I’m a bit shocked to find it’s now more than five years since Robert Harington’s Scholarly Kitchen post Open Access: Fundamentals to Fundamentalists. I wrote a response in the comments, meaning to also post it here, but got distracted, and then half a decade passed. Here it is, finally. The indented parts are quotes from Harington.


I must admit to being rather tired of the fundamentalism that pervades discussions around open access policies and business models. On the one hand there are the advocates, and through the laws of conservation of energy, the equal and opposite reaction of anti-open access advocacy. There seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere.

It’s always a powerful rhetorical move to call your opponent a fundamentalist. It’s also a lazy one. It absolves you from the tedious responsibility of bothering to understand what the opponent actually wants: just dismiss him has a fundamentalist and call it done. I’d hope we’re better than that. At best, this seems like a fine demonstration of the principle that “there seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere”.

You want a rational debate? You want to talk about fundamentals? Fine, let’s do that. Here is the most fundamental question of all: what is research for? Our answer to this will profoundly affect every stance we adopt regarding publishing, OA, researcher evalution and more.

The greatest problem we have in discussing these issues is when person A assumes right off the bat that person B has the same answer to that fundamental question, and is then surprised to find that B disagrees over numerous implementation details. All those details flow from the fundamental mismatch. A and B are literally trying to solve two different problems — no wonder they can’t agree on the solution!

So what is research for? Here are three possible answers.

A. Some people believe (or maybe I should say assume) that research is for the world — for the betterment of the lot of society as a whole, the eradication of illness, the understanding of the environment, and generally the benefit of humanity. As pleasant side-effects, it also feeds publishing businesses and advances researchers’ careers.

B. Some people believe (or assume) that research is primarily for the benefit of the economy: that the principle purpose of the whole process is the financial benefit that accrues to publishers and related professions. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and advances researchers’ careers.

C. Some people believe (or assume, or at least give the impression of assuming) that research is mostly about the careers of researchers — about giving them a way to prove their merit and advance up the career ladder. As pleasant side-effects, it also advances the world’s knowledge and feeds publishing businesses.

All of these fundamental positions exist. (There may be others that I missed.) We could probably all classify various individuals into these groups (but I’ll resist the temptation to throw in examples, as that would surely result in an epic sidetrack).

Notice that one can’t reach one of these three positions by any amount of thought about what happens within the research/publication ecosystem. It’s more fundamental than that. That decision has to come from somewhere outside. For example, my own position is no secret: I am an “A”, and the reason is because I feel it follows from the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”, Luke 6:31) — probably the most universally agreed ethical principle in any religion (and among those who profess none).

And so when Robert Harrington asks:

The real debate here is to understand more about the motivations and needs of a researcher, who may or may not be funded directly. What is the best business model that will allow a researcher to publish work effectively and allow readers access to that work?

That is really two ——quite separate questions that may have completely different answers: 1, what business model will allow a researcher to publish work effectively?; and 2, what business model will allow readers access to that work? If you are an “A”, you’ll care most about the second question; if you’re a “C” you’ll care about the first question; and if you’re a “B” you might still be thinking about the business model mentioned at the start of the question.

It’s fruitless to expect “A”s, “B”c and “C”s to agree on an answer to a question when each group is hearing a different question.

Here’s another example:

The real story here is that the rights and desires of academics are being represented by organizations that do not reflect their needs, and that perhaps do not even understanding them. There is a form of fundamentalism that dictates to academics that this is what you need; just let us lead the way and we will make things right for you.

This statement suggests a “C” mindset: that the rights and desires of researchers are paramount. But if the organisations in question are “A”s (as for example you’d expect the Alliance for Taxpayer Access or RCUK to be), then this complaint is a non-issue. Of course they don’t reflect researchers’ desires — that’s not what they’re there for. They reflect the needs of broader society (which are often aligned with those of researchers, but by no means always).

That’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

And similarly:

I would suggest that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a subscription model.

This may be true for “B”s (who might prefer the subscription model because they think it yields the most revenue) and for “C”s (who might want to place their work in a specific paywalled journal that is well regarded in their field). But it’s much less likely for “A”s, who see great public benefit in free access, and conversely great harm in arbitrary barriers.

So there you go. Fundamentals.

 

 

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I’ve been on vacation for a couple of weeks, hence the radio silence here at SV-POW! after the flood of Supersaurus posts and Matt’s new paper on aberrant nerves in human legs.

