October 28, 2014
It’s nearly two years since Alexander Brown wrote Open access: why academic publishers still add value for the Guardian, in which he listed ways that he feels publishers make a contribution. I wrote a lengthy comment in response — long enough that it got truncated at 5000 characters and I had to post a second comment with the tail end. At the time, I intended to turn that comment into an SV-POW! post, but for some reason I never did. Belatedly, here it is.
I’m a bit nonplussed by this article, in which a publisher lists a lot of important services that they claim to provide, nearly all of which turn out to be either not important at all (if not actively harmful) or provided for free by academics. Let’s go through them one by one, and see how they measure up against the average cost to academia of $5333 per paywalled academic paper.
strong, skilled editors to ensure that research can be universally understood
It is authors who make their work understood. As the author of a dozen published papers myself, I’ve certainly never received any help from an editor to make my work more comprehensible. But even if I had, this would have been done by a handling editor, who is a volunteer academic.
to recognise emerging fields and create new journals
Publisher don’t recognise emerging fields, researchers do. The last thing we need is more journals — there are already far more than anyone can keep track of. The more fruitful trend is the consolidation into a smaller number of more generalist journals, with tools for finding papers relevant to each individual researcher’s interest. (PLOS ONE exemplifies this.)
to build and maintain the brands and reputations of journals.
Journal brands are actively harmful to science. Please stop building and maintaining them.
recruitment and management of editorial review boards
Yes — this, at last, is a real cost in return for a real benefit.
coordination of peer review to ensure the integrity of the scholarly record
This is done by volunteer academics at no cost to the publisher.
Yes, editorial board members and reviewers are by and large unpaid. However there are still scores of people whose full time jobs are managing this process for a growing body of scientific literature.
This seems more like confession of inefficiency than a claim of achievement. No doubt Google could double the number of managers they have to look after their engineers; but that would hardly result in doubling their output. The real question here should be why traditional publishers feel they need so many staff to do so little.
helping customers learn how best to find what they need
How does this happen? I have never had a publisher help me to find anything.
rigorous efforts to acquire content
This means sending spam emails inviting researchers to submit to journals. Like everyone else I know, I bin these on receipt. Researchers know what journals they want to publish in, and when they discover new journals it’s by word of mouth from trusted colleagues.
publicise the brilliance of our authors
Please. This never happens. Authors need to publicise their own work, with or without the help of their institutions, but certainly without significant help from publishers. Often the publisher’s most significant contribution to the publicity process is to release a paper prematurely, thus destroying any attempt at co-ordinating press embargoes.
Developing systems and platforms that can cost well into the tens of millions of dollars/pounds/euros
Again, the fact that a publisher spends this much only shows how inefficient they are. There are several free journal-management systems, including Annotum (used by PLOS Currents) and Open Journal Systems (used by 11,500 journals). If publishers don’t use these tools, that’s no reason to charge researchers more.
with the advent of mobile technology, the job becomes exponentially more difficult as we add “whenever they want it” to the list of our customers’ needs
I have no idea what this means. Any open-access journal’s article are always free “whenever they want it”, whatever device someone is reading on.
While the dissemination of research may not require ink and paper like it used to, distribution remains a very real cost
Yes. To pick a well-known large-scale example, it costs arXiv about $7 per paper to accept, host, archive and serve each of its papers indefinitely. A bit less than $5333, admittedly.
Also included in these activities are archive projects like the Springer Book Archives, a massive undertaking to digitise more than 150 years of previously unavailable titles
This is indeed a valuable programme. But it has nothing to do with ongoing publishing, and is a red herring in the current discussion.
for OA authors Springer deposits a researcher’s work into the institutional repositories these scientists are often required to use, helping to provide further access to scholarly works.
This is good. It saves the author a good fifteen minutes. £5333 well spent!
It is hard to imagine how anyone with an internet connection could do this with the speed, efficiency and added value with which publishers operate
On the contrary: it’s hard to understand how publishers manage to do it so inefficiently.
I just find all this baffling. Any researcher who has actually been through the process of publication knows that it is researchers who do all the significiant work: not only the research, but the writing, the preparation of illustrations, the editorial process, the peer-reviewing, the copy-editing, and increasingly even the typesetting. Hosting, archiving and replication can be done for $7 per paper. So I still don’t see where the publishers are adding any value that is of value to the academy.
September 2, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, more than hundred scientists sent an open letter to the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) about their new open-access journal Science Advances, which is deficient in various ways — not least the absurdly inflated article-processing charge.
Today I learn from email that there has finally been a response — of sorts. Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt had a long phone-call with Jon Tennant — one of the hundred-plus authors/co-signers. All we know about that call is (and I quote from Jon’s email account) “it became quite apparent that we would have to agree to disagree on many points”.
