May 11, 2013
As part of the progressive erosion of RCUK’s initially excellent open-access policy, barrier-based publishers somehow got them to accept their “open-access decision tree“, which you can now find on page 7 of the toothless current version of the policy. The purpose of this manoeuvre by the Publishers Association is to lend an air of legitimacy to continuing to deny citizens access to the research they funded for up to 24 months after publication. It’s to the House of Lords’ enduring shame that they swallowed this, when they must know that there is no justification for embargoes of any length.
More recently, as commentary on the Australian Research Council’s open access policy, the Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG) published its own rather better decision tree.
But it still doesn’t go nearly far enough. So here is the SV-POW! decision tree, which we encourage you to print out and hang on your office door.
… and don’t forget, when depositing your peer-reviewed accepted manuscripts in a repository, to specify that they are made available under the CC BY licence, which most benefits the field as a whole.
Jeffrey Beall’s fatuous pronouncement that The Serials Crisis is Over has been nagging away at me since it was posted yesterday. I admit my first reaction was that it was some kind of parody or satire, but Beall’s subsequent comments seem to rule out that charitable interpretation.
I’m pleased to see that the comments on that post have shared my bafflement: Karen Coyle cited Walt Crawford’s new book, The Big Deal and the Damage Done; and an important comment by Joe Kraus of the University of Denver cites a BMJ editorial, wunkderkind Jack Andraka and the Who Needs Access? site [disclosure: which I helped build]. So far no-one’s mentioned that Harvard can’t afford its subscriptions – or maybe they have but the comment was silently moderated into oblivion, as has happened with three separate comments that I posted there.
(It is of course because my comments have been repeatedly censored that I’ve given up trying to contribute to the original post’s comment thread, and am writing this instead. I can promise anyone who wants to comment here, Beall included, that we allow all comments except spam and direct repeated personal attacks.)
Beall’s response to Joe Kraus’s comment was simply an attack on the university that he works for — an attack that Joe took rather graciously. But what about all the other people that he mentions? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the lines are as follows: those who say that the serial crisis is over are the hugely profitable incumbents; those who say it is not are scholars, librarians, editor, doctors, students, and in fact every single group that doesn’t stand to gain financially from the continuation of the status quo. Doesn’t that look just a tiny bit suspicious? (I asked Beall this: that was one of the comments that was censored.)
But leave all that aside. The part that I really want to comment on is this, from the original article:
I declare that the serials crisis, the event that gave birth to the open-access movement, is over. I base my declaration on my observations as an academic librarian and on the scholarly literature, selections from which I include here:
“Publishers, through the oft-reviled “Big Deal” packages, are providing much greater and more egalitarian access to the journal literature, an approximation to true Open Access.”
That quote is from Odlyzko (2013), “Open Access, library and publisher competition, and the evolution of general commerce”, which is freely available on arXiv. So let’s look at the whole abstract that Beall quoted from so we can see the context of the quote that he used. (My emphasis added.)
Discussions of the economics of scholarly communication are usually devoted to Open Access, rising journal prices, publisher profits, and boycotts. That ignores what seems a much more important development in this market. Publishers, through the oft-reviled “Big Deal” packages, are providing much greater and more egalitarian access to the journal literature, an approximation to true Open Access. In the process they are also marginalizing libraries, and obtaining a greater share of the resources going into scholarly communication. This is enabling a continuation of publisher profits as well as of what for decades has been called “unsustainable journal price escalation“. It is also inhibiting the spread of Open Access, and potentially leading to an oligopoly of publishers controlling distribution through large-scale licensing.
The “Big Deal” practices are worth studying for several general reasons. The degree to which publishers succeed in diminishing the role of libraries may be an indicator of the degree and speed at which universities transform themselves. More importantly, these “Big Deals” appear to point the way to the future of the whole economy, where progress is characterized by declining privacy, increasing price discrimination, increasing opaqueness in pricing, increasing reliance on low-paid or upaid work of others for profits, and business models that depend on customer inertia.
