The evolution-or-revolution debate at the Oxford Union

April 13, 2013

I was really excited to get an invitation to the evolution-or-revolution debate in Oxford, partly for historical reasons. I thought the Oxford Union was where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends held various debates. Sadly, it turns out I was mistaken, and it was merely the stomping ground for a bunch of lame politicians.

But anyway … It was a great experience — not only for the chance to meet online friends for the first time and make a strong opening statement, but also to hear important ideas batted back and forth — not only between the eight panel members (four on each team) but also with the audience.


The debating teams. From left to right: EVOLUTION: David Tempest (Elsevier), Graham Taylor (ex Publishers’ Association), Jason Wilde (Nature) and Cameron Neylon (PLOS). CHAIR: Simon Benjamin. REVOLUTION: Mike Taylor (University of Bristol), Jason Hoyt (PeerJ), Amelia Andersdotter (Swedish Pirate Party MEP) and Paul Wicks (Patientslikeme).

Apparently, video of the debate (and of all the talks) will shortly be available. Until then, here is a brief tour of some highlights.

Opening statements

First, we each had four minutes or so to make an opening statement. It was my privilege to go first, and I used essentially the essay from the last post — though in an effort to avoid bloke-reading-from-a-sheet-of-paper syndrome I allowed myself to drift a bit — not really to good effect. One addition was a mention of the steering-a-supertanker analogy.

Cameron Neylon then spoke for evolution, referring to a poem about South American revolutions entitled “Only the beards have changed” — warning that throwing out an old order can result in a new one that is essentially unchanged.

Jason Hoyt gave a short speech about how PeerJ is practically addressing some of the major failures of the prevailing system: slowness, secrecy surrounding review, and enormous overcharging. Those guys aren’t waiting for a revolution, they’re hosting one.

Jason Wilde, like Cameron, emphasised that revolutions historically have a habit of leaving things no better than they found them — to be fair, a point that I have also made at times. I was pleasantly surprised by how much of his statement I agreed with, and look forward to seeing it again when video comes out.

Amelia Andersdotter gave unquestionably the most impassioned, and bluntest, speech — which I had to admit warmed my heart with its clear-sightedness and honesty. She made the point that a revolution has already happened, and not to our advantage, as publishers have seized control of science and driven restrictive IP laws. Amelia’s contention is that the necessary revolution will be easier to achieve without publishers than with their help, and she would happily do away with them all. Tough stuff.

Graham Taylor‘s contribution made quite a contrast. At its core lay the statement “science needs publishing, and publishing needs publishers”. The first half of that statement is unarguable. The second half does not follow, and its truth remains to be demonstrated. And of course even if it is true, it wouldn’t follow that we need the publishers we have now. (By the way, despite my history of eviscerating Taylor in print, he was very pleasant in person, and evidently didn’t bear a grudge.)

Paul Wicks‘s opening line to the evolutioneers was “I’m here from the Internet to negotiate the terms of your surrender”. He laid out an essentially unanswerable case for access to research as a foundation of advances in heath science. If I remember correctly, his opening statement got the biggest round of applause — and rightly so.

Finally in this first phase of the debate, David Tempest was left with the unenviable task of defending Elsevier’s actions as evolutionary rather than reactionary. Rather to my surprise, he adopted the unflattering (but apposite) metaphor of a supertanker heading for the rocks, but said that Elsevier have been engineering tugs to change its direction. (Is Mendeley meant to be one of those tugs?) Well, I wasn’t persuaded — but then I am increasingly of the opinion that the supertanker is not such a great analogy anyway, since the tanker doesn’t disgorge its cargo of poisonous filth until it hits the rocks.

The opening statement.

The opening statement.


The discussion period was based on four questions, each of which was initially addressed by a member of each team, then thrown open to the floor — at least, that was the intention, but it was pretty flexible. The questions:

  • Does the public need access to academic publications?
  • Are mandates good for science? Can we still have a journal “quality ladder”?
  • In light of content-mining, do we need a new attitude to copyright?
  • Will OA lead to higher or lower standards? Will it undermine peer-review?
  • What system do we want to see in ten years?

I don’t now remember what was said in response to which question, and of course they overlapped a lot. So here are some highlights from this period, in no particular order.

The most applauded observation was Paul Wicks’s, that publications getting professors promotions are not the end goal of science. It’s all too easy to forget this (especially if you are an academic seeking promotion). We think of publications as being for other researchers; but they’re not, they’re for the world.

The biggest laugh was for Jason Hoyt’s comment on the simplest way to achieve universal access to Elsevier’s content: let them go out of business, and LOCKSS will take care of it. (Sadly, I’m not sure it’s that simple.)

