Is the definition of Open Access closed? leaders debate language strategy

cover_natureNature magazine published a special issue “The future of publishing: a new page” 27 March 2013. The next day, Cameron Neylon published a Comment, “Let’s get this straight: Open-access terminology needs to be employed accurately“), in Times Higher Education.

This is a “storify” or gathering of an extended conversation on Twitter, referencing the issue and article above, between me and a number of leading advocates of and commentators on  Open Access publishing:

I. Conversation archive
II.  Afterword:  proposing “Collaborative Advocacy”
III. Followup conversation (added 31 Mar)


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Intelligibility and public scholarship: the problem with research

I commented on the article “Open access for the people” by Stephen Curry in The Guardian, March 20, 2012.


thanks, excellent article. I agree that intelligibility & translation for many audiences might usefully be considered part of “open access” in a broad sense. Personally, I’m especially interested in ways to do this through social media, possibly supported by algorithmic, crowdsourced, or peersourced summaries & extractions.

I’d like though to suggest a slightly broader context to the basic premise:

“Open access publishing is making the research literature freely available to the public….the primary function of the research literature is to facilitate and formalise the exchange of information between experts in a particular field.”

I’d suggest this notion of “research” is perhaps an unduly particular notion of scholarship, associated with contemporary science. In that context, yes, publication may be indeed primarily directed at the small group of people who may be able/interested to specifically reproduce, build on, or evaluate the research result.

On the other hand, as you note, publication spreads research across boundaries. Scientific journals have always been in part about sharing results to a broader field — from their origin in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1665, to the most prestigious journals today such as Nature, Science, and Cell. In many fields now, exchange with experts in your particular field may be more likely occurring through more informal mechanisms than journals, such as preprint or data repositories, blogs, or mailing lists; and formal publication mainly a public, archival record.

Instead of “research” I think in some ways “scholarship” may be a more historically accurate and inclusive term, especially from the standpoint of non-scientific fields. In the words of the foundational Budapest Open Access Initiative declaration of 2002,

“The literature that should be freely accessible online is that which scholars give to the world without expectation of payment.”

This “literature” is not limited to science, or to journal/article content, and might well include “public scholarship” of various forms for various publics. Many social scientists and humanities scholars may and arguably should see broad publics as the audiences for their work, and there are not necessarily any insurmountable barriers of vocabulary or method or context required for broad audiences to engage with the work, unlike with most research science.

In my opinion, the use of the term “research” across all disciplines suggests a certain hegemony of scientific peer-review literature as the model and ideal of scholarship, one which posits specialists rather than publics as the audience. I believe fields outside of natural science, particularly, should question this model, and look to reclaim their rich history of — and greater potential for — broad public engagement.

Tim McCormick
Co-founder, Open Library of Humanities
@tmccormick / / Palo Alto, CA, USA

Featured in New York Times for Houselet ideas

18arieff-parking-blog427My explorations and writings about adapting urban parking spaces for housing were featured in a New York Times design article on October 19, 2012: “How Small Is Too Small?” by Allison Arieff.

“Most people see a parking space and promptly back up into it; Tim McCormick sees one and thinks, ‘I could live here.’

“Who would willingly choose to live in something with the footprint of a parking space (8x10x16 feet)? Millions already do, argues McCormick, a communications consultant: bedrooms, dorm rooms, motel rooms, hostels, mobile homes and the like. ‘I myself live comfortably in a converted one-car garage of 200 square feet,’ he says, “which allows me to live inexpensively near downtown in super-expensive Palo Alto.’

“In cities where space is at a mind-boggling premium, McCormick’s idea of taking up residence in a parking space — in what he refers to as a ‘Houselet’ — isn’t all that far-fetched. It may in fact be more appealing than the so-called ‘hacker hostels’ that got a lot of buzz earlier this summer. Essentially apartments that house herds of would-be startup entrepreneurs willing to pay market rate to live in near-migrant-worker conditions, hacker hostels are proliferating in cities like San Francisco and New York where work culture calls for 24/7 commitments and lots of food-truck takeout (which no doubt inspired upLIFT’s prefab parking pods for the city).


“’When you ask people to consider spaces smaller that what they’ve normalized to,’ says McCormick, ‘I think it tends to trigger elemental associations of constriction and claustrophobia. I think you have to find ways around all those acculturated and visceral reactions, and observe that we’re usually O.K. with that for certain times and purposes.’

“The Bay Area, suggests McCormick, could allow radical experimentation to occur ‘because we have the genius, the resources, the culture of innovation — and the need.’

