Season 1

Episode 3. Summer of Open Science: A Discussion on Open Access ft. Dr. Peter Suber – Part 1

Episode 2 Episodes list Episode 4

In this episode of the Offspring Podcast, Srinath Ramkumar and Niko talk to Dr. Peter Suber, the director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication. He has been involved with the Open Access Movement from the very beginning, even before the international initiatives were conceived.
In this first part, we talk about his career path that ultimately led to the position he holds today, we discuss the history of Open Access, copyrights in publication, peer review and preprints among other topics.

You can find more about Dr. Peter Suber at his homepage and about his work on the Open Access Tracking Project Twitter. Get in touch with Dr. Suber on Twitter, and check out his book Open Access,, his latest book Knowledge Unbound, and his work on the Open Access Tracking Project.

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Srinath: Hello and welcome to the third episode of Offspring Magazine the Podcast. I’m your host Srinath Ramkumar. Joining me today is my co-host for this and all future episodes Nikolai Hörmann.

Nikolai: Hi, everyone!

S: It’s nice to have you with us Niko. In today’s episode, we got to interview a very Open Access person, a person who’s famous for his work in the field of Open Science and Open Access – Dr. Peter Suber, the director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication. How are you feeling about this interview, Niko? Are you excited?

N: Yes, I’m super excited because I’m also the head of the Open Science workgroup within the PhDnet, and Open Access is, of course, one of the big topics of Open Science so talking to him about the Open Access publishing or how the Open Access movement started is actually quite exciting. In the early 2000s, there were a couple initiatives that wanted to make use of the Internet for the purpose of publishing scientific knowledge, and he was actually part of the Budapest Initiative that started in 2002. There’s also an initiative called the Berlin Declaration of Open Access, which the Max Planck Society was a part of. So hearing how they managed to get to the point where we actually have Open Access journals and most people at least have heard the term, It seems to have come a long way, so it would be interesting to see also what he thinks of the future of Open Access. 

S: I also think it’ll be really interesting to see what Dr. Suber thinks about the Max Planck Society and how they are doing in terms of Open Science and Open Access.

N: Definitely, it would be nice to get an outside point of view of what the Max Planck Society is doing for it, whether we are helping to advance Open Access and Open Science or if we are actually inhibiting it to some extent.

S: Okay, without any further ado, let’s get on with the discussion with Dr. Peter Suber.

S: Dr. Suber, thanks for joining us on this episode of the Offspring Podcast! 

Dr. Peter Suber: Glad to be here, thank you!

N: We were actually getting quite excited for the interview. So, first of all, ≤ it might be nice if you could maybe give us a short introduction to how you got into the position you are in right now. Because I mean you started studying Philosophy actually, then you went to law school, and after getting your professorship position you then decided ‘now I’d like to do Open Access’ or be an advocate for that. So how did that actually come to be?

PS: This could be a long story for a short story, so I’ll start to make it short but if you want more detail just let me know. Yes, I got a PhD in Philosophy and there were no good jobs at the time, there were some bad jobs but I turned them down and I realised I couldn’t afford to be picky. The job market was not very good so I went to law school as a way to wait for a better job to come open, and I finished. Then I got a good job teaching Philosophy at a good school and I was very happy with it. I taught there for 21 years and I eventually got tenure and I became a senior professor. I didn’t really expect to change my career. But I was a professor during the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web and I was also a publishing scholar in both Philosophy and Law and, as soon as the Web came along, I began to put my publications on my personal website. And, of course, I made them Open Access and I did it, I confess, partly to play with HTML and just see what the Web was like. When it was brand new, it was terribly exciting, even more exciting than it is today. But after I put them online, free of charge, I started to get serious correspondence from other philosophers and lawyers, much more than I had gotten from the print versions of the very same publications. So I began to realise that the Web was useful for scholars, it wasn’t just cool. And, at the time, people were looking for ways to make good use of it, and I thought this is a good use of it that I don’t see anybody else talking about. And it turns out there were a few other people talking about it but it was a very small thread in the much larger conversation about what we could do with the Web and the Internet. But because I didn’t initially notice those other voices I began to write about it myself and then, I guess, I wrote about it more than other people did, so eventually, I got a profile as somebody who was specialising in this. Even though I was not, that is I was a beginner like everybody else. And what I really hoped was that somebody else would be the expert and would publish frequently on this so I could follow them and get back to my regular job, which I still loved. But nobody else played that role, so in time I became the expert that I had been waiting for. And about this time I had a sabbatical and I was planning to finish a few Philosophy articles and as soon as my sabbatical started I just found myself pushing all the Philosophy off my desk and focusing on Open Access. And I spent the whole year working on it intensively and I realised during the year – this is what I wanted to do. So I didn’t lose interest in my field, I didn’t lose interest in my school or my students. I loved them all but I just fell in love with something even more. And I realised I couldn’t give up and access the time that I wanted to give it or the time that it deserved, while I was still a full-time Philosophy professor so I had to quit. And I did. So I quit as a tenured full professor and I had no other job, that is, there were no jobs in Open Access at the time. But during my sabbatical, I had a grant to work on Open Access and I was confident that I could get more grants to work on Open Access. It was a kind of, I mean in retrospect, it was a risky thing to do but it worked. I really did live on grants for 10 years. And during those 10 years, I did a lot of writing and research on Open Access and was hired at Harvard to lead the Office for Scholarly Communication, which is my current job. so after 10 years living on grants, I came back in from the cold and now I have an academic job again and a salary. But, I would say, most of the work on Open Access, for which I’m known, is what was done during that period on grants when I had nobody to report to and I could do anything I wanted. And my goal then and one of my goals now is to do my best to stay on top of everything that’s happening and to write about it, to share what I learned and share my perspective on it. And that was actually possible in the early days because there was not that much going on – there was at least as much as one person could handle But today there’s much more than one person can handle so I don’t even pretend to stay on top of literally everything now. But I still do my best to stay on top of what’s important and, of course, that’s hard to do and I admit that I’m only doing it incompletely these days.

