Here at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: Springer, PLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see them. Here is one that has lingered for far too long. PLOS ONE’s journal information page says:
Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.
Which is as we would expect it to be. But their reviewer guidelines page gives more detail as follows (emphasis added):
[Academic Editors] can employ a variety of methods, alone or in combination, to reach a decision in which they are confident:
- They can conduct the peer review themselves, based on their own knowledge and experience
- They can take further advice through discussion with other members of the editorial board
- They can solicit reports from further referees
As has been noted in comments on this blog, this first form, in which the editor makes the decision alone, is “unlike any other first-tier academic journal”. When I submitted my own manuscript to PLOS ONE a few weeks ago, I did it in the expectation that it would be reviewed in the usual way, by two experts chosen by the editor, who would then use those reviews in conjunction with her own expertise to make a decision. I’d hate to think it would go down the easier track, and so not be accorded the recognition that a properly peer-reviewed article gets. (Merely discussing with other editors would also not constitute proper peer-review in many people’s eyes, so only the third track is really the whole deal.)
The problem here is not a widespread one. Back when we first discussed this in any detail, about 13% of PLOS ONE papers slipped through on the editor-only inside lane. But more recent figures (based on the 1,837 manuscripts that received a decision between 1st July and 30th September 2010) say that only 4.2% of articles take this track. Evidently the process was by then in decline; it’s a shame we don’t have more recent numbers.
But the real issue here is lack of transparency. Four and half years ago, Matt said “I really wish they’d just state the review track for each article–i.e., solo editor approved, multiple editor approved, or externally reviewed [...] I also hope that authors are allowed to preferentially request ‘tougher’ review tracks”.
It seems that still isn’t done. Looking at this article, which at the time of writing is the most recent one published by PLOS ONE, there is a little “PEER REVIEWED” logo up at the top, but no detail of which track was taken. PLOS themselves evidently take the line that all three tracks constitute peer-review, as “Academic Editors are not employees [...] they are external peer reviewers“.
So I call on PLOS ONE to either:
A. eliminate the non-traditional peer-review tracks, or
B1. Allow submitting authors to specify they want the traditional track, and
B2. Specify explicitly on each published paper which track was taken.
Suppose that, for some good and sane reason, you need to place a paper in a paywalled journal.
You do some research. You write a paper and prepare illustrations. You send it off to a journal, and a volunteer editor sends it out to volunteer peer-reviewers. You handle the reviews, revise your manuscript, write rebuttals as necessary, send in the revised version, and the editor accepts it.
Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a peer-reviewed, revised, accepted manuscript which will shortly become a published paper that you can put on your CV and show to grant reviewers and job-search committees and tenure boards.
Note the key point here: you are the owner of the accepted manuscript. Not the journal, not the publisher. You, the author.
Any minute now the publisher is going to ask you to sign a copyright transfer agreement. Once you do that (if for some reason you decide to acquiesce) they will own your work. From that moment on, whatever you’re allowed to do with your own work, if anything, is only by their grace.
Here’s the point: in between getting your acceptance and signing away all your rights, you have a window in which you own a completed scientific work, lacking only copy-editing (if any) and typesetting. So that is your moment to make sure the world sees it. Release it now. Put it it up on arXiv or on PeerJ Preprints or on FigShare or on your institutional repository or on your own web page. There are lots of places you can post it — take your pick. Either place it in the public domain or licence it as CC BY, and do it explicitly: both options make work available for the world to use, and either way academic norms will ensure that you get credit for your work.
Of course, once you sign over copyright, you’re playing by the publisher’s rules. They may well have crazy, complex, self-contradictory rules such as Elsevier’s you-can-deposit-it-unless-mandated-to rule – they can forbid you from making the accepted manuscript available.
That’s why it’s so important to release it to the world, with a clear statement of licence, before signing the copyright transfer. Once it’s out there in the public domain or as CC BY, it can’t be rescinded. The world can see and read and use and benefit from your work, and the “publisher” can’t prevent it.
