October 27, 2011
In a comment on an previous post, wycx articulated a position that sounds all too familiar:
Until the impact factors and prestige/credibility of open access journals are as high as their closed equivalents AND university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, I do not see much changing.
I have heard a lot of people say things like this in the last couple of months. It makes pretty depressing reading.
But how true is it? And can we do anything to change it?
Well, first up that big AND in wycx’s comment should be an OR. When the prestige/credibility of open access journals is as high as their closed counterparts OR university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, the push to publish in non-open venues will go away. Either open access journals will start winning the assessment game; or, better still, we can all stop stop playing that stupid game and just place our papers where they’ll be read by the relevant people.
But there’s a more fundamental issue here. That kind of comment sees researchers as passive victims. The story it tells (whether or not this was wycx’s intention) is that there’s nothing we can do to change the situation.
But that’s not true. There are actually quite a few things we can do.
Preferentially submit to open-access journals
This is the big one, of course. It’s been pointed out many times in the comments to these posts, rightly, that not everyone has the luxury of academic freedom that comes from being a professional programmer, and I do accept that career academics may have circumstances that make non-open venues very attractive — especially when they have something that might get into Science or Nature.
But just because someone is not in a position to implement a blanket ban on submitting to non-open venues, that’s no reason not to favour open-access venues — even to favour them very strongly. I have the sense that openness is at least a factor for more and more people; I would love to see it become a more significant factor for more researchers.
I strongly suspect that nothing else we do is more important than favouring open-access venues for our own papers. The attractiveness of certain non-open venues comes from the quality of the work that is published in them, and because of that attractiveness, people send more good work into those silos. But once that circle begins to break, things will move quickly. There’s that open-access journals can’t be as highly cited (and so as prestigious) as S&N — in fact, one of the big landmark days that I am looking forward to is when an open journal has the highest Impact Factor in science.
Do not review for non-open journals
I’ve written about this a lot, so I won’t rehash the arguments in detail. In short: your unpaid volunteer work should be in the service of the whole world, not the dividends of commercial publishers’ shareholders.
Do not edit for non-open journals
This follows on not reviewing for non-open journals. Again, I understand why some researchers need to do this: I have a friend who edits for an Elsevier journal, frankly because he or she needs the money. But these can be, and should be, the exception.
And we’re starting to see this happening. My friend is keen to stop working for Elsevier as soon as it’s financially possible. Steve Wheeler recently resigned as co-editor of Interactive Learning Environments, a Taylor and Francis journal. Peter Suber once compiled a list of entire editorial boards that have resigned en masse to start open-access journals.
As with reviewing, the point is of course not just to withdraw effort from non-open publishers; it’s to redirect that effort to open publishers, so that the whole world benefits from it.
Influence conferences to make proceedings open access
It was great that the the Geological Society hosted the excellent conference Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective (written up at Tetrapod Zoology [part 1], [part 2]). But as we’ve noted before, the proceedings volume is non-open and absurdly expensive: $190 at amazon.com, £95 at amazon.co.uk. The result is obvious: no-one is going to buy it, and the papers will not get read. (Exception: my own contribution is freely available, but only because I played a trick with the Geol Soc’s copyright assignment mechanism.)
I have another conference coming up soon that will generate a proceedings volume. So this time, I have been in contact with the conference organisers ahead of time to express my preference for open-access proceedings. Happily, they are in agreement that this is desirable and even important, so hopefully we should see a special issue of a well-regarded journal at some point in the next few years. (Sorry to be vague, but the details are not yet settled. We’ll let you know when it happens.)
Influence funding bodies to mandate open access
This is one for academics much more senior and influential than I am. But we know that several of the big funding bodies, including the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the National Institutes of Health (USA), are mandating as a condition of awarding grants that the research outputs must be freely available. This is a big win: those of us with enough influence can encourage other funding bodies to adopt similar policies.
Influence universities to mandate open access
An increasing number of universities also have, or are adopting, open-access mandates for their research outputs, including MIT (USA) and UCL (UK). I wonder what influence each of us has on the policies of our own universities? Some of us much more than others, of course. I will at least be asking questions around the University of Bristol, to see whether moves can be made in that direction.
Spread the word!
… and finally, there is one thing that we can all do to help, and that is simply to spread the word. Blog about open-access papers, tell your friends which are the good publishers, talk about the importance of open access in the pub. Let the world know that the status quo can be and must be shifted!
Perhaps even more important, as I hope I have shown, it is shifting. Universities like MIT and UCL are not minor-league (in fact the most recent Times Higher Education rankings list them at number 7 and number 17 in the world). Contra the negative tone of the comment that I quoted at the start of this article, open access is becoming an increasingly important issue not just among a few malcontents such as myself but with the most influential and important researchers and institutions.
We live in exciting times.
Finally: it may seem strange, but I only found out today that this is Open Access week (Ocotober 24-30), so it’s appropriate that I’ve found myself writing so much about it.
