A short one this time, honestly.

I’ve written plenty about the Research Works Act, both on this blog and in The Guardian.  Those writings have mostly focussed on the practical implications of the bill.  But those aren’t the real reasons that it invokes such rage in me.  That comes from this definition (from the text of the bill):

The term ‘private-sector research work’ means an article intended to be published in a scholarly or scientific publication, or any version of such an article, that is not a work of the United States Government (as defined in section 101 of title 17, United States Code), describing or interpreting research funded in whole or in part by a Federal agency and to which a commercial or nonprofit publisher has made or has entered into an arrangement to make a value-added contribution, including peer review or editing.

So if Randy Irmis gets an NIH grant to research some subject; if under that funding he does the research, writes the paper, creates the illustrations, formats it all according to a journal’s guidelines; if it’s edited by John Hutchinson for an Elsevier journal by donation of the time he would otherwise spend on his own research; if it’s peer-reviewed by Matt Wedel on Western University’s dime and by me at my own expense (since I have no funding of any kind); if Randy executes the necessary revisions and eventually the paper appears in that Elsevier journal — then the paper is a ‘private-sector research work’.

In this scenario, apart from a small amount of typesetting, the private sector’s only contribution has been to accept donations of time, effort and expertise from scientists.  And the text of the RWA says that this makes the result the property of the private sector (i.e. in this case Elsevier).

That stinks.  It stinks much worse than any of the actual consequences should the RWA pass.  It stinks of arrogance, privilege, enshrined habitual dominance and a habit of bullying.  And it can’t be allowed to stand.

I know that I’ve tended to be very critical of Elsevier on these pages [peer review, economics, PLoS clone, RWA, profits].  I’ve sometimes wondered whether that’s really fair: after all, Elsevier are just one among many exploitative for-profit non-open scholarly publishers, right?  Shouldn’t I be equally harsh on Springer, Wiley, Informa and the rest?

I’m not alone in this, of course.  For example, Tyler Neylon’s bare-bones site The Cost Of Knowledge — registered only six days ago, according to the whois record — is a call to boycott Elsevier in particular.  Researchers are invited to “declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate”, by signing a declaration to refrain from publishing refereeing, and/or editorial work.  Impressively, this has gone from non-existent to 618 signatures in six days; you should consider whether yours should be the 619th.

So why Elsevier?  Partly, I think it’s just a convenient shorthand to say “Elsevier” rather than “exploitative for-profit non-open scholarly publishers”.  But there are specific reasons why it wasn’t Blackwell, to pick a name at random, that rolled the snake eyes.  As well as the restrictive copyrights, predatory pricing and obligatory bundling that are so ubiquitous, Elsevier is also responsible for the six fake journals that misrepresented sponsored content as legitimate research, involvement in the arms trade, repeated obstruction to the re-use of data, making campaign contributions to representatives to propose the Research Works Act and then feeding those representatives the very words they want them to say in support of it.

But a couple of days ago I learned of yet another reason why my attempts to be gentle and kind to Elsevier are doomed.  It’s not been widely publicised yet, because the reporting has been in German, but Elsevier are now filing lawsuits against their own customers.

You may find it hard to believe — I certainly did — but here is a report in the well respected German-language Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.  Google’s automatic translation is pretty good, but David Marjanovic kindly provided this better translation of the key passage:

Almost at the same time, on 19 December 2011, the science publishers Elsevier, Thieme and Springer filed a suit with the Zurich Commercial Court, which is intended to forbid the ETH library to continue its document delivery service in its present form. Through this service clients of the ETH library can request the electronic delivery of articles from scientific journals. The copies may only be used internally and must not be passed on. In addition, the ETH library pays an annual compensation to the copyright-collecting agency Pro Litteris. The publishers that have filed the lawsuit want to prohibit this service on the grounds that they themselves offer these articles online, although usually for about 30 euros per article, a multiple of what access through the ETH library costs.

By their suit, the science publishers want to subvert a provision of Swiss copyright law that explicitly allows the copying of excerpts from periodicals. In comparison e.g. to the situation in Germany, where such copies are forbidden, this provision is an unambiguous advantage for Switzerland as a science site.

I want to add some commentary here, but …  What can I add?  I am lost for words.  How much lower can they go?

(The good news for Elsevier: Springer get to share the blame this time.)

Isn’t it ironic?

The full article is here, for those with privileges to read it.


Sorry to have written so much about publishing politics recently, and so little about sauropod vertebrae!  That stuff is important, and I give you fair warning I will be returning to it soon.  But for now, here is a quiz:

[Click through for a much bigger version.]

