It’s been a week since Nature announced what they are now calling “read-only sharing by subscribers” — a much more accurate title than the one they originally used on that piece, “Nature makes all articles free to view” [old link, which now redirects]. I didn’t want to leap straight in with a comment at the time, because this is a complex issue and I felt it better to give my thoughts time to percolate.

Meanwhile, other commentators have weighed in, and have mostly been pretty negative. John Wilbanks described it as “canonization of a system that says a small number of companies not only do control the world’s knowledge, but should control all the world’s knowledge”; Ross Mounce characterised it as “beggar access”; Peter Murray-Rust says “Nature’s fauxpen access leaves me very sad and very angry”. Perhaps surprisingly, Michael Eisen is more temperate, asking whether Nature’s policy is “a magnanimous gesture or a cynical ploy”, and concluding only “At the end of the day, this is a pretty cynical move”.

I am a bit more optimistic (although as you will see, still not really happy).

First of all, let’s say clearly that this is a step in a good direction. Nature‘s papers are now at least somewhat easier for regular people to get hold of, and that is to be applauded. Even if Mike Eisen’s cynical reading is correct, it’s still a net good.

But — and it’s a big but — I have a huge problem with the use of ReadCube, or any equivalent, to provide a crippled form of access. Rather than Ross’s term “beggar access”, which focusses on the need to get a subscriber to share a link, I think the best term to describe what Nature is offering here is “broken access”. Broken by deliberately locking the content into the ReadCube jail, to prevent printing, downloading, copy-pasting, etc.

My issue with this is two-fold: both practical and philosophical. Practically, PDFs are very far from perfect, but there’s a lot we can do with them (including printing, downloading, copy-pasting, etc.) Most crucially, when I download a PDF, I have it forever. I can refer back to it whenever I need it, without depending on a third party. It becomes part of my research toolkit. I know it’s not going to vanish when my back is turned.

By contrast, we never know when we’re going to be able to read these Nature papers. Certainly not when we’re offline. Maybe not when there’s a service outage. Probably not after the end of the one-year pilot. And you can’t build research on something that you can’t rely on existing. It’s not real.

But the philosophical issue is really burns is that ReadCube exists precisely in order to take away functionality. Its purpose is to make access limited, ephemeral, unreliable and less useful. And I find that offensive. The idea of doing work to remove functionality hurts me. The idea of all those clever people doing all that hard work to take functionality away. It’s wrong. It’s burning value.

So I end up feeling conflicted about the new Nature policy. It is a forward step; but one that I literally don’t ever see myself taking advantage of. A much more useful policy (to me anyway) would be to keep new articles under lock and key, but make them truly open after, say, a year. Because for a scientist, usefulness trumps timeliness.

Finally, Matt makes this point:

Nature papers are short, typically 5 pages or fewer. With big, modern monitors, you can usually get away with screen-shotting a whole page in one go, or in two takes and the world’s easiest GIMP stitch at worst. So by not allowing people to download the PDFs, all they’ve done is ensure that the people who really need their own offline copy will have to waste maybe 15 minutes assembling one. So the ‘barrier’ they’ve put up is low and crossable, it’s just annoying. Is that what Nature wants to be known for, annoying their users to death?
It’s a real issue. For many people, their main impression of Nature is now going to be “that journal where you have the read the papers in that weird UI where you can’t do anything”.

I have sent this message to David Loydell and Beris Cox, the editors of the Palaeontographical Society’s monograph series. (Update: and to Steve Donovan, secretary of the society.)


Dear Palaeontographical Society,

I was delighted to see that Adam Smith and Roger Benson’s new monograph on the plesiosaur Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni is now out, as shown on Adam’s publications page. This is a long-awaited work on an important specimen.

But when I asked Adam to send me a copy of the PDF, I was surprised to find that he doesn’t have one, and doesn’t expect to be given one. Is this correct?

If so, can you please explain the society’s reasoning?

I would like to publish your response on my blog, http://svpow.com/, as others will also be interested in this. May I please have your permission to do so?

Many thanks,

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ

Reference

Smith A.S. and Benson R.B.J. 2014. Osteology of Rhomaleosaurus thorntoni (Sauropterygia: Rhomaleosauridae) from the Lower Jurassic (Toarcian) of Northamptonshire, England. Monograph of the Palaeontographical Society 168(642):1–40 and plates 1–35.

