Thanks for sticking with this series. In part 1, we looked at what open access means, and what terms to use in describing it. In part 2, we considered the Gold and Green roads to open access. In part 3, we touched on zero-cost Gold OA, sometimes known as “Platinum”. This time, we’re going to get down the nitty gritty of the actual licences that govern what you can do with a paper that you’ve downloaded.

As usual in this series, I will try to keep my opinions and preferences out of it, and limit myself to uncontroversial statements. So for example, I will not express a preference for one Creative Commons licence over another, even though I do have a preference.

No licence

Unfortunately, this is still very common. Lots of journals that make their articles freely available to read online say nothing about what you are and are not allowed to do with them. PalArch’s journal of vertebrate palaeontology is one of these — I have no idea, for example, whether I am allowed to print a copy of an article for myself; or, if I am, then whether I can give it to a friend; or if I can print three copies for three friends, or fifty copies for a group of students. [Note added 15 November 2013: I’m pleased to say that PalArch has now fixed this, and starting from our own article there, they use CC By.]

Not much better is the sort of vague statement given by Palaeontologia Electronica:

All articles appearing in Palaeontologia Electronica (PE) are available free of charge from the World Wide Web through the Palaeontologia Electronica Site. Copyrights for technical articles (text and graphics) are assigned to Palaeontologia Electronica Sponsors where appropriate … If you would like to distribute copies of materials published by Palaeontologia Electronica we encourage you to obtain the requisite permissions from the copyright holders.

The implication here is that I can print a copy for myself but not for my friend, but it’s not at all explicit. (Let’s leave aside for the moment the issue of whether there’s any reason for such a condition, and limit our questions to what the conditions are, not what they should be.)

So the first thing to say about open-access licences is: please have a licence. Even if it’s a horrible, restrictive licence, please at least be clear about it. Merely shoving PDFs up on the web and walking away is asking for misunderstanding.

Custom licences

One step up from no licence at all is a custom licence, written for a particular journal or publisher. One such is the set of terms used by Elsevier for their “sponsored articles”. (Credit to Elsevier for making these fairly easy to find now — it was not always the case!)

Leaving aside how restrictive these terms are, let’s at least give credit where it’s due, and acknowledge that they are explicit. The problem is, it’s a lot to read and understand. Elsevier’s terms are actually fairly short and sweet as these things go: 300-odd words. But it’s not unusual for these things to be multi-page monsters. Who can read and understand the implications of such things? If only there were a small set of simple, well-defined standard licences, so that content providers could just pick the one they wanted and everyone would know what it meant.

Creative Commons licences

… and that is the purpose of Creative Commons. There are about seven different Creative Commons licences, depending on how you count them, but they are made up from a small number of easy-to-understand building blocks. Since each such block has a two-letter name, it’s easy to name a specific Creative Commons licence such as BY-NC-SA. (The full abbreviations of the licences begin with “CC”.)

CC BY is the basic CC licence. It says that you are allowed to do anything at all with the content of the article provided only that you credit the author. It’s the licence used by the biggest and most influential open-access publishers (PLOS, BMC, Hindawi) precisely because it allows the licenced work to have the most value. Wikipedia uses it for the same reason (as indeed does this blog). When dealing with a CC BY article, you can reuse passages of it in your own work, copy its illustrations into a Wikipedia article, hand out copies to classes you teach, extract numeric data and add it to your database, and so on.

You can augment — or, rather, restrict — the CC BY terms by adding other clauses:

The NC clause means “non-commercial”, and restricts downstream use of the work to non-commercial contexts — although exactly what that means is vague and difficult to define. The purpose of this clause is to ensure that if anyone makes money from the work, the author gets a slice. (We’ll discuss this more in a future post.)

The ND clause means “no derivatives”: you’re allowed to make copies of the entire article, but not to “remix” it: you can’t make translations, extract passages, adapt it into a blog post, etc. The idea of this clause is to protect authorial integrity.

