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.

Read Choose open access: publishing your science behind a paywall is immoral

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.

“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.

In a third “open letter to the mathematics community”, Elsevier have announced that, for “the primary mathematics journals”, they now offer free access to all articles over four years old. The details page shows that 53 journals are involved.

I like to give credit where it’s due, and this is a significant move. It’s much more important than the initiatives we hear of from time to time when access to various journals is offered for a limited window: it means there is a substantial body of work that will now be freely and permanently available.

In a comment on John Baez’s Google+ post, Joerg Fliege comments:

One should also mention that opening up access to a handful of older issues of math journals will not affect the bottom line of Elsevier’s revenue much. They are giving something away that, in the greater scheme of things, has essentially a business value near 0.

How kind of them.

But I think this is unnecessarily cynical and negative. A move like this should be judged not on what it costs Elsevier to do, but on the benefit that it gives the research community. If they can find things to do that cost them little or nothing but provide a real benefit, then that’s all to the good — as I argued in the How Elsevier Can Save Itself posts [part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3]. They should not be criticised for that!

That said, Baez does raise a crucial question in that Google+ post:

Why just math journals? Because we’re the ones who are making the most noise! Folks from many other sciences have joined the boycott – but you need some leaders in your field to get aggressive if you want to get Elsevier to do you a favor like this.

An important challenge for Elsevier right now is to prove that they are really making an effort to contribute to the progress of research across the board, rather then just trying to buy off the mathematical community which has caused them the most irritation up to this point.

Can they meet that challenge?

More of my thoughts on the Finch Report; you may wish to read part 1 first. As before I will be quoting from the executive summary (11 pages) rather than the full report (140 pages).

Changing culture

Section 4 (What needs to be done, on page 7) begins as follows:

Implementing our recommendations will require changes in policy and practice by all stakeholders. More broadly, what we propose implies cultural change: a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated.

This is a crucial point. Cultural change is exactly what’s needed — not just in how research is published, as noted in the report, but even more importantly in how it’s evaluated. In particular, we’re going to have to stop assessing research by what journal it’s published in, and start looking at the value of the actual research.

This is already important — it always has been, because the use of journal reputation as a proxy for research quality has always been appallingly error-prone and misleading. But it’s going to become more and more important as open access grows more prevalent and a greater proportion of research moves into OA megajournals such as PLoS ONE, Sage Open and NPG’s Scientific Reports. These things are just too darned big to have a meaningful reputation. If you try to judge a PLoS ONE paper on the basis of the journal’s impact factor (4.411), you’ll quickly run aground: that’s a weak IF for a medic, but very strong for a palaeontologist. PLoS ONE is increasingly one of the journals of choice for palaeo papers, but it’s looked down on in astronomy. A question like “what’s the quality of PLoS ONE papers” is as about as meaningful as “what’s the price of property in London?” It depends on whether you’re talking about Knightsbridge or Peckham.

This is one of the fringe benefits of the shift towards megajournals: it’s going to make everyone see just how fatuous judgement by impact factor is. We’re going to see the end of comments on Guardian articles that say “my department actively discourages us from publishing in journals with IF less then 6.0″.

Unilateral action by the UK

Well, I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent there. Back to the Finch Report, pages 7 and 8:

Key actions: overall policy and funding arrangements

v. Renew efforts to sustain and enhance the UK’s role in international discussions on measures to accelerate moves towards open access.

This is also important. I like it that the Finch Report seems generally to advocate that we in the UK should lead the way in open access. But it’s also true that if we push on ahead of other countries, implementing mandatory open access unilaterally, we’ll be at a disadvantage compared with other countries: they will get our research for free, but we won’t get theirs till they follow suit.

And I am fine with that. Obviously it can’t continue indefinitely, but if taking a short-term financial hit is what it takes to get the world onside, that’s cool. Doing science costs money. And you haven’t done science till you’ve published your result. And you haven’t really published it until everyone can get it.

Non-commercial use

Now we come to a part of the report that I am really unhappy with. This is from the list in the section Key actions: publication in open access and hybrid journals, on page 8:

x. Extend the range of open access and hybrid journals, with minimal if any restrictions on rights of use and re-use for non-commercial purposes.

