I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that JSTOR “turns away almost 150 million individual attempts to gain access to articles” every year.  365.25 × 24 × 60 × 60 = 31557600 seconds per year, which means that 4.75 attempts to access papers on JSTOR are refused every second.

Every second, five people somewhere around the world try to enrich their understanding of science, and are prevented from doing so.  And that is just on one site.  I have no idea what the corresponding figures are on ScienceDirect, Wiley Online Library, etc.

There has to be a better way.


A quick note to remind everyone that although the RWA is dead, that only brings us back to the status quo.  At present, it’s still the case that the great majority of US government-funded research goes behind paywalls.  Although the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a public access policy that is resulting in a lot of papers being posted for general access at PubMed Central, the NIH is only one of a dozen U.S. Federal Agencies with research budgets exceeding $100 million.  The others are:

  • Department of Agriculture
  • Department of Commerce
  • Department of Defense
  • Department of Education
  • Department of Energy
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • Department of Homeland Security
  • Department of Transportation
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration
  • National Science Foundation

Wouldn’t it be great if all those agencies had similar policies?  If all the research funded by any of those agencies had to be openly accessible not only to all researchers but to the public — teachers, nurses, artists, translators.

That is exactly what the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) will do if it passes.  In the RWA backlash, we have a unique opportunity to rally support and ensure that this important bill passes, despite the handicap of having been proposed during an election year.

What can you do to help?  First, sign the petition at whitehouse.gov.  I’ve signed it: turns out you don’t need to be a U.S. citizen for your voice to be heard.  It takes a minute to register on the site, then a second to sign.  Stop reading this post and do it now.

Second, if you are a U.S. Citizen, you can contact your representatives to express your support and solicit theirs.  For more on this, see the Alliance for Taxpayer Access’s page.

And whoever you are, you can spread the word.  Blog.  Tweet.  If you’re at a university, raise the subject with your colleagues.  If you’re on job-search or tenure committees, undercut barrier-based publishing’s historic advantage by rewarding candidates for the quality of their work rather than the journal it’s published in.  (One simple way to do this, though far from perfect, is to look at citation counts rather than impact factors.)

As Michael Eisen has said, we won the Battle of the Research Works Act. Now let’s win the War for Open Access.

Since we’ve been a bit light on sauropods lately, here’s CM 11338, the juvenile Camarasaurus from Dinosaur National Monument, in Plate 15 from Gilmore’s 1925 monograph. It’s probably the nicest single sauropod skeleton ever found, and required only minor restoration and reposing for this wall mount at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The same thing in a fake antique finish suitable for printing at 8×10″ and framing. Yes, I have done this. Make one for the sauropodophile in your life, or the non-sauropodophile you’re trying to convert.


Gilmore, Charles W.  1925.  A nearly complete articulated skeleton of Camarasaurus, a saurischian dinosaur from the Dinosaur National Monument, Utah.  Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 10:347-384.

Can Elsevier save itself?

February 28, 2012

Well, I’ve had most of the day now to digest the news that Elsevier have withdrawn their support of the Research Works Act; and a few hours to get used to the idea that the Act itself is now dead.  I’ve had some time to think about what it all means.

My first reaction was to be really delighted: the banner headline suggested a genuine change of direction from Elsevier, such as I had challenged them about a few weeks ago.  I hoped that this was the first step on a path towards real change, leading to reconciliation with all the authors, editors and reviewers that they’d alienated.

Unfortunately, a close reading of Elsevier’s statement [cached copy] doesn’t support that interpretation.  It’s apparent that this is a strategic manoeuvre rather than a a fundamental shift.  That’s clear from language like the following:

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself […]  While withdrawing support for the Research Works Act, we will continue to join with those many other nonprofit and commercial publishers and scholarly societies that oppose repeated efforts to extend mandates through legislation.

The second half of this is particularly disappointing because it is basically a manifesto for fighting against the Federal Research Public Access Act — the very thing that a publisher who is truly on the side of science would not do.  In fact, reading this language, it’s hard to dispute Benoit Bruneau’s cynical summary:

Or indeed Alex Holcombe’s harsh reading:

I predicted they would drop the law, but didn’t expect them to admit its a completely cynical act- that they still actually believe in the law, but are simply trying to placate the misguided concerns of some researchers.

As if the wording of the statement itself were not tone-deaf enough, the problem was exacerbated by this statement, from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Alicia Wise, Elsevier’s director of universal access, played down the boycott’s effect. “It’s something that we’re clearly aware of,” she said. But she emphasized that Elsevier had been sounding out the authors, editors, and reviewers who continue to work with it. “Those are the voices we have been listening to,” she said.

