I got an interesting email a couple of days ago from Robin Wilson:

Something which I thought may be of interest to a number of people who are keen on OA is your views on what learned societies should do about the closed journals they currently run. I’m particularly interested in this as I have just joined the Publications Committee of a (smallish) learned society in the UK who publish a journal through Taylor and Francis which is currently closed access.

In some ways I want to go to the next meeting and suggest that they make it Green OA – but I can’t see that happening because it brings in a significant revenue stream for the society, thus allowing them to charge far less for their annual conference, employ admin staff, publish a quarterly newsletter etc. Gold OA is possible, but would restrict publication to those whose departments or funding bodies would pay the fee – and as this journal isn’t right at the top of its field the argument may go “Why publish in X for $3000 when I could (try to) publish in Y for free!

It’s an important question. Before I try to answer it, let me make it clear that I have no qualifications whatsoever to comment on this subject. I am an extremely junior researcher — not even a postdoc, I have an honorary position. I have never been an editor of any journal, nor on any publication committee. Regarding the flagship journal of our discipline, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, I am not even a member of the society that produces it, having not renewed my SVP membership after the society’s cowardly abdication of responsibility over Aetogate. So I have no authority, no experience, and no influence. Anyone who is interested in my opinion anyway is welcome to read on. The rest of you should read this comic instead.

Pros and cons

First, there are vcry good reasons why society journals should go open access. Here are some:

  • It’s in line with societies’ missions. For example the SVP says “The object of the society is to advance the science of vertebrate paleontology and to serve the common interests … of all persons concerned with the history, evolution, comparative anatomy, and taxonomy of vertebrate animals”. Without question, freeing the research in its journal would be a huge step towards fufilling that mission.
  • There is a significant citation advantage. This graph shows the changing impact factor[1] of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica through time. It’s on a definite downward trajectory from 2000 till 2006; then it goes open-access with BMC, and immediately switches to a strong upward trajectory.
  • Increasingly, authors are reluctant to give their best work non-open journals. (For myself, I no longer give any of my work to non-open journals; I realise that not everyone is in a position to make such a blanket commitment, but many people make it at least part of their decision process.)

On the other hand, there are also reasons why society journals might want to remain subscription-only. Here are a couple:

  • As Robin noted, the big one is subscription revenue. From a quick browse of the SVP web-site, I can’t find any accounts (which is a bit of a transparency fail), but I am guessing that JVP subscriptions are a pretty big part of the society’s income. That income might be threatened by going open-access.
  • A journal that switches to Gold OA (i.e. the author or his institution pays a publication fee) may find that it gets fewer submissions, as authors switch to free-to-submit venues.

(I think I have all the major pros and cons here — did I miss any?)


We know from many independent studies — not just anecdotes like the graph above — that the open-access citation advantage is real. A good summary is found in Swan (2010), which surveys 31 studies of the OACA, showing that 27 of them found an advantage of between 45% are 600%. I did a rough-and-ready calculation on the final table of that report, averaging the citation advantages given for each of ten academic fields (using the midpoints of ranges when given), and found that on average open-access articles are cited 176% more often — that is, 2.76 times as often — as non-open.

By contrast, we have no actual evidence for either of the negatives. To be clear, I’m not saying that the downsides are necessarily not true, only that we have to rely on our intuition about them rather than hard facts. We don’t actually know what effect a switch to Gold OA would have on submissions rates, because there are no studies that analyse this. (At least, none that I know of — can anyone enlighten me?) The example of Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica doesn’t help us here: its impact-factor increase says nothing about how many articles it published, only about how widely cited they were.

Similarly, no study has ever shown that Green OA — allowing or even encouraging authors to deposit preprints in repositories — harms subscription revenue. In fact there is good evidence that Green OA either does not affect subscription revenues or, surprisingly, actually increases them by acting as an advertisement for the “official” versions of papers. For example, Swan (2005) wrote:

We asked the American Physical Society (APS) and the Institute of Physics Publishing Ltd (IOPP) what their experiences have been over the 14 years that arXiv has been in existence. How many subscriptions have been lost as a result of arXiv? Both societies said they could not identify any losses of subscriptions for this reason and that they do not view arXiv as a threat to their business (rather the opposite — this in fact the APS helped establish an arXiv mirror site at the Brookhaven National Laboratory).

For much more on this issue, see the PEER project (Publishing and the Ecology of European Research). For example, the project’s final report says that:

A Randomised Controlled Trial indicates that making preprints visible in PEER repositories is associated with more traffic to the publisher sites at the aggregate level, but this varies by publisher and subject. Overall, PEER is associated with a significant, if relatively modest, increase in publisher downloads, in the confidence range 7.5% to 15.5%.

The likely mechanism is that PEER offers high quality metadata, allows a wider range of search engine robots to index its content than the typical publisher, and thus helps to raise the digital visibility of scholarly content.

Gold, Green, subscription or hybrid?

So what should subscription-based society journals do? Stay as they are? Switch to the author-pays Gold OA model that has served Acta Veterinaria Scandanavica so well? Support Green OA by encouraging preprint deposit? Or become hybrid journals (as JVP is now) by offering optional open access within otherwise subscription-based journal?

