More of my thoughts on the Finch Report; you may wish to read part 1 first. As before I will be quoting from the executive summary (11 pages) rather than the full report (140 pages).

Changing culture

Section 4 (What needs to be done, on page 7) begins as follows:

Implementing our recommendations will require changes in policy and practice by all stakeholders. More broadly, what we propose implies cultural change: a fundamental shift in how research is published and disseminated.

This is a crucial point. Cultural change is exactly what’s needed — not just in how research is published, as noted in the report, but even more importantly in how it’s evaluated. In particular, we’re going to have to stop assessing research by what journal it’s published in, and start looking at the value of the actual research.

This is already important — it always has been, because the use of journal reputation as a proxy for research quality has always been appallingly error-prone and misleading. But it’s going to become more and more important as open access grows more prevalent and a greater proportion of research moves into OA megajournals such as PLoS ONE, Sage Open and NPG’s Scientific Reports. These things are just too darned big to have a meaningful reputation. If you try to judge a PLoS ONE paper on the basis of the journal’s impact factor (4.411), you’ll quickly run aground: that’s a weak IF for a medic, but very strong for a palaeontologist. PLoS ONE is increasingly one of the journals of choice for palaeo papers, but it’s looked down on in astronomy. A question like “what’s the quality of PLoS ONE papers” is as about as meaningful as “what’s the price of property in London?” It depends on whether you’re talking about Knightsbridge or Peckham.

This is one of the fringe benefits of the shift towards megajournals: it’s going to make everyone see just how fatuous judgement by impact factor is. We’re going to see the end of comments on Guardian articles that say “my department actively discourages us from publishing in journals with IF less then 6.0”.

Unilateral action by the UK

Well, I seem to have gone off on a bit of a tangent there. Back to the Finch Report, pages 7 and 8:

Key actions: overall policy and funding arrangements

v. Renew efforts to sustain and enhance the UK’s role in international discussions on measures to accelerate moves towards open access.

This is also important. I like it that the Finch Report seems generally to advocate that we in the UK should lead the way in open access. But it’s also true that if we push on ahead of other countries, implementing mandatory open access unilaterally, we’ll be at a disadvantage compared with other countries: they will get our research for free, but we won’t get theirs till they follow suit.

And I am fine with that. Obviously it can’t continue indefinitely, but if taking a short-term financial hit is what it takes to get the world onside, that’s cool. Doing science costs money. And you haven’t done science till you’ve published your result. And you haven’t really published it until everyone can get it.

Non-commercial use

Now we come to a part of the report that I am really unhappy with. This is from the list in the section Key actions: publication in open access and hybrid journals, on page 8:

x. Extend the range of open access and hybrid journals, with minimal if any restrictions on rights of use and re-use for non-commercial purposes.

There’s that non-commercial clause again. This is worrying. If the Finch Report really is about what’s best for the country and for the world, there is no justification for NC. We want businesses to thrive as well as universities. And there are more businesses in the world than publishers! Cameron Neylon said this best in his Finch Report review, Good steps but missed opportunities:

This fudge risks failing to deliver on the minister’s brief, to support innovation and exploitation of UK research. This whole report is embedded in a government innovation strategy that places publicly funded knowledge creation at the heart of an effort to kick start the UK economy. Non-commercial licences can not deliver on this and we should avoid them at all costs.

That’s exactly right.

I will have more to say on this in a future post.

The role of repositories

There is a section headed Key actions: repositories on page 9. Tellingly, it has only two points, compared with 5, 6 and 5 for the other three key actions sections. Here is the second of those points:

xviii. Consider carefully the balance between the aims of, on the one hand, increasing access, and on the other of avoiding undue risks to the sustainability of subscription-based journals during what is likely to be a lengthy transition to open access. Particular care should be taken about rules relating to embargo periods. Where an appropriate level of dedicated funding is not provided to meet the costs of open access publishing, we believe that it would be unreasonable to require embargo periods of less than twelve months.

