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.

Enjoy!

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(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.

Just a quick note that my article Academic publishers have become the enemies of science is now up on the Guardian’s Science Blog.  Spread the word!

(You’re welcome to comment here, of course, but if you post your comments on the Guardian site, they will be much more widely read.  Registration is very quick and free.)

Rebbachisauridae incertae sedis MMCH-Pv 49, anterior cervical vertebra (MMCH-Pv 49/11) in right lateral (reversed) and anterior views (Haluza et al. 2012:fig 2A-B)

In an article that many of you will now have seen, Heather Morrison demonstrated the enormous profits of STM (Scientific, Technical and Medical) scholarly publishers.  The figures are taken from her in-progress dissertation which in turn cites an article in The Economist.  It all checks out.  I emphasise this because I found the figures so hard to believe.  Here they are again: profits as a percentage of revenue for commercial STM publishers in 2010 or early 2011:

  • Elsevier: £724m on revenue of £2b — 36%
  • Springer‘s Science+Business Media: £294m on revenue of £866m — 33.9%
  • John Wiley & Sons: $106m on revenue of $253m — 42%
  • Academic division of Informa plc: £47m on revenue of £145m — 32.4%

So it’s evident that profits on the order of 35% are pretty typical for commercial STM publishers, and that Elsevier’s figures are not an aberration.  Not only that, but all four of these companies’ profits as a proportion of revenue are still increasing — by 2.4%, 4%, 13% and 3.3% respectively.  The U.K. Office of Fair Trading noted back in 2002 that “the overall profitability of commercial STM publishing is high, not only by comparison to ‘non-profit’ journals (which is not surprising), but also by comparison to other commercial journal publishing”.

I wanted to be sure that I was assessing this fairly, so I looked through Elsevier’s annual reports for the last nine years — happily, they make them available, if not particularly easy to find.  What I found is that they have been consistently bringing in profits in the region of 33% throughout the last decade.  Specifically:

  • 2002: £429m profit on £1295m revenue – 33.18%
  • 2003: £467m profit on £1381m revenue – 33.82%
  • 2004: £460m profit on £1363m revenue – 33.75%
  • 2005: £449m profit on £1436m revenue – 31.25%
  • 2006: £465m profit on £1521m revenue – 30.57%
  • 2007: £477m profit on £1507m revenue – 31.65%
  • 2008: £568m profit on £1700m revenue – 33.41%
  • 2009: £693m profit on £1985m revenue – 34.91%
  • 2010: £724m profit on £2026m revenue – 35.74%
  • UPDATE (14 March 2012) The 2011 figures are out: £768M on £2058M revenue – 37.3%

(I have not been through the same exercise for Springer, Wiley or Informa, but there is no reason to expect that the results would be any different.)

What does it all mean?

Yes, publishers have a right to make a living.  Not only that, but they have a right to make as big a profit as the market can bear (though of course when they form a cartel that distorts the market monopolistically, that changes things).

But here’s what it means to scientists that Elsevier’s profit is 35.74% of revenue:

You just have to ask yourself whether that’s where you want your money going.

Most of you will know that the major US science-funding agencies require the work they fund (from the public purse) to be made available as open-access to the public that funded it.  And it’s hard for me to imagine anyone sees that requirement as anything other than straightforwardly just.

But you may not know about the Research Works Act, a truly vile piece of legislation being proposed by two Elsevier-funded shills in the US Congress, which would make it illegal for funding bodies to impose this perfectly natural requirement.  It may not be surprising that a corporation as predatory as Elsevier wants legal protection for its exploitative business model of stealing publicly funded research; but it shocked me to find that this preposterous Act ever got out of committee (unlike two earlier failed attempts to overturn open-access mandates).

The good news is that there is something we can do.  The Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) has issued a Request For Information — basically, it wants your opinion — on public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research.  You can read about this in (too much) detail here, but the bottom line is that you should email your comments to publicaccess@ostp.gov, before the extended deadline of 12th January.