It will come as no surprise that I think subscription-only is a disaster, and that some kind of change away from that is necessary. A scholarly society simply can’t best serve its discipline by locking its work behind a paywall. It just can’t.

I also have an increasing sense that “hybrid OA” (i.e. a subscription journal with an optional open-access fee) doesn’t really work. Certainly Elsevier have had astonishingly low uptake, and there are good reasons for this. I’ve heard that JVP‘s optional-OA uptake has been disappointing, too — probably the true reason for the recent price-cut. My guess is that this is pretty representative. So I think that hybrid is really a bit of a fig-leaf that’s used by publishers and journals that don’t really want to do OA but feel they have to be seen to be doing something.

So journals that do want to move to open access have to choose between Gold and Green. My best judgement is that Green is easier in the short term, but that most journals will want to go Gold in the end. The advantage of Green at this point is that it doesn’t require the societies to actually do anything — just to tell authors that they are welcome to self-archive preprints, after revising for reviewer comments, but before copy-editing (if any) and typesetting. A forward-looking society might host an archive for this purpose, but that is not necessary.

The thing is, a society that is serious about open access — that really wants that 176% citation advantage — will need to not just grudgingly allow Green OA, but actively shout about it. That’s maybe the single most important point here. Open access is not a threat to be deflected, it’s an opportunity to be grasped. The journals, and societies, that do that most effectively will be the ones that flourish. Right now, JVP is dead to me, and to some few other palaeontologists I know. I’d love that to change.

(Going forward, I am not sure that Green will remain viable indefinitely, but that is a subject for another post.)



[1] Yes, yes, I know.

Good news! If you want to read research that was funded by the U.S. National Instututes of Health (NIH), you can. Their public access policy means that papers published on their dime become universally accessible in PubMed Central.

Good news! If you want to read research that was funded by the Wellcome Trust, an international charitable foundation, you can. Their open access policy means research that they pay for becomes universally accessible in PubMed Central. or another PubMed site.


Good news! The UK government is moving with impressive speed towards implementing its own public access policy: David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said earlier this month in a speech to the Publishers Association AGM that “Our starting point is very simple. The Coalition is committed to the principle of public access to publicly-funded research results … A pay wall creates a barrier between the academic community and the rest of us, which is deeply unhealthy … [The subscription] funding model is surely going to have to change.” We don’t yet know the details of the policy, but we know it’s coming.

Good news! The European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme will fund €80 billion (=~ £65 billion or $102 billion) of research between 2016 and 2020. Will you want to read the resulting papers? The programme’s open access policy means that you’ll be able to.

The way the wind is blowing around the world is unmistakable. And the reason for this is terribly, terribly obvious. It’s insane for a funding body to spend money and not have the resulting research made available.

… but …

Bad news! Unfortunately, that’s still how things are for most govenment-funded research in the USA. Besides the NIH, there are eleven government agencies with research budgets of more than $100 million per year (Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and National Science Foundation). And as things stand, the research they fund can be, and mostly is, locked behind paywalls. Which is insane.

It’s ironic that, having led the way with the NIH’s public-access policy, the USA is now trailing behind the UK and the European Union.

Good news! Now, all of us — American or not — have a chance to change this. No, I am not talking about the FRPAA, as important as that is. Independently from that, SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) have the ear of Obama’s Science Advisor. There is an opportunity to bring the issue of open access to the forefront right now, as the administration weighs priorities to complete before the November election. The outcome could be a Presidential-level directive that would jump-start the process.

To make this happen, the Obama adminstration wants to know that there is broad public support for the issue of open access. We can send that message by signing this new petition at Whitehouse.gov. The bar to contribute is very low: you need to be over 12 years old and have an email address so that you can register. That’s all. Crucially, you do not need to be a U.S Citizen for your voice to be heard.

We need to hit 25,000 signatures in 30 days to force a response; but we want to do much more than that, powering on to, and past, that target to demonstrate the importance of this issue to patient groups, small businesses, people with unusual illnesses, international development groups, nurses, science advocacy groups and more.

So here’s what you can do:

  • Sign the petition, whether you are American or not.
  • Raise awareness. There is already a Facebook page and Twitter handle (@access2research). Link to them. Blog about them.
  • Make sure your non-scientist friends hear about this, too.
  • Upvote (and comment on) the link on Reddit. My experience has been that Reddit is the single most significant site for raising awareness of geek issues.
  • Upvote (and comment on) the link on Hacker News. It’s not so big an audience as Reddit, but its readers are more likely to engage with serious issues.

Update (9:45pm)

Lots of coverage and discussion on the web.  Rather than build a link-farm here, I refer you to this one that’s being built collaboratively.

The speed that things are happening at the moment is astonishing.

Whenever we talk about the economics of open access — when I argue that it costs the community eight times as much to publish a paywalled article with Elsevier as it does to publish it as open access with PLoS ONE — I always hear the same argument in response.  And it’s a good argument.  It goes like this:

Yes, the total cost to libraries around the world of an Elsevier article may be eight times the cost to the author of publishing an open-access article that is free to read.  But you can only expect to save that money if libraries cancel their Elsevier subscriptions and plough that money into funding open-access publications instead.  And no library will ever do that, because the researchers that they serve need the subscriptions.

