Open Access interview with Arthur Smith

This blog post was first published on 22 April 2021 on the Hardiblog of NUI Galway Library.

In our Open Voices series, we are talking today to Arthur Smith. Arthur was until recently the Library REF Manager at Cambridge University Libraries and secretary to the UK Council of Research Repositories (UKCORR).

Hardy: Thanks for talking to me, Arthur! First, can you please summarize your journey to into Open Scholarship and Open Access?

Arthur: Well, it is a bit of a strange journey and one that’s had lots of fortuitous turns along the way. I am Australian and I did my PhD in Brisbane at the University of Queensland studying physical chemistry. I published a lot of papers, and towards the end of my PhD my wife and I were deciding what we want to do, and so eventually both of us decided that we would like to do a bit of traveling and we ended up moving to the UK.

One thing led to another, and we found ourselves in Cambridge. I think a lot of people in academic circles know of the two-body problem, especially when it comes to two people with academic backgrounds, often one person with one job and the other person will tag along. In this particular scenario I was the one tagging along.

So, I found myself in Cambridge, and this was in 2014. The REF policies and Research Council policies had recently been announced and were coming into effect and so Cambridge was looking to put on some more staff. I initially applied for a position at the university library working as an Open Access advisor but unfortunately, I didn’t get the job.

One of my very good friends, Lauren Cadwallader, who now works at PLOS in Cambridge, she got the job. But soon after that she went on maternity leave, and so I got a tap on the shoulder several months later, asking if I would still be interested in the job, this was in December 2014, and I happily accepted that position!

I started working with a very small team, so there was, Philip, and our repository manager David, so they were really just three of us who were working on Open Access. And then, in January 2015, that’s when Danny Kingsley arrives on the scene and starts up the Office of Scholarly Communication (OSC). From that point onwards, there is a rapid acceleration in the and work that we’re doing, and so over 2015 and 2016 are a lot more people that came on board with the OSC. It was a great evolution of the team in that space of time 2015 – 2017 that really set the groundwork for what the OSC would become.

There was a lot of work done on upgrading repositories, filling new positions, and eventually my role morphed into what would become the Open Access Service Manager. Essentially, it was my job to make sure that the Open Access Services at Cambridge were running smoothly. I think the Open Access team now is between about seven and eight people at Cambridge. But at the at the peak of the OSC we had between 18 and 20 people in in the OSC working on not just Open Access but also outreach and engagement for Open Research issues, research data, thesis management and general repository management. And so for a couple of years I was managing our connected services and deciding the day to day decisions on how Open Access should be delivered and managed at Cambridge.

And then Danny left Cambridge at the beginning of 2019. It seems like an age ago now! At that point, myself and Lauren took on slightly more responsibility for managing the OSC. We got to experience a lot more of the management side and the decision-making side at a high level of what actually goes into some of policies that are developed in an institution like Cambridge. Then, towards the end, I finished my role at Cambridge at the beginning of this year 2021. Towards the end I was focusing more heavily on the REF process for Cambridge, really focusing on the fine detail, getting the audit documentation right to make sure that what Cambridge was submitting met the Open Access requirements. And that brings us up to the present.

Hardy: You just mentioned that the OSC team became quite extensive. Some activities might be more described as administrative or technical such as running repositories, and others focus more on outreach and advocacy. What speaks more to you as part of the job?

Arthur: I must confess I am not a particularly technical person. I can spot a bug when I see it. I think I like both aspects, I think there is a great value in understanding the technical side. If you wanted to be able to engage with researchers, they like to know what’s going to happen with their work. On the one hand it’s fantastic to be out there explaining the benefits of Open Access to the researcher but you do have to have a bit of a little bit of a grounding in the technical aspects of how the repository runs. Researchers want to be sure that are going to be a good custodian of their research and that you are going to be able to manage it appropriately. They are especially concerned about the different levels of access that might be granted to a thesis or an Open Access document making sure that they meet requirements. That’s a very long-winded way to say that I like doing both.

I do find the greatest joy in changing people’s minds on things, and that’s a very difficult task I’ve found over the years. Academics can be extremely conservative in their views.  Things that worked for you in the past, then you tend to keep doing. Why would you rock the boat? I think Open Access can be that bit of a destabilizing force. It is a bit of an unknown for a lot of researchers. Why would I do this when I know what’s worked in the past? So, engaging sometimes leads to changing of minds. It doesn’t happen very often, but there have been a couple of light bulb moments that I’ve experienced with different researchers, ranging from Heads of Schools down to postdocs and PhD students. Where people have realized what the benefits are of Open Access and Open Research Those moments and very rare, but when they happen, they are very satisfying.

Hardy: If you look back at your six years in Cambridge what changed during these years? How would you describe the development especially with regards to behaviour of academics?

Arthur: I think there is a much greater understanding now of Open Access,. But certainly, starting off in 2014 and 2015, we were not receiving that many manuscripts in the repository. The numbers were very low. But certainly, towards the end of my time in Cambridge we were getting very stable and consistently high numbers of deposits. The behaviour of academics has changed. They have gone from not depositing publications to depositing research with us so that we can make it Open Access.

