1. Publishing economics 101

Although publishing journal articles is now much less costly than it used to be (thanks to machine-readable submissions, paperless electronic distribution, etc.) it still costs some money to get a research paper from manuscript to its published form. So publishers — unless supported by grants, by government agencies or similar — need a revenue stream.

There are, roughly, two ways for academic journal publishers to make money. The traditional way is to lock up the papers and prohibit access to them unless a fee is paid. (I will not now recapitulate all the reasons why this is a terrible idea.) The other way — known as “Gold Open Access” — is for the author, or his project, department or funding body — to pay the publisher a one-off fee, after which the publisher releases the final version of the article to the world.

So those are the two choices: pay for access, or pay to publish.

2. How this works for old papers

To my mind, it’s morally unjustifiable to lock up new research behind paywalls, and we’re working on making sure that stops happening. But publishers do more than just publishing new papers. They also digitise old ones. For example, Elsevier has scans of Cretaceous Research going all the way back to 1980, long predating the current digital publication pipeline.  So they must have scanned the old issues — a non-trivial process when done well, and one that will have cost them something to do.

Of course, I want all those archives to be open, just like the new papers, and for the usual reason: locking them away impedes the progress of science. But how can the publisher recover the costs of scanning? The problem here is that there is no model analogous to Gold Open Access: the authors are not now, years after the event, going to pay for their works to be made OA.

Does that mean the dreaded paywall is the only option?

3. A possible solution

It occurred to me, in a tweet earlier today, that it might be possible to crowd-source a one-off payment to copyright holders, in exchange for which they would release a journal’s archives into the public domain (or as CC BY):

I thought I’d been very clever and inventive, until Ross Mounce pointed out that a very similar initiative already exists — one that was launched only a fortnight ago!

I feel particularly stupid about not having spotted this similarity because I (slightly) know Eric Hellman, the founder of Unglue.it, and I read his blog Go To Hellman pretty consistently. So I’ve actually known about Unglue.it ever since the idea was first floated, long before it was called Unglue.it.  So, it turns out I am a doofus.

4. Can it work?

This is not quite on-mission for Unglue.it, which allows you to “pledge toward creating ebooks that will be legally free, worldwide”. But it’s obviously in the same spirit. I don’t yet know whether Unglue.it would accept a campaign to free the archives of a journal, but even if it won’t, Kickstarter presumably will. So there are mechanisms that can be used.

One obvious roadblock would be if the publishers demanded silly money.  One could imaging, for example, Elsevier starting from the price of their Sponsored Article option, $3000 per article.  Then volume 19 (1998) of Cretaceous Research has 41 articles spread across six issues, so they could conceivably try to set a price of 41 × $3000 = $123,000. If that volume were representative (I have no idea whether it is), then the price for the whole run from 1980 till 2011 would be 32 times as much, which is $5M. And clearly no-one’s going to pay that.

But I assume that publishers have people with a reasonable notion of the true commercial value of a title. Finance people presumably know how much Elsevier make from Cretaceous Research historical archives in a year, and would be satisfied to sell the property for an up-front payment of, say, ten years’ worth. It would be interesting to know what such a price would come to … and unfortunately (I bet) very, very difficult to find out.

Now what?

I’m not sure whether to try to pursue this. Eric, can you comment whether this seems Unglue.it-friendly to you? Can anyone who works for a publishers give a ballpark estimate — even order-of-magnitude — of what kinds of price you imagine might be acceptable? Can anyone else volunteer an educated guess?

The annual meeting of the Society for Scholarly Publishing is happening right now — May 30th till June 1, in Arlington, Virginia.

Back on 15th May, on the Scholarly Kitchen blog that the SSP hosts, David Smith posted a brief article soliciting questions for the annual meeting’s panel discussion:

Please keep it decent and above the belt. A good question gives plenty for the panel and the audience to chew on. We have about 90 minutes, so hopefully we’ll be able to get through a broad spectrum of debating points on the value of publishing organisations as part of the scholarly ecosystem and hopefully some of broader points about an industry in flux from the impact of the digital age.