There’s that non-commercial clause again. This is worrying. If the Finch Report really is about what’s best for the country and for the world, there is no justification for NC. We want businesses to thrive as well as universities. And there are more businesses in the world than publishers! Cameron Neylon said this best in his Finch Report review, Good steps but missed opportunities:

This fudge risks failing to deliver on the minister’s brief, to support innovation and exploitation of UK research. This whole report is embedded in a government innovation strategy that places publicly funded knowledge creation at the heart of an effort to kick start the UK economy. Non-commercial licences can not deliver on this and we should avoid them at all costs.

That’s exactly right.

I will have more to say on this in a future post.

The role of repositories

There is a section headed Key actions: repositories on page 9. Tellingly, it has only two points, compared with 5, 6 and 5 for the other three key actions sections. Here is the second of those points:

xviii. Consider carefully the balance between the aims of, on the one hand, increasing access, and on the other of avoiding undue risks to the sustainability of subscription-based journals during what is likely to be a lengthy transition to open access. Particular care should be taken about rules relating to embargo periods. Where an appropriate level of dedicated funding is not provided to meet the costs of open access publishing, we believe that it would be unreasonable to require embargo periods of less than twelve months.

Who is the “we” that believes a six-month embargo period would be “unreasonable”?

Obviously not Research Councils UK, who recently stated “Ideally, a paper should become Open Access as soon as it is published. However [...] the Research Councils will accept a delay of up to six months in the case where no ‘Article Processing Charge’ is paid.”

Obviously not the Wellcome Trust, whose policy states that it: “requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be made available through PubMed Central (PMC) and UK PubMed Central (UKPMC) as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication”.

No. “We” can only mean the publishers’ lobby. They hate repositories, and were somehow allowed to nobble all references to Green OA in the report. Don’t believe me? Search for the word “green” in the executive summary: zero hits in eleven pages. Try it in the main report? Three hits in 140 pages: one on page 16, parenthetical (“… a version of a publication through a repository (often called green open access)”), one on page 120, a repeat (“… a version of a publication via a repository, often after an embargo period. This strand is often called green open access”) and one on page 130 (an unrelated mention of the HM Treasury Green Book).

This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the report, and I can see why Stevan Harnad is irate.

Let us move on to happier matters.

Transparency and competition

From page 10:

One of the advantages of open access publishing is that it brings greater transparency about the costs, and the price, of publication and dissemination. The measures we recommend will bring greater competition on price as well as the status of the journals in which researchers wish to publish. We therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions.

I think this is a very important and much neglected point, and it makes me want to write a blog on why author-pays is inevitably more economical than reader-pays. (Short version: granularity of transactions is smaller, so the market is efficient and real competition comes into play, as we are seeing with the launch of PeerJ.)


From page 10:

Our best estimate is that achieving a significant and sustainable increase in access, making best use of all three mechanisms, would require an additional £50-60m a year in expenditure from the HE sector: £38m on publishing in open access journals, £10m on extensions to licences for the HE and health sectors and £3-5m on repositories.

*Cough* *splutter* Hey, what now?

So let’s get this straight. Transitioning from subscription to open access is going to cost us £10M more on licences than we’re already paying? Rather than, say, £10M less, as we start cancelling subscriptions we don’t need?

This seems to be pure fantasy on the part of the publishers.

Not only that, the £38M is based on an “average APC” of … get ready … £1,500. (This is not stated in the executive summary, but it’s on page 61 of the full report.) That number is a frankly ludicrous over-estimate, being nearly double the $1350 =~ £870 charged by PLoS ONE, and nearly three times as much as the $906 =~ £585 found as the average of 100,697 articles in 1,370 journals by Solomon and Björk (2012).

So based on this a more realistic APC, the £38M comes down to £14.8M. Throw out the absurd extra £10M that publishers want for extra subscription licences, and the total cost comes from from “£50-60M per year” to about £19M. Still not chicken-feed, but a lot less painful, even in the short term.

And finally …

The report finishes on an upbeat note (page 10) and so do we:

We believe that the investments necessary to improve the current research communications system will yield significant returns in improving the efficiency of research, and in enhancing its impact for the benefit of everyone in the UK.

Yes. Absolutely right. Even if we only thought about academia, the financial case for open access would be unanswerable. But there is more to the world than academia, and the real benefits will be seen elsewhere.


Anyone who is not yet heartily sick of the Finch Report can read lots more analysis in the articles linked from Bjorn Brembs’s article The Finch Report illustrates the new strategy wars of open access at the LSE’s Impact blog.

As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.