But the world has not stood still in my absence (how rude of it!) and one of the more significant things to have happened in this time is the announcement of RVHost, a hosted end-to-end scholarly publishing solution provided by River Valley Technologies.

It’s not so long ago that scholarly publishing remained technically difficult, and could only be achieved by using expensive proprietary technologies. Journals that rolled their own tended to make rather creaky systems that were not much fun to use — and come to that, the commercial systems were mostly pretty wretched, too. But now there are a lot more options. I’ve surely missed some, but among the low-cost, open-oriented hosted publishing solutions out there are:

These platforms (and others that I have no doubt missed — do remind me, in the comments) provide a range of service levels and price points so that every journal should be able to find a service that suits it. Editorial boards wanting to move away from exploitative publishers have all sorts of options these days, and it’s ever easier to go open access.

Since the rather surprising apppointment of Mike Eisen as the new Editor-in-Chief of eLife, I’ve found myself thinking about this journal again. At its inception in 2012, it was explicitly intended to be the open-access alternative that would “compete with publishing powerhouses such as Nature, Science and Cell“.

A few years ago, in an article about eLife‘s £25M additional cash injection from its three original funders, Nature News reported a doubling down on its original mission, citing an interview with founding Editor-in-Chief Randy Schekman:

But it won’t, he says, establish other open-access journals that accept more papers and have lower selectivity — a strategy that some organizations, such as the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, has turned to in an attempt to shore up finances. “We have no interest in creating other lesser journals with lower standards,” he says.

This makes no sense to me.

Four years ago, I was already saying “It’s a real shame that the eLife people have fallen into the impact-chasing trap and show no interest in running an eLife megajournals.” Now that eLife’s funding is running out and it’s having to introduce APCs, it makes even less sense to refuse to run a review-for-correctness-only journal alongside its flagship.

I do see why some people think it’s desirable to have an OA alternative to Science and Nature. But I can’t understand at all why they won’t add a second, non-selective journal — an eLIFE ONE, if you will — and automatically propagate articles to it that are judged “sound but dull” at eLIFE proper (or eLIFE Gold, as they may want to rename it). Way back in I think 2012 I spoke separately to Randy Schekman and executive director Mark Patterson about this: both of them were completely uninterested then, and it seems that’s still the case.

This is why Mike Eisen’s appointment is such a surprise. In a recent interview regarding this appointment, he commented “Our addiction to high-impact factor journals poisons hiring and funding decisions, and distorts the research process” — which I agree with 100%. But then why has he taken on a role in a journal that perpetuates that addiction?

We can only hope that he plans to change it from within, and that eLife ONE is lurking just beyond the horizon.

 

Appendix

This isn’t a new drum for me to be banging. Way back when eLife launched in 2012, I left a comment on its Reviewer’s Charter. Seven years on, all the comments seem to have vanished (I hate it when that happens), but happily for posterity I saved what I wrote. Here it is:

This charter is an excellent start. But I would like to see a Guideline Zero that lays out what the purposes (plural) of peer-review are. I see three very distinct purposes, and much of the frustration with peer-review comes from reviews that blur these.

1. Assessing whether the paper is sound, i.e. does it express a coherent argument that is backed up by data?

2. Assessing “importance” or “impact”, i.e. is the paper likely to be seen as a significant advance in its field, and to gather many citations?

3. Helping the author improve the paper by constructively suggesting changes that can be made without altering the fundamental nature of the paper.

All of these are important contributions, but they are quite separate and should be kept so. In category 3, for example, if a reviewer suggests that a sentence would be easier to parse if changed around, that should certainly not affect the gatekeeping decisions in categories 1 and 2.

PLoS ONE has shown the importance of separating caterories 1 and 2. In that journal, and those that now emulate it, the “impact” criterion is explicitly ignored, and all good papers are published however important or unimportant they are considered to be. (This means, among other things, that replication studies are welcome.)

This inclusive strategy is not appropriate for all journals — I understand that eLife is actively aiming to reject most submissions on “impact” criteria, in the hope of attaining prestige similar to that of Science and Nature. But even in journals that evaluate for impact, it’s important to separate the two assessment criteria. One important practical implication of this separation is that a subsequent high-volume “eLife ONE” journal could publish all eLife submissions that passed criterion 1 but failed criterion 2 without the need for further review.

I don’t think there was ever a response to that comment back in the day (though I can’t be certain due to the comments’ having vanished.) I hope that’s set to change under the new regime.

