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 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.
September 4, 2013
I recently handled the revisions on a paper that hopefully will be in press very soon. One of the review comments was “Be very careful not to make ad hominem attacks”.
I was a bit surprised to see that — I wasn’t aware that I’d made any — so I went back over the manuscript, and sure enough, there were no ad homs in there.
There was criticism, though, and I think that’s what the reviewer meant.
Folks, “ad hominem” has a specific meaning. An “ad hominem attack” doesn’t just mean criticising something strongly, it means criticising the author rather than the work. The phrase is Latin for “to the man”. Here’s a pair of examples:
- “This paper by Wedel is terrible, because the data don’t support the conclusion” — not ad hominem.
- “Wedel is a terrible scientist, so this paper can’t be trusted” – ad hominem.
What’s wrong with ad hominem criticism? Simply, it’s irrelevant to evaluation of the paper being reviewed. It doesn’t matter (to me as a scientist) whether Wedel strangles small defenceless animals for pleasure in his spare time; what matters is the quality of his work.
Note that ad hominems can also be positive — and they are just as useless there. Here’s another pair of examples:
- “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because his work is explained carefully and in detail” — not ad hominem.
- “I recommend publication of Naish’s paper because he is a careful and detailed worker” — ad hominem.
It makes no difference whether Naish is a careful and detailed worker, or if he always buys his wife flowers on their anniversary, or even if he has a track-record of careful and detailed work. What matters is whether this paper, the one I’m reviewing, is good. That’s all.
As it happens the very first peer-review I ever received — for the paper that eventually became Taylor and Naish (2005) on diplodocoid phylogenetic nomenclature — contained a classic ad hominem, which I’ll go ahead and quote:
It seems to me perfectly reasonable to expect revisers of a major clade to have some prior experience/expertise in the group or in phylogenetic taxonomy before presenting what is intended to be the definitive phylogenetic taxonomy of that group. I do not wish to demean the capabilities of either author – certainly Naish’s “Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight” is a praiseworthy and useful publication in my opinion – but I question whether he and Taylor can meet their own desiderata of presenting a revised nomenclature that balances elegance, consistency, and stability.
You see what’s happening here? The reviewer was not reviewing the paper, but the authors. There was no need for him or her to question whether we could meet our desiderata: he or she could just have read the manuscript and found out.
(Happy ending: that paper was rejected at the journal we first sent it to, but published at PaleoBios in revised form, and bizarrely is my equal third most-cited paper. I never saw that coming.)
July 9, 2013
Robin Osborne, professor of ancient history at King’s College, Cambridge, had an article in the Guardian yesterday entitled “Why open access makes no sense“. It was described by Peter Coles as “a spectacularly insular and arrogant argument”, by Peter Webster as an “Amazingly wrong-headed piece” and by Glyn Moody as “easily the most arrogant & dim-witted article I’ve ever read on OA”.
Here’s my response (posted as a comment on the original article):
At a time when the world as a whole is waking up to the open-access imperative, it breaks my heart to read this fusty, elitist, reactionary piece, in which Professor Osborne ends up arguing strongly for his own irrelevance. What a tragic lack of vision, and of ambition.
There is still a discussion to be had over what routes to take to universal open access, how quickly to move, and what other collateral changes need to be made (such as changing how research is evaluated for the purposes of job-searches and promotion). But Osborne’s entitled bleat is no part of that discussion. He has opted out.
The fundamental argument for providing open access to academic research is that research that is funded by the tax-payer should be available to the tax-payer.
That is not the fundamental argument for providing open access (although it’s certainly a compelling secondary one). The fundamental argument is that the job of a researcher is to create new knowledge and understanding; and that it’s insane to then take that new knowledge and understanding and lock it up where only a tiny proportion of the population can benefit from it. That’s true whether the research is funded publicly or by a private charity.