All I want to say is this. When a hundred scientists co-sign an open letter, it is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE for the response to take the form of a private telephone call with one of those authors.
Come on, AAAS. This is all about openness. Let’s see an open response: a substantive, non-patronising one which addresses the actual points made in the original letter.
Meanwhile, you may like to read this article at The New Statesman: Scientists criticise new “open access” journal which limits research-sharing with copyright. In finishes on this very clear note, courtesy of Jon Tennant:
The AAAS should be a shining beacon within the academic world for progression of science. If this is their best shot at that, it’s an absolute disaster at the start on all levels. What publishers need to remember is that the academic community is not here to serve them – it is the other way around.
May 7, 2014
[NOTE: see the updates at the bottom. In summary, there's nothing to see here and I was mistaken in posting this in the first place.]
Elsevier’s War On Access was stepped up last year when they started contacting individual universities to prevent them from letting the world read their research. Today I got this message from a librarian at my university:
The irony that this was sent from the Library’s “Open Access Team” is not lost on me. Added bonus irony: this takedown notification pertains to an article about how openness combats mistrust and secrecy. Well. You’d almost think NPG wants mistrust and secrecy, wouldn’t you? It’s sometimes been noted that by talking so much about Elsevier on this blog, we can appear to be giving other barrier-based publishers a free ride. If we give that impression, it’s not deliberate. By initiating this takedown, Nature Publishing Group has self-identified itself as yet another so-called academic publisher that is in fact an enemy of science. So what next? Anyone who wants a PDF of this (completely trivial) letter can still get one very easily from my own web-site, so in that sense no damage has been done. But it does leave me wondering what the point of the Institutional Repository is. In practice it seems to be a single point of weakness allowing “publishers” to do the maximum amount of damage with a single attack.
But part of me thinks the thing to do is take the accepted manuscript and format it myself in the exact same way as Nature did, and post that. Just because I can. Because the bottom line is that typesetting is the only actual service they offered Andy, Matt and me in exchange for our right to show our work to the world, and that is a trivial service.
The other outcome is that this hardens my determination never to send anything to Nature again. Now it’s not like my research program is likely to turn up tabloid-friendly results anyway, so this is a bit of a null resolution. But you never know: if I happen to stumble across sauropod feather impressions in an overlooked Wealden fossil, then that discovery is going straight to PeerJ, PLOS, BMC, F1000 Research, Frontiers or another open-access publisher, just like all my other work.
And that’s sheer self-interest at work there, just as much as it’s a statement. I will not let my best work be hidden from the world. Why would anyone?
Let’s finish with another outing for this meme-ready image.
David Mainwaring (on Twitter) and James Bisset (in the comment below) both pointed out that I’ve not seen an actual takedown request from NPG — just the takedown notification from my own library. I assumed that the library were doing this in response to hassle from NPG
, but of course it’s possible that my own library’s Open Access Team is unilaterally trying to prevent access to the work of its university’s researchers.
I’ve emailed Lyn Duffy to ask for clarification. In the mean time, NPG’s Grace Baynes has tweeted:
So it looks like this may be even more bizarre than I’d realised.
Further bulletins as events warrant.
OK, consensus is that I read this completely wrong. Matt’s comment below says it best:
I have always understood institutional repositories to be repositories for author’s accepted manuscripts, not for publisher’s formatted versions of record. By that understanding, if you upload the latter, you’re breaking the rules, and basically pitting the repository against the publisher.
Which is, at least, not a nice thing to do to the respository.
So the conclusion is: I was wrong, and there’s nothing to see here apart from me being embarrassed. That’s why I’ve struck through much of the text above. (We try not to actually delete things from this blog, to avoid giving a false history.)
My apologies to Lyn Duffy, who was just doing her job.
This just in from Lyn Duffy, confirming that, as David and James guessed, NPG did not send a takedown notice:
This PDF was removed as part of the standard validation work of the Open Access team and was not prompted by communication from Nature Publishing. We validate every full-text document that is uploaded to Pure to make sure that the publisher permits posting of that version in an institutional repository. Only after validation are full-text documents made publicly available.
In this case we were following the regulations as stated in the Nature Publishing policy about confidentiality and pre-publicity. The policy says, ‘The published version — copyedited and in Nature journal format — may not be posted on any website or preprint server’ (http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/confidentiality.html). In the information for authors about ‘Other material published in Nature’ it says, ‘All articles for all sections of Nature are considered according to our usual conditions of publication’ (http://www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/others.html#correspondence). We took this to mean that material such as correspondence have the same posting restrictions as other material published by Nature Publishing.