Who is the “we” that believes a six-month embargo period would be “unreasonable”?

Obviously not Research Councils UK, who recently stated “Ideally, a paper should become Open Access as soon as it is published. However […] the Research Councils will accept a delay of up to six months in the case where no ‘Article Processing Charge’ is paid.”

Obviously not the Wellcome Trust, whose policy states that it: “requires electronic copies of any research papers that have been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, and are supported in whole or in part by Wellcome Trust funding, to be made available through PubMed Central (PMC) and UK PubMed Central (UKPMC) as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication”.

No. “We” can only mean the publishers’ lobby. They hate repositories, and were somehow allowed to nobble all references to Green OA in the report. Don’t believe me? Search for the word “green” in the executive summary: zero hits in eleven pages. Try it in the main report? Three hits in 140 pages: one on page 16, parenthetical (“… a version of a publication through a repository (often called green open access)”), one on page 120, a repeat (“… a version of a publication via a repository, often after an embargo period. This strand is often called green open access”) and one on page 130 (an unrelated mention of the HM Treasury Green Book).

This is one of the most disturbing aspects of the report, and I can see why Stevan Harnad is irate.

Let us move on to happier matters.

Transparency and competition

From page 10:

One of the advantages of open access publishing is that it brings greater transparency about the costs, and the price, of publication and dissemination. The measures we recommend will bring greater competition on price as well as the status of the journals in which researchers wish to publish. We therefore expect market competition to intensify, and that universities and funders should be able to use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of APCs and of subscriptions.

I think this is a very important and much neglected point, and it makes me want to write a blog on why author-pays is inevitably more economical than reader-pays. (Short version: granularity of transactions is smaller, so the market is efficient and real competition comes into play, as we are seeing with the launch of PeerJ.)

Costs

From page 10:

Our best estimate is that achieving a significant and sustainable increase in access, making best use of all three mechanisms, would require an additional £50-60m a year in expenditure from the HE sector: £38m on publishing in open access journals, £10m on extensions to licences for the HE and health sectors and £3-5m on repositories.

*Cough* *splutter* Hey, what now?

So let’s get this straight. Transitioning from subscription to open access is going to cost us £10M more on licences than we’re already paying? Rather than, say, £10M less, as we start cancelling subscriptions we don’t need?

This seems to be pure fantasy on the part of the publishers.

Not only that, the £38M is based on an “average APC” of … get ready … £1,500. (This is not stated in the executive summary, but it’s on page 61 of the full report.) That number is a frankly ludicrous over-estimate, being nearly double the $1350 =~ £870 charged by PLoS ONE, and nearly three times as much as the $906 =~ £585 found as the average of 100,697 articles in 1,370 journals by Solomon and Björk (2012).

So based on this a more realistic APC, the £38M comes down to £14.8M. Throw out the absurd extra £10M that publishers want for extra subscription licences, and the total cost comes from from “£50-60M per year” to about £19M. Still not chicken-feed, but a lot less painful, even in the short term.

And finally …

The report finishes on an upbeat note (page 10) and so do we:

We believe that the investments necessary to improve the current research communications system will yield significant returns in improving the efficiency of research, and in enhancing its impact for the benefit of everyone in the UK.

Yes. Absolutely right. Even if we only thought about academia, the financial case for open access would be unanswerable. But there is more to the world than academia, and the real benefits will be seen elsewhere.

Epilogue

Anyone who is not yet heartily sick of the Finch Report can read lots more analysis in the articles linked from Bjorn Brembs’s article The Finch Report illustrates the new strategy wars of open access at the LSE’s Impact blog.

What does it cost to publish a paper  in a non-open access Elsevier journal? The immediate cost to the author is often zero (though page charges, and fees for colour illustrations mean this is not always true). But readers have to pay to see the paper, either directly in the case of private individuals or through library budgets in the case of university staff and students. What is the total cost to the world?

