Open Access Champion 2013 – Open Journal Project

To celebrate Open Access Week 2013, the Australian Open Access Support Group is recognising two ‘Open Access Champions’ – an individual and an organisation.

The Open Access Champion 2013 – Organisation Category has been awarded to the not-for-profit international development organisation Engineers Without Borders Institute’s Open Journal Project.

Julian O’Shea, the Director of the EWB Institute, who is heading up the project, spoke to Danny Kingsley about what has happened in the three months since the AOASG featured a story about the project in July.


In bestowing the Open Access Champion 2013 award the AOASG is recognising the excellent work that Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has been doing to open access to research. The Open Journal Project publishes the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering (JHE)  which is not only open access, but provides easy to understand interpretations of the technical papers, translated into the local language(s) and addresses other issues of accessibility.

This project exemplifies a true commitment to open access in its pure form. The Project has considered all aspects of accessibility, well beyond the first step of simply providing access to the original research. In addition, the stated intention of the Project to act as a stimulus for others to follow the example set further increases the already impressive impact of the Project.

Increasing academic engagement

Since the project launched there has been a great deal of interest, explained Julian. “What is really pleasing is the level of academic interest,” he said.

The EWB have been talking to practitioners in the area of WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene Wash) research. Despite the focus on development, much of this research is still published in closed journals.

“This is probably one of the most important groups for development practice”, he explained. “But even people who would like to be out in the open publish in closed journals”.

The group has been offering them the opportunity to publish in the JHE. And to increase interest, the EWB have started discussions with organisers of the international WASH conference being held next year in Australia. The JHE is intending to publish a WASH-themed issue at the same time.

“The conference brings together leading academics and practitioners in WASH, so we will be using this as a platform to showcase our relatively young journal,” said Julian. “We want to build a network of the WASH and to formalise this as another opportunity to publish”.

The project is also looking to engage researchers in many of the countries where the humanitarian work is being conducted.  “We are looking at opportunities for them to publish”, said Julian.

The Project has considered the issue of different academic standards in different countries. “If you apply a fixed standard to your journal you are ruling out many parts of the world that do not have that experience,” he said. “English is the primary language of our journal”.

Many people who work in the area of humanitarian engineering may not have higher education degrees and may not have done formal academic writing. “If English is their second language we are happy to provide people in international research who can support and collaborate on the work”, said Julian. This is an open invitation, he explained, noting the journal is still a peer-reviewed journal committed to academic and technical rigour. “Their ideas have no less merit to their work but they do face academic hurdles”.

Sharing the message in the community

The target audience for the journal’s articles are practitioners in the field in developing countries. “What we have found is the idea that something is on the web so therefore it can be accessed is a bit of a stretch”, explained Julian. The EWB have a program which is a design challenge for Australian students – to come up with research outcomes that can be more readily understood.

“They make plain language guides rather than just the 10 page article,” he said. “So part of the process is we have readable understandable summaries of the research.”

The EWB are also planning to start spreading the word in person. “As of next year we will be disseminating these outcomes in country,” he said. “Because we have a network of people in country, with our local partners we will be holding local workshops targeting the groups we know about and share in person about what some of these outcomes have been”.

The group hopes to run some workshops in Nepal, one on water and one on energy. This will be using a human connection. “We can’t underestimate that,” said Julian. “Sharing in person makes it a lot more real. We will be working on the networks within their communities that spread the word”.

This AOASG award is not the only recognition the project has had. It was shortlisted for the World Youth Summit awards which recognises ICT and technology solutions addressing poverty alleviation. “We were the only program nominated from Australia”, explained Julian.

Future plans

The Project continues to innovate, with a summer project planned. “A student will develop a technology solution that converts an academic paper’s pdf or preprint into a low bandwidth version”, explained Julian.

The EWB are hoping to be able to automate the conversion, to allow the process to be scaled up across whole journals. “We expect to have a prototype by early next year that will enable editors and publishers to have a version that is low bandwidth friendly,” he said. “So these can be accessed in the developing world where downloading a pdf can be a technical challenge – this will give practitioners more scope to download. The outcome of the project will be open source so it can be shared.

Julian and the EWB team are brimming with ideas, but time is an issue as the Open Journal Project is just one of the projects currently running. Julian would like to develop a resource pack for editors and publishers to help them with these access issues. “It could help them with the change from one type of licensing to other”, he said.  “That would make it more of a movement.”

