Knowledge for Everyone

By making scholarly publications freely available online, the Open Access Bureau Berlin supports the three major universities in Berlin, Charité, and other academic institutions in the city state.

Jul 13, 2018

The term open access describes the idea that scholarly and scientific information is available online without any restrictions and free of charge.

The term open access describes the idea that scholarly and scientific information is available online without any restrictions and free of charge.
Image Credit: Justin Cormack / wikimedia.org / CC BY-SA 2.0

It is easy to explain the idea behind the term open access: by removing any financial, technical, and legal barriers, scientific and scholarly information should be made available online without any restrictions or charges. Free access enables knowledge to be disseminated within society and thus to be used by everyone; through the free circulation of research results, added value is generated in research. This idea was first developed among researchers and, step by step, the necessary infrastructures for open access publishing were established at the research institutions. Support for this comes not least from politics. This was demonstrated by the Berlin Senate and Parliament passing the bill for the Berlin Open Access Strategy at the end of 2015. Concerning publications, the goal is to increase the proportion of scholarly open access publications for magazine articles from all academic institutions under the responsibility of the federal state of Berlin to 60 percent by 2020. Furthermore, research data should increasingly be published in citable form and thus made available to other scholars and scientists. Cultural heritage – for example, works of art, buildings, and historical documents – should also to be digitized further and thus made more comprehensively and freely accessible.

“The Berlin Open Access Strategy is special,” explains Christina Riesenweber from the Open Access Bureau Berlin (OABB) and continues, “because no other location has such specific goals and an office like ours as a coordinating body.” The Bureau was established in September 2016 as a central measure of the state’s open access strategy. Since then, it has been responsible for advising and networking the involved institutions to ensure the implementation of the Berlin Open Access Strategy.

“We’re pushing ahead with the networking between Berlin’s institutions.”

Christina Riesenweber and Andreas Hübner developed the Open Access Bureau Berlin with interest and enthusiasm. “I have always considered this to be an exciting topic; I worked on it for several years at the Helmholtz Open Access Coordination Office, and I am happy to be back in this professional sector through my work for the Open Access Bureau,” explains Andreas Hübner. Christina Riesenweber came to this work focus through her own experiences in publication: before working at DeGruyter scientific publishing house, she founded the textpraxis.net open access journal ten years ago, and it is still around today. “If you work with digital academic publishing,” she says, “open access is just a part of it.”

The activities at the OABB are primarily aimed at employees who promote open access infrastructures at universities and usually work in libraries or research departments. These people need to be given the necessary expertise in open access as part of their skills.

Hübner and Riesenweber name collaboration and cooperation as the principles that best describe their work. “We’re pushing ahead with the networking between Berlin’s institutions. In the meantime, the people at the various institutions responsible for open access know each other well, and there’s plenty of information exchange among us,” says Hübner. This exchange of information occurs, among other things, in workshops and working groups coordinated by the OABB. Once every three months, one of the working groups thus brings open access representatives from the three major universities in Berlin and Charité together: Prof. Dr. Andreas Degkwitz, representing Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Prof. Dr. Vera Meyer on behalf of Technische Universität Berlin, Lisa Liebenau for Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, and Christina Riesenweber herself as the open access representative for Freie Universität Berlin. “There are often points of discussion here in which we realize that everyone is working on similar problems.” On a practical level, the exchange of information is often very productive, enabling synergies to be found and new ideas to come into being. This is also something that colleagues perceive as a great added value, says Christina Riesenweber.

As part of their work for the Open Access Bureau Berlin, Christina Riesenweber (left) and Andreas Hübner (right) are responsible for advising and networking among the participating institutions.

As part of their work for the Open Access Bureau Berlin, Christina Riesenweber (left) and Andreas Hübner (right) are responsible for advising and networking among the participating institutions.
Image Credit: Sophie Schmalenberger

In addition, important tasks in the OABB’s work include giving the individual institutions advice by e-mail or over the telephone, compiling structured information on the OABB website as well as personally visiting the individual institutions. “Regarding open access in the individual institutions, we are currently advising a lot on open access policies, i.e., guidelines for handling open access and setting objectives. Our next goal is to have all the institutions adopting such guidelines,” says Andreas Hübner. Christina Riesenweber adds that advice, workshops, and working groups are not primarily aimed at setting generally valid guidelines, but rather at promoting a good exchange of information between those responsible for open access at the various institutions. You can’t always find a cross-institutional solution for everything – the main thing is that people talk to each other, she says.

“The keyword is collaboration.”

After a good year and a half, the OABB’s work is showing tangible results: in addition to appointing open access representatives in all institutions, Christina Riesenweber and Andreas Hübner have worked on successful proposals for DFG-sponsored publication funds at the three major Berlin universities. “That wasn’t all only down to us, but to every working group and everyone involved: The keyword here is collaboration,” Christina Riesenweber emphasizes.

Funding open access poses a number of challenges. These obstacles, however, lie less in the nature of the process than in the necessary conversion of established publication channels and structures. As Christina Riesenweber explains, “There are two options for financing publishing in open access magazines. One is to create a basic institutional grant that covers the publication costs; the other is that the authors are required to pay a processing fee for each article. That might be 500 euros for some magazines and 5,000 euros for others. However, the DFG-funded publication funds already mentioned are capped, for example, at 2,000 euros. This creates a dilemma: if I’m at a well-appointed chair or project, I can afford to publish in expensive journals. If I’m financially less well appointed, then I can’t do that.”

A distinction must also be made between text and data publications: if we’re talking about open access, we usually mean texts and scientific publications – that is, what is already published should be made freely accessible online. “In this case, we encounter a desire for spreading information rather than rejection,” Hübner explains. The Open Access Bureau Berlin would like to dispel the myth that open access journals are lower in quality and less respected in the scientific community. This was sometimes the case during the initial phase, when new publication media naturally had a smaller reach than established journals. However, this phase has long since been overcome and in some areas – such as in the Earth sciences – open access magazines are at the fore, Hübner explains. Researchers, however, often have more fundamental reservations about publishing research data, since their main priority is to fully evaluate their own data before making them available to others.

“The significance of open access is also being recognized in the rest of Germany and Europe.”

The theme of monitoring, i.e., recording the shares of publications in the participating institutions and thus in Berlin’s research landscape as a whole, is one challenge to be tackled in specific terms in the second half of 2018. “So far, there has not been any uniform collection of open access publications, and we do not receive any figures from the institutions. Instead, we use external databases to count open access publications by Berlin researchers,” Hübner explains. The open access report for Berlin, published in April, was also based on this method.

The OABB is also active beyond Berlin’s city limits. “The significance of open access is also being recognized in the rest of Germany and Europe and is being supported by political measures. In this regard, we are in constant contact with representatives in the other federal states across Germany. And the transfer of knowledge and experience that takes place is very important,” reports Riesenweber.

Asked about her long-term wishes for open access, Christina Riesenweber emphasizes, “If we have at some point abolished the need for our existence because all scholarly publications are open access – that would be great!”