By contrast, SA means “share alike”: you are allowed to make derivatives, but only on the condition that you release them under the same licence. The idea here is to make openness viral, to ensure that it’s passed on to other projects.

The ND and SA clauses are two alternatives: you can’t have both together, that would be a contradiction.

Finally, there’s CC0. This is not exactly a licence, but a formal declaration that the work is placed in the public domain, that copyright is waived, and that can you do whatever you like with it, subject to no conditions at all, not even attribution. (Some other classes of work are also in the public domain, notably anything produced by US Federal employees, including those who work for the BLM.)

These various CC licensing options can be stacked to make the following licences: CC BY, CC BY-NC, CC BY-ND, CC BY-SA, CC BY-NC-ND and CC BY-NC-SA. And CC0 makes seven.

SIDEBAR: If you’re familiar with the major open-source software licences, you’ll recognise CC BY as being similar to the Apache and BSD licences; and CC BY-SA as similar to the GNU General Public Licence (GPL). There are no open-source software equivalents of CC licences with the NC or ND clauses, as these would violate the open-source definition. CC0 is of course equivalent to public domain software.

Note that, as with any other licence, you have the option of routing around CC licences by negotiating with the copyright holder — which is often, though not always, the author. If for some reason you particularly wanted to reproduce an SV-POW! article and not credit me as the author, then this blog’s CC BY licence doesn’t give you permission to do that — but you can contact me and ask whether I’ll allow it anyway. More realistically, if you wanted to use CC BY-NC material in your business’s training materials, you might be able to negotiate its use, for a fee.

Other licences

No doubt there are other licences out there other than the CC ones and the ones that various publishers make up for themselves. (In the software world there are lots of these, to no-one’s benefit.) But I can’t think of any examples. Can anyone?

Varying licences

One last nasty problem needs to be mentioned. While journals tend to at least be consistent in the terms under which they make articles available, repositories often are not. For example, articles in arXiv are provided under four different conditions: CC BY, CC BY-NC-SA, public domain, and an underspecified “licence to distribute“. Worse still, I can’t see that their pages even specify which licence a given article uses.

This makes it harder, in general, to safely reuse content from repositories. It’s one reason why some people favour Gold OA over Green OA.

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As we saw last time, the appeal of the Gold route to open access is that the publisher does the work of making the article freely available in an obvious, well-known place in its final typeset format. Conversely the appeal of the Green route is that it doesn’t cost the author or her institution any money.

What happens when we combine these two advantages, and get publishers to typeset, publish and archive open-access articles at no charge?

Yes, it does happen. One outstanding journal that does this is Acta Palaeontologia Polonica — this is one of the reasons that I have published there twice (neck posture, Brontomerus) and Matt has three other APP papers as well as being co-author on those two. Another is Palaeontologia Electronica. In a different field, the Journal of Machine Learning Research (JMLR) is of particular interest because the article An Efficient Journal explains in some detail how it’s done.

According to the definitions I gave last time, this best-of-both-worlds scenario is in fact the best case of the Gold route: because the key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available. The process of publication in these venues is identical to that in other Gold OA venues — the only difference is the lack of a fee.

Recently, I’ve started to hear two new terms used to describe zero-fee Gold open access: Platinum OA and Diamond OA. I am not very keen on either, because they give the incorrect impression that there is another route to open access, fundamentally different from either Gold or Green. But if either term is to be used, “Platinum OA” is a better term than “Diamond OA” because at least platinum is a precious metal like gold — so the connotation is “like Gold OA but ever better”.

So I recommend not using the term “Diamond OA”.

Last night, I got a message from Joseph Kraus, the Collections & E-Resources Analysis Librarian at Penrose Library, University of Denver. He’s asking several open-access advocates (of which I am one) to answer a set of seven questions for a study that will investigate institutional activities and personal opinions concerning open access resources. The title of the study will be Comparing scholarly communication practices and policies between the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) stakeholders, and it will be submitted to a BOAI-compliant open-access journal. [See update below]

With Joe’s consent, I am posting his questions here, along with the answers that I gave. It was an interesting process to go through, and left helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings on some of these issues.

