Can Geowalling Save Open Access?


Remember when Elsevier floated the idea of regional open access in 2017 and was soundly pilloried for it

I do. 

So imagine my surprise to hear that Jean-Claude Burgelman, the Open Access Envoy of the European Commission who serves on the cOAlition S Executive Steering Group, has suggested geo-specific access as an approach to achieving open access!

Fortified City of Ranthambhor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fortified City of Ranthambhor, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to The Times Higher Ed, Burgelman observed that Europe’s commitment to open access publishing leaves other “nations free to access articles through initiatives such as Plan S – a global open access plan unveiled last year by European funders under the auspices of the commission – when their own country had not reciprocated with similar plans.” This echoes the claim that underscored a 2015 proposal for a UK national open access license that “the UK’s support for ‘gold open access’ risks giving the rest of the world our research without matching reciprocal benefits.”

Indeed, this does seem to be true — that publications are made freely available with no built in reciprocity and, I would note, does seem to also be the goal of open access: 

“By “open access” to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.” (Declaration of the Budapest Open Access Initiative)

When pushed to reconcile his proposal with the principles of open access, Burgelman replied that regional access “is better than no OA and that it could be imagined at a regional level.”

And, it turns out this isn’t the first time that Burgelman has raised such a strategy. He was reported in 2018 as saying that “as the EU expands access to its cloud, it will need to set reciprocal data sharing conditions.”

Support for Open Access/Plan S Weakening?

Burgelman is not wrong to be looking at alternatives since the prospects of a global flip to open access are rather complicated. His remarks, however, lead to some pondering about whether support for open access in general, or Plan S in particular, may be weakening.  

Even if there is enough money in the system to transform subscriptions for reading to payments for publishing, it is ever more obvious that those monies are not held currently by the institutions that would need to make the publishing payments that are intended to replace the reading payments. For example, the German U15 issued a statement observing that federal and state government financing of scientific publishing must be redistributed among institutions in light of the financial burden that the Projekt DEAL contracts are placing on high publishing institutions. Or, more bluntly stated in a report issued by Science Europe: “Entirely flipping subscriptions to OA is also perceived as unsustainable, particularly for research-intensive universities.”

And, though many spoke hopefully of a global uptake of Plan S, memberships have not materialized. China made some early statements of support for Plan S but there are also indications that such support in principle will not result in joining up. India has explicitly declared that it will not join Plan S. The architect of Plan S, Robert Jan-Smits, made a round of visits with US research funders, scientific societies, and White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy representatives but no significant policy changes have emerged that would more closely align US policy with Plan S.

As such, Europe stands out as a region where there is widespread investment in gold open access, to the point where significant article output in some of its countries are now being published gold. Being a leader of a global transition is good but some in Europe are clearly beginning to worry that the global flip to open access will slow or stall out. They are likely understandably concerned about the implications: that European institutions will need to maintain subscriptions to content published by scholars elsewhere in the world and that, without a global flip, cOAlition S funded authors will have fewer options for where to publish than their colleagues elsewhere. 

Finally, criticism of Plan S continues to grow. Recently, for example, open access leaders in Latin America have suggested that Plan S could undermine the open access ecosystem that is thriving in that region, which is based on subsidies by academic institutions rather than payments to publishers

Is Geowalling the Answer?

With a global flip to open access publishing seemingly unlikely to occur in the 2024 timeline demanded by Plan S, thereby impeding the vision of switching to “pure publish” agreements at that point, one can appreciate the creativity of considering whether there is a staged approach might enable Europe to achieve a “regional flip” on its own, without waiting on a “global flip.” 

The proposed solution is geowalling, which takes inspiration from the fact that “Amazon knows if someone is in the US or the UK and shows them different prices.” But, instead of different prices, geowalling would allow a user access or not based on geo-location. Burgelman seems to suggest that this geowalled access could also be used as a policy lever, to get other nations to follow the European lead. 

Johan Rooryck, the cOAlition’s Open Access Champion, stated to me via e-mail that “Jean-Claude Burgelman has made is clear that he made his remarks about Geowalling strictly in a personal capacity. This proposal does not reflect the position of cOAlition S, whose purpose is full and immediate Open Access as reflected in the June 2019 principles and implementation guidance.” 

