If you’ve been following Twitter or the blogs, you’ll know that this has been Open Access Week. It’s been great to see many new open-access policies announced this week [IrelandBelgiumHungary], to read important explanations of why fully open (CC BY) OA is the way to go, and to see discussions from people like clinicians and librarians. It all contributes to the glorious sense that the transition to OA is beyond the tipping point.

Here’s what we at SV-POW! have been doing for Open Access Week:

Nothing at all.

We’re just carrying on, doing what we do — which is writing and reviewing papers for open-access journals, and of course writing an open-access science blog and writing about open-access issues. Because while open-access week is an excellent focal period, we believe in an open-access life, not just a week.

I’m actually not sure if I’ve ever stated this explicitly, but as of a couple of years back I am not submitting anything to non-open journals any more. Matt has made the same decision for himself.

Now we do understand that not everyone has the luxury of being so black-and-white about it — that most people, if they had a finding sexy enough to make it into Nature or Science would try that route. We do understand that papers in those venues can be career changers, and that lots of our readers are under heavy pressure to make the attempt. That’s all cool. But what I am sensing from more and more people is that they are shifting towards at least a strong preference for open-access venues — that they will prefer an open journal over an equally prestigious paywalled one, or even a rather more prestigious one. From some people, I pick up the idea that they’ve more or less promised themselves “all OA except Nature and Science“. It’s great to see that movement.

Come to think of it, nearly every time I read a comment on the necessity of publishing in non-open venues for career reasons, it’s those same two journals that come up. Trends in Ecology & Evolution has a much higher impact factor than PLOS ONE, but I don’t hear people saying “I have to publish in TREE for my career”. My sense is that Nature and Science are a special case — that people feel a publication there is somehow qualitatively different from one elsewhere. Is that an accurate reflection?

If it does, then maybe an “all OA except Nature and Science” pledge would be a good one for some people. (Not everyone: I know for example that there are also people who want to publish in JVP to support the society.)

Update (later the same day)

Richard Butler points out (see comments below) that the the career argument goes much further down the pecking order. It seems that naming Nature and Science in such arguments is just a rhetorical convention, and my suggested “all OA except those two” policy is a non-starter for career scientists. Shame.

Four things:

1. From the start of 2013, the Royal Society is abandoning issues for its journals (Proc. B, Phil. Trans., Biology Letters and more) and moving to a continuing publishing model — as already used for their open-access journal Open Biology. Excellent news: in a post-print world, issues achieve nothing but the imposition of arbitrary delays. As of next year, the first (online) published version of each Royal Society paper will be the Version Of Record.

2. IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is launching its own open-access megajournal. This is welcome news, because up till now IEEE has been one of the more access-hostile publishers. (For some reason, the new journal will come out in monthly issues rather than using the PLOS-like continuous publishing model that the Royal Society is adopting. But still.)

3. I really need to get around to writing about why CC BY is the right open-access licence for scholarship, especially given the comments on the last post. But until I do, this post by Claire Redhead, on the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association site, is a good read.

4. Peter Suber reports that Belgium is following the UK’s lead in converting to open access as the default infrastructure for dissemination of research. Signatories “express their determination to be amongst the frontrunners in this evolution, both at European and worldwide level”.

It’s great to see the gathering momentum around the shift to open access (including the Royal Society’s shift to a less subscription-focussed schedule). What’s most encouraging is that it’s coming from all kinds of stakeholders: governments, other funders, scholarly societies, enlightened publishers, and of course researchers.


Back in July I wrote an open letter to Wiley, asking them to use the Creative Common Attribution licence for their open-access activities. They sent two brief notes in response — one from Director of OA Rachel Burley, and the other from STM Publicity Manager Jennifer Beal. Both are appended to my original post.

Unfortunately, I dropped the ball in following this up — my apologies to Rachel and Jennifer. Six weeks after this, Wiley announced that they were indeed shifting to Creative Commons licences for their open-access journals. The immediate driver for this switch seems to have been the UK Government’s announcement on its new funding regimes.

So this is great news — though not quite perfect. Although the initial announcement mentioned only the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence, the details show that “a limited number of Wiley Open Access journals continue to use the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial (CC BY NC) license”. The list shows that three journals use CC BY-NC, while nine are fully BOAI-compliant with CC BY.

I would like to know why the NC clause is used on these three journals (ChemistryOpen, Food and Energy and JAHA – Journal of the American Heart Association). It seems like a bad mistake, not least because it means that UK Government-funded research can’t be published in these journals.