1) The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out. These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold open access in the UK. What are your thoughts on the issue of green vs gold open access policies?

Well, the most important point to make is that it really doesn’t matter. Green and Gold OA are not two different things; they are just two complementary strategies to achieve the same goal. So whether we get there by the Green or Gold route is much less important than that we get there. I care much more about full BOAI compliance (i.e. freedom to reuse, not just to read) than I do about Green vs. Gold.

It’s also worth noting that the Finch report doesn’t really take a stance on which route is better — instead, it ignores Green completely, and just doesn’t comment on it one way or the other.

I suppose in principle I slightly prefer Gold, because that way there is only one definitive version of the article. But publishers have a lot of work to do to persuade me that their contribution (as opposed to the editors’ and reviewers’ freely donated contributions) are worth £2000 a pop, or even $1350.

2) PLOS ONE is a well-known large open access journal that covers a broad range of disciplines. Because it has been deemed successful, other publishers have also proposed or started similar journals. What is your opinion of this new type of publication outlet?

PLOS ONE is the single greatest thing to have happened to scholarly publication. Its approach to peer-review is precisely correct: if a submission is good science, it gets published, period. The journal makes no attempt to judge the paper’s likely impact — which is pure guesswork anyway. It lets the scientific community decide, which is exactly as it should be.

(This approach has sometimes been called “peer-review lite“. That is exactly wrong. The peer-review at PLOS ONE is as harsh as it is anywhere. What’s lite, and indeed completely absent, is selection by trendiness and sexiness. Which is exactly as it should be. We are scientists, not marketeers.)

So I am keen to see many other venues with the same approach. That’s important because, as good as PLOS is, we don’t want to see a monoculture develop, not even a PLOS monoculture.

3) Harvard University has recommended to their faculty to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” The concept of “moving prestige to open access” is an interesting statement to the Harvard faculty authors and researchers. What do you think of this statement?

First, let me take a moment to (A) commend Harvard for taking this initiative, but (B) deplore the very weak wording “recommended … to consider”, rather than imposing an actual mandate. What they’ve done is good; but it could and should have been so much better.

The idea of “moving prestige to open access” is exactly right. During the early days of the OA movement there was a completely groundless idea — propagated by paywall publishers, I presume — that OA venues were somehow inferior to paywalled ones. That idiot notion seems to have died now, but we can and should and must go further — we need to convey to job-search, promotion, tenure and granting committees that open-access publications ought to count for much more than paywalled ones.

The bottom line is, if a paper is behind a paywall, it’s not really published. The academic community is less able to benefit from it; that is even more true of the broader population, which in most cases funded the work. This is the 21st century. By now, the idea of letting your paper be locked up where no-one can see it should be a shameful one, the sort of thing you admit to only when cornered. Harvard’s statement is a good step towards reconfiguring scholarly norms in this way.

4) University presses and many societies are concerned about how the open access movement will affect their financial bottom line. What concerns do you have about open access and society publications?

Without doubt, there is an issue here — it’s the one potential downside of the shift to OA that bothers me.

That said, we do have to ask what scholarly societies are for. In some cases — the ACS springs to mind — we are seeing the tail wagging the dog: the society sometimes talks and acts as though the discipline exists for its benefit rather than vice versa. That won’t do. Societies have to benefit their disciplines, otherwise they are a waste of time, energy and money. And unquestionably the best way they can benefit the science they are there to serve is by releasing research to the world.

So I hope that societies can make the OA transition in a way that allows them continue to do the things they’re doing. But if it comes to a choice between the society thriving at the science’s expense or vice versa, then the science has to be the winner every time.

