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.

Item 1: With his new piece at the Guardian,  “Persistent myths about open access scientific publishing”, Mike continues to be a thorn in the side of exploitative commercial publishers, who just can’t seem to keep their facts straight. This time Mike unravels some choice bits of nonsense that keep getting circulated about open access publishing: that OA publishing must necessarily cost as much as barrier-based publishing, that the peer review process is expensive for publishers, and that authors who can’t pay OA publication fees will be left out in the cold. It’s cleanly and compellingly argued–go read for yourself.

Item 2: The Yates et al. prosauropod pneumaticity paper is officially published in the latest issue of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and I have updated the citation and links accordingly. This may not seem like big news, in that the accepted manuscript has been available online for 13 months, and the final published version does not differ materially from that version other than being pretty. But it’s an opportunity to talk about something that we haven’t really addressed here before, which is the potential for prompt publication to accelerate research.

A bit of background: standard practice at APP is to post accepted manuscripts as soon as they’re, well, accepted, unless the authors ask otherwise (for example, because the paper contains taxonomic acts and the first public version needs to be the version of record). Not everyone likes this policy–I know Darren objects, and I’m sure there are others. The chief complaint is that it muddies the waters around when the paper is published. Is a paper published when a manuscript is posted to a preprint server like arXiv, or when the accepted manuscript is made freely available by a journal, or when the official, formatted version is published online, or when it arrives in printed hardcopy?

Now, this is an interesting question to ponder, but I think it’s only interesting from the standpoint of rules (e.g., codes governing nomenclature) and how we’re going to decide what counts. From the standpoint of moving science forward, the paper is published as soon as it is available for other researchers to use openly–i.e., not just to use in private in their own research, but also to cite. And since that’s the axis I care most about, I prefer to see accepted manuscripts made widely available as soon as possible, and I support APP’s policy. In the case of Yates et al. (2012), having the accepted manuscript online for the past year meant that it was available for Butler et al. (2012) to use, and cite, in their broad reassessment of pneumaticity in Triassic archosaurs. If our manuscript has not been published, that might not have been the case; Adam gave a talk on our project at the 2009 SVP in Bristol, but Butler et al. might have been loathe to cite an abstract, and some journals explicitly forbid it.

So I say bring it on. Let’s really accelerate research, by letting people see the content as early as possible. Making other researchers wait just so they can see a prettier version of the same information seems to me to be a triumph of style over science.


When my youngest brother was about eight years old, he quipped, “French fries: they may be high in fat, they may be high in cholesterol, but doggone it, they’re salty.”

I often think about that in reference to barrier-based academic publishing. It doesn’t serve authors, it doesn’t serve readers, it doesn’t serve academic libraries, but doggone it, at least it costs vastly more than it should.

So why do scientists, who (1) are at least reasonably intelligent (by and large–insert quip about your least favorite scientist here), (2) have careers that depend on being read as widely as possible, and (3) never have enough money to do all the work they need, keep publishing in this almost comically flawed* system?

Mike takes a stab at an explanation in a new article in The Scientist: Academic publishing is broken. Don’t be fooled by the “tell us something we don’t know” title (which, remember, has to reach people who don’t know about the OA wars); the article contains some new facts and analysis and, in my opinion, precisely nails the problem. Go check it out.

Image borrowed from here (with instructions!).

* It would be comical, if it wasn’t actually contributing to human misery.

Update (7th April 2012)

The Scientist article now exists in a Spanish translation, kindly contributed by Gustavo Rodriguez.


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