August 2, 2007

Academia's Open Access movement mirrors FOSS community

Author: Bruce Byfield

Free and open source software (FOSS) has roots in the ideals of academic freedom and the unimpeded exchange of information. In the last five years, the concepts have come full circle, with FOSS serving as a model for Open Access (OA), a movement within academia to promote unrestricted access to scholarly material for both researchers and the general public.

"The philosophy is so similar that when we saw the success that open source was having, it served as a guiding light to us," says Melissa Hagemann, program manager for Open Access initiatives at the Open Society Institute, a private foundation for promoting democratic and accessible reform at all levels of society. Not only the philosophy, but also the history, the need to generate new business models, the potential empowerment of users, the impact on developing nations, and resistance to the movement make OA a near twin of FOSS.

OA exists because of the increased opportunities for accessibility that arose with the Internet culture. However, the movement arose due to the conditions within academic publishing that have existed since World War II. According to John Willinsky, a professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia, in the last 60 years, the publishing of academic journals has become commercialized, instead of being in the hands of universities and professional societies -- a change that mirrors the commoditization of software in the early 1980s. This change, Willinsky says, "was a double-edged sword. It increased the opportunity for publication, but the cost decreased the opportunity for circulation."

Not only did academic publishing become a near monopoly of a handful of companies, but subscription costs have soared, increasing by as much as 400% in less than a decade. Such increases have created what is known as the serial crisis ("serial" in this case being a synonym for periodicals). As costs have risen, cash-strapped institutions have had to continually choose which journals to carry. The resulting elimination of journals from library stacks can be a direct blow to the reputation of the academic institution to which the library is attached. In addition, because the major journal publishers can afford to offer package subscription deals, the serial crisis has frequently decreased the availability of smaller or independent journals.

The crisis is especially severe in developing countries, where budgets for journals are even more limited than in North America or Europe. Just as developing nations cannot afford to build a technological infrastructure with proprietary software, so those nations lack the resources to allow academics to participate fully in the international community of scholars.

The founding of Open Access

By the start of the millennium, a number of academic groups were starting to see the Internet as a solution to these problems. In December 2001, 13 representatives of these groups met in Budapest to organize. They produced a document called the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Starting with the declaration that "An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good," the initiative called for making all academic articles available online. It was followed in April 2003 by the Bethseda Statement on Open Access Publishing, and in October 2003 by the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities, both of which suggest how OA could be implemented. Together these three statements -- sometimes known collectively as the BBB Declaration -- provide the practical and philosophical basis for the development of OA.

As with FOSS, the initial reaction to OA was derisive. "They laughed at us," says Hagemann, who is one of the original signers of the Budapest Initiative. "During presentations I would give in various countries, I would be laughed at." At first, the movement's representatives even had trouble gaining membership in the Association of Learned Professional Societies, which issued a news release sharply criticizing OA. Just as with FOSS, these criticisms included claims that OA lacked a business model and was unsustainable. Other criticisms included the claim that OA amounted to vanity publishing and would lack peer reviews, both of which have proved unsubstantiated in practice.

And, in another parallel to FOSS, as OA has spread, so resistance has spread to government lobbying and even threats of lawsuits in some instances. Hagemann alleges that the American National Institute of Health, for instance, has had its implementation of OA delayed through the intervention of Congress and Senate members listening to the publishers' lobbying groups. Similarly, she says the Association of American Publishers has recently hired a Washington lobbyist to campaign against OA.

"They used to laugh at us, but now they're taking us very seriously and working against us politically," notes Leslie Chan, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto and one of the organizers of online publisher Bioline, as well as an original signatory of the Budapest Initiative. His comments echo a quote by Gandhi often heard in FOSS circles as well: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

To counter resistance efforts, OA supporters have founded the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, a coalition of patient advocates, library associations, and other concerned groups. The alliance is arguing that publicly funded research should be available to the public.

Building the community

Despite the resistance, OA has continued to become increasingly popular with scholars. One breakthrough came in 2004 when, according to Hagemann, the Oxford University Press found that 90% of the contributors to Nucleic Acids Research were in favor of OA, and announced that it would convert to a hybrid business model in which contributors choose whether to release their articles as open access or restrict availability in the traditional way.

