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George Soros Gives $3 Million to New Open Access Initiative
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Posted On February 18, 2002


A new initiative to help provide free access to refereed articles on the Internet has received $3 million in funding from financier and philanthropist George Soros' Open Society Institute (OSI). Launched on February 14, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) will help scholars self-archive their refereed journal articles online and assist in the establishment of alternative journals that are committed to offering free and unrestricted online access to published articles. The aim, says Darius Cuplinskas, director of OSI's Information Program, is "to accelerate progress in the international effort to make research articles available on the Internet."

In the manner of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) initiative, supporters are also being invited to "sign on" to BOAI via the Web (http://www.soros.org/openaccess). Hundreds of individuals and dozens of institutions have already done so. While many of the early signatories—and indeed designers—of BOAI are representatives from similar initiatives, including the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), PloS, and the Open Archives Initiative (OAI), BOAI is not, says Cuplinskas, merely a rerun of previous efforts. "First, it advocates a dual strategy (self-archiving and alternative open access journals), which differs from previous initiatives. Second, it brings together different sets of actors who have not always coordinated their efforts in the past. Third, it is backed by a significant funder."

Importantly, it's hoped that bringing the funding and publicity clout of OSI to bear on what has until now been essentially a fringe activity will help to catapult it into the mainstream. For this reason, BOAI will encompass not just the sciences, but all disciplines. While there's no intention that the new journals will abandon the traditional peer-review process, BOAI will require those that it supports to place their articles on the Internet and to levy no subscription or access fees.

Currently, OSI is the only organization providing funds, but it is hoped that co-sponsors will emerge. "We have been talking to a number of other organizations and foundations, but this initiative came together very rapidly, and most organizations need more time for internal discussions before they can commit to something like this," says Cuplinskas. "I anticipate that more will join soon."

BOAI looks set to become the new focal point for the long-standing campaign to "free the refereed literature" from behind the financial firewall of commercial journal subscriptions. Critics, however, have been quick to point out that earlier initiatives have had limited success. Despite attracting nearly 30,000 signatures, for instance, PLoS changed very little.

"It is clear in retrospect that most of those signing on to the PLoS boycott did so with their fingers crossed," concedes Stevan Harnad, a professor who helped draft OAI and the main proponent of the self-archiving strategy enunciated in BOAI. "But the BOAI is not another petition like the PLoS. Signing it does not mean that one supports the cause, or that one is asking someone else (e.g., the publishers) to do something. Signing means that one is oneself (whether individual or institution) committing to do something—either self-archiving or submitting to alternative journals or both."

Nevertheless, some remain skeptical about BOAI. "I was told about it about a month ago, but I didn't sign it. I thought parts of it are simply too naive," says professor Paul Ginsparg, who in 1991 founded arXiv, the first self-archiving project.

Specifically, Ginsparg questions what he sees as the assumption that open access journals can eventually become financially self-supporting. "While experiments certainly show that open access can be provided in a pure distribution system for a tiny fraction of what print distribution costs, there is little indication to date that the editorial costs associated with peer review can be similarly reduced. Such a proposal is thus wishful thinking unless it also provides either a long-term sustainable financial model for supporting the costs of peer review as currently practiced, or a plan to modify or reform peer review itself to achieve a far less costly system."

While an FAQ on the BOAI Web site concedes that the jury is still out on economic sustainability, it is optimistic. "We don't know yet, but 1) there are ongoing experiments which give us hope, 2) we are proposing further experiments, and 3) we have good reasons to think that open access publishing will be economically sustainable."

It also envisages that journals will seek alternative sources of funding, including the universities and laboratories that employ researchers, foundations and governments that fund research, endowments set up by discipline or institution, friends of the cause of open access, profits from the sale of add-ons to the basic texts, funds freed up by the demise or cancellation of journals that charge traditional subscription or access fees, or even contributions from the researchers themselves.

The fact is, says Herbert Van de Sompel, digital library researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and co-founder of OAI, that while the means may still need perfecting, the end is inevitable since demands for open access have now become a flood that cannot be stemmed. "Many initiatives will still have to emerge (and fail) before real change will penetrate the scholarly communication system," he said. "But we are learning from all these experiences, and eventually we will get it right."

Certainly new initiatives are being launched with increasing regularity. On February 6, for instance, eight of the world's principal research library organizations announced the establishment of the International Scholarly Communications Alliance (ISCA). The brainchild of the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL), ISCA's aims map those of BOAI.

"We will be advocating to academics alternative methods for disseminating and publishing, including the creation of institutional and discipline-based open archives, and the establishment of alternatives to commercial titles," explains Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London and chair of CURL's scholarly communications task force.
 
While such developments are undoubtedly being closely monitored by commercial journal publishers, none of those I approached while writing this article—including Reed Elsevier, Wolters Kluwer, and John Wiley & Sons—could locate a spokesperson who was able to comment.

However, while discussing PLoS in an interview in Information Today's February issue (p.1 or http://www.infotoday.com/it/feb02/kaser.htm), Elsevier Science chairman Derk Haank remarked: "The ghost is out of the bottle. How will we get it back in?" The concern for publishers now must be that Van de Sompel is right, and there's no way to capture that ghost.

Richard Johnson, SPARC's enterprise director, predicts that the market for refereed literature is now entering a period of ineluctable change. "I don't know what will be the pervasive business model supporting scholarly communication," he said. "Perhaps a number of models will co-exist. But I think the current roles of the various players in the value chain will be changing, and the economic focus will shift from the unique articles to the value-added enhancements."
 
 


Richard Poynder is a U.K.-based freelance journalist who specializes in intellectual property and the information industry.

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