Well, it turns out — somewhat to my own surprise, I’ll admit — that libraries will cancel their Elsevier subscriptions.  The Department of Mathematics at the Technical University of Munich has just voted to do exactly that:

Because of unsustainable subscription prices and conditions, the board of directors of the mathematics department has voted to cancel all of its subscriptions to Elsevier journals by 2013.

So what does this mean?  A lot of things.

1. This is no idle far-in-the-future threat: 2013 is only one year away!  So this is an actual policy.  Something that they’re going to do.

2. Universities are not messing about.  When Harvard say they can’t afford subscriptions, they probably mean it — it’s not just a negotiating tactic.

3. Where one university department leads, others will probably follow.  Maybe initially it will be mostly maths departments in other universities; maybe it will be other departments of the Technical University of Munich; maybe it will be all of Harvard.

4. So far, this announcement is only about cancelling subscriptions and says nothing about open access.  If that’s all they do, it will be a mere cost-saving exercise and a missed opportunity.  To be truly transformational, the department needs to channel a significant chunk of its subscription savings into funding Gold OA publications.

5. Publishers who are paying attention will surely start to realise that they have pushed their exploitative prices too far, and that they don’t hold libraries in a steely grip any more.  I wonder how this will play into investment advice regarding Elsevier?

This isn’t the kind of problem that can be fixed by hiring a PR person.  I’ve argued this before, but if Elsevier are going to survive, they’ll need to be much clearer in the their communications, eliminate practices that alienate authors, and ultimately change their business model entirely.

For more on the Munich development (interesting more for the comments they may generate than for carrying much additional information):

These are worrying days for barrier-based publishers.  In the few days since I posted part 2 of this series, we have yet another major development in the Open Access world: UK Science Minister David Willetts’ announcement that “we will make publicly funded research accessible free of charge to readers”.  Exactly what form this will take is not yet clear, but the signs seem to point to an FRPAA-like universal Green-OA mandate for all research funded by the government.

What does this mean for Elsevier and their competitors?  It looks to me like a swift and sudden pulling of the rug from under their feet.  When Green OA becomes ubiqitous enough that researchers start looking at repositories as a first line of attack rather than the if-all-else-fails option, the need for journal subscriptions will fall away precipitously — and with it, publishers’ revenue streams.

In the face of that prospect, we now come to the third and final part of the How Elsevier Can Save Itself series.  (Final, that is, apart form the forthcoming coda on how other publishers should react.)  Previously we talked about easy measures and medium measures.  These ones are hard.  They require vision, courage, and determination.

1. Convert to Gold open access

It sounds radical; it sounds like a Won’t Ever Happen.  But, really, what is the alternative?  Subscription revenue is on the way out.  The signs are everywhere — not just in blogs and on Twitter, but in legislation in the US, in the UK and elsewhere.  Publishers reliant on subscription revenue must find another source of income or they will crash.

This may seem so obvious that it doesn’t need saying.  Unfortunately for Elsevier, a there’s a steady stream of no-we’re-not-sinking denialism issuing from venues such as the Scholarly Kitchen, and because that’s what publishers want to hear, they might fall into the trap of believing it because they want to.  (I have a vision of a world ten years hence when open access is all but universal; somewhere in the mid-west, Kent Anderson and David Crotty(*) have locked themselves into a underground bunker with a supply of tinned food and bottled water, and spend their days writing blog-posts to each other about how awesome the subscription-and-gatekeeper model is, and how there’s no need for change and how naive all these OA zealots are.)

Let’s assume for the moment that someone at Elsevier can see the oncoming revenue evaporation, and is making plans that go beyond “sell all my stock and get a job in another business”.  What revenue streams could be brought online to replace the lost subscriptions?

Well, what are publishers good at?  Managing the editorial process; proof-reading and copy-editing; page layout; consistent formatting across a brand; reliable large-scale web-hosting.  Those remain valuable services which publishers could charge for.

Guess what?  Charging authors for those services is Gold Open Access.  It’s the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive.  (Only “might”?  Yes; see below.)

2. Support the FRPAA

Wait, what?  Didn’t I just say that Green-OA mandates like the FRPAA are going to Eat Elsevier’s Lunch?  Yes I did; and yes they are.  The thing is, there is nothing Elsevier can do to stop that.  The RWA debacle should have taught them that, if they doubted it before.

So what do you do when an unstoppable enemy is charging at you?  The judo move is to use that momentum to your own advantage.  Or, to switch metaphors, if a train is heading down the track towards you, it’s better to hop on board than to try to stop it.

I can see that this is going to be a hard lesson for a company that’s been used to having its own way since forever.  There’s a good chance that it believes in its own invincibility — its manifest destiny, if you will.  You know, like Blockbuster, Borders and the News of the World.

But if Elsevier has the agility, there’s an opportunity right now to radically reposition itself as the progressive, author-friendly publisher that listens to what academics want.  Given the appalling behaviour that’s got Elsevier into the current situation, it’ll take something dramatic to do that: supporting the FRPAA is the best chance they have, maybe the only chance.

3. Do it now

Here’s why I said that Gold OA is the only business model that might still work when Green is pervasive.  Once Green really takes hold, there’s a danger that scholars will lose interest in journals.  We’ve already seen this start to happen in maths and physics, where pre-prints on arXiv are ubiquitous.  In those fields, it’s still considered valuable to get a paper into a “good journal”; but what counts most is getting your work on the pre-print server where people can see and cite it.

