Authors versus publishers

September 30, 2011

You don’t need to read this. You can read Scott Aaronson’s Review of The Access Principle and Tim O’Reilly’s Piracy is Progressive Taxation and connect the blindingly obvious dots.

OTOH, Aaronson and O’Reilly wrote their pieces for the same reason I’m writing this one: some things are not blinding obvious to everyone. And sometimes the situation makes me mad enough to take a swing. So here goes.

Duty Versus Selfishness

Aaronson writes, “the most important idea in the The Access Principle is that scholars have a duty to make their work available, not only to their colleagues, but ideally to anyone who wants it.”

Now, I agree with this, totally; it’s basically the underpinning for the entire OA movement. But you don’t need to invoke a sense of duty to encourage researchers to make their work universally available. In fact, you don’t need to invoke any higher motive at all. Pure selfishness will do.

Here’s the deal: if you’re a publishing scientist, then once a paper is out the door the only ways in which you should care about it are (1) hoping it’s not discredited, and (2) hoping that it is read as widely as possible. Most of the formulae used to calculate impact factors, the H-index, and so on, don’t pay any attention to whether the citation is coming from inside your field or not (though a few are field-specific). And if you can get a group of bird feather biomechanists or insect development people interested in your work, at a minimum you’ll have a new citation cash cow, and possibly opportunities for collaboration.

Crucially, you want students to be able to get hold of your papers, because those students  are going to be tomorrow’s publishing scientists, and if you hook ’em early you’ll have another source of inflowing citations, potential collaborations, and possibly fawningly positive peer reviews (remember, we’re temporarily setting aside higher motives). But students are very good at maximizing return for effort invested (or, as some would have it, “lazy”), and if they find Dr. O. Penn Akzess’s papers before they find yours–or if they are able download her papers for free while yours are locked behind a paywall–you get nothing.

It’s not just students, though, or people in other fields. One of your colleagues might be working on a manuscript at home, and he needs a boilerplate citation on wasp-farming in a particular paragraph. He has your 2007 paper on insect husbandry in mind, but after a brief search it turns out that the PDF is on the computer in his office, and he can’t get access to the online version without going through some complicated process involving proxy servers and other such folderol. But, hey, look, there’s Dr. Akzess’s (2008) paper on alternative agriculture on PLoS ONE, which will serve just fine for this non-critical citation. Guess who gets cited, and who gets zip?

And if you’re in academia, getting and keeping a job means that your work needs to be well-regarded in a way that the administrative bean-counters can understand (i.e., cited, or the subject of high-profile publicity).

So even if you’re a completely selfish bastard who cares about nothing other than ruthless self-advancement, it’s to your advantage to have all of your work immediately available to anyone who wants it with a minimum of hassle. You may also have other, higher motives for desiring the same outcome, but it’s all the same in the end: the primary interest of authors is to have their work read by others. As many others as possible, with a minimum of fuss.

You’re Not Helping

The primary interest of non-OA publishers is to get paid. Forget whatever crap they put in their brochures and mission statements about serving the broader community and performing a vital service for science. They’re all businesses, almost all corporations, they have an ardent desire and a legal mandate to maximize profits, and their PR departments will say anything at all to help that happen, even outright lies.

Non-OA publishers get paid by subscribers and the unfortunates who actually pony up $30 per article online (because they haven’t read Tutorial 9, don’t have a public library nearby for ILL, or absolutely must have the PDF right this minute and have no other options). In other words, they don’t want anyone to be able to read your work who hasn’t paid. Now that the problem of publishing has been solved, and infinitely many zero-cost perfect copies can be immediately distributed worldwide for free, one of the primary goals of non-OA publishers is to prevent people from reading your work. Their “publishing” your work isn’t helping you, it’s hurting you. Their imprimatur might look nice on your CV or be a source of bragging rights among your colleagues, and you might decide that the value of the imprimatur is greater than the value of having your work easily available to most of the rest of the planet. But the publisher isn’t helping you get your work read any more widely than you could on your own.* All you need for that is a PDF and an internet connection (a blog helps, and that’s free, too).

