Did we just write the most 'open' paper ever..?

It started off in the pub. It always does.

At an ‘Open Science Meetup‘ in Berlin, held in the basement bar of a local brewery, one of the attendees asked us all a simple hypothetical question: ‘If I was a research funder going through our budget and saw that we were spending millions on Open Access (OA), how would you justify that expense to me?’ You might think people attending an Open Science meetup would have all the answers to this. Heck, even I thought I should be able to answer that! But we actually failed. Each of us made our individual cases, and we failed. Our answers were incoherent and lacking in convincing evidence. I couldn’t even convince myself at the time, and would like to think Open Access is one of the things I know a bit about.

And when you think about it, it’s a very good question. I bet every one of you could give me an answer to this off the top of your heads. Something about OA increasing citations, or being good for copyright, or because access to knowledge is a human right, or how it saves money, or because your funder told you to, or whatever. But how do you make a convincing, comprehensive, evidence-informed answer to this question? It’s difficult.

So I took the same question to OpenCon in Brussels, an event for students and early career researchers to spearhead the ‘open movement’. Everyone I asked failed there too. I pretended to be an impartial funder, and asked the OA advocates present to justify OA to me. And we all failed. Small chunks of useful evidence, but overall incoherent, and underwhelming. This little experiment told me that there’s too much varied information, and too few of us who are well-informed enough, to have consistently reasonable, progressive, and evidence-based discussions around OA. I want people to be as well informed as possible about the issues, so that we can have reasonable policies, rational discussions, civil debate, and progressive decision making in the scholarly publishing ecosystem.

So how do you fix this? The world of ‘open’ is complex and multi-dimensional, with evidence mixing with anecdote, fear combating against data, and misinformation blending with reality. If OA was a simple issue, we’d have resolved it already. The fact remains that the global research community remains largely disorganised with respect to OA, as some like Richard Poynder have pointed out recently*. The reasons for this are likely as multi-faceted as the problem itself, but one point in this sticks out: OA ‘advocates’ need to take responsibility for the ‘open movement.’ I wrote a bit about this and accountability in a previous post here, and this is very much a related issue. But part of solving this issue entails equipping ourselves with sufficient knowledge to make the case for open.

So we wrote a paper. I started it after OpenCon, and put out a public call for contributors through my social channels. Anyone could join at any point. Initially it was just a Google Doc where people could contribute sources, but then I shifted it to Overleaf, a public collaboration platform that uses latex and a version control system to seamlessly integrate contributions from multiple authors at once. So it was an entirely open process, and a cadre of awesome people joined me. Mostly PhD students, but also a librarian! Each contributed their own perspectives, and watching the paper organically evolve was a magical experience.

I set out to ‘make the case for open’, and it ended up being a multi-dimensional critical review with contributions from around the world. We ended up discussing copyright law, issues with OA in the ‘Global South’, innovating beyond traditional publishing models, the cost of OA, and the need for OA in fueling society, the global economy, and research. People offered comments on Twitter, via email, and on annotations on PDF versions of the article as it was being written. The process was open and dynamic, and it totally rocked!

And we ended up with something I hope you all think is pretty awesome, and which I hope will become a valuable resource for all involved in OA discussions. It was published with F1000 Research, with the submission taking about all of 5 minutes with Overleaf’s integration. It was accepted after about 2 days with a light copy edit, and published after being typeset about 9 days after submission. And as part of the Future of Scholarly Publishing channel, it was free too! (Why isn’t this the normal process for publishing, again?)

At the moment it’s awaiting formal peer review (F1000 Research uses a post-publication system, designed for open and rapid research communication. Again, awesome.). In the mean time, commenting is strongly encouraged! We’ve already been ‘Mounced’ in the comments, and I’d love more feedback. There are 5 referees looking at it already formally (yikes..), but that’s no reason why we can’t have everyone’s opinion, thoughts, and expertise influencing this paper. I’ll have to save a breakdown of the key points for another post, as this one is already hella long, but in the mean time we would all love any feedback (positive or negative, irrespective of who you are or who you work for), and if you could share the article with your friends and colleagues that’d be just swell.

We are stronger as a community if we take the responsibility to equip ourselves with the knowledge required to advocate for change.

So the final question is, is there a case for Open? You’re damn right there is (citation needed).

*I don’t agree with Richard on all of this, but he makes some pretty insightful points.


Tennant JP, Waldner F, Jacques DC, Masuzzo P, Collister LB, Hartgerink CHJ. (2016) The academic, economic and societal impacts of Open Access: an evidence-based review [version 1; referees: awaiting peer review]. F1000Research, 5:632
(doi: 10.12688/f1000research.8460.1)

8 thoughts on “Did we just write the most 'open' paper ever..?

  1. It’s very rare to get the opportunity to collaborate with people from so many countries and disciplines. It was a fascinating process watching the document evolve and grow as we all worked on it, and watching new collaborators come in at different times. None of this would have been possible without the platform or the community. I very much enjoyed the whole process!

  2. What an interesting concept, I’m off to take a look at the paper now! I’ve always struggled with the arguments for and against open access and can find myself jumping from one side of the fence to the other. I can see there are plenty of benefits but equally I’m not sure how well it fits in with the current system of peer review and publishing. Not that there aren’t a plethora of problems with this too, but something needs to shift in order for it to work!

    1. Hey Helen! I hope the paper helps a bit at least. Do let me know if you have any questions or anything. Always happy to talk about peer review and publishing more in general too 🙂

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