Interview with Open Access Nigeria

October 22, 2014

Last night, I did a Twitter interview with Open Access Nigeria (@OpenAccessNG). To make it easy to follow in real time, I created a list whose only members were me and OA Nigeria. But because Twitter lists posts in reverse order, and because each individual tweet is encumbered with so much chrome, it’s rather an awkward way to read a sustained argument.

So here is a transcript of those tweets, only lightly edited. They are in bold; I am in regular font. Enjoy!

So @MikeTaylor Good evening and welcome. Twitterville wants to meet you briefly. Who is Mike Taylor?

In real life, I’m a computer programmer with Index Data, a tiny software house that does a lot of open-source programming. But I’m also a researching scientist — a vertebrate palaeontologist, working on sauropods: the biggest and best of the dinosaurs. Somehow I fit that second career into my evenings and weekends, thanks to a very understanding wife (Hi, Fiona!) …

As of a few years ago, I publish all my dinosaur research open access, and I regret ever having let any of my work go behind paywalls. You can find all my papers online, and read much more about them on the blog that I co-write with Matt Wedel. That blog is called Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, or SV-POW! for short, and it is itself open access (CC By)

Sorry for the long answer, I will try to be more concise with the next question!

Ok @MikeTaylor That’s just great! There’s been so much noise around twitter, the orange colour featuring prominently. What’s that about?

Actually, to be honest, I’m not really up to speed with open-access week (which I think is what the orange is all about). I found a while back that I just can’t be properly on Twitter, otherwise it eats all my time. So these days, rather selfishly, I mostly only use Twitter to say things and get into conversations, rather than to monitor the zeitgeist.

That said, orange got established as the colour of open access a long time ago, and is enshrined in the logo:


In the end I suppose open-access week doesn’t hit my buttons too strongly because I am trying to lead a whole open-access life.

… uh, but thanks for inviting me to do this interview, anyway! :-)

You’re welcome @MikeTaylor. So what is open access?

Open Access, or OA, is the term describing a concept so simple and obvious and naturally right that you’d hardly think it needs a name. It just means making the results of research freely available on the Internet for anyone to read, remix and otherwise use.

You might reasonably ask, why is there any other kind of published research other than open access? And the only answer is, historical inertia. For reasons that seemed to make some kind of sense at the time, the whole research ecosystem has got itself locked into this crazy equilibrium where most published research is locked up where almost no-one can see it, and where even the tiny proportion of people who can read published works aren’t allowed to make much use of them.

So to answer the question: the open-access movement is an attempt to undo this damage, and to make the research world sane.

Are there factors perpetuating this inertia you talked about?

Oh, so many factors perpetuting the inertia. Let me list a few …

  1. Old-school researchers who grew up when it was hard to find papers, and don’t see why young whippersnappers should have it easier
  2. Old-school publishers who have got used to making profits of 30-40% turnover (they get content donated to them, then charge subscriptions)
  3. University administrators who make hiring/promotion/tenure decisions based on which old-school journals a researcher’s papers are in.
  4. Feeble politicians who think it’s important to keep the publishing sector profitable, even at the expense of crippling research.

I’m sure there are plenty of others who I’ve overlooked for the moment. I always say regarding this that there’s plenty of blame to go round.

(This, by the way, is why I called the current situation an equilibrium. It’s stable. Won’t fix itself, and needs to be disturbed.)

So these publishers who put scholarly articles behind paywalls online, do they pay the researchers for publishing their work?


Oh, sorry, please excuse me while I wipe the tears of mirth from my eyes. An academic publisher? Paying an author? Hahahahaha! No.

Not only do academic publishers never pay authors, in many cases they also levy page charges — that is, they charge the authors. So they get paid once by the author, in page-charges, then again by all the libraries that subscribe to read the paywalled papers. Which of course is why, even with their gross inefficiencies, they’re able to make these 30-40% profit margins.

So @MikeTaylor why do many researchers continue to take their work to these restricted access publishers and what can we do about it?

There are a few reasons that play into this together …

Part of it is just habit, especially among more senior researchers who’ve been using the same journals for 20 or 30 years.

But what’s more pernicious is the tendency of academics — and even worse, academic administrators — to evaluate research not by its inherent quality, but by the prestige of the journal that publishes it. It’s just horrifyingly easy for administrators to say “He got three papers out that year, but they were in journals with low Impact Factors.”

Which is wrong-headed on so many levels.

First of all, they should be looking at the work itself, and making an assessment of how well it was done: rigour, clarity, reproducibility. But it’s much easier just to count citations, and say “Oh, this has been cited 50 times, it must be good!” But of course papers are not always cited because they’re good. Sometimes they’re cited precisely because they’re so bad! For example, no doubt the profoundly flawed Arsenic Life paper has been cited many times — by people pointing out its numerous problems.

But wait, it’s much worse than that! Lazy or impatient administrators won’t count how many times a paper has been cited. Instead they will use a surrogate: the Impact Factor (IF), which is a measure not of papers but of journals.

Roughly, the IF measures the average number of citations received by papers that are published in the journal. So at best it’s a measure of journal quality (and a terrible measure of that, too, but let’s not get into that). The real damage is done when the IF is used to evaluate not journals, but the papers that appear in them.

And because that’s so widespread, researchers are often desperate to get their work into journals that have high IFs, even if they’re not OA. So we have an idiot situation where a selfish, rational researcher is best able to advance her career by doing the worst thing for science.

(And BTW, counter-intuitively, the number of citations an individual paper receives is NOT correlated significantly with the journal’s IF. Bjorn Brembs has discussed this extensively, and also shows that IF is correlated with retraction rate. So in many respects the high-IF journals are actually the worst ones you can possibly publish your work in. Yet people feel obliged to.)

