Can we amend the laws of scholarly publication?

As part of its celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of the publication of Philosophical Transactions, the world’s longest-running scientific journal, the Royal Society has organised a conference to examine ‘The Future of Scholarly Scientific Communication’. The first half of the meeting, held over two days last week, sought to identify the key issues in the current landscape of scholarly communication and then focused on ways to improve peer review. In the second half, which will be held on 5-6th May, the participants will examine the problem of reproducibility before turning attention to the future of the journal article and the economics of publishing.

The luminaries who assembled in the Royal Society’s commodious headquarters in Carlton House Terrace included publishers, academics, representatives from funding agencies and learned societies, several journalists, and a smattering of FRS’s and Nobel laureates – all well versed in the matter at hand. A report of the deliberations will be published in due course but I wanted to work through a central problem that surfaced repeatedly in the meeting last week.

Tim Berners-Lee – portrait at the Royal Society, London

The Royal Society’s portrait of Tim-Berners-Lee, without whom we wouldn’t be having this conversation.


The central problem

The discussion on the first day – vividly live-blogged by Mike Taylor – was an attempt to define the challenges facing scholarly publishing in the 21st century and covered territory that will be familiar to anyone who has read up on open access. The debate kept circling back to the same basic point: the over-weening influence of impact factors and prestige journals, which have academics and publishers locked in an unhealthy relationship that seems increasingly unable to harness the opportunities presented by a digital world. It turns out that pretty much everyone can articulate the present difficulties – the hard bit is finding workable solutions.

As I sat at the back of the room absorbing the proceedings, it struck me that the crux of the problem could be distilled into two laws of publishing. During the meeting I put them out on Twitter in a somewhat light-hearted way but there’s a serious point here.

First law: To get maximum credit for your work, publish in a journal with a high impact factor.

Second law: For maximum speed of publication, choose a well-run mega-journal with ‘objective’ peer review* or, better yet, a preprint repository.

The problem with these laws is that they are incompatible and have given rise to unintended consequences, the central one being the creation of a system in which incentives for researchers are lashed to a slow and unwieldy process of publication. As presently configured academic publication is a competitive business in which journals vie with one another for the best quality science, or at least for the papers they think will boost their impact factors since that is one of the best ways to build a brand. As a result they have become the locus of the competition between researchers, who are now obsessed with the prestige points awarded by journals as the means to win jobs, promotion or funding. The ensuing chase for publication in ‘top journals’ retards publication because researchers are willing to submit to multiple rounds of submission, rejection and re-submission as they work their way down the hierarchy of titles.

There are other adverse effects (which will be considered below) but the solution to the problem has to be to weaken the coupling between the location of publication and the assessment of research and researchers.

That is easier said than done. The coupling cannot be broken in a free market because of the competition between journals, which is of course fuelled by the competition between researchers. The competitiveness inherent in the system is not necessarily a bad thing since it can act as a spur for scientists to do their best work. The problem is that publication in a particular journal is too easily seen as the final judgement on any given paper. If it’s in Nature (to choose a prominent example), it must be world-class – such is the argument that I have heard repeatedly in common rooms, grant panels and hiring committees. This line of reasoning is seductive because there is some truth in it – Nature publishes a lot of great science. Unfortunately for too many people the argument contains enough truth for them to ignore the fine detail and from there it is a short step to take the journal impact factor as a proxy for the quality of a given piece of research. But it is vital to tease out and neutralise all the problematic aspects of our over-reliance on journal prestige. There are big wins to be had for scholarly publication and for researcher evaluation if we succeed.

The simplistic but widespread view that good journals publish good papers is some distance from being the whole truth of the matter. Some papers get into Nature or Science because they catch a trendy wave but then fail the test of time – arsenic life, anyone? That’s not to shout down journal predilections for trendy topics, which seem to be inevitable amid the ebb and flow of scientific tides but we should be mindful that they occur and calibrate our expectations accordingly. Some papers are published in top journals because they come from a lab at a prestigious university or one that has a good track record of publication and so may benefit from a type of hindsight bias among editors and reviewers**. Some get in because exaggerated claims or errors or fraud are not picked up in review. Again, that’s not necessarily the fault of editors or reviewers – especially in cases of fraud – but we need to acknowledge that a system that determines rewards on the basis of publication in certain journals will foster poor practice and fraudulent behaviour. This explains why retraction rates correlate so strongly with impact factor.

Just as important, many papers are rejected that, with a different set of reviewers or a different editor might well have made the cut. Clearly the number of reviewers has to be restricted to keep the task of pre-publication review manageable*** but the stochastic nature of the decision-making process that results from relying on a small set of judgements is too often overlooked.

