Open4DE Spotlight on Sweden: How a Bottom-up Open Access Strategy Works without a National Policy

Authors: Malte Dreyer, Martina Benz and Maike Neufend

Open Access (OA) is developing in an area of tension between institutional and funder policies, the economics of publishing and last but not least the communication practices of research disciplines. In a comparison across European countries, very dynamic and diverse approaches and developments can be observed. Furthermore, this international and comparative perspective helps us to assess the state of open access and open science (OA and OS) in Germany. In this series of Open4DE project blog posts, we will summarize what we have learned in our in-depth conversations with experts on developing and implementing nationwide Open Access strategies. We continue our series with a report on Sweden’s Open Access landscape.

The Nordic and Baltic countries of Europe are renown for having developed Open Access and Open Science (OA and OS) particularly well. Our spotlight on Lithuania at the beginning of this series made clear that committed policy-making is an important precondition for the successful implementation of OA and OS. Finland, too, has created a sophisticated system of various national policy papers on opening up research and teaching. The policy process in which they were developed is itself a tool to promote openness in science. We will report on Finland’s strategy in this series in the coming weeks.

Sweden differs from its Baltic neighbors as it has not established a nation-wide binding OA strategy through a policy paper or law. Nevertheless, Sweden has always been on a very good path towards the goal of opening up science. Sweden was one of the early adopters of transformative agreements and today can build on a broad acceptance of OA in the scientific community – despite the lack of a national policy. How can this be?

We wanted to explore what strategies Sweden is applying to make OA and OS a breakthrough and met Wilhelm Widmark to talk to him about the Swedish research ecosystem. Wilhelm Widmark is the director of the Stockholm University Library and has played an important role developing OA and OS at his own institution. He has also been involved for years in various national committees for the implementation of OA and OS: He is Vice-Chairman of the Swedish Bibsam Consortium and member of the Swedish Rectors Conference’s Open Science working group. Internationally, he was a member of the LIBER  Steering Board and a member of EUA’s Expert Group on Open Science. Since December 2021, he has also been a director of the EOSC Association.

The history of OA in Sweden

The history of OA in Sweden is characterized by very committed people, Wilhelm Widmark points out at the beginning of our conversation. Main drivers have always been enthusiasts who cared about the idea. One could therefore conclude that OA in Sweden has traditionally come from bottom-up. According to Wilhelm Widmark, it was indeed library directors who started it all, not the government. In their exchange forum, the SUHF Rectors Conference, they developed a recommendation in 2003 to deal more intensively with OA in the future, because they saw this topic coming. The already ongoing journal crisis gave a necessary impetus and lent the whole development an additional ideological dimension. In view of the constantly rising prices, it also became clear to the scientists that OA and OS has a value in itself. With the help of the libraries, they first tried to go the green way and started using repositories. However, it quickly became apparent that the workload on researchers was too high to achieve success this way. Only between 10% and 15% OA could be achieved with repository-based OA. Around 2015, therefore, the discussion about Gold OA also began to rise up in Sweden.

The plan to enable OA through negotiations with publishers led to discussions in the rectors conference. It quickly became clear that this form of negotiation could only take place with the involvement of university management. The network that emerged soon spanned the entire country. Today, there is a steering committee in which university rectors and people from the university administrations are represented in addition to the library directors. The National Library of Sweden, where the steering committee is located, plays a significant role in the transformation process, unlike in Germany, for example. The success of this model speaks for itself: Sweden is already one of the countries with the most transformation agreements. By 2026, more than 80% of publications are expected to appear in Gold OA through transformative deals.

The future of OA and OS in Sweden

The OA transformation is an ongoing process with changing goals. Wilhelm Widmark seems to get thoughtful at this point: “The question is when one can claim that a transformation is complete”, he remarks and points to upcoming challenges. These include the common search for alternatives to commercial publication service providers. An alternative to commercial OA could lie in the design of a publication platform. The times seem right for such projects: “Publishers really want to keep the transformative agreements as their business model. But the researchers are really annoyed of the high level of the publication fees” is how Wilhelm Widmark describes the current mood in his country. And in his view, the tested interaction between infrastructure providers and scientists will also be decisive for the next stage of the development: “The university management has the question on their table and the EU is our political driver. But it shouldn’t be organized top-down, it must be driven by researchers. The transformation is done for the researchers and thus the process must be created based on the needs of the researchers.” Under these conditions, the coordinating side needs to address the task of creating structures that promote and enable this cultural change.

Wilhelm Widmark believes that the involvement of all stakeholders is also necessary in those areas where he believes Sweden still has potential for development. Here he mentions, among other things, the topic of open data and especially the monitoring of opening processes in this area, investments in digital infrastructures, the promotion of citizen science or the topic of open educational resources. Furthermore, investments should not only be made in material resources, but also in skills. Universities in particular are called upon to provide competent support for researchers through data stewards and their own training programs. But the training of trainers must also be further professionalised and accredited: “We need a curriculum for data stewards and career paths for this staff. Not only the infrastructure is important, the skills are almost as important as the infrastructure,” Wilhelm Widmark is convinced.

Sweden and the National Policy Plan

The deep conviction that policy processes must be thought of from the implementation point of view and should be shaped by the players who are at the beginning of the scientific value chain corresponds to a critical attitude towards national policies. In contrast, a national OA and OS policy developed with all stakeholders, as is currently being discussed in Sweden, runs the risk of becoming self-serving and binding important capacities: “In the beginning the government wanted an OA and OS policy. The research council and the national library suggested a common OS policy together with the universities and the directors. But I am not sure if it is the right thing to do because it will take a long time and the work to be done is actually more important than the policy itself.”

What we can learn from Sweden

In our conversation, it becomes clear to us what maxims this openness-strategy follows: Prescriptions from above are avoided. Instead, common ground is identified through discussions with all participants and differences are not emphasized. In order to achieve goals that everyone considers desirable, the tools for their implementation are decided at each individual institution or organisation. In this way, specific needs can be addressed and researchers and educators have the opportunity to participate directly in these policy processes. On the last point, the Swedish strategy seems similar to the approach taken in Germany.

The price of this autonomy and particularism at the institutional level is a great heterogeneity of measures. Wilhelm Widmark sees this himself: “The national library compared all the different OA policies, and they are not aligned at all”. But he continues straight away: “Everything important happens at the universities. And of course the research field provides norms, but the researchers are not really interested in these norms but care about what is going on at their universities.” The benefit of such a strategy is that the discussion about OA and OS is kept alive. Perhaps this effect has also contributed to the fact that OA and OS have been met with such broad acceptance in Sweden.

Further Reading

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