November 26, 2013
Reading the Government’s comments on the recent BIS hearing on open access, I see this:
As a result of the Finch Group’s work, a programme devised by publishers, through the Publishers Licensing Society, and without funding from Government, will culminate in a Public Library Initiative. A technical pilot was successfully started on 9 September 2013
Following the link provided, I read:
The Report recommended that the existing proposal to make the majority of journals available for free to walk-in users at public libraries throughout the UK should be supported and pursued vigorously.
I’m completely, completely baffled by this. The idea that people should get in a car and drive to a special magic building in order to read papers that their own computers are perfectly capable of downloading is so utterly wrong-headed I struggle to find words for it. It’s a nineteenth-century solution to a twentieth-century problem. In 2013.
Who thought this was a good idea?
And what were they smoking at the time?
I can tell you now that the take-up for this misbegotten initiative will be zero. Because although it’s a painful waste of time to negotiate the paywalls erected by those corporations we laughably call “publishers”, this “solution” will be more of a waste of time still. (Not to mention a waste of petrol).
I can only assume that was always the intention of the barrier-based publishers on the Finch committee that came up with this initiative: to deliver a stillborn access initiative that they can point to and say “See, no-one wants open access”. Meanwhile, everyone will be over on Twitter using #icanhazpdf and other such 21st-century workarounds.
October 14, 2013
In what is by now a much-reported story, @DNLee, who writes the Urban Scientist blog on the Scientific American blog network, was invited by Biology Online to write a guest-post for their blog. On being told this was a non-paying gig, she politely declined: “Thank you very much for your reply. But I will have to decline your offer. Have a great day.” To which Biology Online’s blog editor Ofek replied “Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?”
So far, so horrible. I had never heard of Biology Online before this, and won’t be seeking them out. You can add my name of the long list of people who certainly won’t be writing free content for them.
It’s what happened next that bothers me.
DNLee posted on her blog about what happened — rather a restrained post, which took the opportunity to discuss the wider implications rather than cursing out the perpetrator.
And Scientific American deleted the post.
They just deleted it.
This bothers me much more than the original incident, because I had no idea who Biology Online are, but thought I knew what Scientific American was. Looks like I didn’t. All I know for sure about them now is that they’re a company that accepts advertising revenue from Biology Online. Just saying.
Not a word was said to DNLee about this censorship by the people running the network. The post just vanished, bam. If you follow the link, it currently says “You have reached this page due to an error”. Yes. An error on the part of the blog-network management.
(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I don’t expect Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week ever to join one of these networks. I will not tolerate someone else making a decision to take down one of my posts.)
What makes this much worse is that Scientific American‘s Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina has flat-out lied about this incident at least once. First she tweeted “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Then after a day of silence, she blogged “we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post“.
So which was it, SciAm? Did you censor the post because it was off-topic? Or because of a perceived legal threat? Or, since we know at least one of these mutually contradictory claims isn’t true, maybe neither of them is, and you removed it avoid inconveniencing a sponsor?
DoChristina’s blog-post is a classic nonpoplogy. It says nothing about the original slur that gave rise to all this, and it doesn’t apologise of DNLee for censoring her perfectly reasonable blog-post. What it does do is blame the victim by implying that DNLee’s post is somehow illegal. (You can judge for yourself whether it is by reading one of the many mirrors.)
Then there’s this: “for legal reasons we had to remove the post”. What legal reasons? When did the SciAm legal team get involved in this? (Did they at all? I am sceptical.) Have you actually been threatened by Biology Online? (Again, I have my doubts.) Even if a threat has been received, it’s at best cowardly of SciAm to cave so immediately, and grotesquely unprofessional not even to bother notifying DNLee.
So SciAm are digging themselves deeper and deeper into this hole. Even their usually prolific and reliable blog editor @BoraZ has gone uncharacteristically quiet — I can only hope because he, too, is being silenced, rather than because he’s complicit.
There are only two ways for the SciAm blogging network to get out of this with some shreds of their reputation intact. They need to either show clearly that DNLee was lying about Biology Online, in which case they would merely have mismanaged this incident; or they need to reinstate her post and apologise properly. ”Properly” means “We screwed up because of our cowardice, please forgive us”, not “We’re sorry if some people were offended by our decision to do this thing that we’re going to keep claiming was OK”. Because it wasn’t.
Right then, SciAm. Where now?
