Christopher W. Schadt tells a distasteful story over on his blog, about how a PLOS ONE paper that he was a co-author on was republished as part of a non-PLOS printed volume that retails for $100. The editors and publishers of this volume neither asked the authors’ permission to do this (which is fair enough, it was published as CC By), nor even took the elementary courtesy of informing them. Worse, the reprinted copy in the book doesn’t have a reference to the original version in PLOS ONE.

It’s clear the editors of this book have (to put it mildly) been rather rude here. But what they’ve done is possibly legal and in accordance with the terms under which the article was originally published. The CC By licence requires attribution, and sure enough the work is attributed to the correct authors.

But does CC By require that the original publication also be credited? Not exactly. The terms of the licence say that the work can be reused subject to this condition:

Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).

So the author could specify (and PLOS should probably specify in the published form of their articles) that the manner in which the work should be attributed requires not only authorship to be recognised but also the original publication in PLOS to be cited.

But the current PLOS wording on this is unfortunately a mess. Schadt’s article, like all PLOS ONE articles, says:

Copyright: © 2010 Reganold et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This is probably intended to say that attribution must mention both author and source (i.e. citation of original publication). But what this wording actually does, wrongly, is state that this is what the CC BY licence intrinsically requires.

So PLOS have a bit of work to do to tidy this up. And they are not alone in this. PeerJ uses the exact same form of words, and BMC says something a bit different (“… provided the original work is properly cited”) which us also open to misinterpretation.

All three of these publishers, and probably many others using CC By, need to tighten their wording so that they don’t claim that CC By requires a full citation, but stipulate that in their use of CC By, providing a citation is part of what constitutes proper attribution.

Had PLOS ONE done that, then the reprinted version of the Reganold et al. paper would have been clearly not covered by the CC By licencing option, and so would have constituted copyright violation plain and simple. As it is, they’re clearly guilty but have some wiggle-room. (To be fair, representatives of the production company and publisher have been quick to apologise on Schadt’s blog.)

Here at SV-POW!, we are an equal-opportunity criticiser of publishers: SpringerPLOS, Elsevier, the Royal Society, Nature, we don’t care. We call problems as we see them, where we see them. Here is one that has lingered for far too long. PLOS ONE’s journal information page says:

Too often a journal’s decision to publish a paper is dominated by what the Editor/s think is interesting and will gain greater readership — both of which are subjective judgments and lead to decisions which are frustrating and delay the publication of your work. PLOS ONE will rigorously peer-review your submissions and publish all papers that are judged to be technically sound.

Which is as we would expect it to be. But their reviewer guidelines page gives more detail as follows (emphasis added):

[Academic Editors] can employ a variety of methods, alone or in combination, to reach a decision in which they are confident:

  • They can conduct the peer review themselves, based on their own knowledge and experience
  • They can take further advice through discussion with other members of the editorial board
  • They can solicit reports from further referees

As has been noted in comments on this blog, this first form, in which the editor makes the decision alone, is “unlike any other first-tier academic journal”. When I submitted my own manuscript to PLOS ONE a few weeks ago, I did it in the expectation that it would be reviewed in the usual way, by two experts chosen by the editor, who would then use those reviews in conjunction with her own expertise to make a decision. I’d hate to think it would go down the easier track, and so not be accorded the recognition that a properly peer-reviewed article gets. (Merely discussing with other editors would also not constitute proper peer-review in many people’s eyes, so only the third track is really the whole deal.)

The problem here is not a widespread one. Back when we first discussed this in any detail, about 13% of PLOS ONE papers slipped through on the editor-only inside lane. But more recent figures (based on the 1,837 manuscripts that received a decision between 1st July and 30th September 2010) say that only 4.2% of articles take this track. Evidently the process was by then in decline; it’s a shame we don’t have more recent numbers.

But the real issue here is lack of transparency. Four and half years ago, Matt said “I really wish they’d just state the review track for each article–i.e., solo editor approved, multiple editor approved, or externally reviewed […] I also hope that authors are allowed to preferentially request ‘tougher’ review tracks”.

It seems that still isn’t done. Looking at this article, which at the time of writing is the most recent one published by PLOS ONE, there is a little “PEER REVIEWED” logo up at the top, but no detail of which track was taken. PLOS themselves evidently take the line that all three tracks constitute peer-review, as “Academic Editors are not employees […] they are external peer reviewers“.