But even with this reservation, Wiley’s move is very good news for two reasons. First, obviously, it means that 3/4 of their “open-access” journals now really and truly are open access by all definitions, and can be used by even the most radical open-access supporters. Second, even for those three NC-restricted journals, adoption of the CC BY-NC licence is at least clear: anyone looking at the will know instantly what the meaning of the licence is, rather than being bewildered by Wiley-specific wording. So even where it’s not a gain in actual openness, it’s a gain in transparency.

It’s great to see the world moving not just to “open-access” sensu lato, but specifically to the vision of Open Access as first laid out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative a decade ago. In a similar vein, Acta Palaeontologia Polonica, which has long been open access, has now adopted the CC BY licence specifically, in a codification of its existing practice and intent. I only wish that Biology Open would respond to my similar plea to them, rather than continuing with their destructive insistence on the NC clause.

Update (the next day)

As Ross Mounce has pointed out, Creative Commons licences are currently used only for Wiley’s wholly open-access journals, and not for OnlineOpen, their elective “open access” programme for articles in otherwise paywalled journals. At present, OnlineOpen articles are encumbered by a complex proprietary set of terms that forbid many kinds of re-use. We can only hope that this program, too, will shortly switch to CC BY.


When you start a blog, the natural thing is to want to feel that you’re in control of it, and that means controlling what can be posted there.  But that’s a mistake.  Moderation means that people can’t see their own comments, which is alienating; but more importantly, it means other people can’t see them, which in turn means that all discussion grinds to a halt until such time as you happen to moderate.

What that means is that the site is only really alive when you’re at the keyboard, constantly checking your inbox, so that you notice moderation requests as soon as they come in.  It means you’ll never have the experience of waking up in the morning and finding that a discussion has broken out on your blog.


But what about spam?  On a good platform, it’s not a problem.  Since we started SV-POW!, 6,539 comments have been posted, and 3,552 spam comments have been automatically detected and held for moderation.  My and Matt’s manual moderation of those suspected-spam comments shows that detection has been 99.92% accurate: there have been only three false negatives in five and a half years.  There have been 63 false positives, i.e. comments that looked like spam but weren’t.  Those were held for moderation, and passed.

So.  You don’t need to moderate to filter spam, and you don’t want to moderate to control discussion.  Just open it up. (If you’re using a platform with bad spam-filtering, you may have to move. We’re on WordPress.com, and very happy with it, but others platforms may be just as good or better.)

[Note. This is a re-post of the most important part of Tutorial 18: how to have fruitful discussions in your blog’s comments. I’m posting this bit separately so that I can link to this most important part without the distraction of the other parts.]

Another blast from the past:

Like the recent Compsognathus, this is a card from the “Flesh” card-game that was printed across several progs (issues) of the comic 2000 AD in 1977. This one is from the back cover of Prog 10. (Click through the picture for the whole back cover.)

What’s interesting about this one is how very flagrant a rip-off it is of Rudolph Zallinger’s 1960 painting of Brontosaurus being attacked by Allosaurus:

I know this painting best from Dinosaurs and other Prehistoric Reptiles, a 1966 book that I had as a boy, and which I believe is the same thing as the Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs. Here is a high-resolution scan of my copy of that book, pages 24-25. (Click through for 5472 by 3669 version.)

And while I’m here, I may as well throw in my scan of the “Brachiosaurus” (i.e. Giraffatitan)on pages 20-21. (Click through for 5431 by 3162 version.)

I will leave it to others to point out which other classic piece of sauropod art this one plagiarises.

“But Mike”, you say, “What’s wrong with publishers making a profit?”

Nothing is wrong with publishers making a profit.

PLOS made an operating profit of 21.5% in 2011 (though they plough it back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”.) BioMed Central also makes a profit, and since they are a for-profit company they get to keep it, distribute it to shareholders, or what have you. Good on them.

If you can make money by publishing research, that’s great.

The issue is not publishers who make money. The issue is corporations that go by the title “publishers”, but which in fact make money by preventing publication.

Because “publish” means “make public”. The whole point of a publisher is to make things public. The reason the scientists of 30 years ago sent their papers to a publisher was because having a publisher print them on paper and ship them around the world was the most effective way to make them public. And subscriptions were the obvious way to pay for that work. But now that anything can be made public instantly — “Publishing is not a job any more, it’s a button”giving papers to a “publisher” that locks them behind a firewall is the opposite of publishing. It’s privating.

Yesterday we saw an appalling demonstration of why this is so important. The barrier-based textbook publisher Pearson found that in 2007 a teacher had posted a copy of the Beck Hopelessness Scale on his blog. It’s a 20-question list, intended to help prevent suicide, and totals 279 words. It was published in 1974, and Pearson holds the copyright, selling copies  for $120 — $6 per question, or 43¢ per word.