Update 1 (two hours later)

David Loydell is no longer an editor for the Monographs of the Palaeontographical Society. Instead, I am writing to Steve Donovan, Secretary of the Palaeontographical Society.

I just got off a chat with Matt. Here is the whole thing, all but unedited, for your enjoyment. All you need to know is that my wife, Fiona, built a symphony, which Matt refers to as a boxomophone in tribute to Homer Simpson refering to Lisa’s instrument as a saxomophone.


Mathew: Hey, how is Fiona’s boxomophone working out?
me: O HAI.
As it happens, her boxomophone was in use as you wrote that. Rehearsal for the medieval group’s Christmas set.
BTW., we should start referring to extant crurotarsans as crocomodiles.
Mathew: LLOL
me: And I suppose their sister taxon would be the allimogator.
Mathew: And of course the sister lineage to Cruromotarsi is Ornithomodira.
me: Nice.
Mathew: Laughing so hard over here. Allimogator FTW!
me: I believe we have hit on a foolproof humour template. We need to start using it routinely, without comment, on SV-POW.
Macromonaria. Diplomodocidae.
Mathew: Yes, definitely. Sauromopods.
Dinomosaurs.
me: Amazing, we have yet to find a taxon name it doesn’t work for.
Neomosauropods.
Or is it neomosauromopods?
Mathew: Tyrannomosaurus.
me: Ah, but I think Triceratops is immune.
Mathew: I dunno, Triceramotops, maybe?
me: It doesn’t really fly, though.
Mathew: Opisthomocoelicaudia.
me: Nice one
me: Although I believe Opisthocoelimocaudia is better.
Mathew: Yes, you’re right.
It turns out to be more more about the placement of the ‘mo’ than whether it joins an existing ‘o’. Hence Opisthocoelimocaudia trumps Opisthomocoelicaudia.
me: I double-donkey dare you to give your next SCPCA talk, straight-faced, doing this for all taxon names.
Mathew: Sooo tempting.
me: I don’t believe you’d get close to finishing without laughing.
Mathew: Dude, I don’t think I’d get close to starting without laughing. I’d be down on the floor after the first couple of sentences, having a coromonary.
me: Or a pulmonary embomolism.
AutoLLOL
Mathew: Oh, that is perfect.
me: Horrible thought: perhaps the pervasive use of “Anatatotitan” throughout When Dinosaurs Roamed America was the result of as similar bet, rather than a simple screw-up?
Mathew: Funny. Maybe. Anatomotitan would be killer.
me: I really should not be laughing this much as something so dumb.
Mathew: I feel like we should just walk away from this chat while it’s still standing tall. Let it live in our memories as the perfect jewel that it has been.
me: Yes!
Mathew: Okay, I’m out.
me: It will never be surpassed.
Mathew: Catch you in the future.
me: Seriously, let’s drop it right now, and I’ll SV-POW! it as it stands.
Mathew: Rock on.
me: Consider it done.


 

I only hope we’re not the only ones who find this funny.

 

Despite the flagrant trolling of its title, Nature‘s recent opinion-piece Open access is tiring out peer reviewers is mostly pretty good. But the implication that the rise of open-access journals has increased the aggregate burden of peer-review is flatly wrong, so I felt obliged to leave a comment explaining why. Here is that comment, promoted to a post of its own (with minor edits for clarity):


 

Much of what is said here is correct and important. Although it would be nice if Nature could make a bit more of an effort to avoid the obvious conflict-of-interest issues that lead it to title the piece so misleadingly as an attack on open access. I am glad that so many of the other commenters on this piece saw straight through that rather snide piece of propaganda.

Only one important error of interpretation here, I think. I quote:

The rise of the open-access (OA) movement compounds this effect [i.e. the increasing number of articles needing peer-review.] The business case for online OA journals, to which authors pay submission fees, works best at high volume. And for many of these journals, submitted work is published as long as it is methodologically sound. It does not have to demonstrate, for example, the novelty or societal relevance that some traditional journals demand.

The implication is that journals of this kind (PLOS ONE, PeerJ, the various Frontiers journals) increase the total peer-review burden. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. They greatly reduce the the total amount of peer reviewing.