If we have made the wrong decision in this case and you do have permission from Nature Publishing to make the PDF of your correspondence publicly available via an institutional repository, we can upload the PDF to the record.
Open Access Team
Here’s the text of the original notification email so search-engines can pick it up. (If you read the screen-grab above, you can ignore this.)
University of Bristol — Pure
Lyn Duffy has added a comment
Sharing: public databases combat mistrust and secrecy
Farke, A. A., Taylor, M. P. & Wedel, M. J. 22 Oct 2009 In : Nature. 461, 7267, p. 1053
Research output: Contribution to journal › Article
Lyn Duffy has added a comment 7/05/14 10:23
Dear Michael, Apologies for the delay in checking your record. It appears that the document you have uploaded alongside this record is the publishers own version/PDF and making this version openly accessible in Pure is prohibited by the publisher, as a result the document has been removed from the record. In this particular instance the publisher would allow you to make accessible the postprint version of the paper, i.e., the article in the form accepted for publication in the journal following the process of peer review. Please upload an acceptable version of the paper if you have one. If you have any questions about this please get back to us, or send an email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org Kind regards, Lyn Duffy Library Open Access Team.
April 25, 2014
Eminent British mathematician Tim Gowers has written an epic post on his attempts to get universities to disclose how much they pay for their Elsevier subscriptions. There is a lot of fascinating anecdote in there, and a shedload of important data — it’s very well worth a read.
But here is the part that staggered me most. Gowers wrote to (among others) Queen’s University Belfast, requesting the subscription cost under Freedom of Information rules. The reply was from Amanda Aicken, Information Compliance Unit (and by the way was addressed to Mr. Gowers, but let it pass). It refused to disclose the price on the basis that:
The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a detrimental effect on Elsevier’s future negotiating position with [...] the University.
Now that paragraph is exactly equivalent to:
The disclosure of this information would be likely to have a positive effect on the University’s future negotiating position with Elsevier.
Wouldn’t a decent university administrator think that’s a good thing?
March 20, 2014
In discussion of Samuel Gershman’s rather good piece The Exploitative Economics Of Academic Publishing, I got into this discusson on Twitter with David Mainwaring (who is usually one of the more interesting legacy-publisher representatives on these issues) and Daniel Allingon (who I don’t know at all).
I’ll need to give a bit of background before I reach the key part of that discussion, so here goes. I said that one of David’s comments was a patronising evasion, and that I expected better of him, and also that it was an explicit refusal to engage. David’s response was interesting:
First, to clear up the first half, I wasn’t at all saying that David hasn’t engaged in OA, but that in this instance he’d rejected engagement — and that his previous record of engaging with the issues was why I’d said “I expect better from you” at the outset.
Now with all that he-said-she-said out of the way, here’s the point I want to make.
David’s tweet quoted above makes a very common but insidious assumption: that a “nuanced” argument is intrinsically preferable to a simple one. And we absolutely mustn’t accept that.
We see this idea again and again: open-access advocates are criticised for not being nuanced, with the implication that this equates with not being right. But the right position is not always nuanced. Recruiting Godwin to the cause of a reductio ad absurdum, we can see this by asking the question “was Hitler right to commit genocide?” If you say “no”, then I will agree with you; I won’t criticise your position for lacking nuance. In this argument, nuance is superfluous.
[Tedious but probably necessary disclaimer: no, I am not saying that paywall-encumbered publishing is morally equivalent to genocide. I am saying that the example of genocide shows that nuanced positions are not always correct, and that therefore it's wrong to assume a priori that a nuanced position regarding paywalls is correct. Maybe a nuanced position is correct: but that is something to be demonstrated, not assumed.]
So when David says “What I do hold to is that a rounded view, nuance, w/ever you call it, is important”, I have to disagree. What matters is to be right, not nuanced. Again, sometimes the right position is nuanced, but there’s no reason to assume that from the get-go.
Here’s why this is dangerous: a nuanced, balanced, rounded position sounds so grown up. And by contrast, a straightforward, black-and-white one sounds so adolescent. You know, a straightforward, black-and-white position like “genocide is bad”. The idea of nuance plays on our desire to be respected. It sounds so flattering.
We mustn’t fall for this. Our job is to figure out what’s true, not what sounds grown-up.
March 11, 2014
I hate to keep flogging a dead horse, but since this issue won’t go away I guess I can’t, either.
1. Two years ago, I wrote about how you have to pay to download Elsevier’s “open access” articles. I showed how their open-access articles claimed “all rights reserved”, and how when you use the site’s facilities to ask about giving one electronic copy to a student, the price is £10.88. As I summarised at the time: “Free” means “we take the author’s copyright, all rights are reserved, but you can buy downloads at a 45% discount from what they would otherwise cost.” No-one from Elsevier commented.