The selectivity problem is exacerbated in top journals which restrict entry for logistical reasons – the number of printed pages – and for brand protection. Nature, for example, only has room for  8% of the manuscripts it receives. Such practices presently act as an arbitrary and unfair filter on the careers of scientists because the reification of journal prestige or impact factor shapes presumptions and behaviour. Those who fail the cut on a particular day are likely to be disadvantaged in any downstream judgments. The mark of achievement is no longer necessarily ‘a great piece of science’ but ‘a paper in Nature, Science, Cell etc’. I’ll say it again: these can often be the same thing. But not in every case and best practice has got to be to always, always, always evaluate the paper and not the journal it is published in.

No-one designed scholarly publication to have all these in-built flaws but the evident fact of the matter, widely agreed at the meeting, is that it has become a slow and expensive filtering service that distorts researcher evaluation and is no longer doing an optimal job of disseminating scientific results.

As you see, I too can articulate the problem. But what about the solutions?


Possible ways forward

For the first morning of the meeting I felt myself slipping into a funk of despair as the discussion orbited the black hole of the impact factor. It has become so familiar in the cosmology of scholarly publication that people are resigned to its incessant pull.

However, that dark mood was slowly dispersed as occasional voices spoke insistently to press for answers. For me the bright spot of the conference was realising that the best way forward is likely to be in small pragmatic steps. Every so often one of these may turn out to be revolutionary. PLOS’s invention of the mega-journal based on ‘objective peer review’ was one such case. So here are three more steps that I think are feasible, if all the key players in scholarly communication can be persuaded to really take on board the wrongness of journal impact factors as a measure of quality.

ONE: Academics and institutions (universities, learned societies, funders and publishers) should sign up to the principles laid down in the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). These seek to shift attention away from impact factors and to foster schemes of research assessment that are more broadly based and recognise the full spectrum of researcher achievements. Ideas for how to put such schemes in practice are available on the DORA web-site.

It is a real shame – and somewhat telling of the powerful grip of impact factors on scientific culture – that only a handful of UK universities have so far signed up to DORA (Sussex, UCL, Edinburgh and Manchester, at time of writing). I hope more will step up to their responsibilities after reading the warnings about the mis-use of the impact factor in the Leiden Manifesto on research metrics that was published in Nature just last week. I would like to think it will become a landmark document.

TWO: All journals with impact factors should publish the citation distributions that they are based on. The particular (and questionable) method by which the impact factor is calculated – it is an arithmetic mean of a highly skewed distribution, dominated in all journals by the small minority of papers that attract large numbers of citations – is not widely appreciated by academics. In the interests transparency, and to take some of the shine off the impact factor, it makes sense for journals to show the data on which they are based, and to allow them to be discussed and re-analysed. Nature Materials has shown that this can be done. I invite journals that might object to a move that would improve authors’ understanding and help to promote fairer methods of researcher assessment to explain their reasoning.

The difficulty with this proposal, as pointed out at the meeting, is that the data are amassed by Thomson-Reuters who have so far refused to release them. This practice can now be declared contrary to the 4th principle of the Leiden manifesto, which holds that data collection and analytical processes should be open, transparent and simple. If Thomson-Reuters are not interested in being part of the solution to the problem of impact factors, they have to be side-lined. Perhaps there are ways to crowd-source the task of assembling journal citation distributions? I would welcome suggestions from tech-savvy readers as to how this might be achieved in practice.

THREE: The use of open access pre-print servers should be encouraged. These act as repositories for manuscripts that have yet to be submitted to a journal for peer review and have the potential to short-circuit the delays in publication caused by the chase for journal impact factors.

I’m not familiar with the situation in chemistry but know that preprint servers have come rather late to the life sciences, inspired by the arXiv that has been operational in many sub-disciplines in physics and maths since 1991. bioRxiv (pronounced ‘bio-archive’) has 1300 preprints, while the PeerJ Preprints tally has just passed 1000. These are low numbers – the arXiv has over a million depositions – but they are growing and there was such widespread support for preprints at the Royal Society meeting that I began to get a sense that they could be transformative.

Preprints speed up the dissemination of research results (albeit in an early form) – and that is likely to be healthy for the progress of science. Uptake will increase as more researchers discover that fewer and fewer journals disallow submissions that have been posted as pre-prints. Nay-sayers might contend that there are risks in disseminating results that have not been tested or refined in peer-review but such risks can be mitigated by open commentary. As noted in the meeting by bioRxiv’s Richard Sever, preprints tend to attract more comments than published papers because commenters feel that they can make a positive contribution to shaping a paper before it is published in its final form. Such open review practices have been harnessed successfully by the innovative open-access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

Preprints may not solve the problem of impact factors, since the expectation is that most or all will eventually submitted for competitive publication in a journal; however, they could offer some mitigation of their worst effects, especially if authors were to be recognised and rewarded for the speed at which they make their results available. That’s something for funders and institutions to think about. Moreover, because they have digital object identifiers and are citable objects, they provide a rapid route for establishing the priority of a discovery and a cost-effective way to publish negative results.