The problem is that the two situations are quite different. In the first case [academic research], I propose both the research questions and the dataset to which I apply them. In the second [commercial research] the company commissioning the work supplies the questions.
Osborne’s position here seem to be that because he is more privileged than a commercial researcher in one respect (being allowed to choose the subject of his research) he should also be more privileged in another (being allowed to choose to restrict his results to an elite). How can such an attitude be explained? I find it quite baffling. Why would allowing researchers to choose their own subjects mean that funders would be happy to allow the results to be hidden from the world?
Publishing research is a pedagogical exercise, a way of teaching others
Yes. Which is precisely why there is no justification for withholding it from those others.
At the end of the day the paper published in a Gold open access journal becomes less widely read. [...] UK scholars who are obliged to publish in Gold open access journals will end up publishing in journals that are less international and, for all that access to them is cost-free, are less accessed in fact. UK research published through Gold open access will end up being ignored.
As a simple matter of statistics, this is flatly incorrect. Open-access papers are read, and cited, significantly more than paywalled papers. The meta-analysis of Swan (2010) surveyed 31 previous studies of the open-access citation advantage, showing that 27 of them found advantages of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often — that is, 2.76 times as often — as non-open.
There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible.
… because saying it twice makes it more true.
Like it or not, the primary beneficiary of research funding is the researcher, who has managed to deepen their understanding by working on a particular dataset.
Just supposing this strange assertion is true (which I don’t at all accept), I’m left wondering what Osborne thinks the actual purpose of his research is. On what basis does he think our taxes should pay him to investigate questions which (as he himself reminds us) he has chosen as being of interest to him? Does he honestly believe that the state owes him not just a living, but a living doing the work that he chooses on the subject that he chooses with no benefit accruing to anyone but him?
No, it won’t do. We fund research so that we can all be enriched by the new knowledge, not just an entited elite. Open access is not just an economic necessity, it’s a moral imperative.
July 1, 2013
Want to get rich? Heck, yes! So which business should you be in?
According to Forbes, the most profitable U.S. Industries, based on private-company annual statements filed for 2012/13 are:
|Oil and gas extraction||24.1%|
|Accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping||21.2%|
|Commercial and industrial machine leasing||18.5%|
|Outpatient care centres||17.8%|
|Offices of dentists||16.5%|
Those are some healthy profit margins! It must be impossible to beat them — right?
Well, unless you’re a barrier-based legacy publisher, of course. Recall that the 2010/11 profit margins for the Big Four academic publishers came in at 32.4% for Informa, 33.9% for Springer, 36% for Elsevier and 42% for Wiley. And they’re still rising.
The average profit margin of the Big Four academic publishers — 36% — is half as good again as the highest profit margin Forbes could find for any industry.
Why do I keep banging on about this? Because, as Scott Aaronson wrote:
In my view, what’s missing at this point is mostly anger — a justified response to being asked to donate our time, not to Amnesty International or the Sierra Club, but to the likes of Kluwer and Elsevier. One would think such a request would anger everyone: conservatives and libertarians because of the unpaid labor, liberals because of the beneficiaries of that labor.
It’s genuinely great that the open-access movement has level heads like Peter Suber, Cameron Neylon and Stephen Curry. We’d get nowhere without advocates like them — people who can keep their cool in the face of the lies and propaganda of entrenched interests, and who can speak clearly and level-headedly to administrators and as-yet unconvinced researchers.
But dammit, these publishers are parasites, and we really do need to face it. Pretending they’re our partners is simply self-delusion, an academic Stockholm syndrome. What they want (to continue to walk away with 32.4-42% of all the money spent on academic publishing) is directly opposed to what we, our institutions, our funders, our governments and our taxpayers want. And every attempt we make to increase the availability and utility of the work we do, they oppose.
Time for us to walk away.
April 2, 2013
Juvenile sauropods have proportionally short cervicals (Wedel et al. 200: 368–369, Fig. 14, and Table 4)
And reformatting them as:
Juvenile sauropods have proportionally short cervicals : 368–369, Fig. 14, and Table 4.