One of the underlying philosophies of the Open Access service at Cambridge was that we tried to make it as simple and easy as possible for researchers. The basic motto was that you just upload a manuscript, and we’ll deal with everything else. And that I think on to a certain level that does mean that researchers are not aware of what the policies mean that they are needing to comply with. We would get a lot of confused academics approaching us. We would often scratch our heads and think: How have they even thought that this was a requirement? I think that that speaks a little bit to the approach that we took at Cambridge of being very “hands off – we’ll do it for you institution”, whereas another institutions make academics decide the route they want to go down and make them provide information up front.

So, I think overall, understanding and knowledge that Open Access is a thing, and that it is something that must be done has certainly improved. I would say that most researchers in Cambridge and most researchers in the UK would know that there is something that they need to do. Beyond just Open Access being a thing, an idea, they know that there is something that they need to be actively doing so that has certainly been the biggest change. Whether or not researchers know what the policies are for and what happens to their work after they deposit it, I think that is still a little bit of a mystery to many researchers. That would be an area that should be addressed. If you’re working in this space, then you really should know what the policies are and what the implications of Open Access are for your research.

Hardy: I wanted to talk a bit a little bit about the different ways that researchers can achieve Open Access. We talked about repositories and they enable the Green Open Access route. But in the last few years transformative agreements have arrived that make it easier to achieve Gold Open Access. How has that worked for researchers in Cambridge?

Arthur: I think Green Open Access has been a useful vehicle, especially in the UK, to drive Open Access as a subject of interest to researchers. But if you asked most researchers, they would prefer to have the Version of Record, the published version, as the one to be available Open Access. I can’t imagine many researchers would say that they would prefer to have an accepted, unproofed copy of their work out there. In that sense the REF policy is something people comply with, it’s not necessarily something that they would want to comply with. I think they would rather have a mechanism to make the Version of Record available.

I think I see transformative agreements as the next step, I think we have achieved knowledge and understanding of Open Access in the general academic population, but the next step is to really say: you know what Open Access is now, this is what we are going to do to make the Version of Record available.

So, unfortunately I think that especially in the UK, as more institutions and publishers come on board with transformative deals there won’t be the need for Green Open Access.  It will just disappear, especially once you get the big publishers on board. Cambridge already has transformative deals with Springer and Wiley. I do not doubt that there are negotiations going on right now with Elsevier. I think in a very short space of time we are going to see a situation where the vast majority of research outputs are going to be available Open Access through a transformative deal.

At that point we need to ask: what is the utility of Green Open Access? I am sure there will still be a few standout publishers who will for many good reasons not be able to engage either in a fully Open Access world or in a transformative deal. For those publishers Green Open Access routes will remain an option. But if the volume isn’t there for Cambridge processing, say 800 papers a month, and we cut out 95% of that the volume of publications in the repository just dries up.

I think there’s going to have to be a lot of discussions going on now around how to implement new transformative deals. Once those deals are in place, a lot of institutions are going to take a hard look at the institutional repositories and having to decide what’s going to happen to those repositories. Do we still want to collect Green OA copies? If the Version of Record is out there will be automated means to get those copies into repositories if institutions so desire. And so I think the nature of institutional repositories is going to change. I think we’ve had this six or seven years where the vast majority of content being uploaded into repositories has been Green copies of manuscripts. I think going forward that’s going to change.

I think, institutional repositories are going to have to suddenly reinvent themselves as either data repositories, and that’s a role that some are already fulfilling, or as repositories for other content that institutions produce. Some might classify that as research data itself, but there is plenty of other material and objects that are produced in institutions that could find a home in institutional repositories. I think the future is exciting!

Hardy: You are thinking about the long tail of research objects in a broader sense or even educational material?

Arthur: I think all of it! It depends on your philosophy around Open Research, how much you want to make open but the lines get blurred sometimes when you talk about other outputs and research data. But there are certainly collections of objects in Cambridge’s repository which you would be hard pressed classifying as research data. They are legitimate outputs in their own right; they just don’t really have another home. Or if they do have a home it’s on some old rickety website which really needs to be preserved for the long term. I think the role of institutional repositories over the next 10 years is going to change!

The Green Open Access position in Cambridge’s repository before 2013 was that there were not many journal articles in the repository. It was full of other content. It is interesting to look at Cambridge repository and look at what is being accessed there. Even today a large volume of the download requests from that repository are for things that are not journal articles or PhD theses. There are whole collections of images and objects like that in the repository and they see quite high usage.

I think institutional repositories with the advent of transformative deals are going to have to reinvent themselves as to what they exactly do.

Hardy: I wonder what you think when authors articulate that policies like Plan S are limiting their freedom to choose where and how to publish. Should we allow for example authors to publish with more restrictive licences or to choose closed access even when they get offered Gold Open Access?