There is more to say and more dimensions of the arguments made here to tease out but I will leave things there for now. All of the above may be no more than the optimistic after-glow of the meeting but I submit my three proposals for serious consideration. I hasten to add that none of them are original, and I know that I’ve written before about pretty much everything discussed above – but we have to keep these issues alive. To paraphrase Beckett, it’s our only hope of finding ways to fail better.



*’Objective peer review’ was the term adopted at the meeting to describe the type of peer review pioneered by PLOS ONE, which will accept papers that report an original piece of science that has been performed competently. The impact or future significance of the work are not considered. I am not comfortable with the term since this type of review is clearly not ‘objective’ but it will have to do for now. 

**Nature has recently introduced a double-blind review to combat this. However, it is optional for authors and I find it hard to imagine a group that has a history of publication in Nature opting for it.

***Richard Smith (formerly editor of the BMJ), who spoke powerfully at the meeting to criticise peer review, and proponents of post-publication peer review will no doubt take issue here. 


Posted in Open Access, Scientific Life | 16 Comments

Open access: a national licence is not the answer

Open Access: Is a national licence the answer?” is a proposal by David Price and Sarah Chaytor of University College London for a mechanism to provide full access to everyone within the UK to all published research. It was published on 31 March 2015 by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) whose director, Nick Hillman, wrote the foreword. 

The proposal is presented as a HEPI yellow “occasional paper”, so it is designed to be provocative and to stimulate debate rather than being, as Hillman writes, “a fully-formed ready-to-bake policy”. It is certainly provocative but so far there hasn’t been much debate. The paper provoked an angry, heartfelt riposte from from Mike Taylor and a satirical one from David Kernohan. Hillman responded by accusing Taylor of wanting “to ‘close’ down debate about the different options without fully engaging”, but part of the problem is that the proposal itself does not fully engage with the complexities of the issue at hand, and this has made it difficult to grapple with. In my own mind the national licence idea has provoked so many thoughts that I have struggled to assemble them coherently but, in the interests of a fuller debate, let me have a go. I hope to amplify some of the key issues but am aware that there are further aspects that should be turned over for consideration. I confess that the issue of open access stirs the heart as well as the head, which can make it tricky to discipline arguments. This post is therefore rather long, so my apologies in advance.


The proposal

The principal aim of the national licence is to provide access the research literature to stakeholders outside academia, since UK academics are already presumed to have excellent access (p3 – page numbers refer to the PDF of the proposal document). The idea is that some overarching body – perhaps JISC –  should negotiate the terms of a UK licence on behalf of the major stakeholders, who are listed as “UK higher education institutions, SMEs (small and medium enterprises), UK medical institutions and NHS staff, charitable funders of research, public libraries and representatives of independent researchers.” (p14)

This is an entirely laudable goal, sharing many of the aims that the open access movement has sought to promote.

But the devil is in the detail and the problem here is that there is a troublesome lack of detail. In my view the proposal is built on questionable premises and argues from a selective and sometimes erroneous presentation of the evidence. It promotes the notion that a national licence is likely be an efficient and cost-saving mechanism for providing access, but provides scant evidence to support that view. To its credit the latter part of the document makes some attempt to identify the challenges and risks of the proposal, but even here the analysis is incomplete. I agree with Hilllman that the proposal is some way short of being ‘fully-formed’.


Questionable premises

The motivating idea behind the idea of a national licence is that “the UK is offering global access to its own research via the gold route with no reciprocal offering from most other countries, including key competitors.” This statement is repeated twice in the document with the qualification ‘most’ (p4, p10) and once without qualification (p30). It is given twice without qualification in the HEPI blog post announcing the publication of the proposal.

However, at no point in the 30-page document making the case for a national licence do the authors choose to flesh out how exactly the UK is paying to give its research away for free and receiving next to nothing in return. This is an unfortunate omission because, as a result, their proposal mis-represents UK policy (by not clarifying what it is) and overlooks the evidence for reciprocity.

Throughout the document, Price and Chaytor refer to the ‘UK gold open access policy’ (or words to that effect) but as I am sure they are well aware, UK policy is not purely gold. To be clear, researchers in receipt of grant funding from one of the UK Research Councils are subject to RCUK policy which has a preference for gold OA publication  (immediate access via a journal, often subject to payment of an Article Processing Charge (APC)) but also permits green OA (access via a repository, often following an embargo, currently 6-24 months depending on funder). RCUK guidance on the policy makes it clear that “the choice of route to Open Access remains with the researchers and their research organisations”.

