APE 2010: Open Access and Thinking Beyond the Document

Last week I was in Berlin where I listened to some amazing talks on the future of publishing and scholarly communication delivered at the APE conference 2010. Underneath you will find a selection of what I felt to be the most interesting bits.

One of the key speakers during this year’s event was Stefan Gradmann from the IBI in Berlin. He gave several talks on Open Access and the future of the document. In his first talk, which focused on the birth of Open Access from the spirit of the serials crisis, Gradmann made a distinction between an exploitation based publication economy and a dissemination based publication economy. Interestingly enough, Gradmann places both Green ánd Gold Open Access publishing together with Closed Access publishing, underneath the paradigm of the exploitation based economy. One of the key questions he focused on was whether scholarly publications should be seen as a public good or whether they can (also) be marketable products.

According to Gradmann, one of the stigma’s that has haunted OA from its initial beginning, is the fact that for a long time (and still) it has been seen as a model that would cost less and would tackle the problems brought up by the Serials Crisis and its accompanying price increases. This publication economy fatally prominently assisted at the birth of OA and at the same time at the stigma of OA of being of a second class and low quality level.

As Gradmann states, the closed access model led to an absurd scenario in the digital publishing environment, where the exploitation rights end up in the hands of the publishers and are again bought by librarians at a cost which earns the publishers a revenue that has increasingly become disproportionate with the cost of handling and production. The consequences are that this closed publishing scenario has thus led to a very expansive outsourcing model. Next tot that, this model is only effective as long as scientific communication is seen as a commercial good that can be merchandised. The exploitation model is thus sustainable under three conditions only, where it must be operated expansively, it must be constantly pushed further and it must abide to the laws of free exchange. This has led to the problem which Gradmann denotes as ‘scarcifying’.

Gradmann also claims that, where Green Open Access still operates under the fundamental principles of the traditional publication economy and thus under the exploitation economy, it is fundamentally parasitic on that system and for that reason probably cannot be made sustainable. Interestingly enough Gradmann claims that Gold Open Access publishing, with its diversified strategies of refinancing based on author pays, subsidies and value added services, is not much more than a redirection of financial streams within the same exploitation paradigm and for that reason has not been very successful up till now.

What Gradmann proposes is a model in which there is a sedimentation process of knowledge beyond which scientific information can appropriately be merchandised as a commercial good, and before this state is reached the business model should be Not-For-Profit. As long as it needs to float freely, selling access to that information is not a good idea. The problem is that as long as the scientific community confers the free and efficient circulation of communication streams to external service providers, there will be a contradiction between the exploitation and the dissemination model. Gradmann proposes for the intermediate period a model in which a product can be made freely available in a dissemination paradigm with value added services build on top of that. Gradmann lists a variety of these possible services having to do with quality assurance, marketing, interaction and social dynamics, natural language processing and semantic web technology and services based on semantic extraction and aggregation. As he states however, all these services take Open Access and Open Technology as a prerequisite, we need an Open framework to base these services on, as we also need technological standards to build upon. What these changes will mean for the different stakeholders in the publishing value chain is still unclear according to Gradmann.

In his second talk Gradmann focused on the future of the document in scholarly communication. He asked the fundamental question: what lies beyond the document? Gradmann talked about the evolution, digital emulation and erosion of the printed document continuum. As he sees it, the scholarly publication has been transmitted from the Gutenberg galaxy into the Turing Galaxy on into the semantic web. In the Gutenberg Galaxy we still work via the linear document continuum (or the traditional publishing value chain). This linear circular continuum has evolved into a network paradigm, where all the activities in the chain are connected to one another. Gradmann sees the current phase not as the end but as an intermediate stage in which we are seeing the first signs of a process happening which will be really disruptive. In the web based scholarly working continuum we are moving far beyond the concept of the document into the realm of document disintegration. This movement started with the advance of web documents, consisting of multiple linked pages and linear documents in HTML. This process has been accelerated with the evolution of the semantic web. RDF triples, which are in a way nothing more than small statements, can be dynamically re-aggregated into variable intellectual entities, which can be processable by machines. As Gradmann states, these RDF-triple sets can be the equivalent of what we now publish as ‘documents’. He wonders then what it would mean to build a publishing chain around triples and what it would mean to ‘read’ these documents.

Before we reach this stage however some big problems still need to be resolved, having to do with scalability, integrity and preservation. What actually constitutes the identity of these documents, and what constitutes the document’s boundaries? Where do these aggregations start and where do they end? How will this paradigm shift affect science and scholarship? As an example of this development Gradmann mentions the OpenCalais network in which unstructured documents are broken down into named entities, facts, and much more (it also offers automatic tagging). We are currently in the starting phase of the document notion and we do not yet know what comes afterwards. As Gradmann states, anyone pretending to know can not be taken entirely serious. Yet we should not be frightened, where semantic publishing (which Gradmann defines as new modes of RDF based content aggregation and generation) may have quite some strategic potential, also for instance for the Humanities.


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