It’s hard to understand quite what Elsevier were hoping to achieve with this charmless passive-aggressive move, but it certainly wasn’t conciliation.  The message can hardly be read as anything but a “screw you” to everyone who’s signed the Cost of Knowledge boycott.  “We didn’t listen to you, we listened to the people who like us”.  In other words, we listened only to the people who are already on our side.  Far from being an attempt to win back former authors, editors and reviewers who had abandoned Elsevier, Wise’s statement brilliantly contrives to frame the RWA capitulation as both a bit of mutual backscratching and insult to the boycotters.

Well.  How else to read that but as “We don’t want you back”?

And so we return to Rick Anderson’s plaintive question on the Scholarly Echo Chamber back at the beginning of the month, when The Cost of Knowledge was new and small:

It’s not at all clear what Elsevier must do to get out from under the boycott. Lower its prices? (If so, by how much?) Publicly state its opposition to SOPA and PIPA and RWA? Affirm the availability of individual subscriptions to its journals? If it does these things, will the boycott be called off?

If public opposition to the RWA might conceivably have achieved the rapprochement that Anderson wants, then the way it’s been done certainly won’t — indeed, in all the reactions I’ve read to the RWA announcement (see the link-farm that I’m compiling), I’ve not seen a single one that’s suggested that calling off the boycott would be a reasonable response.  And several that have emphatically reaffirmed it.

Because after all, Elsevier’s public statements amount to “we have ignored the boycott, and listened to our friends, and as a result we are going to stop supporting this legislation but we’ll support the next identical one that comes along, and oppose the FRPAA”.

And you know what?

That tells me that Elsevier are in serious, serious trouble.

Because they just don’t get it.

In the context of a welcome concession of a very nasty piece of legislation, they’ve managed to botch the announcement and surrounding discussion in a way that betrays their core misunderstanding.  They still think they own us.  They have been careful to stop using the phrase “our content” in public since they saw how it upsets people, but at bottom they still think that the world of publications is all about the process of publishing rather than about what is published.  And it just isn’t.

Not to get too Marxian, but since we now all have word processors and Internet connections, workers control the means of production.

If Elsevier want to survive, they will have to take a deep breath, give up the comforting illusion that we are still their bitches, and figure out how they can provide some actual value to scientists who increasingly have other options.  I’ve mentioned before that even for people who have to care about impact factor, the highest ranked biology journal in the last JCR was the fully open-access PLoS Biology.  Meanwhile in palaeontology, the open-access Acta Palaeontologia Polonica is as well regarded as any other specialist journal.  Admittedly I sometimes hear people say “I need to aim for Science/Nature for the sake of my job application/promotion/tenure/grant application”.  But I never hear people say they need to aim for Cretaceous Research for that reason.

It’s all changing.  The reasons to publish as open access are growing rapidly more compelling — we’re headed towards a world where non-open research is going to be crippled in the competition for relevance — and the reasons not to pick an open-access venue are getting weaker.  Elite journals like Cell will doubtless survive; how many more of Elsevier’s stable of 2656 will manage to creep into the next decade if they keep their doors closed?

So unless something else shifts very suddenly, I fear that Elsevier has slammed shut their window of opportunity.  They get half marks for the first question on the examination (repudiate the RWA) and so far a big fat zero on the more important second question (support the FRPAA).

So here is my honest, helpful-as-I-can-be advice to Elsevier: make a fundamental change, embrace the new world that’s already coming, and signal that change by big, visible support for the FRPAA.

Miss that opportunity, and you’ll be a footnote in ten years’ time.

I just received this notification that Issa and Maloney have pulled the Research Works Act, presumably in response to Elsevier’s withdrawal of support.  So far, what’s at that link is all I know — I’ve not found a more official source for the text of the statement.  But it makes me happy that it includes language like:

As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future.

That represents a realism and progressiveness that I didn’t honestly expect to see from these quarters.

Update (a couple of hours later)

Looks like it’s fully official now: it’s in the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Amazing, but it seems to be true: based on this statement on their own website, Elsevier has withdrawn its support for the Research Works Act!

Could this be evidence that they really are listening?  Two weeks ago I publicly challenged Elsevier to do just this, as a first step towards winning back the support of authors, editors and reviewers who have been deserting them in droves.  It would be nice to think that post had some tinyp art in this decision.  Certainly the no-RWA-support statement does a lot more to persuade me that they can redeem themselves than previous statements arguing that we’re wrong.

Part of me can’t quite believe it.  I’ve archived the announcement on WebCite so that we’ll have a permanent record in case it disappears.