5) AltMetrics is gathering steam as an additional method for faculty to determine the impact of their work. Do you plan to take advantage of this data for either your work, or for the benefit of your institution or department?

At this early stage in the story of AltMetrics, I am not too sure what I am supposed to actually do with it, so I am really at the wait-and-see stage.

The one thing I feel passionately about in this area — and it’s so obvious it seems stupid even to say — is can we please measure the right thing? Using impact factors to evaluate journals is statistically illiterate, but it’s at least what IFs were intended for, however flawed they may be. Using IFs to judge a paper by what journal it appears in is idiotic. If you have to have a number to judge the paper by, then use its own citation count if you must — not the citation counts of other papers that appeared in the same journal. And judging a researcher by the IFs of the journals that her papers appeared in transcends the merely idiotic and achieves the level of moronic.

If AltMetrics bring an end to this astonishingly persistent practice, that will be enough of a win to justify all the work being done.

6) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK notes: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” While this is a valid statement for UK based research evaluation, it would be impossible to get a majority of academic tenure and promotion committees throughout the United States to agree to a similar statement in the near future. Since the UK has the REF, and the US does not, how much is this holding back the US from adopting greater OA policies at various institutions?

Kudos to the REF for making this statement. The Wellcome Trust has said something similar, and I would love to see other funding bodies (and universities and departments) publicly saying the same.

If US institutions are using IFs to evaluate researchers, then … I am trying to find a polite way to express the depth of my contempt for this damaging and incompetent behaviour, but I am struggling to do it. At the very least, it will contribute to eroding the US’s position in the academic world.

Really. It’s exactly as rational as high-school kids judging their classmates by the label of the clothes they wear. We’re scientists. We’re better than that.

JUST STOP IT, AMERICA!

(You too, France.)

7) Is there anything else you would like to say concerning open access publishing?

I think we’ve just about covered it :-)

Update (10 June 2015)

For some reason, I have only now registered that the article was published in F1000 Research as Cash, carrots, and sticks: Open Access incentives for researchers (Kraus 2014).

Last time, we looked at what the term “open access” actually means. We noted that its been widely abused, so that when you need to be specific about the full meaning you need to say “BOAI-compliant”; we recognised that much of what is described as OA is really only “gratis OA”, or as Ross Mounce called it, “gratis access”; and we noted that the term “libre open access” is literally meaningless and should be avoided.

At the moment, the big argument within the open-access movement is about Gold vs. Green open access. This time, we’ll look at what these terms mean, what they don’t mean, and some of the pros and cons of each.

What Gold and Green mean

Gold open access means that that publisher, which creates the final published form of the paper (i.e. usually a PDF) makes that final published form freely available.

Mostly that means they will host it on their own site, as for example BMC and PLOS (two Gold-OA publishers) do. In some cases, the papers may be hosted off-site: for example, eLife doesn’t host its own papers at the time of writing, but leaves them for PubMed Central to host. The key point is that the publisher is responsible for making the work freely available.

Well-behaved Gold-OA publishers will also do things like ensuring the papers are indexed in reference databases like PubMed, and that they are archived in schemes like LOCKSS and Portico.

Green open access means that the publisher locks the final published form of the paper behind a paywall, but the author takes steps to ensure that it’s freely available elsewhere.

The form of the paper that is made available varies: ideally it’s the final published form; sometimes it may be the final accepted manuscript, as it was when the author last touched it, before the publisher typeset it.

Often, Green OA uses institutional repositories (IRs). Another common option is a subject repository, of which the best known is arXiv — the vast preprint archive for maths, physics and astronomy, and occasionally palaeontology. Another (rather weak) form of Green OA is individual researcher collections on web-pages, such as Matt’s and mine. There may be other options, such as uploading the manuscript into a torrent space, and letting the world mirror it. The key point is that the author has to make this happen, rather than leaving it to the publisher.

