Yesterday I was at the Berlin 11 satellite conference for students and early-career researchers. It was a privilege to be part of a stellar line-up of speakers, including the likes of SPARC’s Heather Joseph, PLOS’s Cameron Neylon, and eLIFE’s Mark Patterson. But even more than these, there were two people who impressed me so much that I had to give in to my fannish tendencies and have photos taken with them. Here they are.

MikeTaylor-with-JackAndraka2

This is Jack Andraka, who at the age of fifteen invented a new test for pancreatic cancer that is 168 times faster, 1/26000 as expensive and 400 times more sensitive than the current diagnostic tests, and only takes five minutes to run.  Of course he’s grown up a bit since then — he’s sixteen now.

Right at the moment Jack’s not getting much science done because he’s sprinting from meeting to meeting. He came to us in Berlin literally straight from an audience with the Pope. He’s met Barack Obama in the oval office. And one of the main burdens of his talk is that he’s not such an outlier as he appears: there are lots of other brilliant kids out there who are capable of doing similarly groundbreaking work — if only they could get access to the published papers they need. (Jack was lucky: his parents are indulgent, and spent thousands of dollars on paywalled papers for him.)

Someone on Twitter noted that every single photo of Jack seems to show him, and the people he’s with, in thumbs-up pose. It’s true: and that is his infectious positivity at work. It’s energising as well as inspiring to be around him.

(Read Jack’s guest post at PLOS on Why Science Journal Paywalls Have to Go)

Here’s the other photo:

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This is Bernard Rentier, who is rector of the University of Liège. To put it bluntly, he is the boss of the whole darned university — an academic of the very senior variety that I never meet; and of the vintage that, to put it kindly, can have a tendency to be rather conservative in approach, and cautious about open access.

With Bernard, not a bit of it. He has instituted a superb open-access policy at Liège — one that is now being taken up as the model for the whole of Belgium. Whenever members of the Liège faculty apply for anything — office space, promotions, grants, tenure — their case is evaluated by taking into account only publications that have been deposited in the university’s open-access repository, ORBi.

Needless to say, the compliance rate is superb — essentially 100% since the policy came in. As a result, Liège’s work is more widely used, cited, reused, replicated, rebutted and generally put to work. The world benefits, and the university benefits.

Bernard is a spectacular example of someone in a position of great power using that power for good. Meanwhile, at the other end of scale, Jack is someone who — one would have thought — had no power at all. But in part because of work made available through the influence of people like Bernard, it turned out he had the power to make a medical breakthrough.

I came away from the satellite meeting very excited — in fact, by nearly all the presentations and discussions, but most especially by the range represented by Jack and Bernard. People at both ends of their careers; both of them not only promoting open access, but also doing wonderful things with it.

There’s no case against open access, and there never has been. But shifting the inertia of long-established traditions and protocols requires enormous activation energy. With advocates like Jack and Bernard, we’re generating that energy.

Onward and upward!

Suppose that, for some good and sane reason, you need to place a paper in a paywalled journal.

You do some research. You write a paper and prepare illustrations. You send it off to a journal, and a volunteer editor sends it out to volunteer peer-reviewers. You handle the reviews, revise your manuscript, write rebuttals as necessary, send in the revised version, and the editor accepts it.

Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of a peer-reviewed, revised, accepted manuscript which will shortly become a published paper that you can put on your CV and show to grant reviewers and job-search committees and tenure boards.

Note the key point here: you are the owner of the accepted manuscript. Not the journal, not the publisher. You, the author.

Any minute now the publisher is going to ask you to sign a copyright transfer agreement. Once you do that (if for some reason you decide to acquiesce) they will own your work. From that moment on, whatever you’re allowed to do with your own work, if anything, is only by their grace.

Here’s the point: in between getting your acceptance and signing away all your rights, you have a window in which you own a completed scientific work, lacking only copy-editing (if any) and typesetting. So that is your moment to make sure the world sees it. Release it now. Put it it up on arXiv or on PeerJ Preprints or on FigShare or on your institutional repository or on your own web page. There are lots of places you can post it — take your pick. Either place it in the public domain or licence it as CC BY, and do it explicitly: both options make work available for the world to use, and either way academic norms will ensure that you get credit for your work.

Of course, once you sign over copyright, you’re playing by the publisher’s rules. They may well have crazy, complex, self-contradictory rules such as Elsevier’s you-can-deposit-it-unless-mandated-to rule — they can forbid you from making the accepted manuscript available.

That’s why it’s so important to release it to the world, with a clear statement of licence, before signing the copyright transfer. Once it’s out there in the public domain or as CC BY, it can’t be rescinded. The world can see and read and use and benefit from your work, and the “publisher” can’t prevent it.