So I call on PLOS ONE to either:

A. eliminate the non-traditional peer-review tracks, or

B1. Allow submitting authors to specify they want the traditional track, and

B2. Specify explicitly on each published paper which track was taken.

Because I am preparing this paper from PLOS ONE, with its stupid numbered-references system, I am finally getting to grips with a reference-management system. Specifically, Zotero, which is both free and open source, which means it can’t be taken over by Elsevier.

As a complete Zotero n00b, I’ve run into a few issues that more experienced users will no doubt find laughable. Here are two of them. I need to cite Greg Paul’s classic 1988 paper on the skeletal reconstruction of Giraffatitan:

Paul, Gregory S. 1988. The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the world’s largest dinosaurs. Hunteria 2(3):1-14.

When I render this using Zotero’s PLOS ONE style, it comes out as:

Paul GS (1988) The brachiosaur giants of the Morrison and Tendaguru with a description of a new subgenus, Giraffatitan, and a comparison of the world’s largest dinosaurs. Hunteria 2: 1–14.

So the first problem is, how can I get Giraffatitan to be set in italics?

And the second one, which is arguably more important, is how can I get the issue number included? I undertsand that PLOS ONE referencing style omits the issue-numbers by preference, since they are often redundant, with the pages of each volume being numbered consecutively across volumes. But Hunteria is one of those journals (PaleoBios is another) that resets page-numbers at the start of each issue. As a result, Hunteria volume 2 had at least three page 14s, one in each of its issues, so that issue number is a crucial part of the reference.

Help me, SV-POW! readers — you’re my only hope.

Just like the last time I tried to post a comment on Richard Van Noorden’s piece on open-access economics, the comment I posted has been rejected with a fatuous “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service” message.


You will notice that neither WordPress-hosted blogs such as SV-POW!, nor Blogger-hosted blogs such as Mark Witton’s offering — nor indeed PLOS-hosted blogs such as The Integrative Paleontologists — consistently throws away perfectly good comments.

It’s 2013. There is no excuse for running a non-functional blog. None. If you aspire to be a hub of meaningful discussion, you have to make your software work right. It’s not good blowing it off with a snort and a giggle, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time, ha ha”. It’s contemptible — worse, it’s comtemptuous of your readers and of the people who spend time and effort to provide you with free content.

Sort it out.

For anyone who cares, here is the actual comment that I tried to post:

My thanks to Richard Van Noorden and David Crotty for useful criticisms of my simple calculations.

If both sets of figures are correct — that average profit-margins for the Big Four are 36% but the average across the industry is “only” 20-30% then it’s clear that the great majority of the parasitism that currently infests academia can be laid at the doors of the Big Four.

Is the Big-Four number correct? All we have to go on is the figures that those corporations themselves publish — and those are what I used in the linked blog post. If Wiley have now changed what they report, then we can use their new number instead. What we can’t legitimately do is look at what they say they make, then use a different number of our own choosing.

And here is where we reach the real problem: the appalling lack of transparency. David Crotty rightly points out “the assumption that the entirety of the $9.4 billion brought in by the publishing industry comes from subscriptions”. But I have tried very hard to get a number for what proportion of income is indeed from subscriptions, and not been able to get answers from Big-Four publishers. One of them explicitly told me to stop even asking. In the face of such obscurity, all we can do is work with what numbers we do have.

If any of the Big Four would like to reveal the true numbers, I would be delighted to hear them, and to revise my calculations accordingly.

Meanwhile here is my least bad re-calculation. If industry average profit margins are 20-30%, we’ll use the middle of the range, 25%. That means that 1/4 of the annual $9.4 billion revenue is profit — 2.35 billion. By coincidence, this is almost exactly equal to the price of publishing the year’s 1.8 million articles as Gold OA at a PLOS ONE price-point of $1350, namely $2.43 billion. Remember, this is not saying that what we spend on subscriptions would fund 100% Gold OA. It’s saying that what we throw away as sheer profit for publishers would fund it.

If that doesn’t make anyone absolutely furious, then that person’s outrage-meter is badly in need of recalibration. We’re supposed to be doing science here, not enriching shareholders with public money.

Thanks for listening.

My thanks for Richard Van Noorden for drawing my attention to his new piece Open access: The true cost of science publishing in Nature. I wrote a detailed comment on this article, but when I went to post it, I was told “This account has been banned from commenting due to posting of comments classified as inappropriate or other violations of our Terms of Service”:


This news to me. No-one at Nature thought to tell me, or anything. Their system said nothing about when I logged in, nor when I started entering my comment. Just waited till I’d finished, then trashed it.

