Interview with Advisory Board member Peter Suber

As a newcomer on the Open Access publishing scene, ScienceOpen relies on the support of a wide range of academics. With this interview we would like to profile Advisory Board member Peter Suber ( ) and share the valuable perspective he brings to our organization.

One of the original founders of the Open Access movement, Peter Suber is currently director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication ( ) and the Harvard Open Access Project ( ). His latest book, “Open Access” ( MIT Press, 2012), is an important starting point for anyone new to the topic.

Q. Recently, you blogged ( ) your support of young scientists who are pushing back against the phenomenon that publishing OA at an early career stage can be career limiting. The Co-Founder of ScienceOpen, Alexander Grossman, feels that same way and made similar observations in his widely reported blog “Give the pioneers a chance”. What more can be done to assist future generations of scientists in this regard?

A. The junior faculty I quoted made exactly the right request. They simply want senior faculty to judge their work fairly. They want their work to stand on its own merits, regardless of where it is published. The problem is that universities tend to outsource the job of evaluating new work to publishers, and use prestige as a surrogate for quality ( ). But faculty should judge quality for themselves, directly. They already do this in their research, and they should do it in their hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions as well. Junior faculty demand no more, and senior faculty should do no less.

In addition, many young researchers who passionately support OA would like to publish in OA journals that are transforming scholarly communication. They want to avoid publishers who limit the circulation of the peer-reviewed work and support publishers who widen it. They want to take advantage of new publishing models for access and reuse, and take advantage of new metrics for research impact. We should encourage these efforts. But while we work to change incentives, we should understand the positions of young faculty who are subject to the incentives that already exist. We should show them that there is more than one way to make new work OA ( ). When junior faculty feel pressure to publish in prestigious journals, we can help them find prestigious OA journals, which are growing in number. When they feel pressure to publish in prestigious non-OA journals, then we can help them make their work OA through repositories. And of course, we should do what we can to remove any pressures to put prestige ahead of quality, that is, pressures which prove that we are not yet evaluating their work fairly.

Q. The Global Research Council is meeting this week in China and has two items on the agenda: Open Access for publications and supporting the next generation of researchers. Do you think that they will also address the topic of how to change the evaluation of young researchers to accommodate the kinds of experiments with Open Access which are necessary?

A. Funders are guilty of many of the same vices as universities. They too sometimes outsource the evaluation of researchers to publishers, and mistake prestige for quality. They too should judge applicants fairly, and not on the basis of where they have previously published. I don’t expect that these issues are on the GRC agenda. But I only say that because the GRC has a higher priority. It’s focused on the even more important problem of funder OA policies. Although I want to reform the way we evaluate new work, as you can tell, I agree with these priorities. The most important goal for research funders today, on this front, is to adopt effective OA mandates. Funding agencies should require OA for all peer-reviewed articles arising from their grants; they should require green OA even if they also encourage and fund gold OA; they should require repository deposit no later than the time of publication; they should allow only short embargoes and gradually reduce them over time; they should require rights retention to make publisher permission unnecessary; and they should require open licenses such as CC-BY.

Q. The Hirsch-Index as a measure of researcher productivity which focuses on an individual’s citations has grown increasingly popular. Will that be important in moving the evaluation of researchers away from the Impact Factor and open up the playing field for Open Access experiments?

A. Clearly the first step away from the impact factor is to article-level metrics. The impact factors averages article citations over a whole journal, leaving you to wonder whether the author or paper you care about is at the average or brings the journal average up or down. And of course the impact factor is often gamed by publishers themselves, as well as authors. It’s an impact metric used as a quality metric, but it doesn’t measure impact well and doesn’t measure quality at all. (I say more in this 2008 article: .)

One step forward is to look at article-level metrics rather than journal-level metrics. Another is to take into account more signs of impact than just citations. Many altmetrics projects are doing just that and I’m very glad to see it. I’m also glad to see that they differ from one another in the weights they assign to different kinds of evidence. This is the way it should be. Smart people are competing to give us the most nuanced or sensitive picture of research impact they can. We all benefit from that. As they succeed, authors can take intelligent steps to amplify the impact of their own work, and we’ve known for many years now that one of those steps is to make the work OA. As these projects succeed, promotion and tenure committees can replace the flawed impact factor with more accurate metrics. That will not only support more accurate assessments of candidates and their work. It will also enable these committees to drop incentives and disincentives that have more to do with print-era publishing models and reputation than with actual research impact and quality.

Q. Thank you for being on the Advisory Board ( of ScienceOpen, the new Research + Publishing Network. As you know, ScienceOpen covers all disciplines including humanities and social sciences. How important is it that Open Access penetrates research disciplines beyond science?

A. It is very important in my opinion. I have been arguing since 2004 ( ) that OA brings the same benefits in every field, even if some fields present more obstacles or fewer opportunities. For example, the natural sciences are better funded than the humanities, which means they have more money to pay for OA. In particular, there is more public funding for the sciences than the humanities, which means that the compelling taxpayer argument for OA gets more traction in the sciences than the humanities. In addition, books are at least as important as journal articles for humanities scholars, if not more important, and OA for books, while growing quickly, is objectively harder than OA for journal articles. The good news is that OA in the humanities is growing – not faster than OA in the sciences, but faster than in the past. More humanities scholars understand the benefits and opportunities for OA, and are answering the objections and misunderstandings raised against it.

Q. “Open” is a force to be reckoned with in the modern world: open access, open source, open government, open internet to name but a few. Do you feel it will become increasingly important to unite these different threads to empower “Open” overall?
James Boyle once drew a good analogy between the early days of the environmental movement and the still-early days of the various openness movements. The clear air movement, the clean water movement, the wildlife conservation movement, and so on, had many common interests and knew it. Nevertheless they started out as separate causes and only converged over time. The same has been happening over the past decade or so with the openness movements. We’ve always understood our many common interests. They haven’t gone unnoticed. But we’ve been preoccupied with the hard work of making progress on our individual special fronts. Despite this differentiation, however, there is a wider, unified movement emerging here. Or despite this emerging unification, there is still so much to do on the separate fronts that we cannot afford to slow down in order to give much direct attention to unification. Nevertheless, we see more unification every year and more awareness of it as well.