Matt measuring the width across the preacetabular lobes of the fused ilia on the sacrum of the referred “Morosaurus” sp. specimen, AMNH 690, illustrated by Osborn (1094: fig 2A-E). Behold the wonder that is the Big Bone Room.

The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.

What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:

The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.

So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.

But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:

[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.

More on this point later.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008 by Derek Ramsey, from Wikimedia Commons.

The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:

Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.

I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.

But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:

This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.

My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.

This isn’t an idle speculation:  the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.

And so we find statements like this, from p5:

The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.

This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.

Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?

Reading on:

Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.

I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.

And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:

We therefore recommend that:

i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;

So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.

And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)

To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:

i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.

Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make.  (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.

Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.

Today’s Guardian has a piece by Graham Taylor, director of academic, educational and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, entitled Attacking publishers will not make open access any more sustainable.

It’s such a crock that I felt compelled to respond point-by-point in the comments.  I did, but because my response was too long for the Guardian‘s comment field, I had to break it into three parts [part 1, part 2, part 3].

Here is the whole thing — Together At Last!

As we discuss the access crisis and Academic Spring, it’s great that the Guardian is allowing a platform to representatives of the academic publishing industry. It gives them a chance to demonstrate how utterly bankrupt their position is, and it’s kind of Graham Taylor to oblige. His article is a catalogue of distortions and mispresentations from start to finish.

I don’t really have time for this, but I suppose I ought to respond to some of the grosser distortions.

Much has been written about journal publishers over the past few months but unfortunately this has focused almost exclusively on one side of the debate: the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs …

There is a very obvious reason for this. Everyone, with one trifling exception, is on one side of the debate. Funding bodies want the work they pay for to be universally available. Researchers want their work to be free to anyone who wants it. Other researchers want to be able to freely access what their colleagues have produced. Businesses want to use the research that their taxes have funded. So do private citizens. We want our doctors and nurses to have access to medical research. We want our teachers and lecturers to be up to speed on current science. We want our legislators to have up-to-date information. We want the £200 billion of new insights that text-mining can give us. We want the huge economic growth that free access to the research we funded will give us, to get out of this recession.

Against all those interests stands just one on the other side of the debate. Publishers. They and only they stand against greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, and for a depressingly obvious reason: because it will cut into their profits.

And yes, it will. But that is a problem for publishers to solve, not one that need concern funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. We all stand on one side; publishers on the other.

And that, of course, is why academic publishers have become the enemies of science.

Kind of ironic when you think what the word “publish” actually means. So-called publishers are the only people out to hinder publication.

… the desire for greater access to peer-reviewed research outputs, which publishers are painted as somehow resisting and restricting.

What can Graham Taylor mean by “painted as”? What can he mean by “somehow”? This is not open to discussion. Try to access an article: BAM, paywall. Read publishers’ statements in support of the RWA and against the FRPAA. It’s as clear as day. Publishers Resist Access To Research. That’s their business model.

(Note: to be clear, this is not true of all publishers. There are those, like BioMed Central and PLoS, that make their money by actually publishing research — making it available — rather than locking it up. They are the good guys: with them, I have no quarrel.)

Publishers are exploring fee-waived walk-in access via the public library network.

SERIOUSLY? That’s their answer? A 20th century solution to 21st century problem? Publishers expect people to get in a car and physically drive to a public library — if they can even find one after the most recent cuts — to electronically read material that they could easily read with devices they have in their own homes?

I could complain about the environmental impact, the appalling waste of time, the reliance on an ever-shrinking resource … But all of these fade into insignficance compared with the overwhelming disconnection from reality that this “solution” represents. If publishers really believe that physically going to a special magic building is a rational way for us to get access to the research we paid for, then they are more incompetent than I realised.

Much of the focus of this debate has been on the value of peer review and the role that scholars and researchers play in this process. By implication publishers are perceived as contributing very little, other than simply assembling articles into journals and pushing them onto cash-strapped libraries to make a gargantuan profit.

Very nicely put — I couldn’t have said it better myself.

That is a gross distortion of reality.

Please, Graham — don’t sell yourself short. It’s an excellent summary.

The publishing process involves [long list of things]:

Let’s take this list apart and see what’s actually involved.

* soliciting submissions;

Nope — completely irrelevant. I have never once in my life made a submission to a journal on the basis of a solicitation, and I doubt anyone I know has, either. Researchers know what the relevant journals are in their field, without needing to be spammed by publishers.

