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Generation Open: Sneak Peek Into Science’s Future at OpenCon 2014

Cartoon of scientists at a control panel setting the default to open“What is your generation going to do? You don’t have a choice. You will make a mark. Will it be the mark of apathy? Or will you make the internet what it could be?”

Michael Carroll is a Professor of Law and one of the founders of the Creative Commons. He was welcoming over a hundred enthusiastic students, student organizers, and early career researchers yesterday to their first international gathering on open access, OpenCon 2014.

There’s no apathy in this room. It’s jam-packed with idealistic, clever, and deeply committed young people energetically working to transform science and academic life. Only 4% of applications to attend were successful, too, so it’s the tip of an iceberg.

Carroll told us we all have to think deeply about our commitment to open access: “Is it a deeper human rights-based understanding of equity?…Without having a solid grip on the values that inspire you and inspire this movement you can be led astray.”

Patrick Brown, one of the PLOS founders, showing their original ‘academic suicide’ pact

Patrick Brown, added his passion and values with a look back at how he, Michael Eisen, and Harold Varmus came to establish PLOS, the Public Library of Science. “We didn’t know what we were doing, but we didn’t let that hold us back.” Setting up an open access mega-publisher wasn’t the original intention.

At first they got many colleagues to sign what he said was “basically a suicide pact,” putting journals on notice that they had one year to make open access a reality, or they would stop publishing in their journals.

Photo of podium
Some of the dynamic OpenCon organizers: Neleen Leslie, Nick Shockey, Joe McArthur (see below)

Brown believes that after open access has been solved, pre-publication peer review is the next destructive part of scientific publishing that needs to be tackled.

Citing a systematic review on peer review, he said the long delay it causes for others to get access to scientific results far outweighs any small benefit it might have.

“It’s a bogus idea, that there’s some group of people who can decide what’s true, what we get to read…There’s so much inertia, so much religious belief in this system.”

Ross Mounce tackled the issue of delay, too, including embargo periods that delay access to data: “You shouldn’t retard the progress of science just so you can get one more publication out of it.” Articles, he argued, are “advertorials for the science that has been done… If you don’t share your data, I don’t believe your research.”

In discussion, a participant summed up many people’s feelings here: “We are talking about a broken publishing system but we have a broken academic system.” Martin Eve, from the Open Library of Humanities, agreed: “If we didn’t have to have ridiculous appraisals into what we do, so many of the problems would evaporate.”

The Open Library of Humanities is coming soon (click on image)

There are differences for open access in humanities, Eve said, although they are also “dependent on hyperinflationary subscriptions and concerns about prestige from academics…Humanities are about 10 years behind, but being faced with the same mandates, so the backlash has been massive.”

Scholars in the humanities don’t typically have big grants. Monographs still form a key part of the literature, for which open access models haven’t progressed as far as those for articles. Data and reproducibility issues don’t apply in the same way throughout humanities as other areas. Discussion in the room and online focused on the need for clear writing to enable others to follow the context, processes, and thinking. (Update: More discussions at the unconference.)

Photo of Audrey Watters
From open data to information justice: Audrey Watters, education writer and “recovering academic”

Audrey Watters reminded us, though, that open, “isn’t always working for equality. It doesn’t always pan out in a positive way… We sometimes use the word open in place of politics, instead of a participatory politics.”

“Open,” Watters said, “is not free of ideology. It’s closely entwined with meritocracy.” She argued we need to be thinking about information justice.

Speaking of issues of justice, it’s hard not to see the issue of open access within education as one.

Photo of Nicole Allen
Nicole Allen, speaking on open educational resources

Nicole Allen from SPARC, the lead organization behind OpenCon, is an advocate for open educational resources. Allen explained that open education is about “removing barriers to full use of the technology and capacity we have to disseminate information.” The goals, she said, are “better teaching, better learning, and better access to information.”

Wikipedia has become a vital source of information for students internationally, but they need access to much more. Allen stressed the big contribution that cost of resources makes to education debt in the U.S.

Slide of data on textbook sales
Sales in just one college, one academic year: Daniel DeMarte at OpenCon

One of Daniel DeMarte’s slides underscored this. In just one college bookstore, in one year, sales were $12 million – of which $7 million came from financial aid and student loans. He spoke about the financial interest that academic institutions themselves have in this industry.