To be clear, this statement doesn’t yet go far enough for me to see Elsevier as a friend: it still has language like “While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area …”.  But “Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders” seems like a winner.

But if Elsevier really want to win researchers over, then … when, I will restate my original recommendation:

Elsevier should repudiate the RWA and throw themselves behind the Federal Research Public Access Act.

They’ve taken one important step.  Can they find the will to take the other?

Update: Elsevier’s letter to mathematicians

It wasn’t until some time after reading their RWA withdrawal that I came across A Letter To The Mathematics Community.  This mentions the RWA withdrawal but also promises to lower the prices of maths journals to ensure that they are at or below $11 per article, which seems to be around the industry average; and undertakes to make all maths research open access when it becomes four years old.

Real steps.  But why just maths?

Update: discussion around the web

At this point, there are lots of them flooding in and most add little new to the discussion.  So I’ll link a few more but only the ones I find particularly interesting.

I’ll add more as I come across them.

Hurrah for the Copyright Transfer Agreement, that happy convention that frees us authors from the wearisome encumbrance that is owning the copyright to our own work.  Back when I was young and foolish, I used to think that it was a good thing for us to hold our own copyrights; but fortunately I was put right by Kent Anderson of the Scholarly Echo Chamber blog:

Most authors want their reports published, and then want to move on, assured that their publisher has the ability to defend their works in perpetuity (or close to it). Copyright transfer allows this. Other approaches don’t. End of story. Are you just being obtuse? What isn’t clear about this to you?

Copyright transfer is required by many publishers because it makes so much sense. It’s only recently poorly informed opinions like some of those in this thread that have created doubt and some dreamed-up alternative that really isn’t nearly as good as you think — not as good for authors, not as good for integrity of the scientific record, not as good for dissemination (yes, believe it or not).

So now I know better.  When I transfer copyright in my work to publishers — or indeed when they just plain take it without my permission — it’s for my own good, and it actually helps my work to reach the widest possible audience, thanks to the magic of paywalls!

To celebrate all the wonderful benefits that mandatory copyright theft transfer brings us, the video below, created By Alex Holcombe and Michael Little, is Wikimedia Commons’s “Media of the Day” — a helpful piece that explains the benefits of copyright transfer to anyone else who is as foolish as I used to be:

For one day only, you can see it on the front page of WikiMedia Commons.  And here is that daily front page archived for posterity at WebCite.

Update (later the same day)

This just in from the You-Couldn’t-Make-It-Up dept:

More on the Wikimedia talk page: some knucklehead has decided that the video is a copyright violation.  (I would love it if it were because they thought copyright had been transferred to a publisher, but apparently it’s because they can’t find the CC0 dedication.  It’s right here, and it seems from the history page that it was in the first posted version.)

The story so far

As we all know by now, barrier-based publishers like Elsevier and Springer sometimes offer authors a choice to upgrade their papers to open access by payment of a fee: Elsevier calls this a “sponsored article“, Springer calls it “Open Choice“, and other publishers have other names for similar facilities.

Springer’s page is very up front and explicit about the license that Open Choice articles are provided under — it’s the same Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license that PLoS uses, which is an excellent choice: it’s true open access, conforming to the Budapest definition, and freely allowing them to be extensively quoted, modified into teaching materials, be used in text-mining, analysed statistically, etc.

By contrast, Elsevier’s page on sponsored articles says nothing about the licence, and is very vague about what you’re allowed to actually do with such articles.  All it really says is that authors can “sponsor their article to make it available to non-subscribers”.  So maybe you can do all that good stuff; and maybe you can’t.  The sponsored article order form is no more informative.

So three weeks ago on this blog I asked what I thought was a very simple question: what actually is Elsevier’s open-access licence?  I publicised that article as widely as I could in the hope of bringing in an answer, and mentioned it in comments that I left on other blogs.

Early responses

For a long time, the closest thing I saw to a response from Elsevier was this comment from Alicia Wise (Director of Universal Access), a reply to a comment that I made on an Occam’s Typewriter article:

Hiya Mike,

If memory serves I tweeted this info to you a few days ago. Elsevier is experimenting with various licenses for our OA content. There are some bespoke licenses which permit non-commercial reuse, and some CC options including BY and NC-ND. This information also appears in different places on different articles/screens. We’re in a test-and-learn phase.

With kind wishes,


(For what it’s worth, I don’t remember such a tweet, and if it existed I’m not able to find any trace of it.  But then Twitter’s search facilities are pretty lame, so maybe it was sent and I somehow forgot.)

I then replied to Alicia as follows:

So it varies on a per-article basis? But the fee is the same $3000 irrespective? Are there pages somewhere on the Elsevier site that explain this? It would be very helpful.

