Scholarly communication is incredibly important to modern research—a vast field, where many different organizations, interest groups and experts tackle a dizzying array of issues related to how research gets communicated. These organizations, interests and issues overlap and intersect in important ways, but they most often exert separate and distinct forces on the function and evolution of the scholarly communication ecosystem.
As an ecosystem, therefore, several weaknesses have become apparent in scholarly communication over the years, such as:
- Diagnostic: The diversity of this system makes it difficult to describe, diagnose and reform in any collaborative and coherent way. Reform measures that works for one stakeholder, issue or region may not work for another.
- Ripple effects: Changing the scholarly communication ecosystem is difficult because changes that happen in one part of the system will ripple to other parts, sometimes with unintended consequences.
- Hyper-advocacy: Despite the diagnostic/reform barrier and ripple effects (or arguably because of these) a diverse array of specialized actors in this system are attempting to create system-wide change anyway. Many of these advocacy efforts, predictably, are very focused on just one part of the scholarly communication puzzle or one particular perspective. A wide variety of efforts—along with a variety of goals, agendas and definitions—have emerged which are sometimes incompatible, even conflicting.
- Tail wagging the dog: Scholarly communication can’t speak with one clear voice to funders about the field’s needs and goals for the future, which has resulted in relatively poor visibility and funding. It has also resulted in funders themselves setting scholarly communication agendas based on their own understanding, vision for the future, and sense of priorities.
In OSI, we have been observing and debating the activity in scholarly communication since late 2014 with regard to understanding possible global approaches and solutions for improving the future of open research. While the COVID-19 pandemic has made the importance of open science abundantly clear, the struggle to achieve this goal (not just for science but for all research) has been mired in a lack of clarity and urgency for over 20 years now, mostly stalling on the tension between wanting more openness but lacking realistic solutions for making this happen on a large scale with so many different stakeholders, needs and perspectives involved.
Underlying this tension is a fundamental difference in philosophy: whether the entire scholarly communication marketplace, driven by the needs and desires of researchers, should determine what kind of open it wants and needs; or whether this marketplace should be compelled to adopt open reform measures developed primarily by the scholarly communication system’s main billpayers—funders and libraries. There is no widespread difference of opinion in the community whether open is worth pursuing. The debate is mostly over what specific open solutions are best, and at what pace open reforms should occur.
The evolution of this philosophical gap is complex and fascinating, but unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper to explore in detail. Fast-forwarding to today and summarizing the history of the open movement over the last 20 years, these are the most salient points for our discussion here:
- Open is growing strongly. How strongly depends on which indexes we’re measuring, which time periods, which disciplines, and what we mean by “open.” Not all open is doing equally well—especially not the kind of open we may be rooting for—and lots of information is still closed. But in aggregate, the growth of open is robust.
- Open has evolved considerably since its earliest years, as has the Internet and the information environment, and the truths about information we once thought immutable. We can still be passionate, for instance, about our belief that information should be free, but we have a better understanding today of how this dynamic can create and has created unanticipated side-effects, such as the rise of disinformation and fraud, and putting subscription content providers like newspapers out of business.
- We haven’t controlled the evolution of open. Different stakeholders and institutions in the scholarly communication community have appropriated this concept— from education to software to scholarly publishing —meaning that over time the evolutionary tree of open terms and practices has branched considerably. And finally,
- The open movement has fractured. Different groups are now advocating different solutions and policies, valuing different outcomes, and even disparaging each other’s right to be part of the open community. The most visible fault lines separate the producers of information (publishers and researchers) from the main financers and consumers of this information (government funders and university libraries), but the actual fault lines are more nuanced, with many groups on the outside looking in, unable to influence the trajectory of this debate.
Can we reconcile the competing perceptions in this space? Our strong opinions about right and wrong, our different needs and perspectives, and the general factionalism that has pervaded this conversation for most of the last 20 years have erected roadblocks that stand in the way of global progress on this issue:
- Trust: Different factions in the open space don’t trust each other. The rhetoric is heated, and often dismissive and disrespectful.
- Frustration: Boiling over from this lack of trust, this space is plagued by frustration, acrimony (see also, Twitter) and hyperbole, all of which prevents us from working together effectively.
- Lack of engagement: Researchers aren’t involved in these reform conversations in any meaningful way.
- Ignorance: We’re missing key pieces of the puzzle (for instance, what kind of open is most effective, how necessary are embargoes, how big is predatory publishing, and so on).
- Lack of funding: We need funding to develop new systems and structures but this is a poorly funded space (or a mostly funder-driven space, as noted previously).
- Inertia: The culture of communication in academia is highly resistant to change. There’s also the inertia of our own long-held positions and courses of action (of publishers, open advocates, universities, funders, governments, and other groups).
- Tunnel vision: We have tended to focus on narrow, prescriptive solutions that fit just one perspective (as noted previously) instead of developing general frameworks for progress that will allow for adaptation, competition and creativity.
- Unilateralism: The scholarly communication community has grown accustomed to reacting to unilateral policy initiatives and proclamations. The result has been a lurching, divisive sort of progress—or at least attempts at progress.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
It’s hard to envision a system more global and more integrated than research. Many stakeholders affect and are affected by changes in the ecosystem; the scholarly communication ecosystem differs in significant ways across the globe and between researchers, institutions and fields of study; and there are many questions that exclusive action can’t address. There are also broad ecosystem-level questions that need answering. For these reasons alone, global approaches are needed.
The first step in this exploration isn’t to start looking for “open solutions,” but to develop a better understanding of how our research communication needs and interests overlap. By identifying the broad contours of common ground in this conversation, we can build the guardrails and mileposts for our collaborative efforts and then allow the finer-grained details of community-developed plans more flexibility and guidance to evolve over time.
Finding common ground going to be easy. To be clear, however, this work is also very achievable and doesn’t need to start from square one. OSI participants, alumni and observers have already been working together since 2014 to develop a foundation for building the future of scholarly communication on common ground. These individuals — over 400 high-level scholarly communication leaders in all, representing 18 different stakeholder groups from 250 institutions and 28 countries — share many common interests and perspectives, but often disagree on the details of solutions. These disagreements are embraced as learning opportunities, and have helped this group achieve a broad and deep understanding of the scholarly communication landscape. The group’s continued engagement has also demonstrated that there are indeed many people, insitutions and stakeholder groups who remain interested in working together in this effort. UNESCO also remains a key partner and is working to help OSI succeed, and vice versa.
It is also important to remember that many people, institutions and organizations in this space have long been engaged in limited and exclusive ways to reform the future of scholarly communication. Many common needs and interests already exist in this community and have been acted upon for years.
Building a common ground foundation is a necessary next step in the evolution of this engagement, beginning with OSI’s Plan A. This approach and the solutions that eventually flow from it will support a future for open that aligns the full potential of all stakeholders in this community, and will lead to open outcomes that are far more robust, exciting, creative, and sustainable than any other outcomes could possibly be. Step one is to reach across the aisle and allow for the possibility that we are all allies, and that we will be stronger in our common quest by working together.