This danger is all the more real because of the rise of Altmetrics.  A few years back when arXiv was establishing itself, journal impact factor was about the only way of getting a quick-and-dirty measurement of how “good” a paper was.  That’s changing; and as it changes, it’s destroying one of the main reasons for the continuing dominance of the journal system as the primary way to share science.  I don’t know how quickly Altmetrics are going to grow in influence, how well they can be designed to avoid gaming, or indeed whether the whole initiative will crash and burn.  But I do know that I’m more likely to tell people that our neck-posture paper has been cited 37 times than that it was in a journal with impact factor 1.949.  Because what a paper actually does is more important than where it hangs out.

So the spectre hanging over Elsevier isn’t just the destruction of their subscription model, but the possibility that by the time they get into gear and switch to Gold OA, it’ll all be over and the world will have lost interest in journals.  Certainly if university libraries start redirecting their saved subscription money towards in-house publishing efforts, the chances of that will increase dramatically.

This might not happen.  Inertia surrounding the journal system, and bean-counters’ ingrained love for impact factors, might be enough to keep journals alive and important, with Green OA and in-house publishing remaining second-tier.  But it might.  If I was Mister Elsevier, I wouldn’t be betting the farm on it.

What won’t help

A quick word on two things Elsevier could do that I have not mentioned in this series — because I don’t think they will make any difference in the long term:

  • Reducing subscription prices.
  • Unbundling subscriptions from their “Big Deals”.

Yes, I know that these moves would address two of the three complaints of the Cost of Knowledge boycott.  But in the end I think they’re red herrings.  All they do is make the current system of barriers marginally less unpalatable.  And that’s like patching holes in the Titanic, because the ship is going down.

The challenge is to re-tool for a world where barriers won’t make money.  Because that is not a strategy that can keep working.  It just isn’t.

Can they do it?

I said at the start that, while the changes outlined in earlier posts are no-brainers, or at least only moderately difficult, these ones will require vision, courage, and determination.  I think Elsevier has people with those qualities.  Unfortunately, it also has a massive amount of institutional inertia.  It’s hard to steer a supertanker.  Even when it’s heading straight for the rocks, there are going to be plenty of people whose attitude is: heck, we’re a supertanker — we don’t need to be worried about a bunch of stinkin’ rocks.

So I’d like to think they can do it.  But my head says probably not.  And as Clay Shirky points out, “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” is not much of a business model.

(*) My mistake: I was thinking of David Wojick here — not David Crotty, who is much more reasonable. I’m not fixing this now because it would change the interpretation of some of the comments below.

It seems the world is conveniently arranging itself for the benefit of this occasional series.  Every time I am about to post an installment, something apposite happens out there.  Just as I was preparing part 0, Bernstein Research’s investment report Is Elsevier Heading for a Political Train-Wreck? came out; just before part 1, Elsevier decided that the solution to their problems was to hire a PR guy; and now, as I prepare part 2, America’s richest university says publicly that it can’t afford spiralling subscription fees any more.

It’s not my intention to gloat, but the recent cascade of events must surely be giving Elsevier and other big barrier-based publishers pause for thought.  A trickle of outrage has swiftly grown into a tide.  That may become a tidal wave.  Real change is needed to avert disaster.

Last time we looked at things that Elsevier should do right now, at no cost to itself: be explicit about terms of “sponsored articles” and non-sponsored articles; make it trivially easy to find sponsored articles; stop lying about copyright transfer; root out and destroy stupid conditions.

This time, we’ll go on to measures that probably will cost Elsevier something (though most likely not as much as they fear).

1. Change the “sponsored article” licence to CC-BY

Springer’s Open Choice is their equivalent of Elsevier’s “sponsored articles“.  Except it’s not, because Springer’s version is true Budapest-compliant open access.  Not only that, it’s trivially easy to tell that it’s the case, because the page simply says:

Copyright and Open Access License

If authors choose open access in the Springer Open Choice program, they will not be required to transfer their copyright; the copyright remains with the author.

NEW! Springer now permits commercial use for Open Choice, as all Open Choice articles are published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license from January 16, 2012 onwards.

This is the right way to do it: by using a standard licence instead of writing their own terms, Springer tap into accumulated understanding of what CC BY means.  And by using that particular licence, they remove all doubt about what you are and aren’t able to do with such articles.  They’re freed to be used in any reasonable way, for the benefit of science.

If someone pays Elsevier $3000 to sponsor an article, it’s been paid for.  There is no legitimate reason for Elsevier to take the copyright under such circumstances, and no reasonable expectation that they should be able to make more money by charging for any use of such an article.  Worse, this kind of action makes Elsevier look mercenary and works directly against the partnering-with-authors impression that they otherwise try to nurture.

Special bonus: if Elsevier switch to the BOAI-compliant CC BY licence for such articles, they can stop weaseling around calling their scheme “sponsored articles”, and truthfully call the results open access.  And right now, Elsevier really, really needs to be able to say that it’s supporting open access.

