Dr. Alperin discusses open access and the Public Knowledge Project

Dr. Alperin discusses open access and the Public Knowledge Project


Juan Pablo Alperin
Juan Pablo Alperin

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Copyright chat is a podcast dedicated to discussing important copyright matters. Host Sara Benson the copyright librarian from the University of Illinois converses with experts from across the globe to engage the public with rights issues relevant to their daily lives.

Copyright chat is happy to host Juan Pablo Alperin live in studio today. Juan Pablo is an assistant professor in publishing studies and associate director for research with the public knowledge project at Simon Fraser University in Canada. He’s a recent graduate of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education where he received his Ph.D. with a dissertation focused on the public impact of Latin America’s approach to open access.

Sara: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Alperin: Thank you for having me.

Sara: I wanted to begin by asking a fairly broad question about how you got interested in the open access movement?

Dr. Alperin: It was, as many things in life are, following a random path and walking in a bit of a direction just being allowed to get carried forward. So, I’ll give you the short version of that story which is that I was living in Toronto and I took a job working as a technical director for a journal– the Journal of Medical Internet Research based out of a university hospital in Toronto—really doing the typesetting and working on the technical things, and at that point I became familiar with the public knowledge project’s open journal systems because I was moving the journal’s platform to using that open source software. And after doing that for a year I wanted to go back to my native Argentina. I got in touch with the public knowledge project about whether they were interested in having me continue to contribute code. And they said yes they would be interested, but also they were looking for someone to run workshops in Latin America around open access, and I’ve been working on this open access journal for a year. I come from a background in computer science and I knew the software very well, and I knew very well the open source philosophy. I have family members who are in academia in Argentina, and I’d already seen the troubles that they had with access.

So, over the few years that I was living in Argentina we started traveling around Latin America and really getting to know journal editors from all around the region, and that’s where I became acutely aware of the difficulties and the challenges being faced by those trying to do research—communiqué research and access research—from developing regions like Latin America. And that really sort of got me motivated to want to dedicate the rest of my career, and I’ve been doing it for almost ten years, where I’ve been working to help promote greater access especially with a focus on Latin America, but also more broadly now as I’ve started to look at the policies of research in other parts of the world as well.

Sara: That sounds really interesting and I can see how your research really tied into what you’re doing as a profession now. Could you tell listeners a bit more about the Public Knowledge Project and what services it provides to publishers?

Dr. Alperin: The Public Knowledge Project is an initiative started around fifteen years ago by John Willinsky who was then a professor at the University of British Columbia, and he’s now at Stanford University where I went to do my PhD under his direction. He had this idea inspired by his background as an educator that we needed to be able to provide the public more access to scholarly works. As an educator he was frustrated with the inability to get access. As a professor he tried to do a project where he was trying to do outreach working with journalists in the community and always coming up with barriers of access for the people outside of academia, and so he started the public knowledge project, and one of the first things that the project did from its early days and still is the flagship part of the public knowledge project, they start open journal systems—this open source project that is useful for doing the management and the publishing of academic journals, so it helps everything from the submissions through to the peer review and the eventual publication and helps to make sure that the content is indexed correctly. And so the public knowledge project’s real role is to continue to maintain, provide, and improve the software. We’re always looking out to other things going on in scholarly publishing more broadly to make sure we’re integrating their latest best practices, integrating with third party services, and so on to make sure that the software really meets the production quality and allows a journalist to do what they need to do and the idea behind the software is not just to have another software solution out there but is to provide an open source software that can be run at a very low cost with the idea that if we can lower that cost to publishing, well then maybe then those savings can then be passed on to the readers by not having to charge them access to readership.

