Back in February last year, I had the privilege of giving one of the talks in the University of Manchester’s PGCert course “Open Knowledge in Higher Education“. I took the subject “Should science always be open?”

My plan was to give an extended version of a talk I’d given previously at ESOF 2014. But the sessions before mine raised all sorts of issues about copyright, and its effect on scholarly communication and the progress of science, and so I found myself veering off piste. The first eight and a half minutes are as planned; from there, I go off on an extended tangent. Well. See what you think.

The money quote (starting at 12m10s): “What is copyright? It’s a machine for preventing the creation of wealth.”

It’s open access week! As part of their involvement with OA Week, Jisc interviewed me. You can read the interview here. A brief taster:

What’s holding back infrastructure development?

“The real problem, of course, as always, is not the technical one, it’s the social one. How do you persuade people to turn away from the brands that they’ve become comfortable with?

We really are only talking about brands, the value of publishing in, say, a big name journal rather than publishing in a preprint repository. It is nothing to do with the value of the research that gets published. It’s like buying a pair of jeans that are ten times as expensive as the exact same pair of jeans in Marks and Spencer because you want to get the ones that have an expensive label. Now ask why we’re so stupid that we care about the labels.”

Read the full interview here.


As explained in careful detail over at Stupid Patent of the Month, Elsevier has applied for, and been granted, a patent for online peer-review. The special sauce that persuaded the US Patent Office that this is a new invention is cascading peer review — an idea so obvious and so well-established that even The Scholarly Kitchen was writing about it as a commonplace in 2010.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can't verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Apparently this is from the actual patent. I can’t verify that at the moment, as the site hosting it seems to be down.

Well. What can this mean?

A cynic might think that this is the first step an untrustworthy company would take preparatory to filing a lot of time-wasting and resource-sapping nuisance lawsuits on its smaller, faster-moving competitors. They certainly have previous in the courts: remember that they have brought legal action their own customers as well as threatening and of course trying to take Sci-Hub down.

Elsevier representatives are talking this down: Tom Reller has tweeted “There is no need for concern regarding the patent. It’s simply meant to protect our own proprietary waterfall system from being copied” — which would be fine, had their proprietary waterfall system not been itself copied from the ample prior art. Similarly, Alicia Wise has said on a public mailing list “People appear to be suggesting that we patented online peer review in an attempt to own it.  No, we just patented our own novel systems.” Well. Let’s hope.

But Cathy Wojewodzki, on the same list, asked the key question:

I guess our real question is Why did you patent this? What is it you hope to market or control?

We await a meaningful answer.

Back in mid-April, when I (Mike) was at the OSI2016 conference, I was involved in the “Moral Dimensions of Open” group. (It was in preparation for this that wrote the Moral Dimensions series of posts here on SV-POW!.)

Like all the other groups, ours was tasked with making a presentation to the plenary session, taking questions and feedback, and presenting a version 2 on the final day. Here’s the title page that I contributed.


Each group was also asked to write a short paper summarising their discussions and conclusions, with all the papers to be published openly. The resulting papers are now available: sixteen of them in all. And among them is Ansolabehere et al. (2016), “The Moral Dimensions of Open”, of which I am one of nine authors. (There were ten authors of the presentation: for some reason, Ryan Merkley is not on the paper.)

As you can imagine in a group that contained open-access advocates, human rights activists, representatives of both old-school and new-wave publishers, agriculturalists and more, consensus was far from unanimous, and it was quite a rocky road to arriving at a form of the paper that we could all live with. In this case, the standard note that was added to all the papers is very appropriate:

This document reflects the combined input of the authors listed here (in alphabetical order by last name) as well as contributions from other OSI2016 delegates. The findings and recommendations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the individual authors listed here, nor their agencies, trustees, officers, or staff.

Is this the moral-dimensions paper I would have written? No, it’s not. Being a nine-way collaboration, it pulls in too many directions to have as clear a through-line as I’d like; and it’s arguably a bit mealy-mouthed in places. But over all, I am pretty happy with it. I think it makes some important points, and makes them reasonably well given the sometimes clumsy prose that you always get when something is written by committee.

