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.)