N: Okay. Does your current position allow you to do whatever you want in the context of Open Access? Are you allowed to write whatever articles you want about it and so on?

PS: I run an Office that has a specific mission so my first job is to accomplish the mission or pursue the mission of that Office. Harvard has nine schools, and every school at Harvard has an Open Access policy, and my Office’s responsibility is to implement those policies, so I put that first. But, in order to do the rest of my job, I have to stay on top of what’s going on, and if I wanted to write about it more than I’m already writing about it, I could. I think I would have the support of all my colleagues. But when I got this job I actually shifted from spending most of my time on writing to spending most of my time on other ways to advance Open Access, particularly implementation and pro bono consulting, that is consulting without payment. And so I spend most of my time on that these days and I’m happy. If I wanted to write something I could but I generally don’t want to. I have other things to do.

N: So, basically, you are helping other people that want to implement Open Access policies to write them up?

PS: Yes. I advise them on their draft language, if they have draft language, I advise them on strategy. I advise universities, I advise funders, publishers, scholarly societies, government agencies, startups, and individual researchers. Basically, when I was living on grants, the grant foundations paid me to give away my time in this kind of consulting, and my current employer Harvard Library also regards this as something I can do on work time. And I’m very grateful for that.

N: Okay. Right, so one interesting thing that you mentioned, Peter, was that you were a professor when the Internet was starting to become bigger so now the Internet seems to be changing the whole field of publishing, in general. And now I wanted to ask what you think, how the scientific publishing should adjust to that as well?

PS: The short answer is: it should all be Open Access. There are lots of other ways to accommodate it but that’s where I would start. I once wrote an article saying Open Access is the minimum we should expect from scientific publishing, not the maximum. And I felt that I had to say that at the time because the very idea of Open Access was regarded as radical by many publishers and it’s far from radical, it’s the minimum of what we should expect. And once we have Open Access to all this literature, then all kinds of entrepreneurs and tool builders can come along and ingest that research and do interesting things with it. And those are some of the exciting things that go beyond the minimum. But to make those things possible, at least, we have to make it open and we have to make it open in two ways. These two ways were spelled out in the Budapest Statement, the Berlin Statement, and the Bethesda Statement but I’ll just mention them again here. One of them is that it should be free of charge but the other is that it should be free of needless copyright restrictions. It has to be both in order to allow machines to have access, in order to do the analysis or the crunching that would be useful to the rest of us. I think we underestimate how much serious research today is already mediated by software. For example, search engines. We couldn’t do Internet research without search engines. But there are other kinds of software, sophisticated software that would facilitate our research if only the software had access to all the texts and all the data that we wanted to use. And we’re far from there and one reason is that we don’t have the kind of universal Open Access that would make those tools as useful as we hope. But, by the way, compared to 20 years ago we have enough Open Access literature to justify people in building those tools and starting to build them. Even if they only work on the Open Access literature and they have to disregard everything else, there’s still a large enough corpus for them to get going. But I think they’ll be much more useful to all of us, and more widespread, and better known, and more sophisticated, when they have an even bigger corpus to work on. And, in fact, when everything is Open Access. Then we can move beyond, let’s say, making the raw material or the ingredients open to all the interesting things we can do with the raw material and the ingredients.