Previous attempts

It’s a calculation that I’ve taken a couple of stabs at in public forums, but in both cases space restraints meant that I couldn’t lay out the reasoning in the detail I’d like — and as a result I couldn’t get the kind of detailed feedback that would allow me to refine the numbers. So I am trying again here.

The first version of the calculation was in my article Open, moral and pragmatic at Times Higher Education:

According to Elsevier’s annual report for 2010, it publishes about “200,000 new science & technology research articles each year”. The same report reveals revenues for 2010 of £2.026 billion. This works out as £10,130 per article, each made available only to the tiny proportion of the world’s population that has access to a subscribing library.

As Kent Anderson pointed out in an otherwise misleading comment, that calculation was flawed in that I was using the total of Elsevier revenue rather than just the portion that comes from journal subscriptions. Trying to fix this, and using more up-to-date figures, I provided a better estimate in Academic Publishing Is Broken at The Scientist:

To publish in an Elsevier journal … appears to cost some $10,500. In 2011, 78 percent of Elsevier’s total revenue, or £1,605 million, was contributed by journal subscriptions. In the same year, Elsevier published 240,000 articles, making the average cost per article some £6,689, or about $10,500 US.

But this, it turns out, is also an over-estimate, because it’s 78% of Elsevier’s Scientific, Technical and Medical revenue that comes from journal subscriptions; the other half of Elsevier, their Health Sciences division, has its own revenues.

The data we have to work with

Here’s what I have right now — using data from 2010, the last complete year for which numbers are available.

Bear in mind that Elsevier is a publisher, and Reed Elsevier is a larger company that owns Elsevier and a bunch of other businesses such as Lexis Nexus. According to the notes from a Reed Elsevier investment seminar that took place on December 6, 2011 in London:

  • Page 2: 34% of Reed Elsevier’s total 2010 revenue of £6,055M (i.e. £2058.7M) was from “Science and Medical”, which I take to mean Elsevier. This is in keeping with the total revenue number from Elsevier’s annual report.
  • Page 8: Elsevier’s revenues are split 50-50 between the Scientific & Technical division and the Health Sciences division. 39% of total Elsevier revenue (i.e. £803M) is from research journals in the S&T sector. No percentage is given for research journal revenue in Health Sciences.
  • Page 18: confirmation that 78% of Scientific & Technical revenue (i.e. 39% of total Elsevier revenue) is from research journals.
  • Page 21: total number of articles published in 2010 seems to be about 258,000 (read off from the graph).
  • Page 22 confirms “>230,000 articles per year”.
  • Page 23, top half, says “>80% of revenue derived from subscriptions, strongly recurring revenues”. Bottom half confirms earlier revenue of 78% for research journals. I suppose that the “subscriptions” amounting to >80% must include database subscriptions.

The other important figure is the proportion of Elsevier journal revenue that comes from Gold OA fees rather than subscriptions. The answer is, almost none. Figures for 2010 are no longer on Elsevier’s Sponsored Articles page, but happily we quoted it in an older SV-POW! post:

691 Elsevier articles across some six hundred journals were sponsored in 2010. Sponsorship revenues from these articles amounted to less than 0.1% of Elsevier’s total revenues.

So for the purposes of these rough-and-ready calculations, we can ignore Elsevier’s Gold-OA revenue completely and assume that all research-journal revenue is from subscriptions.

The data we don’t have

The crucial piece of information we don’t have is this: how much of Elsevier Health Sciences revenue is from journal subscriptions? This information is not included in the investor report, and my attempts to determine it have so far been wholly unsuccessful. Back in March, I contacted Liz Smith (VP/Director of Global Internal Communications), Alicia Wise (Director of Universal Access), Tom Reller (VP of Global Corporate Relations), Ron Mobed (CEO of Scientific & Technical) and Michael Hansen (CEO of Health Sciences). Of these, only Tom Reller got back to me — he was helpful, and pointed me to the investor report that I cite heavily above — but wasn’t able to give me a figure.