* managing submissions;

This is done by software, and has basically zero marginal cost. The setup costs of buying the software in the first place may have been significant, depending on how inefficient the publisher is, but there’s no reason it need be: free software such as SFU’s Open Journal Systems and the Annotum platform allow journals to be set up at no financial cost.

* managing peer review;

This is done by handling editors who are of course volunteer academics in 90% of cases.

* editing and preparing manuscripts;

Editing is done by the editors (clue’s in the question) who we remember are volunteer academics. Preparation of manuscripts is of course what the author does — that’s why we call them authors. All at no cost to the publisher, indeed often the authors pays the publisher for the privilege.

* producing the articles;

I have no idea what, if anything, “producing” means here. Perhaps typesetting? I’ll give publishers that: in some fields (not maths or physics), publishers typeset papers. This is hardly onerous. When I had to do the same with one of my own papers recently, it took about an hour — that’s for a paper of 39 manuscript pages, so it came out to something on the order of two minutes per page.

* publishing and disseminating journals;

What does “publishing” mean? This whole process is publishing, remember? And in the breakdown of all the things that entails, Taylor includes “publishing”? Right — and when I do research, one of the things that entails is research.

I assume “disseminating” is code for “spamming”.

* and of course archiving.

Something that institutional repositories, subject repositories, LOCKSS, Portico, PubMed Central and many other services all do as well as, or better than, publishers.

* And the end result acts as a calling card and mark of quality, helping readers find content that is relevant to them and is trusted.

Now we’re getting somewhere: this is the true “value” that publishers provide: brand. When I say “value” I don’t mean that it has any actual value, of course, any more than the label on pair of Levi jeans does. But just as the right brand of clothes makes a kid appear cool to his classmates, so the right journal brand makes a researcher look cool to the kind of idiot adminstrators that too often have control over jobs and promotions.

That’s why people publish with barrier-based journals: brand-name. That’s all.

At a time when we are looking for an export-led recovery, UK-based scholarly publishers account for over £1bn in export sales.

And costs us two hundred times as much in lost opportunties, due to text-mining barriers alone.

Perhaps most important of all, from an access point of view, is the amount publishers have invested in platforms that support researchers in numerous ways. These include investments in article enhancement, visualisation, social networking, and mobile technology; valuable tools such as searchable image databases, navigation, alerts and citation notifications, and reference analysis. Publishers are also working on text-mining tools; linking to the datasets behind journal articles; and research performance measurement tools such as SciVal.

No, no, no. No-one cares about any of that stuff. Everything publishers are clumsily trying to do with visualisation, social networks and the rest, other people — specialists — are doing much better. People who are actually doing text-mining don’t want publishers’ “tools”, they just want publishers to get out of the way and let them get on with their work without harrassment.

The profit margins of some of the larger publishers are portrayed as a moral affront, given the budgetary challenges that libraries face.

Why, yes. Yes, they are. Because the profit margins of the Big Four academic publishers are all in the range of 32%-42% of revenue — much more than, say, Apple’s best-ever 24% margin in 2011. And that’s without actually creating anything.

Not only that, those margins are constantly increasing: for example, Elsevier’s profit margins have increased every year from 2005 to 2011: 30.57%, 31.65%, 33.41%, 34.91%, 35.74%, 37.3%. And no wonder when they don’t pay for their content or peer-review or most of their editing.

Unfortunately, publishers seem to be part of a broader backlash against perceived corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility.

What’s unfortunate about that? Turns out that corporate greed and abrogation of social responsibility are bad things. Who knew?

Mandated deposit in repositories is not a publishing model, has no associated revenue stream and, worse, threatens to erode the revenues deriving from the subscriptions on which the model depends.


And we do not care.

Mandated deposit in repositories is good news for funders, researchers, businesses, doctors, nurses, teachers, legislators and other citizens. If it’s bad news for publishers, then those publishers need to find a different business model or die.

OK, I’m done. Congratulations to anyone who made it to the end.

No new SV-POW! post today — just a link to my new piece at the GuardianUS petition could tip the scales in favour of open access publishing.

Pass it on — tell your friends — encourage them to sign the petition. It will make a real difference.

Remember, open access is not just an issue for academics: it affects all our lives.

Good news! If you want to read research that was funded by the U.S. National Instututes of Health (NIH), you can. Their public access policy means that papers published on their dime become universally accessible in PubMed Central.