Which doesn’t look right at all.
My question: how, when using numbered references, can I properly refer to page-range and figure number? Because there has to be a way — doesn’t there?
Surely it can’t be the case that in the culture of numbered-reference journals, you just don’t bother to specify with any more precision than pointing at a 46-page paper? I know Science ‘n’ Nature don’t care much about science or nature, but they can’t be that sloppy, can they? And if they are, I’d be horrified to find that the PLOS journals are so infected with me-too that they’re prepared to copy such poor practice?
February 22, 2013
A while back, I submitted evidence to the House of Lords’ inquiry into Open Access — pointlessly, as it turns out, since they were too busy listening to the whining of publishers, and of misinformed traditionalist academics who hadn’t taken the trouble to learn about OA before making public statements about it.
Today the Lords’ report [PDF version] is out, summarised here. And it’s a crushing disappointment. As I’d feared, this inquiry didn’t represent an opportunity to forge ahead, but a retreat. The RCUK’s excellent OA policy is to be emasculated by a more gradual implementation, the acceptance of longer embargoes and a toning down of the preference for Gold over Green. (While there is case for Green in the abstract, the form of Green required by the RCUK policy is much weaker that its form of Gold, in that it doesn’t require a liberal licence such as would enable text-mining, use in education, etc.)
On top of that, RCUK have been criticised for “lack of clarity”: quite unfair since their policy is pretty explicit and in any case has twice been clarified on their blog. This is not a hard resource to find: anyone honestly concerned about a perceived lack of clarity could find it in ten seconds of googling. RCUK also caught criticism for lack of consultation — also unfairly, as they made a call for comments which I also responded to.
RCUK has responded apologetically to all this — “Lessons have been learned and we will continue to actively engage with the academic and publishing sectors” as though the publishing sector has any right to a say. I would much rather RCUK had shown the balls to stick with the leadership they initially provided, but I assume they’re under political pressures and were left with no choice. Instead, venality from publishers, ignorance from certain academics and cowardice from the Lords has conspired to strip the UK of its leadership in OA, and reduce it to being a follower.
As Nature News editor Richard Van Noorden said, “In other words, RCUK in response promises nothing it wasn’t doing already”. And the reason was rather diplomatically stated by ICL researcher Stephen Curry: ”Not 100% convinced their lordships have mastered topic”. You can say that again.
Taking a step back — and a deep breath — the weakened RCUK policy is still A Good Thing — just a much less good thing than it could have been, and was on track to be. At a time when radical new journals like eLife and PeerJ are showing just how much better our publishing ecosystem can be, it’s desperately disappointing to see the Lords backing an approach to OA that will mean we
- keep paying $5333 per article in subscriptions,
- don’t see the work until two years after it’s fresh,
- even then get only a draft instead of the final versions, and
- don’t have permission to actually do anything with it.
What I would like to see from RCUK now is a statement that, if the public that funds our research is to face yet longer embargoes before it can see that work, it must at least be allowed to use it when it gets it. RCUK must insist on CC BY for the Green arm of its policy.
January 17, 2013
My new article is up at the Guardian. This time, I have taken off the Conciliatory Hat, and I’m saying it how I honestly believe it is: publishing your science behind a paywall is immoral. And the reasons we use to persuade ourselves it’s acceptable really don’t hold up.
Because for all that we rightly talk about the financial efficiencies of open access, when it comes right down to it OA is primarily a moral, or if you prefer idealogical, issue. It’s not really about saving money, though that’s a welcome side-effect. It’s about doing what’s right.
I’m expecting some kick-back on this one. Fire away; I’ll enjoy the discussion.
December 20, 2012
A couple of days ago, a paper by Tschopp and Mateus (2012) described and named a new diplodocine from the Morrison Formation, Kaatedocus siberi, based on a beautifully preserved specimen consisting of a complete skull and the first fourteen cervical vertebrae.