I have no idea why I am banned. How can I have, when I’ve never received any notification? I can only assume it’s for posting opinions that are at odds with what NPG would prefer we all thought — at least, in the absence of any actual data, that’s the best hypothesis I can come up with. Update 40 minutes later: turns out it was a glitch in the spam-filter. Richard got it fixed, and my comment is now up on the article.

Listen up, Nature Publishing Group: you will never get meaningful dialogue in your comments if you silently ban everyone who expresses a non-party-line opinion random people for no discernable reason. You should be aspiring to be a hub of civilised discourse on these important issues, not an echo-chamber. (If you want that, you can just go and read The Scholarly Kitchen.)

Anyway: I am paranoid enough that I copied my comment before submitting it — I’ve been screwed in too many ways by too many commenting systems to trust anything but my own. So here is that comment, stripped of its context but still IMHO important. Perhaps someone who has not been banned from commenting at Nature could post it for me?

Thanks for this useful post, Richard. I am provoked by this statement:

“Analysts estimate profit margins at 20–30% for the industry.”

Where do such low numbers come from? As is by now well known, the profit margins for the Big Four publishers (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley and Informa) are between 32.4 and 42 percent — not one of them has a margin as low as the highest end of the range you cite. Not only that, but commercial academic publishers’ profit margins continue to rise year on year.

The average profit margin among the Big Four is 36%, which means that of the $9.4 billion spent on subscriptions in 2011, $3.39 billion was simply poured down the academic drain. Note that this profit alone would be enough to pay APCs for 2.5 million PLOS ONE articles, 40% more than the world actually produced in that year.

So to spell it out, subscription profits alone would be enough to fund OA publication of ALL research, with just under a billion dollars left over to fund additional research. It’s not just idiotic that we keep paying this ludicrously inflated subscriptions, it’s iniquitous.

How disruptive is PeerJ?

February 21, 2013

Matt and I were discussing “portable peer-review” services like Rubriq, and the conversation quickly wandered to the subject of PeerJ. Then I realised that that seems to be happening with all our conversations lately. Here’s a partial transcript.

Mike: I don’t see portable peer-review catching on. Who’s going to pay for it unless journals give an equal discount from APCs? And what journal is going to do that when they get the peer-review done for free anyway? If I was Elsevier, I wouldn’t say “OK, we’ll accept your external review and give you a $700 discount”, I’d charge the full $3000 and get two more free reviews done.

Plus, you know, I can get all the peer-review I want, free of charge, at PeerJ.

Matt: Yeah, that was pretty much my take. Even as I was sending that I thought about adding, “I wonder if this is one more thing that PeerJ will kill.” Only ‘abort’ is more the verb I want, in that I don’t see this ever getting off the ground anyway.

Mike: I think the world at large has yet to realise what a black hole PeerJ is, in the sense that it’s warping all the space near it. Pretty much every time I have any thought at all about scholarly publishing now, that thought it swiftly followed by “… or, wait, I should just use PeerJ for that.”

Matt: Exactly. It makes me think that we may be discovering the contours of that space-warping effect for some time, in that we’re used to one model, and that, among all the other things PeerJ does, it quacks something like that old model so we tend to think of it as a very cool duck, and not the freakin’ tyrannosaur that is going to eat scholarly publishing.

Also makes me think of that Paul Graham thing about noticing that the door is open, and there being a lag between the freedom to do something and the adoption of that newly facilitated action or behavior.

Interesting times.

New thought: assuming PeerJ does not implode, will the established powers try to start PeerJ-alikes, and if so, what will they charge (amount), and what will they charge for (lifetime membership? decadal? annual? per 1000 pages published?).

Mike: Sweet metaphor. It’s true. It’s qualitatively different from other journals in two respects.

First, the APC is literally an order of magnitude less — and at that point, a quantitative difference becomes qualitative. Someone like [NAME REDACTED] would worry about paying $1350 to PLOS ONE, but didn’t even stop and think before saying, yeah, I’ll do that.

Second, the lifetime membership changes the game for all subsequent submissions. Now when you have a manuscript ready to go, your question isn’t going to be “where shall I send this?”, it’s going to be “is there are compelling reason not to send this to PeerJ?”