Arthur: Yes, it is an interesting question. In various discussions with funders and publishers about what should we be doing. Thinking back to the traditional way of publishing you didn’t have a choice! You had a choice of where to publish but what the publisher did with your work you had no choice so you would often hand over copyright or at least a publishing license agreement to the publisher and then they would distribute the copies across the world.

The advent of Open Access meant that you now have a choice between either Open Access or Closed, and if you choose Open Access, then you have a choice over the licensing of that work. I do get the sense that this choice is going to disappear now that Plan S is in place. The mandates around having a CC BY license are pretty strong.

There are already transformative deals in place where there is no choice. From the Open Access point of view that’s fantastic because CC BY is the goal of all Open Access advocates. We want outputs to be available as freely as possible to as many people as possible and so that is goal achieved. But I can’t help but think that for a couple of years now we’ve dangled this idea of freedom in front of academics. Freedom to choose Open Access and more freedom to choose the type of license you might want. Now that choice is in many ways being taken away from them.

There are equally good arguments on the other side. If you are a funded researcher and your funder tells you that what the policy is then you need to stick with it. You cannot accept the funding if you’re not going to follow the attached rules. Obviously, the rules get a lot more fluid if you are not funded by an external research body.

So, in many ways now the main drivers for Open Access are the funders. The funders are in the driver’s seat. If researchers and institutions want to have a say in the future direction of academic publishing, then researchers and institutions really need to make their voices heard now! Because the groundwork for the future of academic publishing is already being laid by all the transformative deals. I get a sense that once we start engaging in some of these deals a precedence will be set, and it will be very difficult to go back from that. The time to make those decisions is now. If academics want to preserve some semblance of choice over licensing of Open Access objects, then they need to speak up. Personally, I think although CC BY is still the best choice for most people I think authors should continue to choose. There are certainly specific scenarios where you may not want to choose CC BY and you may want to go slightly more restrictive.

Hardy: Just following on from that, yesterday I watched a talk at the UKSG Conference where speaker talked about that funders had “appropriated” the voice of Open Research from libraries. You have earlier agreed with that observation but wonder if that is a bad thing? What should the voice of libraries be in that discussion going forward?

Arthur: It is hard to know exactly how funders decide what they decide to do. I have been on various workshops for funders to help kind of decide where the future might go. And it always feels as though the decision has already been made and that we are just kind of fiddling at the edges of decisions. I do get a sense that funders in the UK and maybe elsewhere are very bullish in their approach. They set the tone and they make decisions, and everyone just follows.

It is obviously a very delicate balance. Institutions want the funding and researchers want the funding that funders provide so both should be abiding by the rules that the funder sets. But I do feel that there needs to be a little bit of dialogue here.

Coming at it from another perspective, I feel as though institutions have not done themselves any favours in this scenario, because a lot of institutions have been very slow to engage in this in this space. In institutions not engaging they haven’t been able to set the agenda for what Open Research should be. Instead, it has fallen on funders to decide what the future should be. Institutions need to become more engaged so they can set the tone rather than the funder.

Hardy: Thank you Arthur! Is there anything I missed to ask you?

Arthur: The only thing I would say, one of the things that frustrated me and a lot of researchers at my time working in Cambridge was the complexity of the policies that we were dealing with. For the last six or seven years everyone in the UK has been trying to grapple with a very complex policy landscape. I really hope that moving forward it becomes a lot easier for institutions and for researchers.  The publishers themselves have had to grapple with all the changes going on. So, I hope that with the advent of transformative deals we can reach a new kind of level playing field where complying with funder policies is much easier for academics and researchers. I hope that lesson has been learned over the last couple of years that you need to make policies simpler.

Hardy: That’s a good note to end on. What is next for you?

Arthur: Well, I finished my role at Cambridge earlier this year, and after spending nearly eight years in the UK we decided that that we would come back to Australia, mostly for the benefit of my young son. We had a rather interesting time getting through quarantine and re-establishing ourselves in Australia. What I would really like to next is advancing Open Research in Australia. I think that Australian research punches above its weight internationally and yet uptake of Open Access in Australia has been eclipsed by other countries, the UK in particular. So, what I would really like to be working on is driving forward the Open agenda in Australia.

Hardy: Good luck with that and we are looking forward to hearing from you!

Born and raised in Brisbane, Australia, Arthur completed his PhD and postdoctoral studies in physical and computational chemistry at The University of Queensland, before moving to the United Kingdom where he gained experience away from the bench as a freelance copy editor and editorial assistant. Beginning in 2014 he advised and guided Cambridge researchers on open access policy and was responsible for the management and coordination of Cambridge University’s Open Access Service. He has served on a number of groups including the Research Councils’ Open Access Practitioners Group, as secretary to the UK Council of Research Repositories (UKCORR) and a member of the community advisory groups for IRUS-UK and the Jisc Publications Router. Recently returned to Australia with his family, he is exploring how best to apply his UK Open Access experience to the unique challenges of Australian higher education.

 The interview was conducted by Hardy Schwamm, Open Scholarship Librarian at NUI Galway and member of the Open Scholarship Community Galway.