N: Yes. I mean this whole Open Access movement, as you mentioned before with the Budapest initiative, basically said that there’s a problem with the current publishing system. And you mentioned two things that are actually the basis of this, which are the copyright and the free access to it. So do you think some more of the traditional publishers have tried to take a step in the right direction to address these issues? For example, what I’ve recently read up on Springer Nature, that they, I think, and also the Science Magazine journal, that they actually give the copyright to the authors or, rather, the authors keep it. So what do you think about the situation?

PS: First, there are publishers who make all their journals Open Access and who make all the articles in each of their journals Open Access. That’s far beyond what Springer Nature is doing, it’s far beyond what Science is doing. But then there are journals that, let’s say, publishers that are experimenting, and some of their journals are fully open and some of them are not. Some of them are half-open, we call that hybrid. So different publishers are, let’s say, testing the waters to different degrees, but there are already publishers that are full in, who are making all their work open in both ways. That is no paywalls and no copyright restrictions. And there are a couple of ways to solve the copyright problem. One is to let authors retain their rights in the first place; the other is to have authors transfer them to the publisher, but then the publisher gives key rights back to the author in the contract or gives the author a license to reuse the work in a certain way and gives the public the right to reuse the work in certain ways. If you did it very very carefully, the two could be legally equivalent: the public could have the same rights to reuse the work either way. But it’s simpler simply to let authors retain their rights in the first place, and some of the most effective and progressive Open Access policies by funders and universities are rights retention policies. And they make it easy for authors to retain these rights. So that even if the publisher would rather have them it’s too late because the university or the author already has them, and is keeping them, and is exercising them to make their work open. 

N: I see, so actually that means that the publishers cannot gain the rights in the first place, they even cannot have it in their publishing contract?

PS: Right. Again, there are a couple ways to do this. Harvard has rights retention policies, and actually, Harvard was the first university to have university-level rights retention policies, but we also allow a waiver or an opt-out. So, by default, we have the rights to make work by Harvard authors open, and the authors themselves have the right to make their work open. But if they think it’s terribly important to publish in a journal that does not want Open Access copies, then the authors can basically waive the license to make their work open, that they already have. And when our policies were new, we didn’t know whether the waiver rate would be high or low. And some people who strongly supported Open Access feared that the rate would be high – maybe 40, 50, 60%, but it’s low – the waiver rate is about 5%. And MIT adopted a Harvard-style policy, their waiver rate is below 5%. The University of California adopted a Harvard-style rights retention policy, and their waiver rate is below 5%. About 90 universities around the world have adopted this kind of policy but we only have data on the waiver rate from a few. But the waiver rate seems to be low. And so we give authors this right and it’s important, in the spirit of academic freedom, to give them that right. On the other hand, we seem to be proving the proposition that if you change the default to open, then you change behaviour on a large scale because most people follow the default.

N: That sounds interesting. I wasn’t aware, I mean I have to admit as a PhD student I first got into contact with publishing like half a year ago, so only then I started to think about copyright. This was completely elusive to me before. And now I’m actually starting to realise how important it is to do this because, I heard that, you can just get sued if you try to share it on a personal website and so on.

PS: You can, although in practice what happens is – you’ll get a takedown notice or the host of your website will get takedown notice. And if you comply with the takedown notice, then you will not be sued. But it is true, you could infringe copyright if you’re not careful, and so it’s important to be careful. And, if you don’t mind me digressing, there’s a kind of analogy here: not only was I teaching Philosophy at a time when the Internet was new, I also was teaching Philosophy at a time when personal computers were new. And I remember how cool they were and how I felt I had to give them a lot of time to learn how they worked or what I could do with them. And in the middle of that, I thought ‘oh, gosh, this is so interesting and so complicated, there’s so much to learn that this is going to take time away from other things in my professional life’. But, of course, I didn’t begrudge the time because it was so interesting. That’s exactly how I feel about copyright these days. More and more scholars are discovering, kind of to their dismay, that they really have to pay attention to copyright, the way an earlier generation had to pay attention to personal computers – it’s unavoidable, it’s necessary for your work, you could make mistakes if you’re not paying attention, you could also take good advantage and benefit yourself if you paid attention. And so yes, it takes a lot more time to pay attention properly, and it does perhaps take time away from your work, but you really have to do it. It’s part of being a professional scholar these days.

N: Yes, I completely agree. There are many things that need to be kept in mind when you want to be a researcher. Also the whole thing with the data sharing and so on, like having in mind how to actually do it, because oftentimes it’s not that easy to just say ‘okay, I want to share my data’, but then you need repositories and things and can actually share it. Okay, do you mind if we change the topic a bit to another thing that is concerned with publishing? So I think the peer review process is a very interesting part of publishing that basically decides on whose work gets to be put out. So what do you think of the traditional peer review? And do you think that there are some new forms that could be implemented?

