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, 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).

Stegotetrabelodon making tracks at Mleisa, © Mauricio Antón

Sweet new paper out today by Bibi et al. in Biology Letters, on some awesome elephant tracks from the United Arab Emirates. I’ve known this was coming for a while, because the second author on the study, Brian Kraatz, has his office about 30 feet down the hall from mine. And I just ran into the lead author, Faysal Bibi, at the Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin when I was there in December. I knew Faysal when he was an undergrad at Berkeley, and now he’s Dr. Bibi and doing a postdoc in Berlin–how time flies. Congratulations to Faysal, Brian, and the rest of the team on a really cool discovery.

The study is nothing to do with sauropods, but it has a lot of weird connections to SV-POW! Most importantly, the paper is open access, which is both awesome and timely. The life restoration is by the wicked talented Mauricio Antón, who is best known for his paleomammals work but who also restored Brontomerus for National Geographic last year. And some comparative data used in the paper was supplied by SV-POW! favorite and sometime sci-fi author John Hutchinson.

Finally, the elephants that made the tracks were probably Stegotetrabelodon, and although they might not have been full-on Tolkien-by-way-of-Jackson Amphicoelias-sized war-beasts, they were still big four-tusked proboscideans, so I’m calling them oliphaunts. Bibi et al. didn’t find any evidence that the trackmakers were ridden by Haradrim, but they didn’t find any evidence that they weren’t, so that’s how I’m going to imagine them.

Probably not the Mleisa trackmakers. Dammit.

For more stuff, including the paper, the full-res version of the image at top, more sweet images, author bios, and so on, see the press page. There are also nice writeups at Not Exactly Rocket Science and Laelaps. Go check it out.


Bibi, F., Kraatz, B., Craig, N., Beech, M., Schuster, M., and Hill, A. 2012. Early evidence for complex social structure in Proboscidea from a late Miocene trackway site in the United Arab Emirates. Biology Letters. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.1185

A very quick note to let you all know that my new article is now up at Discover Magazine‘s guest blog, The Crux.  Entitled It’s Not Academic: How Publishers Are Squelching Science Communication, the topic will not be unfamiliar to SV-POW! readers.  But I make an effort to address a new angle every time I write one of these, so this one emphasizes the history of how we got into the current bind and the strange academic culture that perpetuates it.

The goal of articles like this one is not really to reach SV-POW! readers, who are already familiar with most of the issues, but to bring them up before people who otherwise might not think about open access.  So please do go and read it; but really, the most helpful thing you can do is probably to let your friends and colleagues know about it.  The SOPA/PIPA protests were only successful because the word spread.  That is now the challenge for us as we hope to see the RWA defeated and the FRPAA accepted.

Go to It’s Not Academic: How Publishers Are Squelching Science Communication

Let’s look at some animals!

February 20, 2012

An important new paper is out:

R. Kent Sanders and Colleen G. Farmer.  2012.  The pulmonary anatomy of Alligator mississippiensis and Its similarity to the avian respiratory system. The Anatomical Record: Advances in Integrative Anatomy and Evolutionary Biology (advance online publication). doi:10.1002/ar.22427

(It’s paywalled, naturally, but let’s just assume that everyone who reads this blog is affiliated with a big university and has access.)

First of all, congratulations to the authors on doing this properly: publishing a proper paper (sixteen pages) to follow up their big-splash Science paper of just over a year ago.  As Mickey Mortimer has shown, follow-through rates when people publish in Science and Nature are generally not at all good, and it’s always encouraging to see an exception.

Here’s the abstract:

Using gross dissections and computed tomography we studied the lungs of juvenile American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Our findings indicate that both the external and internal morphology of the lungs is strikingly similar to the embryonic avian respiratory system (lungs + air sacs). We identified bronchi that we propose are homologous to the avian ventrobronchi (entobronchi), laterobronchi, dorsobronchi (ectobronchi), as well as regions of the lung hypothesized to be homologous to the cervical, interclavicular, anterior thoracic, posterior thoracic, and abdominal air sacs. Furthermore, we suggest that many of the features that alligators and birds share are homologous and that some of these features are important to the aerodynamic valve mechanism and are likely plesiomorphic for Archosauria.

The main reason I want to post this (apart from the fact that it’s an important finding) is because someone had to blog David Marjanovic’s classic response on the Dinosaur Mailing List (quoted with permission, since David doesn’t have his own blog):

See, this is the kind of thing where I’m totally baffled that it wasn’t figured out a hundred years ago, or 120 or 130.

I suppose the logic that has prevented people from dissecting crocodilian lungs for so long went like this:

1) Crocodilians are reptiles.
2) So, crocodilians have reptile lungs, not mammal lungs or bird lungs.
3) What are reptile lungs like? Let’s dissect the nearest reptile and find out!
4) We’re in Europe, so let’s just take the nearest lacertid, perhaps the nearest “colubrid” and maybe the nearest viperid and cut them open.
5) <snip> <snip>
6) Hooray! We’ve figured out what reptile lungs are like!
7) Textbook describes and illustrates generic non-varanid squamate lung as “reptile lung”.
8) Everyone believes it is known what reptile lungs are like.
9) Everyone believes it is known what crocodilian lungs are like, because crocodilians are reptiles.

Ceterum censeo Reptilia esse nomen delendum.

If you must keep the name, follow Joseph Collins and restrict it to Squamata or Lepidosauria. Otherwise, destroy it. Kill it with fire.

So true.

We could draw a whole lot of conclusions from this analysis, but let’s just concentrate on one: look at animals.  See how they behave.  Then cut them open and see what’s inside.  Don’t assume.  Don’t guess.  Find out.  To quote the splendid motto of the Kirkcaldy Engineering Works, “FACTS, NOT OPINIONS”.

Seriously.  Who’d have though there was a Science paper and an Anatomical Record paper just in cutting open an alligator and having a poke around in there?  Sometimes, science doesn’t progress by paradigm shifts; sometimes it progresses just by looking at things.

Folks, just a short post to let you know that, together with my colleagues in the @access Working Group, I have just launched a new web-site.

One of the problems we have in promoting Open Access is getting non-scholars involved.  So the whole enterprise can feel like an ivory-tower issue, one that just doesn’t affect the great majority of people.  But that’s not true.

The new site is called Who needs access? You need access?.  Its goal is to tell stories of many different kinds of people — teachers, doctors, artists, politicians, entrepreneurs — who need access to research papers.  Some stories are positive ones about how access has helped; others are more negative, about how lack of access has hindered.  We have just three stories on the site as we launch; we want to add more, quickly.  Each story needs to be specific, not too long, and have a human face.

Please check it out, contribute, and tell your friends!