The publishers created bundled packages of journals which has not satisfied anyone (a respected journal is bundled with ‘lesser’ journals with the librarians being forced either to buy the entire bundle or make the decision not to buy the bundle, the latter decision frustrating scholars). The consequence of all this is that prices continue to increase. Hence the rise of the Open Access movement.

By the 1990’s, scholarly publishing was in a state of flux. Print copies were declining while electronic format were rising. ArXiv, a scientific journal repository, was an early adopter of OA. Humanities projects like Valley of the Shadow were early accomplishments in the Digital Humanities realm. While the HTML coding on this project has become obsolete, the data is still useful.

l to r: Rikk Mulligan, Trevor Lipscombe, James Greene, and Jennifer Paxton
l to r: Rikk Mulligan, Trevor Lipscombe, James Greene, and Jennifer Paxton

The discussion focused on where we are today. Dr. Paxton talked about the concept of simony in the medieval era, the sin of paying for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If the masters could not take payments, they were allowed to take gifts and this is how they survived. The analogy applies to the situation with faculty and modern scholarship: scholars don’t need to be compensated because they are being taken care of by their universities. The limitations of this process can be seen with the idea of subvention fees: a) some universities can pay the fees, others cannot, b) adjunct faculty–who make up an increasingly larger part of the teaching load, are often shut out of the entire scholarly process (and can’t afford to pay for the fees either).

Dr. Geene asked a pertinent question: is OA a good thing? Gutenberg was the OA of its day. Writings were highly restricted before the printing press came along (assuming one could read). Once printing became prevalent, the dissemination of knowledge increased significantly. OA should be discussed in the context of the dissemination of knowledge. Dr. Lipscombe mentioned that complaints about the quality of scholarly work were present even in medieval times. The philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-1294), a noted publisher, lamented the quality of output by his minions. It was a common notion of the time that men who were married wouldn’t be able to devote themselves exclusively to manuscript production since their minds would be divided between their work and home life. Lipscombe noted that there has always been competing interests between publishers, editors, and scholars, and the notion of scientists versus humanists.

Question: Is there a hierarchy of the access to knowledge?

Paxton mentioned that we have a specialized body of knowledge. Most people have access to a library, and cannot consume knowledge without one (to a certain extent). Greene stated that most people have access to the internet. He used the example of Gopher, a system of storing and displaying files on a server that predates the WWW from the early 1990’s. It was immensely popular and an early example of OA until the University of Minnesota started charging for it. Consequently, the volume plummeted and the WWW took off. Liscombe mentioned that independent scholars and adjunct faculty don’t have access to money to publish. Mulligan added that not only independent scholars but scholars with PhDs who go the Alt-Ac career route don’t have access to subvention fees. Could we not have a waiver fee, he asked?

Lipscombe remarked that some publishers have acknowledge the problem. For example, Project Muse has given access to scholars in developing nations if access fees are an institutional hardship. Greene mentioned that Catholic University does have a fund for subvention fees but noted that this doesn’t guarantee OA. Another issue is citation relevancy. Green noted that 18% of physics articles are behind pay walls (82% were not) yet there is a much larger number of citations in OA articles than the closed off articles. Last, he noted that OA speeds up innovation. For example, the speed of innovation in Android is greater than the iPhone because anyone can gain access to the Android operating system and improve it. Paxton made the point that many different versions of a manuscript can exist yet there is no substitute for quality control; who, in the end, pays for it?

Question: How do you increase the positive perception by university administration of OA?

Greene stated that producing tangible results in scholarship would impress administrators. Greene took an example from the medical sciences. Francis Collins, former director of NIH, wrote an article detailing how a chromosome of a particular gene could be cloned. Another researcher saw the article and contacted him to collaborate on this project. Within a year they had solved the problem and made an advancement to fighting a disease. Paxton mentioned that publishers should be more transparent in costs.

The session wrapped up with some comments and questions from the audience:

OA looks different for humanities vs the sciences–how exactly? Scientists are more interested in publishing articles as the speed of scientific innovation is much greater than in the humanities. Preprints (ArXiv) are especially valuable. Scientists are interested in grants, charges, and fees as they impact the scholarly process. In the humanities, the dominate mode of scholarly transmission is the monograph which takes longer to produce.

Someone mentioned that OA allows scholars to translate works into other languages.

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