However, given Burgelman’s role on the Executive Steering Committee of the cOAlition, stakeholders might be rightly attentive to what this personal perspective might mean for Plan S if it were to take hold among the leadership.

So, as a thought experiment, what principles of Plan S would need to be compromised in order to achieve geowalling as Burgelman discussed or had been previously proposed by Elsevier? 

Open Access Itself

The most obvious challenge to the notion of a “regional flip” is that it requires a fundamental redefinition of open access itself, since it is antithetical to current definitions of open access for there to be any barriers to access. Paywalls, datawalls, and what I am now calling “geowalls” are all barriers that definitionally create a “not open” state for a publication. A European geowall is just a more encompassing paywall than an institutional or national paywall. Reading would be restricted to those who are affiliated with those who are paying. 

To pursue geowalling, the cOAlition would have abandon its vision that “all scholarly publications on the results from research funded by public or private grants provided by national, regional and international research councils and funding bodies, must be published in Open Access Journals, on Open Access Platforms, or made immediately available through Open Access Repositories without embargo.” As the raison d’etre of the cOAlition, this would likely prove difficult for the group — though one could imagine a finesse of this that accepts geowalling as an interim approach in service of a longer-term global vision.

Copyright Retention and CC License 

To implement geowalling, the cOAlition would need to revise Principle 1: “Authors or their institutions retain copyright to their publications. All publications must be published under an open license, preferably the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY).” 

If authors have copyright, they would be free to share their publications outside of the geowall. But, even more of a challenge for geowalling is the the CC BY license. Anyone who has access to the geowalled content that is under a CC- BY license would be free to liberate the content from the geowall and post it elsewhere. One could imagine ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and any number of other services that would see an immediate opportunity to increase the value of their platform by systematically serving up this CC BY content. 

All of this would also be to the detriment of the value of the publishers’ platforms and these same publishers would be obligated to the additional costs of maintaining a geowall while seeing the value of doing so immediately eroded. It is hard to imagine that publishers would not insist on copyright concessions and a reset on CC licensing in exchange for setting up and maintaining a geowall infrastructure. 

Hybrid Journals

Geowalling content would also mean that Principle 8: “The Funders do not support the ‘hybrid’ model of publishing” would have to be abandoned. 

Instead of moving away from hybrid journals, geowalling would mean moving toward the hybrid article — with some, who are in nations paying for access to the article by committing to open access publishing fees or the like, having access inside the geowall. At the same time, those in other nations would be paying a reading fee for the same article.

Geowalled Access is Not Open Access 

Clearly geowalling is antithetical to the principles of Plan S. But, perhaps it will turn out to be a stage in the evolutionary process? Might it be necessary to abandon open access in the short term in order to achieve it in the long-term? Or, would geowalling itself, like a national license, be a further drag on the move to open access?

I tend to agree with Burgelman that full regional access is better than no open access. More reading access for more readers at the same or lower price is a good thing. 

But, it is not open access. 

And, to quote Johan Rooryck, the cOAlition’s Open Access Champion, it is also: “Not in line with Plan S. Period.” 

Burgelman tweeted that he “spoke as envoy and in my own name” and so it is not entirely clear whether his remarks will evolve to be a policy proposal or are just a personal provocation to further discussion. But, either way, all stakeholders will likely take any ideas that are proposed by the person in this position seriously, remembering no doubt that the previous Open Access Envoy, Robert Jan-Smits, very early on said “Ik ga er als een bulldozer tegenaan.”* Still reverberating from the shock of Plan S, publishers, librarians, and researchers alike are on high alert for any signals of further “bulldozing” of the publishing system by significant changes in policy. 

_____

*Via Google Translate: “I’m going to hit it like a bulldozer.” 

Note: My thanks to Martin Paul Eve for alerting me to the 2015 HEPI Occasional Paper and some critiques. I recommend his geowalling commentary as well: If We Choose to Align Open Access to Research with Geo-political Borders We Negate the Moral Value of Open Access.



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