Legacy publishers won’t start PeerJ-alikes because they can’t. As noted in many SV-POW! posts, Elsevier takes about $5000 for each article they put behind a paywall. Slice away the 40% profit and you get $3000 which not coincidentally is what they charge as an APC. They have old, slow, encumbered systems and processes and top-heavy organisation. At $3000 they are only breaking even. They can’t compete at a PLOS-like $1350 level and they can’t even think about competing at PeerJ levels. If they offered a lifetime membership they’d have to ask $10k or something stupid.

I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to change. They can’t. They’ve ossified into 1990s companies running on 1990s software. It’s hard to steer a ship with a $2bn turnover, and impossible to replace the engines while still cruising.

Matt: I think it is probably a mistake to think that PeerJ will only encroach “upward”, onto the territory of more traditional journals (which is “all of them”). We’ve already talked about it taking business from arXiv (at least ours, although there is the large non-overlap in their respective subject domains–for now, anyway).

But my point is, the question, “Why wouldn’t I send this to PeerJ?” may not only kick in for papers that you might conceivably send elsewhere, but also for manuscripts that you might not conceivably send anywhere.

Mike: There are plenty of historical SV-POW! posts that could have been PeerJ articles on their own — for example, the shish-kebab post that ended up as part of Why Giraffes Have Short Necks.

Matt: Right. And if one is on the fence, shove it on the PeerJ preprint server and see what people have to say.

Mike: I think it’s the first megajournal to have an associated preprint server, and that may yet prove the most important of all its innovations.

Matt: It feels almost … struggling to find the right word, in part because it’s late and I need to go sleep. “Seditious” is not quite it, and neither is “seductive”.

At that point we started talking about something else, so I never did find out what word Matt was groping for. But what’s only gradually become clear to us is how much PeerJ is changing how we think about the academic publishing process. It’s shaking us out of mental ruts that we didn’t even know we were in. Exciting.


In a comment on a recent Guardian piece (not mine, but a response to it), Peter Morgan asked:

A separate concern is whether the OA business model is sustainable in the long term of decades or even centuries. By contract, OA content has almost no commercial value, unless it is re-published in a for-profit volume. How confident can we be that the content of an OA journal that goes bankrupt will be preserved in an openly accessible way?

Don’t worry — you can be very confident. Reputable open-access journals arrange for their content to be archived in well-trusted third-party archives such as PubMed Central and CLOCKSS. See for example PeerJ’s blog about the arrangements they’re making or this statement from PLOS ONE.

A much more serious problem is this: what happens to the content of a non-OA journal when it goes bankrupt? In general, copyright for the content of such journals is owned by the publisher. This not only means that informal archive arrangements such as BioTorrents and The Disks Of Millions can’t be used — worse, it means that content archived in PubMed Central or CLOCKSS may never become available. If a failing publisher sells its assets, that will include the copyrights — and since literally any unethical corporation might sniff an asset-stripping opportunity, that could be disastrous.

In short, you can be much more confident that PLOS’s content will still be around in 10, 20 and 100 years than you can that Elsevier’s will.

It’s an oddity to me that when publishers try to justify their existence with long lists of the valuable services they provide, they usually skip lightly over one of the few really big ones. For example, Kent Anderson’s exhausting 60-element list omitted it, and it had to be pointed out in a comment by Carol Anne Meyer:

One to add: Enhanced content linking, including CrossREF DOI reference linking, author name linking cited-by linking, related content linking, updates and corrections linking.

(Anderson’s list sidles up to this issue in his #28, “XML generation and DTD migration” and #29, “Tagging”, but doesn’t come right out and say it.)

Although there are a few journals whose PDFs just contain references formatted as in the manuscript — as we did for our arXiv PDF — nearly all mainstream publishers go through a more elaborate process that yields more information and enables the linking that Meyer is talking about. (This is true of the new kids on the block as well as the legacy publishers.)

The reference-formatting pipeline

When I submit a manuscript with formatted reference like:

Taylor, M.P., Hone, D.W.E., Wedel, M.J. and Naish, D. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285(2):150–161. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x

(as indeed I did in that arXiv paper), the publisher will take that reference and break it down into structured data describing the specific paper I was referring to. It does this for various reasons: among them, it needs to provide this information for services like the Web Of Knowledge.

Once it has this structured representation of the reference, the publication process plays it out in whatever format the journal prefers: for example, had our paper appeared in JVP, Taylor and Francis’s publication pipeline would have rendered it:

Taylor, M. P., D. W. E. Hone, M. J. Wedel, and D. Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285:150–161.

(With spaces between multiple initials, initials preceding surnames for all authors except the first, an “Oxford comma” before the last author, no italics for the journal name, no bold for the volume number, the issue number omitted altogether, and the DOI inexplicably removed.)