And so the Public Knowledge Project does, as its main thing, just producing that software; we put it out into the world (there’s a there’s over ten thousand journals around the world using the software now) really distributed everywhere; it’s quite a global enterprise. There’s a big focus of them in developing regions where commercial publishers haven’t taken hold as much, and then the public knowledge project also we do our own set of hosting of academic journals, so we’re in some sense also a little bit of a not quite a publisher, we see ourselves more as a hosting service for people that don’t want to take on that management of things themselves, and we do that purely as a cost recovery mechanism and all of those what we pull in from that hosting service all goes back into continuing to maintain this open source software for others to use. The project also has several other activities that we do. Open journal systems is the thing we’re probably best known for, it’s ten thousand installations around the world, so that has had quite a huge impact, but we also have software for doing conferences called Open conferences, and we also have a software for monographs—this idea that, again, the scholarly monograph was and university presses are really under a lot of strain. And so we wanted to make sure that we’re bringing that same logic in the same philosophy of the open source, even some of the same code in fact, that platforms share quite a bit of code to the monograph space for people wanting to do longer forms of scholarship, and so we have all of that software side of things. We’re not providing services to some of those journals in the form of private locks network to make sure any journal using our software is going to be adequately preserved, and there’s no cost for that; anyone that’s using our software can just get in touch and submit their journal, and it’ll get processed and eventually will make it into the network so that if their journal ever goes offline it will continue to be preserved. We’re also running an index over the journal so that we’re just making sure that the content, trying to help it’s discoverability a little bit, and now we’ve been sort of experimenting with providing article level metrics for our journals, and we’ve been doing this for a while off and on. I think by this summer we should have a service that’s really up and running for journals to be able to have metrics. On the other side the public knowledge project also does research, and I see all of my research activities as being part of what the public project does.

I have a very particular sort of area of focus, but then John Willinsky, on the research side on top of being the director, he’s also he does his research looking he does actually quite a bit on intellectual copyright and the origins of copyright law as part of his scholarly works and we see that all as being part of the intellectual enterprise that is the public knowledge project.

Sara: That’s a really detailed answer, and I was actually about to ask how many journals implemented your service, so you kind of foresaw some of my questions. Your research seems to focus on Latin American publishing and, in particular, open access movements in that region. Can you speak a little bit to how those kinds of initiatives in Latin America might differ, if at all, to those of North America?

Dr. Alperin: Well, they are quite different and one of the things that I see as important in my work is to straddle these two worlds and to bring a bit of knowledge and practices from Latin America to the north now that I’m back working in a North American institution. I really started to see ways in which I really do think that the way that open access is done in Latin America is a good example for the rest of the world. At the same time I also see things in the practices of how we communicate scholarship here that I think need to be looked at there. There’s a much longer history of doing and having research be prominent in academic life here, and so those two things, and this is a little bit what I sort of see as part of my work and part of why focus a lot on Latin America not just because I’m from the region but because I really because that’s what motivated me to do the work in the first place, but because I really see that this is a role that needs playing—someone needs to be helping to bridge these two worlds.

One of the things that I really appreciate and I think is wonderful about the way that researchers communicate in Latin America is that for the most part almost everything that’s published in Latin America is open access, so this really distinguishes Latin America from every other region of the world. There have been studies done trying to look at the levels of open access around the world. I find that if you look at this, for example, the Scopus database, which has all kinds of problems and limitations that I don’t want to get into, but there is an example; it’s already sort of a bit of a biased source that has more content from the north than from developing regions, you find that over seventy percent of the journals that are from Latin America are open access, and no other region in the world exceeds twenty five percent. If we look more broadly at journals published, not beyond what’s actually indexed in Scopus, I would hazard to guess that that percentage is probably closer to ninety percent of the journals in the region that are published from within the region or open access, and it has been like this forever. For open publishing in Latin America, there has never really been a commercial market for these journals, and so everyone used to barter journals and exchange them with libraries before the days of the Internet, and so when the Internet came along it was a natural extension; there hasn’t been a presence of commercial publishers in the scholarly space. There was this tradition of sharing things broadly. The history of the universities has been one of serving a public mission and really being projects to build society on, and so all of those things I think have a bit by chance not in some cases by an explicit decision but often just by circumstance have made Latin America a bastion for open access publishing.

The other thing that really distinguishes it is it’s regionalism. So we have all of these regional initiatives. Really there is cooperation between countries to be able to cross that sort of critical mass to be able to reach a broader public, and so there’s been initiatives like Cielo headed out of Brazil but now spread to other nine countries, RedLink from Mexico, which is centralized but also has journals from all over the region. There has been scholarship networks like CLACSO who had exchanges of programs that spanned different departments and faculties around the region and groups like La Referencia which are an institutional repository network, and so this sort of regional cooperativism has been also unique and something that is worth exploring. The final thing that I think is worth exploring and worth looking at from the region is that most of the publishing is scholar-led and scholar-owned—something that we don’t see at all in a North American or European contexts, and what happens is that each institution is part of an informal cooperative. This has not ever been made explicit; no one is counting to see how the finances work, but every institution just finances journals that are published from within its own faculty and by its own members, and so everyone just makes their own pays for their own content, and then that content me gets made available through open access, and that means that everybody gets benefits from everybody else’s investment into their own work, and this kind of informal cooperative really manages to spread, which is something that would be wonderful if we could replicate something like that here. Some initiatives are starting to play around with cooperative models and with these kinds of funding arrangements, and I think that some of that inspiration for that has come from looking at looking south of the border.