* I know that a zillion people have access to Nature ‘n Science. And the number of them outside your narrow field who will actually read your paper on wasp farming is probably comparable to the number of N&S papers on buckytubes and hadrons that you actually read: zilch. Many more people who actually care about your field will read your N&S paper after one of their friends with access sends it to them, but those that are actually going to read it under those circumstances wouldn’t care if it was published in The Journal of Small, Boring Fossils. And if it was in The OA JSBF, they wouldn’t have to bug their friends for copies.

Let’s figure out how the non-OA publishers are “helping” you.

  • Printing, binding, and shipping hard copies of your work to those academic libraries that can afford their outrageous prices. Analysis: so Twen-Cen. Wake up and smell the internet. That tree you’re reading could be out there sequestering carbon. Not helping.
  • Putting your work online behind their paywall. Analysis: great, they’ve made it available to subscribers, who already had it, and a handful of unfortunates who couldn’t or wouldn’t get it any other way (Tutorial 9, ILL, etc.)–and keeping everyone else out. Not helping.
  • Giving you a PDF to freely distribute to colleagues who write to ask for it. Analysis: It’s 2011. Providing the author with a PDF of their own work isn’t a service, it’s a utility: the only time you should even have to think about this is when it’s not working. Making PDFs is actually easier and vastly cheaper than making print copies–OpenOffice does it natively, for free–so if your favorite journal isn’t doing it, go elsewhere until they extract their heads from their backsides. Anyway, this is something you can do for yourself with the accepted manuscript. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.
  • Giving you a limited number of PDF reprints. No, really, you read that right. Here’s how the Geological Society words it: “We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish.” The idea apparently being that you can send the PDF to colleagues, but only 20 times (19, I guess, if you want to keep one for yourself). The words simply don’t make any sense. It’s as if the session moderator told you were allowed to use vowel sounds in your talk, but you couldn’t use any one more than 20 times. You might go along with it just for the humor potential, but you, the moderator, and the audience would all know that it was a highly artificial game, whose strictures you could step outside of at any moment. (The tragedy of academic publishing is that the players have been tricked into thinking that they are pawns.) Not helping, or even making sense.
  • Stopping bad people from pirating your content, by tracking down unauthorized copies. Yes, there is a “service” for this (thanks to Andy Farke for the heads up). But wait–in case you’re waiting for Neuron #2 to catch up with Neuron #1, as an author you care about getting your work read, not about piracy. As O’Reilly said, “being well-enough known to be pirated would be a crowning achievement.” What Attributor and other similar services are actually good for is checking to see whether you’ve been undermining the publishers’ blockade by posting copies of your own work outside their paywall (hey, over here!). That would be good for you–perfect, in fact–but bad for them. I don’t know if publishers are actually going to start cracking down on authors who do this (see also: victories, Pyrrhic)–that might deserve a post of its own. I do know that this “service” of detecting copyright infringement is directly opposed to your interests as an author (if it’s just plagiarism you’re worried about, Google has been around for a while). It’s ironic that the only commercial publisher I’ve heard of threatening to use this service has been caught illicitly duplicating its own articles (schadenfreudelicious!). Not helping.
  • Stopping bad people from getting your content, by blocking interlibrary loan. That’s right–for-profit academic publishers are now fighting ILL. Yeah, because faculty and students at small institutions and interested laypeople are such a huge threat to their multi-billion-dollar businesses. Analysis: not just not helping, this is straight up a-hole behavior.

I guess that leaves:

  • Typesetting your manuscript and making a nice-looking PDF. Yep, there’s no way you’d ever be able to master that on your own. Oh wait. Physicists and mathematicians–you know, those alleged brainheads with no stylistic sensibility–have been doing this for themselves for ages with LaTeX. Yes, biologists and earth scientists, prior to submission. If the rest of us just got on board, we could pull the last creaking support out from the Jenga tower of piled-high feces that is for-profit academic publishing. Now, you may whine that you don’t want to have to waste time formatting your own manuscript, but if you’ve actually submitted anything to a journal, ever, you’ve had to spend time formatting your own manuscript to fit whatever arbitrary submission format the journal wanted. You could have spent that time making it look like something other than a reject from Microsoft Word 101. Not helping, in any way that you couldn’t help yourself.

