Melissa Hagemann is a program manager in the Open Society Foundations Information Program. She's also on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. She spoke with us about the Open Access movement.
What is "Open Access"?
Open Access refers to the free online availability of research literature. It was first defined at a meeting organized by the Open Society Foundations in 2001, which led to the Budapest Open Access Initiative. This initiative outlined two strategies for developing OA:
- Open Access Journals, which are journals, freely available worldwide, which do not rely upon the traditional subscription-based business model to generate their revenue; and
- Open Repositories, or archives where all scholarly research articles published by those associated with a university or within a discipline can be deposited.
In 2003, we added a third strategy, which is to advocate for public access to publicly funded research.
What are some of the most notable accomplishments of the open access movement so far?
Probably the single most important victory was a mandate adopted by the U.S. Congress which stipulates that all research funded by the National Institutes of Health (about $29 billion annually) be made freely available online.
While the NIH is the largest funder of research in the world, the OA movement has worked with governments and universities throughout the world to adopt similar mandates, and today there are 230 of them. In addition, there are over 5,500 OA journals and over 1,700 open repositories.
What major obstacles does the movement face at this moment?
As Open Access is so new, one of our main challenges is simply raising awareness of it and explaining the benefits of this new model. At the same time, you can imagine that many within the publishing industry haven’t always been keen supporters of OA.
Since we launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative in 2002, we have reached out to publishers to explain the model and how they could benefit from it. However the journal publishing industry is still incredibly profitable and can be a formidable adversary at the policy level. But we feel that our message of public access to publicly funded research is strong, and it seems many policymakers do as well!
But I’m curious: How can the publishing industry benefit from Open Access? Wouldn’t they say they need the money to continue publishing? How do you persuade them that OA is a good thing?
While OA journals are freely available online, about half of them charge a processing fee (anywhere from $500 to $3,000 or so) per article. So there are commercial OA journal publishers which are doing quite well. Actually one of the largest OA publishers, BioMed Central, was purchased by Springer (the second largest scientific journal publisher) in 2008, and Springer pledged to keep all of the journals OA.
While the journal publishing industry is still profitable, many libraries are being forced to cut their budgets, so they won’t be able to keep up with the increases in journal subscription prices. That’s one of the reasons why librarians are so supportive of the OA movement, as they need alternatives to the high-priced commercial journals. Today university libraries are launching OA publishing funds through which they support those affiliated with their institutions to publish in OA journals which charge an article processing fee. Economic research (specifically that of John Houghton) has shown a savings if we move towards an OA model.
And one of the ironies of the journal publishing industry is that while the cost of journal subscriptions can sometimes be very high, the authors of the journal articles and the peer reviewers are not paid for their work. This can help to explain why this industry has been so profitable to date.
As I mentioned, the Open Society Foundations try to reach out to publishers to collaborate on OA. When we launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers issued a press release criticizing the initiative and stating that they were very skeptical that any publishers would be interested in the model. So we talked with their leadership about OA and they finally agreed that we could co-organize a workshop to explain the model to their members (i.e., the publishers).
At the first workshop in 2002, we explained the model and the publishers had many questions; in 2003, one of the publishers (Oxford University Press) talked about how they thought the model could work for them. By the final workshop in 2004, Oxford discussed how they had experimented with OA with several of their journals, and due to the high number of authors who had elected to pay the article processing fee (this fee is usually covered by the authors’ research grant or institution) Oxford decided to convert one of their flagship journals to OA. They have since started their own OA program, Oxford Open.
What’s your professional background, and what drew you to working in this field?
I’ve worked in the field of scholarly communication for more than 15 years. I managed the Open Society Foundations library program based in Budapest, and ran a program which distributed hard copies of scientific journals to universities and Academies of Science in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
We saw that shipping hard copies of journals was not sustainable, yet, due to the high price of many subscription-based journals, access to scholarly content is often impossible for many in the developing and transition countries in which the Open Society Foundations work. A desire to look for alternative publishing models led us to organize the meeting in Budapest which defined Open Access.
I feel privileged to work on OA as I’ve seen for myself how much access to scholarly content is needed by those in developing countries, as well as by the taxpayers who fund the research. We’ve heard stories about doctors in Malawi who desperately need access to medical articles to properly treat their patients, but don’t have the funds necessary to access the articles.
And if you’re not affiliated with a leading research library, you face a similar situation. If a member of your family develops a serious illness and you go online to find information on the condition, you are usually asked to pay $30 or more to read a single article, which, quite often, was supported by your tax dollars.
And finally, one of the beauties of OA, in my view, is that it allows those in developing countries to both access and contribute to the global research community.
What is Open Access Week?
Open Access Week is a global event, now entering its fourth year, which provides the academic and research community an opportunity to learn about the potential benefits of OA and to inspire wider participation in establishing OA as a new norm in scholarship and research. Hundreds of participating sites – including research funding agencies, academic institutions, and other organizations – in over 60 countries are using OA Week as a chance to connect local action with global momentum. In 2009, the week spurred the announcement of actions including expanded OA publication funds, the adoption of institution-wide OA policies, and the release of new reports on the societal and economic benefits of OA.
There are OA Week groups in countries from Mongolia, to Tanzania, to the Netherlands. You can check out a full list of the events organized by these groups by visiting www.openaccessweek.org/events.
How can others get involved in advancing the issue?
Participating in an event during OA week is a great way to start! Then I would suggest learning more about OA, and OASIS is one of the best resources for information on the OA movement.
- If you're a student, I recommend connecting with the Right to Research Coalition.
- If you're an academic, you can self-archive copies of your research articles in your institutional repository or submit your article to an OA journal. You can also advocate for your institution to adopt an OA mandate at your university; 230 mandates have been adopted worldwide (see www.eprints.org/openaccess/policysignup).
- If you're in a developing or transition country, the EIFL Open Access Program offers a wealth of support and services for librarians, academics, policymakers, and funders in these countries to tap into.
- If you're based in the United States, you can support the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, which advocates for public access to publicly funded research in the U.S.
I’ll stop there, as I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information, but there are many, many ways to get involved with Open Access and many ways to benefit from the scholarly content which Open Access makes available.
Open Access Week takes place October 18–24.