A Conversation with Richard Stallman about Open Access

[An email exchange with Richard Stallman, father of free software, copyleft, GNU, and the GPL, reprinted here in redacted form with Stallman’s permission. Stallman tutors me in the important details of open access and I tutor him in the peculiarities of humanities publishing.]

RS: [Your] posting [“Open Access Publishing and Scholarly Values”] doesn’t specify which definition of “open access” you’re arguing for — but that is a fundamental question.

When the Budapest Declaration defined open access, the crucial condition was that users be free to redistribute copies of the articles.  That is an ethical imperative in its own right, and a requisite for proper and safe archiving of the work.

People paid more attention to the other condition specified in the Budapest Declaration: that the publication site allow access by anyone.  This is a good thing, but need not be explicitly required, because the other condition (freedom to redistribute) will have this as a consequence.  Many universities and labs to set up mirror sites, and everyone will thus have access.

More recently, some have started using a modified definition of “open access” which omits the freedom to redistribute.  As a result, “open access” is no longer a clear rallying point.  I think we should now campaign for “redistributable publication.”

What are your thoughts on this?

DC: I probably should have been clearer in my post that I’m for the maximal access—and distribution—of which you speak. Alas, the situation is actually worse than you imagine, especially in the humanities, where I work, and which is about a decade behind the sciences in open access. Beyond the muddying of the waters through terms like “Green OA” and “Gold OA” is the fact that academic publishing is horribly wrapped up (again, more so in the humanities) with structural problems related to reputation, promotion, and tenure. So my colleagues worry more about truly open publications “counting” vs. publications that are simply open to reading on a commercial publisher’s website. That is why I think the big question is not the licensing or the technology of decentralized publishing, posting and free distribution of papers, etc., but the social realm in which academic publishing sits. I’m working now on pragmatic ways to change that very conservative realm.

Put another way: when software developers write good (open) code, other developers recognize that quality, independent of where the code resides; in humanities publishing, packaging (including the imprimatur of a press, the sense that a work has jumped some (often mythical) peer-review hurdle) counts for too much right now.

RS: [“Green OA” and “Gold OA”] are new to me — can you tell me what they mean?

So my colleagues worry more about truly open publications “counting” vs. publications that are simply open to reading on a commercial publisher’s website.

I don’t understand that sentence.

That is why I think the big question is not the licensing or the technology of decentralized publishing, posting and free distribution of papers, etc., but the social realm in which academic publishing sits.

Ethically speaking, what matters is the license used. That’s what determines whether the publishing is ethical or not. Are you saying that the social realm contains the obstacle to the adoption of ethical publication methods?

Put another way: when software developers write good (open) code, other developers recognize that quality, independent of where the code resides.

Programmers can tell if code is well-written, assuming they are allowed to read it, but how does that relate? Are you saying that in the humanities people often judge work based on where it is published, and have no other way to determine what is good or bad?

DC: Green O[pen] A[ccess] = when a professor deposits her finished article in a university repository after it is published. Theoretically that article will then be available (if people can find the website for the institution’s repository), even if the journal keeps it gated.

Gold OA = when an author pays a journal (often around $1-3K) to make their submission open access. when the journal itself (rather than the repository) is open access; may involve the author paying a submission fee. Still probably doesn’t have a redistribution license, but it’s not behind a publisher’s digital gates.

Counting = counting in the academic promotion and tenure process. Much of the problem here is (I believe misplaced) concern about the effect of open access on one’s career.

Are you saying that the social realm contains the obstacle to the adoption of ethical publication methods?

Correct. And much of it has to do with the meekness of academics (especially in the humanities, bastion of liberalism in most other ways) to challenge the system to create a more ethical publication system, one controlled by the community of scholars rather than commercial publishers who profit from our work.

Are you saying that in the humanities people often judge work based on where it is published, and have no other way to determine what is good or bad?

Amazing as it may sound, many academics do indeed judge a work that way, especially in tenure and promotion processes. There are some departments that actually base promotion and tenure on the number of pages published in the top (mostly gated) journals.

RS: [Terms like “Green OA” and “Gold OA” provides] even more reason to reject the term “open access” and demand redistributable publication.

Maybe some leading scholars could be recruited to start a redistributable journal.  Their names would make it prestigious.

DC: That’s what PLoS did (http://plos.org) in the sciences. Unclear if the model is replicable in the humanities, but I’m trying.

UPDATE: This was an off-hand conversation with Stallman, and my apologies for the quick (and poor) descriptions of a couple of open access options. But I think the many commenters below who are focusing on the fine differences between kinds of OA are missing the central themes of this conversation.