What’s needed in a submitted reference

Here’s the key point: so long as all the relevant information is included in some format (authors, year, article title, journal title, volume, page-range), it makes no difference how it’s formatted. Because the publication process involves breaking the reference down into its component fields, thus losing all the formatting, before reassembling it in the preferred format.

And this leads us the key question: why do journals insist that authors format their references in journal style at all? All the work that authors do to achieve this is thrown away anyway, when the reference is broken down into fields, so why do it?

And the answer of course is “there is no good reason”. Which is why several journals, including PeerJ, eLifePLOS ONE and certain Elsevier journals have abandoned the requirement completely. (At the other end of the scale, JVP has been known to reject papers without review for such offences as using the wrong kind of dash in a page-range.)

Like so much of how we do things in scholarly publishing, requiring journal-style formatting at the submission stage is a relic of how things used to be done and makes no sense whatsoever in 2012. Before we had citation databases, the publication pipeline was much more straight-through, and the author’s references could be used “as is” in the final publication. Not any more.

How far can we go?

All of this leads me to wonder how far we can go in cutting down the author burden of referencing. Do we actually need to give all the author/title/etc. information for each reference?

In the case of references that have a DOI, I think not (though I’ve not yet discussed this with any publishers). I think that it suffices to give only the DOI. Because once you have a DOI, you can look up all the reference data. Go try it yourself: go to and paste my DOI “10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x” into the DOI Query box at the bottom of the page. Select the “unixref” radio button and hit the Search button. Scroll down to the bottom of the results page, and voila! — an XML document containing everything you could wish to know about the referenced paper.

And the data in that structured document is of course what the publication process uses to render out the reference in the journal’s preferred style.

Am I missing something? Or is this really all we need?

There’s been a lot of concern in some corners of the world about the Finch Report‘s preference for Gold open access, and the RCUK policy‘s similar leaning. Much of the complaining has focussed on the cost of Gold OA publishing: Article Processing Charges (APCs) are very offputting to researchers with limited budgets. I thought it would be useful to provide a page that I (and you) can link to when facing such concerns.

This is long and (frankly) a bit boring. But I think it’s important and needs saying.

1. How much does the Finch Report suggest APCs cost?

Worries about high publishing costs are exacerbated by the widely reported estimate of £2000 for a typical APC, attributed to the Finch Report. In fact, that is not quite what the report (page 61) says:

Subsequent reports also suggest that the costs for open access journals average between £1.5k and £2k, which is broadly in line with the average level of APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust in 2010, at just under £1.5k.

Still, the midpoint of Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” range is £1750, which is still a hefty amount. Where does it come from? A footnote elucidates:

Houghton J et al, op cit; Heading for the Open Road: costs and benefits of transitions in scholarly communications, RIN, PRC, Wellcome Trust, JISC, RLUK, 2011. See also Solomon, D, and Björk, B-Christer,. A study of Open Access Journals using article processing charges. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology , which suggests an average level of APCs for open access journal (including those published at very low cost in developing countries) of just over $900. It is difficult to judge – opinions differ – whether costs for open access journals are on average likely to rise as higher status journals join the open access ranks; or to fall as new entrants come into the market.

[An aside: these details would probably be better known, and the details of the Finch report would be discussed in a more informed way, if the report were available on the Web in a form where individual sections could be linked, rather than only as a PDF.]

The first two cited sources look good and authoritative, being from JISC and a combination of well-respected research organisations. Nevertheless, the high figure that they cite is misleading, and unnecessarily alarming, for several reasons.

2. Why the Finch estimate is misleading

2.1. It ignores free-to-the-author journals.

The Solomon and Björk analysis that the Finch Report rather brushes over is the only one of the three to have attempted any rigorous numerical analysis, and it found as follows (citing an earlier study, subsequently written up):

Almost 23,000 authors who had published an article in an OA journal where asked about how much they had paid. Half of the authors had not paid any fee at all, and only 10% had paid fees exceeding 1,000 Euros [= £812, less than half of the midpoint of Finch’s range].

And the proportion of journals that charge no APC (as opposed to authors who paid no fee) is even higher — nearly three quarters:

As of August 2011 there were 1,825 journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) that, at least by self-report, charge APCs. These represent just over 26% of all DOAJ journals.

So there are a lot of a zero-cost options. And there are by no means all low-quality journals: they include, for example, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica and Palaeontologia Electronica in our own field of palaeontology, the Journal of Machine Learning Research in computer science and Theory and Applications of Categories in maths.