If anyone knows the true percentage — or can even narrow the range a bit — I would love to know about it. Please leave a comment.

In the mean time, I will proceed with calculations on two different bases:

  1. That Health Sciences revenue is proportioned the same as Scientific & Technical, i.e. 78% comes from journal subscriptions;
  2. That Health Sciences has no revenue from journal subscriptions. This seems very unrealistic to me, but will at least give us a hard lower bound.

Calculation

It’s pretty simple.

If HS journal-subscription revenue is zero, then Elsevier’s total from journal subscriptions in 2010 was £803M. On the other hand, if HS revenue proportions are about the same as in S&T, then total journal-subscription revenue was twice this, £1606M.

Across the 258,000 or so articles published in 2010, that yields either £803M / 258,000 = £3112 per article, or £1606M / 258,000 = £6224 per article. At current exchange rates, that’s $4816 or $9632. My guess is that the true figure is somewhere between these extremes. If I had to give a single figure, I guess I’d split the difference and go with £4668, which is about $7224.

Remember: this is what it costs the academic world to get access to your article when you give it to an Elsevier journal. Those parts of the academic world that have access, that is — don’t forget that many universities and almost everyone outside a university won’t be able to access it at all.

This is less than my previous estimates. It’s still an awful lot.

Why this matters

Over on Tim Gowers’ blog, he’s recently announced the launch of a new open-access maths journal, Forum of Mathematics, to be published by Cambridge University Press. The new journal will have an article processing fee of £500 after the first three years, during which all fees will be waived. I’ve been shocked at the vehemence with which a lot of commenters have objected to the ideas of any article processing fee.

Here’s the thing. For each maths article that’s sent to an Elsevier journal, costing the worldwide maths community between £3112 and £6224, that same worldwide maths community could instead pay for six to twelve open-access articles in the new journal. And those articles would then be available to anyone who wanted them, not only people affiliated with subscribing institutions.

To me, the purely economic argument for open access is unanswerable. Even if you leave aside the moral argument, the text-mining argument, and so on, you’re left with a very stark financial equation. It’s madness to give research to subscription publishers.

As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.

Matt measuring the width across the preacetabular lobes of the fused ilia on the sacrum of the referred “Morosaurus” sp. specimen, AMNH 690, illustrated by Osborn (1094: fig 2A-E). Behold the wonder that is the Big Bone Room.

The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.

What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:

The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.

So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.

But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:

[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.

More on this point later.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008 by Derek Ramsey, from Wikimedia Commons.

The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:

Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.

I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.

But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:

This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.

My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.

This isn’t an idle speculation:  the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.

And so we find statements like this, from p5:

The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.

This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.

Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?

Reading on:

Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.

I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.

And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:

We therefore recommend that:

i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;

So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.

And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)

To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:

i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.

Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make.  (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.

Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.

Harvard University is probably the single richest school on the planet. Its endowment in 2011 was the biggest in the USA, at $31.728 billion — over 60% more than the next highest (Yale, at $19.374 billion).

It’s also in with a good shout as the best university in the world — the current Times Higher Education ranking has it equal second, behind only Cal Tech, level with Stanford, and ahead of Oxford, Princeton and Cambridge.

If any university should be able to pay all its journal subscriptions without problems, it’s Harvard.

So this memorandum, published last Tuesday, came as quite a shock:

To: Faculty Members in all Schools, Faculties, and Units
From: The Faculty Advisory Council
Date: April 17, 2012
RE: Periodical Subscriptions

We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. … Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145% over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. …

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership, reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable. … Costs are now prohibitive.

Yes, you read it right.  The world’s richest university can’t afford journal subscriptions.  If anyone ever doubted that subscription prices had run wild, that the academic publishers who control access to the research we generate are out of control, this should dispel any remaining illusions that all is well with the current model.

