SPARC 2012: John Wilbanks Keynote

In his salient presentation John Wilbanks summarized the current state of open access into three stories, three uncomfortable truths and three scenarios for the future of Open Access.

Three stories

By putting scholarly publication in the context of network theory, he made the point that good, unintended consequences in decentralized networks should be nurtured. This opposes the centralized model where few centralized hubs hold all the power and distributed networks where there is no more room for competition and innovation. Examples of these decentralized networks with unintended (good) consequences are the internet and the rise of Google and how Memphis as a transport hub made it possible for a company like FedEx to flourish.

The next two stories both indicated how novel practices like blogging and social media are providing "post-publication review" and generating visibility, although they are not publicly recognized as part of the scholarly communication process yet. Wilbanks recommends authors to generate online visibility for themselves instead of just waiting around for the buzz to happen.

Three uncomfortable truths

In their life as consumers, scholars have become very used to instant accessibility of content, on an array of different devices. Expecting them to be different in their desires to access scholarly content is like believing in magic unicorns. In a way, we have all become Veruca Salt, who wants it all, right here and now. This is Wilbanks' first of three uncomfortable truths.

He then went on to state that data publication is not the magic answer. Several challenges were highlighted in support of this claim. First off, there is no general accepted best practice as to what the right time in the research & data production cycle is to make data available. Data gets processed, filtered, annotated along the way. Without envisioning precise future uses for the data, it's almost impossible to assess at which point it would be most useful to publish the data. Other highlighted challenges included the explosion of data without availablity of data managers, editors and curators.

Wilbanks expects that the attacks directed against Open Access are going to get far worse. One example is the reaction of the American association of publishers on the FRPAA proposal (ed. to make all research available after an initial embargo of 6 months). In their response, it's considered a danger for American competitiveness if the rest of the world would have access to their publicly funded research. Which sounds absurd in a context where science is conducted globally where American researchers rely on findings from other countries as well. It didn't stop there. Apparently the Dutch government threathens with censorship in a proposal to mandate export permits for publishing. More subtle attacks include the misuse of the term Open Access for licenses that aren't true open access compatible.

Three scenarios

Radical Incrementalism is what happens as a grassroots movement routes around damages caused by overarching acronym wars (PIPA, RWA, SOPA, FRPAA). Scholars massively resigning from review and editing duties that they used to provide to commercial publishers for free, Figshare and pirate boxes are just some of the examples that mirror evolutions in every other content industry out there. If you lock content up, someone out there will be offering it for free.

Becoming irrelevant, a valid risk for publishers, is the second scenario. If traditional players in the space of information services are not able to fill in the new needs and adapt their business models, someone else definitely will.

Simple, weak, open, together could be an open access SWOT analysis for the 21st century. Here, weak shouldn't be confused with weakness, just like simple doesn't mean simplistic or open should be unpaid. Rights should be stated clearly and in a simple way, in order to make collaboration possible (together). Examples are the Budapest Open Access Initiative and the Panton Principles.

Open Access comes at a (financial) cost, this is not being discussed nor denied. However, to assess today's cost models and draft the models of the future, we need data on the exploitation of journals. Most embargo's today are still rather blunt instruments. Looking at the curve of exploitation, several levels of embargo could be implemented ranging from full protection, NC (non commercial usage) over to CC-BY (true open access) in order to have simple & weak article embargo, set by economics. But publishers need to show the data.

The last message to the audience was one of hope and determination: as existing actors in today's centralized hubs will stop at nothing to hold back the ongoing revolution, the open access community should persevere and never give up