Unfortunately, the authors chose to publish their work in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, a paywalled journal, which means that most of you reading this will be unable to read the actual paper — at least, not unless you care enough to pay £27 for the privilege.
So you’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that it’s a fine, detailed piece of work, weighing in at 36 pages. It features lavish illustrations of the skull, but we won’t trouble you with those. The vertebrae are illustrated rather less comprehensively, though still better than in most papers:
It should be immediately apparent from these lateral views that the vertebra are rather Diplodocus-like. But the hot news is that there is a great raft of free supplementary information, including full five-orthogonal-view photos of all fourteen vertebrae!
Here is just one of them, C6, in glorious high resolution (click through for the full awesome):
Now, folks, that is how to illustrate a sauropod in 2012! The goal of a good descriptive paper is to be the closest thing possible to a proxy for the specimen itself, and you just can’t do that if you don’t illustrate every element from multiple directions. By getting this so spectacularly right, Tschopp and Matteus have made their paper the best illustrated sauropod descriptions for 91 years. (Yes, I am talking about Osborn and Mook 1921.)
It’s just a shame that all the awe-inspiring illustrations are tucked away in supplementary information rather than in the paper itself. Had the paper been published in a PLOS journal, for example, all the goodness could have been in one place, and it would all have been open access.
Is Kaatedocus valid?
There’s a bit of a fashion these days for drive-by synonymisation of dinosaurs, and sure enough no sooner had Brian Switek written about Kaatedocus for his new National Geographic blog than comments started cropping up arguing (or in some cases just stating) that Kaatedocus is merely Barosaurus.
It’s not. I spent a lot of time with true Barosaurus cervicals at Yale this summer, and those of Kaatedocus are nothing like them. Here is Tschopp and Mateus’s supplementary figure of C14:
And here is a posterior vertebra — possibly also C14 — of the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429, in dorsal and right lateral views:
Even allowing for a certain amount of post-mortem distortion and “creative” restoration, it should be immediately apparent that (A) Barosaurus is much weirder than most people realise, and (B) Kaatedocus ain’t it.
There may be more of a case to be made that Kaatedocus is Diplodocus — but that’s the point: it there’s a case, then it needs to be actually made, which means a point-by-point response to the diagnostic characters proposed by the authors in their careful, detailed study based on months of work with the actual specimens.
There seems to be an idea abroad at the moment that it’s somehow more conservative or sober or scientific to assume everything is a ontogenomorph of everything else — possibly catalysed by the Horner lab’s ongoing “Toroceratops” initiative and subsequent cavalier treatment of Morrison sauropods — maybe even by the Amphidocobrontowaassea paper. Folks, there is no intrinsic merit in assuming less diversity. Historically, the Victorian sauropod palaeontologists of England did at least as much taxonomic damage by assumptions of synonymy (everything’s Cetiosaurus or Ornithopsis — whatever that is) as they did by raising new taxa. The thing to do is find the hypothesis best supported by evidence, not presupposing that either splitting or lumping is a priori the more virtuous course.
Morrison sauropod diversity
As we’ve pointed out a few times in our published work, sauropod diversity in the Kimmeridgian-Tithonian in general, and in the Morrison Formation in particular, was off-the-scale crazy. There’s good evidence for at least a dozen sauropod genera in the Morrison, and more than fifteen species. Kaatedocus extends this record yet further, giving us a picture of an amazing ecosystem positively abundant with numerous species of giant animals bigger than anything alive on land today.
Sometimes you’ll hear people use this observation as a working-backwards piece of evidence that Morrison sauropods are oversplit. Nuh-uh. We have to assess taxonomy on its own grounds, then see what it tells us about ecosystem. As Dave Hone’s new paper affirms (among many others), Mesozoic ecosystem were not like modern ones. We have to resist the insidious temptation to assume that what we would have seen in the Late Jurassic is somehow analogous to what we see today on the Serengeti.
