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 Whitehouse.gov. 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.

Update

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.

References

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.

A quick note to remind everyone that although the RWA is dead, that only brings us back to the status quo.  At present, it’s still the case that the great majority of US government-funded research goes behind paywalls.  Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a public access policy that is resulting in a lot of papers being posted for general access at PubMed Central, the NIH is only one of a dozen U.S. Federal Agencies with research budgets exceeding $100 million.  The others are:

  • 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
  • National Science Foundation

Wouldn’t it be great if all those agencies had similar policies?  If all the research funded by any of those agencies had to be openly accessible not only to all researchers but to the public — teachers, nurses, artists, translators.

That is exactly what the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) will do if it passes.  In the RWA backlash, we have a unique opportunity to rally support and ensure that this important bill passes, despite the handicap of having been proposed during an election year.

What can you do to help?  First, sign the petition at whitehouse.gov.  I’ve signed it: turns out you don’t need to be a U.S. citizen for your voice to be heard.  It takes a minute to register on the site, then a second to sign.  Stop reading this post and do it now.

Second, if you are a U.S. Citizen, you can contact your representatives to express your support and solicit theirs.  For more on this, see the Alliance for Taxpayer Access’s page.

And whoever you are, you can spread the word.  Blog.  Tweet.  If you’re at a university, raise the subject with your colleagues.  If you’re on job-search or tenure committees, undercut barrier-based publishing’s historic advantage by rewarding candidates for the quality of their work rather than the journal it’s published in.  (One simple way to do this, though far from perfect, is to look at citation counts rather than impact factors.)

As Michael Eisen has said, we won the Battle of the Research Works Act. Now let’s win the War for Open Access.

Can Elsevier save itself?

February 28, 2012

Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead.  I’ve had some time to think about what it all means.

My first reaction was to be really delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago.  I hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.

Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement [cached copy] doesn’t support that interpretation.  It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift.  That’s clear from language like the following:

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself […]  While withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.

The second half of this is particularly disappointing because it is basically a manifesto for fighting against the Federal Research Public Access Act — the very thing that a publisher who is truly on the side of science would not do.  In fact, reading this language, it’s hard to dispute Benoit Bruneau’s cynical summary:

Or indeed Alex Holcombe’s harsh reading:

I predicted they would drop the law, but didn’t expect them to admit its a completely cynical act- that they still actually believe in the law, but are simply trying to placate the misguided concerns of some researchers.

As if the wording of the statement itself were not tone-deaf enough, the problem was exacerbated by this statement, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. “It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,” she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.

It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation.  The message can hardly be read as anything but a “screw you” to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott.  “We didn’t listen to you, we listened to the people who like us”.  In other words, we listened only to the people who are already on our side.  Far from being an attempt to win back former authors, editors and reviewers who had abandoned Elsevier, Wise’s statement brilliantly contrives to frame the RWA capitulation as both a bit of mutual backscratching and insult to the boycotters.

Well.  How else to read that but as “We don’t want you back”?

And so we return to Rick Anderson’s plaintive question on the Scholarly Echo Chamber back at the beginning of the month, when The Cost of Knowledge was new and small:

It’s not at all clear what Elsevier must do to get out from under the boycott. Lower its prices? (If so, by how much?) Publicly state its opposition to SOPA and PIPA and RWA? Affirm the availability of individual subscriptions to its journals? If it does these things, will the boycott be called off?

If public opposition to the RWA might conceivably have achieved the rapprochement that Anderson wants, then the way it’s been done certainly won’t — indeed, in all the reactions I’ve read to the RWA announcement (see the link-farm that I’m compiling), I’ve not seen a single one that’s suggested that calling off the boycott would be a reasonable response.  And several that have emphatically reaffirmed it.

Because after all, Elsevier’s public statements amount to “we have ignored the boycott, and listened to our friends, and as a result we are going to stop supporting this legislation but we’ll support the next identical one that comes along, and oppose the FRPAA”.

And you know what?

That tells me that Elsevier are in serious, serious trouble.

Because they just don’t get it.

In the context of a welcome concession of a very nasty piece of legislation, they’ve managed to botch the announcement and surrounding discussion in a way that betrays their core misunderstanding.  They still think they own us.  They have been careful to stop using the phrase “our content” in public since they saw how it upsets people, but at bottom they still think that the world of publications is all about the process of publishing rather than about what is published.  And it just isn’t.

Not to get too Marxian, but since we now all have word processors and Internet connections, workers control the means of production.

If Elsevier want to survive, they will have to take a deep breath, give up the comforting illusion that we are still their bitches, and figure out how they can provide some actual value to scientists who increasingly have other options.  I’ve mentioned before that even for people who have to care about impact factor, the highest ranked biology journal in the last JCR was the fully open-access PLoS Biology.  Meanwhile in palaeontology, the open-access Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is as well regarded as any other specialist journal.  Admittedly I sometimes hear people say “I need to aim for Science/Nature for the sake of my job application/promotion/tenure/grant application”.  But I never hear people say they need to aim for Cretaceous Research for that reason.

It’s all changing.  The reasons to publish as open access are growing rapidly more compelling — we’re headed towards a world where non-open research is going to be crippled in the competition for relevance — and the reasons not to pick an open-access venue are getting weaker.  Elite journals like Cell will doubtless survive; how many more of Elsevier’s stable of 2656 will manage to creep into the next decade if they keep their doors closed?

So unless something else shifts very suddenly, I fear that Elsevier has slammed shut their window of opportunity.  They get half marks for the first question on the examination (repudiate the RWA) and so far a big fat zero on the more important second question (support the FRPAA).

So here is my honest, helpful-as-I-can-be advice to Elsevier: make a fundamental change, embrace the new world that’s already coming, and signal that change by big, visible support for the FRPAA.

Miss that opportunity, and you’ll be a footnote in ten years’ time.

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