In addition to the RCUK policy, from 2016 all UK researchers in higher education institutions overseen by HEFCE will be required to ensure that their papers are made available via a repository. Therefore, while it is true that the UK is promoting gold OA and has carved out funds from the research budget to pay for these, but there is nevertheless a strong green OA flavour to UK policy.

The notion of lack of reciprocity also needs to be challenged. The UK may be in a minority in having policy that prefers gold OA but it is not alone. Norway has recently announced a similar policy and it is worth pointing out that major international funders and research organisations have also developed gold-favouring OA policies, including the Wellcome Trust, CERN, the World Health Organisation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gates Foundation. It should also be borne in mind that most of the research-active nation around the world have or are developing and strengthening green OA policies that are effectively increasing the proportion of research that is free to read online. In many developed nations, even where mandates are for green OA at minimum, researchers often choose to make their research available via gold OA. The evidence for this is not hard to find: in a quick analysis of papers from a selection of PLOS journals (via a PubMed search for country of affiliation), I found that authors in Germany publish comparable numbers of papers as their UK counterparts, while US-affiliated authors publish 2-4 times as many. A 2012 study of the worldwide availability of research showed that there is strong growth in OA in all parts of the world, especially in the EU, Asia and North America (see Fig. 3).  The notion that there is little effective reciprocity on OA from the international community of researchers doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Even if the case for lack of reciprocity had held, it is simplistic to argue that a gold-favouring OA policy risks the future economic well-being of the UK. Mere access to research is not sufficient for stoking the engines of innovation and economic growth, though of course it will help. As anyone who has looked into the links between research and economic development must realise, the interactions are many, diverse, non-linear and interconnected (e.g. see this post from 2010). The UK has not emerged as a strong developed nation because it had access to research, and nor does its future economic strength depend simplistically on continued access. To develop as a knowledge-based economy, one needs an educated population, strong universities, good contacts between universities and industry, effective funding mechanisms to support the difficult transition mechanism from the lab to the marketplace. The UK already does this pretty well – though a reversal of the decline in the R&D budget wouldn’t go amiss. But it also stands to benefit as other nations develop, which is one of the reasons for the establishment and expansion of the EU, and for the UK’s commitment to overseas aid (now commendably pegged at 0.7% of GDP). The country rightly sees itself as a member of a community of nations. Consistent with that view, should its commitment to OA not be envisaged as part of a worthwhile global project – a rising tide that aims to float all boats?


Questionable analyses

The discussion of the problem of reciprocity is not the only place in the proposal where the analysis lacks sufficient depth. I came across several instances of selective or contradictory presentation of the evidence.

In discussion the costs of gold OA Price and Chaytor write that “Extensive economic modelling – in a report funded by Jisc Collections and published by the Open Access Implementation Group – suggests green, rather than gold, open access is the cheapest option for universities.” The following sentences provide the important clarification that this analysis by Alma Swan and John Houghton refers to costs within a transition period from the present day to a fully gold OA publishing landscape. But it is odd that the authors then omit to mention another, equally important study by Swan and Houghton, which predicted that gold OA would ultimately enable a system of research publishing that was cheaper than present arrangements.

In addressing the problem of ‘double-dipping’ – the problem whereby publishers of subscription journals that also carry OA papers (the so-called hybrid OA option) are effectively remunerated twice for public same publication – Price and Chaytor write that “this issue is being successfully addressed by Jisc Collections through negotiations with publishers for offsets.” This is a confusingly optimistic assertion given that they go on to concede that “not all publishers have yet engaged with this process” (indeed, Elsevier refuses to admit that it occurs) and cannot therefore predict whether offsets will have any impact.

The proposal rightly decries the limitations on access to research “in an age when 78% of properties are able to receive superfast broadband and some 90% of the population are online”. And yet it goes on to cite the publisher-led Access to Research initiative as an exemplar of “the logic of a national licence concept”. There’s a certain lack of logic here which isn’t explored in the proposal. The Access to Research initiative insists that users leave their homes and offices and travel to local libraries to access research via dedicated computer terminals. The terms and conditions are severe and debilitating: users are not allowed to download or make digital copies of the research that they access and must promise only to use it for private study or non-commercial research. This is hardy a template for leveraging access for a connected nation, nor for enabling its SMEs to access research. To be fair Price and Chaytor are at least proposing a system of access that would surmount the conceptual failings of Access to Research. However, publishers’ belief that library-based access to research is an effective solution in 21st Century illuminates an instinct for control that still rubs abrasively against the opportunities of the wired world. A national licence, if it were ever to materialise, wouldn’t come cheap.