So you can ignore Elsevier’s crazy requirements — just so long as you do it before you sign up to them.
(Once your work is out there for the world to use on liberal terms, you can of course go right ahead, sign the transfer, and let the publisher publish your article behind their paywall. That’s OK: the work is out there fore people to use. And if the publisher adds significant value in their copy-editing and typesetting, people will keep buying their subscriptions.)
May 11, 2013
As part of the progressive erosion of RCUK’s initially excellent open-access policy, barrier-based publishers somehow got them to accept their “open-access decision tree“, which you can now find on page 7 of the toothless current version of the policy. The purpose of this manoeuvre by the Publishers Association is to lend an air of legitimacy to continuing to deny citizens access to the research they funded for up to 24 months after publication. It’s to the House of Lords’ enduring shame that they swallowed this, when they must know that there is no justification for embargoes of any length.
More recently, as commentary on the Australian Research Council’s open access policy, the Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG) published its own rather better decision tree.
But it still doesn’t go nearly far enough. So here is the SV-POW! decision tree, which we encourage you to print out and hang on your office door.
… and don’t forget, when depositing your peer-reviewed accepted manuscripts in a repository, to specify that they are made available under the CC BY licence, which most benefits the field as a whole.
May 9, 2013
Back in February last year, in a comment section, we got to discussing arXiv, the free-to-use open-access preprint repository that pretty much every physicist, mathematician and astonomer deposits their papers in. At the time, I wrote:
The immediate answer is that arXiv doesn’t accept palaeontology papers — the closest it comes is “computational biology”.
After a bit more discussion, I emailed the arXiv administrators and promised to report back when I heard from them. And I did hear back, but failed to report it because Life happened. Here, belatedly, is that report.
Date: 19 February 2012 16:51
From: Mike Taylor <email@example.com>
First: arXiv is awesome! Many thanks for creating and maintaining it.
I am a palaeobiologist and open-access activist. I, along with several of my colleagues, would very much like to use arXiv to deposit preprints of our journal papers, but can’t do so as it’s limited as to subject. I wonder why that is, and whether there are plans to expand? (I did read the FAQs, but didn’t see an answer there.)
My guess was that it is probably because the organisations providing funding are mostly maths/physics-oriented, but when I checked the list for 2011 it seemed that most funding organsations are discipline-neutral:
so is there another reason besides history?
Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ
Date: 20 February 2012 15:42
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dear Michael P. Taylor,
arXiv does a periodic review the subject categories to ensure the subject categories and descriptions are appropriate. At this time arXiv is not in a position to add any new subject categories. In order to add a new subject category there would have to be a significant sized community, potential moderator(s) and arXiv resources to add the new subject category. We may re-visit this request at a later date.
Date: 20 February 2012 15:54
From: Mike Taylor <email@example.com>
To: Don Beyer
Many thanks for this response. Two followups: first, may I post your reply on my blog (http://svpow.wordpress.com/)? And second, is there anything that we as a community of palaeontologists, or more broadly biologists, can do to help encourage this expansion?
Date: 20 February 2012 17:50
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
You may post my email. Please note you may poll the community and put together a list of interested community members and appeal to arXiv moderation for requesting a potentially new subject category. Also, it would be helpful to have a couple of individuals that would be interested in moderating such a subject category.
Please direct all questions and concerns regarding moderation to the email@example.com address. More information about our moderation policies can be found at:
Date: 20 February 2012 17:58
From: Mike Taylor <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Don Beyer
Many thanks. Do you have a rough sense of how many biologists registering an interest might be enough to provoke some serious discussion? (I won’t hold you to it! Just so I know if, say, I don’t get more than 100, then I should forget about it.)
Date: 20 February 2012 18:33
From: Don Beyer
To: Mike Taylor <email@example.com>
Each research community is unique so even guessing what an appropriate number would be is pure speculation. You should attempt to gather as many interested individuals as possible within a reasonable time frame and simply submit your request to arXiv when you believe you have enough interested community members.