Gold and Green are strategies

The first and most important thing to understand is that Gold OA and Green OA are not two different goals. They are two complementary strategies for reaching the same goal — which is open access.

A given downloaded paper is not a Gold OA paper, or a Green OA paper. It’s just an open access paper. It’s true, of course, that it reached its user by means of the Gold or Green routes. But by the time it’s arrived at its destination, the route it took is no more interesting than whether I took the M40 or M4 on my journey to London. Being in London is what matters.

This is why the loathing that some Green advocates seem to feel for Gold is so misplaced. We want to get to London. I may find the M40 route more convenient, but I really don’t want to get into a situation where I’m insulting those who chose to drive down the M4.

“Gold” does not mean “higher quality” or “more open”

In retrospect, it may be a bit of a shame that the Gold strategy was given the name Gold, which connotes quality, rather than a more value-neutral colour such as blue. You sometimes read people writing about Gold OA as though it’s the gold standard — the best OA you can get! But of course that’s not true.

The best OA you can get is OA that complies to the original definition of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI): that is, open access that permits all kinds of reuse as well as merely reading. You can achieve BOAI-compliant OA by the Gold or Green routes. And you can also take the Gold or Green routes to a paper that is merely “gratis access” — i.e. free to read, but with all other rights reserved. Whether the Gold or Green route was taken tells you nothing about what rights you have.

Advantages and disadvantages of Gold and Green

So why does it make any difference whether Gold or Green is used? Well, there are a few things:

  • Green requires more work from the author
  • Gold may require the author (or, more usually, her institution) to pay a publication fee.
  • Green may undermine publishers’ businesses. [Whether that is an advantage or disadvantage may be open to argument.]
  • In the common case where Green provides only the author’s final manuscript, there are two versions of the paper out there, which can cause confusion.
  • In that case, you don’t generally know the final published version’s page-numbers when working from the author’s manuscript, which means you can’t cite pages.
  • Fragmentation of papers across many Green repositories causes problems:
    • It can be hard to find a paper — there is no good cross-IR aggregator, and who wants to find the lead author’s institution’s IR on the way to discovering the paper?
    • Different IRs impose different bizarre and unnecessary reuse conditions, often preventing BOAI compliance.
    • Coverage of IRs is surprisingly patchy, and some very well-respected universities doesn’t seem to have one at all.

So the equation is a fairly complex one, and it’s perhaps not too surprising that some OA advocates prefer Gold on balance, while others feel that Green is better. (I may have my own opinions on this issue, but I’ll leave them out of this post.)

Green and Gold in open-access mandates

The best-known and most influential open-access mandate is that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, which requires that authors “Submit papers to PubMed Central (PMC) and approve public release”. This is is of course a form of Green OA, with a particular repository wired in.

The great majority of subsequent open-access mandates, whether from funding bodies or universities, have followed the NIH’s lead in requiring Green OA. Why? I don’t really know — mandating organisations don’t tend to discuss their reasoning. But one obviously appealing aspect of the Green route is that no-one has to think about money. In particular, funders don’t have to find more of it to pay for publication.

Against this backdrop it’s been encouraging to see that many of the more recent mandates are neutral on which route should be taken, caring only that open access is achieved. An obvious example is the new RCUK policy, which describes both Gold and Green (though without using either term).

[It’s true that RCUK has expressed a preference for Gold (and is providing money to make it possible), but they are clear that the choice is one for authors to make. The specific reasons given for preferring Gold in the linked post seem spurious, as I noted in my comment there, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate reasons.]

The Finch report strongly favours Gold

Finally a word on the Finch report, recently written to guide UK open-access policy. This report was produced by a committee containing researchers, librarians, administrators, and — crucially — publishers. Now publishers hate Green OA, because it doesn’t generate revenue for them. And it seems that the publisher lobby nobbled the otherwise excellent report by excising all mention of Green OA. My feeling is that expressing a preference for Gold would have been reasonable, but that pretending Green doesn’t exist was misleading and irresponsible.

