Review: Peter Suber’s Open Access (The MIT Press, 2012)—now also open access!

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I haven’t gotten around to writing this review sooner. I mean, Peter Suber’s book Open Access (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-51763-8) has been out for a year now. Richard Poynder, in a 2011 interview for Information Today, declared Suber the “the de facto leader of the leaderless [open access] revolution.” Given the well-earned accolade you would think this would merit more of my attention. Blame it on my day-job. Still, I shouldn’t have dawdled, especially considering my own interest and advocacy in open access.

Perhaps I can make amends by being among the first to offer a “second wave” review of Suber’s Open Access. For you see, the print edition was published in June 2012, and fittingly and without irony Suber negotiated with The MIT Press to have an e-book edition available as a free open access download 12 months later. The open access e-book edition of Suber’s book is now available for download (as of June 17, 2013) from links on the title’s webpage. The print edition is not very expensive, and every library/librarian, faculty member, and researcher should own a copy. But I suspect the open access e-book edition (released with a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial (CC BY-NC license) will generate renewed interest and an even broader readership. Having anticipated eventually getting around to this I consciously avoided reading earlier reviews so as not to be influenced by their “take”.

A book written for busy people

By all accounts—and it’s another source of personal shame, since I’m as apt to come home from a long day and veg-out in front of Netflix as work on a new post for the blog—Peter Suber has been absolutely tireless for well over a decade advocating, promoting, consulting, strategizing, analyzing, documenting, and reporting on the open access movement. He was present and (in the words of Richard Poynder) played the role of midwife at the event that formally signaled the birth of the movement—a meeting convened in Budapest, Hungary on December 1-2, 2001 by the Open Society Foundations, which resulted in the historic February 14, 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) Declaration.

Among other projects, Suber maintained (until July 2009) his Open Access News blog. (Who hasn’t consulted the Open Access Overview page on his blog for essential information about open access?) And until June 2013, he wrote and edited the SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) Open Access Newsletter. He also launched the Open Access Tracking Project (OATP), and co-founded with Robin Peek the Open Access Directory wiki.

Peter Suber is director of the Harvard Open Access Project, a Berkman Center faculty fellow, a senior researcher at SPARC, and a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College. Beginning July 1, he will assume the post of director of the Office for Scholarly Communication at the Harvard Library (from this May 21, 2013 Harvard Library press release). This is one busy person!

Open Access is a compact book of a mere 174 body pages (plus a glossary, extensive endnotes, a guide to other resources, and an index). The brevity is intentional. In the Preface Suber writes concerning his purpose and aim:

This book is an attempt at…a succinct introduction to the basics, long enough to cover the major topics in reasonable detail and short enough for busy people to read.

I want busy people to read this book. OA benefits literally everyone, for the same reasons that research itself benefits literally everyone. … But OA only does this good work insofar as we actually implement it, and the people in a position to implement it tend to be busy. I’m thinking about researchers themselves and policymakers at stakeholder institutions such as universities, libraries, publishers, scholarly societies, funding agencies, and governments.

My honest belief from experience in the trenches is that the largest obstacle to OA is misunderstanding. The largest cause of misunderstanding is lack of familiarity, and the largest cause of unfamiliarity is preoccupation. Everyone is busy. … The best remedy to misunderstanding is a clear statement of the basics for busy people. (pp. ix-x)

In short, don’t confuse brevity for lack of substance. This book is a high-quality, thoughtful, and well-written distillation of Suber’s decade-long full-time immersion in the developing open access environment.

From What Is Open Access? to how to make your work open access

Shifting from ink on paper to digital text suddenly allows us to make perfect copies of our work. Shifting from isolated computers to a globe-spanning network of connected computers suddenly allows us to share perfect copies of our work with a worldwide audience at essentially no cost. … Digital technologies have created more than one revolution. Let’s call this one the access revolution. …

Imagine a tribe of authors who write serious and useful work, and who follow a centuries-old custom of giving it away without charge [because] they write for impact rather than money. …

Open access is the name of the revolutionary kind of access these authors, unencumbered by a motive of financial gain, are free to provide to their readers. (pp. 1-4)

Beginning with the recognition of a technological revolution that only recently, but with remarkable speed, has moved a 350 year-old tradition of modern scholarly communication almost entirely online, Suber’s presentation of topics flow logically in ten chapters from defining what open access is (and isn’t); to offering some key motivations for open access; to describing the varieties of open access (Green and Gold, gratis and libre, Creative Commons licensing, etc.) and institutional policies that have been developed to encourage or mandate open access; to listing the scope of what research products could be open access (e.g., journal articles, theses and dissertations, and books) and who/what these products would be for (including non-researchers, and machines/software that facilitate discovery of research); to clarifying the relationship between open access and copyright; to acknowledging that open access is not free to produce but noting there are numerous funding models; to describing the impact open access might have on traditional toll-access publishing; to looking into the (near) future where generational change is on the side of open access but where scholarly newcomers may benefit by having their understanding brought up to date; to offering some concluding advice and encouragement to scholars and researchers for making their own work open access.

I think Suber accomplishes his purpose admirably. In addressing these topics, Suber writes succinctly and with clarity, applying the logic of a philosopher (which he is), the sharpness of a debater, and the cadence of a musician (speaking to his writing style). He anticipates the many sides and questions of his readers, even honest critiques, and he answers them with directness and without polemic. He clearly aims to persuade, but he also wants to bring his readers along with with him.

Download the free open access e-book right now. Then, if you can afford it, buy a copy or two of the print edition for yourself or your institution’s library. Peter Suber isn’t asking for it. But sending some royalties his way would be a great way to say Thank you! for this fine work.

Posted in Book/Article Review, Commercial Publishing, e-Books, Economics & Business Models, Intellectual Property & Copyright, Libraries & OA, OA Policies, Open Access, Peer Review, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Journals
4 comments on “Review: Peter Suber’s Open Access (The MIT Press, 2012)—now also open access!
  1. […] Wondering if Open Access is the right treatment of open access for you?  From Gary Daught: […]

  2. […] I'm a bit ashamed to admit that I haven't gotten around to writing this review sooner. I mean, Peter Suber's book Open Access (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0-51763-8) has been out …  […]

  3. Peter Suber says:

    Hi Gary. Thanks for your good review. I finally found a moment to add an excerpt and link to my book update page, [ ].

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