Open Insights: An Interview with Arianna Becerril

Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 15 May 2019

AmeliCA, Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South 

An Open Insights interview with Arianna Becerril

Arianna Becerril-García is a Professor in the School of Political and Social Sciences at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico. She is also the Executive Director of Redalyc project (Red de Revistas Científicas de América Latina y El Caribe, España y Portugal) and the Chair of AmeliCA, Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South. AmeliCA is a sustanaible and community-driven structure for open knowledge in Latin America and the Global South launched by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Latin American Council of Social Sciences (CLACSO), the Network of Scientific Journals of Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal (REDALYC), the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM), the University of Antioquia (UdeA) and the National University of La Plata (UNLP). 

Hello Arianna. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. To start, can you please introduce AmeliCA and explain what its function is?

Latin America has had in a “natural” way a strong Open Access (OA) publishing system: what I mean is that for more than three decades, it’s been financed mainly with public funds and is free of charge for authors. As part of this, three journal platforms were created: Latindex, which is a directory and an information system, and Redalyc and SciELO, which together have 1,890 journals and roughly a million articles. They share 600 journals but big differences distinguish them in how they operate and in the principles that sustain their performance.

Redalyc is a non-commercial academic project supported mainly by one university (Autonomous University of the State of Mexico). It’s a centralized model based on technology so that journals are able to access high technology with no need to pay to use it or to develop it. It has 1,300 journals from Ibero-America and more than 600,000 articles. 

Redalyc’s indexing criteria consists of 18 mandatory requirements. Redalyc also generates metrics on research output, collaboration and usage. It strongly disagrees with the use of the Impact Factor as an evaluation measure for research or researchers. Hence, Redalyc supports DORA and added the DORA declaration as another criterion for a journal to continue to be indexed, and since agreements do not have retroactive effects, only those who do so will enjoy the benefits of the next platform (Redalyc2020). Its priority is the Social Sciences and the Humanities (SSH). 

In the Latin American region, different approaches to address OA are identified. One of them promotes the implementation of Author Processing Charges (APCs); it also prioritizes the publication in English over local languages and legitimizes the evaluation of science based on the Impact Factor. Such is the case of SciELO, which with the agreement it made with Clarivate Analytics, gave to this commercial company information from hundreds of scholarly journals published by Latin American institutions, information that was collected and processed using public economical resources from the region with the aim of improving the international visibility through the creation of SciELO Citation Index. With this action, it supports a science evaluation paradigm where the regional scholarly output has no significant representation and where the SSH do not either.

The other stream of OA in the region seeks to preserve the nature of openness, non-profit and academic-owned research communication system and strives to ensure that research assessment evolves to value the social impact of science, the development of a disciplinary field or the development of society beyond the citation. In this current, we find platforms such as Latindex, CLACSO and Redalyc.

Due to all of these reasons, it was decided at Redalyc’s last conference (Trujillo, Peru) to take Redalyc to a new stage and lead the creation of a common infrastructure (AmeliCA). Redalyc began in 2003 with the slogan “science that is not seen does not exist”; however, visibility is not a problem anymore and now we have to walk under values and principles while seeking a global participation in science but in a non-subordinate manner.

Thus, AmeliCA arises so that the region has an infrastructure and a cooperative framework that helps scholarly publishing to continue in the hands of the academy and with a clearly defined vision: non-commercial OA and against the prevailing research assessment criteria.

On the other hand, the requirements to participate in an initiative such as AmeliCA or an index such as Redalyc should not be seen as an imposition but as the clarification of different models—all valid—of scholarly publishing, where one should be with those who share the same principles. It’s simple. All people immersed in the science communication circuit make decisions, for example when publishing in a journal from Elsevier fenced with a paywall (APCs) or when authors are required to transfer the copyright of their work to the publisher. Are these requirements considered impositions? They are the conditions of that model and if we publish in these venues we assume the consequences.

This is why the four requirements to access AmeliCA are: 1. To be an OA journal; 2. To be a journal with a verifiable peer review process; 3. To be a journal with no author fees (no-APCs); and 4. To sign DORA and explicitly state that in the journal website.

Compared to other regions of the world, Latin America is characterised for having a distinctive non-commercial scholar-led publishing infrastructure. The adoption of OA models, where neither authors nor readers are required to pay, is fairly extensive in the continent. Can you please expand a little bit more the context of these publication models? How are they normally funded?

