by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)
Today, we know the value of information perhaps more than at any time in human history. We also have far more information and data than ever before. Even Coleridge would find our predicament challenging: Data, data everywhere …yet, are we reaching saturation – or beyond? The amount of information being created is one challenge, another is the integrity of that information and ensuring systems to keep that information as free-flowing and error-free as possible. Finding sources of wisdom isn’t easy; however, we have found one in Alicia Wise.
INFORMATION’S KEY ROLE IN HUMAN HISTORY
First, a look backwards. Archaeologists have created something called the Seshat: Global History Databank, a tool that provides information on ancient civilizations as well as some comparative analytics of these ancient societies, “the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place. The data bank “systematically collects what is currently known about the social and political organization of human societies and how civilizations have evolved over time. This allows researchers to compare early societies on potential factors that may be responsible for their growth or decline.
A recent Nature Communications article using data from our most recent 10,600 years (the Holocene) of human civilizations, examined whether “societies developed additional layers of administration and more information-rich instruments for managing and recording transactions and events as they grew in population and territory.” The value of information was determined to be an important factor in this analysis. This study concluded that “historically, the sociopolitical development of human polities underwent three phases: Population growth, followed by the development of more sophisticated information processing, which led to subsequent growth.”
Today, we have developed a global culture that is rife with data gathering techniques, virtually unlimited storage and sophisticated data analysis tools. A 2012 study, focusing on “scientific and scholarly journal publishing” estimated the number to be 1.8 million articles in about 28,000 journals annually. So much information that a 2007 study estimated that “half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors.” However, even that estimate has been questioned. In these early days of Open Access, we see new journals popping up not only across the globe, but by individual faculty or the public using freeware or systems such as Pressbooks. However, instead of replacing commercial publications, we see a growing glut of information – much of which is only accessible through web searching, since the sheer numbers challenge scholarly indexes and other traditional sources.
ALICIA WISE ON THE ISSUES WE FACE WITH OA TODAY
Wise is now a Director at Information Power Limited, an aptly named consultancy, after having a major career that includes having been “active in Open Access for 20 years as an academic author, as well as in roles with funders, libraries, consortia, publishers, and universities.” Prior to joining Information Power Ltd she held roles with Elsevier (as Director of Access and Policy), the Publishers Association, Publishers Licensing Society, Jisc, Archaeology Data Service, and in universities.”
She holds a Ph.D in Anthropology. An intelligent, highly knowledgeable and engaging thinker, Wise is perhaps best positioned to provide some perspectives on where we are today and what we might expect in the near-term future. Earlier this year, Alicia Wise co-authored a study which found that “transformative agreements emerge as the most promising model because they offer a predictable, steady funding stream” for OA; and also used this model and their findings to create an “OA transformative agreement toolkit.” Here is our conversation with Wise:
NKH: First, I want to congratulate you on your new position. You bring such a wealth of knowledge and experience to helping organizations, researchers and publishers understand this clear next phase of scholarly publishing. What brought you to this new position – coming from Elsevier, which has been vilified as one of the major stumbling blocks to a rapid growth for OA and other positions as well as a career in the academe itself?
AW: Thanks! I really enjoyed my OA role at Elsevier, and the many intelligent and wonderful colleagues with whom I worked. I knew it was time for a new challenge, but I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to go toward. So, I went to Peru for a month to do some archaeology – that’s what my PhD is in. Came back, felt refreshed but still unclear, fancied some varied project work, and teamed up with Lorraine Estelle as a consultant and director of Information Power. That was almost 18 months ago.
NKH: In your new position, what types of service are you addressing? What are some of the major issues, concerns, problems and potentials that you are working on now?
AW: It’s really fascinating to work on OA from all stakeholder perspectives. We work with funders, libraries and consortia, researchers, universities, and the full spectrum of publishers: commercial, not-for-profit, society, university and library presses, OA only and mixed model. We work with organisations to identify and overcome specific barriers or challenges, and to drive strategic change. OA is a bit like a plate of spaghetti to an organisation… you might start a project focused on one thing – for example launching a Read and Publish agreement – and you quickly find this is interconnected with your organisation’s strategy and mission statement, your communications and messaging, the services you provide, and the stakeholders you need to engage with and influence. Supporting organisations going through this sort of complex transformational change is really rewarding – whether that’s helping with business strategy, marketing, engaging funders or researchers, licensing, skills development, pilots, projects, or whatever is needed.