And there the matter rested, for more than a year.
Why did I do that? One thing that seems to have changed between the exchange of correspondence above and our paper being posted is that arXiv’s “computational biology” category quietly changed to “quantitative biology”, which seems a bit less forbidding. After all, our paper must have been quantitative, it had measurements in it. But I think the big shift was discovering that a fellow biologist, Casey Bergman, was already posting on arXiv. Proof by example that it can be done.
So where does that leave us?
I know of at least two other palaeontologists who have posted on arXiv since me: Matt Wedel (no surprise) and Bristol MSc graduate Matt Cobley. I’ve never yet heard of someone submitting a biology paper and being told that it’s out of scope. So I think the conclusion is that arXiv does accept palaeontology after all, and probably always did. My advice now is that if you find yourself wishing there was an arXiv for palaeo, just use arXiv.
… and now of course there’s also PeerJ Preprints. But we’ll talk about that another time.
Jeffrey Beall’s fatuous pronouncement that The Serials Crisis is Over has been nagging away at me since it was posted yesterday. I admit my first reaction was that it was some kind of parody or satire, but Beall’s subsequent comments seem to rule out that charitable interpretation.
I’m pleased to see that the comments on that post have shared my bafflement: Karen Coyle cited Walt Crawford’s new book, The Big Deal and the Damage Done; and an important comment by Joe Kraus of the University of Denver cites a BMJ editorial, wunkderkind Jack Andraka and the Who Needs Access? site [disclosure: which I helped build]. So far no-one’s mentioned that Harvard can’t afford its subscriptions – or maybe they have but the comment was silently moderated into oblivion, as has happened with three separate comments that I posted there.
(It is of course because my comments have been repeatedly censored that I’ve given up trying to contribute to the original post’s comment thread, and am writing this instead. I can promise anyone who wants to comment here, Beall included, that we allow all comments except spam and direct repeated personal attacks.)
Beall’s response to Joe Kraus’s comment was simply an attack on the university that he works for — an attack that Joe took rather graciously. But what about all the other people that he mentions? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the lines are as follows: those who say that the serial crisis is over are the hugely profitable incumbents; those who say it is not are scholars, librarians, editor, doctors, students, and in fact every single group that doesn’t stand to gain financially from the continuation of the status quo. Doesn’t that look just a tiny bit suspicious? (I asked Beall this: that was one of the comments that was censored.)
But leave all that aside. The part that I really want to comment on is this, from the original article:
I declare that the serials crisis, the event that gave birth to the open-access movement, is over. I base my declaration on my observations as an academic librarian and on the scholarly literature, selections from which I include here:
“Publishers, through the oft-reviled “Big Deal” packages, are providing much greater and more egalitarian access to the journal literature, an approximation to true Open Access.”
That quote is from Odlyzko (2013), “Open Access, library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce”, which is freely available on arXiv. So let’s look at the whole abstract that Beall quoted from so we can see the context of the quote that he used. (My emphasis added.)
Discussions of the economics of scholarly communication are usually devoted to Open Access, rising journal prices, publisher profits, and boycotts. That ignores what seems a much more important development in this market. Publishers, through the oft-reviled “Big Deal” packages, are providing much greater and more egalitarian access to the journal literature, an approximation to true Open Access. In the process they are also marginalizing libraries, and obtaining a greater share of the resources going into scholarly communication. This is enabling a continuation of publisher profits as well as of what for decades has been called “unsustainable journal price escalation“. It is also inhibiting the spread of Open Access, and potentially leading to an oligopoly of publishers controlling distribution through large-scale licensing.
The “Big Deal” practices are worth studying for several general reasons. The degree to which publishers succeed in diminishing the role of libraries may be an indicator of the degree and speed at which universities transform themselves. More importantly, these “Big Deals” appear to point the way to the future of the whole economy, where progress is characterized by declining privacy, increasing price discrimination, increasing opaqueness in pricing, increasing reliance on low-paid or upaid work of others for profits, and business models that depend on customer inertia.
