Snapshot: Nancy Pontika
Interview by Sasha Nyary
Nancy Pontika first learned about open access when she was working as a librarian in her native Greece. After studying library science in Athens as an undergraduate, she landed a job at a political research organization, and was told to cut journal subscriptions. “I started reading about open access and what this means,” she says, “how journals can be free of cost and still reputable and prestigious. I was reading like crazy, trying to find out, what is this?” Around this time, she took a friend up on her invitation to visit Boston, and while here, made a point of walking around the Simmons campus. “I knew Professor Robin Peek was teaching at GSLIS, because she’s a really big open access advocate,” Pontika says. “So I wanted to see the school. It was the first time I really dared to think I could apply.” She started her doctoral studies here in 2007, with a focus on the open access movement; Peek is now her mentor. Pontika also helps edit the Open Access Directory, a wiki of factual lists on open access. She’s one of the TRA's (Technology Reference Assistant) at the GSLIS Tech Lab, she co-teaches the core course “Technology for Information Professionals” (LIS 488), and she helped set up and run last year’s “Celebrations of the 1st International Open Access Week,” a role she’ll reprise this October 18-24, 2010.
Q : Is open access only about academic journals?
It’s about research and scholarly journals. It’s not about Newsweek. In order for someone to work in academia, they have to publish in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals that will reach the audience they want, that promotion and tenure committees and faculty know about, and publish in. BioMed Central and the Public Library of Science are prestigious, non-profit journals, free of cost, and their impact factor is tracked by Thomson Reuters—one of the criteria that people check when they want to see the quality is the impact factor. Is it peer-reviewed? Is the frequency of the journal standard? Is the editorial board constituted from experts in their field?
Is that what the Open Access Tracking Project (OATP) does, where you had a paid internship last year?
This is a project that was created by Professor Peter Suber, a fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Peter has been a very big advocate of open access for many years, and he realized that OA online information is getting lost because no one is tracking the articles. So he wanted to create a folksonomy in OA, using a bookmarking software called Connotea. The tracking project calls for users to bookmark and tag URLs for open-access-related information.
LIS is a very small field, and we should be doing something about open access. We should focus on the journals that are open access today, and try to publish in them.
Why do certain subjects publish more open access — astronomy, say?
It’s the culture of the subjects. The social sciences publish differently from the health sciences. Historians want to publish a book, an article a year, say. In the health sciences, the academic journals provide more current information. Originally, people who were working in the sciences were more attached to the technology, so they didn’t see the computer as something scary. They wanted to get immediate access to information, so they created their own ways to circulate it to each other. It was faster than what the publishers would do. In astronomy, these people can have access to special equipment. If you have access to this equipment, you are a prestigious researcher, and if you get access, everyone wants to know what you find. They don’t care if it goes through the publisher and gets reviewed, they just want the results. There are fewer publishers for their articles. The field is a little bit smaller. Library and information science is a very small field too, and we should be doing something about it.
What should we be doing?
First of all, we should focus on the journals that are open access today, and try to publish in them. LIS has some high-quality OA journals. Second, we should promote institutional and subject repositories. LIS has plenty of subject repositories. The biggest is called E-LIS. Faculty or students or staff of any institution can upload their papers in their institutional repository. Also, it gives you the freedom as an author to choose the license, so if you give free access, you can keep copyright and use it whenever you want.
We’re students, so we need information so that we can become professionals. I want access to information and I don’t want my library to cut down on subscription costs and then feel horrible because it cannot serve my research needs. But you need time and effort and people and money to set up an institutional depository. I want to believe that in 10 years the majority of institutions in this country will have some sort of mandate for a depository.
Do you see a time when all journals are open access?
I don’t see that, and to be honest, I don’t want that. Open access is not here to be the exterminator of the subscription journals. What I want to see is prestigious open access journals in a lot of disciplines that can offer the quality of information that researchers, students, and committees for tenure and promotion require. I want to see more and more open access journals, but I don’t think we are ever going to get to the point where every journal is open access.
What are you working on today?
I am writing my dissertation, which is on open access. I’m interested in creative commons licenses, copyright issues, and authors’ rights. I’m really interested to see why people publish where they publish, why do they make the decision to use X journal and not Y journal? One area of research I’m doing is with authors, and how they negotiate with publishers over the licensing agreement. Publishers are changing toward the new reality, though. They have created different choices for authors where they allow them to choose how they want to publish their articles, free of cost or under subscription. In plenty of tollaccess journals, the author pays a fee to have the article be open access. And more and more publishers lately allow self-archiving on the author’s website, with a year embargo.
What are your plans after completing your degree?
I want to do open access. I want to be closer to my family, so I am going back to Europe, but not Greece. I miss my parents, but I miss Greece only during the summer. I miss the food a lot — sometimes I think I miss the food more than I miss my parents.