Most publications are incorporated to universities: they’re part of their mission (teaching, research and cultural dissemination) and education is understood as a public service, even in private universities. Other journals depend on professional associations which are sustained by the contributions of their members. Virtually, all Latin American journals are OA and free of APCs. Financing varies and it has various ways First, it must be said that at universities, journals depend on faculties or research centers, and editors-in-chief and editorial boards are academics that are paid for their activities as professors or researchers. As organisms or projects, journals receive permanent (and some temporary) budgets, while the expenses are completely covered by the responsible area or by the immediate next higher level. 

In a situation of extreme lack of resources, it may be possible to receive help from students, assisting as trainees, or to give the task to a central department, and say go to the editorial department for copyediting. There are also journals that depend on bigger departments, such as the department of research or teaching, and they may have more steady resources since they are, at least in their budget, more institutionalized. 

There are also programs that give support through Science and Technology Councils. They use open or open source technology paid by research projects—for instance, editorial manager software. Open Journal System (OJS) has been crucial for the online availability of these journals.

Something we cannot leave aside is that dozens of institutions (Latindex, Redalyc, publisher associations, universities, Science and Technology Councils) offer free training courses. For example, in Redalyc, and we’ll soon do it in AmeliCA, there’s no day when we’re not training someone on Marcalyc or Amelica XML. Whether it’s a single journal editor or a group of them, we have reserved rooms in Redalyc’s building and have people committed to do this permanently. Thus, if you add the cost in salaries of the people involved, communication software and more, yes the contribution is important, but this only illustrates how an “institution of commons” has to be organized to support the publishing ecosystem of the region. Periodically, Redalyc’s researchers give lectures on scholarly publishing and are able to connect up to 500 nodes, but what I want to emphasize here is that just like us, many other institutions  receive institutional funds to cover the function of the university (research, training or cultural promotion).

Redalyc is composed of only one research group and AmeliCA of, at least so far, 15 research groups. We’re uniting each group’s activity and competences in order to strengthen scholarly publishing. All the participants are lectures/researchers at universities and scholarly publishing is intertwined with our activities in one way or another. Thus, there are librarians, bibliometricians, communication experts, engineers, editors, physicists who are creating algorithms to get data, experts on artificial intelligence supporting interpretation through inferences of data or citations and so on. But we all meet at one point or another in noticeably different contexts, which is being lectures and researchers in academic institutions. We do research, we train, we disseminate, we fulfill our work in some edge of scholarly publishing.

In which ways do assessments metrics such as the impact factor damage the scholarship produced in Latin America? What other research assessment criteria does AmeliCA propose for hiring, promotion, tenure and funding decisions in the region?

First of all, we have to say that salaries in universities are still frozen and as a way to control this, there is a sort of ‘productivity bond’, which is different according to each country, discipline and university. I know very well that in the case of Mexico and Colombia, even among universities, the type of support (public or private) varies hugely. Bearing this context in mind, I can tell you that in Mexico around two thirds of the total research income depends on productivity; we have the university incentives and at the national level those of the National Council of Science and Technology and of the Department of Public Education. And these depend more and more on publications; the rest of the researchers’ activities are just necessary conditions. 

Thus, in order to obtain such incentives, the journal where a researcher is publishing is what matters, whether or not that journal is indexed by Web of Science (WoS) or Scopus and in which quartile. That one and no other consideration. The data of the researchers’ résumés (CV) is registered in the systems of the National Council of Science and Technology, which doesn’t even require the abstract of the article: once the data is there, the CV is linked with the database of WoS, Scopus or Scientific Journal Rankings (SJR) to let evaluators know if the researcher’s work was published in an indexed journal and from which quartile. Indeed, what a researcher does or the societal impact of their work doesn’t matter that much: to win a university incentive, what does matter is where they publish and on that depends the researcher score and income. 

Regional systems such as Redalyc and AmeliCA are not taken into account for research evaluation in the majority of countries. Publications in important journals of more than 80 years old don’t matter—there’s not even a space to record them—unless they’re indexed by WoS or Scopus. Rankings and so-called ‘mainstream’ science are determining universities’ agendas and are decisive in hiring, promotion, continuity and financing.

The whole researchers and journals evaluation agenda is affecting research and publishing performance negatively. This is a reality and it must be taken as a starting point for Latin America and for the South’s situation. We need to recognize, as stated by various researchers, that regardless of what the researcher thinks, their actions are wholly pragmatic and they will define their actions based in the reward system, and consequently, it results in the legitimation of that system. It’s a hard time, isn’t it?

First, we need to show the damaging aspect of the evaluation system that is compliant with the interests of the big publishers.

