How can you write an open access encyclopedia in a closed access world?

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Outside view
This blog post was written by an individual who is not affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation. The views are the author’s alone and are not necessarily held by the Foundation or the Wikimedia community.

Open Access logo PLoS white.svg
Photo by PLoS, modified by Wikipedia users Nina, Beao, and JakobVoss, freely licensed under CC0 1.0.
I was glad to join a panel discussion organized by Pete Forsyth of Wiki Strategies last week at the Wikimedia Foundation, which was inspired by a debate between Michael Eisen, a founding member of the Open Access (OA) publishing movement and leading OA journal PLOS, and Jake Orlowitz, Head of The Wikipedia Library. Below is an elaboration of many of the points I was glad to insert into this conversation.

Collaborators not competitors

I have been delighted to see Jake and others find ways for the Wikimedia Foundation to provide the Wikimedia community access to otherwise restricted content. Back in 2010, Credo Reference was the first paywalled resource to provide Wikipedians with free access to our content (an online aggregation of subject encyclopedias). Our motivations were entirely to create good public relations. Our lead investor, Bela Hatvany (founder of two library companies, CLSI and Silverplatter) was fond of the expression, “A competitor is just someone you’ve not learned how to collaborate with yet.” In his view, one of the principle objectives of a company should be to add value to their customers’ world.
So, while Wikipedia, in some people’s eyes, would be seen as our competitor (and one which had by all measures ‘won the battle’ for the attention of users in need of online reference), I have always thought that they were an important player in the lives of our customers and their users, and that we should find ways to collaborate with them. We did not expect any quid pro quo regarding citations from Wikipedia to Credo Reference, though we did occasionally look at whether there was any growth in such references. It was also important, to my way of thinking, to realize that when you consider any group of Wikipedia editors, you don’t really know who they might be in their non-Wikipedian lives. The 400 prolific editors we provided access to were people that are passionate about creating good encyclopedia entries for the benefit of all. Having such people think well of Credo was valuable even if we never knew who they were.

Critical trade-offs

Michael Eisen raised a key point in the forum: whether or not primarily closed-access publisher Elsevier would gain more from their donation of access than Wikipedia would. I think Elsevier’s goals in this arrangement are entirely public-relations benefits. It allows them to assert their support for openness. They, too, want scientists to think well of them. They even have open access journals that they want to promote. I don’t think the bits of traffic they might get from this arrangement would have entered into their calculations at all. And certainly, as Eisen asserted, it does not represent any potential loss of revenue that might have come from those 45 Wikipedians.
For Wikipedia, content and links should be driven by what best serves their users. Anything that increases Wikipedians’ access to paywalled material is, in my opinion, a positive. Another Wikipedia Library program has been to encourage libraries to designate selected Wikipedians as “Visiting Scholars” who can thereby be given access to paywalled content within those libraries (including Elsevier’s ScienceDirect database). Having access to resources without a blind-spot hiding paywalled content from their view should improve Wikipedia entries: access to that literature can increase an editor’s understanding of a field even if they don’t cite that literature. Personally I think that there are certain paywalled sources which should be cited in a good encyclopedia entry so that the user is aware of them and can assess the reliability of claims in the Wikipedia article.
Michael Eisen also raised an interesting point about cases where reliable sources for a particular assertion in an article are “fungible” and could equally be supported by a comparable open resource. Jay Jordan, former CEO of OCLC, was fond of saying “Discovery Without Delivery is a Disservice to Users.” This is a good principle: unless there is a compelling reason to back up assertions by a paywalled source, an equally reliable open source should be used. Providing references to sources which all readers can access is simply a better user experience.
However, Michael’s suggestion that Elsevier will gain materially from links to sources in ScienceDirect is, in my opinion, not only wrong, but runs the risk of taking our eyes off what I think the battle for open access can best be served by at this point.