The panelists are Scholarly Kitchen regular David Crotty, altmetrics guru Jason Priem and Elsevier vice-president Tom Reller, so I thought it would be good to get a question before such an interesting group. So I submitted the following question a week ago today:

When funding bodies impose funding mandates such as those of the NIH and the Wellcome Trust, they are conditions of a contract between funder and researcher. Yet we read statements like this one by Graham Taylor of the Publishers Association: “What publishers would not accept, Mr Taylor made clear, was Research Councils UK’s suggestion, in its draft new open-access policy, that authors could choose instead to deposit their papers in open-access repositories within an “overly short” embargo period of six months after publication” http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=419870

What makes publishers think they have a say in what contract funders and researchers make between themselves? If publishers are to have a say on how grant money is spent, shouldn’t laboratory equipment manufacturers have a say, too?

For anyone who’s been following my contributions to the ongoing scholarly publishing discussion, this won’t be a new question: I posed it in rather more confrontational terms on this very blog, in See, this is why publishers irritate me so much, and then included it in a milder form in my most recent Guardian article. But to the best of my knowledge, no-one in publishing has offered an explanation yet. So that’s why I was keen to get it in front of the panel.

I really hope they don’t dodge the question.

Here’s a screenshot of my submission — a sort of receipt for sending the question, if you like:

If anyone who reads this is fortunate enough to be at the SSP panel, maybe they could report back on what treatment this question gets?

Scopus is useless

May 29, 2012

Scopus bills itself as “the largest abstract and citation database of research literature and quality web sources covering nearly 18,000 titles from more than 5,000 publishers.”

Sounds useful. But it’s useless. Literally.

Because it’s a subscription-only resource:

Now I am an associate researcher at the University of Bristol. UoB is part of the UK Access Management Federation, so I select that in the Shibboleth authentication page:

But the list of member universities doesn’t include Bristol, instead skipping straight from “University of Birmingham” to the intriguingly named “University of Bolton – Do Not Use”:

I can’t use it.

So it’s useless to me. Literally.

This is why it’s frustrating to me when I read statements like this from Elsevier’s Alicia Wise:

Commercial publishers are especially able to command resources to … develop new technologies and platforms to access journal content and improve researcher productivity (e.g., ScienceDirect, Scopus, Scirus, CrossRef, CrossCheck. Article of the future, text-mining tools, measurement tools).

I’m sure those things are all very nice (though I doubt they are better than what other people might build given access to the data). But it makes no difference how nice they are if I can’t access them.

Other people who also presumably can’t access Scopus include: Mike Benton, my head of department at Bristol; Greg Paul, who’s not affiliated with a university; Jere Lipps, who recently retired from his post at UCMP; and, as it turns out, Heather Piwowar, data-miner at the University of British Columbia. I’ve picked those four names our of millions of candidates, more more less at random: Benton is probably the UK’s most prolific palaeontologist, Paul is the most influential living palaeoartist, Lipps has had a hugely distinguished career, and Piwowar is in the vanguard of the current efforts to mainstream the text-mining techniques that we can all see are the future.

For all these people, Scopus might just as well not exist. If we’re working with collaborators who do have access, they can’t send us URLs that point into Scopus, so it can’t be a shared resource within such collaborative projects.

An alternative

Google Scholar is better option for Benton, Paul, Lipps, Piwowar and me: it’s free to use and has a pretty good “cited by” feature. But it’s not flawless. For example, it claims that our 2009 sauropod neck posture paper has been cited 38 times, but as you work your way down the list, you find that some of the “citations” are from SV-POW! articles, or from news reports, rather than from proper published works. And Google Scholar is rather opaque: there’s no published list of what journals its database includes, or how often it’s updated.