13 thoughts on “A Conversation with Richard Stallman about Open Access

  1. walt crawford

    Also, the humanities can’t be a decade behind the sciences in OA, since OA–at least the term–isn’t a decade old. I would also point out that quite a few of the pioneer Gold OA journals are humanities journals, including the very first (AFAIK).

    There is another definitional error: Green OA doesn’t require deposit in university repositories–some of the largest OA repositories (e.g. arXiv) are certainly not university repositories. (And most repository holdings are readily and freely discoverable without knowing a repository’s URL, thanks to OAI-PMH, in the freely available OAIster and elsewhere.)

  2. Pingback: Green Vs. Gold OA « Rosendo Flores

  3. Stevan Harnad

    SOME IMPORTANT OPEN ACCESS DISTINCTIONS

    (1) “Gratis OA” means free online access (to refereed journal articles)

    (2) “Libre OA” means free online access (to refereed journal articles) plus certain re-use permissions (which might include permission to redistribute, republish, use in derivative works, modify and re-mix)

    “Open Access: ‘Gratis’ and ‘Libre'”
    http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/442-guid.html

    (3) “Green OA” means the author provides OA (mostly Gratis OA) (to refereed journal articles)

    (4) “Gold OA” means the publisher provides OA (sometimes Gratis OA, sometimes Libre OA) (to refereed journal articles)

    “The green and the gold roads to Open Access”
    http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/21.html

    (5) The preferred locus for Green OA is the author’s institutional repository; central repositories can then harvest therefrom. The reason this is preferred is that it allows institutional and funder Green OA mandates to be cooperative and convergent rather than competitive and divergent. Deposit is required only once, and finder mandates encourage and reinforce institutional mandates.

    “How to Integrate University and Funder Open Access Mandates”
    http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/369-guid.html

    (5) Refereed journal articles are not like software: all authors want to make them accessible to all potential users to maximize their uptake, usage and impact, but not all or even most want their texts to be modified or remixed. (Their research findings are of course free to be modified or remixed in further research already.)

    See: http://bit.ly/StallmanLessig
    and
    http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Hypermail/Amsci/3758.html

    (6) General motto: Grasp what is already within reach (Green Gratis OA) rather than over-reach (Gold Libre OA) and get next to nothing. This not an ethical but a pragmatic matter.

    “Don’t Risk Getting Less By Needlessly Demanding More”
    http://openaccess.eprints.org/index.php?/archives/386-guid.html

    Stevan Harnad

  4. I've made a little list

    I’ve made a little list,
    of journals that won’t be missed,
    Unless ERA-HCA’s arse be kissed,
    You’re B or off the list.

    The functional foremen of the Humanities reserach reporting: abstract esteem, publisher, volume count, large research project (book) requirements; pull the publishing worker in so many ways at once that they’re unlikely to be able to respond strategically.

    Depending on the complexion of your promotions committee—or the structure of management’s “right” to manage your particular workload—the “pragmatic” matters will have entirely different pragmatic calculations in different institutional environments. Australians, at least for the next few years, will be barking up ERA A* journals if they work at certain institutions with Fordist-Taylorist management techniques. They’ve very little material motivation towards abstract ideals like open access, and the system of appointment and promotion doesn’t require depositing in repositories.

    Running around the end of particular publishing problems by setting up isolated communities of excellence, without solving workplace problems (like Australia’s quality reporting framework), is not particularly going to help the general adoption of freely distributable invariant works.

    Oh, and for the HCA area of the ERA, the judgments are by committees of end-career academics, based on what “everyone knows” about particular journal’s “quality”. Yet another social barrier to new journals without commercial promoters.

  5. Peter Hirtle

    There is a second mistake in your definition of Green OA. You write that Green OA is “when a professor deposits her finished article…” Green OA actually addresses depositing an early, incomplete version of the finished article.

    In the sciences, where some journals actually require authors to submit camera-ready copy, the distinction may not matter. In the humanities, where the editorial contributions of editors can be substantial, the difference is important. It is one reason why Green OA is an unaccetable alternative for humanities publishining.

  6. Stevan Harnad

    GREEN OA IS AT LEAST THE AUTHOR’S REFEREED, ACCEPTED FINAL DRAFT

    Green OA is not an *alternative* to subscription publishing, it is a *supplement* to it, so not only subscribers have access.

    To have the supplement is incomparably better than not having it.

    This is equally true in all branches of scientific and scholarly journal article publishing.

