Somehow this seems to have slipped under the radar: National Science Foundation announces plan for comprehensive public access to research results. They put it up on 18 March, two whole months ago, so our apologies for not having said anything until now!

This is the NSF’s rather belated response to the OSTP memo on Open Access, back in January 2013. This memo required all Federal agencies that spend $100 million in research and development each year to develop OA policies, broadly in line with the existing one of the NIH which gave us PubMed Central. Various agencies have been turning up with policies, but for those of us in palaeo, the NSF’s the big one — I imagine it funds more palaeo research than all the others put together.

So far, so awesome. But what exactly is the new policy? The press release says papers must “be deposited in a public access compliant repository and be available for download, reading and analysis within one year of publication”, but says nothing about what repository should be used. It’s lamentable that a full year’s embargo has been allowed, but at least the publishers’ CHORUS land-grab hasn’t been allowed to hobble the whole thing.

There’s a bit more detail here, but again it’s oddly coy about where the open-access works will be placed: it just says they must be “deposited in a public access compliant repository designated by NSF”. The executive summary of the actual plan also refers only to “a designated repository”

Only in the full 31-page plan itself does the detail emerge. From page 5:

In the initial implementation, NSF has identified the Department of Energy’s PAGES (Public Access Gateway for Energy and Science) system as its designated repository and will require NSF-funded authors to upload a copy of their journal articles or juried conference paper to the DOE PAGES repository in the PDF/A format, an open, non-proprietary standard (ISO 19005-1:2005). Either the final accepted version or the version of record may be submitted. NSF’s award terms already require authors to make available copies of publications to the Cognizant Program Officers as part of the current reporting requirements. As described more fully in Sections 7.8 and 8.2, NSF will extend the current reporting system to enable automated compliance.

Future expansions, described in Section 7.3.1, may provide additional repository services. The capabilities offered by the PAGES system may also be augmented by services offered by third parties.

So what is good and bad about this?

Good. It makes sense to me that they’re re-using an existing system rather than wasting resources and increasing fragmentation by building one of their own.

Bad. It’s a real shame that they mandate the use of PDF, “the hamburger that we want to turn back into a cow”. It’s a terrible format for automated analysis, greatly inferior to the JATS XML format used by PubMed Central. I don’t understand this decision at all.

Then on page 9:

In the initial implementation, NSF has identified the DOE PAGES system to support managing journal articles and juried conference papers. In the future, NSF may add additional partners and repository services in a federated system.

I’m not sure where this points. In an ideal world, it would mean some kind of unifying structure between PAGES and PubMed Central and whatever other repositories the various agencies decide to use.

Anyone else have thoughts?

Update from Peter Suber, later that day

Over on Google+, Peter Suber comments on this post. With his permission, I reproduce his observations here:

My short take on the policy’s weaknesses:

  • will use Dept of Energy PAGES, which at least for DOE is a dark archive pointing to live versions at publisher web sites
  • plans to use CHORUS (p. 13) in addition to DOE PAGES
  • requires PDF
  • silent on open licensing
  • only mentions reuse for data (pp. v, 18), not articles, and only says it will explore reuse
  • silent on reuse for articles even tho it has a license (p. 10) authorizing reuse
  • silent on the timing of deposits

I agree with you that a 12 month embargo is too long. But that’s the White House recommended default. So I blame the White House for this, not NSF.

To be more precise, PAGES favors publisher-controlled OA in one way, and CHORUS does it in another way. Both decisions show the effect of publisher lobbying on the NSF, and its preference for OA editions hosted by publishers, not OA editions hosted by sites independent of publishers.

So all in all, the NSF policy is much less impressive than I’d initially thought and hoped.

Matt drew my attention to an old paper I’d not seen before: Riggs (1903) on the vertebral column of Brontosaurus. The page I linked there shows only the first page (which in fact is half a page, since Riggs’ work is only in the right column).

Why only the first page? As Matt put it, “It’s been 110 years, just give us the PDF already. And they wonder (do they wonder?) why people don’t rush to embrace their stumbling broken halting limping steps toward OA.”

That’s exactly right. AAAS allows anyone to read the old Science papers anyway (good for them, as far as it goes), so why all the poxing about with registration? Just make it actual open access, as if you were good guys.