Arguably, by highlighting the minor issues above I am missing central thrust of the case for a national licence. Perhaps so, but the presence of these faulty links in the chain of argument is indicative of a lack of rigour in the construction of that case. This is complex territory. If we are going to have a serious debate about policy, we need a careful consideration of all the relevant details. In any case, more serious problems emerge when one considers how the proposal might be made to work.


Technicalities of the proposal

The authors grapple with some of the technical challenges engendered by the proposal in the latter part of the document (p19-23). But while some of the problems are outlined, they are not dealt with effectively or completely.

The proposal envisages a national body being tasked with the job of negotiating on behalf of the stakeholders listed above (universities, SMEs etc.) with all the individual publishing companies. Funding for the licence should come from “a combination of existing sources of central government higher education funding (via Research Councils and the higher education Funding Councils), some allocation of funds currently dedicated to facilitate closer co-operation between industry and academia, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) or NHS funding and contributions from business and Innovate UK.” (p15)

The authors make it plain that the negotiations to determine an agreed price are likely to be difficult (p17-19). It think that understates the problem. It is not at all clear that negotiations would be feasible, give the number and diversity of organisations on both sides. How many publishers would the UK have to negotiate in order to achieve full coverage? What happens if some of them decline to participate? Is there an organisation that can represent the interests of SMEs and negotiate on their behalf? What are the likely costs of implementing an effective security system to control access to UK residents only? Will it be possible to agree a fair price for all the various publishers and stakeholders? How often would the price have to be re-negotiated? Given that in the last round of big-deal subscription negotiations RLUK (acting on behalf of leading universities) had to threaten wholesale cancellations of subscriptions to get Elsevier and WIley-Backwell to play ball, the prospect of a successful conclusion of a much more complex deal seems remote.

The proposal repeatedly claims that a national licence would save money. On page 19 it is stated that “The introduction of a national licence is likely to deliver some efficiency and cost savings.” However, no attempt has been made to estimate the costs of bringing in a licence, or the savings that are predicted to accrue. That is probably sensible, given the difficulty of the task and the great uncertainty as to whether it is even possible, but it hardly bolsters the case to repeat the claim three times in the document without any serious evaluation of its substance. The best the authors can do is ask for more work to establish a robust cost-benefit analysis (p20).

There are other risks too, not discussed in the proposal. A national licence would lock in the advantages currently enjoyed by subscription publishers, who would presumably seek to defend price points that earn profit margins in excess of 30%. It would stifle the burgeoning market in open access journals by locking up funding in the biggest subscription deal ever imagined. It comes as no surprise that the Publishers Association’s CEO, Richard Mollet is thanked “for doing much of the early development” on the proposal for a national licence.

Price and Chaytor claim that a national licence represents an opportunity for the UK to show leadership on research dissemination (p8) and to transition to full open gold open access (p23), but no details on how the proposal would achieve these goals are given. In my view the opposite is likely to be true: a national licence would in fact hinder the development of world-wide open access. If successfully implemented, UK researchers with access to the world’s research via a national licence would start to wonder why they should bother to make their own research open access, either through green or gold routes. RCUK and HEFCE would come under pressure to terminate their OA policies so as to save on the unnecessary costs of paying APCs or running repositories. Such a prospect seems to have been envisaged by Price and Chaytor, since they argue that a national licence would save money by “removing what is effectively a subsidy for other countries to access UK research output” (p19). Far from exhibiting leadership, a national licence would see the UK withdrawing from the supra-national community that has developed a global vision for access to research.

And that is the most dispiriting thing about this proposal. It comes across a rear-guard action that is out of tune with the times. Mike Taylor put it more pithily: “It’s not open access by any existing definition of the term.” Even David Willetts warned publishers that, in the digital age, seeking to defend existing models was the “wrong battle to fight”. The proposal for a national licence serves only to highlight the failure of the subscription model to address current needs for rapid, free access to research. A national licence is an idea that sees the UK hunkering down to protect its own interests at a time when people across the world are working on an international licence to enable research access for everyone.



The proposal for a UK national licence at least has the merit of refocusing thinking on some of the difficulties with OA policies, which are by no means problem-free. There are cost implications of the present UK policy that need to be monitored and brought down wherever possible. Publishers can help by eliminating double-dipping, by formulating plans to use hybrid OA funds to flip subscription journals to OA, by ensuring that papers are made OA when APCs are paid and by working with universities to smooth the implementation of the HEFCE policy. Academics can help too by stepping up to the responsibilities that come with public funding – rapid dissemination of their results at a value-for-money price – and by addressing the deep-seated cultural problems that have arisen through the linkage of assessment with journal impact factors.

