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.

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:

Screenshot from 2014-03-11 09:40:35

(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
Hi Peter,

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,

Alicia

Dr Alicia Wise
Director of Access and Policy
Elsevier
@wisealic

(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.

Update (21st March 2014)

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.

Update 2 (24th March 2014)

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.

 

From the files of J. K. Rowling.

Dear Ms. Rowling,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will be happy to consider it for publication. However we have some concerns about the excessive length of this manuscript. We usually handle works of 5-20 pages, sometimes as much as 30 pages. Your 1337-page manuscript exceeds these limits, and requires some trimming.

We suggest that this rather wide-ranging work could usefully be split into a number of smaller, more tightly focussed, papers. In particular, we feel that the “magic” theme is not appropriate for our venue, and should be excised from the current submission.

Assuming you are happy to make these changes, we will be pleased to work with you on this project.

Correspondence ends.

Esteemed Joenne Kay Rowling,

We are delightful to recieve your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we look forword to publish it in our highly prestigious International Journal of Story Peer Reviewed which in 2013 is awarded an impact factor of 0.024.

Before we can progression this mutually benefit work, we require you to send a cheque for $5,000 US Dollars to the above address.

Correspondence ends.

Dear J.R.R. Rowling,

We are in receipt of your manuscript Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Unfortunately, after a discussion with the editorial board, we concluded that it is insufficiently novel to warrant publication in our journal, which is one of the leading venues in its field. Although your work is well executed, it does not represent a significant advance in scholarship.

That is not to say that minor studies such as yours are of no value, however! Have you considered one of the smaller society journals?

Correspondence ends.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has passed initial editorial checks and will now be sent to two peer-reviewers. We will contact you when we have their reports and are able to make a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

We agree that eighteen months is too long for a manuscript to spend in review. On making inquiries, we find that we are unfortunately no longer able to contact the editor who was handling your submission.

We have appointed a new handling editor, who will send your submission to two new reviewers. We will contact you as soon as the new editor has made a decision.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Re: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Your complaint is quite justified. We will chase the reviewers.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am pleased to say that the reviewers have returned their reports on your submission Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and we are able to make an editiorial decision, which is ACCEPT WITH MAJOR REVISION.

Reviewer 1 felt that the core point of your contribution could be made much more succinctly, and recommended that you remove the characters of Ron, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid and Snape. I concur with his assessment that the final version will be tighter and stronger for these cuts, and am confident that you can make them in a way that does not compromise the plot.

Reviewer 2 was positive over all, but did not like being surprised by the ending, and felt that it should have been outlined in the abstract. She also felt that citation of earlier works including Lewis (1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956) and Pullman (1995, 1997, 2000) would be appropriate, and noted an over-use of constructions such as “… said Hermione, warningly”.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for your revised manuscript of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which it is our pleasure to accept. We now ask you to sign the attached copyright transfer form, so we can proceed with publication.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you are unhappy about this, but transfer of copyright is our standard procedure, and we must insist on it as a prerequisite for publication. None of our other authors have complained.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for the signed copyright transfer form.

In answer to your query, no, we do not pay royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Sadly, no, we are unable to make an exception in the matter of royalties.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Your book has now been formatted. We attach a proof PDF. Please read this very carefully as this is the last chance to spot errors.

You will readily appreciate that publishing is an expensive business. In order to remain competitive we have had to reduce costs, and as a result we are no longer able to offer proof-reading or copy-editing. Therefore you are responsible for ensuring the copy is clean.

At this stage, changes should be kept as small as possible, otherwise a charge may be incurred for re-typesetting.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Many thanks for returning the corrected proofs of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. We will proceed with publication.

Now that the final length of your contribution is known, we are able to assess page charges. At 607 pages, this work exceeds our standard twenty free pages by 587. At $140 US per page, this comes to $82,180. We would be grateful if you would forward us a cheque for this amount at your convenience.

Dear Dr. Rowling

Thank you for you prompt payment of the page charges. We agree that these are regrettable, but sadly they are part of the reality of the publishing business.

We are delighted to inform you that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is now published online, and has been assigned the DOI 10.123.45678.

We thank you for working on this fine contribution with us, and hope you will consider us for your future publications.

Dear Dr. Rowling

You are correct, your book is not freely downloadable. As we explained earlier in this correspondence, publishing is an expensive business. We recover our substantial costs by means of subscriptions and paid downloads.

In our experience, those with the most need to read your book will probably have institutional access. As for those who do not: if your readers are as keen as you say, they will no doubt find the customary download fee of $37.95 more than reasonable. Alternatively, readers can rent online access at the convenient price of $9.95 per 24 hours.