Redalyc—and now AmeliCA—generates about 80 indicators that are distributed in three categories: production, collaboration and usage. There are no rankings in this methodology: instead, behavior should be interpreted based on specific goals and specific contexts. It’s offered at a country, discipline, journal, publisher institution and author level, and for that it generates more than 800,000 images every six months. The goal was to provide information that allows users to know the extent to which the author produces research, builds community and interacts institutionally, regionally or globally, within the 1,300 journals Redalyc supports and the 400 that are in AmeliCA.

Why is it important that academics and academic institutions devise their own scholarly communications solutions via the development of their own platforms? In which ways can academic-led presses and open infrastructures benefit the future of scholarly communication and provide a more horizontal collaborative global landscape?

The global publishing ecosystem wouldn’t be understood without the journals controlled by universities, research centers and professional associations which are thousands upon thousands all around the world: we just need to take a look at Redalyc, AmeliCA, OpenEdition, DOAJ, Open Science and so on. And while they are an irreplaceable entity , we need to recognize that they are becoming smaller in comparison to the control of the huge publishing oligopolies. Larivière’s (Larivière, Haustein and Mongeon, 2015) data about the growth of concentration, evaluating about 50 million articles, found out that on average the big five publishers (Elsevier, Springer-Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Sage) published around 50% of all publications, 70% in the social sciences. This is a blow for any independent or scholarly-led OA projects. If we add to this the transformation of such enterprises in the business content to data control and data management and identify how in the present decade they have ruled over the whole research, publishing and evaluation system, the panorama is disturbing.

Thus, the responses from dozens of institutions and individuals, through the creation of movements, debates and cancellations show that the current model based on subscriptions is not sustainable anymore. It has also shown that the big publishers are highly flexible and don’t mind adapting themselves to define the needs of researchers in monetary terms: to those who demanded OA, they proposed the—unsustainable—business model of APCs, and later on it’ll be to show the academics and researchers’ interactions and consumption. 

This context, I think, leaves us with only one way out, which is inextricably linked to research assessment, and this is the construction of scholarly-led infrastructures sustained by funders, countries, universities and science and technology councils for the benefit of OA scholarly publishing. 

This means a challenge to develop OJS to its maximum potential, a commitment to expand the use of Redalyc’s XML JATS markup system that allows to generate automatically reading file formats (PDF, HTML, ePUB and interactive and mobile readers). It’s time to give the best of each to benefit everyone, to be creative. I mean, it’s time to create a platform that benefits global scholarly publishing. A platform that unites all voices, with the resources from the most developed countries and the existing developments of low- and middle-income countries. The resources are out there: we have the abilities, but we need to make up our minds in order to create an alternative non-commercial model. Redalyc and AmeliCA could support 10, 20 or 30,000 journals: there’s no technical issue at all. The challenge is in the ability to join forces. And these forces at least need to coincide with these two principles: 1. Scholarly-led science communication; and 2. the need of a different research assessment. 

The fact that spaces of visibility, as you stated in the website, have also become spaces of legitimation and exclusion, makes me think of commercially owned evaluation systems or proprietary indexes such as Scopus, WoS or Google Scholar. The creation of AmeliCA is undoubtedly a way forward to diversify these spaces of visibility and legitimation practices. But how can the Global North contribute to the non-subordinate integration of this region in the global dialogue of scientific communication? 

It’s not a diversification, it’s a completely different and antagonistic model compared to WoS and Scopus, which have a clear strategy of appropriation of the communication and legitimation infrastructure, and their commercial interests are opposed to the central interest of science, which is human development.

They are hampering the development of science by appropriating and impeding access to students and researchers to the greatest academic institutions’ asset: knowledge. When did that happen? How could we allow such thing when it’s against the interests of science?

The North could first contribute by recognizing the South as an actor and as a peer, and by identifying the fact that it was from outside the North that a healthier publishing model, with less undesirable consequences and for the benefit of everyone, was created. The North is caught in a commercial publishing environment but can also see and recognize that a different model could be created, a non-commercial one that creatively redirects the common infrastructures anchored in universities. 

Why is it important to recognise the differences between disciplines when assessing research outputs? What does AmeliCA propose?

Redalyc and AmeliCA accept contributions from all fields and disciplines but they emphasize that their priority is the SSH. This is because all the other disciplines have already been assisted and supported, unlike these areas of knowledge (SSH) whose contribution to science and society development has always been disregarded. Today the world’s dilemma is not about a technological issue but about the ethical and philosophical implications of its application, for example, in the fields of artificial intelligence, biology, nanotechnology and so on. The recent declaration and possible actions against the disciplines of history and sociology by the Brazilian government is another example. 