Sara: That sounds a lot like the institutional repository model. Is that similar or not really?

Dr. Alperin: Yes, it’s a similar idea where the idea is that institution is saying “I’ll find my own repository to make sure that we have all of the content of our own faculties”; the only challenge with institutional repositories has always been to actually get the deposits in place, and so what’s nice about the way that it works in Latin America is that it’s already geared towards where the researchers are looking to publish, and so then there isn’t this having to chase after your own faculty members who do that. And so that is that same principle at play—we will pay for our own and will give access to the world. If everyone could do this, we would all have access to everything.

Sara: Yeah and I think that besides the issues of faculty not depositing, there’s also copyright issues of publishers owning material that they don’t want to share. Do you see open access as competing in some way with academic publishers, or can these things co-exist?

Dr. Alperin: Well one of the things that when I started doing these things in Latin America when I said that open access was a little bit in the movement, in some part it was always a bit of a revolution in trying to push against commercial publishers, but what I think we have seen in the last few years is the success of open access publishing as a commercial venture, and basically every major publisher has adopted open access. One form of open access in particular, the article processing charge, is a model which is not at all the model that’s followed in Latin America and not a model that I’m particularly happy with because it ends up excluding people at the time of authorship instead of at the time of readership. Open Access has become mainstream to the point where we’re reaching now close to fifty percent of things that are published more recently are published as open access, and in large part that is all being published by the commercial publishers because they have found a way to make open access profitable. I think there’s a lot of problems with the way we’re going where we’re solving the access problem, but it’s forgetting about all of the other issues of scholarly communications and scholarly publishing that the open access movement was also trying to address, but perhaps that singular focus on access made it easier for commercial publishers say “Okay well we can do that access part by charging this much, and it’s going to cost you more,” and this is essentially where we’re at. Now we’re paying more the same or more than we were paying before for really not any much more work on the side of the publishers but just so we could have things be available, and I don’t think it needed to be that way.

Sara: I have never been so much a fan myself of the hybrid model of open access but mainly because I don’t want to pay those fees.

Dr. Alperin: The hybrid model is a stroke of genius on the part of the publishers to be able to double dip and get the subscriptions and the open access fees, and then they’ve taken all of the investment and interest that the whole community from scholars to the public to funders to governments who have all said we need open access and the publishers have capitalized on that, and they’ve taken the resources that have been destined for those products, and instead of moving them, getting those resources targeted towards a greater opening of works or using it to just be able to basically line their pockets with additional resources, essentially they’re providing no extra value—doing no extra work and then pulling in fees anywhere between three thousand, five thousand, even six thousand dollars, and researchers are willing to pay them because the journals that are charging them are journals that they want to be published in, and so we need to really push back against those things, and the hybrid model is, out of all of the models of open access, it’s really the one that is I think indefensible from the point of view of being careful about public expenditure and from the point of view of the ethics of what we want to do with our research.

Sara: And I would add that sadly a lot of times or at least often the party that pays for the licensing fees might be the office of scholarly communication at the library level, and so as funding gets tighter and tighter, those kinds of fees might go away, and then who is left to pay for that? If it’s individual researchers, that really is going to be an issue of how much money individual authors have, and then you’re just cutting off voices.

Dr. Alperin: It becomes an issue of exclusion, and it is straining; it’s not just about that particular journal and that work, but as the university budgets, whether it be the library or anywhere else or the research grant money, if that money is going to pay the high-rate fees, that means that is money that is not being spent on subscribing to other resources or to buying books or money that not being used and doing actual research. One thing about those fees that they’re not coupled at all with the actual cost; they’re set as to what the market will bear, and in the case of a journal like Nature and other sort of glam journals, the market will bear quite a bit because people are pretty desperate to publish in those venues, and so if you are already accepted to publish, you’ll do anything to be able to get there, and so this decoupling of the actual cost of publishing is problematic, and it goes back to what the public knowledge project has been trying to do is put scholarship back into the scholars hands and make sure there’s tools to make that cost of publishing low, and then we can have a real relationship between “Okay if you need to charge a little bit for something or you need to re-pull in cost, okay, that’s reasonable, because you’re pulling them in for the part, something that is actually labor that you’re putting in,” and I think that for many of the commercial publishers, this has been lost.

Sara: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure to have this conversation; I hope that we see each other again in the near future.

Dr. Alperin: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been fun.

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