What does Elsevier stand to lose by doing this?  A tiny revenue stream arising from people paying to actually use sponsored articles.  Of course I am not privy to Elsevier’s internal accounting, so I don’t know what that amount is, but I would be amazed if it’s more than 0.01% of their revenue and pretty surprised if it was more than 0.001%.  Not worth it.

2. Stop being obstructive about text-mining

When you read a published paper — say, because your library has a subscription that allows you to — you process the information that it contains and use that in your own work.  Later on, you publish that work, and what you publish has benefitted from the facts that were in the papers you read.  This is called research, or sometimes “standing on the shoulders of giants”, and it’s how science is made.

It’s how we’ve been doing science, in fact, since 1665.  But now it’s the 21st century and we have millions of papers to read instead of a handful.  Happily we have computers to do the reading for us, and in many fields they can extract important information such as use of taxonomic terms or chemical reactions.  This is called text-mining.  Just like when we read papers ourselves, text-mining extracts facts rather than their particular expression; and facts are not subject to copyright.  So it follows that anyone who has access to papers has the right to text-mine them.

Unfortunately, Elsevier (like many other publishers) has a history of being obstructive about mining.  Even when they set out to help — and to give credit, they are making an effort — it’s of the form “We are keen to arrange a teleconference with you all to discuss ways to enable text mining for academics at Cambridge University“.  Which is a waste of everyone’s time: first, we want to be doing science, not making conference calls; second, it’s dumb to limit this negotiation process to one text-mining project at a time.  (Even Elsevier’s own Director of Universal Access, has commented that she worries that “she might be overwhelmed by requests from others who also want text mining access“.

So this is dumb.  Since other publishers (with the obvious exceptions) are equally obstructive, Elsevier has an opportunity to lead the way.  They should demonstrate their commitment to open science by laying down this simple principle: if it’s been paid for (by subscription or OA), you can let computers as well as people read the information.

Again, what will this cost?  Maybe a little: perhaps Elsevier have managed to negotiate contracts with some customers where they pay extra for the privilege of mining, and they’d have to forego that revenue.  On the other hand, they’d be able to save a lot of money by not having to hold conference calls that involve six people at a time, including a vice president and three directors.  So overall this could even be a net financial win for Elsevier.

3. Dump the “you can self-archive unless mandated to” rule

Elsevier’s Article Posting Policies state:

Elsevier believes that individual authors should be able to distribute their AAMs for their personal voluntary needs and interests, e.g. posting to their websites or their institution’s repository, e-mailing to colleagues.

(AAMs are “accepted author manuscripts”, defined as “the author’s version of the manuscript of an article that has been accepted for publication and which may include any author-incorporated changes suggested through the processes of submission processing, peer review, and editor-author communications”.)

So far, so good: Elsevier supports self-archiving.  But it goes on:

Deposit in, or posting to, subject-oriented or centralized repositories (such as PubMed Central), or institutional repositories with systematic posting mandates is permitted only under specific agreements between Elsevier and the repository, agency or institution, and only consistent with the publisher’s policies concerning such repositories.

The page then clarifies that you’re not allowed to self-archive in response to:

Institutional, funding body or government manuscript posting policies or mandates that aim to aggregate and openly distribute the work by its researchers or funded researchers.

In other words, you’re allowed to self-archive so long as you’re not under a mandate to do so.  If you’re mandated to self-archive then you’re not allowed to.

This is not just obstructive, but absurd.  I’m not sure whether it’s more Kafka or Borges, but either way it makes Elsevier look dumb.  The analogy that springs to mind is a stroppy toddler who likes going to the playground, but arbitrarily refuses when a parent suggests it.

It’s been pointed out many times that there is no evidence that self-archiving (“Green open access”) harms publishers in any way.  Elsevier’s current policy is baseless, and makes them look both obstructive and absurd.  They should fix it.

One more quote from the policy page:

We routinely analyse and modify our policies to ensure we are responding to authors’ needs and concerns, and the concerns in general of the research and scholarly communities.

That is encouraging.  Let’s hope it’s true.

Probable cost to Elsevier if they fix this?  Hard to evaluate, but at the moment the sum of all available evidence (i.e. none whatsoever) doesn’t give any reason to think there will be a cost at all.

4. Withdraw opposition to the FRPAA

This one is surely a no-brainer.  Elsevier’s support for the RWA, both financial and rhetorical, catalysed a level of fury among researchers that’s like nothing they’ve seen before.  The Cost of Knowledge boycott, which has now surpassed ten thousand signatories and is going strong, is only the tip of the iceberg.  Elsevier recognised that supporting the RWA was an appalling tactical misstep, and publicly withdrew their support, resulting shortly thereafter in the RWA’s unlamented death.

So it was with something of a facepalm that, five minutes later, I saw Elsevier listed as one of the signatories on the Association of American Publishers’ letter campaigning against the FRPAA.

Seriously, Elsevier.  Don’t you get it?  All the researchers who hated the RWA also love the FRPAA.  By publicly opposing it, you instantly undid the good that your RWA withdrawal did.  Straight away, you cast yourself again as researchers’ enemy rather than partner.

Just stop it.

Cost to Elsevier: hard to calculate but probably close to zero.  Cost to Elsevier of continuing to oppose the FRPAA: totally wasting the salaries of whatever PR people they hire.  Because while you directly oppose what we want, no amount of PR will persuade us that you’re on our side.

