Going Beyond Open: The Making of the Vienna Principles

by Rich Savage, CC BY 2.0

by Rich Savage, CC BY 2.0

Note: This post originally appeared on the OpenAIRE blog on 22 June 2016.

Last week, we published the Vienna Principles: A Vision for Scholarly Communication in the 21st Century. The announcement of the publication has been widely shared.

In this contribution, I’d like to provide more context on how the principles came about – starting with the network that brought the authors together: the Open Access Network Austria (OANA). OANA was established in 2012 as a joint activity under the organisational umbrella of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and Universities Austria (UNIKO), and it has become a well-known entity in the world of open access. Its members were for example part of the negotiation team that led to the Austrian Springer deal. OANA is also the origin of the widely shared and well-received Recommendations for the Transition to Open Access in Austria, which call for the bulk of scholarly communication in Austria to be open access by 2025. In line with OANA’s mission, the document does not only propose objectives, but also defines a set of specific recommendations for the implementation of this goal. OANA is therefore an important driving force for making open access a reality in Austria.

During OANA’s second assembly in 2015, Open Knowledge Austria brought forward a proposal to broaden the scope of the network beyond open access to explore various other instruments of open science. Based on this proposal, the OANA core team commissioned the working group “Open Access and Scholarly Communication” to sketch a vision of how open science can change scholarly communication in the long run. The working group first met in April 2015 in the Museumsquartier in Vienna. Over the following year, we had five further meetings, each of them in a different Viennese location – hence the name “Vienna Principles”.


Location of our meetings, Image contains content by OpenStreetMap Contributors, CC BY-SA 2.0

By scholarly communication we mean the processes of producing, reviewing, organising, disseminating and preserving scholarly knowledge (This definition is based on the definition found in Wikipedia [05 June 2016]). Scholarly communication does not only concern researchers, but also society at large, especially students, educators, policy makers, public administrators, funders, librarians, journalists, practitioners, publishers, public and private organisations, and interested citizens.

As you can see from our working definition above, we have a broad understanding of scholarly communication, especially when it comes to its stakeholders. Our group reflected this diverse approach: it consisted of librarians, science administrators, students and researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including arts & humanities, engineering, natural sciences and social sciences in both basic and applied contexts. Many working group members are involved in related initiatives, such as Citizen Science Austria, Open Knowledge and OpenAIRE to name just a few, and several have a relevant professional background, including publishing and  software development. The core group consisted of nine participants, but the overall work involved contributions and feedback by more than 20 people and the audiences of the 15th Annual STS Conference, Graz and the 3rd Plenary of the Open Access Network Austria.

Our work started from a number of observations that were based on our own involvement in open science, and by the experience of members of the group that had joined the movement only very recently. The first of these observations was that for many, open science is still a fuzzy concept. People are often unclear about its benefits and therefore tend to have a reserved attitude towards openness. Our second observation was that the debate within the open science community is not necessarily focused on the benefits of openness, but mostly on what constitutes openness, how to achieve openness, and what steps to take next. The classic debate around the “green” and the “gold” route to open access is a good example for this. In these discussions, many of the arguments carry implicit assumptions about the structures of a future scholarly communication system.

These observations led to a first round of input backed up by results from research into the subject, which included an analysis of the state of the debate in open access, a compilation of actors and actor groups within scholarly communication, benefits and issues of open science, and the deficits of the current scholarly communication system.

We concluded that there is currently no commonly agreed set of principles that describes the system of open scholarly communication that we want to create. Such a collection of widely shared cornerstones of the scholarly communication system would, however, help to better guide the debate around open science. At the same time, a vision that answers the question “what for?” would help to better convey the need for openness in scholarly communication to academia and society.

For the definition of the principles, we adopted a clean slate approach, as advocated for example by Cameron Neylon. This means that we set out to describe the world that we want to live in, if we had the chance to design it from scratch, without considering the restrictions and path dependencies of the current system. Our aim was to be clear, concise and as comprehensive as possible, without repeating ourselves. What followed was an intense phase, where we devised and revised, expanded and reduced, split and merged. We also addressed and incorporated the valuable feedback that we received by participants of the 15th Annual STS Conference in Graz and the 3rd Plenary of the Open Access Network Austria.

The main result of our considerations can be seen below: a set of twelve principles of scholarly communication describing the cornerstones of open scholarly communication. It is important to note that we do not see this document as the end of the matter – it is version 1.0. We invite everyone to comment on this first version on http://viennaprinciples.org


So what’s next? The working group will continue its job in the next iteration of OANA, starting this fall. Consolidating the feedback will be an important part of our work, as well as staying on top of the developments in scholarly communication. But we we will also be busy to devise recommendations on how to turn each principle into reality, while coordinating our efforts with other groups such as the Force11 working group on the Scholarly Commons. We are looking forward to shaping the scholarly communication system of the future together with all of you!

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