Naming Names

Through new corporate masters Taylor & Francis, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology will now you let you make your article Open Access for a mere $3250. You should feel flattered–your article is as valuable to them as 25 fully-paid regular memberships in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology ($130 a pop at the time of this writing). Each regular membership brings a year’s subscription to JVP, which is running upwards of 1200 pages a year. Probably 1500 pages soon, if it’s not there already. The annual page count of JVP is about 100 times the length of a long-ish article (most articles are shorter), and Taylor & Francis want 25 times that amount, so the OA deal is basically charging you for the equivalent of 2500 hundred people reading your work. Er, except that 25 regular memberships in SVP would pay for all kinds of genuinely valuable work that the society does–students grants, public education, support for legislation to protect fossil resources–whereas AFAICT buying the Open Access deal through Taylor & Francis only supports Taylor & Francis (someone please correct me if I’m wrong).

It’s an outrageous ripoff in either case.

You might feel that the OA fee at Taylor & Francis is a bit high, given that PLoS ONE only charges $1350 and gives you unlimited pages and unlimited high-resolution color figures. Wait, let me shout that for those hard of reading: UNLIMITED PAGES and UNLIMITED HIGH-RESOLUTION COLOR FIGURES. That’s what an organization can do when it decides to serve authors and readers instead of shareholders. And we might even expect that the OA publication fee at PLoS ONE is a bit inflated, since it represents “bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize [a] handful of high-quality flagship journals“–totally unlike what the Nature Publishing Group is doing with Scientific Reports. (Curious, NPG wants your kidneys in exchange for actual science, but they’ll let you read about the evils of PLoS for free.) As long as I’m here, I might as well note that the OA publication fee at NPG’s Scientific Reports is $1700 ($1700 – $1350 = shareholder cut, I’ll wager). Not sure why Taylor & Francis needs twice as much as NPG–maybe NPG have something left to learn about corporate greed, after all.

Just as a point of comparison, let’s consider Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Like JVP and most other journals, they have page charges for long manuscripts, but like JVP and most other journals, those page charges are not a barrier to publication for people who can’t afford to pay. Printed figures are usually black and white but figures in the PDFs–which are what really matters these days, to the vast majority of readers–are in full color, for free. There is a length limit, but it’s high, and they have a sister publication, Palaeontologia Polonica, for those longer works. They offer subscriptions and send hardbound copies to libraries worldwide, but they also make all of their papers available for free online. Heck, they even encourage authors to post PDFs of their own works on their own websites.

What’s wrong with those people!?

Seriously, just giving everything away for free? Not even asking authors to pay a dime to publish shorter papers? How do they stay in business?

Ah, well. There you have it. They’re not in business. APP is published by the Institute of Paleobiology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (so, state supported) and they’re out to make a name for themselves. That means visibility, which means distribution–instantly, everywhere, for free. In other words, their desires are aligned perfectly with those of authors. That’s why they don’t charge for publishing, and that’s why they encourage you to post PDFs of your own papers. What’s good for you is also good for them.

(Preemptive strike: before someone points out that JVP currently has a shorter lag time from submission to publication than APP, let me say two things: the situation was precisely reversed a couple of years ago, and thanks, Taylor & Francis, for having the courtesy to  screw over your authors and readers quickly.)

I don’t know if APP will be able to keep this up forever. I wouldn’t bet against them. Producing the journal can’t be much harder than it was in the decades before they gained their current global prominence, and I imagine that prominence has brought them enough new subscribers to offset the cost (a year’s subscription is 65 Euros, or a little less than $90 as of this writing). If free distribution eventually costs them subscribers, they ought to be able to recoup the loss by cutting or at least curtailing the printing, binding, and shipping of dead trees (although those of us in the West should remember that not all of the world is wired yet).