Dear Dr. Rowling

I am sorry that you feel the need to take that tone. I must reiterate, as already stated, that the revenues from download charges are not sufficient for us to be able to pay royalties. The $37.95 goes to cover our own costs.

If you wish for your book to be available as “open access”, then you may take advantage of our Freedom Through Slavery option. This will attract a further charge of $3,000, which can be paid by cheque as previously.

Dr. Rowling

Your attitude is really quite difficult to understand. All of this was quite clearly set out on our web-site, and should have been understood by you before you made your submission.

As stated in the copyright transfer form that you signed, you do not retain the right to post freely downloadable copies of your work, since you are no longer the copyright holder.

Dr. Rowling

We must ask you not to contact your handling editor directly. He was quite shaken by your latest outburst. If you feel you must write to us again, we must ask you to moderate your language, which is quite unsuitable for a lady. Meanwhile, we remind you that our publishing agreement follows industry best practice. It’s too late to complain about it now.

Correspondence ends.

Dear Pyramid Web-Hosting,

Copyright claim

We write on behalf of our client, Ancient Monolith Scholarly Publishing, who we assert are the copyright holders of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It has come to our attention that a copy of this copyrighted work has been posted on a site hosted by you at the URL below.

This letter is official notification under the provisions of Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) to effect removal of the above-reported infringement. We request that you immediately issue a cancellation message as specified in RFC 1036 for the specified posting and prevent the infringer, Ms. J. K. Rowling, from posting the infringing material to your servers in the future. Please be advised that law requires you, as a service provider, to “expeditiously remove or disable access to” the infringing material upon receiving this notice. Noncompliance may result in a loss of immunity for liability under the DMCA.

Please send us at the address above a prompt response indicating the actions you have taken to resolve this matter.

Correspondence ends.

Historical Note

Examination of Ms. Rowling’s personal effects established that she had written most of a seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. However, Rowling never sought to publish this final book in the series.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about this interesting situation with Elsevier, which David Tempest’s remarks at the Oxford Evolution or Revolution debate highlighted: they can’t afford (literally or figuratively) to tell us how much they charge different institutions for the same stuff.

And I had this thought, which Mike tweeted:

When simply telling the truth can blow up your business model, you need a new business model.

Mash that up with “information wants to be free” and “if all else fails, someone will show up to liberate it”, and you get this:

When a single person of good conscience can blow up your business model simply by telling the truth, you need a new business model.

If we’ve learned anything in the past few years, it is that humans are the weak link in any campaign of secrecy.

We know that all of the big barrier-based publishers have these bundling deals with libraries, and that no-one on either side is allowed to say what the terms of those deals are. But there must be a lot of people with access to that information. And at least some of them must know how much libraries are getting screwed, precisely because they have access to that information. Seems unlikely that information will stay secret forever.

So, should we be expecting a Snowden-type leak from one or another barrier-based publisher? It doesn’t have to be Elsevier, but I think if it happens they’re the most likely target, because they are so single-minded about cultivating the ill-will of the people they allegedly serve (most recently with this and this). Sometimes I wonder if the other barrier-based publishers are getting too much of a free pass precisely because Elsevier is so good at tossing grenades and then jumping on them.

Corollary: barrier-based publishers, what are you doing to prepare for such a leak? “More secrecy” and “harsher penalties” will probably not work out well in the long run. But do feel free to keep scoring own goals if you must.

The Scholarly Kitchen is the blog of the Society of Scholarly Publishers, and as such discusses lots of issues that are of interest to us. But a while back, I gave up commenting there two reasons. First, it seemed rare that fruitful discussions emerged, rather than mere echo-chamberism; and second, my comments would often be deliberately delayed for several hours “to let others get in first”, and randomly discarded completely for reasons that I found completely opaque.

But since June, when David Crotty took over as Editor-in-Chief from Kent Anderson, I’ve sensed a change in the wind: more thoughtful pieces, less head-in-the-sandism over the inevitable coming changes in scholarly publishing, and even genuinely fruitful back-and-forth in the comments. I was optimistic that the Kitchen could become a genuine hub of cross-fertilisation.

But then, this: The Jack Andraka Story — Uncovering the Hidden Contradictions Behind a Science Folk Hero [cached copy]. Ex-editor Kent Anderson has risen from the grave to give us this attack piece on a fifteen-year-old.