  7. Kevin Ashley

    I’m not sure I get Peter Hirtle’s comment. Green OA is about depositing something which the author can still claim reasonable control over, as I understand it. I don’t believe there are disciplinary differences between editorial contributions in the sciences and humanities, at least not in my experience. In both, the process can result in substantial changes to the text between the original submission and the text finally submitted for publication. Copy editing can change the text further after that point, and Green OA assumes that the author may not have the rights to publish the output from that final process. But Harnad and others have proposed publishing a set of differences to deal with this. Not perfect by any means, but it does allow reconstruction of the final text.

  8. Peter Hirtle

    Kevin, I read Dan’s comment as suggesting that with Green OA, the author could deposit the “version of record” (to use NISO’s term). At least in the humanities journals in which I have published, there are substantive and important changes made between acceptance of an article after initial peer review and the final version as published (the “finished article” in Dan’s term). The differences can be so great that humanities publishing might be an instance where something (the accepted manuscript) is not better than nothing.

    I had assumed that the difference between the accepted version and the version of record were not as great in the sciences, but am happy to be corrected.

    Of course, this does raise the issue of why librarians would want to support a second supplementary and inferior system of publishing when we can’t even afford to support the system of record.

  9. Stevan Harnad

    EVOLVING SCHOLARSHIP, POSTGUTENBERG

    (1) Perhaps it is not librarians and archivists who are in the best position to judge — for scholars and scientists — whether “something is better than nothing.”

    (2) Moreover, whereas the “version of record” (read: PDF) is the publisher’s, the author’s (supplementary) Green OA version can be updated not only to include any substantive corrections and improvements the author may wish to include, but the author can even keep supplementing it with further updated versions, post-publication.

    This is all a matter of evolving scholarly “best practice” in the PostGutenberg (and soon, one hopes, Open Access) era. It is librarians and archivists who will then have to update their practices and expectations, rather than imagining that scholarship can, will or should continue to force itself into the increasingly Procustean Gutenberg mold.

    (To forestall the usual next step in this familiar old debate, re-enacted so many times in the past decade, please see #23 on the self-archiving FAQ: http://www.eprints.org/openaccess/self-faq/#23.Version ).

  10. Jean-Claude Guédon

    I would like to comment on the following:

    [RS Are you saying that the social realm contains the obstacle to the adoption of ethical publication methods?

    DC Correct. And much of it has to do with the meekness of academics (especially in the humanities, bastion of liberalism in most other ways) to challenge the system to create a more ethical publication system, one controlled by the community of scholars rather than commercial publishers who profit from our work.]

    The answer “correct” is correct: the fault largelyt lies with the academic structure, but the reason is anything but meekness. And I am not sure the path to improvement is purely ethical. What is happening is quite simple. On the one hand, administrators are engaged in relentless competition and expresse it with the word “excellence” (rather than quality). This means that they take seriously a number of competition rules that lead to various university rankings, such as the Shanghai ranking of universities. These rules involve the massive use of journal impact factors, generally misused in extraordinary ways. In turn, impact factors make everyone converge on to a small number of so-called “core journals” that were first defined by Garfield and his Science Citation Index, back in the ’60’s (the situation has grown a little more complicated now with Scopus and Google Scholar). The existence of elite lists of journals has led to the creation of an inelastic market in scholarly journals, particularly in science, technology and medicine. This has allowed publishers to raise the prices of journals enormously (since the ’70’s) and they also rake in huge profits. In short the pursuit of excellence by administrators translates into enormous costs for their libraries…

    Changing the system really means retaking the means to create intellectual value around articles and books. Instead of relying on very iffy tools such as the science citation idex impact factor, levels of quality and generalized peer assessment of articles should emerge. Peer review should stay, but act as the entry passport into scientific terirtory. Then, new metrics designed by scholars for scholarly use should be designed. Many exist already.

    To design these metrics, open access is crucial. It is very difficult to get reliable and comparable usage statistics from various commercial publishers, for example. But repositories and most OA journals will provide these figures readily.

    This is not the place to expand these arguments on and on, but, to summarize all that precedes, extreme competitive contexts have generated the present system. When you put too much emphasis on competition, you end up with steroids (as in professional sport). Quality has to be reasserted as a threshold-based mode of evaluation alongside excellence. Excellence itself must be located at the tail end of the process, as a kind of ultimate way of stimulating good work; but ti should not be the first, only and overarching mode of behaviour in academe. Open Access is the way to re-establish a concern for quality alongside excellence.

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