Transcript: “Open Access,” The Book

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Interview with Peter Suber, author, “Open Access” (the book)

For podcast release Monday, October 8, 2012

KENNEALLY: Throughout the fall, Copyright Clearance Center is following the issues publishers and authors should know about when considering an “Open Access” strategy. To learn more about Copyright Clearance Center and Open Access, and how CCC can provide technology solutions for OA authors and publishers, go to

In scholarly publishing, certainly, the movement toward “Open Access” – essentially, making it possible to read and re-use published research without cost or permission – is often taken as a challenge to copyright. But according to “OA” evangelist Peter Suber, author of Open Access (MIT Press, June 2012), OA treats copyright just as do “traditional” publishers. He joins me today at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society on the Harvard University campus. Peter, welcome to Beyond the Book.

SUBER: Hi, Chris. Good to be here.

KENNEALLY: Well, we appreciate your taking the time to do this. We’ll tell people that you are the director of the Harvard Open Access Project, a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where we are right now, a senior researcher for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, better known as SPARC, open access project director at Public Knowledge, as well as a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College. Until May 2003, Professor Suber was a professor of philosophy at Earlham, where he has also taught computer science and law.

His latest book is Open Access from MIT Press, published in June 2012. The book itself, like the title, will become open access in June 2013. And Peter Suber, you are, if I can say this, the father or the godfather of open access, but more importantly to me, a professor of philosophy. So I wonder if you can start by telling us what the philosophy, for you at least, behind open access is.

SUBER: The basic idea is to make work, scholarly work, available free of charge and free of usage restrictions online, preferably from the moment of birth. Academics are not paid for their journal articles, so they don’t have a revenue stream to protect. They can give their work away online without losing revenue. That separates them decisively from musicians, moviemakers, and others for whom open access is very controversial. Scholars have nothing to lose, at least for their journal articles. They might have something to lose for their textbooks and their monographs, where they hope to earn royalties, so we can talk about that separately.

But the focus of the open access movement is on journal articles for which scholars are not paid, and therefore for which they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by enlarging their audience by putting them online free of charge.

KENNEALLY: And the tradition of scholarly publishing is centuries old, goes back to, I guess, the middle of the 17th century. You can argue about whether it was the French or the English who started things going. And so the only thing changing in all of this is the digitization of scholarly publishing. The tradition of working for impact, for reputation, rather than for remuneration, is one that goes back to the very beginning.

SUBER: That’s right, at least for journals. Scholarly journals were born simultaneously, as you say, in London and Paris in 1665, and ever since then, the authors of articles in those journals have not been paid directly. They worked for impact, not for money. They wanted to get their work out as soon as possible. And above all, they wanted a timestamp on their work that said, I published these results on a certain date, to prove your priority over other people who might have been working on the same problem. So authors did get a direct benefit from this, even though they weren’t getting money for it.

And I think scholars are very lucky to exist in a world in which that’s a 350-year-old custom. If I had to go to novelists and journalists and say, I want you to stop accepting royalties in exchange for enlarging your audience, that wouldn’t go very far. But scholars grow up in this tradition in which they publish journal articles for impact and not for money, and it’s a very easy case to make that if that’s so, you can give it away without losing revenue, and you can maximize your impact and audience at the same time.

KENNEALLY: And so while some things are very much the same, we are living in a period of what some would call revolution, really, and you’ve actually used that word. And in terms of the way you see open access, what’s the revolutionary part of this?

SUBER: The revolutionary part, first from a technological point of view, is that we can share perfect copies of our work with a worldwide audience at essentially zero cost. That has never been possible before. It’s a stupendous opportunity. Not everybody can take advantage of it. The people who can take advantage of it are the people who don’t sell their work, but are willing to give it away, so scholars are in a position to take advantage of it. I’m not advocating this for everybody. If you want to make royalties from your novel or your movie, then this is probably not the model for you. But for those who give away their work, this is a momentous opportunity. It is historic, it is revolutionary. That’s just from the technological side.

Then on the cultural side, there are people starting to take advantage of this opportunity and sharing their work freely. So now, people who read cutting-edge research are able to retrieve it and make use of it without charge in growing numbers. It’s still the minority model for distributing new research, but a growing volume of open access research is available now in every field and every language.