So you can ignore Elsevier’s crazy requirements — just so long as you do it before you sign up to them.

(Once your work is out there for the world to use on liberal terms, you can of course go right ahead, sign the transfer, and let the publisher publish your article behind their paywall. That’s OK: the work is out there fore people to use. And if the publisher adds significant value in their copy-editing and typesetting, people will keep buying their subscriptions.)

 

As part of the progressive erosion of RCUK’s initially excellent open-access policy, barrier-based publishers somehow got them to accept their “open-access decision tree“, which you can now find on page 7 of the toothless current version of the policy. The purpose of this manoeuvre by the Publishers Association is to lend an air of legitimacy to continuing to deny citizens access to the research they funded for up to 24 months after publication. It’s to the House of Lords’ enduring shame that they swallowed this, when they must know that there is no justification for embargoes of any length.

More recently, as commentary on the Australian Research Council’s open access policy, the Australian Open Access Support Group (AOASG) published its own rather better decision tree.

But it still doesn’t go nearly far enough. So here is the SV-POW! decision tree, which we encourage you to print out and hang on your office door.

open-access-decision-tree

 

 

… and don’t forget, when depositing your peer-reviewed accepted manuscripts in a repository, to specify that they are made available under the CC BY licence, which most benefits the field as a whole.

 

We’ve seen a lot of arguments recently about the RCUK open-access policy and the length of embargoes that it allows on Green OA articles under various circumstances. When is it reasonable to insist on six months? When might publishers have cause to want to stretch it out to 24 months? And so on.

The truth here is terribly simple. There is no justification for embargoes of any length on accepted manuscripts, ever. Remember that, whatever else they do, publishers do not fund research, nor peer-review. Up to the point where a manuscript is accepted for publication, they have made no contribution, and it’s nothing short of an outrage that current policies allow them any say in what happens to the work that has been done to that point.

After a paper has been accepted, then the publication process begins. That is when publishers add their own value, through copy-editing, formatting, typesetting, etc. It is perfectly reasonable that they should have some say in what happens to the final formatted papers which they have contributed to.

But that’s all. Every accepted manuscript should be immediately made freely available with no embargo.

Any publisher that argues against this policy is saying that the value they add is inadequate. Under a zero-embargo system, libraries would still subscribe to journals if they felt that the value added by publishers was worth what they charge for subscriptions. Publishers that do a good job at a good price would not be harmed. The only publishers that could conceivably suffer under such a policy are incompetent or exploitative ones. When did it become the government’s job to protect them?

[This post is a cleaned-up version of a comment that I left on a recent Times Higher Education article.]

The progressive RCUK policy on open access has recently come under fire, particularly from humanities scholars, for favouring Gold OA over Green. For various reasons — and I won’t, for now, go into the question of which of these reasons are and aren’t sound — they favour an approach to open access where publishers keep final versions of their papers behind paywalls, but drafts are deposited in institutional repositories (IRs) and people who want to read the paper can have access to the drafts.

It’s appealing to think that this relatively lightweight way of solving the access problem can work. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it can, for several reasons. I’ll discuss these below, not so much with the intention of persuading people that Gold is a better approach, but with the hope that those of you who are Green advocates have seen things that I’ve missed and you’ll be able to explain why it can work after all.

two-classes

1. Two-class system

Most fundamentally, I worry that Green OA creates a two-class system which I can’t approve of. It does this in two ways.

First, it necessarily creates two classes of papers: author’s draft and publishers’ final versions. These will differ in some respects, and it’s hard in general to know what those respects are. Of course pagination will differ — which means you can’t cite page-numbers reliably. But other changes are possible as well. For example, Matt and I have a paper in press now for which a whole additional figure — an important one — was added at the proofing stage. In our case, the paper will be OA anyway, but if it were not then the authors’ manuscript would be a poor substitute.

And by implication, Green OA creates two classes of researchers — a potentially harmful division between those privileged few who have the “proper” papers and an underclass who have only manuscripts. (It doesn’t help that for stupid historical reasons, our manuscripts are often butt-ugly: double-spaced, line-numbered, all the figures at the end instead of where they’re needed, etc.)

Admittedly, the two-classes-of-researcher problem is not created by Green OA: it already exists, in a worse form where the underclass doesn’t have access to any version of the paper. But whereas Gold OA solves this problem (everyone has exactly the same access to PLOS and PeerJ papers), Green doesn’t.