PS: For sure. I don’t mind traditional peer review. I think some new forms are better. In the early days of my own work, I was very careful not to write about peer review because one of the common misunderstandings was that Open Access research was not peer-reviewed, or that it depended on a certain kind of peer review. And peer review comes in many forms. And if we had to wait to reach a consensus on the best form of peer review, then we’d never get to the next step because we’ll never reach a consensus on that. And I always thought and I still believe that Open Access is compatible with every kind of peer review and, of course, some kinds are better than others, but Open Access is compatible with all of them. So if you want to do peer review the old way you can still make the results open. If you want to do peer review in some innovative new way you can do that, and still make the work open. So, as long as I was pushing for Open Access above all, I could be, let’s say, agnostic about peer review. Privately, I was not agnostic, I had preferences. But I was afraid that if I wrote about those preferences people would think they were somehow linked to Open Access and, on the whole, they’re not linked, but there’s an exception. There’s at least one actual linkage, a true linkage, and that is open peer review – when you make the submitted version or preprint open. Then, first of all, that’s a link between peer review and Open Access. The public can view it, read it, and maybe comment on it. Meantime, the editorial board might be assigning peer reviewers to do some kind of peer review. It could be traditional peer review, it could be some other kind. And then, if some version of it is later approved by the journal’s peer-review process, whatever that is, then a new version is put up with metadata indicating that it’s a new version and also indicating that it’s a peer-reviewed version. I do support open peer review. I also support retroactive peer review, or what’s sometimes called post-publication peer review. Sometimes those are the same thing but sometimes they’re not. You can have a post-publication peer review that’s not open. You can have open that’s not post-publication. But I support both kinds, I think they’re both advances on traditional peer review. One thing they all have in common is that they’re not infallible. A common public impression is that peer review is a kind of validation and, if something is approved by peer review, it’s therefore true. I think scholars know that’s not true. Especially if you’re the peer reviewer, you’re saying this is good enough to publish, but that’s all you can say. This is worth discussing further in my field, this is worth sharing. And it’s a way of weeding out the stuff that’s truly bad but it’s not a way of isolating or verifying the stuff that’s better. On the other hand, some of the innovations in peer review might improve quality – that’s a different proposition.

S: I just wanted to add a small thing to this. Because recently, with the pandemic and the amount of research that’s going on especially in the field related to virology and statistics, and various other things, we kind of start to understand that even peer-reviewed articles, which come in big journals like Landsat etc., can have so many statistical anomalies. So even the review process, which is done in a very strict journal environment, can have so many gaping holes in them because of the urgency of the matter.

PS: That’s right, that’s right. In the last week or two, we had some very high profile retractions on COVID-19. And the listeners to this may not know that the impact factor, let’s call it the prestige of a journal, is correlated with the retraction rate. And so it’s not an accident that those high prestige journals were the ones that published the articles that were eventually retracted. There’s a correlation there, and I don’t have a personal explanation but some people have speculated that it’s the high prestige journals that especially want to publish the articles that will make a splash, or that have sexy conclusions, that are bold, and, of course, those are the ones that over the large scale are retracted more often than the others that are simply boring but true, boring but accurate. 

S: And boring but obvious, as well.

PS: That’s right.

N: Okay, that’s interesting. I mean it’s difficult to get out the articles that don’t have this punch line, or that say the best ever or the newest finding that will revolutionise the whole field. I mean one thing that is kind of counteracting this a bit is, I guess, the preprints, as you guys already mentioned before. So do you have any comments on preprints? I mean they started early on in the Physics field with the archive and only recently actually came to bioRxiv, to the biomedical field, so what is your point of view?

PS: I strongly support them. First of all, all preprints as we know them today are Open Access. In principle, you could have preprints that are not, but the ones that we’re actually talking about are all open, so that’s the first thing to like about them. Another thing is that peer review is slow, even peer review at fast journals is slow, and in many fields, on many topics, like COVID-19, speed is important. And it’s not just speed in getting the results to people who might apply them, it’s the speed in getting your conclusions and analysis to peers who could comment on them. And so one of the important purposes of sharing a preprint is to get feedback from your peers and your colleagues, and you may do this in order to improve the manuscript for submission later to a journal so that the journal version is actually better than the preprint. That’s when the whole conversation system works very well. On the other hand, you might do it to establish your priority over somebody else who’s working on the same problem. In other words, to avoid being scooped. You come up with some important results, you don’t want to wait for the duration of peer review, which might be two years or more, to publish that and stake your claim. You want to stake your claim one minute after you’re ready. And in a preprint repository, that’s exactly what you can do. Then you can work on polishing it up with your colleagues. But there are other motivations as well. And sometimes different research teams are working on a hard problem, like a COVID vaccine, and people working on different subtopics of that problem come up with different results in real-time through parallel processing, and they want to share with the other teams working on other aspects of the problem in real-time, so that everybody can make progress as quickly as possible.