So, two observations, as promised.

First, here’s Matt’s observation: even making users register betrays a way of thinking wrongly about the material. It says, “This is ours but you can see it if you’ll jump through our hoops. Because it is ours.” Whereas real OA outlets say, “Hey, this is yours now, do what you want.”

And here’s mine: I sometimes wonder whether we’re headed for a world where the meaningful scientific literature is going to be from 1660-1923 and from 2010 onwards, with a big gap from 1924 to 2009 that just gets ignored. Because it’s the literature not old enough to be out of copyright but not new enough to be OA.

[This is a guest-post by Richard Poynder, a long-time observer and analyst of academic publishing now perhaps best known for the very detailed posts on his Open and Shut blog. It was originally part of a much longer post on that blog, the introduction to an interview with the publisher MDPI. I’m pleased to reproduce it here with Richard’s kind permission — Mike.]

In light of the current lack of information available to enable us to adequately judge the activities of scholarly publishers, or to evaluate the rigour of the publication process that research papers undergo, should not both scholarly publishers and the research community be committing themselves to much greater transparency than we see today?

For instance, should not open peer review now be the norm? Should not the reviews and the names of reviewers be routinely published alongside papers? Should not the eligibility criteria and application procedures for obtaining APC waivers be routinely published on a journal’s web site, along with regularly updated data on how many waivers are being granted? Should not publishers be willing to declare the nature and extent of the unsolicited email campaigns they engage in in order to recruit submissions?

Should not the full details of “big deals” and hybrid OA “offsetting agreements” be made publicly available? Should not publishers be more transparent about why they charge what they charge for APCs? Should not publishers be more transparent about their revenues and profits? For instance, should not privately owned publishers make their accounts available online (even where there is no legal obligation to do so), and should not public companies provide more detailed information about the money they earn from publicly-funded research and exactly how it was earned? And should not publishers whose revenue comes primarily from the public purse be entirely open about who owns the company, and where it is based?

Should not the research community refuse to deal with publishers unwilling to do all the above? Did not US Justice Louis D. Brandeis have a point when he said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”


Copied from an email exchange.


Did we know about the Royal Society’s PLOS ONE-clone?

I am in favour of this. I might well send them my next paper while the universal waiver is still in place.


Did not know about it. Their post-waiver APC is insane. How can they possibly justify $1600?


Well, I am obviously not a big fan of a $1600 APC; but it’s not a great deal more than PLOS ONE, and much less than PLOS Biology/Medicine.

But I think we’re converging on the idea that you can make a living running journals that charge $500 — see Ubiquity Press at – so I think anyone charging more than that has to explain why. In the case of the Royal Society, I assume it’s to fund their other activities; I am assured that I could get a waiver anyway, since I lack funding.

But are you saying you definitely won’t publish there even during the $0 phase?

Matt (with Mike’s previous post quoted):

Well, I am obviously not a big fan of a $1600 APC; but it’s not a great deal more than PLOS ONE

Right, but the direction of change should be down, not up.

and much less than PLOS Biology/Medicine.

Well, is this new journal supposed to a PLOS ONE clone or a PLOS Biology clone? If the former, a lower APC is more desirable. And even talking in such terms is conceding that “prestige” outlets should get to charge more, which does not sit well with me.

But I think we’re converging on the idea that you can make a living running journals that charge $500 – see Ubiquity Press at – so I think anyone charging more than that has to explain why. In the case of the Royal Society, I assume it’s to fund their other activities;

I would like to have that demonstrated rather than assumed; I’d like to know the extra dough is actually going to support science rather than enrich shareholders. I’m not very optimistic.

I am assured that I could get a waiver anyway, since I lack funding.

Sure. But just because you could dodge that hammer doesn’t legitimize their swinging it.

But are you saying you definitely won’t publish there even during the $0 phase?