Hutton’s (or Lyell’s) idea that “the present is the key to the past” may be helpful in geology. But despite its roots as a branch of the discipline, the palaeontology we do today is not geology. When we’re thinking about ancient ecosystems, we’re talking about palaeobiology, and in that field the idea that the present is the key to the past is at best unhelpful, at worst positively misleading.
But isn’t the Kaatedocus holotype privately owned?
You’ve had two sermons already, I’m sure we can all agree that’s plenty for one blog post. I will return to this subject in a subsequent post.
Sermon doesn’t even get started.
Tschopp, Emanuel, and Octávio Mateus. 2012. The skull and neck of a new flagellicaudatan sauropod from the Morrison Formation and its implication for the evolution and ontogeny of diplodocid dinosaurs. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. doi:10.1080/14772019.2012.746589
October 16, 2012
“But Mike”, you say, “What’s wrong with publishers making a profit?”
Nothing is wrong with publishers making a profit.
PLOS made an operating profit of 21.5% in 2011 (though they plough it back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”.) BioMed Central also makes a profit, and since they are a for-profit company they get to keep it, distribute it to shareholders, or what have you. Good on them.
If you can make money by publishing research, that’s great.
The issue is not publishers who make money. The issue is corporations that go by the title “publishers”, but which in fact make money by preventing publication.
Because “publish” means “make public”. The whole point of a publisher is to make things public. The reason the scientists of 30 years ago sent their papers to a publisher was because having a publisher print them on paper and ship them around the world was the most effective way to make them public. And subscriptions were the obvious way to pay for that work. But now that anything can be made public instantly — “Publishing is not a job any more, it’s a button” — giving papers to a “publisher” that locks them behind a firewall is the opposite of publishing. It’s privating.
Yesterday we saw an appalling demonstration of why this is so important. The barrier-based textbook publisher Pearson found that in 2007 a teacher had posted a copy of the Beck Hopelessness Scale on his blog. It’s a 20-question list, intended to help prevent suicide, and totals 279 words. It was published in 1974, and Pearson holds the copyright, selling copies for $120 – $6 per question, or 43¢ per word.
So naturally Pearson saw their profits being eaten into by the free availability of the Beck Scale. Naturally, rather than contacting the blog author, or the network that it’s part of, they sent a DMCA takedown notice to ServerBeach, who host the web server that the blog was on. And naturally ServerBeach shut down the entire site twelve hours later.
This site, Edublogs, is home to 1,451,943 teacher and student blogs. Yes, you read that right. One and a half million blogs.
So to recap: because a teacher five years ago posted a copy of 279-word, 38-year-old questionnaire that costs $120, the publisher shut down 1.5 million blogs. That works out at 0.008¢ per blog.
We could talk all day about all the things that went wrong here — the ludicrously unbalanced DMCA (“half a DeMoCrAcy”), the idiot response of ServerBeach — but I want to focus on one issue. The reason Pearson issued a DMCA takedown is because they make their money by preventing access. It’s the nature of the beast. If your business model is to prevent people from making things public, then this kind of thing is inevitable. Whereas it is literally impossible for PLOS or BMC ever to perpetrate this kind of idiocy because their business model is to make things public. When someone else takes a thing that they have made public and makes it more public, then great! No-one has to issue any DMCA takedowns!
And this is why there is a fundamental, unbridgeable divide between open-access publishers and barrier-based publishers. It’s why no amount of special programmes, limited-time zero-cost access options, reductions in subscription rates, access to back-issues and so on will ever really make any difference. The bottom line is that we want one thing — access to research — and barrier-based “publishers” want the exact opposite.
However nice they are, however much their hearts are in the right place, they want one thing and we want the opposite. And that just won’t do.
They’re going to have to go. All of them.