To recap, a sample of current open access publication fees in journals that handle vertebrate paleontology papers:

  • Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology: $3250
  • Nature Scientific Reports: $1700
  • PLoS ONE: $1350
  • Acta Palaeontologica Polonica: $0

If You’re Not Outraged…

I fully expect that this will piss off some people in the SVP. Which would be excellent. Maybe they’ll get mad enough to explain to me why Taylor & Francis charges twice what Nature Publishing Group does for OA publishing, and more than two and a half times what PLoS does, for a demonstrably inferior product (page limits, no free color figures, etc.). And why their per-article download fees are so egregiously high, and why they charge for electronic access to supplementary data (thanks to Andy again for documenting these lunacies). And all of this on behalf a society whose stated goal is “to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology”. Maybe–just maybe–a critical mass of people in the society will get mad enough to demand a better deal next time around. Or, as long as I’m dreaming, maybe we can find a publisher whose actual behavior is aligned with our ideals (I hear Poland is nice this time of year). As Aaronson said,

Once we’ve mustered a level of anger commensurate with what’s happening, we can then debate what to do next, which journals are overpriced and which aren’t, what qualifies as “open access,” and so on. But the first step is for a critical mass of us to acknowledge that we are being had.


30 Responses to “Authors versus publishers”

  1. Victoria Says:

    It’s probably also worth pointing out that you can 100% waive the PLoS ONE fee, no questions asked. You can also opt to waive most of the fee and choose how much you’d like to pay, which I think is a nice option as well.

    From the PLoS ONE Author Guidelines page:
    “We offer a complete or partial fee waiver for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees. Editors and reviewers have no access to payment information, and hence inability to pay will not influence the decision to publish a paper. These policies ensure that the fee is never a barrier to publication.”

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    This just in. With brilliant timing, Taylor and Francis (the publisher responsible for the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology) has managed to managed to break many of its DOIs — in two different ways! (Some don’t resolve at all; others resolve to addresses on nonexistent hosts.)

    Andy Farke’s experiments suggest that JVP is not one of the journals affected. But still. Honestly. I ask you.

  3. Andy Farke Says:

    A few things:

    1) It’s very important to note that OA ≠ non-profit. There are for-profit OA-only publishers (Hindawi Publishing is a notable example).

    2) One of the reasons PLoS ONE can keep fees relatively low (or waived) is that they are not paying copy editors to add fix grammatical mistakes, make style consistent, etc. The only thing they do is lay the MS out into a PDF. The utility of this copy editing service from other publishers is debatable, but it can actually add a fair bit of value for some manuscripts. That said, the volunteer editors for most journals (even commercial ones) do much of this advance copy editing themselves. [NB: I am a volunteer PLoS ONE editor]

    3) I’ve published with J Experimental Biology, which also does the 20 free reprints thing (before going OA one year later). To clarify on how it works for that journal, you’re given a link that you can send to colleagues, who then download the paper. It’s not just a “police yourself and only send 20 copies, mmm-kay?” system. Not saying it isn’t bizarre, just explaining a little of the bizarreness.

    4) I find that those who are most in support of the academic publishing status quo have the best library accessibility. It’s very easy to say “oh, just drive the 10 miles to your local university library”, or “get an ILL through your public library”, or “pay $40 for the PDF”, or “just write the author”, if the person saying this has never had to do any of these as part of his or her regular research process. It comes down to money – those who are at well-funded research institutions have never had to personally sacrifice for literature access. As we transition to an OA world, we need to make sure that those at the margins – small institutions, independent researchers, etc. – can have a seat at the table. Even OA costs money.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Andy, some important points there.

    First, on the very important distinction between open/closed and for-profit/non-profit — two dimensions that are conceptually orthogonal, even though in practice they are often closely aligned. I admit it took me a while to shake out my own thinking on this one, before finally arriving at the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being a for-profit publisher, provided that you earn that profit by actually providing a service to the community rather than by kidnapping its assets and holding them to ransom. Likewise, a non-profit publisher that paywalls its articles shouldn’t get a free ride just because it’s a non-profit.