“For now, that radical experimentation will have to wait for the likes of McCormick: The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has delayed its vote on decreased square footage until after the November election.”

Free this Book: Open Access Humanities for the MOOCs

Steal-This-Book-posterI’ve been thinking about how the movement for Open Access to humanities & social-science work might intersect usefully with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

At least a few specific directions occur to me as worth exploring with any of these organizations (key MOOC players include Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy, Harvard/MIT-led EdX, Udemy, Futurelearn in UK and Stanford-run platforms Class2Go and VentureLab).

  1. Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs
  2. Connect new scholarly peer-review models to MOOC peer evaluation

1) Use Open Access course materials for MOOCs

The MOOCs are starting to expand beyond their current focus on engineering topics, quite possibly towards humanities and social-science areas whose courses typically involve much more and more varied published materials such as scholarly essays, articles, & books. There’s likely to be a huge market there if lower-level classes in these areas start to be offered as MOOCs with transferable accreditation, and get unbundled from the much higher per-credit-cost, traditional higher-ed.

A University offering a course via one of the MOOC platforms usually enrolls students beyond its regular student base. This means it can’t rely on students being able to access a common set of licensed content, which is typically the case for regularly enrolled students with access to the university library system. Also, in moving to MOOCs, the university is moving towards a different and cheaper cost structure than that which has supported those expensive, library-negotiated content site licenses and acquisitions (into the millions of dollars per year on most  campuses).

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Dreaming of open knowledge, settling for access to publicly funded science

I posted this reply to Peter Suber’s post about recent U.S. Federal proposed legistation (the FASTR bill) and White House policy directive calling for Open Access to the results of most Federally-funded “scientific research”.

Today’s Open Access policy directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is great news. However, I’m struck by the pervasive conflation of “scientific research” with “all publicly funded research” or of open access generally, in almost all reporting or discussion of the OSTP memo and the related FASTR bill recently submitted by Sen. Wyden. The bill and memo explicitly refer only to scientific research, and their terms seem to leave it unclear if or how their policies would apply to key humanities funders such as NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities, $150M budget) and IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Studies, $240M budget), and perhaps to social sciences work, or to “research” outside of the obvious cases of peer-reviewed research literature and data.

Many science advocates or open access advocates may find other fields marginal to irrelevant, often basing that on funding figures — a view I’ve often heard. Of course, the NIH’s $30B dwarfs the NEH’s budget, but scientific research is also vastly more expensive than humanities work. In the big picture, most research/scholarly funding is in the form of employee compensation and facilities, an amount much larger than the sums explicitly accounted as “research” funds, and this pays for vast areas of non-STEM [Scientific, Technical, Engineering, Medical] output. Also, funds and policies from agencies like NEH, IMLS, and the Smithsonian catalyze and shape much larger funding flows at state and local level, and academic and foundation sectors.

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Humanities and Open Access: comment on Nature article

current issue of Nature, 07 Feb 2013

current issue of Nature, 07 Feb 2013

Nature ran a News piece on 06 Feb, “Researchers opt to limit uses of open-access publications,” by Richard Van Noorden. As the subtitle summarizes:

Advocates of open publishing fret that misunderstandings lead scientists to choose restrictive licenses.

There were various interesting responses in the comments (which Nature places quite in-view at bottom of article, and which refute the common claim that online commenting is a cesspool. Well done, all). 

Ross Mounce – PhD student in phylogeny at University of Bath, and Open Knowledge Foundation Panton Fellow – made the useful empirical point that “the vast majority of good open access journals (those that are Thompson Reuters Journal Citation Reports  listed) use the CC BY licence” (which allows future use, republication, by any party in any way, essentially requiring only attribution). [note: I see Ross has posted a great follow-up article on his site, “Further info about the licences that free/open access journals use.” Check it out].

Kaitlin Thaney, well-known open-science advocate, Manager of External Relationships for Digital Science, London, commented,

[licenses] listed, beyond CC-BY (a legal implementation of Open Access), are not Open Access. Slightly more open? It’s arguable. OA, most definitely not.”

Since the humanistically inclined, like me, are often resistent to the digital, in the sense of the Yes/Not binary — if not also in the sense of being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century – I was moved to add a comment. I suggested that this strict notion of Open Access is not historically a full picture: as a favorite Nietzsche aphorism says, “only something which has no history can be defined.”

Pragmatically, I suggest such a binary defintion may not include or helpfully address the concerns of non-science disciplines, doing which is a key aspect of my Open Library of Humanities project. (which Ross, incidentally, helped to suggest).

Below is my full comment, which you can also read the comment on Nature’s site.

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