2.2. It ignores the low average price found by the Solomon and Björk analysis.

The Solomon and Björk paper is full of useful information and well worth detailed consideration. They make it clear in their methodology section that their sample was limited only to those journals that charge a non-zero APC, and their analysis concluded:

[We studied] 1,370 journals that published 100,697 articles in 2010. The average APC was 906 US Dollars (USD) calculated over journals and 904 US Dollars USD calculated over articles.

(The closeness of the average across journals and dollars is important: it shows that the average-by-journals is not being artificially depressed by a large number of very low-volume journals that have low APCs.)

2.3. It focusses on authors who are spending Other People’s Money.

Recall that Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” estimate is justified in part by the observation that the APC paid by the Wellcome Trust in 2010 was just under £1.5k. But it’s well established that people spending Other People’s Money get less good value than when they spend their own: that’s why travellers who fly business class when their employer is paying go coach when they’re paying for themselves. (This is an example of the principal-agent problem.)

It’s great that the Wellcome Trust, and some other funders, pay Gold OA fees. For researchers in this situation, APCs should not be problem; but for the rest of us (and, yes, that includes me — I’ve never had a grant in my life) there are plenty of excellent lower-cost options.

And as noted above, lower cost, or even no cost, does not need to mean lower quality.

2.4. It ignores the world’s leading open-access journal.

PLOS ONE publishes more articles than any other journal in the world, has very high production values, and for those who care about such things has a higher impact-factor than almost any specialist palaeontology journal. Its APC is $1350, which is currently about £839 — less than half of the midpoint of Finch’s “£1.5k-£2k” range.

Even PLOS’s flagship journal — PLOS Biology, which is ranked top in the JCR’s biology section, charges $2900, about £1802, which is well within the Finch range.

Meanwhile, over in the humanities (where much of the negative reaction to Finch and RCUK is to be found), the leading open-access megajournal is much cheaper even than PLOS ONE: SAGE Open currently offers an introductory APC of $195 (discounted from the regular price of $695).

2.5. It ignores waivers

The most important, and most consistently overlooked fact among those who complain about how they don’t have any funds for Gold-OA publishing is that many Gold-OA journals offer waivers.

For example, PLOS co-founder Michael Eisen affirms (pers. comm.) that it’s explicitly part of the PLOS philosophy that no-one should be prevented from publishing in a PLOS journal by financial issues. And that philosophy is implemented in the PLOS policy of offering waivers to anyone who asks for one. (For example, my old University of Portsmouth colleagues, Mark Witton and Darren Naish certainly had no funds from UoP to support publication of their azhdarchid palaeobiology paper in PLOS ONE; they asked for a waiver and got it, no questions asked.)

Other major open-access publishers have similar polices.

2.6. It doesn’t recognise how the publishing landscape is changing.

It’s not really a criticism of the Finch Report — at least, not a fair one — that its coverage of eLife and PeerJ is limited to a single passing mention on page 58. Neither of these initiatives had come into existence when the report was drafted. Nevertheless, they have quickly become hugely important in shaping the world of publishing — it’s not a stretch to say that they have already joined BMC and PLOS in defining the shape of the open access world.

For the first few years of operation, eLife is waiving all APCs. It remains to be seen what will happen after that, but I think there are signs that their goal may be to retain the no-APC model indefinitely. PeerJ does charge, but is ridiculously cheap: a one-off payment of $99 pays for a publication every year for life; or $299 for any number of publications at any time. Those numbers are going to skew the average APC way, way down even from their current low levels.

2.7. I suspect it concentrates on hybrid-OA journals.

There are all sorts of reasons to mistrust hybrid journals, including the difficulty of finding the open articles; the very high APCs that they charge is only one.

Why do people use hybrid journals when they are more expensive than fully OA journals and offer so much less (e.g. limited length, no colour, number of figures)? I suspect hybrid OA is the lazy option for researchers who have to conform to an OA mandate but don’t want to invest any time or effort in thinking about open-access options. It’s easy to imagine such researchers just shoving their work into in the traditional paywalled journal, and letting the Wellcome grant pick up the tab. After all, it’s Other People’s Money.

If grant-money for funding APCs becomes more scarce as it’s required to stretch further, then researchers who’ve been taking this sort of box-checking approach to fulfilling OA mandates are going to be forced to think more about what they’re doing. And that’s a good thing.