KENNEALLY: So the revolution really is in access. Anybody with a networked computer and an IP address can get to everything published in the Public Library of Science, for example.

SUBER: That’s right. It’s free of charge for everyone with an Internet connection. It’s not our job to make sure everybody has an Internet connection, other people are taking care of that one. We’re making it available to those. It’s like broadcasting something for free on television or radio. You’re making it freely available for those who have the right equipment.

KENNEALLY: What’s the role of copyright in all this? I mean, I’m with Copyright Clearance Center. We are working with publishers and authors, indeed, who are very interested and still, I think, a bit confused about open access and where it leaves them. You’ve made the distinction between those authors who survive on royalties and advances, there it’s a separate issue. The scientific, scholarly authors that we’re talking about here, even those, I think, are still confused, and there’s been some, how shall I say, bumps in the road with regard to open access because of some of this confusion. But let’s first talk about where open access leaves copyright. Is this a world post-copyright?

SUBER: No, it’s not post-copyright. Open access depends on copyright holder consent, in the same way that traditional publishing depends on copyright holder consent. The only way a novelist can publish a novel is by consenting to do it. If the publisher does it without the author’s permission, that’s a violation of the author’s copyright. The author has to transfer certain rights to the publisher for the publisher to have legal permission to publish that book. Open access is exactly the same. We just have to get to the copyright holder and say, please consent to do it this way, rather than transfer all your rights to a publisher who won’t want to do it this way. And it’s a consent issue. We have to make the case to the copyright holder, but we’re able to make that case precisely because these are authors who are not protecting a revenue stream.

KENNEALLY: And yet, copyright is of concern to them, I would imagine. I mean, the ownership of their scholarly work is important to them. Even though you’re going to be making the book Open Access open access in a year’s time, it’s important nevertheless that you get credit for the work that’s in there. And thereby hangs a tale around the very special open access license which is most common in all this, I believe, is the CC BY license. Perhaps you can tell us about that.

SUBER: There’s a range of open licenses that tell the user, in effect, you have access to this free of charge, and you may use it in certain ways that would not otherwise be lawful, because the copyright holder is giving you permission to do that. There’s more than one kind of permission you could give to users. CC BY, or Creative Commons Attribution License, tells users, you can use this for any purpose whatsoever, provided you make proper attribution to the author. That’s the license I use when I publish my newsletter. It’s the license I would like the book to have in a year, when it’s made open access. It’s not the license it will have. This is a compromise with my publisher.

But CC BY frees the user to use the work in any possible way, provided they make proper attribution. We make that exception, we want proper attribution because these are authors who are not getting paid, at least they should get credit. As I say, they’re working for impact. You don’t get the impact you deserve unless you get credit for it, unless there’s proper attribution.

And to go back one further step, open access is designed to remove the barriers to all the legitimate scholarly uses for scholarly work, and there’s no legitimate use in suppressing attribution to the works that we use. That’s plagiarism. So we don’t want to allow plagiarism, but we want to allow everything else, in effect.

KENNEALLY: What about commercial uses?

SUBER: I have no objection to commercial use. On the other hand, I can imagine why a publisher would. And so when my book becomes open access, it will be CC BY-NC, which means you may use it for any purpose, provided it’s not commercial, and provided you attribute properly. And again, I would’ve dropped the non-commercial restriction, but my publisher wanted it, and this is our compromise.

KENNEALLY: Again, we’re speaking to an audience, many of them authors of all types, academic authors as well as those in the journalism world or the book publishing world. Can you describe for us the negotiations, the conversation that you had with MIT Press around all that? Because I think it might inform people about the options they have in this new world.

SUBER: Well, my conversation with MIT Press was easy because I knew where they stood, and they knew where I stood, and we didn’t have to inform each other about that and circle around.

KENNEALLY: That may only be true at MIT Press.