It could not be clearer that this paper is not evidence for Beall’s assertion that the serials crisis is over — on the contrary, it argues that things are worse than ever and getting worse.
This is a classic example of quote mining.
I’m afraid that at this point in the development of his site, Beall is looking less and less like someone offering a helpful service to researchers looking for open-access venues; and more and more like a troll.
May 8, 2013
I was reading an article recently about crowd-funded startups. One of the featured startups aims to make divorce more painless. That started me thinking about divorce lawyers. Their web-sites say they will “guide you as painlessly as possible through the jungle of legal rules and practices” and “have not only your best interests in mind, but also that of any children who may be involved“. And I’m sure that’s true of all the individuals that work at such firms. I’m sure they do genuinely good work and mitigate some of the appalling pain of a divorce.
And yet. For these firms to succeed, they need marriages to fail. From the perspective of the company (not the people in it), a successful marriage is a missed business opportunity. What a terrible, conflicted, position to be in. It must be hard to work for a company like that.
And then I thought about traditional, paywall-based scholarly publishers. Their web-sites say things like “We have a passion for digital distribution“, that they have an “objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide“, and that their purpose is “to further the [...] objective of advancing learning, knowledge and research“. I’m sure that’s true of all the individuals that work at the company. I’m sure they do genuinely good work and want to make research available wherever possible.
And yet. For those firms to succeed, they need universities, libraries, doctors, nurses, teachers and others not to be able to freely access published research. From the perspective of the company (not the people in it), a shared paper is a missed business opportunity. What a terrible, conflicted, position to be in. It must be hard to work for a company like that.
This isn’t hypothetical. The three publishers whose self-descriptions I quoted above are Taylor and Francis (“passion for digital distribution”), Oxford University Press (“education by publishing worldwide”) and Cambridge University Press (“advancing learning, knowledge and research”). The very same three publishers who are currently suing Delhi University for photocopying excerpts of their textbooks.
Now leave aside whether or not the law is on the publishers’ or the educators’ side in this dispute. The issue is this. The publishers’ business model forces them to act in a way directly opposed to their mission. What they are doing in Delhi, if they are successful will prevent T&F’s goal of digital distribution; it will prevent OUP’s mission of education worldwide; and it will prevent CUP’s objective of advancing learning.
When I met Alicia Wise back in September last year, and we chatted over lunch, I think she was a bit surprised at my insistence that all paywalls on research have to come down. I don’t want to put words in her mouth (and I hope she’ll correct me if I misinterpreted) but it seemed to me that she expected to be able to meet me half way — that I would be in favour, for example, of a scheme that allowed much cheaper access to paywalled material.
In that chat over lunch, I don’t think I did a very good of articulating why I am so implacable on this. But this is the reason. As soon as a publisher has a paywall, its mission and its business are in conflict. A paywall-based publisher cannot both advance its mission and preserve its revenue.
There are only two ways for paywall-based publishers get rid of this dissonance. Either they have to give up all pretence of being about education; or they have to give up paywalls and adopt a business model that is in alignment with their stated mission. Until they do one or the other, the baked-in hypocrisy will continue. It’s inevitable. It’s fundamental to what these organisations are.
April 29, 2013
But the most recent and troubling predatory-publisher story I’ve read is about a lawsuit. No, not the Edwin Mellen Press libel suit. Three publishers are suing Delhi University for selling course packs to students that use excerpts from their textbooks.
This lawsuit despite the facts that (A) Indian copyright law has an exception for educational exercise; (B) the course packs don’t affect publisher revenue because there is no way Indian students can afford the books; and (C) Thirty-three of the authors specifically named as meriting protection in the publishers’ petition have publicly stated that they want no part in the suit, telling them “it is unfortunate that you would choose to alienate teachers and students who are indeed your main readers”.
You can read the whole article at Firstpost India: Not in our name: Academics oppose publishers, support photocopying. Pretty vile behavior there by the publishers, who apparently consider maintaining total control more important than education in a developing country that desperately needs it.