3. What is the true average cost?

If we put all this together, and assume that researchers working from RCUK funds will make some kind of effort to find good-value open-access journals for their work instead of blindly throwing it at traditional subscription journals and expecting RCUK to pick up the fee, here’s where we land up.

  • About half of authors currently pay no fee at all.
  • Among those that do pay a fee, the average is $906.
  • So the overall average fee is about $453.
  • That’s about £283, which is less than one sixth of what Finch suggests.

4. What are we comparing with?

It’s one thing to find a more realistic cost for an average open-access article. But we also need to realise that we’re not comparing with zero. Authors have always paid publication fees in certain circumstances — subscription journals have levied page charges, extra costs for going past a certain length, for colour figures, etc. For example, Elsevier’s American Journal of Pathology charges authors “$550 per color figure, $50 per black & white or grayscale figure, and $50 per composed table, per printed page”. So a single colour figure in that journal costs more than the whole of a typical OA article.

But that’s not the real cost to compare with.

The real cost is what the world at large pays for each paywalled article. As we discussed here in some detail, the aggregate subscription paid to access an average paywalled article is about $5333. That’s as much as it costs to publish nearly twelve average open-access articles — and for that, you get much less: people outside of universities can’t get it even after the $5333 has been paid.

5. Directing our anger properly

Now think about this: the Big Four academic publishers have profit-margins between 32.4% and 42%. Let’s pick an typical profit margin of 37% — a little below the middle of that range. Assuming this is pretty representative across all subscription publishers — and it will be, since the Big Four control so much of the volume of subscription publishing — that means that 37% of the $5333 of an average paywalled article’s subscription money is pure profit. So $1973 is leaving academia every time a paper is “published” behind a paywall.

So every time a university sends a paper behind a paywall, the $1973 that it burns could have funded four average-priced Gold-OA APCs. Heck, even if you want to discount all the small publishers and put everything in PLOS — never taking a waiver — it would pay for one and a half PLOS ONE articles.

So let me leave you with this. In recent weeks, I’ve seen a fair bit of anger directed at the Finch Report and the RCUK policy. Some researchers have been up in arms at the prospect of having to “pay to say“. I want to suggest that this anger is misdirected. Rather than being angry with a policy that says you need to find $453 when you publish, direct your anger at publishers who remove $1973 from academia every time you give them a paper.

Folks, we have to have the vision to look beyond what is happening right now in our departments. Gold OA does, for sure, mean a small amount of short-term pain. It also means a massive long-term win for us all.

Last night, I got a message from Joseph Kraus, the Collections & E-Resources Analysis Librarian at Penrose Library, University of Denver. He’s asking several open-access advocates (of which I am one) to answer a set of seven questions for a study that will investigate institutional activities and personal opinions concerning open access resources. The title of the study will be Comparing scholarly communication practices and policies between the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) stakeholders, and it will be submitted to a BOAI-compliant open-access journal. [See update below]

With Joe’s consent, I am posting his questions here, along with the answers that I gave. It was an interesting process to go through, and left helped me to clarify my own thoughts and feelings on some of these issues.

1) The Finch report and the RCUK report recently came out. These reports have taken stances concerning green and gold open access in the UK. What are your thoughts on the issue of green vs gold open access policies?

Well, the most important point to make is that it really doesn’t matter. Green and Gold OA are not two different things; they are just two complementary strategies to achieve the same goal. So whether we get there by the Green or Gold route is much less important than that we get there. I care much more about full BOAI compliance (i.e. freedom to reuse, not just to read) than I do about Green vs. Gold.

It’s also worth noting that the Finch report doesn’t really take a stance on which route is better — instead, it ignores Green completely, and just doesn’t comment on it one way or the other.

I suppose in principle I slightly prefer Gold, because that way there is only one definitive version of the article. But publishers have a lot of work to do to persuade me that their contribution (as opposed to the editors’ and reviewers’ freely donated contributions) are worth £2000 a pop, or even $1350.

2) PLOS ONE is a well-known large open access journal that covers a broad range of disciplines. Because it has been deemed successful, other publishers have also proposed or started similar journals. What is your opinion of this new type of publication outlet?

PLOS ONE is the single greatest thing to have happened to scholarly publication. Its approach to peer-review is precisely correct: if a submission is good science, it gets published, period. The journal makes no attempt to judge the paper’s likely impact — which is pure guesswork anyway. It lets the scientific community decide, which is exactly as it should be.