*pant* *pant* *pant* OK, I had better stop answering this question, and move on to the next. Sorry to go on so long. (But really! :-) )

This is actually all so enlightening. You just criticised Citation Index along with Impact Factor but OA advocates tend to hold up a higher Citation Index as a reason to publish Open Access. What do you think regarding this?

I think that’s realpolitik. To be honest, I am also kind of pleased that the PLOS journals have pretty good Impact Factors: not because I think the IFs mean anything, but because they make those journals attractive to old-school researchers.

In the same way, it is a well-established fact that open-access articles tend to be cited more than paywalled ones — a lot more, in fact. So in trying to bring people across into the OA world, it makes sense to use helpful facts like these. But they’re not where the focus is.

But the last thing to say about this is that even though raw citation-count is a bad measure of a paper’s quality, it is at least badly measuring the right thing. Evaluating a paper by its journal’s IF is like judging someone by the label of their clothes

So @MikeTaylor Institutions need to stop evaluating research papers based on where they are published? Do you know of any doing it right?

I’m afraid I really don’t know. I’m not privy to how individual institution do things.

All I know is, in some countries (e.g. France) abuse of IF is much more strongly institutionalised. It’s tough for French researchers

What are the various ways researchers can make their work available for free online?

Brilliant, very practical question! There are three main answers. (Sorry, this might go on a bit …)

First, you can post your papers on preprint servers. The best known one is arXiv, which now accepts papers from quite a broad subject range. For example, a preprint of one of the papers I co-wrote with Matt Wedel is freely available on arXiv. There are various preprint servers, including arXiv for physical sciences, bioRxiv, PeerJ Preprints, and SSRN (Social Science Research Network).

You can put your work on a preprint server whatever your subsequent plans are for it — even if (for some reason) it’s going to a paywall. There are only a very few journals left that follow the “Ingelfinger rule” and refuse to publish papers that have been preprinted.

So preprints are option #1. Number 2 is Gold Open Access: publishing in an open-access journal such as PLOS ONE, a BMC journal or eLife. As a matter of principle, I now publish all my own work in open-access journals, and I know lots of other people who do the same — ranging from amateurs like me, via early-career researchers like Erin McKiernan, to lab-leading senior researchers like Michael Eisen.

There are two potential downsides to publishing in an OA journal. One, we already discussed: the OA journals in your field may not be be the most prestigious, so depending on how stupid your administrators are you could be penalised for using an OA journal, even though your work gets cited more than it would have done in a paywalled journal.

The other potential reason some people might want to avoid using an OA journal is because of Article Processing Charges (APC). Because OA publishers have no subscription revenue, one common business model is to charge authors an APC for publishing services instead. APCs can vary wildly, from $0 up to $5000 in the most extreme case (a not-very-open journal run by the AAAS), so they can be offputting.

There are three things to say about APCs.

First, remember that lots of paywalled journals demand page charges, which can cost more!

But second, please know that more than half of all OA journals actually charge no APC at all. They run on different models. For example in my own field, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palaeontologia Electronica are well respected OA journals that charge no APC.

And the third thing is APC waivers. These are very common. Most OA publishers have it as a stated goal that no-one should be prevented from publishing with them by lack of funds for APCs. So for example PLOS will nearly always give a waiver when requested. Likewise Ubiquity, and others.

So there are lots of ways to have your work appear in an OA journal without paying for it to be there.

Anyway, all that was about the second way to make your work open access. #1 was preprints, #2 is “Gold OA” in OA journals …

And #3 is “Green OA”, which means publishing in a paywalled journal, but depositing a copy of the paper in an open repository. The details of how this works can be a bit complicated: different paywall-based publishers allow you to do different things, e.g. it’s common to say “you can deposit your peer-reviewed, accepted but unformatted manuscript, but only after 12 months“.

Opinions vary as to how fair or enforceable such rules are. Some OA advocates prefer Green. Others (including me) prefer Gold. Both are good.

See this SV-POW! post on the practicalities of negotiating Green OA if you’re publishing behind a paywall.

So to summarise:

  1. Deposit preprints
  2. Publish in an OA journal (getting a fee waiver if needed)
  3. Deposit postprints

I’ve written absolutely shedloads on these subjects over the last few years, including this introductory batch. If you only read one of my pieces about OA, make it this one: The parable of the farmers & the Teleporting Duplicator.

Last question – Do restricted access publishers pay remuneration to peer reviewers?

I know of no publisher that pays peer reviewers. But actually I am happy with that. Peer-review is a service to the community. As soon as you encumber it with direct financial incentives, things get more complicated and there’s more potential for Conflict of interest. What I do is, I only perform peer-reviews for open-access journals. And I am happy to put that time/effort in knowing the world will benefit.

And so we bring this edition to a close. We say a big thanks to our special guest @MikeTaylor who’s been totally awesome and instructive.

Thanks, it’s been a privilege.


4 Responses to “Interview with Open Access Nigeria”

  1. Liz Allen Says:

    Just shedding light on the use of the color orange in OA week. As I recall from working at PLOS and many early OA weeks, the color choice was inspired by our offices which were next door to the Giants baseball stadium at the time. Their team color is orange.

    Go Giants or Vamos Gigantes as we like to say here in CA during the World Series! The “world” being defined here as the USA only, in other words, not correctly!

  2. Another good one Mike!

  3. Mark Robinson Says:

    Great article, thanks for cleaning it up, Mike. I was waiting for the part where you would be asked for assistance in transferring a large sum of money via your bank account in return for a share of it!

  4. […] grateful to Paul and Phil, both for inviting me onto this project, and for taking into account my strong preference for an open-access venue. It’s largely because of the latter that the paper now appears in PLOS ONE, where the […]

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