Building a better alternative

The obvious solutzion is for someone to build an open competitor.  But for them to do that, they need access to the papers that are to be crawled, analysed and indexed.  And of course, they don’t have that access in general, because (all together for the chorus!) publishers put most papers behind paywalls.

If we want something better than Google Scholar, something more available than Scopus, something made by people who care deeply about citation graphs and who want to open them up as objects of research in their own right, then we need entrepreneurial programmers to have access to papers, so they can crawl them and access the references lists.

If you want this to happen, there is something you can do right now that will accelerate it: go and sign the White House’s public access petition.  Make a difference to opening up the world of research.

A brief notice:

A while back we set up a page of “open access bio and palaeo” links on this site — links to open-access journals, individual researchers’ pages that contain PDFs, etc.

Recently, Matt and I realised that neither one of us had the time or inclination to keep this up to date — fixing broken links, finding new sites, etc.  So rather than leave the page there looking like it’s up to date when it’s not, we thought it would be more honest to delete it.

But we gave it a partial reprieve just in case it’s useful to anyone else.  The page is still in place, but now has a big banner warning that it’s unmaintained.  We don’t expect to update it again.

BTW., if anyone out there would like to take the page over (i.e. use it as a basis for a new and up-to-date list that they host on their own site), they are very welcome indeed.  Please let us know if you do this, so we can replace our page with a link to your more recent one.

 

Today’s Guardian has a piece by Graham Taylor, director of academic, educational and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, entitled Attacking publishers will not make open access any more sustainable.

It’s such a crock that I felt compelled to respond point-by-point in the comments.  I did, but because my response was too long for the Guardian‘s comment field, I had to break it into three parts [part 1, part 2, part 3].

Here is the whole thing — Together At Last!

As we discuss the access crisis and Academic Spring, it’s great that the Guardian is allowing a platform to representatives of the academic publishing industry. It gives them a chance to demonstrate how utterly bankrupt their position is, and it’s kind of Graham Taylor to oblige. His article is a catalogue of distortions and mispresentations from start to finish.

I don’t really have time for this, but I suppose I ought to respond to some of the grosser distortions.

Much has been written about journal publishers over the past few months but unfortunately this has focused almost exclusively on one side of the debate: the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs …

There is a very obvious reason for this. Everyone, with one trifling exception, is on one side of the debate. Funding bodies want the work they pay for to be universally available. Researchers want their work to be free to anyone who wants it. Other researchers want to be able to freely access what their colleagues have produced. Businesses want to use the research that their taxes have funded. So do private citizens. We want our doctors and nurses to have access to medical research. We want our teachers and lecturers to be up to speed on current science. We want our legislators to have up-to-date information. We want the £200 billion of new insights that text-mining can give us. We want the huge economic growth that free access to the research we funded will give us, to get out of this recession.

Against all those interests stands just one on the other side of the debate. Publishers. They and only they stand against greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, and for a depressingly obvious reason: because it will cut into their profits.

And yes, it will. But that is a problem for publishers to solve, not one that need concern funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. We all stand on one side; publishers on the other.

And that, of course, is why academic publishers have become the enemies of science.

Kind of ironic when you think what the word “publish” actually means. So-called publishers are the only people out to hinder publication.

… the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, which publishers are painted as somehow resisting and restricting.

What can Graham Taylor mean by “painted as”? What can he mean by “somehow”? This is not open to discussion. Try to access an article: BAM, paywall. Read publishers’ statements in support of the RWA and against the FRPAA. It’s as clear as day. Publishers Resist Access To Research. That’s their business model.

(Note: to be clear, this is not true of all publishers. There are those, like BioMed Central and PLoS, that make their money by actually publishing research — making it available — rather than locking it up. They are the good guys: with them, I have no quarrel.)

Publishers are exploring fee-waived walk-in access via the public library network.