(To me, it’s obvious that democratising access is a good thing. But now that I’ve made the notion explicit, I can’t help the uncharitable thought that there may be those out there who want to maintain a two-class system — to retain a notion that they are “in” while others are “out”. I hope I’m wrong, and I’m certainly not accusing Green OA advocates of having this motivation. It just seems like it might be implicit in some of the broader struggles over access. Anyway, let’s not confuse this separate potential problem with access with the actual problems with Green OA I’m addressing in this post.)

money-up-in-flames

2. Expense of continuing subscriptions

I find it baffling that people keep talking as though Green OA is cheaper than Gold. It isn’t, at all. As I’ve shown previously, the cost to the world of a paywalled paper (aggregated across all subscriptions) is about $5333. There is no reason to think that will change under the Green model, in which we continue to give the final and best version of our work to publishers.

By contrast, even the publisher-influenced Finch estimates typical Gold APCs as £1500-£2000 (about $2270-$3030), which amounts to 43%-57% as much. (Conveniently, the midpoint of the Finch range, £1750, is about $2650, which is almost exactly half of what we pay by the subscription model.

But the true cost of Gold OA is much, much less. Follow the link for the detail, but one credible banner figure starts with the observation that half of all Gold OA articles are published at no cost to the author and that the average APC of the other half is $906, to arrive at a true average APC of $453 — about one twelfth of the cost for a paywalled article.

So for purely pragmatic financial reasons, Green seems like a silly path. There’s a very short-term saving, sure, as we avoid paying APCs. But we have to look further ahead than the next five years.

delayed-lock

3. Embargoes

Now there is nothing intrinsic to Green OA that means embargoes must be in place. It’s perfectly possible, and manifestly desirable, that no-embargo Green-OA mandate should be enacted, requiring that authors’ final manuscripts become available immediately on publication. But for whatever historical reasons (and I admit I find this baffling) there are few or no Green-OA mandates that do this. Even the best of them seem to allow a six-month delay; twelve months is not uncommon (and Michael Eisen worries that the new White House policy will further establish twelve months as the norm.

I will have more to say about embargoes in a subsequent post. (SPOILER: it’s not going to be pretty.) But for now it suffices to say that any system that makes research freely available only a year after it’s published is wholly inadequate. Not to mention stupid. Stupid and inadequate.

So if Green OA is going to be the solution we need, it has to break free from embargoes.

by-nc

4. Non-open licences

Similarly, there is no intrinsic reason why Green OA should mean non-open licences and Gold OA should mean truly open (BOAI-compliant) open access. And yet history has brought us to a point where that is often how things are. For example, the RCUK policy (even before its progressive erosion got properly under way) says of its Gold arm that “The CC-BY license should be used in this case”, but contains weasel words in its Green arm:

the journal must allow deposit of Accepted Manuscripts that include all changes resulting from peer review (but not necessarily incorporating the publisher’s formatting) in other repositories, without restrictions on non-commercial re-use.

This just won’t do. It’s not open access. To quote Heather Piwowar’s pithy statement once more, “We do basic research not only to know more, but to do more”. Non-commercial licences impede the use of research, and that’s not to the benefit of wider society. (I won’t labour this point now, because I’ll have more to say on non-commercial clauses in a subsequent post.)

So as with embargoes, if Green OA is going to be the solution we need, it has to break free to its habitual acceptance of non-commercial clauses.

teapot choc3

5. Practical failings

On top of the fundamental problems already discussed (two-class system, expense of continuing subscriptions, embargoes and non-open licences), the repository system as it exists today suffers from a suite of practical problems that render it pretty inadequate.

  • Many institutions don’t even have an IR; or if they do it doesn’t work.
  • Many scholars aren’t associated with an institution and so don’t know where they should reposit their manuscripts. (That this is overlooked is a symptom of an unfortunate elitist tendency among academics.) [UPDATE 4th March: thanks to Neil Stewart, whose comment below points out Open Depot as a solution to this.]
  • The use of IRs involves an institution-by-institution fragmentation, with different user interfaces, policies, etc.
  • For whatever reasons, many scholars do not bother to reposit their manuscripts in institution repositories.
  • Even when mandates are in place, compliance is often miserable, to the point where Peter Suber considers the 80% NIH compliance rate as “respectable”. It really isn’t. 100% is acceptable; 99% is respectable.
  • Many IRs have abject search facilities, often for example lacking the ability to restrict searches to papers that are actually available.
  • Many IRs impose unnecessary restrictions on the use of the materials they contain: for example, Bath’s repo prohibits further redistribution.
  • There is no central point for searching all IRs (at least not one that is half-decent; I know about OAIster).
  • The quality of metadata within most IRs variable at best
  • Use of metadata across IRs is inconsistent — hence many of the problems that render OAIster near-useless.

… and, I am sure, many more that I’ve not thought of right now.

Could these issues be addressed? Yes, probably; but ten years have unfortunately not done much to resolve them, so I don’t feel all that confident that the next ten will.

Do the IR advocates have a plan for solving these problems? Because they are much more political/sociological than technical, and those always seem to be the hardest ones to solve.