Mounting pressure to implement Open Access in Nordic countries

Participants in the concluding panel debate: (from left) Torkel Brekke, Eloy Rodrigues from the University of Minho in Portugal, Alma Swan, Niels Stern, Eeva Kaunismaa, Lars Burman from Uppsala University Library, Mogens Sandfør from the DTU

Mounting pressure to implement Open Access in Nordic countries

There is widespread agreement that the results of publicly financed research should no longer be hidden behind hard paywalls, and new initiatives are constantly being introduced to change this practice. One of the initiatives is that The Nordic Council of Ministers has commissioned a report on Open Access.

“We are all believers in this room,” said Sverker Holmgren of NordForsk, as he welcomed participants to Copenhagen on 17 March for a workshop on the alignment of Nordic policies on Open Access publishing of research results.

At the heart of the issue is the handful of international publishing houses that are earning enormous sums of money from publishing the results of publicly funded research. The current norm is for a researcher to contact a publisher and ask to publish an article, which involves signing a contract which transfers the rights to the article to the publisher. The article is then submitted for peer review, after which it may be published.

Researchers and reviewers alike are publicly funded, and none of them receive any payment from the journals. As the last step, the researcher’s institution – and everyone else – has to pay a hefty amount to be allowed to read the article. Thus, the public sector winds up paying three times for something which it already funded itself, and the publishing houses walk away with the profit. Pressure is mounting from the EU Commission to change this practice, and Finland is taking steps to become a lighthouse for the rest of the world when it comes to Open Access.

From Elsevier to Plos One 

The name of the largest publishing house targeted by this criticism, Elsevier, came up several times during the workshop. Elsevier publishes approximately 350 000 articles in close to 2 000 journals annually. According to Wikipedia, in 2014 alone their profits totalled close to NOK 9 billion (37 per cent) on a turnover of approximately NOK 24 billion.

The alternative is Open Access publishing, which has received backing in principle from a variety of government organisations: the EU Commission, governments of Nordic countries and the rest of Europe, national research councils, and more. With Open Access, researchers retain the intellectual property rights to their own material. Scientific articles published in online journals such as Plos One are freely available to anyone who is interested.

But opposition to this is strong. Lisbeth Söderquist, analyst in the Department of Research Policy at the Swedish Research Council, along with a number of other speakers, pointed out during the workshop that the current system for evaluating researchers is at odds with the push for Open Access. Specifically, the evaluation of researchers for promotion and permanent employment is based on the scientific journals in which they have been published, and at present it is the commercial journals that have the highest impact factor. Researchers who only publish in Open Access journals may slow their own careers; thus, achieving greater use of Open Access will require the development of new methods for evaluating researcher merits.

Eager for change 

Clearly, the Copenhagen workshop attendees were anxious to see things change. One of the individuals expressing the greatest eagerness was Dr Alma Swan from the organisation, Pasteur40A, which supports the EU Commission’s desire to implement Open Access publishing. Among other things, she pointed out that national guidelines on Open Access need to be coordinated because many researchers receive funding from several sources.

Alma Swan has devoted considerable effort to developing the Roarmap database, which currently includes close to 800 Open Access policy documents from research institutions, research councils, government agencies and other stakeholders from all over the world. The database documents among other things that Europe leads the way in the area and has developed a full 468 policy documents up to today.

“We have studied the impacts of different ways of formulating this type of guidelines, and have discovered three types of provisions that have a significant impact. The proportion of Open Access publications increases when researchers are met with wordings stipulating that they must ‘make their research freely accessible’; that they ‘are not permitted to waive’ this type of publication; or that ‘Open Access publishing will be linked to evaluation processes’. In other words, the greatest effect is achieved when we link Open Access to the interests and career opportunities of the researchers,” Dr Swan explained. 

Other views on what needs to be done to motivate researchers to embrace Open Access publishing more widely were also presented. It is important to have an institutional management that is actively interested in these issues and can implement the changes needed.

Report to the Nordic Council of Ministers 

Sverker Holmgren, Professor in Scientific Computing at the Uppsala University and employed by NordForsk as Programme Director for the Nordic eScience Globalisation Initiative (NeGI), has been working on a report on Open Access to research data for submission to the Nordic Council of Ministers the day after the workshop. The report will be made available following internal discussions.

What is Open Access?
Open Access (OA) refers to free, online access to research results. This entails either that research results are published in journals that are freely accessible to the public or that the research is self-archived and made accessible via an open institutional repository or in a central repository such as PubMed. This practice is called “Green Open Access”.
Another variant is “Gold Open Access”, which is based on publication fees paid by the author. This publication form has been highly criticised and is often associated with “vanity journals” with little editorial oversight.

Dr Holmgren pointed out that four different components need to be in place for Open Access to data to become more widespread: it is necessary to adopt definitions, guidelines, rules and standards; it is essential to develop a new electronic infrastructure and tools; there is a need to devise new funding schemes; and it is important to reward researchers in a manner that differs from current practice. 