SERIOUSLY? That’s their answer? A 20th century solution to 21st century problem? Publishers expect people to get in a car and physically drive to a public library — if they can even find one after the most recent cuts — to electronically read material that they could easily read with devices they have in their own homes?

I could complain about the environmental impact, the appalling waste of time, the reliance on an ever-shrinking resource … But all of these fade into insignficance compared with the overwhelming disconnection from reality that this “solution” represents. If publishers really believe that physically going to a special magic building is a rational way for us to get access to the research we paid for, then they are more incompetent than I realised.

Much of the focus of this debate has been on the value of peer review and the role that scholars and researchers play in this process. By implication publishers are perceived as contributing very little, other than simply assembling articles into journals and pushing them onto cash-strapped libraries to make a gargantuan profit.

Very nicely put — I couldn’t have said it better myself.

That is a gross distortion of reality.

Please, Graham — don’t sell yourself short. It’s an excellent summary.

The publishing process involves [long list of things]:

Let’s take this list apart and see what’s actually involved.

* soliciting submissions;

Nope — completely irrelevant. I have never once in my life made a submission to a journal on the basis of a solicitation, and I doubt anyone I know has, either. Researchers know what the relevant journals are in their field, without needing to be spammed by publishers.

* managing submissions;

This is done by software, and has basically zero marginal cost. The setup costs of buying the software in the first place may have been significant, depending on how inefficient the publisher is, but there’s no reason it need be: free software such as SFU’s Open Journal Systems and the Annotum platform allow journals to be set up at no financial cost.

* managing peer review;

This is done by handling editors who are of course volunteer academics in 90% of cases.

* editing and preparing manuscripts;

Editing is done by the editors (clue’s in the question) who we remember are volunteer academics. Preparation of manuscripts is of course what the author does — that’s why we call them authors. All at no cost to the publisher, indeed often the authors pays the publisher for the privilege.

* producing the articles;

I have no idea what, if anything, “producing” means here. Perhaps typesetting? I’ll give publishers that: in some fields (not maths or physics), publishers typeset papers. This is hardly onerous. When I had to do the same with one of my own papers recently, it took about an hour — that’s for a paper of 39 manuscript pages, so it came out to something on the order of two minutes per page.

* publishing and disseminating journals;

What does “publishing” mean? This whole process is publishing, remember? And in the breakdown of all the things that entails, Taylor includes “publishing”? Right — and when I do research, one of the things that entails is research.

I assume “disseminating” is code for “spamming”.

* and of course archiving.

Something that institutional repositories, subject repositories, LOCKSS, Portico, PubMed Central and many other services all do as well as, or better than, publishers.

* And the end result acts as a calling card and mark of quality, helping readers find content that is relevant to them and is trusted.

Now we’re getting somewhere: this is the true “value” that publishers provide: brand. When I say “value” I don’t mean that it has any actual value, of course, any more than the label on pair of Levi jeans does. But just as the right brand of clothes makes a kid appear cool to his classmates, so the right journal brand makes a researcher look cool to the kind of idiot adminstrators that too often have control over jobs and promotions.

That’s why people publish with barrier-based journals: brand-name. That’s all.

At a time when we are looking for an export-led recovery, UK-based scholarly publishers account for over £1bn in export sales.

And costs us two hundred times as much in lost opportunties, due to text-mining barriers alone.

Perhaps most important of all, from an access point of view, is the amount publishers have invested in platforms that support researchers in numerous ways. These include investments in article enhancement, visualisation, social networking, and mobile technology; valuable tools such as searchable image databases, navigation, alerts and citation notifications, and reference analysis. Publishers are also working on text-mining tools; linking to the datasets behind journal articles; and research performance measurement tools such as SciVal.

No, no, no. No-one cares about any of that stuff. Everything publishers are clumsily trying to do with visualisation, social networks and the rest, other people — specialists — are doing much better. People who are actually doing text-mining don’t want publishers’ “tools”, they just want publishers to get out of the way and let them get on with their work without harrassment.