I’m frankly astonished that David Crotty allowed this spiteful piece on the blog he edits. Is Kent Anderson so big that no-one can tell him “no”? Embarrassingly, he is currently president of the SSP, which maybe gives him leverage over the blog. But I’m completely baffled over how Crotty, Anderson or anyone else can think this piece will achieve anything other than to destroy the reputation of the Kitchen.

As Eva Amsen says, “I got as far as the part where he says Jack is not a “layperson” because his parents are middle class. (What?) Then closed tab.” I could do a paragraph-by-paragraph takedown of Anderson’s article, as Michael Eisen did for Jeffrey Beall’s anti-OA coming-out letter; but it really doesn’t deserve that level of attention.

So why am I even mentioning it? Because Jack Andraka doesn’t deserve to be hunted by a troll. I’m not going to be the only one finally giving up on The Scholarly Kitchen if David Crotty doesn’t do something to control his attack dog.

Seriously, David. You’re better than that. You have to be.

Reference

Anderson, Kent. 2014. The Jack Andraka Story — Uncovering the Hidden Contradictions Behind a Science Folk Hero. Society of Scholarly Publishers. The Scholarly Kitchen, Society of Scholarly Publishers. URL:http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2014/01/03/the-jack-andraka-story-uncovering-the-hidden-contradictions-of-an-oa-paragon/. Accessed: 2014-01-03. (Archived by WebCite® at http://www.webcitation.org/6MLiAaC9o)

As we all know, University libraries have to pay expensive subscription fees to scholarly publishers such as Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa, so that their researchers can read articles written by their colleagues and donated to those publishers. Controversially (and maybe illegally), when negotiating contracts with libraries, publishers often insist on confidentiality clauses — so that librarians are not allowed to disclose how much they are paying. The result is an opaque market with no downward pressure on prices, hence the current outrageously high prices, which are rising much more quickly than inflation even as publishers’ costs shrink due to the transition to electronic publishing.

On Thursday 11 April 2013, Oxford University hosted a conference called Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science. The evening event was a debate on the subject Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication. During this debate, Stephen Curry of Imperial College noted that his librarian isn’t allowed to tell him how much they pay for Elsevier journals. This is the response of David Tempest, Elsevier’s Deputy Director of Universal Sustainable Research Access.

Heres’ a transcript

Curry [in reference to the previous answer]: I’m glad David Tempest is so interested in librarians being able to make costs transparent to their users, because at my university, Imperial College, my chief librarian can not tell me how much she pays for Elsevier journals because she’s bound by a confidentiality clause. Would you like to address that?

[Loud applause for the question]

Tempest: Well, indeed there are confidentiality clauses inherent in the system, in our Freedom Collections. The Freedom Collections do give a lot of choice and there is a lot of discount in there to the librarians. And the use, and the cost per use has been dropping dramatically, year on year. And so we have to ensure that, in order to have fair competition between different countries, that we have this level of confidentiality to make that work. Otherwise everybody would drive down, drive down, drive drive drive, and that would mean that …

[The last  part is drowned in the laughter of the audience.]

So there you have it: confidentiality clauses exist because otherwise everybody would drive down prices. And we can’t have that, can we?

(Is this extracted segment of video unfairly misrepresenting Tempest? No. To see that for yourself, I highly recommend that you watch the video of the whole debate. It’s long — nearly two hours — but well worth the time. The section I used here starts at 1:09:50.)

I thought Elsevier was already doing all it could to alienate the authors who freely donate their work to shore up the corporation’s obscene profits. The thousands of takedown notices sent to Academia.edu represent at best a grotesque PR mis-step, an idiot manoeuvre that I thought Elsevier would immediately regret and certainly avoid repeating.

Which just goes to show that I dramatically underestimated just how much Elsevier hate it when people read the research they publish, and the lengths they’re prepared to go to when it comes to ensuring the work stays unread.

Now, they’re targeting individual universities.

The University of Calgary has just sent this notice to all staff:

The University of Calgary has been contacted by a company representing the publisher, Elsevier Reed, regarding certain Elsevier journal articles posted on our publicly accessible university web pages. We have been provided with examples of these articles and reviewed the situation. Elsevier has put the University of Calgary on notice that these publicly posted Elsevier journal articles are an infringement of Elsevier Reed’s copyright and must be taken down.

That’s it, folks. Elsevier have taken the gloves off. I’ve tried repeatedly to think the best of them, to interpret their actions in the most charitable light. I even wrote a four-part series on how they can regain the trust of researchers and librarians (part 0, part 1, part 2, part 3), under the evidently mistaken impression that that was what they wanted.