None of this is easy so it is important to subject the whole process of improving access to continual and informed debate – especially since the goal of free access within and beyond the research community is such a desirable one. I hope that might continue in the comments beneath this post.

In his foreword Hillman challenges anyone who disagrees with the idea of a national licence is “to propose other ways to ensure the UK continues to punch above its weight in both academic research and academic publishing.” I would like to try to meet that challenge. As a UK-based researcher I am keen to ensure that Britain continues to perform at a world-class level – indeed I have campaigned to make the case for public investment in research as part of Science is Vital and CaSE. I also want to maintain a healthy academic publishing industry, but one that thrives on competition to ensure quality of service and value for money for researchers.

I believe that the best ways to achieve this are by working to promote the world-wide OA project that is already in train. The UK showed bold leadership on OA in the wake of the Finch report by announcing a gold-favouring policy. That may not have triggered many imitators, perhaps not surprisingly in the midst of a global economic crisis, but it has certainly helped to propel discussion on the topic across the world. The sooner we can get to a fully OA world, the better it will be for the UK economy, which is already in a strong position to absorb and make use of research information released from behind paywalls (though no doubt more could be done to bolster innovation policy). We should therefore seek to maintain UK leadership in the OA project. To that end, my specific proposals are as follows:

  • The UK should increase investment in R&D to reverse the decline that has occurred the last parliament and to maintain the research infrastructure and absorptive capacity needed to develop as a knowledge-based economy.
  • To stimulate the market in OA journals, the UK should follow Norway in preventing funds to be used to pay APCs for hybrid OA (which has been demonstrated to be substantially more expensive than pure OA).
  • The business of publication of research in particular journals needs to be decoupled from the business of research or researcher assessment. Journals have become the de facto locus of competition between researchers for prestige and funding. While there is evidently some value in journal selectivity helping to bring attention to research results, which acts as a stimulus to researchers to do their best work, there are also significant costs associated with the pernicious practice of journal-based assessment. It degrades the assessment process. It promotes fraud. It slows down the dissemination of results as researchers regularly work their way down the ladder of journal prestige, submitting and re-submitting their manuscripts in search of the best venue that will have them. If we can figure out a post-publication mechanism for rewarding research quality that is not based on journal brand or prestige, we could accelerate publication and reduce costs (since highly selective journals charger higher APCs). I don’t for a moment underestimate the cultural and economic challenges that this idea presents to academics and publishers but if we value effective open access (and public confidence in the research enterprise), we need to try. As a first step,  research funders should incentivise UK HEIs to sign up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment – or any equivalent statement of principles.
  • Part of the present difficulty is that researchers have been shielded from publication costs because subscriptions were negotiated by university librarians and sometimes hidden by confidentiality agreements imposed by publishers. In enacting current policy, measures should therefore be taken to ensure that researchers are exposed to cost-benefit decisions in choosing where to publish publicly-funded research. This will foster healthy competition on price and quality of service within the UK.
  • The UK government should maintain a prominent role in working with the international community to ensure that effective and workable OA mandates are instituted globally. It can do that by continuing to promote OA within the UK since it is best to lead by example.

Update (14 Apr 2015): To keep track of all commentary on this proposal, I will list here the blog posts that have discussed it:

  1. Mike Taylor (1 Apr): Heaven protect us from a “UK national licence”
  2. David Kernohan (2 Apr): A local licence for Henley (a response to @HEPI_news)
  3. Adam Tickell, Michael Jubb (12 Apr): A national licence would set back the Open Access cause


Posted in Open Access | Tagged , | 10 Comments

Open letter to the Publishers Association: please amend your open access decision tree

Dear Publishers Association

I ask that you amend the open access decision tree you created for incorporation into the guidance notes accompanying the Open Access (OA) policy announced by Research Councils UK (RCUK) in 2013. It may seem odd to ask for a correction so late in the day but my reasons for doing so are two-fold.

First, the Publishers Association (PA) decision tree has been problematic from the outset because it does not properly represent the RCUK OA policy. In particular, it suggests that if authors have access to funds from the RCUK to pay publisher’s article processing charges, they are required to publish by the gold OA route (see diagram below). This contradicts the RCUK policy and guidance (PDF) which states that “the choice of route to Open Access remains with the researchers and their research organisations” (see page 6).