October 7, 2013
Suppose, hypothetically, that you worked for an organisation whose nominal goal is the advancement of science, but which has mutated into a highly profitable subscription-based publisher. And suppose you wanted to construct a study that showed the alternative — open-access publishing — is inferior.
What would you do?
You might decide that a good way to test publishers is by sending them an obviously flawed paper and seeing whether their peer-review weeds it out.
But you wouldn’t want to risk showing up subscription publishers. So the first thing you’d do is decide up front not to send your flawed paper to any subscription journals. You might justify this by saying something like “the turnaround time for traditional journals is usually months and sometimes more than a year. How could I ever pull off a representative sample?“.
Next, you’d need to choose a set of open-access journals to send it to. At this point, you would carefully avoid consulting the membership list of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, since that list has specific criteria and members have to adhere to a code of conduct. You don’t want the good open-access journals — they won’t give you the result you want.
Instead, you would draw your list of publishers from the much broader Directory of Open Access Journals, since that started out as a catalogue rather than a whitelist. (That’s changing, and journals are now being cut from the list faster than they’re being added, but lots of old entries are still in place.)
Then, to help remove many of the publishers that are in the game only to advance research, you’d trim out all the journals that don’t levy an article processing charge.
But the resulting list might still have an inconveniently high proportion of quality journals. So you would bring down the quality by adding in known-bad publishers from Beall’s list of predatory open-access publishers.
Having established your sample, you’d then send the fake papers, wait for the journals’ responses, and gather your results.
To make sure you get a good, impressive result that will have a lot of “impact”, you might find it necessary to discard some inconvenient data points, omitting from the results some open-access journals that rejected the paper.
Now you have your results, it’s time to spin them. Use sweeping, unsupported generalisations like “Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured.”
Suppose you have a quote from the scientist whose experiences triggered the whole project, and he said something inconvenient like “If [you] had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, I strongly suspect you would get the same result”. Just rewrite it to say “if you had targeted the bottom tier of traditional, subscription-based journals”.
Now you have the results you want — but how will you ever get through through peer-review, when your bias is so obvious? Simple: don’t submit your article for peer-review at all. Classify it as journalism, so you don’t need to go through review, nor to get ethical approval for the enormous amount of editors’ and reviewers’ time you’ve wasted — but publish it in a journal that’s known internationally for peer-reviewed research, so that uncritical journalists will leap to your favoured conclusion.
Last but not least, write a press-release that casts the whole study as being about the “Wild West” of Open-Access Publishing.
Everyone reading this will, I am sure, have recognised that I’m talking about John Bohannon’s “sting operation” in Science. Bohannon has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Oxford University, so we would hope he’d know what actual science looks like, and that this study is not it.
Of course, the problem is that he does know what science looks like, and he’s made the “sting” operation look like it. It has that sciencey quality. It discusses methods. It has supplementary information. It talks a lot about peer-review, that staple of science. But none of that makes it science. It’s a maze of preordained outcomes, multiple levels of biased selection, cherry-picked data and spin-ridden conclusions. What it shows is: predatory journals are predatory. That’s not news.
Speculating about motives is always error-prone, of course, but it it’s hard not to think that Science‘s goal in all this was to discredit open-access publishing — just as legacy publishers have been doing ever since they realised OA was real competition. If that was their goal, it’s misfired badly. It’s Science‘s credibility that’s been compromised.
Update (9 October)
Akbar Khan points out yet more problems with Bohannon’s work: mistakes in attributing where given journals were listed, DOAJ or Beall’s list. As a result, the sample may be more, or less, biased than Bohannon reported.
October 3, 2013
An extraordinary study has come to light today, showing just how shoddy peer-review standards are at some journals.
Evidently fascinated by Science‘s eagerness to publish the fatally flawed Arsenic Life paper, John Bohannon conceived the idea of constructing a study so incredibly flawed that it didn’t even include a control. His plan was to see whether he could get it past the notoriously lax Science peer-review provided it appealed strongly enough to that journal’s desire for “impact” (designed as the ability to generate headlines) and pandered to its preconceptions (that its own publication model is the best one).
So Bohannon carried out the most flawed study he could imagine: submitting fake papers to open-access journals selected in part from Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers without sending any of his fake papers to subscription journals, noting that many of the journals accepted the papers, and drawing the flagrantly unsupported conclusion that open-access publishing is flawed.
It’s hard to know where Science can go from here. Having fallen for Bohannon’s sting, its credibility is shot to pieces. We can only assume that the AAAS will now be added to Beall’s list of predatory publishers.