But now it’s apparent that I was far too optimistic. They have no interest in working with authors, universities, businesses or anyone else. They just want to screw every possible cent out of all parties in the short term.

Because this is, obviously, a very short-term move. Whatever feeble facade Elsevier have till now maintained of being partners in the ongoing process of research is gone forever. They’ve just tossed it away, instead desperately trying to cling onto short-term profit. In going after the University of Calgary (and I imagine other universities as well, unless this is a pilot harassment), Elsevier have declared their position as unrepentant enemies of science.

In essence, this move is an admission of defeat. It’s a classic last-throw-of-the-dice manoeuvre. It signals a recognition from Elsevier that they simply aren’t going to be able to compete with actual publishers in the 21st century. They’re burning the house down on their way out. They’re asset-stripping academia.

Elsevier are finished as a credible publisher. I can’t believe any researcher who knows what they’re doing is going to sign away their rights to Elsevier journals after this. I hope to see the editorial boards of Elsevier-encumbered journals breaking away from the dead-weight of the publisher, and finding deals that actually promote the work of those journals rather than actively hindering it.

And a reminder, folks: for those of you who want to publicly declare that you’re done with Elsevier, you can sign the Cost Of Knowledge declaration. That’s often been described as a petition, but it’s not. A petition exists to persuade someone to do something, but we’re not asking Elsevier to change. It’s evidently far, far too late for that. As a publisher, Elsevier is dead. The Cost of Knowledge is just a declaration that we’re walking away from the corpse before the stench becomes unbearable.

Lots of researchers post PDFs of their own papers on their own web-sites. It’s always been so, because even though technically it’s in breach of the copyright transfer agreements that we blithely sign, everyone knows it’s right and proper. Preventing people from making their own work available would be insane, and the publisher that did it would be committing a PR gaffe of huge proportions.

Enter Elsevier, stage left. Bioinformatician Guy Leonard is just one of several people to have mentioned on Twitter this morning that Academia.edu took down their papers in response to a notice from Elsevier. Here’s a screengrab of the notification:

oLI5n9w

And here is the text (largely so search-engines can index it):

Hi Guy

Unfortunately, we had to remove your paper, Resolving the question of trypanosome monophyly: a comparative genomics approach using whole genome data sets with low taxon sampling, due to a take-down notice from Elsevier.

Academia.edu is committed to enabling the transition to a world where there is open access to academic literature. Elsevier takes a different view, and is currently upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online.

Over the last year, more than 13,000 professors have signed a petition voicing displeasure at Elsevier’s business practices at www.thecostofknowledge.com. If you have any comments or thoughts, we would be glad to hear them.

The Academia.edu Team

(Kudos to the Academia.edu team, by the way, for saying it like it is: “upping the ante in its opposition to academics sharing their own papers online”. It would have been easy for them to give no opinion on this. Much better that they’ve nailed their colours to the mast.)

I was going to comment on Elsevier’s exceedingly short-sighted and mean-spirited manoeuvre, but happily the Twittersphere is on it already. Here are a few thoughts:

This doesn’t directly affect me, of course, since I’ve had the good fortune not to have published in an Elsevier journal. But it’s another horrible example of how organisations that call themselves “publishers” do the exact opposite of publishing. The good people I know at Elsevier — people like Tom Reller, Alicia Wise and The Other Mike Taylor — must be completely baffled, and very frustrated, by this kind of thing.

headdesk

Every time they start to persuade me that maybe – maybe – somewhere in the cold heart of legacy publishers, there lurks some real will to make a transition to actually serving the scholarly community, they do something like this. It’s like a sickness with them.

Do scholarly publishers really need to be reminded that “publish” means “make public”? Yes. Yes, they do. Apparently. Remember how I called legacy publishers “enemies of science” back at the start of 2012? Yup. Still true. And, astonishingly, as Rafael Maia noted, Elsevier seem determined to lead the way.

Have they learned nothing? Will they never?

Publishers ... You're doing it wrong

Suppose, hypothetically, that you worked for an organisation whose nominal goal is the advancement of science, but which has mutated into a highly profitable subscription-based publisher. And suppose you wanted to construct a study that showed the alternative — open-access publishing — is inferior.

What would you do?

You might decide that a good way to test publishers is by sending them an obviously flawed paper and seeing whether their peer-review weeds it out.

But you wouldn’t want to risk showing up subscription publishers. So the first thing you’d do is decide up front not to send your flawed paper to any subscription journals. You might justify this by saying something like “the turnaround time for traditional journals is usually months and sometimes more than a year. How could I ever pull off a representative sample?“.

