OPENSCIENCE: OPEN TO WHO, OPENED BY WHO?

(Source: Openaccessbutton.org)

The 2nd UN Openscience Conference which took place from 21st to 23rd July 2021 has ended after a very engaging,  resourceful and enlightening talks. On the second day of the Conference, I reflected on some issues titled Publishing my PhD work would cost jaw-dropping £11,832 in Open Access .

At the end of the Conference, the complexity of Openscience has become even more glaring to me. Howbeit, there is light at the end the tunnel, and this is what should interest Openscience advocates. This  contribution will seek to reflect on the two topmost questions on my mind, which I think the advocates of Openscience should objectively address. However, I must declare upfront that I am a moderate advocate of Openscience having seen that it is a complex multidimensional global issue with power, economics, self-preservation instincts and the future of human civilisations, interplaying altogether.

Before addressing these two pertinent questions of to who and by who shall Openscience be,  let me talk about the light I see at the end of the tunnel.

1. It is good that respectable and influential global organisations like UNESCO and UN are in favour of Openscience. The reality is that some solutions are local and if citizens of different UN-member states must use local resources to solve local problems within the framework of the subsisting SDGs, there is no need for them to reinvent a wheel where one is already in existence courtesy of the previous generations. Rather, people across the globe should have access to accumulated scientific  knowledge, data and solutions through open access. Currently, the achievement of SDGs may well  depend significantly on the enablement of  Openscience.

2. Although incremental change is happening in terms of Publishers embracing open access, at least major Publishers such as Elsevier,  Springer Nature, Wiley, etc are floating open access journals and this will lead to many important scientific outputs being made open.

3. There is an increasing awareness amongst governments, researchers, publishers, universities,  and the public on why Science should be open to all. This gives hope that a solution to this complex problem of  agreeing on what Openscience means to everyone will be achieved collaboratively by all stakeholders.

Having highlighted these key points, the questions of to who and by who shall now be considered. Surely, the solution to Openscience cannot be sudden, prescriptive or unilateral. Optimised Openscience system can be achieved by an integrated collaborative approach that considers the issues as a systemic problem. Being a globally systemic problem means that unintended problems might result if the final solution is too narrow; such that it excludes factors such as the people, processes,  systems, history and cultures associated with Openscience vis-a-vis the status quo.

For instance,  I am yet to see a critical discussion on how Science is influenced by capitalism. I am not against capitalism as it works for many governments, and of course no single polical economy has all the answers to all problems in a society.  Nonetheless, it is worth highlighting that solutions to Openscience in the context of capitalism may simply end up as a case of moving from frying pan to fire, if not interrogated as the Openscience movement evolve. Capitalism and free market economy would always tend to a commercialisation of Science. This is because organisations  in a capitalist state would need to raise capital to fund Science. Consequently, the creative escape from a fair Openscience and continous influence of publishing companies will continue to be fuelled by capitalism and not necessarily that they do not support Openscience. It is merely rational that a business in a capitalist system should use all legitimate means to control market share, make profit and create values for the investors and customers. This is what Publishers of Science outputs will continue to do unless a comprehensive change is made in the way Science is funded, done and communicated. But, I feel that Publishers are important stakeholders of the global science infrastructures. Therefore,  the idea of Publishers running the entire business of publishing to enable Openscience in a manner that it will cost the researchers,  universities, governments and the public nothing is alien to capitalism. Yet, some have argued that publishers should and can earn decent revenues as against  a disposition  of a total profiteering from the Science enterprise. This is  because Science is mostly funded with public fund and researchers usually do the hardwork of investigations and writing. Besides, there are other barriers to access in a capitalist society apart from the bottleneck imposed on access to Science outputs by the current traditional publishing model. Take for instance in Africa. The cost of telecommunication bills is so high, making it an obstruction to Openscience. Even if Africans publish at no cost, if they get funding to do research, there is a large-scale digital divide that would impede the progress of African Science and indeed efforts in other continents with high telecommunications bills.

