You only have to follow the media or watch the weekly run of Question Time to understand how thoroughly fed up people are of Brexit. Nevertheless what has been playing out in the world of Open Access and research in recent years feels like a mild dose of that long running saga of a political and societal wild goose chase. Long before we were ever treated to that most irritating of vocabulary mashups with the word Brexit there has been a battle to overhaul scholarly publishing and things are hotting up.
Why is the fight for total Open Access like Brexit?
Before I explain I think it’s important to state that I think Open Access is good and Brexit is bad, so that’s that cleared up. Apart from that I can see many similarities as it’s a very complicated situation as academics and published research are intrinsically connected to the established publishing model. As we’ve seen with Brexit, we are joined at the head, shoulders, knees and toes with the EU. With regards to Open Access, on the surface it feels like we could just make everything open tomorrow in the same way we were told that leaving the EU was going to easy, the truth is it isn’t. The current publishing model has a lot of problems, it’s outdated, unwieldy, costly and in some areas wholly immoral if we shine a light on where much of the taxpayer’s money ends up. George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian that ‘Scientific publishing is a rip off.’ and whilst he is right, he is also mostly speaking to an enlightened audience on the topic. Should The Daily Mail or the BBC decide to run an expose on academic publishing it could portray academia in general as weak, foolish and frivolous for providing labour and intellectual content at the expense of the taxpayer for free. We heard that infamous line of ‘we send £350m to the EU every week, let’s give it to the NHS’. It is only a matter of time before we see more comment pieces on how much taxpayers’ money we give to publishers and that we should put it back into further research - now wouldn’t that be nice? The worse case scenario is that academia loses that money totally.
Another strong argument in favour of the Brexiteers was the power wielded by the EU (e.g. publishers) over the UK (e.g. academics) and that we should ‘take back control’. Open Access initiatives have and should aim to do this and not give more power to the publishers. In the past excessive APCs have felt like a robbery in which the victim has willingly chased after their assailant to offer any items of value they neglected to steal. We have a system of publishing that is entwined in the fabric of academic society in the same way our relationship with Europe is connected. Much of the Brexit argument in the media has been framed around the notion of the EU as the ‘bad guys’. Whilst the publishing sector is not a homogenised group of single interests, it has to be noted that there are those who clearly covert large profits and can happily soak up the flak from doing so.
Open Access is not a simple deal.
There are a whole spectrum of beliefs around what our relationship with the EU should be. From those who demand a ‘No Deal’ to those who wish to remain with a whole range of beliefs in between - it is not a black and white issue as a simple referendum would have us believe. Open Access is also not that clear cut as there are those who wish to totally pull away from traditional publishers, especially profit driven mega publishers. Instead there is a desire in some quarters to gain academic independence through a wholly new publishing platforms that are driving new ideas around peer review, credit, fairness and transparency. The problem with the current model is that it’s not transparent and that puts academia in somewhat of a disadvantage with the publishers, as it’s very hard to see what every other institution is getting for their money. You cannot bargain for a better deal when you are not quite sure what a better deal looks like. At the other end of the spectrum are those who want the system and relationship with academics to remain as it is, which naturally is made up of those in the publishing industry or closely aligned with it.
So there is Plan S which was launched by a coalition of major research funding organisations from across 12 European countries. It aims to speed up the total publishing of Open Access research from about 15 to just 2 years. This of course is a good thing, but it involves a lot of work to get various parties to the negotiating table. This is especially problematic when you not the deadline of January 2020. Already there has been resistance with 600 scientists signing a letter in opposition to Plan S due to their: “concern about its ramifications — not only for their own rights as authors and academics, but for the health of scholarly and scientific discourse worldwide.”
2020 is not so far away
Deadlines are good and are intrinsic to how academia works but as we’ve seen with Brexit that two years is not really much of a window for huge organisational changes. There is a chance that as some of the powerful publishers continue to use their muscle and there could be the equivalent of a ‘bad deal’. The concerns of the above signatories is that we could end up with multiple publishing environments that will cause untold problems for funders and researchers. Brexit has proved to be successful in dividing a country and Plan S is already sowing seeds for division in academia. That simply must not happen as with Brexit it distracts from some of the more pressing issues in society. For academics that is publishing research for the greater good of society and there is of course the REF which looms ever closer. Plan S has very good intentions at heart and has sped up a much needed dialogue about academic publishing and if anything help deal with a few elephants in the room. One of which being the opening up of research to something that is truly open to the world. The issue here could be a real sticking point and like Northern Ireland’s border prove to be incredibly complex as there are several crossing points to negotiate. When you have multiple publishers and multiple access points and checkpoints with such as funder requirements then this could be problematic, especially when such a tight deadline is set. Of course the Northern Ireland situation has more serious ramifications, but my point is that it was not really discussed in the early days of Brexit.
An adventurous idea that may end in defeat.
Plan S makes me think of Operation Market Garden and Field Marshal Montgomery’s ambitious plan in September 1944 to drop several parachute divisions behind German lines in The Netherlands to quickly shorten the war. In theory is was a good idea if certain things had gone to plan, but it was the ill-fated Arnhem mission where lightly equipped British Paratroopers dropped on top of two German armoured divisions that things went terribly wrong. History shows that any large scale offensive requires proper planning, an ability to understand your foe, the terrain and an ability to adapt to fast changing situations. Open Access and scholarly communications is a quickly evolving area and any plan to speed it up could prove problematic especially for those driving this change. Let’s hope that Plan S isn’t a bridge too far.
About the Author
Andy Tattersall is an Information Specialist at The School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR) and writes, teaches and gives talks about digital academia, technology, scholarly communications, open research, web and information science, apps, altmetrics and social media. In particular, their application for research, teaching, learning, knowledge management and collaboration. Andy received a Senate Award from The University of Sheffield’ for his pioneering work on MOOCs in 2013 and is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Andy was named in Jisc’s Top 10 Social Media Superstars for 2017. He is also Chair for The Library and Information Association - Multi Media and Information Technology Committee. Andy edited a book on Altmetrics for Facet Publishing which is aimed at researchers and librarians.
*** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect The University of Sheffield or the CLA. ***