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More Than One Road Leads to Rome - An interview with Jan Velterop

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by Graham Steel.


Jan Velterop is a science publisher. Since the mid 1970’s, Jan has worked for Elsevier, Academic Press, Nature Publishing Group, BioMed Central and Springer. He left Springer in 2008 to work on applying semantics in science literature and since January 2009 he is also involved in the Concept Web Alliance as one of the initiators.


Jan was one of the small group of people who first defined 'open access' in 2001 in Budapest, a meeting resulting in the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI).



Here follows a short interview with Jan covering a number of timely topics of interest.


As per the introduction, you’ve been involved in the Open Access Community since the onset. Was there anything in particular that resulted in you setting the scene to start the Initiative? Can you also say what led you to helping to get BioMed Central off the ground?


A series of meetings with Vitek Tracz, who had just started BioMed Central (BMC), about a business model for what was then called ‘free access’ publishing led to me developing one and joining BMC. In my view the need for much greater accessibility of scientific literature was — and is — incredibly obvious, and open access is an inevitable development. My first initiative was what is now best known as the BigDeal, which was conceived with country-wide access to the entire scholarly literature in mind. It evolved in a different direction. And open access publishing is a far more structural solution to the access problem than the BigDeal ever could be.


Here in the UK as you know, there’s been a lot of OA developments of late. Things started to gain pace around September last year when George Monbiot published his infamous piece in the Guardian. What do you think are the most positive OA developments over this course of time?


What always surprises me in these discussions is their national focus, whereas science is one of the most global enterprises on earth. The most positive developments for OA have been the greater awareness of it, even in the general media. Little else is new. And even attention to open access by the Guardian isn’t, as this article from February 2005 shows.


Can you tell us a little bit about the more recent projects that you have been working on (including Utopia Docs) as alluded to in the introduction?


Open access is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The free and unfettered flow of scientific information is helping science and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of life and the universe to be more efficient. Helping to find solutions to problems we face as mankind. My involvement in scientific semantics and tools like Utopia Documents is born from a general interest in the spread of scientific knowledge. Not just in open access, though access is a necessary step in the process of first understanding and then utilising information and knowledge. But the follow-on steps should not be underestimated or disregarded. Proper use of information can only be made if it is understood. And it is this utilisation of information that is the key to scientific development.


Utilisation to obtain further knowledge and understanding — science pour la science — as well as utilisation to make progress in society’s pursuit of solving concrete problems regarding health, resource management, the environment, technology, et cetera. Free and unfettered use and reuse of scientific information is more important than access, though the latter is a precondition to the former. That is one reason why I see more of a future for open access at source, open access publishing, than for open access as a result of self-archiving, which often comes with reuse restrictions. And it is a reason for trying to promote a tool such as Utopia Documents, which eliminates the reuse restrictions that might be imposed by the format of scientific documents (that is to say, Utopia Documents removes restrictions that the PDF format might have; it doesn’t remove reuse restrictions of a printed piece of paper, obviously).


Your most recent blog post was interesting in a number of ways. As noted at Repository Fringe last year, uptake of Green OA in UK Repositories is considerably lower than anticipated. The point that you are making is it not so much about the route but the goal is BOAI compliant OA regardless of the path. Right? The BOAI wording is still applicable to this day. Right?


In the light of what I said earlier, I regard the reuse rights as very important. Perhaps they aren’t just yet in some subdisciplines, but in the modern, data-rich physical sciences the ability to reuse information and data fast becomes imperative. The BOAI captured that very well, I think: "By ‘open access’ to [scholarly] literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself." Reuse rights are clearly articulated in this definition of open access. It is a pity that some open access advocates now dismiss the BOAI as something from the past and not quite relevant any longer.


I have even heard reference to the BOAI characterised as "BOAI-fetishism". Not by an OA sceptic, mind you, but by someone who sees himself as an OA advocate. Very unfortunate. As far as I am concerned, the outcome is the important thing: true open access. The route is less important, and more than one road leads to Rome.


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