Here are some other responses to the Science story:
- Michael Eisen: I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals
- Martin Eve: Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals (and his longer original version)
- Peter Suber: New “sting” of weak open-access journals
- The Library Loon: Which is it?
- Björn Brembs: Science Magazine Rejects Data, Publishes Anecdote
- Kausik Datta at SciLogs: What Science’s “Sting Operation” Reveals: Open Access Fiasco or Peer Review Hellhole?
- John Hawks: “Open access spam” and how journals sell scientific reputation
- Retraction Watch:
- OASPA: response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”
- Jeroen Bosman: Science Mag sting of OA journals: is it about Open Access or about peer review?
- Curt Rice: What Science — and the Gonzo Scientist — got wrong: open access will make research better (now also appearing at the Guardian)
- Michelle N. Meyer: The troubled peer-review system, the open-access wars, and the blurry line between human subjects research and investigative journalism
- Ernesto Priego: Who’s Afraid of Open Access?
- Marius Buliga: On John Bohannon article in Science
- DOAJ: response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?
- Zen Faulkes: Open access or vanity press, the Science “sting” edition
- Graham Steel: Glam Mag fucks up, news at eleven
- Heather Joseph (SPARC): Science Magazine’s Open Access “Sting”
- Lenny Teytelman: What hurts science – rejection of good or acceptance of bad?
- Fabiana Kubke: Science gone bad; or, or the day after the sting
- Gunther Eysenbach: Unscientific spoof paper accepted by 157 “black sheep” open access journals – but the Bohannon study has severe flaws itself
- Jon Brock: This study lacked an appropriate control group: Two stars
- Me again, this time with the gloves off: Anti-tutorial: how to design and execute a really bad study
- Paul Basken (Chronicle of Higher Education): Critics Say Sting on Open-Access Journals Misses Larger Point
- Neurobonkers: Science’s Straw Man Sting
- The Winnower: The Real Peer Review: Post-Publication
- Sal Robinson: John Bohannon’s Open Access sting paper annoys many, scares the easily scared, accomplishes relatively little
- Peerage of Science: It’s gotta sting
- Peter Murray-Rust: The Bohannon “Sting”; Can we trust AAAS/Science or is this PRISM reemerging from the grave?
- Heather Morrison: Bohannon and Science: bogus articles and PR spin instead of peer review
- Barbara Fister (Inside Higher Ed): The Sting
- Jon Tennant (guesting at SciLogs): Peer Review Quality is Independent of Open Access
- Stuart Shieber: Lessons from the faux journal investigation
- DOAJ: Second response to the Bohannon article 2013-10-18
- Andreas Thoss: Peer review: how to distinguish the good from the bad?
September 5, 2013
Remember at the start of the year, Matt and I had a contest to design a cover for a random book in half an hour? I came up with this:
Well, today I saw that my wife is reading Abraham Vergese’s novel Cutting for Stone (which, for what it’s worth, she says is very good). Here’s the cover:
You can’t tell me that‘s a coincidence.
July 13, 2013
May 29, 2013
We jumped the gun a bit in asking How fat was Camarasaurus? a couple of years ago, or indeed How fat was Brontosaurus? last year. As always, we should have started with extant taxa, to get a sense of how to relate bones to live animals — as we did with neck posture.
So here we go. I give you a herd of Indian elephants, Elephas maximus (from here):
You will notice, from this conveniently-close-to-anterior view, that their torsos bulge out sideways, much further than the limbs.
The rib-cage is tiny. It doesn’t even extend as far laterally as the position of the limb bones.
(And lest you think this is an oddity, do go and look at any mounted elephant skeleton of your choice, Indian or African. They’re all like this.)
What’s going on here?
Is Oxford’s elephant skeleton mounted incorrectly? More to the point, are all museums mounting their elephants incorrectly? Do elephants’ ribs project much more laterally in life?
Do elephants have a lot of body mass superficial to the rib-cage? If so, what is that mass? It’s hard to imagine they need a huge amount of muscle mass there, and it can’t be guts. Photos like this one, from the RVC’s televised elephant dissection on Inside Nature’s Giants, suggest the ribs are very close to the body surface:
I’m really not sure how to account for the discrepancy.
Were sauropods similarly much fatter than their mounted skeletons suggest? Either because we’re mounting their skeletons wrongly with the ribs too vertical, or because they had a lot of superficial body mass?