5. Be open about subscription prices

No-one knows what Elsevier charge for journal subscriptions.

Even people within a university often don’t know what their own library is paying, because the librarians are forbidden to tell them.

It’s hardly surprising that this breeds an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust.

Is that what you want, Elsevier?  Huh?  Huh?

Again we come back to the central issue, which is trust.  Elsevier is a science publisher, which means that most of its customers are scientists.  Science has always been done in the open — it’s the nature of what science is.  And this is becoming more and more important with the rise of open-notebook science, and of services like FigShare, DigiMorph and GenBank.  That’s the atmosphere that science is happening in.

If Elsevier wants to be taken seriously by scientists, it needs to be similarly open.  After all, when you keep secrets, people always assume the worst.

What do these measures have in common?  None of them will cost Elsevier much — maybe even save them some money.  These are things that should be done as a priority, as in within a month or so.  They’re not hard, they just need the will to make them happen.  If Elsevier don’t move quickly on these things, the door will slam shut and leave them outside.

If they do move quickly, then they’ll have made real steps towards re-casting themelves as a friend of science, and of scientists.

Last time we looked at the state Elsevier has got itself into, and how it needs to make significant changes to regain the trust of researchers (and librarians for that matter).

By coincidence, literally as I was writing that, Elsevier’s Liz Smith tweeted:

Job opportunity: Executive Editor, Social Media Content at Elsevier Ltd - Oxford, United Kingdom #jobs http://lnkd.in/ZgfusW

I clicked through and looked at the advert:

Can you help us tell our story? We’re looking for someone who is part community manager, part brand manager and part journalist to be in charge of an exciting new website that will help us communicate more effectively and consistently with the research community.

You’ll establish and implement a content strategy for the site, to make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier.

This is worth doing — as Richard Poynder pointed out back in January, Elsevier needs to get out more, and hiring someone whose job is just that can’t hurt.  But I hope no-one at Elsevier thinks that it will be enough to “make sure that we’re talking about the many positive things happening at Elsevier”.

The problems run much deeper than that.

So I’m going to discuss some of the things that Elsevier needs to actually do.  By that I mean, not just talking more effectively about what’s happening already, but changes that need to made.

This post will address the easy ones — things that Elsevier should do right now, without even thinking about it.  We’re talking here about things that will have pretty much no cost, and will start to make Elsevier look like people we can do business with.

1. Be explicit about “sponsored article” terms

I’m starting with this one to give Elsevier a head start, since it seems they’ve fixed this now.  As of a few weeks ago, the sponsored article page has a link to a Sponsored Articles – User Rights page which spells out important details about what you are and are not allowed to do with a sponsored article.

(For the moment I am not interested in what those terms are — we’ll discuss how they are and are not satisfactory in the next article.  I am just interested in whether we can find out what the terms are.)

Why am I mentioning this in How Elsevier Can Save Itself when it’s a problem they’ve already fixed?  Two reasons.

First, because it took an incredibly long time to get them to make these terms clear: see previous articles one, two, three, three and a half, four.

Second, the terms are still not completely clear, in that they don’t say who has the copyright in the article.  (It’s Elsevier, by the way, not the author, but we’ll talk about that in the next part.)

This is in contrast to, for example, Springer’s “Open Choice” page, which is crystal clear about both copyright ownership and access conditions in just 55 words of a page that fits on a single sheet of A4.

2. Be explicit about non-sponsored article terms

I have little idea at the moment exactly what I’m allowed to do with regular non-sponsored articles.  I am affiliated with the University of Bristol and have off-campus access via Shibboleth and an intermittently functional VPN, so I assume I am allowed to download ScienceDirect articles.  But I don’t know whether, for example, I’m allowed to email copies to colleagues who should have access but don’t from off-campus; or whether I’m allowed to text-mine the articles that I have access to; or, if so, what I am allowed to do with the results.

To be fair, there is a fairly hefty document on Authors’ Rights & Responsibilities, but that is addressed much more to the authors of articles than to their users.

Immediate Update.  It turns out I was looking in the wrong place: the information doesn’t seem to be on elsevier.com, but it is on sciencedirect.com, where it can be reached by a Terms and Conditions link on almost every page.  Those terms and conditions are very restrictive, but again we’ll discuss that next time.  The important thing is to make sure they are very easy to find.

3. Make it trivially easy to find sponsored articles

When I was first trying to discover the terms of “sponsored articles”, one approach I took was to go to Cretaceous Research, an Elsevier journal, try to find a sample sponsored article, and see what it said about itself.

Well, I couldn’t do it.  The Advanced Search page has fields for subject, date-range and more, but no “limit to sponsored articles” or similar checkbox.

There are lots of reasons people might want to find sponsored articles, and I can’t think of any good reasons why Elsevier might not want them to.  So this should be made very easy.  (Apart from anything else, it’s about the best way to advertise the journal.)

Not providing a searching option makes it look as though Elsevier want to hide sponsored articles — to stop people from getting full value from them.  That perception, whether accurate or not, needs to be dealt with.

4. Stop lying about copyright transfer

This page in the Author’s Rights area discusses a question that comes up a lot:

Why does Elsevier request transfer of copyright?