Probably not, for two reasons. First, I don’t want to put on airs but I know that where we publish does influence other people’s thoughts on these things. PeerJ got at least a small legitimacy bump in paleo because we were in it right out of the gate and singing its praises [Or so I’ve heard, from more than once source. – MJW]. I don’t want to lend my endorsement to an outfit that is charging an unjustifiably high APC. Definitely not if the extra money is going to shareholders, and possibly not even if all of it is going to science. A $1600 APC only looks non-insane because the real bastards are charging even more. If we were in a PeerJ/Ubiquity world where APCs were all $500 or less, and a new journal came along that said, “Hey, you can publish with us and donate $1100 to our cause every time!” I’d say “Screw you!” and I assume most other folks would as well. So even if all the extra money is going to a good cause, they’re still promulgating the idea that APCs over $500 are justified. I can’t get behind that.
Second, will they give me everything PeerJ does? Because they are charging a hell of a lot more. Even if I get a waiver, if they’re not going to take care of me as well as PeerJ, screw ’em. The bar has been raised. Are they actually adding value relative to the new, post-PeerJ baseline, or are they in fact launching a journal with 2005 functionality in 2015? I should applaud them for belatedly getting on board?
In short, my authorship is theirs to earn, and so far I haven’t seen anything that makes me think they’ll earn it.


Yes, APCs should be pushing downwards all the time now. I agree that the Royal Society coming in at a level above PLOS ONE doesn’t look good — indeed PLOS ONE’s own $1350 is also looking increasingly unfashionable in the light of (A) Ubiquity providing essentially the same service for 37% of the price, and (B) the fact that PLOS now runs at an operating surplus of 27%. To my mind, it’s well past time that PLOS ONE found a way to wind its APC down — really, down into triple figures ($999 would do), though even a nominal reduction of say $50 would send a good message.

You’re absolutely right that Royal Society Open Science is, by design, a PLOS ONE rather than a PLOS Biology: it reviews on correctness alone, not on guesswork about likely impact. So, yes, it’s PLOS ONE’s price-point that’s the correct comparison here.

Where you’re mistaken, though, is in assuming that the Royal Society has shareholders who might be skimming off the cream from the APC. There are none: the Society has nothing else to spend publishing profits on but furthering its scientific mission. (Of course, it doesn’t follow from this that is ought to be seeking to make a profit from publishing at all. It has other sources of income, and presently only 8% of its income is from publishing profits.)

But I hear you on the message sent by acquiescing to a $1600-APC journal, even if that APC is waived. We both want to shift towards a world where there are no journals that charge that kind of money — or at least, that if they do, it’s because they’re the kind of “selective” journal that thinks there’s something praiseworthy about rejecting most scientifically sound submissions. Journals of that kind don’t concern me one way or another, because I just don’t play that game.

This abomination — a proposal for a “UK National Licence” for open-access papers, making the available only in the UK, is not an April Fool joke. It’s a serious proposal, put forward by HEPI, the Higher Education Policy Institute, which styles itself “the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education” (though I note without comment that they routinely partner with Elsevier).

It’s desperately disappointing that British academics should propose something as small-minded and xenophobic as this, which I can only refer to as the UKIP Licence.  Let’s start counting some of the ways this is a terrible, terrible idea.

1. It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term. For example, the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which first coined the term, describes OA as “free availability on the public internet” (i.e. not a subnet), “permitting any users” (i.e. not just British users) “without financial, legal, or technical barriers” (i.e. no filtering on IP addresses).

2. It positions the UK as the one country in the world willing to poison the open-access well, prepared to destroy value for 199 countries in the hope of increasing it for one. This makes it a classic prisoner’s-dilemma “defect” strategy — an approach which has been shown by multi-algorithm tournaments to reliably downgrade the defector’s outcome.

3. British people gain more when 200 countries are working on advances in health, education, etc., than when only one is. This tiny-minded licence, if adopted, would hobble British innovation, health and education, as well as that of the rest of the world.

4. Most important, it’s mean. We have to be better than this. Publishing research about diseases that kill millions in third-world countries, then preventing scientists in those countries from reading that research is not just stupid, it’s despicable. It’s hard to imagine behaviour more unrepresentative of the values that we like to imagine the UK embodies.

Oh, and 5. it won’t work, of course. Barring access by IP address is a notoriously flawed approach, which hides content from Brits abroad while allowing access to anyone anywhere who knows how to use a Web proxy.

Putting it all together, this is about the most misguided proposal imaginable. I would like to see its authors, both of them senior at UCL, withdraw it with all possible haste, and with an appropriate apology.