The very unfortunate consequence of this has been that certain open access advocates who strongly favour the Green route have become very noisy with articles and comments that give the impression they’re opposed to open access — because the Gold emphasis of the Finch report (and the mild Gold preference of the RCUK policy) is different from the way they would like to do things. Folks, please stop this. It doesn’t help anyone, with the possible exception of Elsevier.

The real point here is that the world needs open access. How it gets open access is a very secondary issue in comparison.

I’m going to keep this free of advocacy. Hopefully everything I say here will be uncontroversial, because all I am doing is surveying definitions and clarifying distinctions. I’ll save my opinions for later articles (not that there is any secret about them).

Open access (or OA)

It may seem a bit surprising to have to define “open access” when we’ve all been talking about about constantly for a year. But one of the biggest issues that derails constructive discussion of the move to OA is that the term is used in different ways by different groups.

The term “open access” was coined in December 2001 by the Budapest Open Access Initiative, which gave the following very explicit definition:

By ‘open access’ to this literature, we mean its free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

Note, then that, open access as originally defined means much more than the ability to freely read a paper on the Internet, but also allows a far wider range of activities — including all forms of redistribution, repurposing and content-mining.

Of course it’s also a useful thing when an article is made available with fewer rights — typically only the right to view an article on the Internet, or sometimes to download a personal copy or make a printout. The right to do these things is valuable, and needs a name. Unfortunately, the name it’s often been given is “open access”, obscuring the important distinction between true open access and the more restrictive form of access-to-read.

This confusion is a very bad thing. Why? Well, first of all, because we’re scientists and we care about what terms mean. If I say “dinosaur” you know that I mean “descendant of the most recent common ancestor of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon“, and that I am not going to suddenly start talking as though Dimetrodon or Sarcosuchus were a dinosaur. In just the same way, if I say “open access”, you need to know what I’m talking about.

Second, there are big practical implications. The one that’s in the public eye at the moment is text-mining — having computers, rather than humans, read papers and extract the raw facts from them. When articles are open access in the original sense of the term, there is no ambiguity about whether you’re allowed to text-mine them or not. When they are “open access” only in the more limited sense, you may or may not have the rights you want. Often you can’t even tell, and the best you can hope for is that you’ll emerge on the other side of long, complex negotiations with permission. True open access has other important implications, such as availability to be incorporated into Wikipedia.

BOAI, BBB, “full open access”, @ccess

To be more explicit about what particular rights readers are given regarding an open-access article, several terms have been used.

  • The one I like best is BOAI-compliant, which refers explicitly back to the Budapest initiative (and has the advantage of using an acronym that can’t be confused with anything else).
  • You might also see BBB, which stands for Budapest/Berlin/Bethesda, the names of three very similar open-access declarations.
  • You occasionally even see the redundant BOAI/BBB. Please don’t.
  • Phrases such as “full open access” and “true open access” are sometimes used, but they don’t help because they are just as prone to abuse as unadorned “open access”.
  • Finally, the @ccess group started to use the term @ccess to refer to BOAI compliance. Although I am part of the @ccess group, I don’t think that adding yet another term has helped (and I am pleased to see that they seem to have dropped that usage).

So the unfortunate consequence of the unfortunate broadening of the meaning of “open access” has been the coining of four or five different terms all intended to indicate what was originally meant by the original term. Very unhelpful.

Gratis vs. libre

The most deliberate attempt to clarify exactly what degree of freedom is meant by “open access” was in a 2008 memo by Peter Suber, with input from Stevan Harnad. It defined the terms “gratis OS” and “libre OS”, to mean “free as in beer” and “free as in speech” respectively. That is, “gratis OA” means only the removal of price barriers, and says nothing about permissions.

So Elsevier’s “sponsored articles” could be described as “gratis OA”.