It’s an open secret that nearly every paper eventually gets published somewhere. Under the old regime, the usual approach is to “work down the ladder”, submitting the same paper repeatedly to progressively less prestigious journals until it reached one that was prepared to publish work of the supplied level of sexiness. As a result, many papers go through four, five or more rounds of peer-review before finally finding a home. Instead, such papers when submitted to a review-for-soundness-only venue such as PLOS ONE require only a single round of review. (Assuming of course that they are indeed methodologically sound!)

The rise of review-for-soundness-only journals (“megajournals”) is an unequivocal improvement in the scientific publishing landscape, and should be welcomed by all parties: authors, who no longer have to submit to the monumental waste of time and effort that is the work-down-the-ladder system; readers, who get access to new research much more quickly; and editors and reviewers who no longer have to burn hours re-reviewing and re-re-reviewing perfectly good papers that have already been repeatedly rejected for a perceived lack of glamour.

Matt’s post yesterday was one of several posts on this blog that have alluded to Clay Shirky’s now-classic article How We Will Read [archived copy]. Here is the key passage that we keep coming back to:

Publishing is not evolving. Publishing is going away. Because the word “publishing” means a cadre of professionals who are taking on the incredible difficulty and complexity and expense of making something public. That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button. There’s a button that says “publish,” and when you press it, it’s done.

In ye olden times of 1997, it was difficult and expensive to make things public, and it was easy and cheap to keep things private. Privacy was the default setting. We had a class of people called publishers because it took special professional skill to make words and images visible to the public. Now it doesn’t take professional skills. It doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.

… and of course as SV-POW! itself demonstrates, it doesn’t even need a WordPress install — you can just use the free online service.

This passage has made a lot of people very excited; and a lot other people very unhappy and even angry. There are several reasons for the widely differing responses, but I think one of the important ones is a pun on the word “publish”.

When Shirky uses the word, he is talking  about making something public, available to the world. Which after all is its actual meaning.

But when academics use the word “publish” they usually mean something quite different — they mean the whole process that a research paper goes through between submission and a PDF appearing in a stable location (and in some cases, copies being printed). That process involves many other aspects besides actual publishing — something that in fact Shirky goes straight on to acknowledge:

The question isn’t what happens to publishing — the entire category has been evacuated. The question is, what are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately. Fact-checking, we need. For some kinds of long-form texts, we need designers.

And this is dead on target. Many writers need editors[*], to varying degrees. Fact-checking could be equated with peer-review, which we pretty much all agree is still very important. Most academic publishers do a certain amount of design (although I suspect that in the great majority of cases this is 99% automatic, and probably involves human judgement only in respect of where to position the illustrations).

But due to the historical accident that it used to be difficult and costly to make and distribute copies, all those other tasks — relatively inexpensive ones, back in the days when distribution was the expensive thing — have become bundled with the actual publishing. With hilarious consequences, as they say. You know, “hilarious” in the sense of “tragic, and breathtakingly frustrating”.

funny-sad-truck-head-down

That’s why we’re stuck in an idiot world where, when we need someone to peer-review our manuscript, we usually trade away our copyright in exchange (and not even to the people who provide the expert review). If you stop and think about that for a moment, it makes absolutely no sense. When I recently wrote a book about Doctor Who, I had several people proofread it, but I didn’t hand over copyright to any of them. My ability to distribute copies was not hobbled by having had independent eyes look it over. There is no reason why it should have, and there is no reason why our ability to distribute copies of our academic works should be limited, either.

What we need is the ability to pay a reasonable fee for the services we need —  peer-review, layout design, reference linking — and have the work published freely.

Well, wouldja lookit that. Looks like I just invented Gold Open Access.

Is publishing just a button? Yes. Making things public is now trivial to do, and in fact much of what so-called publishers now do is labouring to prevent things from being public. But we do need other things apart from actual publishing — things that publishers have historically provided, for reasons that used to make sense but no longer do.

Exactly what those things are, and how extensive and important they are, is a discussion for another day, but they do exist.