(This approach has sometimes been called “peer-review lite“. That is exactly wrong. The peer-review at PLOS ONE is as harsh as it is anywhere. What’s lite, and indeed completely absent, is selection by trendiness and sexiness. Which is exactly as it should be. We are scientists, not marketeers.)

So I am keen to see many other venues with the same approach. That’s important because, as good as PLOS is, we don’t want to see a monoculture develop, not even a PLOS monoculture.

3) Harvard University has recommended to their faculty to “consider submitting articles to open-access journals, or to ones that have reasonable, sustainable subscription costs; move prestige to open access.” The concept of “moving prestige to open access” is an interesting statement to the Harvard faculty authors and researchers. What do you think of this statement?

First, let me take a moment to (A) commend Harvard for taking this initiative, but (B) deplore the very weak wording “recommended … to consider”, rather than imposing an actual mandate. What they’ve done is good; but it could and should have been so much better.

The idea of “moving prestige to open access” is exactly right. During the early days of the OA movement there was a completely groundless idea — propagated by paywall publishers, I presume — that OA venues were somehow inferior to paywalled ones. That idiot notion seems to have died now, but we can and should and must go further — we need to convey to job-search, promotion, tenure and granting committees that open-access publications ought to count for much more than paywalled ones.

The bottom line is, if a paper is behind a paywall, it’s not really published. The academic community is less able to benefit from it; that is even more true of the broader population, which in most cases funded the work. This is the 21st century. By now, the idea of letting your paper be locked up where no-one can see it should be a shameful one, the sort of thing you admit to only when cornered. Harvard’s statement is a good step towards reconfiguring scholarly norms in this way.

4) University presses and many societies are concerned about how the open access movement will affect their financial bottom line. What concerns do you have about open access and society publications?

Without doubt, there is an issue here — it’s the one potential downside of the shift to OA that bothers me.

That said, we do have to ask what scholarly societies are for. In some cases — the ACS springs to mind — we are seeing the tail wagging the dog: the society sometimes talks and acts as though the discipline exists for its benefit rather than vice versa. That won’t do. Societies have to benefit their disciplines, otherwise they are a waste of time, energy and money. And unquestionably the best way they can benefit the science they are there to serve is by releasing research to the world.

So I hope that societies can make the OA transition in a way that allows them continue to do the things they’re doing. But if it comes to a choice between the society thriving at the science’s expense or vice versa, then the science has to be the winner every time.

5) AltMetrics is gathering steam as an additional method for faculty to determine the impact of their work. Do you plan to take advantage of this data for either your work, or for the benefit of your institution or department?

At this early stage in the story of AltMetrics, I am not too sure what I am supposed to actually do with it, so I am really at the wait-and-see stage.

The one thing I feel passionately about in this area — and it’s so obvious it seems stupid even to say — is can we please measure the right thing? Using impact factors to evaluate journals is statistically illiterate, but it’s at least what IFs were intended for, however flawed they may be. Using IFs to judge a paper by what journal it appears in is idiotic. If you have to have a number to judge the paper by, then use its own citation count if you must — not the citation counts of other papers that appeared in the same journal. And judging a researcher by the IFs of the journals that her papers appeared in transcends the merely idiotic and achieves the level of moronic.

If AltMetrics bring an end to this astonishingly persistent practice, that will be enough of a win to justify all the work being done.

6) The Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK notes: “No sub-panel will make any use of journal impact factors, rankings, lists or the perceived standing of publishers in assessing the quality of research outputs.” While this is a valid statement for UK based research evaluation, it would be impossible to get a majority of academic tenure and promotion committees throughout the United States to agree to a similar statement in the near future. Since the UK has the REF, and the US does not, how much is this holding back the US from adopting greater OA policies at various institutions?

Kudos to the REF for making this statement. The Wellcome Trust has said something similar, and I would love to see other funding bodies (and universities and departments) publicly saying the same.

If US institutions are using IFs to evaluate researchers, then … I am trying to find a polite way to express the depth of my contempt for this damaging and incompetent behaviour, but I am struggling to do it. At the very least, it will contribute to eroding the US’s position in the academic world.

Really. It’s exactly as rational as high-school kids judging their classmates by the label of the clothes they wear. We’re scientists. We’re better than that.


(You too, France.)

7) Is there anything else you would like to say concerning open access publishing?

I think we’ve just about covered it :-)

Update (10 June 2015)

For some reason, I have only now registered that the article was published in F1000 Research as Cash, carrots, and sticks: Open Access incentives for researchers (Kraus 2014).