Anyway, I think it’s worth a read.

By the way, I’d like to place on record my thanks to Cheryl Ball of West Virginia University, who did the bulk of the heavy lifting in putting together both the presentation and the paper. While everyone in the group contributed ideas and many contributed prose, Cheryl dug in and did the actual work. Really, she deserves to be lead author on this paper — and would be, but for the alphabetical-order convention.



In this short series on the moral dimensions of open (particularly open access), we’ve considered why this is important, the argument that zero marginal cost should result in zero price, the idea that the public has a right to read what it paid for, the very high profit margins of scholarly publishers, and the crucial observation that science advances best and fastest when we can build on each other’s work with minimal friction. I’d like to bring the series to a close by asking this question: if we want change, who is responsible for bringing it about?


Often, those most committed to open-access ideals are students and early-career researchers[1]. But we may feel that those just starting out on their careers are the ones with most to lose (or with the least to gain) if they make pro-open stands such as only publishing their work in open-access journals, or agitating for change at their institutions.

Perhaps the responsibility lies with those who have already acquired positions in academia? There are two problems with that. One is that even an academic who has a job wants to present the best possible case for promotion — and, when it’s available, for tenure. The other is that even those who are fully secure and happy in their posts do much of their work in collaboration with Ph.D students and postdocs, and may feel that they owe it to those younger collaborators not to make their paths more difficult by insisting on open access.

Perhaps, then, the responsibility for change lies with senior academics who hold influential administrative roles, having graduated past the point of doing their own research? There are the people with the most power to bring about change, and with the least likelihood of losing out. Yet these people earned their roles by excelling under the old system of paywalled papers and journal prestige as a surrogate for evaluating quality. Is it reasonable to expect these people to turn against the very system that gave them such success?

And we can hardly expect the turkeys who work for legacy publishers to vote for Christmas.

It turns out that everyone, no matter what their career stage or what their role in the world of scholarly communication, has a legitimate reason to say “No, it shouldn’t be my responsibility”.

And that being so, there is only one possible answer to the question “Who should take responsibility?” That answer is, “I should”. Whoever I am.

From my own unique position on the fringes of academia, I take responsibility to do what little I can to bring about the changes that the world needs in how science is communicated. From his position as a postdoc, Jon Tennant does what he can. From her first academic job, Erin McKiernan does what she can. From his relatively secure academic post, Matt Wedel does what he can. From his position running a highly visible and successful lab, Mike Eisen does what he can. And in his powerful role as Rector of the University of Liège, Bernard Rentier does what he can.

It’s simply no use any one of us shrugging and saying “What can I do?” At the same time, it’s also true that, for most of us, what we can do is not very much. But the crucial truth is that by each of us doing what we can, we have done great work over the last decade in pushing towards the world we now live in: where open access is no longer seen as a fringe concern of naive idealists, but is the model used by the world’s biggest and most cited academic journal, where it’s required by 500 university policies and national policies in the USA, UK and many other countries, and where I am proud to say that my own discipline of vertebrate palaeontology now seems to happen primarily in open-access journals[2].

So we can give ourselves a pat on the back. Go right ahead, do it now — I’ll wait.

But there is an enormous amount still to do. Gold open access is absurdly overpriced. Green open access remains subject to delays, deliberately imposed by reprehensible embargoes. The obsession with journal rank continues. Open data policies remain rare, and are not well enforced. Barrier-based publishing continues to dominate by volume of published papers. Text and data mining initiatives are repeatedly stymied by publisher who bar access even to subscribers. Much of what is published as “open access” is under restrictive licences that pointlessly prohibit many ways of using the work. And there are myriad other related issues still to be resolved, such as the wastefulness of traditional pre-publication peer-review.

How can we fix all these problems?

The same same way we got to where we are now with open access. By each one of us doing what we can to advance sane, efficient, inexpensive, moral means of scientific communication in whatever role we find ourselves. No one of us can fix this. But every one of us can make a contribution.

