On Monday, the World Bank hosted an event called What the World Bank’s Open Access Policy Means for Development (you can view the video recording of the event at the link or embedded below). Participants included Peter Suber from Harvard University, Michael Carroll from American University (Mike is on the Board of Directors at Creative Commons), and Cyril Muller and Adam Wagstaff from the World Bank. The discussion was timely given the Bank’s recently-announced Open Access Policy and Open Knowledge Repository. We blogged about the Bank’s announcement of these two great initiatives. The World Bank’s Open Access Policy requires that all research outputs and knowledge products published by the Bank be licensed Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) as a default.
The conversation Monday revolved around the impact and potential for World Bank research — and open access in general — for development in countries around the world. For example, how will access and reuse of research under an open access policy create opportunities to solve large global challenges such as climate change and hunger?
The panelists jumped in, and stated that an immediate, baseline benefit of the open access policy is that now, World Bank research is aggregated in one place and made available for free to anyone with an internet connection. This is not the case with subscription journals, where readers have to pay to view the articles. Mike Carroll noted the importance of addressing copyright concerns in open policies. Even when research is made available for free online, if readers are unclear about the rights available to them, the articles and data will not be as valuable or impactful. This is especially important in developing nations, where republication and moving information from the Internet to an offline environment requires copyright permission. With open licenses such as CC BY chosen by the World Bank, permission to republish and translate articles into other languages is automatically granted. Carroll pointed to related success in the Open Education space. He said that many MIT Open CourseWare materials have been translated and put into use in other countries (such as Vietnam) specifically because the original resources were published under an open license that permitted translation and reuse.
Suber and Muller said that one benefit of an open access policy (especially when combined with open access to the underlying data) is that it can help validate research and work toward consensus on a particular issue, such as climate change. This in turn can help policymakers make better, research-driven decisions. Muller said that open access promotes collaboration between colleagues, even those with different skill sets and backgrounds. With this comes the increased possibility of solving complex research problems in novel ways. Muller and Wagstaff noted that the Open Access Policy would help increase the visibility, access, and reuse of World Bank documents and research. This information will help increase the audience for important Bank research and will promote cross-border transfer of information, especially in a south-south direction (as opposed to north-south).
To highlight the dire situation in pricing for traditional journals, the panelists discussed Harvard’s recent announcement about the unsustainable cost of scholarly journal subscriptions. Suber noted that even with a journal budget of $9 million per year, the Harvard University Library realizes it cannot afford the ongoing agreements with commercial journal publishers. And clearly, if even Harvard can’t afford the full range of research, every other university in the world is worse off. However, Suber said that seven of Harvard’s nine colleges have adopted exemplary open access policies, thus retaining access to the research from Harvard faculty even if those faculty publish in traditional and expensive subscription journals.
Carroll pointed to a more fundamental problem with the current scholarly publishing ecosystem. Scholars have always written to maximize impact; the web helps makes it easy to publish to wide audience, at near zero cost. The logical conclusion to these two assumptions is that all scientific and scholarly research should be widely available for free online. However, this is not how things have shaken out. Instead, prices to access scholarly research has gone up dramatically, as half of science literature has been published by commercial houses. These commercial publishers have enjoyed up to 36% profit margins, even amid the worldwide financial crisis. This points to a larger problem, and hints that the current publishing system overall is broken. However, Suber said that there are currently some for-profit open access journals that are indeed profitable. However, he guessed that the profit margins at those companies was probably closer to 2-5%.
A related question from the audience asked why a scholar would want to publish research as open access if given the chance to publish her work in a “shiny” established journal. Panelists pointed out that the World Bank Open Access policy allows authors to do both. The policy requires that authors deposit a copy of their final paper in the Open Knowledge Repository, and doesn’t preclude researchers from publishing in traditional journals. Of course, while this framework is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem because big publishers continue to enjoy huge profit margins on their access-controlled subscription journals because university libraries continue to pay for the access that their faculty require.
Suber pointed out that there are other benefits to publishing work as open access. He said that publishing in open access journals allows authors to attach open licenses (such as CC BY) to their work. When they do so, they make the work more useful to readers and users. So, the smallest open access journal has a potentially larger audience than even the most popular paywalled journal because the work can reach anyone in the world with access to the Internet. When you couple this massive potential audience with the permission to republish and reuse via an open license, authors can maximize the impact of their work beyond the reach of any closed journal.
Mike Carroll also brought up the importance of new technologies and methods such as text mining as another tool to help solve complex problems. Challenges such as climate change are huge, and can’t be tackled by researchers individually. At the same time, there is now a huge body of research articles on the subject, and scholars are facing an information overload problem. That’s where text mining comes in, and allows researchers to conduct intensive computational analyses on huge sets of scientific texts in order to identify correlations, patterns, and unforeseen connections that would be impossible to understand by reading the articles by themselves. While the traditional publishing models typically block such text mining efforts, open access gives permission in advance, helping researchers solve problems faster and promote scientific innovation. Questions around the legal implications of text mining in relation to copyright are currently being discussed in the UK.