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"It’s stupid that we care about labels so much" - Mike Taylor, open access advocate

As we mark the beginning of another Open Access Week, we speak to Mike Taylor, palaeontologist, open access campaigner and co-founder of Who Needs Access website, about the moral imperative for open access and the destructive power of the brand name in academic publishing.

Mike Taylor

You've written about the moral dimensions of open access - can you outline what you mean by that?

"It’s hugely important to me. A lot of open access advocates come from a very different foundation, supporting open access because they think it will save money, for example. That’s important, of course. But to me, what's much more important is this very fundamental thing that the internet is essentially a machine for creating value out of thin air.

So, pre-internet, if I had a reprint of a paper and I gave you my copy, I would no longer have my copy. Now we are living in a world where I can give you a copy at no expense to myself and retain all of my collection.  I can do that an infinite number of times and give everybody in the whole world a copy. So, suddenly, a thing that was of value to me can be of value to six billion people instead.

It feels morally wrong, given the capacity we have to do that, not to do it. Anything that stands in the way of our making this enormous increase in value for everybody in the world is inherently a bad thing. That’s the fundamental argument for open access - we can create free value. It’s stupid not to.

I co-run a website called Who Needs Access. It’s anecdotal because, often, anecdotes will reach people when numbers won’t. It’s about those people outside of academia who are deeply reliant on access to published academic papers, such as people running small businesses, translators, third world entrepreneurs, patients with various obscure diseases.

Christy Collins is one. She has a child with a rare genetic condition. Her GP doesn’t have time to do the enormous amount of work involved in reading up and becoming an expert on a condition suffered by just one of his patients. Christy has the time and motivation to do it yet constantly runs into problems where she can’t find out what she needs to know about her own child’s medical condition because paywalls are in the way. That, for me, is a very compelling moral case for open access, quite aside from what it means for cost savings in libraries and suchlike.

We in academia are generating this astonishing amount of fantastically valuable information. We have to get it into the hands of the people who need it – and that doesn’t just mean other academics."

The theme of open access week this year is 'open in action' and it’s about the small steps that everyone can take to make openness in research a reality.  Are there any particular areas of great practice that you can point to?

"I’m an associate researcher at the University of Bristol and it was very encouraging when we finally adopted our own open access policy within the university. However, I’m in a slightly unusual position. Although I’m a research associate of Bristol, my day job is not in academia, I’m a computer programmer. So I don’t need to play a lot of the games that paid researchers have to play to make their CVs look good for the kinds of jobs they want to get.

So, for example, if I suddenly stumble across definitive evidence for the biggest dinosaur that ever existed, I don’t have to send that to Science or Nature in the desperate hope of getting a Science or Nature paper that will make my career, I can send it to the journal that I think will do the best scientific job. As a result of that, it’s very easy for me to take a fundamentalist position on open access, and I need to remind myself that other people don’t always have the privilege of looking at it in such a black and white way.

But the upshot is that all my stuff goes to open access journals. None of it goes to journals that are owned by large multinational corporations, even if those publishers do run open access journals. That’s because I’m more concerned about the openness of my work than I am about any other aspects of its publication.

Now, I would love everybody else to adopt that same policy but I do understand why it’s not always that straightforward for people in other situations."

Would it have been more difficult for you in the past to find open access journals that you wanted to publish in, has there been a proliferation of journals that have opened things up for you?

"There definitely has been a proliferation. It’s not affected me personally as much as it might have done because palaeontology has always been somewhat ahead of the field in open access. I’ve got more choices now than I had before, but ever since I started publishing there have been good open access places to put my papers.

It varies enormously between different fields. So chemists, for example, have a much harder time finding somewhere appropriate."

How about the level of debate in recent times and the extent of awareness of open access?

"A few years ago there was a whole series of articles, particularly in the Guardian, but also the Independent, Telegraph and all sorts of other mainstream publications, looking at open access issues. I think that was really important in gradually shifting the views of a lot of people, making it an issue that became difficult to ignore. So I’m really happy about that.

Having said that, the quality of debate is sometimes not all we might to ask for."

How might open access progress?

"The neuroscientist Bjorn Brembs talks about building a completely new infrastructure that takes full advantage of the technological advances we’ve seen since we first started putting paper journals on the internet. He would like to do something dramatically different in areas such as dynamic illustrations – and he's done this with one or two of his own papers - where you can fiddle with the data and the tables and see the graphs and the paper updating in real time, showing how it would come out differently if various things happened.

All of this kind of thing feels terribly futuristic to us but it really isn’t, of course, it’s just the kind of stuff, that outside of academia, is happening all the while on the internet.

Bizarrely, we're in a situation where, although the world wide web was created primarily for enabling the free sharing of scholarly publications, scholarly publications is behind almost any other field of endeavour in taking advantage of the internet.

Bjorn Brembs’ new infrastructure solution is not a particularly difficult thing to do, technically, and the cost would be tiny compared with what we throw away in subscriptions every year."

Is it important for the community to own its infrastructure?

"I think that’s crucial. Geoffrey Bilder, Jennifer Lin and Cameron Neylon wrote an important paper, Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructures, that lays this out in terms of the social structure of an organisation and what kind of contractual or legal things can be put in around it to ensure that remains it open. They've really thought it through in detail.

Geoff Bilder works at CrossRef, which exemplifies most of those principles very effectively, despite being funded by publishers.  CrossRef has done a fantastic job of maintaining its independence because it nailed down these principles very early on. Whatever we build absolutely needs these considerations, from having open software to financial firewalls between various parts of the organisation."

What’s holding back infrastructure development?

"The real problem, of course, as always, is not the technical one, it’s the social one. How do you persuade people to turn away from the brands that they’ve become comfortable with?

We really are only talking about brands, the value of publishing in, say, a big name journal rather than publishing in a preprint repository. It is nothing to do with the value of the research that gets published. It’s like buying a pair of jeans that are ten times as expensive as the exact same pair of jeans in Marks and Spencer because you want to get the ones that have an expensive label. Now ask why we’re so stupid that we care about the labels."

OK, why are we so stupid that we care about the labels?

"It’s because we are tied into this ridiculous way of assessing people in the academic world. So a researcher who does very, very good work but publishes that work in, say, PLOS ONE will receive less academic credit for doing that than had he or she published a tiny super-summarised compressed version of the same work with one illustration all squeezed in, too small to see, and got it into Science or Nature.

The work itself is the same but the exposition of the work is objectively less good in every way and yet, because of the Science or Nature label, that person will have better prospects for getting a job or promotion or whatever it might be and that’s insane.

So we’re in a system that has extremely perverse incentives and that teaches scholars to present their work in the least useful possible way because that’s what we reward them for doing."

Which is ridiculous?

"It really is. Ultimately, I think all of our problems come down to cultural inertia. But analysing it out to that doesn’t really get us very far because cultural inertia is an extremely difficult thing to deal with.

How can we bring about that kind of level of culture change, and get university administrators and research committees and everybody else to recognise the valuable work that is published in objectively good venues, that are open access, that have no arbitrary length limits, that allow large full-colour illustrations and supplementary video and all the other good stuff?

How do we get people to recognise the value of that in a way that helps them get the jobs and promotions?"

Open Access Week takes place between 24-30 October 2016.