According to Hagemann, the main reason so many academics favored OA so quickly was that "Their articles would be more widely distributed if available online, and their citation rates would rise." Given that the number of times an article is used in other research is one of the main measurements of its success in the academic world -- and, therefore, its writer's worthiness for promotion -- OA offers a clear advantage.

As for the hybrid business model, Hagemann says, "It's a very good model for journals that are considering converting to OA to see what the interest of their authors will be." Subsequently, a number of Oxford University Press journals have converted to OA, including Nucleic Acids Research.

According to Chan, other business models for OA have also emerged. In some cases, scholarly societies bear the cost of publications. "Societies do well from fees and annual meetings," Chan says, "so they can publish for free."

In other cases, OA make the argument that, since research is publicly funded, governments should make the results freely available to the public. Implementation of this policy has been delayed by publishers' lobbyists in both the United States and Canada, but, in Canada, OA journals can now apply for government funding. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, Chan reports, five out of seven of the country's research councils now consider OA publication.

The effects of Open Access

These various models are sufficiently successful that OA journals now number in the thousands. As with FOSS, nobody is sure exactly how many OA journals exist, but Willinsky notes that Open Journal Systems, a FOSS-based project that he founded, is now used by over a thousand journals worldwide. Moreover, at least one company, Hindawi Publishing Corporation of New York and Cairo, now releases more than 80 journals, all of which are completely OA and provide a strong counter to those who question OA's sustainability.

Another area in which OA has enjoyed some success is in educating scholars about copyright and licensing issues. Often, academic authors sign away all rights to the publisher, so that they are unable to redistribute their own work. "The majority of journals demand copyright -- I think unnecessarily," Willinsky says, "since what's really at stake is right of first publication." OA advocates such as Chan now encourage authors to release their works under a Creative Commons Attribution license, or, at the very least, to modify publishing agreements to preserve their rights to archive their own work online.

In addition, Willinsky notes that OA is answering the increased public demand for scholarly information. For example, in his own research, Willinsky has found that registered massage therapists expressed a strong interest in being able to read the full text of articles relevant to their profession, rather than simply reading abstracts. Teachers and amateur astronomers have expressed similar interests. And, perhaps most significant of all, the Pew Foundation, with its ongoing Internet and American Life Project, is documenting the increased demand for public access to medical information. The project refers to this trend as a "health revolution," in which medical patients and their families are becoming armed with better knowledge and starting to demand a greater role in making decisions about their health. Willinsky describes such changes as "a democratic moment" that may reduce the "tyranny of expertise" in which people have no choice except to trust in the knowledge of those in authority.

However, perhaps the greatest results have been seen in developing countries, where in the last few years OA has vastly increased the number of journals available. For example, Willinsky reports that when he recently visited the University of Ghana in Legon, librarians said that they now had access to more than 19,000 titles online. By contrast, Willinsky says, only a couple of years ago, many African libraries were more likely to have five or six journals available. Access to research is not the only barrier to participation in academic discourse by citizens of developing nations -- Willinsky also mentions power outages, limited bandwidth, and the need for academics to take additional jobs -- but it remains one of the major ones. "The access to the journals is necessary, but it's not sufficient," Willinsky says. "But I think the first steps are in place, and that is an achievement in itself, and now we need to follow through."

The OA movement has not achieved all its goals, but it has already been far more successful than many originally thought possible, and it is looking for ways to continue to spread its philosophy. One recent major initiative has been the creation of Google Scholar, which is designed to assist researchers in tracking down academic online publications.

Chan would like to see OA concepts expand to textbooks, where many of the same conditions exist as in journal publishing. He also plans to introduce OA to nongovernment and nonprofit organizations at the next Global Knowledge Partnership meeting.

Throughout all these efforts, OA advocates credit FOSS as their inspiration. Looking at the causality, Chan says, "It's come full circle. It was the academic community that spawned the open source movement. And then academia lost track of that sense of sharing for a while. Now, because of open source, it seems to have come back."


  • Science & Research
  • Open Source
  • Community
Click Here!