The profit margins of some of the larger publishers are portrayed as a moral affront, given the budgetary challenges that libraries face.

Why, yes. Yes, they are. Because the profit margins of the Big Four academic publishers are all in the range of 32%-42% of revenue — much more than, say, Apple’s best-ever 24% margin in 2011. And that’s without actually creating anything.

Not only that, those margins are constantly increasing: for example, Elsevier’s profit margins have increased every year from 2005 to 2011: 30.57%, 31.65%, 33.41%, 34.91%, 35.74%, 37.3%. And no wonder when they don’t pay for their content or peer-review or most of their editing.

Unfortunately, publishers seem to be part of a broader backlash against perceived corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility.

What’s unfortunate about that? Turns out that corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility are bad things. Who knew?

Mandated deposit in repositories is not a publishing model, has no associated revenue stream and, worse, threatens to erode the revenues deriving from the subscriptions on which the model depends.

Correct.

And we do not care.

Mandated deposit in repositories is good news for funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. If it’s bad news for publishers, then those publishers need to find a different business model or die.

OK, I’m done. Congratulations to anyone who made it to the end.

My mind was blown yesterday by a tweet from Stuart Shieber:

[Screenshot, for when case Twitter decides the original tweet is too old to be worth keeping around any more.]

At first I didn’t believe it. But I found the relevant article (Reovirus-Mediated Cytotoxicity and Enhancement of Innate Immune Responses Against Acute Myeloid Leukemia) and went through the Permissions process for myself. And sure enough, there it was:

You think I’m making this up, but I’m not. I urge you to verify this for yourself:

  • Go to the article.
  • Note that it is in a journal called BioResearch Open Access.
  • Oh, and note that the journal describes itself as “fully open access”.
  • Click on the Permissions link in the Publication Tools pane at top right.
  • Fill in the repeatedly-reloading form as in the screenshot above: send in an email / academic / full article / no / 1 / USD – $ and click QUICK PRICE.
  • Feast your eyes, gloat your soul, on the $585 charge.

And now consider: is it a better use of your $1350 to email 2.3 BioResearch Open Access articles to colleagues, or to pay the article processing charge for an PLoS ONE article?

I was so shocked by this that I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief, with a copy to the Managing Editor.  (Sorry that this repeats so much of what I said above):

Date:    24 May 2012 00:22
From:    Mike Taylor mike@indexdata.com
To:    jane.taylor@ed.ac.uk
Cc:    sjensen@liebertpub.com
Subject:    Very high reproduction fees for BioResearch Open

Dear Jane Taylor,

First, congratulations on the launch of the new journal BioResearch Open:

http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/biores.2012.9011.ed

and on your appointment as its Editor-in-Chief.

I am writing because of a rather surprising reproduction fee for an article in the journal. (It may well be the same for the other articles as well — I’ve not checked.)  To see this for yourself, please go to “Reovirus-Mediated Cytotoxicity and Enhancement of Innate Immune Responses Against Acute Myeloid Leukemia” at

http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/biores.2012.0205

Then click on “Permissions” in the “Publication Tools” area and fill in the form as follows:
* I would like to … send in an email
* I am a/an … academic
* I would like to use … full article
* I will be translating … no
* Distribution quantity … 1
* My currency is … USD – $
and click the QUICK PRICE button.

On doing so, you will be informed that the price to send a single PDF of this open-access article to a colleague is 585.00 USD.  (Screenshot attached.)

Can you please explain how your journal justifies charging ANY fee for sending a copy of an open-access article, and why the fee is so astonishingly high?

I will report back when I get a reply.