In celebration of, or at least in resonance with, Open Access Week, the Royal Society has just announced that it is permanently open-accessing all of its articles that are 70 years old and more. That makes a very important historical resource available to the world. Good times.
October 4, 2011
On the right, under the list of Pages, is a new one called Human anatomy study materials. It’s a bunch of stuff I’ve made for students over the years. As I wrote on the page, if you like them, use them; if not, ignore ‘em; and if you find errors, please let me know.
August 6, 2011
Matt just wrote this, in an email exchange. It struck a chord in me, and I thought it deserved a wider audience:
I hate to admit it, but those two papers (i.e., Taylor et al. 2009 and 2011) that had particularly protracted gestations and lots of review time are among the ones I am most proud of. There might be a lesson there — but if so, I’d rather not learn it.
March 17, 2011
Since the publication of Brontomerus, which let’s remember was only a couple of weeks ago, Matt’s had the rather bad manners to post about another new paper of his — a review of prosauropod pneumaticity which might be uncharitably summarised as “Were prosauropods pneumatic? The fossils say yes”. As though that weren’t enough, he had the audacity to follow up with another post about an article he’s just had published in the Australian science magazine Cosmos.
Well, I’m striking back: it’s been an unusually productive period for SV-POW!sketeers, because I was a co-author on another paper that actually came out a few days before Brontomerus, but which we didn’t have time to talk about back then. The new paper is:
- Hone, David W. E., Michael P. Taylor, David Wynick, Paolo Viscardi and Neil Gostling. 2011. Running a question-and-answer website for science education: first hand experiences. Evolution: Education and Outreach, published online ahead of print. doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0318-5 [PDF available]
And it it’s all about the Ask A Biologist web-site.
I’ve been involved in Ask A Biologist since its inception in 2006, yet I’ve not really written about it here, which is very remiss of me. I think it’s a fantastic resource, and the publication of a formal paper about our experiences running it seems like a good opportunity to fix that.
In concept, Ask a Biologist is very simple: people ask biology questions, and a biologist answers them. We have a pool of to 20 or 30 biologists with different specialisms (though admittedly with a bit of a bias towards vertebrate palaeontology), and any of them might pick up and answer any question — or respond to any previously posted answer, which sometimes leads to interesting discussions. An example is discussed in the paper:
The somewhat frivolous question “What’s the best way to stop Velociraptor attacks?” attracted six answers. The first noted the general principle that it’s best not to go near large, fierce animals in the first place; the second went on to suggest climbing a spiral staircase, because dromaeosaurids such as Velociraptor had stiff tails that would have made them unable to negotiate tight bends; subsequent answers pointed out that the orientation of dromaeosaur wrists would have made it difficult for them to open doors as depicted in the Jurassic Park movies, and that, “in life” Velociraptor was much smaller than depicted on screen. It’s not unusual for a pop-cultural question like this to lead into answers that turn on details of anatomy: this we feel, can engage a child’s attention far more readily than conventional teaching methods and takes them farther than they might expect from what may have been a tongue-in-cheek question.
[Raptor comic by Randall Munroe of xkcd]
Ask A Biologist was the brainchild of Dave Hone, who was also lead author on the new paper describing the site, outlining its history, and describing the advantages and disadvantages of the way it’s set up. Dave is to be congratulated for getting this up and running, pushing it through three incarnations from its humble beginnings as a special-purpose blog into its present rather slick version, and drumming up enough interest to have attracted more than half a million visitors, with answers to well over 3,500 questions. As the paper points out, this has been done almost entirely on the basis of voluntary labour, for a very modest total cost of £3,750. In terms of cost-effectiveness, this is spectacularly successful science evangelism.
But the main reason Ask A Biologist is exciting to me is because it’s a manifestation of the Shiny Digital Future. As recently as a decade ago, there was a clear separation between working scientists and the rest of the world. Science happened over in a dark corner, and occasionally a scientist would deign to send a package of information out to the rest of the world. That’s changing, fast, thanks largely to the ubiquity of the Internet. Blogs such as Tetrapod Zoology, The Open Source Paleontologist, and indeed SV-POW! have played their small parts in this process — not only providing a means for researchers to describe what they’re doing, but enabling anyone who’s interested to engage with the scientists. But sites like Ask A Biologist are arguably even more significant, because they provide such an easy route for non-specialists to be in contact with experts. By design, most of the questions are asked by schoolchildren: they may be phrased with any level of sophistication, and we make an effort to couch answers accordingly. It’s a privilege to be involved in something that has such a catholic audience.
So how can you get involved?
By all means, read the paper, which describes Ask A Biologist in more detail than I can here. But there are two more important things you can do.
- Help to let the world know about Ask a Biologist. If you’re involved in a school (do you have children who attend one?) make sure that the teachers know about it. If you give talks at local natural history societies, leave the URL on a slide. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a talk about Brontomerus to the school that my eldest son attends: I’ll make sure to mention Ask A Biologist.)
- Those of you who are practicing scientists, please consider volunteering to be one of the experts who asks questions. If you’re interested, contact Dave Hone, who can set you up.
It’s a great project to be involved in!