Trends Favoring Open Access
This article began with a simple attempt to identify trends that were changing scholarly communication. I expected to find trends that were supporting the progress of OA and trends that were opposing it or slowing it down. The resulting welter of conflicting trends might not give comfort to friends or foes of OA, or to anyone trying to forecast the future, but at least it would describe this period of dynamic flux. It might even explain why OA wasn't moving faster or slower than it was.
But with few exceptions I only found trends that favored OA. Maybe I have a large blind spot; I'll leave that for you to decide. I'm certainly conscious of many obstacles and objections to OA, and I address them every day in my work. The question is which of them represent trends that are gaining ground.
While it's clear that OA is here to stay, it's just as clear that long-term success is a long-term project. The campaign consists of innumerable individual proposals, policies, projects, and people. If you're reading this, you're probably caught up in it, just as I am. If you're caught up in it, you're probably anxious about how individual initiatives or institutional deliberations will turn out. That's good; anxiety fuels effort. But for a moment, stop making and answering arguments and look at the trends that will help or hurt us, and would continue to help or hurt us even if everyone stopped arguing. For a moment, step back from the foreground skirmishes and look at the larger background trends that are likely to continue and likely to change the landscape of scholarly communication.
I've found so many that I've had to be brief in describing them and limit the list to those that most affect OA.
The direct benefit is that all these tools presuppose OA. Their widespread use enlarges the volume of OA research communication and spreads the conviction that research benefits from both the speed and the reach of OA. The indirect benefit is that they foster disintermediation (and hence reduce costs and delays) without sacrificing peer-mediated forms of quality control. Since the rise of peer-reviewed journals in the 17th century, most publicly disseminated works of scholarship have been vetted and distributed by publishers. Letters and lectures were exceptions. Today, the categories of exceptions, the volume of research-reporting they represent, and their integration into the workflow of ordinary research, are all growing.
To focus on social tagging and folksonomy tools for a moment; when applied to research literature (Connotea, CiteULike) and combined with OA and search engines, they do more than OA alone, or OA plus search engines, to enhance the discoverability of OA literature. Because tags are added retroactively to open content by uncoordinated users, they stimulate the imagination of creative developers; once we have OA to literature and data, we can add layers of utility indefinitely.
On the other hand, OA books may only stimulate sales of print editions as long as most people dislike reading whole books on screen. This trend may be reversed by a counter-trend to improve ebook readers.
However, this only guarantees that the content industry will have a fight, not that users and consumers will win. Nearly every week the content industry scores another victory, either in court or in arm-twisting another developing country into harmonizing its copyright laws with the unbalanced North. There are victories for balance as well, but less often in courts and legislatures than in think tanks, conference declarations, government commissions, and newspaper editorials. The trend is only for awareness and opposition, but it's sharply up.
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.