The bigger problem

The paywalled business model for scholarly communication was first made clear to me by Jan Velterop at a conference back in 1998 when he was managing director of Academic Press and I was president of SilverPlatter. He said, “Each and every scholarly article is its own little monopoly.” It has stuck with me ever since and is the core problem which both the Gold and Green paths to Open Access address (Gold meaning an OA journal; Green meaning an OA repository). Elsevier does not need traffic from Wikipedia to shore up their paywalled products. The paywalled business model succeeds by exploiting monopoly control of a sufficient portion of scholarly articles to allow the owners of such products to set whatever prices they want. The vast majority of their customers simply have to pay. The buyer has almost no market power or legitimate alternatives.
The Open Access world has made enormous strides in addressing this problem. I salute those achievements—they represent significant progress on the economics of academic publishing. But what is the current state of those economics? I was reminded of it, viscerally, just this week. I was having dinner with a Chief Librarian at a major research university. His university back in 2004 had an annual subscription budget of $8 million. This year the price for that same set of subscriptions—without any substantive increase in the number of journals—is $14.4 million. This is an average annual price increase of 5.5%, more than double the inflation rate in those years.
Gold OA publishers (now about 13% of all scholarly journals) are completely open upon publication. Publishers like PLOS provide a clear and successful “existence proof” that a non-monopoly publishing system for academic research can work. In fact most paywalled publishers, perhaps to hedge their bets or to compete with PLoS, are now offering their own Open Access journals.
But at the same time, there’s a real lag in adoption of the Green path by which scholars open up a version of an article so that it’s accessible to all even though it was published in a paywalled journal. 78% of scholarly publishers worldwide give some form of blanket permission for authors to archive a version of their articles in an accessible place, and even the 22% that don’t can be pressured to allow such archiving.
Both Green and Gold depend on the understanding that scholars have of the issues: Green so that they archive papers they’ve already written or continue to submit to paywalled journals, and Gold so they know that they have excellent choices of where to publish and can reasonably choose Gold OA publishers in the future.

Influencing and educating researchers, one at a time

It is said that there are three times you can capture the attention of an academic researcher:

  • When they are trying to get a paper published
  • When they are trying to show to others (e.g. tenure committees, colleagues, in-laws) that their work is influential
  • When someone important to them recognizes their work (e.g. cites or comments about it).

There is an opportunity here for both Gold Open Access publishers and Wikipedia. Reference sections in your articles are lists of important experts in their fields. Each of these citations are an opportunity to educate an expert about the opportunity for openness. So both Gold OA publishers and Wikipedia have an asset which they can deploy in an effort to educate scholars about Open Access.
For OA publishers, the cited sources of articles you are about to publish were written by experts in your field of publication. That’s why they’re being referenced. You have advanced news that they are about to be referenced. This is sufficiently newsworthy that a scholar is likely to open an email leading with this announcement (rather than all the spam they regularly get). You can use this message to make them aware of your new article’s author. If you know their referenced article is not yet open, you could advocate that they deposit it in a repository or an author’s website, even giving them guidance on whom to turn to for help. You can alert them to the benefits of opening up their article (more downloads, more citations). You can advocate that the next time they write an article they might consider your journal.
For Wikipedia, your references to authors are now gaining in importance to them. The Openness agenda could be well served if someone could mine Wikipedia for the most referenced sources which could be opened but are still closed. Imagine a “Leaderboard” which called out the scholars with the most references in Wikipedia which have not been made open.
Coming back to the question of links from Wikipedia to Elsevier sources: I point out that such links are, yes, links to Elsevier. But they are also a connection to scholars, many of whom are in need of education about Open Access. I say, bring on lots of those links (where the sources serve the content need of Wikipedia) and then organize an effort to make those sources open.

Another ally

Another ally in this use of referenced sources is a growing number of university presses. The librarian I spoke to this week is one of the 30% of head librarians who are also responsible for their university’s press. This means that these presses are right at the point-of-pain where the monopoly pricing practices of paywalled scholarly publishing hit the university. This year when my librarian friend went to get his budget increased to cover the $800K price increases from subscription journals, the president of the university said he’d have to present this increase request to the faculty senate so that the faculty would know (for the first time apparently) the costly impact of the scholarly publishing system on the budget of the university. The university press was included in that budget presentation to provide an educational piece on Open Access. These university presses, like the Gold OA publishers, have a decided self-interest in converting scholars one-by-one to the open access business model. Some are now running scholarly publishing offices that, among other things, work with researchers to assess their prior publications and find opportunities to open up articles they’ve authored.
If these three groups—Gold Open Access publishers, Wikipedians, and University Presses—can actively seek out ways to motivate individual scholars regarding archiving and publishing, then 10 years from now the librarian I met with this week will be able to go to the faculty senate and report on year-on-year savings rather than asking for huge budget increases due to monopoly-based price increases. Let’s find ways to assess accessibility of references, build tools that can automate the process of finding and pinging authors of important paywalled sources, and transform the economics of scholarly publishing to the benefit of science and scholarship.
John G. Dove, Consultant, Paloma & Associates

Archive notice: This is an archived post from, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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