My train of thought is still running.
Last week, taken aback by the revelation of Elsevier’s deep support for the Research Works Act, an anti open-access piece of US legislation, I declined to review a manuscript for the publisher and wrote about my reasons for doing so. My blogpost received an unusual amount of traffic. It seemed to have caught a wave – started elsewhere – that is sweeping through the scientific blogosphere. Mentioned in Research Fortnight, the post even drew comment from Elsevier. In a follow-up piece Benoit Bruneau explored the impact on scientific societies of a radical shift to OA models of scholarly publishing.
The brouhaha has many complex facets, which are being explored in some detail in the blogosphere (and occasionally in the regular press). What a wonderful resource it is; in the past several days I have profited from the writings of many contributors. Michael Eisen, a long-time proponent of OA, clearly thinks the time for action has come. Bjorn Brembs, himself no stranger to this topic, provides a useful breakdown of the large profits made the large publishing groups. Though some have argued that it is unfair to single out one publisher as the target of the boycott, the Library Loon makes the case for concentrating fire on Elsevier. Cameron Neylon, also very much in the OA vanguard, thinks the current set-up will soon be seen as a temporary aberration as more scientists seek to gain more control of the publication of their research. He argues, persuasively in my view, that funders may well hold the key to seeing through a shift in the publishing landscape (of which more below). And Tim Gowers, the fire-starter, is thinking through new models of community-led publishing and peer review.
Elsevier’s support for the RWA is backfiring badly. Discussions on open access have been rumbling on for more than a decade but suddenly there is a feeling of movement.
But is it real? The blogosphere is a tricky place to calibrate. How much of the indignation over the RWA is being transmitted to the larger scientific community? Everyone has heard of OA and is more or less aware of tensions with publishers. But I emailed my department last week to take a poll of views on the Elsevier debate and from a staff of nearly a hundred received just a handful of replies. Most readily support the principle of OA but there is residual hesitation. The lustre of the impact factor still shines brightly.
And yet, as Michael Eisen writes so passionately, escape from the impact factor trap is entirely in our own hands – and the community should “stop using it as an excuse“. That idea is propagated in more detail by Michael Nielsen in his recent book “Reinventing Discovery“, which coincidentally I have just finished (it is very good). Nielsen discusses OA as part of a broader analysis of the opportunities created by the internet for the grander plan of Open Science and suggests that it is a matter of offering the right incentives to scientists.
Nielsen is right. It will not suffice for a few labs to strike out on their own by committing to fully open access publishing. Rather, we need concerted action to change ingrained practices. The UK government has signalled its support for OA in principle but we shall have to hope that aspiration converts to practical action.
Maybe there are ways for the scientific community to help out with that? In the UK I would like to see the Royal Society pick up the government’s message and start to spread it. That may be over-optimistic since its initial deliberations on OA were rather cautious. But perhaps the Royal Society fellows, each picked for their scientific success and so secure in their position, could lead the way by committing to fully OA publishing? Fellows and other senior scientists could also help to break the tyranny of impact factors by publicly eschewing their use when serving on grant and promotion committees and focusing instead on the science. They would win warm plaudits from Peter Lawrence for doing so.
The funding agencies also have a role, as Cameron Neylon has pointed out. At present, the UK Research Council policies on OA are relatively ineffective – in large part because they are not properly funded: their support terminates with the end of the grant, which is often well before publication of the results of the research has been completed. The Wellcome Trust, by contrast, has created a mechanism that works much better by providing funding so authors can pay open access charges even when grants have finished .
But Wellcome’s approach still fails to address the problem of cost (which may in part account for its plans to become a publisher). I haven’t yet absorbed the data on pricing (although that is something I am investigating), so can’t address that point substantively. Nevertheless the 30-40% profit margins of Elsevier and other major scientific publishers do seem extraordinarily generous and suggest that there is plenty of room for efficiency savings.
At the moment those profit margins are generated from subscription charges and hefty OA fees for those authors who opt to pay publishers to deposit a final peer-reviewed, formatted version of their paper in PubMed Central. This mixed economy is inefficient since in each journal issue only a selection of the papers will be free to readers. Yet university libraries still have to pay the full subscription costs for journals, even when they contain OA articles, so universities face excess costs during this transitional period. Would it not be better to get the transition over and done with?
The question is how to propel it forward. The petition is still growing, with over 4500 signatures tonight, but on its own the blogosphere is unlikely to sustain the momentum for change. Attention drifts. We need to push the discussion out into seminar and coffee rooms, into the plush accommodation of the Royal Society and into the offices of research funders up and down the land. We need to open up the discussion on open access — so please keep talking about it.