[I would have left this comment on HEPI’s blog-post announcing their proposal,  but comments are turned off — perhaps not surprisingly. I did leave a version of it on the Times Higher Education article about this.]


Update the next day: see also David Kernohan’s post A local licence for Henbury.

Update 9th April: this post, lightly modified, is published as a letter in today’s Times Higher Education. More importantly, you should all go and read Stephen Curry’s much more dispassionate, but equally critical, analysis of the National Licence proposal.

I had an email out of the blue this morning, from someone I’d not previously corresponded with, asking me an important question about PeerJ. I thought it was worth sharing the question, and its answer, more generally. So here it is.

Do you have any insight into the PeerJ business model? When I try to persuade people to publish in PeerJ, a very common response is that the journal can’t possibly last because the numbers don’t add up.

And indeed PeerJ’s financial model does seem too good to be true: rather than charging an APC of $1350 (as PLOS ONE does) or $3000 (as the legacy publishers do for their not-really-open hybrid articles), PeerJ charges just $99 per author — which buys not just the right to publish one article, but one per year for life. (Or you can pay $300 for the right to publish any number of papers forever.)

PeerJ is a privately owned company and does not disclose its internal financial details. Since I have no connection with PeerJ (other than being a very satisfied customer), I know nothing of the financials.

But here is what we do know.

1. PeerJ is run by Pete Binfield, who has more experience of running open-access megajournals than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked his own livelihood on it.

2. The principal outside investor in PeerJ is Tim O’Reilly, who has more experience of making money from free-to-read content than anyone alive, and he’s confident enough in the financial model to have staked a seven-figure sum on it.

3. Most importantly, the content in PeerJ is safe forever, because it’s fully, properly, BOAI-compliant open access, licenced using CC By, and archived at PubMed Central. So even if the worst happened, if PeerJ went bankrupt, everything published in it would live on.

4. Since CC-By documents cannot be re-enclosed if their publisher is acquired, even if PeerJ were acquired by a predatory barrier-based publisher such as Elsevier, the articles would remain safe.

5. We have got into the habit of paying far too much for publishing. On average paywalled papers cost the world more than $5000 each. Legacy publishers typically charge APCs of $3000 or so. Yet born-digital publishers such as Ubiquity Press need charge only $500, and show the breakdown of that cost. (And note that $80 of that is set aside to cover waivered articles for which no fee is paid.) Against that analysis, PeerJ’s fees don’t look crazy. The truth is that, as well as their 35% profit-margins, legacy publishers’ costs are sky-high because they are dragging around the carcass of print-based publishing.

6. Numerous universities are confident enough of the PeerJ model that they have signed up for institutional plans. You know, little universities like Cambridge, UCL and Bristol (UK), and Harvard, MIT and Cornell (USA).

Putting it all together, we see that the PeerJ financial model is roughly in alignment with other new-model publishers, that the details are persuasive enough to convince the world-leading experts who know about them, that the open-access papers published in PeerJ will be freely available to the world forever, whatever happens — which is more than we can say for articles “published” behind paywalls, and that the world’s leading universities are on board.

In short, there is no rational reason not to publish in PeerJ (unless you’re statistically illiterate enough to think that its lack of an impact factor is of any scientific significance).

Just launched: a new open-access journal of vertebrate paleontology, brought to you by the University of Alberta, Canada! It’s called VAMP (Vertebrate Anatomy Morphology Palaeontology), and it charges no APC. Here’s a illustration from one of the two articles in its first issue.

Holmes (2104:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

Holmes (2014:fig 12A). Synsacrum and pelvis of Chasmosaurus belli (ROM 843) in dorsal view.

VAMP uses the canonical open-access licence, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC By), which means it fulfils both the letter and the spirit of the Budapest Open Access Initiative’s definition of OA.

It’s great that we in vertebrate palaeontology can add this journal to the roster of OA journals in our field, already including Palaeontologia Electronica, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, Palarch’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, The Fossil Record and others. (Plus of course there is lots of vertebrate palaeontology in PLOS ONE and PeerJ.) I think that as a field, we are ahead of the curve in making the transition towards an all-OA literature.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 492 other followers