Good news! If you want to read research that was funded by the Wellcome Trust, an international charitable foundation, you can. Their open access policy means research that they pay for becomes universally accessible in PubMed Central. or another PubMed site.


Good news! The UK government is moving with impressive speed towards implementing its own public access policy: David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said earlier this month in a speech to the Publishers Association AGM that “Our starting point is very simple. The Coalition is committed to the principle of public access to publicly-funded research results … A pay wall creates a barrier between the academic community and the rest of us, which is deeply unhealthy … [The subscription] funding model is surely going to have to change.” We don’t yet know the details of the policy, but we know it’s coming.

Good news! The European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme will fund €80 billion (=~ £65 billion or $102 billion) of research between 2016 and 2020. Will you want to read the resulting papers? The programme’s open access policy means that you’ll be able to.

The way the wind is blowing around the world is unmistakable. And the reason for this is terribly, terribly obvious. It’s insane for a funding body to spend money and not have the resulting research made available.

… but …

Bad news! Unfortunately, that’s still how things are for most govenment-funded research in the USA. Besides the NIH, there are eleven government agencies with research budgets of more than $100 million per year (Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Science Foundation). And as things stand, the research they fund can be, and mostly is, locked behind paywalls. Which is insane.

It’s ironic that, having led the way with the NIH’s public-access policy, the USA is now trailing behind the UK and the European Union.

Good news! Now, all of us — American or not — have a chance to change this. No, I am not talking about the FRPAA, as important as that is. Independently from that, SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) have the ear of Obama’s Science Advisor. There is an opportunity to bring the issue of open access to the forefront right now, as the administration weighs priorities to complete before the November election. The outcome could be a Presidential-level directive that would jump-start the process.

To make this happen, the Obama adminstration wants to know that there is broad public support for the issue of open access. We can send that message by signing this new petition at The bar to contribute is very low: you need to be over 12 years old and have an email address so that you can register. That’s all. Crucially, you do not need to be a U.S Citizen for your voice to be heard.

We need to hit 25,000 signatures in 30 days to force a response; but we want to do much more than that, powering on to, and past, that target to demonstrate the importance of this issue to patient groups, small businesses, people with unusual illnesses, international development groups, nurses, science advocacy groups and more.

So here’s what you can do:

  • Sign the petition, whether you are American or not.
  • Raise awareness. There is already a Facebook page and Twitter handle (@access2research). Link to them. Blog about them.
  • Make sure your non-scientist friends hear about this, too.
  • Upvote (and comment on) the link on Reddit. My experience has been that Reddit is the single most significant site for raising awareness of geek issues.
  • Upvote (and comment on) the link on Hacker News. It’s not so big an audience as Reddit, but its readers are more likely to engage with serious issues.

Update (9:45pm)

Lots of coverage and discussion on the web.  Rather than build a link-farm here, I refer you to this one that’s being built collaboratively.

Yesterday, David Willetts, the UK government’s Minister for Universities and Science, gave a speech at the annual general meeting of the Publisher’s Association.  The full text of the speech is online and very well worth reading, though it’s long.  He Gets It.

Also well worth reading (instead of the speech if you’re pushed for time) is Stephen Curry’s excellent analysis of the key points, which is almost word-for-word the post I would have had to write here if Stephen hadn’t already done such a fine job.

And for those who don’t have the time or inclination even to read that, the TL;DR is that Willetts understands the scientific publishing process, has been an author himself, recognises the value of publishers and their economic contribution to the UK, and generally has a good grasp of all sides of the issue; and that, from that perspective, he is absolutely clear that open access will happen in Britain, and that the goal is for that to be part of a collaborative international transition.

Some highlights from the speech, without further comment:

“Our starting point is very simple. The Coalition is committed to the principle of public access to publicly-funded research results. That is where both technology and contemporary culture are taking us. It is how we can maximise the value and impact generated by our excellent research base.”

“A pay wall … creates a barrier between the academic community and the rest of us, which is deeply unhealthy.”

“[The subscription] funding model is surely going to have to change even beyond the positive transition to open access and hybrid journals that’s already underway. To try to preserve the old model is the wrong battle to fight.”

“Provided we all recognise that open access is on its way, we can then work together to ensure that the valuable functions you [i.e. publishers] carry out continue to be properly funded.”

“The debate on open access will inform HEFCE’s planning for the research excellence process that succeeds the current one which concludes in 2014. Open access could be among the excellence criteria for qualifying articles in the future.”

