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Focussing on the costs of Open Access is missing the point

“Focussing on the costs of Open Access is missing the point”
Name: Laurent Gatto
Position: Head of the Computational Proteomics Unit
Expertise: Computational biology, bioinformatics, proteomics
Institution: University of Cambridge
Country: UK
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ORCID ID: 0000-0002-1520-2268

An interview with Laurent Gatto on 2 December 2015

Why the interest in Open Access?

My first introduction to open aspects of research focussed on open source software as a user and developer. It was then David Donoho who further inspired me when he emphasised that papers are the mere advertisement of the scholarship; what matters is everything that, eventually, leads to a publication. This expanded my view. In the meantime, I believe that if not all my research artefacts are open (the software, the documentation, the data, the methodology, …), there is no use to merely provide open access to the final paper. I therefore make artefacts part of the research process open to make my research reproducible, and hence, I believe, more useful and trustworthy, for the community.

“If not all my research artefacts are open (the software, the documentation, the data, the methodology, …), there is no use to merely provide open access to the final paper.”

It was after my Ph.D. and whilst working for industry when I put my ideas into practice. At that time, I was working for a small company that supported sharing software with the broader community. I knew that releasing my software as part of an open source project was also a good way to market their work. However, this ideal environment changed when I went back into academia, moving to Cambridge for a post-doc role in 2010, and where I changed fields. I moved from genomics to proteomics, where data-sharing and software analysis were less prevalent and not as well established as genomics, although this has developed a lot in the last 5-6 years. I aimed to apply my skills and looked at a more open way of sharing data and more openly working with my peers in this new field, taking lessons learnt and best practice and applying them to this new world. I was fortunate to get support from my direct colleagues and supervisor.

What are the challenges in promoting Open Access?

I have never met anyone who has said that Open Access was bad and that research outputs should be kept closed. However, the matters of high-impact journals, assessing the quality of research based on journals and the dissemination of data and software have come up in conversation. When I counter-argue such points, people will retort by saying “Yes, but” or “I know the impact factor is not important, but…”

“It is much more the lack of support through passivity … that creates an underlying resistance to many open activities.”

More to the point, I haven’t personally come across active or clear resistance to openness in general. It is much more the lack of support through passivity or accepting the general status quo that creates an underlying resistance to many open activities. This is particularly so for Open Access. Therefore, when it comes to the core business of writing a paper and disseminating research, such passive behaviour is worrying.

In addition, although many people are aware of the challenges in scholarly communication, change is hard, as scholars are just too busy or senior scientists are too used to the way things were in their day when they became established scientists. I see the lack of taking a stand as a big problem. At least saying “I want to keep my data closed” is offering an opinion, but the lack of an opinion is a problem. On the other hand, some senior scientists are taking a stand, like Bjorn Brems, Michael and Johnathan Eisen and inspiring or young people like Erin McKiernan and Ross Mounce are motivating young researchers.

What are the benefits of Open Access to research in your opinion, and who benefits?

The benefits of OA are very clear to me, especially as early-career scientists need to disseminate their knowledge as promptly as possible. Personal experience has shown me that it is important to be able to release a pre-print as soon as possible to raise impact as early as possible, i.e. not having to wait for months before becoming visible through official publication. This is extremely necessary, and closed access cannot compete with this.

“Early-career scientists need to disseminate their knowledge as promptly as possible.”

More generally, I also believe that everyone benefits from Open Access: from researchers to industry to the general public. Perhaps it is only the publishers who do not see the benefits, due to their fear of losing substantial revenues.

Personally, I find it at times irritating that Open Access is seen as a noble cause. It is in fact part of doing responsible research so that others can benefit and reuse results. Publishers have seen this trend as a danger to their business, so they have tried to turn it around and make it their business model, which is almost perverse. A lot of discussions about OA are focussed on the money to pay for OA journals and hybrid journals, and this is missing the point. We need to stay focussed on conducting ethical and responsible research, and OA contributes to that.

What can administration do to support openness to research?

Scholars often don’t grasp, or are simply not interested in, the differences between different licenses or how to manage their rights, for example. This is out of our comfort zone and could often be a reason for why people don’t engage with OA enough. This is why we need experts to simplify the why and how for us. We absolutely need administrative support to make this easier. In Cambridge, for example, once an article has been accepted, the Cambridge OA team can take care of this for us. This is important for researchers to be able to invest time in what they do best.

What are the key challenges and what still needs to be done to provide more Open Access to research?

Most of my interactions and discussions are with people that are already convinced about Open Access, and Open Science in general. The real challenge seems to be to reach people who are not yet convinced, don’t think it is important enough and see it as a secondary point in their research activities.

“There is more to OA than funders brandishing a stick.”

We need success stories. Open source software has many of them, e.g. mobile phones, Linux, Androids, Apache servers are really big success stories. Currently, for the majority – especially of the more senior – OA is not a priority. I am not sure that we have the big Open Access success stories or can tell them in a convincing way. In addition, despite the fact that the UK’s research councils require Open Access and more explicit data management today, we want people to go OA because they are convinced it is a good thing. There is more to OA than funders brandishing a stick. We also need carrots, by rewarding openness in research, and, ultimately, make open the normal way to conduct science.

“It is very important to invest in education to inspire and avoid some of the current misconceptions.”

For this to happen, it is very important to invest in education to inspire and avoid some of the current misconceptions surrounding quality, for example. When I was a student, Open Access and Open Data were not mainstream terms. Everything I now know about these areas, I had to learn on my own on the job. I still think that today’s students know too little about Open Science or Open Access, although they have probably heard about open source software in their practicals. They basically still follow the publishing practices of their labs or research environments – choose a journal based on X criteria. I don’t believe that promoting Open Science is a priority for most labs. Students learn about the open way of doing what they are passionate about on the job; some are early, whereas others are very late in doing so. In my opinion, undergraduates should receive introductory instruction plus some seminars provided by the community. Postgraduates also need to be made aware of OA and Open Science choices. Providing them with such knowledge could empower them to make their own decisions.

To conclude, I am convinced that young scientists would be more excited about Open Access if they were told more about what it was, what the benefits were, and that going “open” was not a bad career move. Instead, they could see Open Access bringing broader impact to their research activities in both research communities and society.


Copyright: Danny Kingsley, Cambridge University. Creative Commons CC-BY Licence.

Tags: Open Access, Open Science, administrative support, advocacy, benefits, career development, change, cost efficiency, costs, dissemination, education, engagement, fear, good practice, impact, impact factor, industry, invest, labs, licences, methodology, open source, outreach, papers, passivity, quality, re-use, reproducibility, research artefacts, research data, research funders, revenue loss, rewards, rights management, scholarly communication, sharing, society, software, success stories, trust, undergraduates, visibility

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