For researchers who have never dipped a toe into the debates on open access that surge across the blogosphere it is all too easy to imagine that they need not get involved. For sure, people are increasingly aware that a decision of some sort needs to be made about OA once their paper is accepted for publication but that’s about as far as it goes. The complexity of the issue is off-putting — who has the time? — and there is in any case a vague sense that funding agencies (RCUK, HEFCE, NIH, the Wellcome Trust and the like) have the matter in hand so any sense of involvement or responsibility is, with little effort, shrugged off.
But to do so misses the real significance of the changes seeping through academic publishing. Worse, it overlooks the capacity the individual researcher to influence them.
The changes in train are as much cultural as technological: while the high-speed connectivity of the internet is enabling us to re-imagine publication by spreading research results faster and further than ever before, at the same time it is providing the democratic empowerment needed to challenge the status quo. Established publishers naturally seek to protect the advantages of hegemonies built up before the web came along; but these are not always aligned with the movement towards open access and it is now possible for each of us, working singly or in web-linked groups, to make a real difference.
In this post I want to go through a number of recent examples — some of them pretty straight-forward — that show how simple it can be to take part in the push for open access. The more of us that push, the faster we will get to where we want to be.
Get what you pay for: Last December I noticed that the PDF of a 2012 paper in Elsevier’s Journal of Virological Methods on which I am a co-author and which was supposed to be OA was marked “Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.” The paper was clearly denoted as OA on Science Direct but there was no indication of this on the PDF. Since we had paid a hefty Article Processing Charge (APC) for the hybrid OA option to make our paper freely available in a journal that normally requires a subscription, this didn’t seem like very good service.
Through Twitter, and then in email exchanges, Elsevier’s Alicia Wise agree to attend to the defect and within about a month, the PDF had been altered. The text now reads “© 2012 Elsevier B.V. This is an Open Access article under Elsevier’s open license: http://www.elsevier.com/open-access/userlicense/1.0/”. Alicia spent some time in our email exchanges explaining how tricky it had been to amend the PDF after publication; while I was grateful for the effort made, I couldn’t help pointing out that the trouble would have been avoided if the article had been marked up correctly in the first place, especially given the charge levied for Elsevier’s OA option. I understand several other problematic OA articles by Imperial College authors like myself have been brought to Elsevier’s attention by Chris Banks, our Director of Library Services, and have now been attended to. I recommend that you check your own OA papers are clearly marked as such; if not, please contact your publisher to insist on a fix.
Get behind me, paywall: I am not the only one who has been having technical difficulties with my OA papers of late. The Wellcome Trust, in an admirable move towards openness and transparency, recently published the details of their spending on open access publishing on Figshare. To be precise, they published the data as an Excel spreadsheet that was immediately digested, assimilated, annotated and improved by a variety of OA advocates, including Peter Murray-Rust, Cameron Neylon, Ernesto Priego and Michelle Brook (of the Open Knowledge Foundation).
As Wellcome’s Robert Kiley subsequently reported, one of the key things this open, collective effort revealed was that OA articles for which an APC had been paid remained behind paywalls or had not (as promised by the publisher) been deposited in PMC or Europe PubMed Central repositories or had not been marked up with the appropriate Creative Commons licences. As in my case, the problems are most likely due to processing errors but given the high fees levied for OA services by major publishers these are simply not acceptable. This episode underscores the need for openness and community action to drive performance levels in OA publishing.
Get to know your Institutional Repository*: My December run-in with Elsevier must have sensitised my antenna. While I was following the green route to OA by depositing our first paper of 2014 (published in Elsevier’s Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters) in Imperial’s Digital Repository I took the time to read the copyright notice that the publisher insists on attaching to the entry. It says (with my highlighting):
“© 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in BIOORGANIC & MEDICINAL CHEMISTRY LETTERS, Vol.: 24, Issue: 2, (2014) DOI: 10.1016/j.bmcl.2013.12.045”
Since the version I was permitted to deposit was the final accepted manuscript, which has been revised in the light of peer-review and contained no significant differences from the version published in Bioorg. & Med. Chem. Letters, the catch-all statement highlighted in red seemed inaccurate and likely to undermine the confidence of the reader in what they would get from this download. The statement in blue was true but only in the trivial sense in this case that some minor stylistic changes may have been made by the journal. To counter this, I added the following statement to the front page of my PDF:
“This version of the paper, which contains all the modifications made to reviewers’ comments, is the one that was accepted for publication. Essentially, it differs only in matters of formatting from the final published version.”
I also raised the matter with Alicia Wise and was glad to learn that Elsevier is working to re-phrase the boilerplate statement that it applies to deposited post-prints. I look forward to reading the re-drafted text. It is important that precise language is used so that the very real value of work made available through repositories is clear to users. If we can’t get this from publishers, we will have to work with our repositories to eliminate all sources of confusion.
Get to know your rights: A question of language was also raised by Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University in the US who recently observed that the licence to publish used by Nature Publishing Group (NPG) required article authors to waive their moral rights. This was a demand too far in his view since, as he put it, moral rights are broadly understood to include “the right of attribution and the right to preserve the integrity of one’s work”.