That last point is crucial, of course.  It ties into Harvard’s goal to “move prestige to open access“.

Very exciting times!

This arrived in my inbox last week, but I’ve been too busy to blog about it until now.

Not surprisingly, I have comments.

First, this is huge news. I am certain that Taylor & Francis, which otherwise have some of the most rapacious fees in the business, are not thrilled about taking a 38% fee cut, and that they are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts or because they want to forge a better relationship with the vertebrate paleontology community (or whatever transparent folderol they put in their public statements). Bottom line, they’re a corporation, they have a legal mandate to maximize profits for shareholders. So there are only two plausible reasons why they might be dropping the OA publication fee so sharply for JVP: because they think they’ll make more money in the long run, or because the powers-that-be at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology fought hard for the change. I think the first reason is a non-starter, for reasons I’ll explain below, which leaves heroism from within the Society as the hypothesis I can’t falsify. Good enough for now. SVP people who helped make this happen, whoever and wherever you are, you have my heartfelt thanks. Please don’t lose sight of that if you read the rest of the post.

Now for the not-so-good news. If you’re an author, you want your work to be read as widely as possible, so OA is in your best interests, period. There are OA journals that are free to publish in, like Paleodiversity, PalArch’s JVP, and Acta Palaeontological Polonica, and of course PLoS ONE gives waivers to authors who can’t pay their $1350/article publication fee. But let’s say that you have grant money or departmental funds to pay OA publication fees. Would you choose to pay $2000/article for OA publication in JVP? Let’s look at some criteria you might want to consider:

  • Article length: limited in JVP, unlimited in PLoS ONE.
  • Color figures: not free in JVP, free in PLoS ONE. [Note the correction below from Paul Barrett: colour figures are now free in JVP PDFs -- a charge is only made for printing colour.]
  • Impact factor: 2.241 for JVP (retrieved from here), 4.411 for PLoS ONE.
  • Rejection criteria: your work has to be scientifically sound and also pass some threshold of general interest or importance at JVP; at PLoS ONE it just has to be scientifically sound.
  • Publication speed: there is a lag-time between when your manuscript is accepted at JVP and when it is made public. Admittedly JVP moves pretty fast right now for paper journal, and you’re unlikely to wait more than 2 or 3 months. But PLoS ONE is faster still, posting your paper almost immediately after it’s accepted.

And of course the elephant in the room:

  • Cost: $2000 for OA publication in JVP, $1350 for PLoS ONE.

So, to sum up, if you send your paper to JVP it will have to be shorter and have fewer figures that will be in black and white unless you choose to pay extra for color reproduction, the selection criteria are more stringent but the impact factor is much lower (for now), and you’ll have to wait a bit longer–but at least you’ll get to pay half again as much for worse performance in all of these areas. That’s why this can’t be some kind of long-term strategy by Taylor & Francis to get more business–doing that requires undercutting your competitors, not overcharging and under-delivering. They’re practically driving potential authors towards PLoS with pitchforks and torches.

So, although I applaud the good folks in the Society for getting a concession this big from Taylor & Francis, the publisher’s service to us is still a joke, because it is so markedly inferior but costs so much more. It’s like completing a 50-yard pass in American football…from halfway back in your own end zone. Hell of a play, dude. Hell of a play. But you’re still on the wrong side of the field.

What next? Well, the good news is that the Society has been getting concessions from Taylor & Francis, so in the short term we should keep pushing for T&F to give us an OA option that is actually competitive. This is a step in the right direction, but it is just a step, and we are way behind the curve here.

In the long term, I think we should think very hard about the Society’s mission. The full version can be found here, but the central kernel is, “The object of the society is to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology.” Allowing a for-profit, barrier-based publisher to put our science behind a paywall in order to enrich its shareholders is simply not consistent with that object. It doesn’t advance the science, it hurts our authors, and it hurts the people who need access to our work but can’t afford it. We should demand better. We must demand better, if we are to be true to our mission.


Note that Paul Barrett, one of the Senior Editors of JVP and Co-Chair of the SVP Publications Committee, explains below that the discount on OA fees was offered by Taylor and Francis rather than negotiated by the SVP as we assumed. Matt has asked for clarification on how this went down (once, twice), but Paul says that he can’t go further into the discussions about JVP’s negotiations as there are legal and commercial implications.


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