“It will never be possible to make absolutely all research data accessible. Among other things, there are limitations relating to personal privacy and there are contractual restrictions with regard to private partners,” Sverker Holmgren pointed out.

The Finnish flagship 

Dr Holmgren gave Eeva Kaunismaa, Counsellor of Education at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, a perfect stepping stone for her presentation when he declared Finland to be a Nordic and international role model for Open Access. Both the Finnish Government and the Academy of Finland, have already launched a number of initiatives.

“Our vision is for Finland to become a world-leading nation in this area. We believe that “Open Science” paves the way to a wider range of surprising discoveries and creative insights,” Ms Kaunismaa stated. 

There are many examples showing that Open Access yields results. Niels Stern, head of Publications at the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Secretariat, explained, for instance, that the digital edition of the reference work, Nordic Nutrition recommendations (NNR), has been downloaded 17 000 times from the Nordic Council of Ministers’ website in a short period. New editions of NNR have been published on an ongoing basis – in hard copy – since 1980, but such wide circulation has never before been achieved.

“The Nordic Council of Ministers has agreed that all of our publications must be accessible via Open Access. We issued a call for tenders which was awarded to Uppsala University Library. We have already made approximately 4 000 publications available in this way,” Niels Stern explained. He also reminded the assembly that the Nordic region combined represents the world’s twelfth largest economy. “If the Nordic countries decide to play a leading role in this field, it will be noticed,” he believes.

Norwegian report due before June 

Professor Torkel Brekke of the University of Oslo is currently heading a working group appointed by the Norwegian Government to submit a report on Open Access by the beginning of summer 2016. He pointed out that only a handful of the new Open Access journals are renowned enough to compete with the commercial journals.

“It is important for the Nordic countries to develop as common an approach as possible in this area, but it is also crucial to maintain the valuable body of small, niche journals publishing scientific articles in Nordic languages,” Dr Brekke says.

“The mandate of the Norwegian working group is to identify measures which can speed up the transition to Open Access. If we don’t receive frustrated and critical feedback from various quarters in response to our report then we have failed,” Dr Brekke adds.

Knowledge becomes quickly outdated

Workshop moderator Curt Rice, Rector at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and Chair of the Board of the CRIStin National Research Information System in Norway, is also among those looking to change the current situation.

“New knowledge is being produced all the time, and old knowledge quickly becomes outdated. Researchers, as well as other groups such as teachers and nurses, need access to the most recent and best research. They don’t have that today,” said Dr Rice, who believes this has a lot to do with political courage.

“It is feasible both technologically and administratively to implement Open Access fairly quickly. It is precisely in situations like the one we are currently in, where researchers are evaluated on the basis of how many times they have been published in commercial journals, that we would like to have clearer leadership than we have seen so far from the Research Council of Norway and the Ministry of Education and Research. I feel the political courage needed to take the necessary decisions has been lacking,” says Dr Rice.

Research journalists may also want to think twice before praising researchers for publishing in “the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet”. Maybe they could write instead that the article was published by a greedy monopolist that, according to Wikipedia, has connections with the international weapons industry?

“Part of the problem is that there is such great prestige attached to these journals, but we are at least in part helping to give them this prestige. If the ministries of research in more countries decided that researchers would get qualifications for their publications in Open Access journals, then much of the prestige would quickly transfer over to these new journals,” says Curt Rice.

Academic freedom vs. academic responsibility 

During the final panel debate, the question was raised whether the academic freedom researchers refer to when publishing in commercial journals has become a sacred cow. Would it not be better to speak of “academic responsibility” and follow the example of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? As of 1 January 2015, the foundation no longer provides research funding unless the results are published in Open Access journals.

“We should not forget that the discussion on free access to research results involves more than just ‘Open Access’ to scientific articles,” said Sverker Holmgren in a post-workshop interview. In his report to the Nordic Council of Ministers, he recommends an integrated perspective that should ultimately also be expanded to include publication of components such as data, software and methods. This could entail that Open Access publishing will become more costly than the present system.

“Presumably, however, the value of the research will also be much greater. Today, for example, data corpora are collected that are only used for a single scientific publication, when we should instead be drawing on the example of the Hubble telescope. With the Hubble, researchers apply for time to carry out observations using the telescope, and afterwards they can produce an article. But their data are stored for later use by other researchers who can produce new articles,” Sverker Holmgren explains. 

An even bigger “believer” 

The Copenhagen workshop turned Sverker Holmgren into an even bigger “believer” in Open Access.

“It remains to be seen how the Council of Ministers choose to follow up on the report they have commissioned. It is probably a good idea to conduct a pilot, for example in the form of a research initiative which stipulates Open Access publication of research data and other research results as a requirement. NordForsk is a funding agency that has the ability to think along those lines,” Dr Holmgren concludes.

Text and photo: Bjarne Røsjø/NordForsk