SUBER: It might, but I don’t expect publishers to relinquish revenue. As an author of scholarship, I do relinquish revenue. I don’t expect royalties for my articles. I know the publishers have expenses to cover. There are ways to cover those expenses, by the way, without selling the work, and that’s how open access journals thrive. But open access books are a harder proposition. Some open access books demonstrably stimulate more sales of print editions than they might subtract. It’s not clear whether that’s going to work for all books, but there are more and more publishers willing to try it out. And in effect, I’m helping MIT try that out.

I think as publishers experiment with this and become confident that full-text open access might stimulate net sales, at least doesn’t subtract net sales, and as they experiment with other business models for selling print editions of books that might exist in open access editions at the same time, we’ll see more open access books, maybe even under CC BY licenses. But I don’t expect publishers of novels or journalism – or, for that matter, sitcoms and movies – to adopt these models right away. They are primarily for those who give away their work, not for those trying to sell it.

KENNEALLY: Although there are many exceptions. You’re probably familiar with Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and otherwise a commentator on various things to do with the Internet. And he’s very much an advocate for giving away his own work, so it’s even permeated into that world.

SUBER: That’s right. I admire him, I love what he’s doing, I wish it would spread. I wish other novelists would say, it worked for him, and it could work for me, let me at least try the experiment. The early evidence suggests that full-text books stimulate the net sales of print editions when it’s the kind of work that readers want to read from cover to cover. If they only care to read a snippet, then they’ll get the free snippet, they’ll be satisfied, and they’ll move on, and they’ll never buy the whole book. But if they find a free copy of the text online and they read a snippet, and they say to themselves, this is the kind of thing I really do want to read, then they’ll buy the book more often than not, because they’d rather read a book that they bought than to read it snippet by snippet or to read it on a gadget.

KENNEALLY: We’re talking with Peter Suber, author of Open Access, just out from MIT Press, and he is, among other things, director of the Harvard Open Access Project, he’s a faculty fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. And Peter Suber, this has been, if not the work of your life, it’s been a great part of your life for a number of years. Take us back to when you began to become involved with what’s become known as open access. What did you imagine you were getting involved with?

SUBER: At the time, I didn’t really know. I was a professor of philosophy when the World Wide Web came along, and I had a history of print publications, and I started putting them into HTML and putting them online, mostly to play with HTML, I have to admit. But I didn’t know exactly what the effect of this would be. I thought the Internet was very cool, I thought the Web was very cool, and I wanted to play with it, but I didn’t think of it at that time as a medium for serious scholarship.

But as soon as I started putting my publications online, I began to get serious inquiries and correspondence from philosophers, the kind that I’d been trying to reach through the print editions, and these queries were more numerous and more serious than I’d ever received from the print editions. And that’s when I began to think maybe the World Wide Web is a medium for scholarship, and I began to look around for others who were thinking of it the same way. And this was still pretty early, so not many people were thinking of it the same way. And as other people did start to do it, I fired off e-mails to friends, and I began to publish a newsletter about these developments.

And for the first two years of the newsletter’s existence, I kept saying to myself, somebody else should do this. I’m just a philosopher who’s excited by this potential, I’m not an expert. Then I realized nobody’s an expert, this is something that’s brand new. And after about two years, I realized I had become the expert that I was waiting for.

KENNEALLY: We started by saying that you’re, if I may call you, the father or the godfather of this whole movement. But it is important that you’re a professor of philosophy. Talk about the philosophical approach that you’ve made to the study of open access, to your thinking about open access, and about this moment in time in scholarship, and in fact, in human civilization.

SUBER: Gosh. I’ve thought about that connection, and other people have asked me about that connection, so the first thing I should say is, I don’t see a strong connection, although there is one. Nothing is unconnected. But I think any publishing scholar who was mature at the time the World Wide Web came along might have seen the same potential that I saw, and I don’t think it’s because I was in philosophy that I saw it.

But there were some larger issues at stake here. For example, knowledge has always been what economists call non-rivalrous, that is, you and I can know the same thing without having to compete for it. If there’s a new discovery, we don’t have to parcel it out, we don’t have to take turns knowing it. We can both know it simultaneously without subtracting that from one another. That’s called non-rivalrous property.

KENNEALLY: In fact, I think no less a philosopher than Jefferson spoke about that whole idea, that when we share ideas, neither one of us loses, we both gain.