In a response to one of the questions, Jason Wilde noted that at both Nature’s Scientific Reports and at PLOS ONE — both of which review for technical correctness only, not for novelty or importance — the rejection rate is about 40%. (I heard informally from Jason Hoyt that the rate at PeerJ is similar, based on its so-far small sample.) Interesting that the rate seems so consistent, and distressing that so much of what gets submitted to journals is evidently just no darned good.

But the best moment was provoked by David Tempest’s mention of transparency in pricing. Stephen Curry, from the floor, asked Tempest to justify his librarian’s not being allowed to tell him what Imperial’s Elsevier subscriptions cost, due to a confidentiality agreement. Tempest gave an extraordinary response, in which excess verbiage was unable to conceal the core point “We do this to prevent prices from falling”. His explanation finished “otherwise prices would go down and down and down”, to which the eloquent Dr. Curry shrugged bemusedly. A big laugh, but also a lot of real anger.


At some stage near the end, the chair asked for a show-of-hands vote on whether the best approach to pursue is Gold or Green open access — not just as a long-term goal, but as the immediate short-term approach. The vote was about three to one in favour of Gold. (This was from a very mixed audience containing researchers, librarians and publishers in I would guess fairly equal numbers, and a fair few startup founders.)

At the end of the whole event, a vote was taken on who had “won” the debate. “Revolution” came out ahead by a factor of two or three, which was gratifying; but I don’t know how much that was because of the quality of the debating, and how much it was because that’s what people already thought. (I hope the latter.)

And finally …

At the dinner afterwards, the organisers had arranged for bottles of wine to be available at cost price (£7), on the basis that you just take a bottle when you want it, and later on they’ll come round and collect the money. A system very open to abuse, but it turned out that the open-access crowd paid for one more bottle than they drank.

So a happy ending.


The photos above were provided by Simon Bayly and Victoria Watson. My memories of the debate were supplemented by helpful tweets from Simon Bayly (again), Anna Sharman (and again), Victoria Watson (again and again and again), Bryan Vickery, Jonathan Webb (and again) and Andrew Miller,

6 Responses to “The evolution-or-revolution debate at the Oxford Union”

  1. On your comment about the rejection rates. I often refer to a study in Zuckerman & Merton’s “Patterns of Evaluation in Science: Institutionalization, Structure and Functions of the Referee System” (1971, pg 471).

    This study looked at the rejection rates of a range of journals, but the interesting thing is that it was conducted before the ‘era of the impact factor’ (or the strive to publish or perish). Therefore, I think of it as a like an ice core into the publishing world, showing what the actual ‘real rejection’ rate might be in science (i.e. a study made before the complicating factors of the last 4 decades came into play).

    Anyway, to cut to the chase, they studied 83 journals total, categorized them by subject areas, and ranked them by ‘rejection rate for the field’. The rejection rates varied from 90% (for history) to 20% (for linguistics). Biological Sciences (with data from 12 journals) reported a rejection rate of 29%.

    I cannot speak for recent PLOS ONE data, but for most of the period while I was there, the rejection rate was around 31% (we publicly reported data to this effect).

    So, it is possible that the average level of unpublishable work in the Biological Sciences is around 30% (it was 29% in 1971, and PLOS ONE has found it to be around 30% ish).

  2. protohedgehog Says:

    Thanks for the coverage of this Mike, and kudos to making your voice heard. Sounds like it was a constructive and informative debate. Thanks to everyone who tweeted it too, I was trying to follow along from my own conference and could tell how good it all seemed!

    On a slightly related point, we had two discussions about open access at the EGU conference, and, from the sounds of it, it wasn’t nearly quite as well informed as this. There are still many misconceptions flying around about the value of journal titles, the cost of gold open access for authors, the REF evaluations, and the difficulty of getting your research to those who need it (in your field). And of course, as you saw on Twitter, that some scientists are still very ‘journal articles are only wanted by scientists’ in their frame of mind.

    These were both discussions which happened with about 30 and 50 people, all active scientists, and it’s those people who we need to keep communicating this info to. Difficult as it can be some times.. #brickwall

  3. […] På torsdagkvällen hölls en debatt om huruvida vetenskapen är mer i behov av revolution eller evolution när det gäller öppen access. Jag satt med på revolutionssidan, under ledning av Mike Taylor, en paleontolog som inte tycker att vi bör vänta på att öppna upp vetenskapen, datan och publikationerna. Han har recenserat debatten här. […]

  4. […] called Rigour and Openness in 21st Century Science. The evening event was a debate on the subject Evolution or Revolution In Science Communication. During this debate, Stephen Curry of Imperial College noted that his librarian isn’t allowed […]

  5. […] about this interesting situation with Elsevier, which David Tempest’s remarks at the Oxford Evolution or Revolution debate highlighted: they can’t afford (literally or figuratively) to tell us how much they […]

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