This blog is nine years old. Since Matt and I are both still enjoying it, there’s no reason think it won’t still be going in another nine years. Strange as it is to imagine SV-POW! in 2025, I hope I can look forward to writing then in an environment where scholarly paywalls are seen as anachronistic and laughable, where publication is faster and more transparent, where data is routinely re-used, and where researchers are evaluated according to the quality of their work, not according to the brand-name they attach to it.




[1] By the way, I might note that the OA advocates I’ve known as students all seem to have gone on to good postdocs, and the OA advocates I’ve known as postdocs all seem to have gone on to find jobs in academia. I’m not sure what to make of that observation, but I’ll just leave it here.

[2] It’s certainly true that the most useful descriptive papers are now always in OA journals, where there are no arbitrary limits on length or number of illustrations, or colour fees.


This is the fifth part of a series on the Moral Dimensions of Open, in preparation for the forthcoming OSI2016 meeting, where I’ll be in the Moral Dimensions group.

What I want to look at this time is the efficiency of sharing: as Glyn Moody pointed out on Twitter, the more people share, the more others can build on it, then share, then build — and so on. The work each of us does becomes easier, and better, and more productive, because of the work others have already done. We become partners in the great enterprise of research.


This is hardly a novel observation, of course. Isaac Newton famously said it best, in a letter to Robert Hooke on 15 February 1676. Although he was not by nature a modest man, he made the rather brilliant observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.

But the great thing about this is that the quote itself stands on the shoulders of a giant — it’s a modified version of an earlier observation by John of Salisbury (1120 – October 25 1180), who wrote:

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.

And as Johnny-boy makes clear, he was also not the originator of this profound observation — it was due to Bernard of Chartres, who died shortly after John of Salisbury was born.

What’s happened here? Newton has not merely lifted John-of-S.’s quote: he has substantially improved on it. Newton’s version is pithier and more striking: there’s good reason why it’s the version everyone quotes. He built on the earlier work of J.-of-Salisbury, and the yet earlier work of B.-of-C., to make something new and valuable.


And this of course is the whole purpose of scholarly communication. It’s why we have academic publishers: to make it possible for us to progress our fields by standing on each other’s shoulders.

Unfortunately, the publishers are mostly standing on our toes.

No-one intended this. No-one started an academic publisher for the money (at least, not until recently), but out of genuine desire to advance scholarship. In the pre-Internet era, journals were simply the state of the art for disseminating information. And since each printed copy of a journal cost money to make and distribute, a fee was quite properly charged for each copy. There was no alternative.

All that changed with the advent of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web in particular. Now that the Web is used for so many things — commerce, media streaming, blogging, auctions, cat photos — it’s easy to forget what it was invented for. But we needn’t forget, because we have archived copies of the very first email ever sent by Tim Berners-Lee about this new “World Wide Web” thingy that he had come up with:


Yes, folks, you read it right. The whole purpose of the Web was to enable the free sharing of scholarly publications. It was a technology given to the world for the betterment of information sharing.

Viewed in this light, it’s clear that open access is nothing more than the Web working right. And the continuation of printed-on-paper journal limitations by other means (i.e. paywalls) constitutes a deliberate impediment to all the advances we could be making now that the technology has improved.

By happy coincidence, Peter Murray-Rust has blogged just today about some of those possible advances — in this case, based on content mining:

We have already shown that mining detects errors in the literature which can be put right – indeed our technology could be valuable in the reviewing and editing of material for publication. Another is the sheer scale – we could mine the whole literature for – say – breeding grounds and create systematic maps. That brings benefits. But there are also dangers – it may pinpoint endangered areas or species. But this is the inevitable challenge of the Digital Century – we have to learn how to live with and manage massive new knowledge.

(The bolding of the last part is mine, not Peter’s.)

We’re facing the possibility of such an enormous amount of new knowledge that one of the challenges we will be presented with is how to live with it. We have the technology to stand on the shoulders of millions of giants simultaneously. What a great problem to have! And how tragic when 20th-Century technology actively prevents us from reaching this state.

