"I want to make it as easy as possible for the researcher"

Interview with Jan de Boer

This year, International Open Access Week takes place between 24 and 30 October. During this week all kinds of activities are organised to make open access a new norm in scholarship and research. An excellent opportunity to ask Jan de Boer a number of questions. Jan is a member of the Utrecht University Library Publishing Support team, and in this role he is a source of information related to questions in the field of open access and open science. He also works as a subject librarian for the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences.

Foto van open access deskundige Jan de Boer
Jan de Boer, open access expert, in the University Library Utrecht Science Park; PhotoA Annemiek van der Kuil Photography

By now you may call yourself the expert in the field of open access and open science. How did this come about?

This topic sort of came my way, but I have always been interested in it. About 15 years ago there were already some colleagues who said: ‘that thing about open access publishing, why don’t you go do something with it?’ I have been the open access expert for some 6 years now.

In the library we have agreed upon dividing the work in expert groups, for instance in the field of data management, copyright, open access and open science. As an expert on open access and open science, I act as a contact for my library colleagues, but also outside the library I stay in touch with researchers about everything related to open access.

In your role of expert, can you give a rough outline of the developments you have witnessed, say the past five years, and which have had a lasting impact?

Firstly, researchers have more options to publish open access: we have closed deals with publishers, we have introduced Taverne, and we work with a large team in the library towards making open access possible. And by a large team I mean not only my colleagues in Publishing Support, but also everyone who is involved in open access, from the colleagues who manage the repository to the people who make decisions on a policy level.

What is the Amendment Taverne?

Pursuant to Article 25fa of the Dutch Copyright Act, researchers may make the publisher's version of their articles available open access after a reasonable period of time after the first publication. Would you like to know more? Read how the library can help you.

But besides this increase in options for researchers, the demands we make on them are increasing too. And when you make more demands, for instance look at NWO (the Dutch Research Council) that requires researchers to publish open access, I think you also need to offer support. Suppose a researcher does not succeed in publishing open access, then we still have Taverne as a safety net. There is always a route to open access publishing. You can’t just make demands and then go on to say: sorry, you are on your own now.

Up until a few years ago, open access was an isolated topic and one which the library was very involved in. One of the developments I have seen, is the Open Science Programme of which open access is a part. Within that programme a major point of interest is that you can really only change the publication system if you also take a close look at recognition and awards. Is a researcher judged by the impact factor of the journal he or she is publishing in, or is a researcher judged on the quality of the paper and how openly the research was conducted? This is an important development because it helps researchers being able to choose for open access.

There is always a route to open access publishing.

Jan de Boer

Do you think that the library offers researchers enough support?

I do think we can offer them enough support, but the question is whether this is common knowledge among researchers. Do they know we can answer their questions? The fact that the people who know almost anything about the subject can be found in the library, is something we have to get into the heads of researchers. The subject specialists of the library play a major part in spreading the word. They visit the faculties, or try to get information included in newsletters, so that people know that the library is the place to be when they are looking for answers.

In my job I do two things: on the one hand I am occupied with policy matters, I advise the library or the faculties about open access and what they can do to promote it. In addition, a large part of my time is taken up by answering questions. And a recurring one is: what do I have to pay for publishing open access? Not so much what do I have to pay, but do I have to pay? What arrangements are available?

To help researchers we have come up with the UU Journal Browser, a useful tool I use myself, because I don’t know the requirements of each journal by heart. The UU Journal Browser shows you in what journals you, as a Utrecht University author, can publish free of charge or at a discount. Unfortunately, there are less  open access options when it comes to books.

What do you hear from researchers about open access and open science? Approval? Resistance? Worries?

It is clear that costs are always involved in publishing. So most resistance has to do with money. In open access there is a shift from ‘the reader has to pay’  to ‘the author has to pay’. The problem is that there is still a barrier to the publication, one that is moved from reader to author. You have to make the author aware of this shift. On the other hand I want to make the process as easy as possible for the researcher. They should not have to worry about costs at all. That is a real dilemma for me.

So how do you keep the balance?

The truth is, we could improve a thing or two in Utrecht. What we are doing now is taking care of a variety of things, but in doing so we exclude publishers. We close deals with major publishers such as Wiley, Elsevier and Springer where you can publish free of charge, up to a certain point. But we do not enter into agreements with smaller publishers. In this way an unequal playing field is created. That is something we should not wish for and we must do something about it. It is true that the Open Access Fund contributes to publishing in full open access journals, but that is more difficult to organise. So sometimes it is just easier to publish at Elsevier. These kind of questions require a solid open access policy.

A recurring question is: what do I have to pay for publishing open access?

Jan de Boer

Suppose you were in charge, what would your ideal publication landscape look like?

We have not discussed diamond open access yet. We talked before about shifting the barrier from reader to author, but in the end you want all barriers gone within academic publishing, with the exception of quality of course. This means that you should move in the direction of a diamond model in which the costs are not paid by the reader or the author, but by the community as a whole. Research institutions and libraries can become members or donors of a platform on which journals are published. Publishing costs money, whichever way you look at it, but if you don’t want those costs to hinder access you should solve the problem on a community level.

And you should start wondering about what a journal actually is. What is a journal article? Why do we publish in the way we are publishing now, via editorial boards and journal issues, sometimes resulting in taking up months before an article can be read in a particular journal issue?

Take a look at preprints, preliminary publications. Preprint servers are available where you can publish your paper immediately. First you share, then you organise peer review, either by submitting your piece at a journal or by organising peer review via the platform in question. In this way you speed up the sharing of your publication.

In the end publishing comes down to this: you organise feedback on a piece and based on that feedback it is either published or not with a stamp of approval on it. That does not necessarily have to be in a journal with a certain reputation of quality. And if we make the feedback open, share it openly, the whole process from submission to final result is completely transparent, and everyone can decide for themselves what is of good quality and what is not.