On the other hand, SSH are also the fields of knowledge that tend to remain invisible in databases and international indexing systems. SSH represents less than a third of WoS or Scopus, with regards to journals, but in citable documents it hardly reaches 10%. And when we look for the presence of the great minds from the South, they are simply imperceptible on those databases.

Additionally, the SSH are situated sciences, which means that the context of the phenomenon is decisive in the results. Emigration to the South takes a face and a route, immigration to the North takes another face and route. We could give lots of examples. You’ll see I come from the hard sciences, I’m an engineer with a PhD in Computer Science. I gained a place in the academy in an interdisciplinary group on scientific communication at the School of Social and Political Sciences at Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México where we launched Redalyc and AmeliCA. I had to learn about this and now technology has another meaning to me: you cannot isolate technology from its roots and from its applicability context.

Each discipline has different habits of communication and the perishable condition of knowledge has different cycles in, say, nanotechnology or in sociology. These distinctive logics are affected when research evaluation systems are homogenized, for example, by establishing a citation window of two or three years, which clearly is not enough for the social sciences.

Globalization has had great benefits for societies but also undesirable consequences. One of these consequences was, for instance, that the South and the SSH were introduced to a citation index-based paradigm as a guide of science of quality that was completely unknown and never used before. And the most paradoxical part of this is that it began to be constituted at the time the research evaluation systems adopted it and the academics responded to the reward systems based on it. In the Social Sciences this is called institutionalizing legitimacy, which refers to when something doesn’t yet exist but it’s presented as if it has already been there, or more strikingly, it’s converted in such. It’s at this point when human intervention is blurred in its creation and it’s ‘naturalized’, ‘institutionalized’ and ‘objectified’. 

I would like to conclude by showing some data from an empirical study conducted in Mexico about the participation of national researchers from Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (CONACyT)—the elite of research—in Scopus and WoS. While in the health and biology fields around 90% of all researchers participated in WoS and Scopus, in the SSH such numbers lowered to 20%. If we carry out the analysis today, without a doubt such number would increase much more. This is the self-fulfilled prophecy in which what has been decisive is the turning point in the evaluation and reward systems. 

What are your views on Plan S? What are the similarities and differences between Plan S and AmeliCA?

Well, the first thing I would like to say is that it’s a decisive and firm voice that aims to disrupt the current model based on subscriptions in order to tear down the paywalls that surround knowledge, a booming voice that had not been heard since 2002 with the Budapest Declaration. So in that sense it’s a very positive movement due to the immediate support of the two main funders and of multiple research centers. It’s a shared goal that opens the discussion once again about the means and its implementation.

The goal of Plan S—the decisiveness, the retention of copyright, the refusal to accept hybrid journals—seems to me great progress; however, in its implementation, the strategy is centered on APCs. The desire to standardize or cap prices is not a guarantee and if attained it will probably end up consolidating the model we seek to change. All the emphasis is focussed on replacing the current model of paying for reading to paying for publishing, a strategy to which many stakeholders in the South have opposed. This position was clearly expressed in a recent meeting held with Plan S team in São Paulo.

This strategy, based on APCs, could only be only maintained by the richest countries. In addition to being an economically unsustainable model, it will increase asymmetries since the participation of the scientists from developing countries will see their participation hindered or dependent on ‘philanthropy’, which is unacceptable in an inclusive, equitable system. 

From our perspective, OA, which has been achieved organically for over 30 years in Latin America, may be affected if the model based on APC is legitimized and institutionalized.

The difference is that we want to maintain our model, which covers around 15,000 journals. That is why we are building a common infrastructure for the consolidation of the journals that is financed by the community. This will increase our visibility, as well as will allow a reduction of costs.

AmeliCA’s emphasis is on supporting academic-led non-commercial models that are sustained by the academic community and that explicitly support the creation of OA journals in universities, software development in repositories, peer-reviewing, XML markup and more. We believe that all this will contribute to building an ecosystem that will help release all the potential distributed worldwide for the benefit of humanity, as the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI15) pointed out. 

Profit and private appropriation are depriving a common and public good that shouldn’t be submitted to the rules of the market. Plan S has the power and the resources to attain it if it really wishes, although they don’t bear all the responsibility. All stakeholders worldwide bear it. They may have the necessary strength to gain momentum, but they’ll have to demonstrate in their implementation proposal that it’s not based on APCs and that they’ll support developments that are in the hands of the academy. Otherwise, I believe it will be a Eurocentric model with no immediate effects in the rest of the countries. They have the voice, we all are waiting to know the details of the implementation. 

Our thanks to Arianna Becerril, and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon!