Berlin in Beijing – first impressions

Berlin 8 at the Chinese National Library of Science
Berlin 8 at the Chinese National Library of Science

The week that my colleague Paolo Mangiafico and I spent in Beijing for the Berlin 8 Conference on Open Access flew by, so my first impressions are actually being written after our return, based on notes I made during the conference.  This post is an attempt at a summary of the event, while later posts will address specific points that arose.

Towards the end of the Conference there was a brief debate between some panelists about whether progress on open access is too slow or “adequate.”  Perhaps it is merely indicative of my lack of awareness, but I spent much of the conference being amazed at how deeply the values of the open access movement have penetrated around the world.  As I listened to the debate, I was aware that progress on OA might indeed be called slow in the U.S., but that much of the rest of the world is moving forward quite quickly.

A telling sign of the growing influence of the open access movement was the overflowing venues for the meetings held at the Chinese National Library of Science.  In addition to the large number of Chinese researchers who attended the events, there were presentations by OA advocates from all over the world; I personally had in-depth conversations with librarians and researchers from Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Japan and Lebanon, as well as with a law professor working on open access issues in the Netherlands.

China was more than just a venue for this year’s Berlin Conference or even a symbol of the global reach of open access as a principle of scholarly communications, especially in the sciences.  The Conference was itself a significant step toward increasing the openness of scientific research in China, which is the fifth leading nation in its share of the world’s scientific publication.  As this blog post from InTech points out, OA is an important step towards increasing the impact of that high level of research.  In his closing remarks to the Conference, Dr. Zhang Xiaoling of the National Science Library reported on the significant attention that the Berlin 8 event was receiving in the Chinese press and also told us that a summary of the proceedings was being sent to officials in charge of the major research organizations and offices in the PRC.  Holding the Berlin Conference in China this year created an opportunity to make a much faster transition toward open access to scientific publications on the level of national policy then has occurred elsewhere.

The panel on which I participated, on legal issues and business models for open access, was indicative of the desire for detailed advice about how to do OA right that was a constant theme from our hosts.  We frequently heard that the thicket of licensing issues which can arise was a major obstacle for OA, and my own presentation provided, I hope, a framework for considering how to deal with multiple copyright interests.  Much greater detail, and more learned analysis, was provided by Wim van der Stelt of Springer and Lucie Guibault from the University of Amsterdam.

The most important impression that I came away from the Berlin 8 Conference with was about the depth of the conviction within the world-wide research community that open access is a major, and affordable, benefit for scholarship. For example, Wim van der Stelt reported on the SOAP project, a survey of attitudes toward open access among researchers.  The finding that 89% of the almost 40,000 researchers who responded to the survey expressed the opinion that open access would benefit their fields was startling to me.  Even more encouraging was that 62% said they had already published at least one article in an open access (“gold”) journal.  Finally, while 40% expressed the opinion that funding for open access publication was a problem, a larger percentage – 50% – said that OA did not need to cost the author anything.

On this point about costs, Alma Swan of Key Perspectives, Ltd in the UK reported on the economic analysis that she and John Houghton (Victoria University, Australia) have been doing regarding OA.  When the costs of OA are balanced against the savings it creates, including subscription savings, reduced transaction costs, and indirect economies based on saved time and effort for researchers, each scenario that was studied – self-archiving, “overlay” journals, and OA in parallel with subscription journals – showed substantial savings at a national level.  When the analysis is applied to specific universities it was found that all institutions would realize savings from “green” open access, which is self-archiving, while about half would also save money from gold OA.  These studies show the practical and localized value of open access that exists in addition to the large societal value, the dollar value of which is presumably also substantial.