SUBER: That’s right. And he had a wonderful metaphor for it. When I light my candle from yours, I gain from you without subtracting from you. That’s what sharing knowledge is like. Knowledge has always been non-rivalrous that way, and I don’t think too many people pause to appreciate how wonderful that is, and how badly off we would be if it were not the case. But while knowledge is non-rivalrous, writing, the entire history of writing until the digital age, was always rivalrous. You had to write it on clay or stone or paper or skin, and that was a rivalrous commodity that had to be shared the way commodities are shared. We had to take turns or we had to compete with one another.

But digital text is non-rivalrous the same way knowledge is, and so for the very first time in history, we can record knowledge in precise symbols or sounds or images or text without reducing it to a rivalrous commodity that we have to share, that we have to take turns when sharing. So we can finally make the record of knowledge as free as knowledge itself. And if we don’t take advantage of that, something is wrong with us. This could revolutionize the sharing of knowledge if we let it.

And so I’m trying to help us appreciate the opportunity that exists here. Not everybody wants to do that, because it means not selling their work, or it means taking the risk that giving away a copy will fail to stimulate sales of a copy. But for those who are lucky enough not to have to worry about that risk, and I’m talking about scholars who write journal articles, it’s a momentous opportunity. We are the first ones who are free to take advantage of this opportunity, and we ought to. If we don’t, there’s something wrong.

KENNEALLY: You said that, and certainly, again, addressed to an audience of academic authors, it’s an enticing offer. For the rest of us, to the audience and the public, to the parent with a sick child, for example, who wants to get information about some new treatment, or for that matter, to people interested in the media generally, how should they receive this? And what about the concerns that the system we have today has been working so well for all of this? Is this going to threaten the quality of scholarship? You say we can share information, but how useful that information is is important as well.

SUBER: Yeah, there are several things there. One is quality, one is the utility of this for non-scholars. Let me start with the second one first. If you’re the parent of a sick child and you are of a mind to want to read medical literature about your child’s condition, and a surprising number of people are, then now you can read that literature freely. Before, you could only do that if you were an academic associated with a university wealthy enough to subscribe to the journals carrying the material. And by the way, being an academic with that affiliation wasn’t enough. It had to be at a university rich enough. Not even Harvard can afford the full range of peer-reviewed research literature.

So your access was iffy even as an academic, but as a non-academic, you were really out in the cold. Public libraries didn’t subscribe, still generally don’t subscribe to peer-reviewed research journals. But a surprising number of people, lay-readers, do want to read cutting-edge research, at least on medicine, to follow their own conditions or the conditions of their children. We didn’t know that until we started providing free access to it. It’s one of those things that people had to guess about. How many people really care about this? Could they understand it if they wanted to?

When the National Library of Medicine made its content open access in the last decade, usage went up more than a hundredfold. It was already digital, it was already online, but it was behind a price wall. And when it became free, usage went up a hundredfold, showing that there was a mountain of unmet demand, and studies have shown that a huge percentage, maybe 40%, comes from domains. That is, these are lay-readers who have been waiting to get access.

KENNEALLY: It’s hardly of concern only to those in the ivory tower.

SUBER: That’s right. Now, we can say this about medical research, maybe we can’t say it about philosophy research or chemical research. It’s not going to be true in every field to the same degree. But there’s still unmet demand of all kinds in every field, and some of that unmet demand is academic, not for laypeople.

Now, to the quality issue, scholarly authors who write journal articles are free to give them away, because they never have been paid royalties. But at the same time, the journal editors and the referees who participate in peer review have never been paid, or generally speaking have not been paid for their work, so that all the major players in peer review are free to give away their work. They’ve been donating their labor for 350 years to the production of scholarly journals. They don’t have any revenue to lose by making their work open access. So we’re talking about open access to peer-reviewed literature, not only to unrefereed articles, and we can actually have open access to both, and so the quality doesn’t go down at all.

