Saturday, January 19, 2013

5 things I learnt about Open Access after reading Crawford's & Suber's books

I recently finished reading two introductory volumes on Open Access, namely Open Access - What you need to know by Walt Crawford and Open Access by Peter Suber.

As far as I remember, I have never done a book review on this blog before, so here is my review of both. But first a little context of where I am coming from.

As a librarian who isn't specifically involved in my institution's Institutional Repository team or Open Access in a big way, I haven't been specifically studying Scholarly Communications, so I am not as versed in this area as I would like.

For sure I am not a specialist or even activist who subscribes to Open Access newsletters and hangs out at open access related mailing lists.

Though I haven't exactly stuck my head in the sand either and have read the occasional blog post or news article on open access that streams past me on Twitter or Facebook (of which the Scholarly Kitchen blog posts seem very popular) and also read discussions on the topic on Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed etc by librarians in the trenches who are promoting Open Access.

However various parts of my work in 2012 including chance conversations with research staff, started me down the path of considering Open Access seriously and towards the end of 2012, I decided to prepare for 2013 by reading formally on the topic and both books which aims at quickly bringing people (Crawford's probably more for Librarians & Suber's more for researchers) up to speed with the concept of Open Access seem to be written just for people like me.

Both books are short, Crawford's weighs in at 71 pages and Suber's at 241. So I was curious how much material in both were new to me. There can't be that much to know about the basic principles of Open Access that I didn't read before in some blog post or article via Twitter right?

Actually I was wrong, I did learn quite a few things.

As such, I thought it would be interesting to list the things I learnt from the books that were most surprising to me.

It's important to note that I actually started with Crawford's book first in Oct 2012 , finished it fairly quickly in a couple of sittings in a couple of days. Then, I got Suber's book on Christmas Eve 2012 but read it in spurts before finishing it up last week.

Also, I only read the main text and did not refer to the endnotes which was liberally included in Suber's book.

1. The concepts of Gratis OA and Libre OA vs Green OA and Gold OA - Crawford

I am not 100% sure if this is the first time I came across the term Gratis OA/Libre OA (though I am broadly familiar with creative commons licenses of CC-BY, CC BY-NC etc), or if I have came across it before and ignored it or knew it but forgot what it meant, but Crawford's book was the one that made me assimilate this concept, so that I now retain the concept in my mind.

Essentially Gratis/Libre OA focus on rights (the difficulty to obtain data-mining rights seems to be the main context in which I encountered this right in the past) , while the Green/Gold OA distinction handles the vehicle in which the article is disseminated.

Suber covers the same concept in greater detail, including explaining why while Green OA can be in theory either Gratis or Libre, it is typically Gratis because the rights are usually with the publisher. Maybe obvious to open access activists, but wasn't so to me.

2. Gold OA does not necessarily require Article Processing Charges (APC)  - Crawford's

Crawford lists a number of myths and misunderstandings about Open Access in Chapter 4, such as "Open Access undermines peer review", "Researchers already have all the access they need", "Open Access eliminates copyright" etc but I already knew these were myths.

However the fact that "most OA journals don't charge author-side fees" (pg 19) was a surprise to me. I understand (please correct me if I am wrong), that this applies to OA journal titles, but the actual numbers of OA articles published via APCs might or might not be a different story.

Still this comes to a surprise as me, as I always thought the only way to fund for a Gold Open Access Journal was to charge the author (or rather someone on the author-side such as the funder) a fee, but I understand now there are other funding models out there such as advertising, charging for print, subsidies etc (though this still sounds suspect to me that this could work out)

I would add that this isn't one of the myths and misunderstandings listed in the book, though it does list "author side fees comes out of the author's pocket" which is kinda related, though ultimately this is still talking about APCs.

Suber's book makes the same point but by then I wasn't surprised having read Crawford's book.

3. Why Journal articles are low hanging fruit for OA compared to most books - Suber

This is covered under Chapter 5 (Scope) , but I think the point is made the strongest for me in Chapter 2 under "seizing opportunities". Essentially, because authors of peer review articles do not write for royalties, coupled with the internet making the marginal cost of creating new copies essentially zero, Open Access makes plenty of sense, since you don't gain any revenue from selling access anyway, so why would you want to restrict access? Particularly when it costs more to create authenticate controls.

Before this, I didn't quite understand why books was a different area (though I knew for some reason it was considered so) e.g there was a fuss that Suber's book wasn't released as Open Access immediately for example and people defended him by saying he wasn't been inconsistent or hypocritical because that was for a book not for a peer reviewed article.

4. Different types of Mandates by institutions and funders - Suber

Before this, I had heard about "mandates" that require all researchers at a certain institution to support open access by depositing their work in their institutional repository. But Suber's book in chapter 4, shows how simplistic this thinking is and includes material that is almost 100% new to me.

He talks about "Loophole mandates", "Deposit Mandates" and "Right-retention mandates", all of which is new to me, though I wonder how established these terms are.

For loophole mandates, researchers will have to deposit their work unless the publisher of the journal prohibits such actions.

For deposit Mandates, researchers will definitely have to deposit in repositories, but they may not be released immediately or at all, if the publisher disallows.