Update 1 (Thursday 24 May 2012, 9:40am)

A response from BioResearch Open Access editor Jane Taylor:

Date: 24 May 2012 08:54
From: Jane Taylor <Jane.Taylor@ed.ac.uk>
To: Mike Taylor <mike@indexdata.com>
Subject: RE: Very high reproduction fees for BioResearch Open

Dear Dr Taylor

Thank you for your interest in BioResearch Open Access. It has been a very exciting time establishing a new journal – and the first open access journal from Mary Ann Liebert publishers. The costs and prices are set by the publisher and are out of my editorial control; however I will obtain more details regarding the costs and let you know the response.

Best wishes

Jane

And my response:

Thank you very much. If you have an email address that I can use, I would be happy to pursue this with the publisher directly.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Update 2 (Thursday 24 May 2012, 11:50am)

A response from BioResearch Open Access publisher representative Vicki Cohn:

Date: 24 May 2012 11:09
From: Cohn, Vicki VCohn@liebertpub.com
To: “dino@miketaylor.org.uk” <dino@miketaylor.org.uk>
Cc: Jane Taylor <jane.taylor@ed.ac.uk>,
“Ballen, Karen” <KBallen@liebertpub.com>,
“Jensen, Susan” <SJensen@liebertpub.com>
Subject: Fwd: Very high reproduction fees for BioResearch Open

Hello, Dr. Taylor. There must be a glitch in our system–please feel free to send the PDF to whomever you like. We do reserve certain rights but certainly there is no charge to use the PDF in this way.

Thank you for bringing this to the attention of Editor Jane Taylor and myself. I will work with our IT folks to get this fixed.

Susan and Karen, can we meet on Tuesday about this please?

OK, this is promising.  BioResearch Open Access is a very new journal, after all — this is the very first issue — so maybe it really is just technical teething problems.  Hopefully they will fix this quickly.  In the mean time, here is my response (with indentation messed up courtesy of WordPress):

Date: 24 May 2012 12:02
From: Mike Taylor mike@indexdata.com
To: “Cohn, Vicki” <VCohn@liebertpub.com>
Cc: Jane Taylor <jane.taylor@ed.ac.uk>,
“Ballen, Karen” <KBallen@liebertpub.com>,
“Jensen, Susan” <SJensen@liebertpub.com>
Subject: Re: Very high reproduction fees for BioResearch Open

Hi Vicki, many thanks for this swift and encouraging response.

To ensure that readers of your open-access journal clearly understand what rights they have, I encourage you add a page to your site explicitly stating what you mean by open access, and a brief note in each individual paper summarising. As an example of how this can be done well, I offer PLoS ONE’s page:

http://www.plosone.org/static/license.action

and the standard wording used on papers such as

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0037991

saying “Copyright: © 2012 Reilly et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.”

In order to conform to the original definition of “open access” as stated by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI):

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/boaifaq.htm#openaccess

I further recommend that you elect to use the “gold standard” open-access licence, Creative Commons Attribution, as used by (for example) PLoS, BioMed Central and Springer’s elective Open Choice articles. For a discussion of why this is important, see “Why Full Open Access Matters” at

http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001210

I hope these suggestions are helpful; I will be happy to discuss any aspect of this in more detail if that would be of value to you.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Update 3 (Thursday 24 May 2012, 2:35pm)

Brief, but welcome, response from the publisher’s representative:

Date: 24 May 2012 13:30
From: Cohn, Vicki VCohn@liebertpub.com
To: Mike Taylor <mike@indexdata.com>
Cc: Jane Taylor <jane.taylor@ed.ac.uk>,
“Ballen, Karen” <KBallen@liebertpub.com>,
“Jensen, Susan” <SJensen@liebertpub.com>
Subject: RE: Very high reproduction fees for BioResearch Open

Thanks for your feedback–we will take this all into consideration as we wend our way through a new open access friendly publishing environment!

I imagine that’s the end of it, until something changes on the journal’s site.

No new SV-POW! post today — just a link to my new piece at the GuardianUS petition could tip the scales in favour of open access publishing.

Pass it on — tell your friends — encourage them to sign the petition. It will make a real difference.

Remember, open access is not just an issue for academics: it affects all our lives.

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