This is one of the figures from the as-yet last unpublished last chapter of my dissertation, slightly modified for its forthcoming submission to Palaeontologia Electronica.  As you can see, it shows five sauropod cervicals, each one in left lateral and either posterior or anterior view.

But can you tell me what they all are?  Points will be awarded for getting the right taxon, the particular specimen, and the serial position, for an available total of fifteen points.  I will award fractional marks as and when necessary (e.g. right genus but wrong species; serial position close but not quite right).  And I might give bonuses for interesting and relevant historical asides.

Do not look at other peoples’ answers before deciding on your own!

I will leave some blank space at the end of this article, before the comments, so that you don’t see them inadvertently before you make your choices.














(Spoiler space ends)

Original Research Article

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, Volume 6, Issue 8, January 2012, Pages 1-7.
Michael P. Taylor, Mathew J. Wedel, Darren Naish.   View Abstract

Aaargh!  I’ve had it up to here with this.  I just read it yet again, this time in a letter to the editor of the New York Times in response to Michael Eisen’s recent piece in that paper on the RWA.  The letter says some good things, but then right in the middle we have this:

Mr. Eisen understates the value added to medical research articles by journals such as ours. Peer review is invaluable in selecting the highest impact medical research and improving its quality before publication.

This is just one more example of a pernicious and persistent assumption.  In the same vein, the AAP’s statement on the Research Works Act mentions peer-review five times in its first four paragraphs despite the fact that the RWA has nothing to do with peer review.  So for example:

The professional and scholarly publishing community thanks Representatives Issa and Maloney for supporting their significant investments that fund innovations and enable the essential peer-review process maintaining the high standards of U.S. scientific research.

People, please.  Publishers do not provide peer-review.  We do.  The same body of researchers that writes the papers for publishers also performs peer-review for publishers.  And we charge exactly the same amount: nothing.  Peer review is just one more gift that we give to the publishers.  It’s a gift that I don’t begrudge when the world can benefit from it, through open-access publishing.  But when the publisher locks up the result of my work — an intolerable thing to do at the best of times — it’s the most bare-faced effrontery for them then to claim that this is justified by the “added value” that my peer-reviewing effort provides.

So: where does the lie that publishers provide peer-review come from?

As described in the SPARC letter of September 6, 2007, AAP publishers commissioned PR “pit bull” Eric Dezenhall in January of that year to develop a campaign against open access.  His advice was (in part) that “the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review.”  (If you doubt PRISM’s objectivity in recounting this history, it’s also discussed in a Nature article ; but with perfect poetic irony, many of you won’t be able to read it because it’s paywalled.)

So “publishers provide peer-review” is a lie invented by a PR hack who was explicitly commissioned to come up with soundbites to undermine open access.  Please, people: don’t do commercial publishers’ jobs for them by perpetuating this lie.  If you must do their job for them, stick to doing by writing, illustrating, editing and reviewing their articles for them.

[I know that none of this is news to readers of this blog.  I am posting this article mainly so that I have a single place to point people to when I want to correct this misapprehension which the publishing industry is so assiduously perpetuating.  So please: if you hear people parroting the lie that publishers provide peer-review, direct them here!]

Although I’m on record of being no fan of the tabloids, there’s no doubt that they are hugely influential.  So it has to be good news to find that in the last few hours, both Nature and Science have publicly come out against the Research Works Act.

The Nature Publishing Group (with publishes Nature), writing jointly with Digital Science, published this statement:

Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and Digital Science note the concern amongst the scientific and library communities about the Research Works Act (H.R. 3699), currently under consideration by the U.S. federal government, and wish to clarify our position.

NPG and Digital Science do not support the Research Works Act.

And within the last couple of hours, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes Science), has followed suit with its own statement:

The nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science, today reaffirmed its support for the current public access policy of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Contrary to recent news reports, AAAS does not endorse the Research Works Act, which would prevent the NIH from requiring its grantees to make biomedical research findings freely available via the National Library of Medicine’s Web site.

This is excellent and very welcome news.  I have written to the NPG and AAAS to express my thanks for their statements.

I hope and expect to see other publishers following their example: this page on the Harvard cyber-law site is maintaining a list of AAP-member publishers who have done so.

Line drawing and photograph of the axis and third cervical vertebra of Chuanjiesaurus anaensis (LCD9701-I). Bar = 10 cm. From Sekiya 2011:fig. 6. Note the absurdly elongated postzygapophysis.

And remember — it’s not too late for you to make a difference to the RWA’s success or failure.  See the Alliance for Taxpayer Action’s page, Call to action: Oppose H.R. 3699, a bill to block public access to publicly funded research.


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