It could not be clearer that this paper is not evidence for Beall’s assertion that the serials crisis is over — on the contrary, it argues that things are worse than ever and getting worse.
This is a classic example of quote mining.
I’m afraid that at this point in the development of his site, Beall is looking less and less like someone offering a helpful service to researchers looking for open-access venues; and more and more like a troll.
May 4, 2013
My eye was caught by this tweet:
And I found myself wondering how often this scenario plays out around the world every day. How many hundreds, or thousands, or millions of people would look at some research if it were zero-cost to do so? How many thousands of valuable conversations never happen because you can’t idly browse at $15 a pop? How many thousands of potentially game-changing sparks never fly off those conversations because they never happen? What amazing insights are we not seeing, and what brilliant inventions will we never get to use?
This is the opportunity cost of paywalling reseach. It’s impossible to measure, and impossible to put an upper bound on it.
I’m reminded of Techdirt’s brief article What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented The Web?, which paints a horrible picture of a world far behind where we are now, and not certain ever to reach this point. The economic value of the Internet has been estimated at $300-$680 billion per year in the USA alone. What other innovations might we be missing out on?
No, the Web is not the same thing as the whole Internet; no, patents are not at all the same thing as paywalls; no, most research papers don’t have the potential to give rise to anything as big as the Web. This is not an analogy that should be pushed too far. But the core point is obvious: when we prevent free dissemination of research, we don’t know what we’re missing.
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 12, 2013
I mentioned earlier that I was in Oxford yesterday — mostly to participate in the debate at the Oxford Union, “Evolution or Revolution in Science Communication?” I was on the revolution side, with Jason Hoyt (PeerJ), Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Pirate Party MEP) and Paul Wicks (Patientslikeme). The “evolution” side was represented by David Tempest (Elsevier), Graham Taylor (ex Publishers’ Association), Jason Wilde (Nature) and — rather surprisingly — Cameron Neylon (PLOS).
Here is my opening statement:
Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication
Mike Taylor, University of Bristol
“Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science” conference
Oxford, Thursday 11 April 2013.
In my academic life, I study the evolution of dinosaurs. I know a bit about evolution, and before I give my position in this evolution-or-revolution debate, I’d like to dispel a few evolutionary myths.
First, the Victorians liked to talk about the scala naturae, the great chain of being – a sequence beginning with the most primitive creatures, evolving their way up a ladder, in a neat straight line, to finally arrive at humans. In fact, evolution works in branching patterns: for every lineage that survives and prospers, a hundred are unsuccessful experiments that go extinct before ever making their mark.
Secondly, we like to think of “survival of the fittest” as an efficient process. But in fact it’s incredibly wasteful. Not one mutation is a thousand is beneficial. Most kill their owners before they’re even born. Natural selection works by choosing the fittest of what’s generated by random variation. It throws the dice repeatedly, but discards everything except the double sixes.
Finally, we think of the crucible of evolution as being a refinery that makes each species the best it can be. In truth, even the most successful species are ridiculously inefficient. The trees in a rainforest all invest vast resources in growing a hundred feet tall so they can reach the sunlight – but they only have to do that because all the other trees are doing the same. If they could agree not to do that, they’d have much more energy to use in other ways.
So evolution is mostly unsuccessful, spends most of its time going down blind alleys, is appallingly wasteful, and produces a stupidly inefficient end-product that wastes most of its energy on things that aren’t inherently useful.
Which makes it a perfect metaphor for scholarly publishing. *rim-shot*
The truth is, evolution is what got us into this mess. Just as humans can’t run fast because we’re locked into a gait where our heels are on the ground, so legacy publishers can’t up their game because they’re locked into ancient software and even older business models. They’re trapped on a local maximum. They can’t get down and across the adaptive valley to the higher peak.