Happily, the Harvard advisory council does not limit itself to whining, but has concrete suggestions for researchers (and also for the library).  The actions they recommend for researchers on their staff are:

  • Archive all their own papers as Green Open Access.
  • Submit to open-access journals; “move prestige to open access”.
  • Resign from editorial boards of non-OA journals if they won’t convert.
  • Ask professional societies to take control of publishing in their fields.
  • Recruit colleagues to join them in these measures.

The deal here is that Open Access is not a fringe issue any more.  It’s not just something that idealistic young researchers like to shout about.  It’s a major part of the strategy of one — several, actually — of the world’s top universities.  I’d argue that it’s been a moral imperative for a long time.  Now Open Access has become an economic imperative, too.  (Anyone who doubts that it’s much, much cheaper than the subscription model should check out the numbers in my recent article at The Scientist: it seems to come out at about one eighth of the cost.)

For more analysis of Harvard’s public statement, see Harvard: we have a problem at Stephen Curry’s Reciprocal Space, and “No, we can’t” at the Library Loon’s Gavia Libraria.  (The latter is particularly interesting because it offers a librarian’s perspective rather than the much more familiar researcher’s perspective.)

Original Research Article

Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week, Volume 6, Issue 8, January 2012, Pages 1-7.
Michael P. Taylor, Mathew J. Wedel, Darren Naish.   View Abstract

Most of you will know that the major US science-funding agencies require the work they fund (from the public purse) to be made available as open-access to the public that funded it.  And it’s hard for me to imagine anyone sees that requirement as anything other than straightforwardly just.

But you may not know about the Research Works Act, a truly vile piece of legislation being proposed by two Elsevier-funded shills in the US Congress, which would make it illegal for funding bodies to impose this perfectly natural requirement.  It may not be surprising that a corporation as predatory as Elsevier wants legal protection for its exploitative business model of stealing publicly funded research; but it shocked me to find that this preposterous Act ever got out of committee (unlike two earlier failed attempts to overturn open-access mandates).

The good news is that there is something we can do.  The Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) has issued a Request For Information — basically, it wants your opinion — on public access to peer-reviewed scholarly publications resulting from federally funded research.  You can read about this in (too much) detail here, but the bottom line is that you should email your comments to publicaccess@ostp.gov, before the extended deadline of 12th January.

Here is what I just sent:

From: Mike Taylor <mike@miketaylor.org.uk>
To: publicaccess@ostp.gov
Date: 9 January 2012 11:26
Subject: RFI: Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research

Dear Science and Technology Policy Office,

Thank you for extending the deadline for comments on Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications Resulting From Federally Funded Research.  The Research Works Act has only very recently come to the notice of scientists, and it is because of this extraordinary proposal that it is now apparent to us that we need to reaffirm what we thought was settled: that OF COURSE scientific work funded by the public should be freely accessible to the public.  I do not understand how this can even be a matter for discussion.  The public pays: the public should benefit in every way possible.

The language in the RWA is highly misleading, attributing to publishers far more input into the scientific process than they really have.  The truth is that scientists (often funded by public money) provide the underlying research, the writing and the figure preparation that result in a manuscript submitted for publication.  Other scientists then provide the editorial services and (contra publishers’ claims, as can be easily verified) the peer review.  Publishers’ contributions are limited essentially to typesetting, the provision of web hosting, and sometimes a very limited amount of compensation for senior editors only (usually not the handling editors who actually deal with authors’ works).  The notion that such a minor contribution should suffice to hand publishers, rather than the public, the right to determine how, where and under what regime the resulting works are disseminated, is ludicrous.  It would be laughable if it were not so iniquitous.

Dr. Michael P. Taylor
Research Associate
Department of Earth Sciences
University of Bristol
Bristol BS8 1RJ
ENGLAND

Much more about the Research Works Act here, here, here, here, and all over the Internet.  Please, do your bit today: send your comments to the OSTP.  Don’t let Elsevier and their cartel steal publicly funded science.