 

[*] Note: the whole issue of academic publishing is further confused by another pun, this one on the word “editor”. When Shirky refers to editors, he means people who sharpen up an author’s prose — cutting passages, changing word choices, etc. Academic editors very rarely do that, and would be resented if they did. In our world, an “editor” is usually the nominally independent third party who solicits and evaluates peer-reviews, and makes the accept/reject decision. Do we need editors, in this academic sense? We’ll discuss that properly another time, but I’ll say now that I am inclined to think we do.

metaphor

…is not actually about scholarly publication. It’s Steve Albini’s keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference. It’s about the music industry, and how the internet transformed it from a restrictive, top-down oligarchy that mostly benefited middlemen into a more open, level, vibrant ecosystem where artists can get worldwide exposure for free, and yet are often compensated better than they were under the old system. Go read it, and then think about this:

Once the music world met the internet, the problem of getting information from musicians (authors) to listeners (readers) didn’t require any central planning to solve. What little building needed to happen was taken care of by people who were just happy to let the internet work the way it was designed to, and the way it works the most naturally: it makes sharing information almost effortless. Publishers (record labels) still exist, because they offer certain conveniences, but few people are under the delusion that they are necessary.

dead horse

Over here in academia, we’ve already spent more than a decade wringing our hands over how to manage the shift from a barrier-based publishing world to one based on OA. We’ve put so much time and effort and thought into the problem of how to “save” or “transform” scholarly publishing. Why do we do that? Why not just walk away? Publishing is a button, and anything that we do to lend it any more importance–anything we feed it, in terms of time, effort, energy, or regard–is wasted. Wasted because we deliberately ignore the new reality in favor of propping up a system that performed a job that no-one needs done anymore. I keep wondering when the hell we’re all going to wake up, and start sharing our work the way that musicians and listeners share digital music.

And yet even out here on the crazy-eyed, axe-wielding fringe of the OA movement, we are still conservative. Zen Faulkes published a paper on his blog, and he did it 26 months ago, which is a near eternity in the Shiny Digital Future (it’s 13.4% of the lifespan to date of Google). Mike and I have admired that move, and talk about it, but we haven’t done it. Why not? We could even solicit peer reviews from people we know to be tough but fair reviewers. We all do unpaid editorial and review work for publishers, why not for each other directly? It’s like we’re thinking, “Okay, okay, I’ll review this paper, but only if there’s a publisher somewhere that will benefit from my unpaid labor!”

I suppose that for us, one answer is that PeerJ has given us other options that are just as easy as blogging, like posting preprints. So I am a bit torn: I like PeerJ, I support it, I have several papers in the pipeline that I’m planning on sending there. It offers certain conveniences, like sticking DOIs on everything for us, and tracking all of our metrics. But do we need PeerJ? I wonder if it is just the methadone that will help ease us out of our sad addiction to publishers.

Okay we get it already

Bonus observation: don’t just translate Albini’s thoughts on music to scholarly publishing, also try doing the reverse. It becomes pretty clear that the central theme of The Scholarly Kitchen is, “How will poor, helpless music listeners survive without all the middlemen to tell them what to listen to? They’ll be so lost.” Keep polishing that brass, guys, and thanks for the patronization!

The photos are of the dodo skeleton in the Yorkshire Museum, which I saw at SVPCA back in September. If you’re a dodo-phile like me, you should consider supporting Leon Claessens’s, Kenneth Rijsdijk’s, and Hanneke Meijer’s quest to better understand the skull and feeding mechanics of dodos. Their crowdfunding campaign runs through the end of the year–please go check it out.

Back in 2013, when we were in the last stages of preparing our paper Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus (Wedel and Taylor 2013b), I noticed that, purely by chance, all ten of the illustrations shared much the same limited colour palette: pale brows and blues (and of course black and white). I’ve always found this strangely appealing. Here’s a composite:

wedel-taylor-2013b-all-figures

I’m really happy with this coincidence. In fact I think I might get it printed up as a poster for my office.

(Thought: if I did, would anyone else be interested in buying it?)

Update (a couple of hours later)

At Matt’s suggestion, I switched the order of figures 7 and 8 (the last two on the third row) to get the following version of the image. It break the canonical order of the figures, but it’s visually more pleasing.

wedel-taylor-2013b-all-figures-v2

Now we should write an updated version of the paper that reverses the order in which we refer to figures 7 and 8 :-)

References

  • Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor. 2013. Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78213. 14 pages. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078213
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