Consider this mounted Camarasaurus skeleton in the Dinosaur Hall at the Arizona Museum of Natural History (photo by N. Neenan Photography, CC-BY-SA):
Compare the breadth of its ribcage with that of the elephant above, and then think about how much body bulk should be added.
This should encourage palaeoartists involved in the All Yesterdays movement to dramatically bulk up at least some of their sauropod restorations.
It should also make us think twice about our mass estimates.
It was Enrique Jardiel Poncela who said that “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing”. I would have guessed at someone like Mark Twain, or maybe G. K. Chesterton, but there you go.
A couple of months ago, I sent an eight-page submission to the House of Commons BIS Committee’s inquiry into the Goverment’s Open Access policy. That was a ratbag to write, and the fear is that such a dry document will be a ratbag to read as well. I work very hard to prevent it being boring — to craft it so that the sentences flow, and so a coherent story emerges from the sequence of individual arguments. It’s tough work.
Here are two pages of my first complete draft, with the markup that I added as I read it through. You can see how much I had to change to get it into a satisfactory state.
Let’s just hope the BIS committee actually reads it.
This very morning, the BIS Committee (Business, Innovation and Skills) is conducting its inquiry, based in part on submissions such as mine — and you can watch it, live, from 9:30am. The list of witnesses looks less unbalanced than in the recent Lords inquiry: on the side of the angels, Cameron Neylon and Martin Eve will appear — as will Stevan Harnad, which could be a positive or a negative. They will of course be countered as always by representatives of the publishing industry, including ALPSP and Elsevier, who will no doubt be once more pushing to extend embargoes and preserve their own continuing government subsidies.
Let’s see what happens.
I’ll finish by quoting the last paragraph of the Executive Summary from my submission:
The government must make decisions on the basis of what benefits the UK as a whole, not what benefits any single industry. The government should allow both Gold and Green OA; should require the CC BY licence, whichever route is taken; should tolerate no embargo on Green OA; and should not fully fund exploitatively high APCs.
April 3, 2013
Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.
SERIOUSLY, NATURE PUBLISHING GROUP. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering – nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.
It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.
Sort it out.
For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:
My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.
If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.
Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.
And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.
If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.
Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.
If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.
Thanks for listening.
March 28, 2013
My thanks for Richard Van Noorden for drawing my attention to his new piece Open access: The true cost of science publishing in Nature. I wrote a detailed comment on this article, but when I went to post it, I was told “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service”:
This news to me. No-one at Nature thought to tell me, or anything. Their system said nothing about when I logged in, nor when I started entering my comment. Just waited till I’d finished, then trashed it.
I have no idea why I am banned. How can I have, when I’ve never received any notification?
I can only assume it’s for posting opinions that are at odds with what NPG would prefer we all thought — at least, in the absence of any actual data, that’s the best hypothesis I can come up with. Update 40 minutes later: turns out it was a glitch in the spam-filter. Richard got it fixed, and my comment is now up on the article.
Listen up, Nature Publishing Group: you will never get meaningful dialogue in your comments if you silently ban
everyone who expresses a non-party-line opinion random people for no discernable reason. You should be aspiring to be a hub of civilised discourse on these important issues, not an echo-chamber. (If you want that, you can just go and read The Scholarly Kitchen.)
Anyway: I am paranoid enough that I copied my comment before submitting it — I’ve been screwed in too many ways by too many commenting systems to trust anything but my own. So here is that comment, stripped of its context but still IMHO important.
Perhaps someone who has not been banned from commenting at Nature could post it for me?
Thanks for this useful post, Richard. I am provoked by this statement:
“Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry.”
Where do such low numbers come from? As is by now well known, the profit margins for the Big Four publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa) are between 32.4 and 42 percent — not one of them has a margin as low as the highest end of the range you cite. Not only that, but commercial academic publishers’ profit margins continue to rise year on year.
The average profit margin among the Big Four is 36%, which means that of the $9.4 billion spent on subscriptions in 2011, $3.39 billion was simply poured down the academic drain. Note that this profit alone would be enough to pay APCs for 2.5 million PLOS ONE articles, 40% more than the world actually produced in that year.
So to spell it out, subscription profits alone would be enough to fund OA publication of ALL research, with just under a billion dollars left over to fund additional research. It’s not just idiotic that we keep paying this ludicrously inflated subscriptions, it’s iniquitous.