PA OA Decision tree - annotated

I hoped that this message would have become clearly established in the past two years and that the faulty PA decision tree might therefore have fallen into disuse. However, this appears not to be the case since Gemma Hersh, a policy director at Elsevier, referred to it last week on Twitter as ‘the crucial tree underpinning RCUK’s policy’. When I queried the accuracy of this statement in light of the fact that the tree obscures the choice accorded by RCUK policy to authors, she was emphatic in defending the view that “it’s how the policy works in practice”. It is a matter of some concern that some publishers are spreading information about the RCUK OA policy that is not completely correct.

The second motive is the publication last week of the report of the first review of the RCUK’s open access policy (available as a PDF), which was chaired by Professor Sir Bob Burgess and also had the PA’s chief executive, Richard Mollet, as a member. As you will be aware, this review has made two recommendations that are important to the matter in hand.

The first (2.1) is that:

Further attention to communications surrounding the RCUK policy, in dialogue with the research communities, publishers and HEIs would help ease confusion and generate better awareness of the expectations of the policy.

I’m sure you agree this is sensible. Indeed, I am glad to see that the PA has highlighted the review’s point about the need for clarity in communications in its own summary of the review. As everyone who has worked on open access is aware, the policy landscape is complex. It is vital that messages to researchers are free from confusion.

The second recommendation (2.4) is that:

In communication during the transition period, the mixed model approach to open access is promoted to ensure that researchers are aware that they have a choice of how to publish.

The mixed model – that gold and green routes are both open and that the choice of which route to take is down to authors – is a central plank of the RCUK policy, but this is not communicated by the original version of the PA decision tree.

To help clarify matters, I have taken the liberty of creating a modified version of your decision tree that incorporates the requisite element of author choice (see below – a PowerPoint version can be downloaded here). I ask that it be used in place of the original, erroneous diagram and would be grateful if you could share it with your members.

PA OA Decision tree - revised

If you disagree with my interpretation of RCUK OA policy, I would be happy to discuss.

Yours faithfully,

Stephen Curry


Update (00:12, 31-3-15): I have made one further adjustment to the tree to reflect the fact that Medical Research Council embargo periods are restricted to 6 months. Thanks to @GeraldineCS for pointing this out.

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Being mortal and being Crick

Two more book reviews from my reading list for this year.

On several occasions while reading Being Mortal, surgeon Atul Gawande’s book about end-of-life care, I could feel a lump swelling in my throat and tears behind my eyes pressing for release. I’m not an emotional type but this is an intense book.

The intensity is surprising since Gawande’s lucid style is very matter of fact. The sting comes entirely from the fact that his subject, mortality and death, affects us all. You feel it closing in as Gawande lists the ailments we are likely to encounter as we grow old and our bodies fail and turn against us. More distressing still are the stories of people who, faced with life-threatening conditions, were badly advised and found themselves separated from the world, abandoned to a slow, unpleasant demise punctured by tubes in a hospital bed or locked within the rigid regime of a care home that did not care.

Gawande’s charge is that amidst modern medicine’s obsession with ‘fixing’ people – to keep them from death – doctors have forgotten the importance of enabling people to live a life that is more than just breathing. It is a charge that sticks but this is not a tale of hopelessness because the heart of the book is filled with stories people who do care. People like Keren Wilson, who developed the concept of assisted living in Oregon in the 1980s to give more autonomy to the elderly; or Bill Thomas who took charge of a nursing home in upstate New York and turned it upside-down by focusing on its inhabitants, not its staff; or Jacqui Carson who stuck by the elderly residents the nursing home that she directs in Boston, an apartment building that enables independent living, as their capacities declined and their dependencies grew.

The lessons Gawande learned from these innovators – and other health professionals experienced in helping people to face life before death – are about giving people a clear view of a future that has suddenly shrunk and helping them to choose how to make the best of their remaining days, however limited the options. These lessons may seem obvious but they are not easily assimilated, as Gawande reveals through his own faltering efforts to care for his father, a man he had only ever known to be vigorous, when he is eroded by cancer and infirmity in his seventies.

Being Mortal may not be an easy read but it is a salutary early warning of the bell that tolls for all of us.

Matt Ridley's biography of Francis Crick

Matt Ridley’s Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code is a concise biography of the great molecular biologist. At only 210 pages it lacks the heft of Robert Olby’s earlier biography — there is not even room for an index — though Ridley is the more entertaining writer. The book also lacks detailed annotations of the author’s sources, which is a shame since he has dug up several interesting nuggets that I hadn’t come across before. I was unaware, for example, that an early plan for James Watson’s best-selling book on the discovery of the structure of DNA, The Double Helix, had been to publish it as a two-part story in the New Yorker under the fantastically revealing title, “Annals of a Crime”.