For right-retention mandates, researchers give a standing non-exclusive right to deposits. Unlike the first two mandates where the institution would be at the mercy of the publisher's policy , in this case rights are secured before even the paper is submitted. Researchers themselves can opt-out it seems from this.

Another point I gleaned from this chapter on policy was the importance of mandates not infringing on researchers freedom to publish in journals of their choice and why those mandated by funders like NIH can be a lot more restrict because researchers can always choose not to ask for funding if they disagree.

There's also a great discussion on why the word "mandate" might not be the best word, and a very good section "digression on historical timing of Open Access policies" on when and why it might be the right time to try to adopt different mandate types. Eg. There are more green mandates than gold mandates because currently there aren't enough Gold Journals to impose this without causing researchers difficulties on where to publish.

5. The whole chapters in Suber's book for Economics (chapter 7) and Causalities (chapter 8)

I found most of the material in both books fairly easy reading (possibly some familiarity from reading some material in the past is helping), the exceptions were Chapter 7 on Economics and Chapter 8 on Causalities quite difficult, which implies I was encountering a lot of new arguments or concepts.

I probably will have to reread these chapters many times, but I found it quite hard going and I suspect my unease could also be partly because I had a feeling that unlike the other chapters these are areas of controversy which is reinforced by the style of writing in the book with complicated (to me), multi-step logic and arguments.


"#EventA is not going to happen because of #ReasonA  and even if is not true , there is #ReasonB  and #ReasonC, if not #ReasonD and even if it is the case that all these reasons fail and #EventA happens it is still a win ...."

Okay, probably it wasn't written exactly this way but that is how it felt to me.

Moreover for the first time reading these books, I was reading passages that made me go "but....." as opposed to just passively absorbing the material, I suspect such objections if not totally simple are the additional details that Suber excluded to keep things to only the fundamental issues.

Compared to Crawford, Suber's writing seems to me to be a lot more dense (and possibly more rigorous?) , but I feel in these two chapters he goes into overdrive, signaling to me that these are very complicated issues which requires him to write this way and no doubt even what is written is a simplification bypassing some technical issues.

These two chapters probably corresponds loosely to Crawford's chapters on "issues for open access" and "open access controversies" (in particular the myths & misunderstanding section), but for some reason, I flew through Crawford's sections quickly.

Other remarks comparing both books

Overall I enjoyed and can highly recommend both books. Crawford's book is extremely clear, though because of its brevity covers some issues in lesser depth which I didn't notice until reading Suber's book.

Suber's book is longer (but still short) and more technical and like many librarians I enjoy learning details (I will probably start exploring the links in the endnotes to get a fuller picture soon), so I loved it too.

I do wish he could have written a much longer book, as I got the sense that behind every sentence he wrote, lurks a bigger story and he himself worries a little in the preface that "fellow specialists" might wonder if he is cutting too much material or simplifying too much, but again this was what he set out to do, write for busy ensure they get the "correct formulation" of the idea and not write something to debate with other specialists in open access.

That said, given the difficulty I had with chapters 7 and 8, I suspect if I had gone directly to Suber's book without first going through Crawford's much more of Suber's book would be difficult, so it's fortunate I did the books in the order I did.

Both have two concluding chapters which is basically a "What next?" chapter, I prefer Crawford's one on "taking action" and "exploring open access" (for keeping up) to Suber's "The future" and "Self help" but then again Crawford is pretty much writing for librarians, while Suber is addressing the researchers and it seems stakeholders at institutions and libraries (University Librarians?), so it is expected which one would be more relevant to me.

That said, even Crawford's book is scant on practical details on strategies for popularizing repositories, how to encourage deposits, strategies for promoting open access awareness etc, but of course, neither book was meant to address those issues as useful as it might be to a librarian like myself and given that it is still relatively early days in the open access story, such a book might not be suitable to be written yet.


I always knew in my bones, that Open Access is a elegant and logical idea, independent of other reasons for pushing it (e.g Serials Crisis), but was dimly aware that there are a lot of practical difficulties to manage the transition and was somewhat apathetic to it , to the dismay of librarians who were strong activists of Open Access that I have interacted with online.

I am not sure if either books, help clarify to me totally, how to get past those difficulties (e.g I always got the sense that the accepted majority "correct" answer to "Green or Gold?", should be "both!", but for reasons I can't quite articulate I don't feel if I understand why) , but for sure they make it even clearer to me why Open Access is something we should definitely work towards, despite that victory is going to be hard-won and in the final analysis we librarians in the academic world are not the main players in this story.

I have no idea if I am typical in terms of things that surprised me about Open Access above. Though I may represent a type of person/librarian who hasn't studied open access closely though yet has some superficial knowledge and perhaps would be prone to misunderstanding the idea.

I suspect most of our researchers even the ones who want to talk about open access, would probably be at roughly this level of knowledge. In other words vaguely familiar with the concept but might not fully understand the full picture.

Both books help to ground my understanding about Open Access on a far stronger footing so now I have a greater confidence talking about open access, as opposed to trying to glean the "truth" behind different conflicting versions from reading dozens of different posts.

As Suber writes in the waning pages of his book, while resistance to Open Access is/was not all due to misunderstandings of the idea, but he states that the "largest single portion" stems or used to stem from this, so it is important those of us librarians who want to promote the concept should avoid articulating mistaken ideas as far as possible and know how to handle those who are articulating such ideas.

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