That’s why legacy publishers give you electronic facsimiles of printed papers. The services they provide are essentially unchanged since the 1600s – with the sole exception that they now deliver papers using wires instead of by horse and cart. The product is the same. It’s a sequence of static pages in a tiny font with postage-stamp-sized greyscale images. And either it gets locked behind a paywall, or you buy its freedom for $3000.
We have to be able to do better.
The great thing is, doing better is not a hypothetical. BMC and PLOS have led the way over the last few years. Now we have PeerJ, which arrived from nowhere – not only with no assets, but crucially with no baggage. That’s tremendously liberating. It allowed three programmers to build their software infrastructure from the ground up in eight months. It’s universally considered much better than anything any of the old publishers have. And it gives you publications that are born digital, unlimited in length, full colour, and free to the world. And it does it for $99—not per paper, but per author, for life. Ninety-nine dollars!
That’s a revolution happening right in front of us.
Now if New Publisher A can do an objectively better job than Old Publisher B for one thirtieth of the cost, how can B possibly evolve to compete with A on a level playing field? They can’t. It’s a new kind of competition. They haven’t merely been out-evolved; it’s as though technologically advanced aliens have landed with teleporters and time-travel. The natives will peer curiously at them, but they won’t really even understand what they’re doing, let alone be able to compete with them. They’re outclassed. It’s dodos vs. hungry sailors with clubs.
We’ve seen what evolution gets us in scholarly publishing. It gets us in-press periods of a year or more. It gets us knowledge as an artificially scarce resource rather than a common good. It gets us publishers so wedded to barriers that they support the Research Works Act. It gets us $3000 facsimiles.
Evolution just can’t get the job done. We need revolution.
There’s an awful lot of talk about “predatory open access publishers” recently. So much talk that I can’t help wondering whether the phrase is being pushed by barrier-based publishers in another attempt to smear open access. (Hey, they have previous.)
Anyway, for anyone who is worried that they might be tricked into giving their work to one of these low-quality predatory publishers that accepts anything and only cares about the fee, here is my guide to avoiding this scenario.
So. Imagine you have an article ready to go, when you receive an invitation to submit it to a journal that you’ve never heard of before. How do you decide whether to send it to them?
Do not send it to them.
April 9, 2013
As many of you will know, it’s now official that Elsevier has bought Mendeley, previously a force for openness in the world of reference management. There’s some good commentary at The Scholarly Kitchen. Lots of open advocates — Ross Mounce, for example — are shutting down their accounts and moving to free alternatives such as Zotero.
Unequivocal good guys at Mendeley, such as William Gunn, are painting this as optimistically as they can. Good luck to them, and I hope their optimism proves well-founded.
But here’s the problem. Although both Elsevier and Mendeley are making all the right noises about this acquisition, the bottom line is that Elsevier has all the power in the relationship. So Mendeley say things like “very little will change for you as a Mendeley user” and “we will continue to support standard and open data formats”, and I’m sure they believe them. But it’s dependent on the whim of Elsevier. The moment it becomes inconvenient or financially disadvantageous for them to do these things, they’ll stop.
That’s not a criticism of any of the individuals at Elsevier. Every single Elsevier person I’ve had dealings with has been pleasant, sane and helpful; often funny, too. But a lot of good, smart people smashed together can and do make a big, dumb, evil company. So Elsevier continually does things that (I suspect) none of the individuals I know there would chose. But it does them anyway. Sadly all the evidence from the past says that nothing good is going to happen to Mendeley now.
I truly hope I’m wrong.
But I’m not.
What it comes down to is this: Mendeley’s ability to be a force for openness is dependent on a company that is implacably opposed to openness. That’s all there is to it.
Update (14 minutes later): read the much more informed thoughts of Jason Hoyt, who was one of Mendeley’s co-founders before leaving to co-found PeerJ. Very gentle, but also I think a strong confirmation of my reading.