The truly horrifying part of this is that the case was filed by Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis — three publishers who we’ve been used to thinking of as reputable, and who want researchers to think of them as trusted partners.
But they’re not, are they?
This is not an isolated example. It’s just one more example of how academic publishers have made themselves the enemies of science, of education and of progress in general. And yes, I do understand that publishers are unhappy to be characterised in this way, but but but …
Dear publishers: if you don’t want to be called enemies of science, stop being enemies of science.
Seriously. This isn’t complicated. For decades you’ve been able to get away with whatever crapulent manoeuvres you’ve wanted to pull, and we’ve not been connected enough to do anything about it — or even know about it, most of the time. But those days are over. The world is connected. When you act like jerks, we will call you on it.
So just stop acting like jerks. Number one on the agenda: stop suing your customers.
April 15, 2013
I think the most painful part of the Elsevier-eats-Mendeley deal has been watching good people acting as apologists for Elsevier and then feeling hurt when people don’t accept their protestations. You can see a good example (but far from the only one) in the comments to Danah Boyd’s post on her #mendelete.
I don’t know what what Elsevier have been feeding their new minions, but whatever it is it seems to be working. They seem to have swallowed the party line uncritically. Yes, Elsevier have been making nice statements about what their intentions are with respect to Mendeley. They are exactly the sort of statements you’d expect them to make. And there is not one whit of a reason why anyone should believe them. Time and again, Elsevier have shown that the truth is just another tool for them, to be used when it’s useful and discarded when it’s not. (Fake journals, bribing reviewers, equating open access with lack of peer-review, the list goes on.)
Who will bet that Elsevier aren’t at least involved in, if not the prime movers behind, the New York Times’s recent open-access slander? It’s 100% in keeping with the Dezenhall strategy and the history of the PRISM Coalition (“scientific censorship” indeed).
The only question here is why the Mendeley folks seem so convinced that this time will be different, this time Elsevier really have changed, they really do have our best interests at heart.
Really, Mendeley people? Really?
Now look. We all understand that Mendeley was always a commercial operation. It was always a for-profit, and it was started not only to advance OA but also to make money for its founders and investors. There’s nothing wrong with that. And Mendeley did some great pro-OA work before its acquisition. The founders and investors deserve their pay-day, and good luck to them. But Mendeley, the Elsevier subsidiary, is dead to me, and should be to anyone else who is about openness. Mendeley did some good work, and now that’s finished.
You can’t have your cake and eat it, Mendeley people.
So in his comments on the Dana Boyd article, William Gunn rightly points out that “We participated in the SOPA/RWA blackout, we wrote comments to the OSTP, we campaigned vigorously for the wh.gov petition”. All true, and all commendable. It’s great that the old Mendeley did all that stuff. But anyone who believes that the Elsevier subsidiary Mendeley is going to do these things is sadly mistaken.
Update (eight hours later)
Let me be 100% clear that I am not saying any of the Mendeley people are lying. I think they genuinely believe the stories that Elsevier have told them. And I think they are dead wrong, just as Celebrimbor and the elves of Eregion were when they believed that Sauron, in his fair guise as Annatar, had repented of his history as lieutenant to Morgoth Bauglir the oppressor. All I’m saying is, don’t come running to me when you find that those pretty rings you’re forging with Elsevier’s counsel turn out to be under the command of the One Ring, and a Second Darkness covers the land.
April 12, 2013
Yesterday I was in Oxford for the Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science conference (web-site here, tweets here though they also include newer ones from Day 2 which is happening as I write this).
There was a lot to enjoy about the day, including meeting Cameron Neylon of PLOS and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ, both for the first time. The highlight for me, unsurprisingly, was the debate at the Oxford Union in the evening, of which more in following posts.
Another highlight was meeting my anti-particle — the pro-Elsevier Mike Taylor. There are quite a few odd coincidences linking him and me, and he has been using us both as a motivating example of the need for ORCID: skip to 5:50 in this video for an example.
