Open access debate at CHLA/ABSC: not about OA at all

There was a lot of activity around the topic of open access at this year’s Canadian Health Libraries Association / Association des bibliothèques de la santé du Canada Conference in Kingston, ON:

While the interest group meeting and paper presentation are probably pretty much what one might have expected from such events, the debate merits some special discussion, and I finally have a minute in which to do so. The two presenters were Dr. Udo Schüklenk & Dr. Sergio Sismondo.

The conference blurb about the event states:

Like many others in the academy, Udo and Sergio, both philosophers at Queen’s University, hold considered views on the question of the ‘open access’ versus ‘subscription’ models in academic publishing. As it turns out, they find themselves on opposite sides of the spectrum. Sergio thinks that ‘open access’ is ultimately the way to go, while Udo thinks that the ‘open access’ business model is fatally flawed. Unlike Sergio, Udo carries the baggage of a serious conflict of interest, being the paid editor of a monthly subscription based journal. The two of them have engaged in vigorous debates about the pros and cons of both models on various occasions. During our conference they will put their respective cases to the audience test. Each of them will talk for about 15 min, with a 5 min slot for a rejoinder available to both. Afterwards we will open up the debate to the floor. (emphasis mine)

The debate was lively and jovial, with this clearly not being the first time this pair had engaged in verbal sparring. Neither speaker hailed from a health or library background, and both said things that caused the audience to gasp audibly (e.g., the moment in which Udo said he couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever read the journal Social Science & Medicine!). More significantly, neither demonstrated a clear understanding of the distinction between access models and business models.

As Sergio identified from the start, Udo was intended to wear the “black hat” in the debate. Sergio made pro-OA arguments that might be considered overblown, advocating for the “OA system.” (Not sure what the “OA system” is…perhaps this is like the “gay agenda”?)

Udo, on the other hand, gamely played staunch defender of the possibly-dying print journal (and pointing to the recent JAMA article-revision kerfuffle as rationale), conflating OA with online publishing.

Both debaters tried to pin journals’ ethical transgressions on their access models. While both gentlemen were clearly experts in philosophical-ethical issues, it was evident that they were not experts in scholarly publishing, as they seemed unaware of initiatives such as LOCKSS as well as disciplinary trends in citation behaviour.

When the floor was opened up to the audience, I joined a few others in scampering up to the microphones. It was not long before Sergio had to concede that, no, OA will not change anything other than access. A moment later, Udo had to admit that not only would OA improve access, but he (the alleged anti-OA debater) archived all his publications under “green” OA.

And thus, our “OA debate” was suddenly revealed as a green OA vs gold OA debate.

I started this post claiming that the “OA Debate” at CHLA/ABSC 2010 was not about OA at all. Upon reflection, that’s not true. It was about OA, just not in the way we all expected. It was about how far we’ve come in the past decade+, that nowadays an OA debate is not about “whether OA” but rather “how OA.” Pretty awesome that “opposite ends of the spectrum” can now mean “believing in different OA futures.”

Thank you to all the OA movers & shakers who have been working on this issue since before I even knew it existed.




Filed under digitization, ethics, Health, OA, publishing

2 responses to “Open access debate at CHLA/ABSC: not about OA at all

  1. Devon,
    You’re a wonderful writer and an important voice in health librarianship. I think we should collaborate for the HLABC social media presentation.

    However, before that conversation happens, I have a few comments about your post:

    1) Open medicine is a ‘gold open-access’ publication, but even three (3) years after we began, we do not have a viable business model in place. Being an advocate for OA is not enough to ensure that OA journals prosper; we need to be jack fundraisers or savvy at business, one of the above.

    2) Open access is really one part of a larger discussion about changing the way we provide health care in Canada. ‘Openness’ must extend to the provision of data, too; and, like what I mentioned above, we have to consider the long-term implications on our profession of pushing down the barriers. Leading people across barriers is a big part of what we do as librarians.

    3) Finally, we do not have ‘true’ open access without open bibliographic information services and search tools (what I call ‘open search’). Yes, PubMed is open and it is one map of the literature but it is not the only map. We need to create ways of opening up bibliographic data and metadata to ensure that the best evidence in medicine is findable. Without these findability tools, we are sunk.


    • greyson

      Hi Dean,
      Thanks for your comments.

      1) Absolutely – Open Medicine is one of many journals that illustrate the fact that OA is not tied to any one particular business model, as OM has drawn on at least two different models already, right?

      I don’t mean to ignore the fact that it is a serious challenge to transition our business models from subscription to other types of payment/underwriting for publishing costs (e.g. copyediting, layout, and often many other administrative duties such as review coordination). As you point out, those of us who are skilled at things like peer review or editing are not always/often the same people who are good at fundraising or business management — adding to the challenges of this transition.

      2) It’s tricky, isn’t it, making distinctions and drawing lines? On one hand, open-access (or free access) to published research results is a discrete idea, and change from traditional pay-to-read models. On the other, this OA idea certainly doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and is related to other ideas.

      I have trouble with people conflating the details, or impacts, of the free-to-read-research with details or impacts of other types of openness. I think that leads to unrealistic thinking and causes us to miss opportunities to build alliances on the specific issue. However, I certainly must acknowledge the fact that many other factors and movements made OA possible, and OA is related to and makes possible many other types of openness.

      3) Open indexing/findability tools are definitely important elements in achieving “true” or complete openness. To me, this is an issue that falls under that umbrella of OA-related-openness, but is not necessarily synonymous, or even part of, OA itself.

      Information is of little use if people cannot access it, yes, but access itself is of little use if people cannot find it in the first place.

      (And of course, findablity is of limited utility if people don’t have motivation to pursue it or know it exists, to continue that line to the end.)

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