Next, you’d need to choose a set of open-access journals to send it to. At this point, you would carefully avoid consulting the membership list of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, since that list has specific criteria and members have to adhere to a code of conduct. You don’t want the good open-access journals — they won’t give you the result you want.

Instead, you would draw your list of publishers from the much broader Directory of Open Access Journals, since that started out as a catalogue rather than a whitelist. (That’s changing, and journals are now being cut from the list faster than they’re being added, but lots of old entries are still in place.)

Then, to help remove many of the publishers that are in the game only to advance research, you’d trim out all the journals that don’t levy an article processing charge.

But the resulting list might still have an inconveniently high proportion of quality journals. So you would bring down the quality by adding in known-bad publishers from Beall’s list of predatory open-access publishers.

Having established your sample, you’d then send the fake papers, wait for the journals’ responses, and gather your results.

To make sure you get a good, impressive result that will have a lot of “impact”, you might find it necessary to discard some inconvenient data points, omitting from the results some open-access journals that rejected the paper.

Now you have your results, it’s time to spin them. Use sweeping, unsupported generalisations like “Most of the players are murky. The identity and location of the journals’ editors, as well as the financial workings of their publishers, are often purposefully obscured.”

Suppose you have a quote from the scientist whose experiences triggered the whole project, and he said something inconvenient like “If [you] had targeted traditional, subscription-based journals, I strongly suspect you would get the same result”. Just rewrite it to say “if you had targeted the bottom tier of traditional, subscription-based journals”.

Now you have the results you want — but how will you ever get through through peer-review, when your bias is so obvious? Simple: don’t submit your article for peer-review at all. Classify it as journalism, so you don’t need to go through review, nor to get ethical approval for the enormous amount of editors’ and reviewers’ time you’ve wasted — but publish it in a journal that’s known internationally for peer-reviewed research, so that uncritical journalists will leap to your favoured conclusion.

Last but not least, write a press-release that casts the whole study as being about the “Wild West” of Open-Access Publishing.

Everyone reading this will, I am sure, have recognised that I’m talking about  John Bohannon’s “sting operation” in Science. Bohannon has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Oxford University, so we would hope he’d know what actual science looks like, and that this study is not it.

Of course, the problem is that he does know what science looks like, and he’s made the “sting” operation look like it. It has that sciencey quality. It discusses methods. It has supplementary information. It talks a lot about peer-review, that staple of science. But none of that makes it science. It’s a maze of preordained outcomes, multiple levels of biased selection, cherry-picked data and spin-ridden conclusions. What it shows is: predatory journals are predatory. That’s not news.

Speculating about motives is always error-prone, of course, but it it’s hard not to think that Science‘s goal in all this was to discredit open-access publishing — just as legacy publishers have been doing ever since they realised OA was real competition. If that was their goal, it’s misfired badly. It’s Science‘s credibility that’s been compromised.

Update (9 October)

Akbar Khan points out yet more problems with Bohannon’s work: mistakes in attributing where given journals were listed, DOAJ or Beall’s list. As a result, the sample may be more, or less, biased than Bohannon reported.

 

 

 

A few years ago, in my programming day-job, we had a customer who we were providing with software components and a bit of custom development. While this was going on, we had a sequence of meetings with them in which we pitched several possible system designs, explaining how we could help them use our components in various ways.

After this had been going on for a while, our contact at the customer had to take us to one side. He was gentle with us: “Look, you seem to have the idea that we’re looking for some kind of ongoing consultancy from you”, he said. “We’re really not. We like your tools, and we’re happy to pay for them, but that’s all we need from you. We’ll take it from there”.

And that’s what I think about whenever I read anything like this:

Elsevier is receiving an increasing number of content mining requests and we are developing solutions to meet customer needs. [...] We wish to understand our customers’ text mining requirements and as practically every content mining request has a different goal and there is not a common solution to provide this. Consequently we request that customers looking to mine our content should speak to their Elsevier Account Manager.

Even if we assume generously that this is a genuine attempt to be helpful and not just a land-grab, it’s WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.

No, Elsevier. Your customers’ text mining requirements are very, very simple. Every content mining request has exactly the same goal and there is a common solution to provide this. That solution is: get out of the way.

No-one needs Elsevier’s (or Wiley’s or Springer’s) help with text-mining. No-one wants them as partners. No-one needs their APIs. All anyone wants is to get hold of the papers. That’s all. The only role of the publisher in this process is not to impede it.

Publishers: your job is to publish (“make public”), then step aside and let the world make use of what you’ve published.

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