UPDATE

Matt here. Emailing the OSTP takes all of 5 minutes and you should do it right away if you haven’t yet. They ARE listening; in my initial message I mentioned that the profits from a handful of the big commercial publishers could fund all scholarly publishing worldwide, and cited this post. Within 19 minutes I received a personal response from someone in the OSTP, saying, “Thank you Mathew. Would you be so kind as to submit your linked evidence in the body of an email to ease processing and ensure it is fully considered?”

So I did. If you’d like the same ammo, see the post linked above and especially updates and comments, and this post on the insane profit margins of the big commercial publishers (hat tip to Mike). You should also include Peter Murray-Rust’s argument that open access saves lives, outlined in this post and more briefly in this comment.

As long as I have your ear, I am curious at the absence of leverage being brought to bear on the politicians to sponsored the Research Works Act: Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).

Issa is a corporate lackey and social policy atavism of the first order, and as long as the publishers keep the campaign funds flowing he’s unlikely to budge–unless his followers start asking why he is sponsoring legislation that would allow a mostly-foreign-based publishing industry to monopolize the results of US-funded research. Maybe someone should. Issa’s webpage is here; in a crowning irony, the big banner at the top currently says, “keep the web #OPEN”.

Carolyn Maloney is a Democrat from New York, she ought to know better. Like Issa, according to her Facebook page Maloney has maxed out on friends and isn’t accepting any more. Not surprisingly, things are dead silent there, and mostly just dead. Fortunately you can reach her at her official House of Representatives webpage. Maloney sponsored the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act; since she cares about health care, it would be worthwhile to point out that open access saves lives. One of the rotating photos on Maloney’s webpage shows her touring a small business incubator, so it would also be a good idea to emphasize the plight of the scholarly poor.

Two things: obviously comments from these politicians’ constituents will carry the most weight, so if you’re in their districts, please take the time to write to them. That said, if you’re a US citizen you are in the legislative footprint of these people, and you should let them know what you think. And if the RWA passes the repercussions would be global, so don’t stay quiet just because you’re outside the US.

Second, if you do write to either politician, please be respectful, on point, and brief. Sure, they may be craven corporate shill morons, but you won’t do our cause any favors by pointing that out in those terms. Don’t soft-pedal the immorality of the proposed legislation, but don’t be a name-calling abusive jerk, either. That’s what blogs are for ;-).

In a comment on an previous post, wycx articulated a position that sounds all too familiar:

Until the impact factors and prestige/credibility of open access journals are as high as their closed equivalents AND university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, I do not see much changing.

I have heard a lot of people say things like this in the last couple of months.  It makes pretty depressing reading.

"Non-open scholarly publishing? Don't talk to me about non-open scholarly publishing. Oh God, it's so depressing."

But how true is it?  And can we do anything to change it?

Well, first up that big AND in wycx’s comment should be an OR.  When the prestige/credibility of open access journals is as high as their closed counterparts OR university administrators and funding agencies stop quantifying academic performance via impact factors, the push to publish in non-open venues will go away.  Either open access journals will start winning the assessment game; or, better still, we can all stop stop playing that stupid game and just place our papers where they’ll be read by the relevant people.

But there’s a more fundamental issue here.  That kind of comment sees researchers as passive victims.  The story it tells (whether or not this was wycx’s intention) is that there’s nothing we can do to change the situation.

But that’s not true.  There are actually quite a few things we can do.

Preferentially submit to open-access journals

This is the big one, of course.  It’s been pointed out many times in the comments to these posts, rightly, that not everyone has the luxury of academic freedom that comes from being a professional programmer, and I do accept that career academics may have circumstances that make non-open venues very attractive — especially when they have something that might get into Science or Nature.

But just because someone is not in a position to implement a blanket ban on submitting to non-open venues, that’s no reason not to favour open-access venues — even to favour them very strongly.  I have the sense that openness is at least a factor for more and more people; I would love to see it become a more significant factor for more researchers.