NKH: I can’t avoid the elephant in the room – Elsevier. Can you comment on the progress/position of some of the larger publishers – many of whom have been seen as roadblocks rather than understanding partners in the OA process – and how you see them involved in the future? Will we see more movement to independent OA-based publishers? A mixture of commercial and public/OA systems?
AW: All the publishers I know are very actively working on OA. In fact, last year when we did the Society Publishers Accelerating OA and Plan S project for cOAlition S I was surprised that a couple of our project participants had no OA journals. These were quite small humanities to and social science publishers. OA is here to stay and is an established and growing feature of every publisher’s market.
Will your readers enjoy a fish simile? Elsevier and other large publishers are like fish swimming in the sunlight zone of the ocean: they are very visible to librarians and other stakeholders in scholarly communication. Recently we’ve been doing quite a lot of work with smaller independent publishers of all kinds. These are like fish swimming in the twilight zone of the ocean: also beautiful, strong, and varied but less visible. In these waters there are many potential OA shoalmates for librarians with very similar missions and serving the same researchers.
I think we’ll continue to see rapid change and innovation in scholarly communications from all directions and players, and new collaborations and partnerships along with new products and services.
NKH: As an Anthropologist, you have studied people and the evolution of ideas and practices. As your bio states: “active in Open Access for 20 years as an academic author, as well as in roles with funders, libraries, consortia, publishers, and universities.” The field of anthropology itself hasn’t been an earlier starter in OA – through the work of the European Research Council and others, progress is being made. Using the frame of anthropology, how do you see the progress that is being made? Clearly this isn’t something that will happen ‘overnight.’
AW: Too right! If the transition to OA were easy for any stakeholder, it would have been finished long ago. Culture change takes time and make no mistake, the transition to OA is not only about a change in business models but a change in every aspect of culture in the communities that can help democratise access to knowledge.
There are huge issues being negotiated around which sensible people can sensibly disagree: for example what principles should guide collaboration between the private and public spheres and the balance of power between them, or how the very real costs of innovation and quality in scholarly communications can be sustained over time and how surplus should be reinvested or shared. It’s unsurprising that many ideas arise and that these are embraced by some and contested by others before some become cemented in practice. Some new practices will be reinforced and transmitted over time, and others will be tried and left behind or even forgotten.
Anyway, that’s all very theoretical. My sub-discipline in anthropology is archaeology which is hugely practical. The way to learn about culture as an archaeologist is to very literally get your hands dirty. To roll up your sleeves and work systematically from the known to the unknown. I love to get stuck into knotty puzzles, and to figure out how all the pieces can fit together or be arranged to form a useful whole.
NKH: I realize that change is a process; however, I have been personally concerned about the number of less-than quality efforts by libraries or others to establish OA publishing systems: Many of these seem to me to be equal to start-ups in one’s garage. Just providing access to a framework for scholarly publishing is one small (I’d say too-small) step in replacing the complex well-established publishing systems that we have today. Despite all of its flaws, over the centuries we have evolved not only a system of peer-review and other aspects that are pillars of quality scholarly publishing, but the experience and reputation are factors that deserve consideration. How do you see where we are at today and the needed steps forward to evolve our systems in a way in which we maintain our high level of quality?
AW: It’s hard to generalize about these efforts, as they are varied and sometimes still early in their development. Two of the most powerful things in many of these initiatives is the learning that is taking place, and the potential for creative innovation that can result. It’s not easy to publish really well over time as researcher needs and technology change, and there’s nothing like first-hand experience to bring this lesson home. Personally, I think more publishers should try providing library services… the results would likely be very scrappy indeed, but communication and understanding would be improved as they got to grips with some of the nuance and complexity and there would be real potential for innovation over time. Can you imagine it? Oh dear, I’m sure some of your readers will be totally aghast at this thought.