NPG’s Grace Baynes countered that the publisher had no intention of undermining authors’ rights of attribution but was seeking to preserve its ability to make corrections to papers (as is sometimes necessary), so as to maintain the integrity public record. I’m pretty sure that’s genuine, but you have to ask why the publisher couldn’t have come up with a more refined form of words in the first place to acquire the legal authority to preserve the academic literature without threatening authors’ right of attribution. And I don’t just mean that as a figure of speech. You have to ask — as those commenting beneath Grace’s statement have done. It’s an important part of the process and, thanks to NPG’s commenting facility, easy to do. So far, we have yet to see any undertaking by the publisher to amend the wording of their licence to publish but now that the matter is out in the open I hope it will be resolved. But this is only likely to happen if the community remains vigilant.
Get value for money: The analysis of the Wellcome Trust’s data on the charges it pays to different publishers for open access publishing articles highlighted high cost of hybrid OA, an issue that was also raised in a recent assessment of the OA publishing market by Bo-Christer Björk and David Solomon. Their report, commissioned by a consortium of funders that included the Trust (Disclaimer: I was on the steering group that oversaw the preparation of the report), revealed that the average fee for hybrid OA (~$2,700) was almost twice the average cost of publishing in a ‘born-digital’ full open access journal (~$1400).
These numbers should give researchers and funders pause for serious thought. Contrary to what was first envisaged, hybrid OA funding has not been used by publishers as a mechanism for flipping their journals to full OA. Instead it is increasingly seen as an additional revenue stream for publishers that does not deliver value for money to the research community. Concerns about double-dipping expressed by the UK House of Commons and Science Minister David Willetts have for the most part yet to be credibly addressed. In part that’s because the resolution is technically difficult but Harvard’s Stuart Shieber has analysed the matter with typical incisiveness and correctly diagnosed the root of the problem: publishers are reluctant to lubricate the transition to OA because it should create a functioning market for publication services that in the long run is likely to reduce revenues (PDF).
Get with the groove (of the new): As far as possible therefore (within the constraints of ongoing collaborations), I shall be avoiding the hybrid OA route and aim instead to publish with fully OA titles that offer a good service at a competitive price. My group’s most recent paper was submitted to one of the newest kids on the block, PeerJ, an online-only, fully OA journal established by Peter Binfield, Jason Hoyt and Tim O’Reilly that opened for business in 2012.
I’ve written before about PeerJ’s ground-breaking pricing models (which start with a one-off ‘membership fee’ of $99 that permits an author to publish one paper a year) but this was the first time I had tried the journal myself. It was an interesting and positive experience. For a start I took advantage of their recent offer to publish peer-reveiwed papers for free if they were first submitted as a pre-print to PeerJ PrePrints. Like the recently established BioRxiv (of which I am an affiliate), this is a laudable attempt to tempt researchers in the biomedical and life sciences to get into the habit of rapid and early publication that has long been the norm in several sub-disciplines of physics, mathematics and computer science through the ArXiv.
The preprint submission was slightly nervy — old habits die hard but I was assuaged by the knowledge that our preprint would immediately be subjected to peer review. Even so, because the manuscript was going straight into the public domain**, I found myself fretting more than ever over possible errors.
As it turned out our preprint, which reported the solution and crystal structures of the polypyrimidine tract binding protein, didn’t take long to become a full-fledged paper. Submitted on 20th Jan 2014, we had an editorial decision — accept with minor revisions — based on three reviews by 3rd Feb. The reviewers were thorough and professional; one pointed out a technical problem with our crystallographic data analysis that we had overlooked and when we looked again it turned out they were correct. Those who might like to have a look at the details can do so because we and the reviewers agreed that our correspondence should, like the paper, be made freely available online.
Having made our corrections the revised manuscript was re-submitted and accepted on 14th Feb and shepherded into publication on 13th March. The online layout of our paper is clean and clear, as is the PDF that you can freely download. Needless to say, it is clearly marked as being distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 licence, the copyright having been retained by the authors. I take Richard Poyner’s point that OA advocates should be careful not to ally themselves to particular publishers, for fear ceding strategic control of the developing OA market (see page 21 of his recent interview (PDF)), but I nevertheless applaud the innovation and professionalism of PeerJ’s operation. I will certainly be submitting papers there again and think that in an open market, they will win a decent share.
There, I’m done (for now). Your turn.
*Update (22-4-14): Another good reason for those in the UK to get to know their institutional repositories is that HEFCE has announced that to be eligible for the next Research Excellence Framework exercise, essentially all publications will have to be deposited in an institutional or subject repository on acceptance for publication. This new policy kicks in from 1st April 2016 but you might as well get into the habit now.
**Update (22-4-14): Mike Taylor pointed out to me that ‘public domain’ can technically be taken to imply publication under a CC0 licence, which permits reuse without attribution. That is not the case here since our preprint was made available under a CC-BY licence. This licence stuff is complicated.