The reasons why high-quality peer-reviewed journals are high in quality is the author, the editor, and the referees. And all those people are just as free to work for an open access journal as for a conventional journal. And in fact, the best open access journals are as good as the best non–open access journals. It took a while for that to become true. More and more open access journals are becoming first-rate in quality, and they’re becoming known to be first-rate, which is a different thing, and you can’t really attract authors unless your journal is known to be first-rate. That is, it needs prestige as well as quality. It needs reputed excellence as well as actual excellence, but we’re getting there, too.

So open access journals can have the same quality and integrity as conventional journals, and they can have the same prestige as conventional journals. But that takes time. As I say in the book, open access journals have all the advantages of being open access, but all the disadvantages of being new. And new journals, in general, are not known to be good even when they are good. So they’re still climbing that slope.

KENNEALLY: Peter, we’re seeing a lot of what’s called hybridization, so a spectrum of academic publishing from, on the one hand, we’ll call it traditional, over to kind of pure play OA. Everything in the middle is right now a bit of both. What’s your response to the hybridization of open access, and what do you think the future is?

SUBER: Well, first of all, I think it’s wise for publishers of conventional journals to experiment with open access. The writing is on the wall for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s rising demand for open access, and second, there is a limited future for charging subscriptions to academic libraries. Their budgets are not rising faster than inflation, and the prices of subscription journals are rising much faster than inflation, and have been for three decades. So library budgets are completely strapped, and it’s hard to compete for the limited number of dollars there.

Journals that don’t experiment with open access might find themselves canceled by academic libraries, so it’s a survival strategy for them. I appreciate it when they see that. I don’t have any problem with conventional for-profit publishers experimenting with open access. It’s something they ought to do, it’s rational. Some of the experiments are not very successful, that’s not a surprise. Some dedicated open access publishers are not very successful either. Not every way of trying this turns out to be a success. Some ways of trying it are very successful.

Some open access publishers are for-profit, some are non-profit. Some of the for-profit publishers are actually profitable. When the conventional publishers saw that evidence for the first time, which started in about 2008, they began to experiment much more seriously. One common type of experiment is called a hybrid open access journal, in which some articles are open access and some are not. The ones that are open access are the ones for which the author is able to pay what’s called a publishing fee or an article processing charge. When those authors pay that fee, then the publisher’s costs in peer-reviewing the article and producing it and publishing it are covered so the publisher can afford to give it away.

It would make sense for hybrid journals to reduce their subscription price in proportion to the uptake of their open access option. But surprisingly, more than half of the hybrid journals don’t do that, so they have a double-charge business model. They’re paid twice for their open access articles. That makes it very low-risk for them, makes it easy money, so it’s no surprise that most conventional journal publishers are now experimenting with hybrid journals. But it’s not a very successful experiment. The uptake from authors on the open access option at hybrid journals is about 2%. So the economics are not real for the publisher, they always have their subscriptions to fall back on, they have no incentive to really make the open access option work. Authors are not taking it up.

Nevertheless, it’s a real experiment, and I think when hybrid journals were new, they were more cynical experiments than good faith experiments. Now I think they’re generally good faith experiments, they’re just not very successful. We’re seeing more conventional publishers experiment with, let’s call them full rather than hybrid open access journals, in which they really must make it work or fail, now there’s no subscription to fall back on. That’s new. Publishers that have been holdouts about open access are now launching full open access journals, not merely hybrid journals. That’s good.

I have no problem with them getting into the field, I hope they do well at it. One thing that we all have to remember is that these are publishers that have a print background. They have legacy equipment, legacy personnel, legacy customs and business models from the age of print and from the age of subscriptions, and therefore their cost of publication will generally be higher than the costs at a lean and mean open access startup. So it’ll be hard for them to compete, and I think that’s what we’re starting to see. But they’d better try to compete, because in a few years they’ll be competing with free much more than they are doing today.

KENNEALLY: We’ve been chatting with Peter Suber, who is author from MIT Press of Open Access. The book was published in June 2012. It will become, as the title implies, open access in June 2013. Peter is director of the Harvard Open Access Project, faculty fellow at Berkman Center for Internet and Philosophy, and a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College. Peter Suber, thank you so much for joining us.

SUBER: Thanks, Chris. Good to talk to you.

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