But it’s hard for me to let the academics who write and assign these expensive books off the hook here. Just as with journal publishing, interests are intertwined in complex ways, but academics are key to breaking this cycle. It’s looking as though this next generation might do it.

Meredith Niles, the early career research who is OpenCon’s first leadership award winner

Meredith Niles was honored with the first OpenCon leadership award yesterday. She’s a postdoc with a stunning list of achievements, who has also recently been appointed as early career researcher representative on the PLOS board of directors.

When Niles first encountered paywalls she couldn’t get past, “I didn’t even think about how messed up this was.” She encountered the benefits of open access, “when my cousin was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Because of the NIH access policy, everyone in my family could learn about his condition.”

The radicalization step came when she discovered a publisher would prevent her sharing the results of her own research. Her reaction to the publisher’s deal: “All you have done is take my work and format, and now you say I can’t use it?…I can’t believe this is the system we have accepted.” Niles spearheaded the campaign for the first U.S. state open access legislation.

Photo of panel
“6 talks from 6 exceptional people” at OpenCon: Meggie Mwoka far left (full details below)

Meggie Mwoka is one of the many students, student organizers, and early career researchers who presented their projects and ideas.

Mwoka is the President of the Medical Students Association of Kenya. Their training is reaching more than half of all medical students.

Mwoka exemplifies the community-building that’s going on worldwide. “We make sure it doesn’t die with us. We keep igniting the flame and make sure the fire stays hot!”

Photo of David Carroll
David Carroll, reminding us of Aaron Swartz, in the Open Access Button workshop

The Open Access Button project exemplifies the scale and ingenuity of initiatives coming out of this movement. Beginning with David Carroll (pictured here) and Joe McArthur, this project is now a rich, fast-moving, diverse, international project. (Joe is the fast-moving blur in the photo of OpenCon organizers above.)

The Open Access Button is an app that can help you register your frustration at paywalls, while also helping you to track down accessible articles. The Button workshop concentrated on building advocacy skills. Carroll said, “everyone sucks at stuff in the beginning,” but should keep on learning, acting – and celebrating successes.

If you only follow up on one of the links in this post, let it be this set of slides from Erin McKiernan. If you are an early career researcher – or someone who wants to support the next generation – everything you need to get started is there.

Photo of Erin McKiernan
Erin McKiernan, what it takes to build a science career in the open

Since working in Mexico, early career researcher McKiernan experienced the acute consequences of closed research: “It stifles science” and it contributes dramatically to disadvantage across the globe.

“If I make it in science, it has to be on terms I can live with… We are in a position to create the type of job market we would like to see. We need to see the incentives change, we need these evaluation systems to change. We have a mismatch between what we would like to see people do and what we reward them for. We need everybody at every career stage participating here.”

Let’s all help Generation Open make an open future arrive sooner.


Coda: Carolina Botero ended the day’s session with a talk about open access in Latin America and Diego Gomez, facing potential criminal conviction in Colombia and the possibility of prison for posting another academic’s master thesis online. (A petition to support Gomez is here).

Check out #OpenCon2014 on Twitter. And Iryna Kuchma’s slides about the state of open access in Europe and developing and in transition countries.

In the group photos:

3 of the OpenCon organizing team are Neleen Leslie (President and CEO of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students); Nick Shockey (Director of Programs and Engagement for SPARC); Joe McArthur (Assistant Director of The Right To Research Coalition).

Panel, from left: Meggie Mwoka (President, Medical Students Association of Kenya); Ethan Senack (U.S. Public Interest Research Group); Roshan Karn (Director, Open Access Nepal); Ahmed Ogunlaja (Executive Director, Open Access Nigeria); Meredith Niles (sustainability science post-doctoral research fellow, Harvard University); Georgina Taylor (medical and arts student, Australia, Open Access Button); and Joe McArthur standing still!

Cartoon of old school closed science libraryMore posts on these themes at Absolutely Maybe:

Open Access 2013: A Year of Gaining Momentum

On Wikipedia:

Are You a Knowledge Philanthropist? If Not, Why Not?

Wassup, Wikipedia? Oh … Wow!

The cartoon that starts this post is my own (Creative Commons License): more at Statistically Funny.

I took the photos in this post at OpenCon in Washington DC on 15 and 16 November 2014 (Creative Commons License).

* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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