So naturally Pearson saw their profits being eaten into by the free availability of the Beck Scale. Naturally, rather than contacting the blog author, or the network that it’s part of, they sent a DMCA takedown notice to ServerBeach, who host the web server that the blog was on. And naturally ServerBeach shut down the entire site twelve hours later.

This site, Edublogs, is home to 1,451,943 teacher and student blogs. Yes, you read that right. One and a half million blogs.

So to recap: because a teacher five years ago posted a copy of 279-word, 38-year-old questionnaire that costs $120, the publisher shut down 1.5 million blogs. That works out at 0.008¢ per blog.

We could talk all day about all the things that went wrong here — the ludicrously unbalanced DMCA (“half a DeMoCrAcy”), the idiot response of ServerBeach — but I want to focus on one issue. The reason Pearson issued a DMCA takedown is because they make their money by preventing access. It’s the nature of the beast. If your business model is to prevent people from making things public, then this kind of thing is inevitable. Whereas it is literally impossible for PLOS or BMC ever to perpetrate this kind of idiocy because their business model is to make things public. When someone else takes a thing that they have made public and makes it more public, then great! No-one has to issue any DMCA takedowns!

And this is why there is a fundamental, unbridgeable divide between open-access publishers and barrier-based publishers. It’s why no amount of special programmes, limited-time zero-cost access options, reductions in subscription rates, access to back-issues and so on will ever really make any difference. The bottom line is that we want one thing — access to research — and barrier-based “publishers” want the exact opposite.

However nice they are, however much their hearts are in the right place, they want one thing and we want the opposite. And that just won’t do.

They’re going to have to go. All of them.

As things stand there are two principal types of written communication in science: papers and blog posts. We’ve discussed the relative merits of formally published papers and more informal publications such as blog-posts a couple of times, but perhaps never really dug into what the differences are between them.

Matt and I have been discussing this offline, and at one point Matt suggested that authorial intent is one of the key differences. When we write and submit a paper, we are sending a different message from when we post on a blog.

That’s true — at least in general, although there are edge-cases such as the formal research paper that Zen Faulkes recently posted as an entry on his blog. But even when it’s true, I’m not sure it’s relevant. As Matt pointed out, authorial intent ceases to be a factor once something is published. The audience will read it how they like and do with it what they want. So I think we need to consider the paper-vs.-blog-post question in terms of the artifact itself, and discount what the author intended.

When we do that, what differences do we see? Generalising, we find that:

  • Papers are PDF while blog-posts are HTML. (That’s not quite a trivial distinction: PDFs have less clutter.)
  • Blog-posts allow and invite comments, but papers do not.
  • Blog-posts are part of an ongoing discussion whereas papers are stand-alone.
  • Papers are archived on publisher sites, whereas blog-posts are on blogs, which may be more vulnerable or ephemeral.
  • Papers are immutable once published, whereas blog-posts can be edited after initial publication
  • Papers are peer-reviewed, while blog-posts are not.
  • Blog-posts are fast, but papers are slow.

Which of these are important? Which count as wins for papers and which as wins for blog-posts? Which of them are tied together with each other? Which are fundamentally properties of the medium, and which are associated with it only by tradition?

Comments, please!

Last Friday I got an email from Dr Stuart Taylor, Commercial Director of the Royal Society, wanting to set up a phone-call to talk about the issue I raised about the editorial procedure on Biology Letters. I got back to him with my Skype handle, but without fixing a date or time.

Then on Monday this week I was approached by Lucas Brouwers, a journalist for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad. He was writing a story about Biology Letters‘s misrepresentation of reviewer judgements and submission-to-acceptance times, and wanted me to answer some questions.

I thought it would be best to talk to Stuart Taylor before sending my answers to the questions, so my responses could take into account whatever he had to say, so I got back in touch with him and brought our phone-call forward. As it happened, he called me just as I was about to hit Send on my half-composed reply to Brouwers, so that was good timing.

I asked him if it would be OK to recount the main points of our conversations; he assented, so here there are:

  • First, he was very polite and friendly — graciously so, really, in light of the things I’ve said about the Royal Society, and the boycott that Matt and I have initiated.
  • Second, he was insistent that the use of the revised manuscript’s submission date in the the published PDFs is not intended to game statistics. I accept that most individuals at the Royal Society and its journals don’t have that motivation in mind.
  • Third, I pointed out, and he conceded, that it nevertheless does have the effect of apparently reducing the submission-to-acceptance time and apparently increasing the rejection rate. I still find it hard to imagine how this convention got started if not from someone‘s desire to game the statistics.
  • Fourth, Stuart Taylor made the point that many other “high-prestige” journals do what Biology Letters is doing. I have no patience with this defence, and told him so: “all the other kids are doing it” cut no ice with my mother when I was growing up, and nor should it with us. Even if it’s true, I return to the point that we’d hope and expect the Royal Society to set a higher standard of integrity, not to sink to the less honest level of other publishers.
  • Fifth, there is a meeting of the editorial board at the end of the month, and Stuart Taylor intends to raise this issue at that meeting.
  • Sixth, I made the point that it won’t take much to fix this: instead of just stating Received and Accepted dates on the first page of published papers, the journal could give three dates: Received, Revised and Accepted. I got the impression, though I don’t remember any clear statement, that Stuart Taylor thought that was a reasonable thing to do.