Another crucial issue is the ownership of intellectual property arising from an ideal Openscience ecosystem. Should there be restrictions  on Science endeavours that could lead to commercial values or national security? Would this raise an issue of classification of Science outputs in order to declassify documents based on its potential commercial potential or other criteria? Could classification of Science outputs also guide Publishers to develop approaches that can motivate them to release or unclassify some existing articles, books and materials of public and scientific interests after a certain period of time instead of pepertually collecting fees on articles or materials, which inhibits access. The SDGs could give publishers an idea of what to declassify and make open to the public. Examples are papers, data  and books on combating diseases, food security and hunger, health, education, climate change,  peace building, etc.  Another way to still drive Openscience within a capitalist economy is that Publishers should charge less and reinvest part of their profit into funding research activities. Sustainability reporting of Publishers can include framework or standards to measure and report their contributions to Openscience by, for instance,  declassifying SDGs-related materials. Publishers can promote equity, inclusion and diversity by charging less or waiving APC for researchers from developing countries. Stakeholders can deliberately patronise Publishers that support Openscience. This will empower the public to decide the Publishers who should be entrusted with more fund through patronage to drive scientific evolution.

More over, Open-to-publish is not the same as open-to-access. The subscription model offers open-to-publish because researchers and Universities/libraries do not need to spend money to publish. However,  open-to-publish is not-open-to-access because individuals, organisations and libraries must pay to access the Science outputs. On the other hand, open-to-access means that anyone with Internet can access the data or information reported by scientists across the globe.

Openscience as it is currently evolving appears like the parable of the talent which ended with the conclusion that “those that have will receive more, whereas those that do not have will loose the little they have. In other word, if Openscience is not addressed systemically with global solidarity and inclusiveness, in the end, poorer countries will be spectators and consumers of Science outputs, produced by wealthier nations. That is if the bottleneck being created by APC is not removed. Ironically, subscription-based model is cheaper for researchers in poorer countries than open access because they could publish their manuscript in good journals without paying any money whilst they overlook whatever income the publisher will make from the published work because they can use the published work as evidence of expertise which could assist them to get employment, promotions,  access grants, consultancy,  appointments, get nominated for awards, be included in standard setting bodies or editorial boards of journals, etc. This symbiosis is one of the factors sustaining the current subscription-based system even with is obvious detrimental restrictions to Openscience.

Herein lies the question of who will make Science Open? Is the publishers who have economic interest or the researchers who might find the APC too exorbitant or Universities who are being charged twice when they pay researchers to do Science, and still have to subscribe to Publishers for their students and researchers to have access  to a product they participated in creating. Again, should government who probably funded the research pay for its citizens to have access to the findings achieved with tax-payers money? Some have advocated for  platforms or repository but the issues of quality assurance and sustainable operation are being raised. Yet, I am wondering whether the funding model of emerging alternatives to Subscription-based model would be fair to all stakeholders and participants.

I foresee that there should be a transition period within which some gray areas should be addressed. I laid out some arguments in Part I of this reflection ( Publishing my PhD work would cost jaw-dropping £11,832 in Open Access ). If all stakeholders can agree on a transition period, issues include creating a more global commitment on Openscience similar to The Paris Agreement through the United Nations General Assembly can be more unifying. This will institutionalise Openscience in member states. The benefit of this is that a consultative approach will be used to shape how Science should proceed going forward. Once a global solidarity on Openscience  and a documented agreement is reached, corporations or organisations along the Science enterprise value chain can configure their systems to achieve the goals which will be embedded in Openscience. Developing nations would  be more committed in creating infrastructures to support Openscience if it is institutionalised. Take for instance the SGDs or Climate change agreements or even the case of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Nations of the world can agree if they see a problem as a shared problem.

So, to give my answer to the question of  who Openscience is for, it should be for everyone on earth. The challenges faced by governments and Scientists on issues concerning Climate change and COVID-19 was aggravated by lack of Openscience. Science should be open in order to reduce conspiracy theories on issues that are critical to the survival of humankind on earth. The question of by who should Science be made open is answered with the clause: “by all stakeholders working together”. The UNGA, as a global order-setting organ of the world needs to step in fully at this point. As an objective advocate for Openscience,  the whole issue currently appear like a war between Publishers and Openscience activists. This is not the true situation if all stakeholders collaborate to find fair and equitable solution to this complex global problem. If Science is not made open to all so that the rate at which humans solve their problems can increase exponentially, no amount of capital can be raised by inhabitants of the earth to solve the problems that would face humanity in the near future. The only way is Openscience for sustainable development and civilisation.

My name is Chukwuma Ogbonnaya and I am a moderate Openscience advocate. I am available to volunteer to create any Openscience system or infrastructure anywhere as along as it will enhance Openscience. My academic research is in renewable energy technologies and their applications ((Google Scholar page)

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