Here is what I just sent:

From: Mike Taylor <mike@miketaylor.org.uk>
To: publicaccess@ostp.gov
Date: 9 January 2012 11:26
Subject: RFI: Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research

Dear Science and Technology Policy Office,

Thank you for extending the deadline for comments on Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research.  The Research Works Act has only very recently come to the notice of scientists, and it is because of this extraordinary proposal that it is now apparent to us that we need to reaffirm what we thought was settled: that OF COURSE scientific work funded by the public should be freely accessible to the public.  I do not understand how this can even be a matter for discussion.  The public pays: the public should benefit in every way possible.

The language in the RWA is highly misleading, attributing to publishers far more input into the scientific process than they really have.  The truth is that scientists (often funded by public money) provide the underlying research, the writing and the figure preparation that result in a manuscript submitted for publication.  Other scientists then provide the editorial services and (contra publishers’ claims, as can be easily verified) the peer review.  Publishers’ contributions are limited essentially to typesetting, the provision of web hosting, and sometimes a very limited amount of compensation for senior editors only (usually not the handling editors who actually deal with authors’ works).  The notion that such a minor contribution should suffice to hand publishers, rather than the public, the right to determine how, where and under what regime the resulting works are disseminated, is ludicrous.  It would be laughable if it were not so iniquitous.

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ
ENGLAND

Much more about the Research Works Act here, here, here, here, and all over the Internet.  Please, do your bit today: send your comments to the OSTP.  Don’t let Elsevier and their cartel steal publicly funded science.

UPDATE

Matt here. Emailing the OSTP takes all of 5 minutes and you should do it right away if you haven’t yet. They ARE listening; in my initial message I mentioned that the profits from a handful of the big commercial publishers could fund all scholarly publishing worldwide, and cited this post. Within 19 minutes I received a personal response from someone in the OSTP, saying, “Thank you Mathew. Would you be so kind as to submit your linked evidence in the body of an email to ease processing and ensure it is fully considered?”

So I did. If you’d like the same ammo, see the post linked above and especially updates and comments, and this post on the insane profit margins of the big commercial publishers (hat tip to Mike). You should also include Peter Murray-Rust’s argument that open access saves lives, outlined in this post and more briefly in this comment.

As long as I have your ear, I am curious at the absence of leverage being brought to bear on the politicians to sponsored the Research Works Act: Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

Issa is a corporate lackey and social policy atavism of the first order, and as long as the publishers keep the campaign funds flowing he’s unlikely to budge–unless his followers start asking why he is sponsoring legislation that would allow a mostly-foreign-based publishing industry to monopolize the results of US-funded research. Maybe someone should. Issa’s webpage is here; in a crowning irony, the big banner at the top currently says, “keep the web #OPEN”.

Carolyn Maloney is a Democrat from New York, she ought to know better. Like Issa, according to her Facebook page Maloney has maxed out on friends and isn’t accepting any more. Not surprisingly, things are dead silent there, and mostly just dead. Fortunately you can reach her at her official House of Representatives webpage. Maloney sponsored the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act; since she cares about health care, it would be worthwhile to point out that open access saves lives. One of the rotating photos on Maloney’s webpage shows her touring a small business incubator, so it would also be a good idea to emphasize the plight of the scholarly poor.

Two things: obviously comments from these politicians’ constituents will carry the most weight, so if you’re in their districts, please take the time to write to them. That said, if you’re a US citizen you are in the legislative footprint of these people, and you should let them know what you think. And if the RWA passes the repercussions would be global, so don’t stay quiet just because you’re outside the US.

Second, if you do write to either politician, please be respectful, on point, and brief. Sure, they may be craven corporate shill morons, but you won’t do our cause any favors by pointing that out in those terms. Don’t soft-pedal the immorality of the proposed legislation, but don’t be a name-calling abusive jerk, either. That’s what blogs are for ;-).

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