Overall, I am pretty happy that the society seems to be taking this fairly seriously. It is serious, but it’s also very easy to fix. I hope they’ll just do it, and we can move on.

Meanwhile, the Dutch newspaper article was published, with quotes from both me and Stuart Taylor. It’s in Dutch, so I am not sure what it says exactly. Here is the text of the article. If anyone wants to provide a translation I’d be grateful. (I mean a proper translation, not just shoving it into Google Translate.) [Update: Lucas Brouwers has himself provided a translation now.]

Blad ‘sjoemelt’ met datering

Door onze redacteur

ROTTERDAM. Volgens twee onderzoekers sjoemelt het veel gelezen wetenschappelijke tijdschrift Biology Letters met de datering van de artikelen die het publiceert.

Vaak wordt een ingediend artikel in eerste instantie afgewezen. Dan herschrijven de auteurs het, zij dienen het opnieuw in, waarna het artikel alsnog wordt geaccepteerd. In dat geval vermeldt Biology Letters alleen de datum van de tweede indiening. Daardoor lijkt de omlooptijd van artikelen kleiner dan hij daadwerkelijk is. Het tijdschrift wordt zo aantrekkelijker voor wetenschappers die snel willen publiceren.

Aanleiding voor de aantijging vormt de publicatie van een artikel over langnek-dinosauriërs, vorige week woensdag. Paleontoloog Mike Taylor van de Universiteit van Bristol ontving het manuscript op 17 juli ter beoordeling als peer reviewer. Taylor was positief, maar Biology Letters wees het artikel toch af en vroeg de auteurs het te herschrijven en opnieuw in te sturen. Dat gebeurde op 21 augustus. Deze datum werd vervolgens op het gepubliceerde artikel als datum van indiening vermeld.

Taylor en een collega kondigden daarom afgelopen vrijdag een boycot af. De twee zullen geen artikelen meer beoordelen voor de Britse Royal Society, waar Biology Letters deel van uitmaakt, totdat het genootschap zijn beleid verandert. Volgens Taylor is de oplossing simpel. “Vermeld de ware indieningsdatum, en het probleem is verholpen.”

Stuart Taylor (geen familie), commercieel directeur van de Royal Society, is het niet met de lezing van de twee onderzoekers eens. “Mike Taylor impliceert dat wij dit doen om onze omloopcijfers beter te doen lijken”, zegt hij aan de telefoon. “Dat bestrijd ik, alhoewel ons beleid inderdaad dat gevolg heeft.”

Op een redactievergadering zal Stuart Taylor de kwestie bespreken. Hij acht het niet ondenkbaar dat de tijdschriften van de Royal Society in de toekomst inderdaad de oorspronkelijke indieningsdatum zullen vermelden. “Wij hebben niets te verbergen.” Volgens Stuart Taylor is het afwijzen van artikelen, om vervolgens een aangepaste versie te accepteren gemeengoed onder wetenschappelijke tijdschriften.

Auteur Nicole Klein (universiteit van Bonn) betreurt het dat haar artikel onderwerp van discussie is geworden. “In onze ervaring verloopt het publicatieproces bij Biology Letters snel en professioneel.”

Finally, anyone who’s been following this issue should read this lengthy comment from Paul Barrett, who among his other roles is on the Editorial Board of Biology Letters.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Counting beans

October 10, 2012

The reason most of my work is in the form of journal articles is that I didn’t know there were other ways to communicate. Now that I know that there are other and in some ways demonstrably better ways (arXiv, etc.), my enthusiasm for sending stuff to journals is flagging. Whereas before I was happy to do it and the tenure beans were a happy side-effect, now I can see that the tenure beans are in fact shackles preventing me from taking a better path.


In response to our recent post about reject-when-you-mean-revise and submission-date massaging at Royal Society journals, Susie Maidment tweeted:

Since then I have heard from several other sources — including Stuart Taylor, Head of Publishing and Commercial Director of the Royal Society — that these practices are widespread.

Can anyone confirm this from their own experience?

It needs to be stamped out wherever it happens.