    Second: you can keep your copy-editors. They are legendary for adding mistakes. I’d rather my papers go out with my own mistakes still in them than with new mistakes added by third parties. So the PLoS approach here is definitely right.

    Third: however “20 electronic reprints” may be implemented, the whole notion is fundamentally advanced. We should, simply, refuse to have any truck with such a nonsense. Do the obvious thing: download a copy yourself, and put it somewhere that people can find it.

    On your fourth point … You are absolutely right. That’s why I so like Matt’s approach in this post, appealing to authors’ enlightened self-interest rather than that of readers.

    Finally, and most important, the last point you made (in passing) is crucial — “Even OA costs money”. Yes, of course. I hope we’ve never given the impression that we don’t understand that. I feel another post coming on … the economics of open access publishing. But not today :-)

  5. Andy Farke Says:

    Sounds like we’re pretty much in agreement, Mike. I know you know that OA costs money – my main concern is that OA stays as an option for everyone. PLoS’s policies are spot on in this regard; I’m not as certain that T&F, Elsevier, Nature, or whoever will be so honest with themselves (or academics).

  6. Excellent summary! I decided for APP, for PLoS ONE (not yet submitted), and AGAINST JVP and many other journals for precisely those reasons.

    Oh, and I decided to publish in Palaeontologia Electronica because it even beats APP: unlimited free color figures, unlimited length!

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, but APP formats your paper in a serifed font :-)

  8. Yes, that does look nicer on the ego wall! :-)

  9. ech Says:

    Layman here: I’m looking forward to the “the economics of open access publishing” article. This article seems to make a case for publishers adding little value beyond printing and what google docs would give you for free, so I am left wondering why you are so excited about paying PLoS ONE the $1350. Thanks for this and I wish you luck!

  10. Matt Wedel Says:

    Hi ech. Your question is a sort of foray in the direction of “why publish in journals at all, instead of just putting everything on your blog” (I know that’s not what you asked, I’m deliberately exaggerating so I can talk about this other question).

    So why publish instead of just blogging? Partly visibility, but largely the imprimatur of having been through peer review. To a first approximation, academic careers are measured by peer-reviewed papers. And researchers who are employed outside of academia–like Mike–still usually try to get their papers into the best peer-reviewed journals possible. It’s not that peer-reviewed papers are automatically good and non-peer-reviewed work is automatically crap. Rather, willingness to put your work through the process of peer review is a form of communication: it tells other researchers that you are serious about your science. When people self-publish, it immediately sends up a red flag for most of us, because we strongly suspect that the motivation for self-publication has been to protect poor work from scrutiny (exhibit A: “Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus”).

    Back to your actual question. In truth, my funds are limited and I’d rather not pay PLoS ONE the $1350 if I can get essentially the same outcome from APP for free (I don’t actually need unlimited pages, etc.), which explains why my publication record is rather APP-rich. But I’m not opposed to paying PLoS ONE, because I think their prices are fair and their behavior is honorable. I sure as hell am not going to send anything to JVP until the same is true there. And to be perfectly clear, it’s not the editors, reviewers, etc. at JVP that are the problem, it’s the ridiculous and unethical policies of Taylor & Francis; we have a good journal besmirched by a crappy company.

  11. Katie Says:

    Re: the economics of OA – I thought I heard that PLoS had donors or something, so that even the $1350 fee didn’t reflect the true cost of publishing. I’d like more info on whether that’s true.

    Also, although I have only begun to participate as a Peer Reviewer (vs. Peer Reviewee), I look at the system and seriously, seriously resent all the work that is done for FREE for publishers (OA or not, for-profit or not) by academics. And on top of that, it doesn’t even seem to count to the bean counters.

    Ok, you get the dubious (mostly self-congratulatory) honor of playing policeman for the intellectual quality of your field, but:
    1) who polices the police?
    2) I invite you to imagine a world where all cops were unpaid volunteers, and
    3) past some keep-the-crazies-out bare minimum, does the value imparted by peer review usually outweigh the tendency to toe the line of the establishment?

    These are not rhetorical points. I hope some people can argue against them.

    At any rate, looking forward to The Economics of OA.