N: By the way, I was wondering, because of a more or less personal experience of mine, about the preprints setting the timestamp, saying ‘okay, I did this first’. So what would you say to the situation that someone knows some other lab is working on a similar topic, and then you just put out whatever preprint that says exactly ‘this is the topic’, and it’s not polished at all, it needs like, I don’t know, maybe a couple months more of work.

S: Sometimes even a couple of years.

N: Just to say, ‘okay, we did it first‘.

PS: If you put out something that’s really shallow and makes a claim without backing it up, and somebody later puts out a piece with the required evidence to back it up and the analysis to show that they really did the work, I think readers will understand – it’s the other team that deserves the credit. On the other hand, if you do have your evidence and your analysis, why put up a shovel claim when you can put up a richer, well-supported claim? And if you’re doing that it’s not really the same situation.

N: No, I agree. I think it’s one thing that people can judge you on with the preprint, actually, that this is your standard of a publication, this is what you think is worth other people seeing. So you kind of set a standard for your own science, I would say.

PS: I think that’s one of the important, let’s call it, bars to clear in ordinary peer-reviewed journals. You try to please the peer reviewers and the editor,r but in the case of preprints, you want to please yourself. You don’t want to put something out that will embarrass you, and that’s an interestingly high bar. I guess, there are shameless people who won’t be embarrassed by anything, like the president of the United States today, but most scholars have a sense of shame, that is, they don’t want to put out a completely unargued claim. By the way, when I say scholars have a sense of shame and they won’t deliberately put up something shallow or embarrassing, it doesn’t mean that everything they put up is worth reading, or that some of those things aren’t truly embarrassing anyway. It just means there’s some standard there and it’s not equivalent to peer review. So we’re not saying it is equivalent to peer review, just saying it’s a reason not to put up that empty claim simply to get at times.

N: Yes, I guess if you’re already an established PI in your field, then you don’t have to worry too much about the repercussions, the negative ones. But if you’re still an early career researcher, for example, you can get judged on that. And I mean, nowadays it’s a more common practice that even preprints are being evaluated with the application, so I think it is it’s actually it’s important to set a standard for yourself and what you consider to be good science.

PS: I agree.

S: Also, what’s out in preprints can sometimes be cited as well.

PS: Yes, preprints can be cited. I cite them all the time. You reminded me of one more benefit of pre-prints that I forgot to mention: in typical peer review, the work is evaluated by one, two, or three people, and if it passes their judgment then it’s published, and if it doesn’t pass their judgment then it’s not published. But when you put out a preprint, it’s being evaluated by everybody who cares, and that’s really the way science and research ought to work. First of all, there’s no time limit and, second, there’s no person limit and everybody who has a comment to make or an opinion can see it and respond to it. And many works deserve to be published even if three people disapprove, and many works should never be published even if three people do approve. And putting out your preprint allows the community, allows the discipline, allows the field, allows the community of people on that topic to weigh in and, in general, the evaluation of new work is best done by the community, not done by three people even if they’re carefully chosen.

N: Yes, I mean having just three people evaluate work is quite subjective, I would say. Because, I mean, you get only a few of those three and if they all fall into the same category of two opposing fields, for example, in one discipline, then it can be kind of skewed, where this discipline is heading.

S: Okay. With that, we’ve come to the end of the first part of the interview with Dr. Peter Suber. If you would like to get to know more about Dr. Suber’s work, his book on Open Access, and his website, all the links can be found in the show notes linked right below this episode. We’ll be back with you next week with the remainder of what we discussed with Dr. Suber, especially with regard to research evaluation. The Offspring Magazine podcast is produced by the science communication working group of the Max Planck PhDnet, called the Offspring Magazine. Hosted by Srinath Ramkumar and Nikolai Hörmann. If you would like to get back to us with any feedback, comments, and suggestions, and people that you would like us to interview, that you would like to get in touch with, please write to us at Thanks for listening to us and please feel free to share these episodes with anyone who you think would be interested. And we assure you we’ll be back with an exciting new episode every Monday so I’ll see you all next week. Until then, stay safe and stay strong!

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