There was some speculation that if we ever met, we’d both be annihilated in a burst of pure energy, but happily there were no fireworks.
Apart from a brief fist-fight.
Other Mike Taylor (hereafter OMT) had some interesting things to say about Elsevier, but I won’t pass them on without his permission. Maybe he’ll drop by here and comment.
By the way, I think this was the second time I have worn a tie in the last decade or so.
There’s an awful lot of talk about “predatory open access publishers” recently. So much talk that I can’t help wondering whether the phrase is being pushed by barrier-based publishers in another attempt to smear open access. (Hey, they have previous.)
Anyway, for anyone who is worried that they might be tricked into giving their work to one of these low-quality predatory publishers that accepts anything and only cares about the fee, here is my guide to avoiding this scenario.
So. Imagine you have an article ready to go, when you receive an invitation to submit it to a journal that you’ve never heard of before. How do you decide whether to send it to them?
Do not send it to them.
April 9, 2013
As many of you will know, it’s now official that Elsevier has bought Mendeley, previously a force for openness in the world of reference management. There’s some good commentary at The Scholarly Kitchen. Lots of open advocates — Ross Mounce, for example — are shutting down their accounts and moving to free alternatives such as Zotero.
Unequivocal good guys at Mendeley, such as William Gunn, are painting this as optimistically as they can. Good luck to them, and I hope their optimism proves well-founded.
But here’s the problem. Although both Elsevier and Mendeley are making all the right noises about this acquisition, the bottom line is that Elsevier has all the power in the relationship. So Mendeley say things like “very little will change for you as a Mendeley user” and “we will continue to support standard and open data formats”, and I’m sure they believe them. But it’s dependent on the whim of Elsevier. The moment it becomes inconvenient or financially disadvantageous for them to do these things, they’ll stop.
That’s not a criticism of any of the individuals at Elsevier. Every single Elsevier person I’ve had dealings with has been pleasant, sane and helpful; often funny, too. But a lot of good, smart people smashed together can and do make a big, dumb, evil company. So Elsevier continually does things that (I suspect) none of the individuals I know there would chose. But it does them anyway. Sadly all the evidence from the past says that nothing good is going to happen to Mendeley now.
I truly hope I’m wrong.
But I’m not.
What it comes down to is this: Mendeley’s ability to be a force for openness is dependent on a company that is implacably opposed to openness. That’s all there is to it.
Update (14 minutes later): read the much more informed thoughts of Jason Hoyt, who was one of Mendeley’s co-founders before leaving to co-found PeerJ. Very gentle, but also I think a strong confirmation of my reading.
April 3, 2013
Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.
SERIOUSLY, NATURE PUBLISHING GROUP. HOW HARD CAN IT BE?
You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering – nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.
It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.
Sort it out.
For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:
My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.
If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.
Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.
And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.
If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.
Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.
If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.
Thanks for listening.
April 2, 2013
As is now well known, Edwin Mellen Press sued librarian Dale Askey for posting a negative review of their products. Now they have threatened to sue the Scholarly Kitchen for writing about this, and also to sue one of the commenters on that site.
I, of course, am not a librarian, and so have no opinion of my own regarding Edwin Mellen Press. For all I know, they are a competent and legitimate publisher who work to the highest standards and provide excellent value for money.
But I do have one question, and it’s this: what does it say about a publisher when their response to criticism, or to discussion of criticism, is bring out the lawyers? Does it give you confidence in their ability to persuade with logic that their work is good?
Of course, individual librarians will make their own choices about which books to buy and which journals to subscribe to. Perhaps in making those decisions, one of the things they will consider is the very impressive steps that Edwin Mellen Press has taken to protect its reputation.
Update (almost immediately)
Here is a Wayback Machine cache of one of the supposedly offending Scholarly Kitchen articles. For whatever it’s worth, I don’t see anything remotely objectionable here: just professional opinion, dispassionately recounted, and facts about a previous similar lawsuit.
And here is TechDirt’s assessment of the situation — which is considerably more forthright than many others.