  12. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hi, Katie, good to hear from you.

    I’ve not heard that PLoS is getting donations. I believe that it’s running at a profit; maybe it had donations to get it up and running in the early days? I know some PLoS people occasionally read this blog (Pete Binfield, for example) so maybe one of them will chime in?

    Whether the benefits of peer-review outweigh the costs is a whole nother question, and one that I go back and forth on. But at the moment I prefer, if we can, to stay focussed on the immediate issue — donating that reviewing labour to journals that will paywall the results. (We can have the broader discussion another time.) I urge any SV-POW! readers who are prepared to join me in refusing to review for non-open journals to step forward and say so: a visible decision is worth much more than a silent one.

  13. David Marjanović Says:

    Giving you a PDF to freely distribute to colleagues who write to ask for it.

    1) Mm, no. Many journals don’t even do that, as I know from my own experience in publishing (which isn’t much).

    2) Not just to colleagues. To anyone. Few if any scientists ever refuse if you ask them for their papers, unless perhaps if you start with “Hi, I’m a creationist and want to quote-mine your paper to prove that you and all your colleagues are creationists, too”.

    Giving you a limited number of PDF reprints. No, really, you read that right. Here’s how the Geological Society words it: “We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish.”

    :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D :-D

    Oh, dear. Either nobody at the Society and the J Exp Biol has ever seen a computer before, or they believe their authors have never seen a computer before. This is so stupid it’s not even chutzpah!

    past some keep-the-crazies-out bare minimum, does the value imparted by peer review usually outweigh the tendency to toe the line of the establishment?

    In my limited experience, yes. If you get a crazy reviewer (happened to me once), resubmit to another journal – if necessary, ask that the crazy one not be sent your manuscript.

    This may be impossible in really tiny fields, but it works in mine, which is small enough that double-blind peer review doesn’t work (authors and reviewers recognize each other from their arguments and their style even when they’re all anonymous).

  14. @ David: or we have the case where someone writes a signed review, and a while later an anonymous one for a different paper, which has c&p passages from the first one…. (happened to me once).

  15. […] as Matt has ably pointed out, we’re in a war.  A combination of historical accidently have manoeuvred us into a position […]

  16. […] slides.  Then we got distracted and posted a whole sequence of articles on Open Access ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]).  If that seems like an intimidating sequence to catch up, you should just […]

  17. Although I have read tbs before it’s worth coming back to. I just don’t know why EVERYBODY doesn’t get it. But then I’m a physical scientist.

  18. […] humanizing the discipline in the process. SV-POW is once again a prime example. Posts like this one  reveal the little-publicized controversy over for-profit versus open-access academic journals. […]

  19. […] bottom line for scientists is that many publishers have now made themselves our enemies instead of the allies they once were. Elsevier’s business does not make money by publishing […]

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  26. Excellent analysis and interesting discussion.

    Inevitably the issue of peer review surfaces every time we discuss about the current problematic academic publishing model as it is the glue that holds it together. Peer review is what creates and sustains journal monopolies that foment competition instead of open collaboration. These journal monopolies justify exorbitant subscription rates, access barriers, ridiculously high gold OA options, etc.

    One question is why don’t we experiment with a model that decouples evaluation from publication. If the academic community assumes research quality control in a free, open and transparent manner then journals will be forced to reinvent themselves and charge reasonable fees for the service of disseminating good quality articles (assessed openly by the community) to specific audiences.

    I invite you to have a look at our experiment on author-guided peer review that we expect to launch in October. Learn more here:

    Needless to say Mike that I personally refuse to review for non-OA journals or OA journals charging excessive publication fees.

  27. […] blogs about scientific publishing can be a sobering experience. Peer review is broken; publishers are evil; papers are evaluated by the wrong metrics; and the data is probably faked […]

  28. […] blogs about scientific publishing can be a sobering experience. Peer review is broken; publishers are evil; papers are evaluated by the wrong metrics; and the data is probably faked […]

  29. […] our work. We know that these corporations’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, science, customers, libraries, and indeed everyone but themselves. So leaving them in control of […]

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