NKH: There is one issue that I think is really central here – and that has to do with some of the apparent assumptions of the ground-up part of the OA movement. In conversations with some of the members of the Library Publishing Coalition (not, btw from my former employer the University of Minnesota), I was assured that it would take some time before the quality of these presses to match what is now done in the commercial sector. That this is a transition that will take some time to fashion. How does this make sense in terms of the proper recording of results and analyses for the furtherance of science and society? Are we willing to see a period of ‘poor’ research or publication in the name of future progress?
AW: That’s quite interesting. I question whether the goal of library publishing should be to match what is now done in the commercial sector. There are things that the commercial sector can do incredibly well; levels of investment that I’ve personally never seen paralleled and sustained in the public sector. And there are things I’ve seen library presses and scholar-led publishing movements achieve that I’ve never seen paralleled and sustained in the private sector, for example the detail that is needed to bring some digital publishing visions to life. There are incredible online books full of multimedia resources that would never otherwise have been created, and titles like Internet Archaeology which can’t exist in print and are thoroughly entwined with data archives.
Moving forward, I think some of the most beneficial and lasting innovations will come from collaborations between the public and private sectors. Harnessing the strengths of each harmoniously and to mutually benefit would be so powerful. Power relationships need to be renegotiated and re-balanced for this to succeed.
NKH: Today, we have incredible university presses as well as the commercial publishers that understand and provide a very high quality of research and information for their colleagues – and for the future. I know that efforts to bring university presses under the direction of university libraries have been fraught with problems (though no one will talk about this publicly). These are two organizations with very different cultures and goals. And, even more importantly, two very different roles. Libraries are the place to connect to existing research, to explore topics and find/preserve the best published research/opinion available. University presses are there to find, nurture and publish the best ideas/writers/analyses. Both of which are essential to the research enterprise. However, in trying to combine them, I think that something will be lost for both. As a PhD, as a former academic and having been involved in publishing in so many roles, how do you see what’s happening. I hate to see us “throw the baby out with the bath water” in some of our efforts at organizational efficiencies or assumptions about the needs/potential future roles of different academic/research agencies. Your thoughts? Does this make sense? Again, trying to ramp up new types of connections without clear thought, is certainly open to failure.
AW: This might be an area where the public sector can learn from the private. The care and attention that goes into making mergers and acquisitions successful is just enormous. It’s far, far, far more complicated than just mushing organizations together or changing a reporting line. I’m not a specialist in this area, though I am thrilled to know people who are and learn so much from them, and part of the magic here is about finding a more equal foundation on which to build a strong future relationship that can stand the test of time. Each partner in the relationship brings something, some strength that balances a weakness or some resilience that sustains in challenging times. Explicitly identifying these strengths is essential for building mutual respect and understanding.
NKH: Do you have other comments on today’s OA landscape that you’d want to make here?
AW: There’s been a really interesting Open Publishing Fest underway online. I took part in a session that was discussing a consultation in the Netherlands on Guiding Principles on Management of Research Information and Data. It seems incredibly important to get these principles right. I’m not sure how global the conversation currently is, but if information and data are to be open – and I hope they are – this cannot be limited to only a national conversation and national principles.
THE COVID CRISIS BRINGS OUT THE BEST AND PERHAPS THE WORST
Not only do we have changes and ventures, such as OA, that are redefining many aspects of publication, but the sheer numbers of research projects going on are creating increased pressures on the very structures of scientific research publication today. PubMed Central, for example, recently announced a new effort to make preprints more accessible to researchers, which given the huge size of their scope (providing access to over one million published papers resulting from NIH-supported research), makes this pilot project of key importance.
Especially during the COVID crisis, research is being done across the globe at incredible speed. Today we are finding that some research – even in key journals like Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine – were being questioned for the veracity of the published reports. In answer to the outcry, both articles were formally retracted.
For PubMed Central, the issue of integrity is key in their new preprint pilot project. “NLM hopes this pilot will inform possible future steps to further accelerate discovery and access of papers that are developed with NIH funds and encourage the open and fast dissemination of NIH research results, when appropriate.”
We need the cooperation and involvement of all parties in the ongoing evolution of scholarly publication in order to guarantee and enhance the highest quality of publication. Having leaders like Alicia Wise, with strong experience and insight across so many shareholder communities, is key for that future. We wish her well.
Nancy K. Herther is an independent Research Consultant and regular contributor to ATG.