Talking Points: Bianca Kramer on publishing

A former university librarian looks back at how scientific publishing has changed over the course of her career and shares her hopes for the future.

After spending 15 years as a librarian for the life sciences and medicine at Utrecht University, Bianca Kramer (@MsPhelps)recently started her own consulting firm, Sesame Open Science, to provide advice and support for projects related to open science. Throughout her career Kramer has been a strong advocate for open science and innovations in scholarly communication. Here she discusses how academic publishing and the role of libraries and librarians have changed over recent decades, and what she hopes the publishing landscape will look like in ten years.

Bianca Kramer

How have attitudes toward open access changed within the research community since you started working as a librarian back in 2008?

A change I’ve seen happening, especially over the last few years, is that open access has shifted from an option – something you could choose to do but were under no obligation to – to an expectation. Plan S – which requires researchers supported by certain funders to publish in open-access journals, platforms or repositories without embargo – has certainly played a big role. This has led to more researchers paying attention, forming opinions and participating in discussions on open access, and open science more broadly, both in public and within institutions. Overall, I think this is a very positive development.

How would you describe the main role of a university library/librarian today?

I think the main role of a university librarian remains the same: supporting researchers in their information needs – discovering, accessing and assessing existing information, as well as managing, archiving and sharing information resulting from their research.

How has the role changed over the course of your career?

There have been lots of changes, open access being one of them! This has shifted how institutions (often through their libraries) finance access to information: from buying subscriptions to paying article processing charges (APCs) or supporting diamond open-access publishing (which makes both reading and publishing free for all researchers).

In general, the information landscape has become more complex, with more decisions to be made on where and how to publish and share different types of information. This has led to libraries and librarians playing a broader role in informing researchers on things like rights management and Creative Commons licenses, and sometimes also being responsible for teaching researchers about other open science practices, like how to make their data and code findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable (aka FAIR). These are not only practical questions, but are very much connected to different goals researchers might have with sharing their research results. This is a discussion that libraries can also play a role in, and my colleague Jeroen Bosman and I recently developed a tool to facilitate these types of conversations:

Finally, university libraries and librarians also face their own question of what their goals are. Do they feel their responsibility is to follow and accommodate what researchers define as their needs? Or do they feel a responsibility to the scholarly communication ecosystem as a whole, that might require them to be more outspoken and take a stance for or against certain practices and developments?

What impact do you think Plan S will have on the publishing system?

It has been interesting to see how publishers have reacted to Plan S. On one hand, I think it has helped speed up the transition to open access (also among scholarly societies), not only through introducing APCs but also via other models like Subscribe2Open. On the other hand, there has, unfortunately, also been a lot of pushback, most lately against the rights retention strategy, which enables researchers to apply a CC-BY license to the author accepted manuscript of their articles.

I think funders pushing for immediate open access to the outputs of the research they fund is both important and effective. However, not all funders will decide to go the Plan S route, either because they feel they cannot or should not mandate this, or not in this particular way. Plan S has led to an emphasis on APC-based gold open access (including in hybrid journals, which make some but not all their articles free to access), and this has rightfully raised concerns about excluding researchers from opportunities to publish.

Are there other open-access publishing models you would prefer to see used instead of the APC?

Why, yes! I've collaborated on the Open Access Diamond Journal Study, and I'm really glad to see this model is now getting increased attention in Western countries, for example through the recent Action Plan for Diamond Open Access. I think it's encouraging that more institutions (like KU Leuven and the University of Amsterdam) are financially supporting non-APC open access, and I hope to see this grow over the coming years. Not only because the diamond model removes the inequity associated with APC-based open access, but because diamond open access journals are often scholar-led and non-commercial, which deserves more attention and support in my opinion. Hopefully, shifting away from the APC model will make mandates, like Plan S, more attractive to other funders.

How do you think peer-review will change over the next decade?

I hope peer review will become less of a gatekeeping exercise for journals, and more an open assessment of the quality of research. There are various ways to achieve this: peer reviewing preprints and making both the manuscript and the peer review reports openly available right away (like PREreview and Peer Community In); having experts peer review specific aspects of a paper (like in PubPeer); and registered reports that peer review research design and data analysis plans before publication.

These processes could happen alongside or as part of a journal publication, like eLife's new model which publishes reviews alongside preprints, or the 'Publish your Reviews' campaign. These kinds of initiatives are relatively easy for researchers to adopt as they follow the typical journal publication process while still providing the benefits of open peer review. Ultimately though, a combination of preprints and open peer review may also lessen the perceived importance of, and dependence on, journals as the main mode of publication.

What do you think are the main factors discouraging researchers from publishing preprints?

In my experience, researchers still often fear that preprinting will jeopardize their chances of getting published in the journal of their choice. There are also concerns around scooping and data misuse/misinterpretation, hesitations because of the time investment, and doubts around direct benefits.

Normalizing expectations around publishing preprints, including from publishers and funders, will help adoption, as will the recognition of preprints in research evaluations. Other factors that I think will help include: moving away from having a final version of a paper to a more dynamic 'version of record' which has multiple iterations; transitioning from using journal titles as a proxy for quality and impact; and wider public awareness of preprints. The popularity of preprints during the pandemic really highlighted why it's important to involve science communicators, journalists and members of the public in discussions on the process of research, like what it means for something to be peer-reviewed.

What do you hope the publishing landscape will look like in ten years' time?

I hope we will have finally moved away from using journal titles as a proxy for assessing the quality and impact of research, and will instead be evaluating individual research outputs on the quality of their methods and their actual impact on, for example, other research or public policy. This would allow for publication strategies that are more versatile and able to meet a wider variety of goals, such as reaching certain audiences.

This would also hopefully lessen the perceived importance of publication in a journal, and lead to the roles of journals – registration, certification, dissemination and archiving – not all being tied to the same provider. It is my hope that this would also create more room for smaller and non-commercial publishers and other service providers.

What steps need to be taken to make this happen, and what roles will librarians/libraries play in this?

For this to happen, libraries/librarians need to have the capacity and expertise to support researchers in a wider variety of publication and dissemination strategies beyond just journal articles (including pre-prints) and books/monographs.

Libraries/librarians also play an important role in deciding which publishing infrastructures to financially support, and need to develop mechanisms and criteria to help them make these decisions. More initiatives and organisations are asking for support from libraries than ever before. In addition, publishers are starting to engage more directly with researchers as customers (without the involvement of libraries), and are also bundling reading/publishing access with services around research outputs and activities. This has raised concerns about vendor lock-in, which is when companies (publishers in this instance) make it harder for customers to use services from other providers. In addition, who has control over the metadata, such as where and by whom information on the research outputs of an institution are shared. Thankfully, I see growing awareness around these issues at universities.

Bianca Kramer was interviewed by Julia Deathridge, Associate Features Editor, eLife.