August 2007
The Coming Revolution in Scholarly Communications & Cyberinfrastructure
Peter Suber, Earlham College

  1. The shock of the new is wearing off. OA is gradually emerging from the fog of misunderstanding. For this one, I won't be brief.

    Scholars who grew up with the Internet are steadily replacing those who grew up without it. Scholars who expect to put everything they write online, who expect to find everything they need online, and who expect unlocked content they may read, search, link, copy, cut/paste, crawl, print, and redistribute, are replacing those who never expected these boons and got used to them, if at all, looking over their shoulder for the copyright police. Scholars who expect to find the very best literature online, harmlessly cohabiting with crap, are replacing scholars who, despite themselves perhaps, still associate everything online with crap.

    Some lazy scholars believe that if something is not free online, then it's not worth reading. This has never been true. However, it's gradually becoming true, and those who want it to become true can accelerate the process. Those who want to live in a world where all peer-reviewed journal literature is free online are themselves growing in numbers and will soon have the power in universities, libraries, learned societies, publishers, funding agencies, and governments to bring it about.

    Moreover, as the OA percentage of research literature continues to grow, then more users will start to act (with or without justification) as if all research literature worth reading is already OA. As this practice spreads, it will function as one more incentive for authors and publishers to make their work OA.

    In short, generational change is on the side of OA.

    But even the passage of time without generational change is on the side of OA. Time itself has reduced panic and panic-induced misunderstandings of OA. Everyone is getting used to the idea that OA literature can be copyrighted, the idea that OA literature can be peer-reviewed, the idea that the expenses for producing OA literature can be recovered, and the idea that OA and TA literature can co-exist (even for the same work). Surprisingly, many of the early obstacles to OA can be traced to the fact that many seasoned academics just couldn't grasp these ideas. The problem was not incoherent ideas or stupid people --though both hypotheses circulated widely-- but panic, unfamiliarity, and the violation of unquestioned assumptions. For some stakeholders, clear explanations, repetition, or experience with working examples solved the problem. But for others it just took time.

    When Nature broke the story in January 2007 that the Association of American Publishers, American Chemical Society, Elsevier, and Wiley, had hired Eric Dezenhall, "the pit-bull of PR," to help their lobbying campaign against OA, the resulting controversy brought OA to the attention of many academics for the first time. Unlike earlier waves of newcomers, for example, after Congress asked the NIH to develop an OA policy in July 2004, this wave typically got it right the first time. "Of course OA is compatible with peer review." "Of course there are no copyright problems if the copyright-holder consents." "Of course the public deserves OA to publicly-funded research." "Of course the argument that OA is a kind of censorship is Orwellian doublespeak."

    When newcomers got OA wrong in the past, sometimes they had been misled by an explicit error published somewhere, perhaps by another newcomer. But most of the time they just made unconscious assumptions based on incomplete information and old models. This is the shock of the new at work. If OA uses the Internet, then it must bypass peer review. (Right?) If OA articles can be copied ad lib, then there must be copyright problems. (Right?) If OA is free of charge for end-users, then its proponents must be claiming that it costs nothing to produce and it must be impossible to recover the costs. (Right?) These conclusions, of course, were uninformed leaps. Many who understood the conventional model (priced, printed, peer-reviewed, copyright-protected) saw a proposal for something different and didn't know how many parameters of the old paradigm the new proposal wanted to tweak. Their hasty and incorrect surmise: all of them. It was a classic case of seeing black and white before seeing shades of gray.

    Suddenly everything good about the present system had to be defended, as if it were under attack. A lot of energy was wasted defending peer review, when it was never under attack. A lot of energy was wasted defending copyright --or celebrating its demise-- when it was never under attack. (More precisely, copyright was under attack from other directions, but OA was compatible with unrevised, unbalanced, unreconstructed copyright.) The debate about OA often drifted toward the larger debate about what was good and bad, or functional and dysfunctional, in the present system of scholarly communication overall. This was valuable, but mixing narrow OA issues with broader ones created false impressions about what OA really was, how compatible it was with good features of the present system, and how easy it was to implement.

    The OA debates still waste a lot of energy talking about peer review and copyright. The shock of the new hasn't fully worn off; it's wearing off gradually. OA advocates, growing in numbers and effectiveness, can't keep the idea from being distorted or misunderstood. But they have kept it from being distorted or misunderstood as much as it would have been otherwise.

    As time passes, we see a steady rise in the proportion of correct to incorrect formulations of OA in the widely-read discussions. When people encounter a fragmentary version of the idea for the first time today, their guesswork to flesh it out is guided by a much more reliable range of clues than just a few years ago. If they take the time to run an online search, the chances that they'll find good information before someone else's guesswork are nearly 100%.

    It's tempting to focus on the elegance of OA as a solution to serious problems and overlook the need for the sheer passage of time to overcome the shock of the new. Even if we acknowledge the need for cultural change in the transition to OA --far more critical than technological change-- it's easy to underestimate the cultural barriers and the time required to work through them. Yes, OA is compatible with peer review, copyright, profit, print, prestige, and preservation. But that doesn't quiet resistance when those facts about it are precisely the ones hidden by false assumptions caused by the shock of the new.

    I'm not saying that all resistance to OA is, or was, based on a misunderstanding of the idea itself. But much past resistance was based on misunderstanding; that portion is in decline; and that decline is largely due to the passage of time and the rise in mere familiarity with a new idea.

    The changes wrought by time point up a sad irony in the 15 year history of OA. Nobody is surprised when cultural inertia slows the adoption of radical ideas. But cultural inertia slowed the adoption of OA by leading many people to mistake it for a more radical idea than it actually is.


I know that this account of trends would not be complete without those that work against OA. But there aren't many. I've mentioned the improvement in ebook readers, which may interfere with the ways that OA books increase sales for print editions. Here are two more.

  1. Researchers themselves control the rate of progress toward OA, but after all these years most of them are still oblivious to its existence and benefits. As I've noted above, there is a trend toward greater familiarity and understanding. But there is also a longstanding counter-trend of impatience with anything that distracts attention from research. This preoccupation is generally admirable and makes researchers good at what they do. But even from the narrow perspective of what advances research, it is having perverse consequences and limiting the audience, impact, and utility of the research on which scholars are so single-mindedly focused.
  2. Some publishers opposed OA from the beginning, and sometimes their opposition was fierce. But some who opposed it apparently saw it as a utopian fantasy of naïve academics that would never be embraced by serious researchers, let alone by serious institutions like universities, libraries, foundations, and government agencies. Publishers in the second camp, who thought OA would be alarming if it caught on, but then hit the snooze button, are now hearing the alarm. While some publishers actively support OA, or experiment with it in good faith, those that oppose it are getting their act together and spending serious money to lobby against government OA policies. In money and person-power, their lobbying forces in Washington and Brussels vastly exceed our own. All we have going for us are good arguments and good trends.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the SPARC Open Access Newsletter, May 2, 2007. 1


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Reference this article
Suber, P. "Trends Favoring Open Access," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 3, August 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/08/trends-favoring-open-access/

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