That was sixteen days ago, but there’s been no reply.

I tweeted the query directly to Alicia and Tom Reller (Elsevier’s Head of Corporate Relations) asking them to comment:

No response to that one, though.

Episode IV: A New Hope

A couple of days ago, an informative tweet from a new player: @elsevierscience.  (I don’t know who operates that account.)

The link is to http://ow.ly/i/tmPC, but since I’m not sure how persistent that service is either, here is a copy of the image:

It seems a bit strange to convey such information as a JPEG, but it’s better than not conveying it at all.  What disturbs me more is the implication that only authors published by Elsevier get to see this information.

More important still is what it actually says.  So I replied:

Which was followed up by:

But there was no more from @wisealic on this subject.

However — I just typed in a characteristic phrase from the JPEG (“any translations, for which a prior translation agreement with elsevier”) and gave it to Google.  And I immediately found that these rules are on Elsevier’s web-site after all — on the page Supplemental Terms and Conditions for sponsored documents published in Elsevier journals (1.0).

(The same language also appears in the FEBS Open Bio User Rights page.)

So what have we learned?

Nothing very satisfactory, I’m afraid.

  • Elsevier’s sponsored article page doesn’t say what a sponsored article is.
  • Neither does the sponsored article order form.
  • Elsevier are very slow to respond to queries, when they respond at all.
  • It may be the case that the terms of a sponsored article are revealed only to authors published by Elsevier.
  • The terms are in fact on Elsevier’s web-site, but not linked from the main sponsored article page or anywhere else obvious.
  • No-one at Elsevier appears to know this.

All of this is bewildering.  But much more importantly:

  • Sponsored article are not in fact open access.
  • Articles published in FEBS Open Bio are also not open access, but we already knew that.

Oh dear oh dear.

The way forward

I know that this may seem hard to believe, but I am really am trying to be as nice to Elsevier as I can in recent articles.  But holy poop, they can make it difficult.  Here’s what they need to do in organisational terms:

  • Clearly state on the Sponsored Article page what a sponsored article is.
  • Restate it on the order form.
  • Make sure that relevant pages are linked.
  • Respond to queries much more promptly and systematically.

And the big one is:

  • Adopt a true open access licence such as the CC BY that Springer uses.

I imagine that, while Elsevier would agree with the previous four bullet points, they will push back on this one, imagining that they would be giving up valuable rights.  But they simply will not be able to compete in the open access space if they don’t actually provide open access.  It’s not just that PLoS are doing it right, as you’d expect them to.  It’s that other barrier-based publishers, who are competing directly with Elsevier on the same terms, are doing it right.

But, really.  The way things are now, it’s no wonder that PLoS ONE publishes more open-access articles in a month than all of Elsevier’s 2637 journals put together publish in a year.

Two weeks ago, Brian Kraatz and I attended one of Edward Tufte’s workshops on presenting data and information. I’ve been meaning to blog about that, and still plan to when I get time to breathe. But something came up then that has been stuck in my head ever since.

Tufte was addressing a mixed audience of several hundred, including people in computer science, marketing, business management, education, IT, writing, publishing, old media, new media–a pretty darned diverse cross-section of people involved with or interested in the exchange of information, from tattooed college students to rumpled retirees and buttoned-down suits to straight up hippies. One recurring theme in the day-long workshop was the way that Tufte held up scientists as the gold standard of rigor and honesty in reporting information. He frequently said, “You should aspire to do this, because it’s what scientists do.”

This always made Brian and me share a bemused smile; it’s a little weird to hear one’s chosen profession held up as a model for all the others. But it was also a useful reminder of the ideals scientists hold (some more successfully than others), and it was gratifying to hear our colleagues spoken of as role models rather than mad scientists, immoral tinkerers, ivory tower goofballs, or other less savory stereotypes.

In science, reputation is everything, and it is roughly synonymous with “integrity of data”. Papers have a life of their own and have to stand effectively forever; I routinely cite work that was published in the 1800s and have cited a paper from 1774–a publication older than my country. So scientists tend to make a distinction between a scientist’s reputation as a person and his or her scientific reputation. Most scientists don’t really care if Bob Scientist has a gambling problem or turns into a drunken mess at conference banquets–or rather, we may frown on these things, but hey, the world is full of jerks. At the end of the day we care a lot more about the quality of his data. As long the work is solid, we can put up with quite a bit in the way of a-hole behavior.

In contrast, once someone has been caught plagiarizing or falsifying data, their scientific reputation is permanently shot. If we can’t trust some of your data, we can’t trust any of it. And if we can’t trust your data then you’re not really a scientist to us anymore; you’re just one more of the zillion sources of spam, advertising, and filth we have to filter out to get to reliable information.