This shoulders-of-giants argument regarding Open is a very positive one. I like that. Some pro-open arguments can be rather negative: “publishers make too much profit”, “the public shouldn’t be prevented from reading what it paid for” and so on. But this one is wholly positive: open access, and open scholarship in general, enables us to do much more!

I’ve leave the last word to Cameron Neylon, and a blog-post that I have often cited as a vision of our possible future: Network Enabled Research: Maximise scale and connectivity, minimise friction:

We need to get as much material online as fast as we can. We need to connect it up, to make it discoverable, to make sure that people can find and understand and use it. And we need to ensure that once found those resources can be easily transferred, shared, and used. And used in any way – at network scale the system is designed to ensure that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.

Let’s not accept systems and conventions that prevent this happening.

[ Finish up with part 5: whose responsibility is this?]

This is the fourth part of a series on the Moral Dimensions of Open, in preparation for the forthcoming OSI2016 meeting, where I’ll be in the Moral Dimensions group.

It’s widely recognised that the established scholarly publishers skim an awful lot of money off the top of research budgets. The Big Four (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) all have profit margins in the range 32–42%. For Elsevier alone, a 38.9% profit on revenue of £2126M (page 17 of their own 2013 annual report) represents £826M diverted away from research each year – a figure more than sixteen times the £50M that the Finch Report estimated as the annual cost of transition to an all-open-access ecosystem.


Elsevier representatives will point out in their defence that some open-access publishers have even higher profit-margins: for example Hindawi’s founder claimed in a 2012 interview a net profit of $3.3M on revenue of $6.3M for the first half of 2012 – a profit margin of 52.4%. Even PLOS, an avowedly non-profit organisation, runs at an operating surplus of 27% in 2013 and 16% in 2014. (Expenses of $37M against revenue of $50.8M in 2013; expenses of $40.7 million against revenue of $48.5 million according to their 2014 report).

Can this be justified? I have three thoughts.

First, the emphasis on profit margins – that is, profit as a percentage of revenue – is misleading. Hindawi’s median APC is $600 (calculated from their listing). So a 52.4% profit on a typical paper represents $314 leaving academia and going into shareholders’ pockets; whereas 38.9% of a typical Elsevier paper, with an APC of $3000, is $1167. So when the Wellcome Trust funds publication in a hybrid OA Elsevier journal, it diverts nearly four times as much cash out of academia than when its authors use Hindawi.

Second, much depends on the destination of the profits. When Elsevier or Hindawi profit from publishing, that money is lost to academia. By contrast, PLOS’s operating surplus – $240 of the $1495 APC on a PLOS ONE paper – is ploughed back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”. The same obviously applies to society publishers such as the Royal Society.

Third, when it comes to Gold OA, what really matters is not how much profit a publisher makes, but simply how much they charge to publish. To funding agencies, the price of an APC is money that can’t be spent elsewhere, whether it goes to publisher profits or merely covers publisher costs. It’s better to pay a $400 APC of which $200 is profit than a $500 APC of which $100 is profit. APC funds can be more effectively used when the price of publishing goes down, and it really doesn’t matter much whether that is achieved by publishers cutting profits or cutting costs.

And this in the end is the conclusive argument against legacy publishers such as Elsevier: irrespective of what the profit margins are, the prices are simply too expensive. There is no legitimate need for the Wellcome Trust to continue spending an average of £1837 ($2595) on APCs, mostly with legacy publishers, when newer born-digital publishers such as PeerJ and Ubiquity Press can do an objectively better job for much less money.

So I am not really convinced that profit margins are a big issue, or even that they are very morally significant at all. In the end, Gold-OA publishing is a service provided in exchange for a fee. A company that can do that very efficiently at a given price is surely no more immoral than one that does the same job less efficiently at the same price, and so has lower profits.

[Next time, part 4: “on the shoulders of giants”]

This post is recycled, almost word-for-word, from one that I wrote for the Royal Society in May last year. I’ve updated some of the figures, and added a brief prologue and epilogue, but that’s all. My views have not changed.