Open Access: the Revolution Will be Convenient
Some time ago an article in Linux Journal discussed the adoption of free/open course software (FOSS) by the general public. The article (I can’t seem to find it now) talked about the people that do not care about the distinction between Free as in Free Beer vs. Free as in Freedom (libre). They want software that works, and they are even willing to pay for it, although free would be nice. Also, the lack of licensing hassles is a serious bonus. The Open Source advocates and developers are the ones who care deeply about the dissemination model: code should be available more modification and reuse. Not because of the price tag, but because not sharing code hinders development. The success stories of the open source model are obvious: Internet and WWW protocols are open source, most servers are Linux based, Mac OSX is based on FreeBSD, and I’m writing this post from a Linux machine on WordPress. Also, the programmers and FOSS advocates are not starving: they are selling books, documentation, maintenance services and penguin T-shirts. My university is switching to Sakai, a FOSS based course management system and they are hiring programmers to maintain it. The IT managers realize (I hope!) that the adoption of Sakai will not “free” as in no $$$, as these programmers will cost money. The benefit of such a system over the closed system we have used so far would be to draw upon the general knowledge of the Sakai users community, and to be able to adopt and adapt modules for a learning system suited to my university’s needs.
Android is a Linux-based operating system for smartphones which works great. One of the reasons Android gained such a large market share from Apple’s iPhone is Android’s FOSS-friendliness for app developers, as well as the operating system’s portability to many platforms.
The not-so-successful story is FOSS in desktops. Windows still rules, and frankly up until recently, Linux desktops were not that great. They failed the “grandmother test”, in which you got your grandmother who is used to windows to try and adopt Linux. There was too much under-the-hood knowledge needed for granny to be able to even do her email and word processing on a Linux machine. I believe that now the main hindrance to adopting Linux as a desktop is not the granny test, but simply things like inertia and compatibility of certain software. The Linux desktop is quite usable now.
Which brings us to the point that the adoption of FOSS by most computer users is not one of ideology, but of convenience. If they can get the job done for free, fine. If they have to pay some money for it, fine too, as long as they are not milked into continuous upgrade and support (and sometimes even that works). But they want a convenient and familiar working platform. Linux is a choice for servers because it is much better than Windows server. Android is cheaper and has more apps than iPhone, (in a large part due to the open development model) and you are not locked into hardware. Purchasers of Android phones take all of these into consideration, not the openness of the system, since most of them will never use Android in a way which directly exploits its openness. Yes, they do benefit indirectly from openness, but that is not what attracts them.
So what has Open Access (the title) has to do with Open Source?
I believe that the advocates of scientific Open Access publication are in the same situation that Open Source advocates were in a few years ago. Advocates of both OA and FOSS models had to fight interest groups to gain acceptance. The respective fights have been mostly won. Both OA and FOSS have gained enough traction to stay and even be adopted, to some extent, by some of their previous opponents from the respective industries of publishing and software.
However, OA adoption is not yet quite wide-spread. From a recent poll published in Science, only 10% of the published papers are in OA journals, but 90% of scientists support OA. So OA is a good idea, but few adopt it. Reason: by analogy ot the Linux desktop, OA does not quite yet fit “user” expectations. You might say OA fails the “old professor” test. it appears that most scientists care primarily about two things: the perceived prestige of the publication venue, and the associated price tag(*). Also, most of the scientists polled did not care about such things as retaining copyright and Creative Commons (CC) licensing. These are the equivalent of Android users that do not care (or even know) about Open Source licensing. From a non-representative polling of my colleagues, it seems to me that many are unaware of CC and see licensing issues as niceties rather than essentials. So like in the world of Open Source it is convenience, rather than ideology, that will determine the adoption of Open Access. How much does it cost? Is it in a “good” journal? Those are the equivalent questions to those that your grandmother may ask: “can I email my grandkids with it” and “can I do my taxes with it”?
So while the Open Access movement, like the FOSS movement, is fueled by an ideal, and people carrying this ideal, the ultimate adoption will be one of convenience and self-interest.
Finally, here is a slideshow of the Open Access poll highlights, from the website of the Study of Open Access Publishing project.
(*) One comment about the price tag: a lot has been said about how libraries have to pay to maintain subscription to toll-access journals, how that fee is rolled over to researchers in terms of overhead, and how open-access can eliminate that. I doubt widespread adoption of Open Access publication model would make much of a difference, but I confess I don’t understand very well how the economics of science publication work. Even with a wide adoption of open access, that would mean replacing one line item (overhead) with another (publication fees). Also in the past, University of California researchers have threatened boycotts against Cell Press and Nature Publishing Group when the subscription hikes were deemed to high. Yes, institutional fees are part of the price tag. But also, most researchers would go with a closed-access subscriber-pays model, as long as the price is not perceived as exorbitant.