PhD student Martijn van der Meer is doing a historic study about juvenile care in the Netherlands at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. As Open & Responsible Science Ambassador, he explores how scholarship can be made more accessible. Together with Tilburg professor Juliëtte Schaafsma, he wrote an editorial in NRC about the downside of open access.

Since 2013, the government has been striving to make all publicly financed research in the Netherlands accessible to everyone, i.e. open access. The idea was that researchers and institutions would then become less dependent on big publishers with expensive subscriptions, and scholarship would reach society more easily. In practice, however, big publishers charge high prices for the right to open access publishing. Scholars and university staff previously denounced the double costs that universities pay for them. But Van der Meer’s criticism mainly targets a new development: the large-scale data collection by publishers.

You are critical about open access, the publication practice by which everyone can read a scholarly article or book free online. But that practice ensures that the visibility of publications becomes greater and that they are cited more often. How can you object to that?

“I’m not against open access in general. Open access is necessary to reach a wider audience and to make research accessible in parts of the world where that’s not always the case. Although you can be against the high costs, it’s still something I feel we need to applaud.”

So what are the disadvantages?

“The problem is the revenue model of big publishers like Elsevier and Holtzbrinck Publishing Group who take off with the profits. Today, these publishers of leading academic journals are not just publishers, but above all suppliers of key software that scholars use for their research. And the companies carefully analyse those research activities.

“In Rotterdam, for example, when you publish in a journal, after an embargo period, the publication is made publicly accessible via a digital repository. The software that operates that repository, PURE, is owned by the previously mentioned Elsevier. The plan may have been to make open access research less dependent on big publishing companies, but we are now using software owned by those same companies to facilitate open access. Due to the increasing dependence on research software, publishers are getting a sort of monopoly over the entire research process.”

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PhD student Martijn van der Meer would like to initiate a discussion on the power of large scientific Open Access publishers. Image credit: Martijn van der Meer

How does that affect you as a researcher?

“You tend to notice it when you look out for it. At first sight, you’re working with very user-friendly and secure programs. But when you take a critical look at the companies behind this software, you see a problematic situation arising. Besides PURE, there are also important programs like Mendeley, with which researchers can update their footnotes, and Sciencedirect, which you need to find online articles. Both are owned by Elsevier. When you use these tools, your mouse movements, reading behaviour and sources are carefully monitored and managed by an external party like Elsevier. Often, researchers have not given explicit permission for this.”

And what is the objection?

“I’m worried that this data collection stimulates a process in which a researcher’s behaviour is increasingly observed. And it’s not just their privacy that’s at stake. I’m also worried that this software determines who is a good scholar, and who isn’t. The shareholder reports of the parent company of Elsevier show that the company is keen to focus more on software that processes that data of and about scholars into ‘business intelligence’, which can be used for management purposes. This gives publishers control over information that universities use to decide whether a researcher is given a permanent contract.

“At the moment, behaviour data is not used in this way, but it’s technically possible. If decisions about research software are taken based on efficiency instead of public values, then that’s a real danger. It means we are all stumbling towards a dystopian situation. We mustn’t want this type of software to determine what is good scholarship.

“That path would also be diagonally opposed to the motto of ‘recognition and appreciation’ 1. If we really feel that research should not be about the number of publications, but on their quality, we must stay away from collecting quantitative data about researchers with these types of tools.”

But what can we do about it?

“Researchers, managers and staff at the university must make fundamental choices about what is valuable in the relationship between scholars and external parties: a wide reach or independence? And if we compromise on user friendliness for independence, how serious is that?

“Although library staff, data stewards and policy officers now already do a lot to help researchers, EUR should have a sustainable, open-access policy that incorporates a better relationship to commercial parties. EUR could replace Elsevier’s software by open-source alternatives and promote the development and management of that software by a larger group of institutions. The national SURF, which supplies software to institutions of higher education, could play a leading role together with the Universities of the Netherlands.

“Often researchers are amazed and shocked when they learn what data Elsevier collects about them. At the same time, in practice researchers just want everything to work fast. But if they are really concerned, we need to do something together.”

In a reaction, Matthijs van Otegem, director of the university library, says:

“The fact that big tech companies collect data about their clients and use it to develop new services, control the market and sometimes even sell on this data is well known in the world of online services. Van der Meer therefore asks for real attention for how this problem manifests itself in the academic world and how we as the academic community can respond satisfactorily.

“He links this problem with open-access policy in the Netherlands. This policy is based on the principle that research results funded with public money must also be publicly available. It is unclear how Van der Meer feels that this policy contributes to the problem described above. I would want to reformulate the question from the article ‘a wide reach or independence?’ as ‘how do we ensure that we have a wide reach AND independence?’ A university like EUR should have both an open-access policy and consciously protect its own knowledge.

“I wonder whether the open source road offers the solution to the problem of market dominance. Nevertheless, I feel there are four effective measures that a university can take to limit the risk of commercial dominance.

Firstly, as a university you must ensure that you own your academic output and don’t place everything with the same supplier. The Erasmus Data Repository is therefore with a different supplier than our publications.

It also helps to make clear agreements about ownership and who may do what with which data. For example, it has been agreed that all EUR data in PURE also remains EUR’s property and that Elsevier may only use it for things that are necessary to deliver a service.

Finally, it’s important that the privacy and rights of the members of your academic community are protected by providing minimum personal data when logging in to databases and search systems. Publishers preferably want each user to create a personal profile. The policy of the library is that we let users log in based on a meaningless identifier, which can only be traced to a person within EUR and nowhere else. Researchers can further protect their copyright. The copyright information desk at the library can help them in this.”

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  1. In 2019 , various lobby organisations representing Dutch researchers and universities resolved to assess researchers on the domains in which they work, like education and impact of the research, instead of only the number of publications in their name.  ↩︎