The research community needs certainty with respect to the validity of scientific papers, which is normally obtained through the editing and peer review processes. The scientific record must be clear and unambiguous. Elsevier believes that, by obtaining copyright transfer, it will always be clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper which has been edited, peer-reviewed and accepted for publication in an appropriate journal. This eliminates any ambiguity or uncertainty about Elsevier’s ability to distribute, sub-license and protect the article from unauthorized copying, unauthorized distribution, and plagiarism.

This is flagrant nonsense.  No-one — no-one — evaluates the trustworthiness or validity of a paper on the basis of who owns the copyright.  No-one.

So whatever the true reason for copyright transfer, we know it’s not to make it “clear to researchers that when they access an Elsevier site to review a paper, they are reading a final version of the paper.”

When Elsevier tells us things that we know are not true, how can they expect us to believe anything else they say?

5. Root out and destroy and stupid conditions

You sometimes hear stories like this one: an inter-library loan facility where the librarian is sent a PDF, but publisher restrictions do not not allowed it be forwarded to the patron.  Instead, the librarian has to print the PDF out, destroy the original, scan the printout and send the scan to the patron.

Are these stories true?  I don’t know.  If they are, is Elsevier the publisher concerned?  I don’t know.  But Elsevier needs to make sure of that.  At this point, any such stupidities will be discovered, and trumpeted, and ridiculed.

The same goes for any other equally dumb edge-cases.  If they exist, someone’s going to find them.  Better for Elsevier that it be one of their own people, and that they fix it ASAP.

What do these measures have in common?  None of them will cost Elsevier anything.  These are things that should be done as soon as humanly possible, by which I mean “within the next week” rather than “we’ll set up a group to look into it, and report back at the next six-monthly management meeting”.

These measures are about transparency and sanity.  They are the kinds of changes that will start to put some trust back in place.  Being up-front and clear about what the access situation is will start to chip away at the sense that Elsevier has something to hide.  Getting rid of palpable lies about copyright transfer will be a start towards enabling us to believe Elsevier when they tell us other things.  None of this is enough to make an enemy into a friend; but it will at least help us to feel we’re facing an honourable enemy.  (Of course, there is a lot more that researchers need from Elsevier beyond that baseline.  We’ll look into that next time.)

Please do shout in the comments if I’ve missed any zero-cost transparency or sanity measures that should have been listed here.

Folks — important news on Research Councils UK’s new draft open access policy.  A while back I wrote to RCUK asking when the deadline for submissions is, and I did eventually hear back from Jane Wakefield, Press and Communications Manager.  The deadline is Tuesday 10th April — not today, as I’d originally thought thanks to a game of Chinese whispers.

So please, folks: if you care about yourself, your friends and colleagues, your doctors and your kids’ teachers having access to research funded in the UK, read the draft policy (it’s only six very clear pages) and email your comments to communications@rcuk.ac.uk with the subject “Open Access Feedback”.  There will not be a better chance to influence open-access policy in the UK for years.

Here are some other responses from around the Web:

(Apologies to anyone I’ve missed.)

Nearly all these responses are rather long and dry, but let me emphasise again that you don’t have to write a long submission.  If you just send a one-liner, “I endorse the new proposed OA policy”, that’s worth doing.

So please, folks.  Do it now, while the call is still open.

My RCUK submission

March 30, 2012

Tonight, I sent my submission to Research Councils UK in response to their call for comments on the recently issued docment RCUK Proposed Policy on Access to Research Outputs.  I am now posting my comments publicly.  I urge you all once more, please send your own comments to communications@rcuk.ac.uk with the subject “Open Access Feedback”.  They do not need to be as long and detailed as mine: I am sure they would welcome short-and-sweet comments!

(1) Summary

I enthusiastically welcome the proposed changes in the the RCUK Policy on Access to Research Outputs, recognising that this policy’s more timely availability of access to research and the more liberal licensing terms will be good for research, for industry and for society in general. Some minor harm to the businesses of subscription-based publishers is a regrettable possible side-effect, but that harm — if it is real, which has not been demonstrated — is greatly outweighed by the benefits that will arise from the adoption of the new access policy.

I will comment on each of the changes individually.

(2) What do the Research Councils mean by Open Access?

“The existing policy will be clarified by specifically stating that Open Access includes unrestricted use of manual and automated text and data mining tools. Also, that it allows unrestricted re-use of content with proper attribution – as defined by the Creative Commons CC-BY licence.”

It is very heartening to see this clarification, especially as certain publishers seem to be using the phrase “open access” extremely loosely to refer to any articles to which any kind of access is provided. The definition used in the RCUK policy is compatible with that of the Budapest Initiative which first defined the term in 2002.

Particularly welcome is the clarification that “open access” may not exclude commercial use — a clause that is sometimes adopted by authors or journals that hope to gain financially by forcing commercial organisations into a royalty agreement, but which almost invariably simply prevents the research from being used.

(3) How is a Scholarly Research Paper made Open Access?

One of the two methods by which a paper can be made Open Access is given as follows:

“The version of the published paper as accepted for publication … is archived and made accessible in an online repository … access may be restricted to comply with an embargo period imposed by the publisher.”