 

Sorry for the short notice, but I just wanted to let you all know:

Today is Academic-Led Publishing Day, which the official website describes as “a global digital event to foster discussions about how members of the scholarly community can develop and support academic-led publishing initiatives”. More informally, it’s about how we can throw off the shackles of “publishers” that have made themselves our masters rather than our servants.

Three events are scheduled today: an OASPA Webinar, showcasing examples of excellent in academic-led publishing initiatives; a Twitter chat; and a panel discussion — see the website for details. These involve some stellar people, plus me. Seriously: I have no idea what I am doing there alongside people like Kathleen Shearer, Executive Director of the Confederation of Open Access Repositories, and Rebecca Kennison, co-founder of the Open Access Network. But it’s a privilege to be involved and I hope I can add something to the discussion.

If you want to tune in, you can watch live on YouTube starting at 2pm Eastern time, which is 7pm GMT. I hope to see some of you there!

BTW., if the whole topic of academic-led publishing is new to you, you might find this blog-post by Scholastica helpful: they are one of the leading publishers in this area, and right behind the goal of putting academics back in charge of academic publishing. Read: Why Academic-Led Journal Publishing? Liberating Research Through Tools and Services

In a move that will surprise no-one who’s been paying attention, my and Matt’s presentation of vertebral orientation at the 1st Palaeo Virtual Congress is now up as a PeerJ preprint. Sadly, with the end of the conference period on 15th December, the page for my talk has been deleted, along with some interesting comments. But here at SV-POW!, we have no truck with ephemerality, hence this more permanent manifestation of our work.

Matt’s preprint consists of the abstract, and has the slide deck as a supplementary data file. That’s what he submitted to the conference, with attendees invited to page through it. By contrast, I recorded a video of my talk. I am trying to get that attached to my preprint, but as things stand it’s not there because it’s too big (at 65 Mb).

Meanwhile — and indeed in perpetuity — you can just watch it on YouTube, where I also uploaded it. In the end, that may be a more practical way of making video available anyway, but I do want the preservational benefit of lodging it with a preprint.

Remember, we’re working on the paper in the open. We’d love to get input from you all, and especially from anyone who’s run into this problem before with other taxa. Please, if you have fifteen minutes spare, watch the talk and leave any comments you have: here, on the preprint, on the YouTube page, or as issues in the GitHub tracker!

Reference

If you were curious about the Wedel et al. presentation on the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus at the 1st Palaeo Virtual Congress but didn’t attend the event, it is now preserved for posterity and freely available to the world as a PeerJ Preprint (as promised). Here’s the link.

I’ll have much more to say about this going forward, but for now here are slides 20 and 21 on the intervertebral joint spaces. This is obviously just the same vert cloned three times and articulated with itself. With the digital rearticulation of the reconstructed and retrodeformed caudal series still in progress, we cloned caudal 3, the only vertebra that preserves both sets of zygapophyses, to get a rough estimate of the sizes and shapes of the soft tissues that filled the intervertebral spaces and neural canal.

The reconstructed intervertebral discs (in blue) are very crude and diagrammatic. The reason I’m putting these particular slides up is to get the cited references out in the open on the blog, to start correcting the misapprehension that all non-mammalian amniotes have exclusively synovial intervertebral joints (see the discussion in the comments on this post). In the list below I’m including Banerji (1957), which is not cited in the presentation but which I did cite in that comment thread; it’s an important source and at least for now it is a free download. These refs are just the tip of a very big iceberg. One of my goals for 2019 is to do a series of posts reviewing the extensive literature on amphiarthrodial (fibrocartilaginous) intervertebral joints in living lepidosaurs and birds. Stay tuned!

And please go have a look at the presentation if you are at all interested or curious. As we said in the next to last slide, “this research is ongoing, and we welcome your input. If there are facts or hypotheses we haven’t considered but should, please let us know!”

References

Scholastica is a publishing platform that offers support for super-low-cost open-access journals such as Discrete Analysis, led by Tim Gowers. They’re putting together the first Academic-Led Publishing Day on 7 February next year, and as part of the build-up, they kindly invited me to do an interview for them, kicking off their Academic-Led Publishing From the Experts series.

I did tell them that I wasn’t qualified — “I am about as far from an expert as I could possibly be in the field of Academic-led publishing. I’ve never even been an academic editor for a journal, far less started one or run one. All I’ve ever done, really (beyond writing and peer-reviewing articles) is have opinions and write about them.” But they wanted to push ahead anyway, so I was happy to go along with it.

Here’s the interview: enjoy!