I strongly suspect that nothing else we do is more important than favouring open-access venues for our own papers.  The attractiveness of certain non-open venues comes from the quality of the work that is published in them, and because of that attractiveness, people send more good work into those silos.  But once that circle begins to break, things will move quickly.  There’s that open-access journals can’t be as highly cited (and so as prestigious) as S&N — in fact, one of the big landmark days that I am looking forward to is when an open journal has the highest Impact Factor in science.

Do not review for non-open journals

I’ve written about this a lot, so I won’t rehash the arguments in detail.  In short: your unpaid volunteer work should be in the service of the whole world, not the dividends of commercial publishers’ shareholders.

Do not edit for non-open journals

This follows on not reviewing for non-open journals.  Again, I understand why some researchers need to do this: I have a friend who edits for an Elsevier journal, frankly because he or she needs the money.  But these can be, and should be, the exception.

And we’re starting to see this happening.  My friend is keen to stop working for Elsevier as soon as it’s financially possible.  Steve Wheeler recently resigned as co-editor of Interactive Learning Environments, a Taylor and Francis journal.  Peter Suber once compiled a list of entire editorial boards that have resigned en masse to start open-access journals.

As with reviewing, the point is of course not just to withdraw effort from non-open publishers; it’s to redirect that effort to open publishers, so that the whole world benefits from it.

Influence conferences to make proceedings open access

It was great that the the Geological Society hosted the excellent conference Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective (written up at Tetrapod Zoology [part 1], [part 2]).  But as we’ve noted before, the proceedings volume is non-open and absurdly expensive: $190 at amazon.com£95 at amazon.co.uk.  The result is obvious: no-one is going to buy it, and the papers will not get read.  (Exception: my own contribution is freely available, but only because I played a trick with the Geol Soc’s copyright assignment mechanism.)

I have another conference coming up soon that will generate a proceedings volume.  So this time, I have been in contact with the conference organisers ahead of time to express my preference for open-access proceedings.  Happily, they are in agreement that this is desirable and even important, so hopefully we should see a special issue of a well-regarded journal at some point in the next few years.  (Sorry to be vague, but the details are not yet settled.  We’ll let you know when it happens.)

Influence funding bodies to mandate open access

This is one for academics much more senior and influential than I am.  But we know that several of the big funding bodies, including the Wellcome Trust (UK) and the National Institutes of Health (USA), are mandating as a condition of awarding grants that the research outputs must be freely available.  This is a big win: those of us with enough influence can encourage other funding bodies to adopt similar policies.

Influence universities to mandate open access

An increasing number of universities also have, or are adopting, open-access mandates for their research outputs, including MIT (USA) and UCL (UK).  I wonder what influence each of us has on the policies of our own universities?  Some of us much more than others, of course.  I will at least be asking questions around the University of Bristol, to see whether moves can be made in that direction.

Spread the word!

… and finally, there is one thing that we can all do to help, and that is simply to spread the word.  Blog about open-access papers, tell your friends which are the good publishers, talk about the importance of open access in the pub.  Let the world know that the status quo can be and must be shifted!

Perhaps even more important, as I hope I have shown, it is shifting.  Universities like MIT and UCL are not minor-league (in fact the most recent Times Higher Education rankings list them at number 7 and number 17 in the world).  Contra the negative tone of the comment that I quoted at the start of this article, open access is becoming an increasingly important issue not just among a few malcontents such as myself but with the most influential and important researchers and institutions.

We live in exciting times.

One step at a time, gets there in the end

Finally: it may seem strange, but I only found out today that this is Open Access week (Ocotober 24-30), so it’s appropriate that I’ve found myself writing so much about it.

In celebration of, or at least in resonance with, Open Access Week, the Royal Society has just announced that it is permanently open-accessing all of its articles that are 70 years old and more.  That makes a very important historical resource available to the world.  Good times.