This wording could be improved by clarifying that the deposit itself is to be made as soon as the paper is accepted, but with an embargo period before the deposited manuscript is made open access. Most modern repositories support such “dark deposits”, with the open-access date specified at deposit time so that no further human intervention is required six months later when the embargo expires.

This approach would have several advantages: first, deposits would be made when the project is fresh in the author’s mind. Second, article metadata (though not full text) would be available from acceptance time, speeding recognition of the paper and application of the research. Third, potential readers who discover metadata in advance of embargo expiry will be able to obtain copies direct from authors.

(4) What do journals need to do to be compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access?

“The existing RCUK policy on access to research outputs does not state specific criteria to be satisfied for a journal to be recognised by the Research Councils as ‘Open Access Policy Compliant’. The revised policy therefore introduces such criteria.”

This is an important and very necessary change, in light of the variety of ways the term “open access” has been abused.

Although the Directory of Open Access Journals (http://www.doaj.org/) lists over 7000 “open access” journals, specific licensing terms are specified only for a very small proportion of these, so that users cannot easily tell what rights they have regarding articles from most listed journals. A more explicit list of True Open Access journals will be helpful, especially to text/data mining projects. I hope that RCUK will either establish such a list, or (better still) work with DOAJ to add an RCUK-compliance field to its database.

(5) What Research Outputs will be covered by Research Council Policy on Access to Research Outputs and where should they be published?

No comments other than agreement.

(6) When should a paper become Open Access?

“In future, Research Councils will no longer be willing to support publisher embargoes of longer than six […] months from the date of publication, depending on the Research Council.” [for councils other than AHRC and ESRC]

This is definitely an important step in the right direction.

However, I question whether any embargo period at all is acceptable for research funded by the public. I understand that the six-month period is a compromise in hope of appeasing publishers, but the core point here is that the Research Councils are not beholden to publishers but to the British public. Their goal is to obtain the best value in return for taxpayer investment in research, not to perpetuate the business model of old-school publishers.

I would therefore support a no-embargo rule, whereby final manuscripts could be posted to repositories as soon as they are accepted (i.e. even before publication). Publishers that are unhappy with this arrangement would be free not to accept manuscripts submitted under these terms, and to seek submissions from elsewhere.

(7) How is Open Access paid for?

“Research Council grant funding may be used to support payment of Article Processing Charges to publishers.”

This principle is a good one. However, there are practical difficulties in estimating at the beginning of a project how much money to request for publication fees when it is not known how many papers will proceed from a project, what journals they will be submitted to, or whether they will be published during or after the lifetime of the project.

For this reason, rather than including publication fees in grants, I would favour the establishment of a separate pot of funds dedicated to supporting publication of RCUK-funded research whether during or after any given project.

(8) Acknowledgement of funding sources and access to the underlying research materials

“Research papers [must include] a statement on how the underlying research materials — such as data, samples or models — can be accessed.”

Requiring this to be explicitly stated is a valuable addition which is cheap to comply with.

But I am disappointed to find so large a loophole as “The underlying research materials do not necessarily have to be made Open Access”. While understanding the need for some datasets to remain private (e.g. patient records and other personal medical data), I would prefer to see such exceptions listed, with a clear expectation that datasets not in one of the exception categories should be made open access. The motivation for this change is the same as that for the whole policy: that free availability of data, like research, accelerates both further research and commercial applications, to the benefit of the public.

(9) Implementation and compliance

No comments other than agreement.

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

In the middle of February, Times Higher Education ran a piece by Elsevier boycott originator Tim Gowers, entitled Occupy publishing.  A week ago, they published a letter in response, written by Elsevier Senior VP David Clark, under the title If it ain’t broke, don’t bin it, in which he argued that “there is little merit in throwing away a system that works in favour of one that has not even been developed yet”.

Seeing the current journal system, with its arbitrary barriers, economic inefficiencies and distorted perspective on impact, described as “a system that works” was more than I could bear.  So I sent a letter in response, and it’s published in today’s issue as Open, moral and pragmatic.

Space limitations of THE letters meant that I was only able to address one aspect — the economics.  Based on numbers in their own annual report, I show that the cost of each article that Elsevier makes available to subscribers is twelve times the cost of each article that PLoS makes available to the world.  And since Elsevier’s 200,000 articles per year are about a seventh of the total global output, the money paid to Elsevier alone would easily pay for every single paper to be published as open access.  Easily.

No doubt there are errors in some of the numbers, which are necessarily estimates; and the calculation is overly simplistic.  But even allowing for that, there is plenty enough slop in the figures that the conclusion stands.  If we stopped paying Elsevier subscriptions alone — we can keep Wiley, Springer and the rest — the money we save would pay for all our work to be available to the whole world, with hundreds of millions of pounds left over to fund more research.

Worried about the lack of jobs in palaeontology?  Concerned that universities are reducing the number of tenure-track positions?  Disturbed by the elimination of curators and preparators from museums?  We need to cut the inefficient, profiteering publishers out of the loop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preferentially submit to open-access journals

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

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

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

Do not review for non-open journals

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

Do not edit for non-open journals

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

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

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

Influence conferences to make proceedings open access

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

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

Influence funding bodies to mandate open access

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

Influence universities to mandate open access

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

Spread the word!

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

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

We live in exciting times.

One step at a time, gets there in the end

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

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