Unfortunately (and I seem to be using that word a lot!) the usually reliable Peter Suber completely fumbled the ball in the definition of “libre OA”:

I’ve decided to use the term “gratis OA” for the removal of price barriers alone and “libre OA” for the removal of price and at least some permission barriers. […] There is more than one kind of permission barrier to remove. Therefore, there is more than one kind or degree of libre OA.

This means that the term “libre OA” is completely useless. It tells you literally nothing about what you can do. Can you republish a libre OA article? Can you text-mine it? Can you use figures from it in your own work? You can’t tell. You may be able to do any or all of these; but the fact that the article is “libre OA” doesn’t tell you that.

A publisher could make an article free-to-read and add the stipulation that you’re allowed to reuse portions of it in your own work provided that your work is printed on sheets of pure diamond using ink made from snow-leopard foreskins. And that wholly useless concession towards reuse would suffice to make the article “libre OA” under the Suber/Harnar definition.

Conclusion: recommendations on terminology

  • Use “open access” (or OA) when talking in general terms, but be aware that in practice its meaning is vaguer than when originally defined
  • When more precision is needed, use “BOAI-compliant” to mean open access as originally defined. Avoid “BBB”, “full open access” and other such alternatives.
  • It’s fine to use “gratis OA” to convey that something is free to read but offers no further permissions. But:
  • Do not use “libre OA” because it’s meaningless.

In short, the only terms you need to use are “open access”, “BOAI-compliant” and maybe “gratis OA”.

Alexandre Fabre recently bought a French-language comic-book, Les Dinosaures by Plumeri and Bloz, and found this in the third volume:

The text reads:

Et parfois, les paléontologues font des announces très marrantes, comme le Brontomerus

… un sauropode aux jambes musclées … qui se défendrait en donnant des coups de pied!

“Aie! Un dino qui fait de kung-fu? Ils ne savent plus quoi inventer!”

Which I roughly translate as:

And sometimes, paleontologists make very funny announcements, such, as Brontomerus …

A sauropod with muscular legs … which defends itself by kicking!

“Ouch! A dino that does kung-fu? Whatever will they think of next!”

Many thanks to Alexandre for bringing it to my attention and scanning the relevant panels.

I think I figured out what the core, immutable quality of science is. It’s not formal publication, it’s not peer-review, it’s not “the scientific method” (whatever that means). It’s not replicability, it’s not properly citing sources, it’s not Popperian falsification. Underlying all those things is something more fundamental.

Humility.

We all know that it’s good to be able to admit when you’ve been wrong about something. We all like to see that quality in others. We all like to think that we possess it ourselves — although, needless to say, in our case it never comes up. And it’s that last part that’s the rub. It goes so, so strongly against the grain for us to admit the possibility of error in our own work.

If science was just a matter of increasing the sum of human knowledge, it would suffice for us all to note our thoughts in blogs and have done. But because we’re not humble by nature — because we need to have humility formally imposed on us — we need the scaffolding of all those other things I mentioned:

  • Formal publication is important so that there’s a permanent record of what we claimed to have found. We can’t weasel out of an earlier mistake by claiming never to have made it.
  • Peer-review helps to prevent us from making mistakes in those formal publications. (That applies to informal pre-submission reviews as well as gatekeeper reviews.)
  • Whatever the scientific method means in detail, it’s a way to keep hypothesis, experiment, result and conclusion separate, so other scientists can clearly see what has been done, what is fact and what is opinion.
  • Replicability is providing enough information to enable others to determine on their own whether we’ve made mistakes.
  • Properly citing sources allows others to check that our assumptions are well supported.
  • Popperian falsification helps prevent us from having too much faith in our own ideas, by leaving them for the community to test.

All these standard parts of how science is done are about helping us to spot our own mistakes, giving opportunity for others to spot them, and providing a means for them to be corrected. (Of course, they have other benefits, too: for example, citing sources is important as a way of giving credit.)

We may not be humble people; but doing science forces us to act humbly.