2. Eight months ago, Peter Murray-Rust explained that Elsevier charges to read #openaccess articles. He showed how all three of the randomly selected open-access articles he looked at had download fees of $31.50. No-one from Elsevier commented (although see below).
3. A couple of days ago, Peter revisited this issue, and found that Elsevier are still charging THOUSANDS of pounds for CC-BY articles. IMMORAL, UNETHICAL , maybe even ILLEGAL.This time he picked another Elsevier OA article at random, and was quoted £8000 for permission to print 100 copies. The one he looked at says “Open Access” in gold at the top and “All rights reserved” at the bottom. Its “Get rights and content” link takes me to RightsLink, where I was quoted £1.66 to supply a single electronic copy to a student on a course at the University of Bristol:
(Why was I quoted a wildly different price from Peter? I don’t know. Could be to do with the different university, or because he proposed printing copies instead of using an electronic one.)
On Peter’s last article, an Elsevier representative commented:
Alicia Wise says:
March 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm
As noted in the comment thread to your blog back in August we are improving the clarity of our OA license labelling (eg on ScienceDirect) and metadata feeds (eg to Rightslink). This is work in progress and should be completed by summer. I am working with the internal team to get a more clear understanding of the detailed plan and key milestones, and will tweet about these in due course.
With kind wishes,
Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Access and Policy
(Oddly, I don’t see the referenced comment in the August blog-entry, but perhaps it was on a different article.)
Now here is my problem with this.
First of all, either this is deliberate fraud on Elsevier’s part — charging for the use of something that is free to use — or it’s a bug. Following Hanlon’s razor, I prefer the latter explanation. But assuming it’s a bug, why has it taken two years to address? And why is it still not fixed?
Elsevier, remember, are a company with an annual revenue exceeding £2bn. That’s £2,000,000,000. (Rather pathetically, their site’s link to the most recent annual report is broken, but that’s a different bug for a different day.) Is it unreasonable to expect that two years should be long enough for them to fix a trivial bug?
All that’s necessary is to change the “All rights reserved” message and the “Get rights and content” link to say “This is an open-access article, and is free to re-use”. We know that the necessary metadata is there because of the “Open Access” caption at the top of the article. So speaking from my perspective as a professional software developer of more than thirty years’ standing, this seems like a ten-line fix that should take maybe a man-hour; at most a man-day. A man-day of programmer time would cost Elsevier maybe £500 — that is, 0.000025% of the revenue they’ve taken since this bug was reported two years ago. Is it really too much to ask?
(One can hardly help comparing this performance with that of PeerJ, who have maybe a ten-thousandth of Elsevier’s income and resources. When I reported three bugs to them in a course of a couple of days, they fixed them all with an average report-to-fix time of less than 21 hours.)
Now here’s where it turns sinister.
The PeerJ bugs I mentioned above cost them — not money, directly, but a certain amount of reputation. By fixing them quickly, they fixed that reputation damage (and indeed gained reputation by responding so quickly). By contrast, the Elsevier bug we’re discussing here doesn’t cost them anything. It makes them money, by misleading people into paying for permissions that they already have. In short, not fixing this bug is making money for Elsevier. It’s hard not to wonder: would it have remained unfixed for two years if it was costing them money?
But instead of a rush to fix the bug, we have this kind of thing:
I find that very hard to accept. However complex your publishing platform is, however many different modules interoperate, however much legacy code there is — it’s not that hard to take the conditional that emits “Open Access” in gold at the top of the article, and make the same test in the other relevant places.
As John Mark Ockerbloom observes:
Come on, Elsevier. You’re better than this. Step up. Get this done.
Ten days layer, Elsevier have finally responded. To give credit where it’s due, it’s actually pretty good: it notes how many customers made payments they needn’t have made (about 50), how much they paid in total (about $4000) and says that they are actively refunding these payments.
It would be have been nice, mind you, had this statement contained an actual apology: the words “sorry”, “regret” and “apologise” are all notably absent.
And I remain baffled that the answer to “So when will this all be reliable?” is “by the summer of 2014″. As noted above, the pages in question already have the information that the articles are open access, as noted in the gold “Open Access” text at top right of the pages. Why it’s going to take several more months to use that information elsewhere in the same pages is a mystery to me.
As noted by Alicia in a comment below, Elsevier employee Chris Shillum has posted a long comment on Elsevier’s response, explaining in more detail what the technical issues are. Unfortunately there seems to be no way to link directly to the comment, but it’s the fifth one.