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. In one of the most important books about how and why science works, David Hull makes the same argument to explain why plagiarism and falsification of results are so rare in science even when they would benefit researchers (at least occasionally and in the short term). The book is Science as a Process, and if you are a scientist or want to understand the guts of how science works, you should read it.

Businesses by and large do not work to the same tolerances of honesty. Thanks to marketing, almost every business, certainly every big business, is engaged in “shaping public opinion” about its products (or, if you like, “lying”). Whatever the reality at your business, the general perception is that in the business world a certain amount of bullshitting is acceptable, expected, and maybe even admirable–as long as it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

These two divergent worldviews don’t seem to come into conflict very often or very loudly, but they certainly have in the Academic Spring, with commercial publishers at the uncomfortable junction between science and big business. And Elsevier is catching the most hell, at least in part because of its extensive recent history of slimy dealings and immoral policies: the arms deals, fake journals full of “papers” that were really ads for Big Pharma, bribes for favorable reviewslawsuits against libraries for legal use of purchased content, and turning legislators into paid puppets, to pick the most egregious.

Now, ask an Elsevier employee about those practices and you’re likely to hear that they were problems in the past, but they’re fixed now (all except the last two, I guess), so why are we still talking about them? This is business thinking: there were PR problems, now they’re fixed, let’s move on.

Scientists look at the same offenses and see a pattern of behavior–an evil money-grubbing corporate machine out to make a buck by any means fair or foul. In particular, we look at the fake journals and paid reviews and think, “Elsevier falsified its data”. In academia, that is the one unforgivable sin. It is probably a big part of why many scientists are vowing not to have anything to do with Elsevier ever again.

I think this is why the few halting attempts by Elsevier employees to engage with academics have mostly failed: we don’t believe you. No, wait, that’s incomplete, and you really can’t afford to continue misunderstanding this. Is is more accurate to say that your employer’s underhanded dealings have successfully conditioned us to not believe you. There is not a little crack in our trust, there’s a crater a thousand miles wide that goes all the way down to the mantle. And we have also been conditioned as scientists to permanently write off anyone who falsifies data, which your employer has done. So you are coming with the dirtiest possible record to make nice with the pickiest possible audience. No wonder you’re not making any headway.

I’m not writing this to defend the situation or its fairness or lack thereof or to tell you how I wish things were so that you could help me bring about some glorious future. I’m writing to describe your reality right now, because folks inside Elsevier are having a hard time understanding why people hate them so much. And it’s not my responsibility to propose solutions: you got yourselves into this damned mess, funnel a little of that £724 million in profits to some clever people and figure a way out. That said, I’m not above handing out some free advice. For starters, go read Science as a Process so you can start understanding the mindset of the enemy. That won’t heal the rift, but at least you’ll be able to understand our worldview.

Simply fixing the most egregious problems and restoring the status quo–the background hum of predatory pricing and exploitative bundling against which the Cost of Knowledge boycott is aimed–is not going to be nearly enough. It would take a grand gesture to convince us that you’re actually working in our best interests instead of those of your shareholders. Supporting FRPAA is not only your best bet, it might be the only game in town.

The current NIH public access policy requires self-archiving of accepted manuscripts in PubMed Central (“green open access”).

The Research Works Act (RWA) is a bill which intends to end the NIH policy and to make it illegal for government agencies to establish similar policies.

Private-sector publishers such as Elsevier have generally opposed mandates and supported the RWA, with this statement being typical [emphasis in original]:

The costs of publishing services need to be met and are in addition to the costs of doing the research. Publishers invest heavily to add value to research reports and draft manuscripts through the publishing process.
Elsevier is happy to work with any sustainable business model for publishing services. We are happy with models where funding is provided on the author-side or the user-side of the publishing process, or hybrids of the two. To be clear, we already publish through gold open access models in addition to our traditional subscription and transactional business models.
While green open access is not a business model, as it has no revenue stream, we are happy to work with this approach in combination with one or more sustainable business models (e.g. gold open access and/or subscriptions.
We oppose in principle the notion that governments should be able to dictate the terms by which products of private sector investments are distributed.

So my simple question is this: the statement seems to say that publishers would be happy for government departments to impose Gold OA mandates on the research that they fund — is that correct?

It seems to me that if the existing NIH mandate were replaced by one that said “if we fund your research, you must publish the results in a Gold OA journal”, that would resolve publishers’ issues, because the the government wouldn’t be saying anything at all about “products of private sector investment”.

Can publishers please comment?  (And anyone else who wants to, of course).