Open Access Champion 2013 – Alex Holcombe

To celebrate Open Access Week 2013, the Australian Open Access Support Group is recognising two ‘Open Access Champions’ – an individual and an organisation.

The Open Access Champion 2013 – Individual Category – has been awarded to Associate Professor Alex O. Holcombe, who is a psychologist studying human visual perception and visual attention. He is based in the School of Psychology at the University of Sydney. Alex spoke to Danny Kingsley about his interest in open access and how he is spreading the message.

The realisation that there were flaws with the scholarly communication system started during Alex’s PhD when he began publishing in academic journals. “It was hard not to notice the many closed aspects of the process,” he said. “Research is supposed to be well documented but it is published without raw data and often the article is behind paywalls”.

But the issues Alex identified were broader than just access challenges. During meetings of journal clubs – where PhD students bring in articles for discussions – inevitably people came up with criticisms even for articles published in Nature or Science. “Yet there was no indication of any weaknesses in the paper,” explained Alex. “The group often were left wondering ‘how did this get past peer review?’”.

There was no way for others to point out errors in already published papers. Alex and his colleagues concluded this system cannot be the future of communication if these problems are being swept under the rug.

During his postdoctoral fellowship Alex began his advocacy, submitting with a colleague a letter to Nature “Improving science through online commentary” which was published in May 2003 (the paper can be downloaded from here).  The pair also contacted the director of PubMed, which was not able to add this capability at the time.

When Alex became a lecturer in Cardiff, Wales, “PLOS had just started and they were thinking of starting PLOS One, they sent a survey around to test the waters”. Alex joined the founding advisory board, and watched PLoS ONE grow to become the largest journal in the world.

Australian advocacy

Alex has been in Australia for the last seven years and became an Australian citizen last week. His activities in the open access arena has ranged from writing articles for The Conversation to blogging, advocating at professional meetings and universities, and working on new open-access scientific journal initiatives. “I have seen how the movement has gained steam”, he said.

Alex shares the difficulty most open access advocates face: “It is hard to get the academic community involved,” he said. “Most people don’t give a thought to open access”.

One solution is to jump on newsworthy items that engage academics. Alex has made several presentations to his colleagues about open access. The Australian Research Council mandate has proven to be a good excuse to have conversations about open access in the university because researchers need to know about it. Another way of spreading the message is engaging people in casual conversation.

But Alex thinks the big boon for open access has been the rise in social media because it allows a continuing dialogue around “meta-issues that aren’t normally discussed outside the pub. These are backchannels cutting across academic disciplines that we didn’t have when we started”.

He also notes that The Conversation has been a great development in Australia. The information authors receive means “I know people are reading it, and not just academics”, he said. Comments on articles are made by academics, doctors and business people. One example is a small solar technology company that needs access to engineering journals.

Future projects

Alex continues to work towards a more effective scientific communication system. One new project he is involved in is the “Registered Replication Reports” (RRR) project where he is taking an editorial role. This is a new and open-access type of article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the peak organisation in scientific psychology.

“In psychology research there are many disputed findings and people want to know if the findings will replicate,” he explained. But in the current system, it is difficult to publish negative findings such as non-replications.

The new RRR replication process begins with a submission of a proposal for an experiment that should be replicated. If the associated research is deemed important to replicate, a replication protocol is developed in conjunction with the original author.

The entire protocol – the exact series of steps involved in the experiments – is then announced prior to any collection of data.  Such preregistration often required for clinical trials to protect against bias in reporting the eventual results. But this process is only beginning to reach other types of research. Every step is documented on the Open Science Framework website with all raw data posted on the site. Commentary is encouraged, and “if it is important enough it will be published in the pages of the journal”, he said.

The project is a world-wide effort. “The first one has 27 labs across the world participating,” he said. “We have 27 datasets coming in”. The project promises to publish the results as a summary of the big experiment in the journals, with all the contributors are co-authors.

Alex is hoping that as people see this replication data it will push the broader open access message because people will see the value of making the raw data publicly available.

“To further open research we need policy changes, plus education, plus cultural change,” said Alex. “Cultural change is furthered by sharing positive examples”. This is the philosophy behind a second project in which Alex is currently involved, called “Badges to Acknowledge Open Practices”.

These badges will appear alongside articles in journals to acknowledge researchers sharing their materials, their data, and preregistering their methods., “Individual journals can decide to participate by awarding the badges to any articles they publish that meet the criteria”, he said. The project will be launched in Open Access Week and is led by the Center for Open Science.