Those quibbles aside, this is worthwhile biography of one of the greats of 20th Century science. It’s a speedy read but not a superficial hagiography. Crick’s life –  his successes and failures, his talents and foibles – are covered well and Ridley largely has the measure of the important scientific issues that defined and were defined by the man. If you think Crick’s only achievement was solving the structure of DNA, or are wondering why the UK is about to open a new biomedical research institute named in his honour, I suggest you start here.

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The biologist who left me out in the cold

Two weeks, two books.

In Unweaving the Rainbow Richard Dawkins takes issue with the poets. He argues that the poetry revealed deep within Nature by scientific investigation is more wondrous than the musings of those who make do with superficial appearances. I picked it up because I am in the midst of writing a review of recent developments in structural biology and am hoping to touch on the issues of perception and how our burgeoning understanding of the molecular nature of the world affects – perturbs? –  our sense of self. I thought that Dawkins might have something interesting to say.

And he does, but it’s a bit of a ramble. The book starts out promisingly enough. It has a good title, borrowed Unweaving the Rainbowfrom Keats’ poem Lamiawhich contains the lines:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Keats’ complaint about the aesthetically destructive power of ‘cold philosophy’ and his easy seduction by mystery and superstition strike the modern scientific mind as little more than romantic notions and are easily dismissed. Dawkins has little trouble hitting his stride early on, and explores some interesting ideas en route to building his case for the enrichment of beauty by the good offices of science. However, his chosen path is not a very direct one and ultimately the book turns out to be a compendium of parts that don’t add up satisfactorily.

The opening section is followed by three chapters of examples, all drawn from physics, that are clearly designed to illuminate the beauty revealed when science penetrates beneath the surface. But the execution feels clunky. Dawkins invokes the image of the barcode to explain first spectroscopy, then the analysis of sound by Fourier techniques and finally DNA fingerprinting. This an odd choice of metaphor since the barcode is a thoroughly pedestrian image that widens rather than bridges the gap between scientific and aesthetic sensibilities. His working of the material also felt laboured. Dawkins is clearly more at home (as later in the book) on matters biological and evolutionary. I’m not sure it was intentional but I was left to conclude that the scientific analysis of nature necessarily involves a large amount of tedious spadework: you have to dig for your nuggets. That’s not a bad message but I’m not sure how many converts it will have won.

These chapters are followed by one that unpicks human credulity; Dawkins makes some worthwhile points but he also works over some easy targets – astrology and paranormalism – in a rather long-winded and unsubtle fashion. He is on better form warning of the dangers of not properly appreciating probability but slips again in the following chapter by devoting much of it to an extended attack on the writings of Stephen J Gould which, at a distance of 17 years, seemed to have lost its purpose.

The Spy who Came in from the Cold

In the home stretch there is a rather nebulous argument in favour of ‘good poetic science’ – the useful and appropriate application of metaphor – but Dawkins’ efforts are undermined by being interwoven with an rather defensive rebuttal of those who apparently have not read The Selfish Gene with sufficient attention. This section also dwells on accounts of how our evolutionary history is embedded in our genes and our brains; while quite interesting in themselves, I struggled to relate these to his central thesis. In the end I was glad to be done with Unweaving the Rainbow. Good here and there for making you think but dare I say it lacks poetry?

The second book of my reading fortnight was John le Carré’s 1963 classic The Spy who Came in from the Cold, which was recommended to me by Mike Taylor. In contrast to Dawkins’ wayward perambulation, this was a taut, brilliantly constructed narrative – cold, hard, cynical, tragic. I devoured the book in two days. John Banville said of it: ‘A masterpiece, the best espionage novel ever written’ and I’m not about to disagree.

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This week – reading, thinking and linking

This past week I have been doing so much reading and writing for work that there has been no time to prepare anything substantial enough for a proper blog post, even if I have been stirred by the excessive protests of Mark Walport or the over-selling of what is actually a nice piece of virology.

But I have squeezed in a little additional reading on the side and thought I would take a couple of minutes to pull the links together.

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B.” If you take only one thing away from this blogpost, for God’s sake let it be this: in the New Yorker, Roger Angell writes beautifully, wittily and with unsparing honesty of his life as an old man.

In the Boston Review, Stephen Shapin’s superb essay traces the association and dissociation of science and virtue.

On Tuesday the UK House of Commons voted to approve the use of mitochondrial transfer treatments; Mark Henderson reveals the pivotal role of Prof Doug Turnbull, a scientist who worked hard to overcome ‘failure to communicate’.

Measles is on the loose in the US, stoking furious debates between pro- and anti-vaxxers. There really should be no debate on the matter, though the proper tenor of that discussion is something for us all to consider. For now, this impressive animation in the Guardian gives a beautifully clear excellent demonstration of how herd immunity can only be achieved with high rates of immunisation.

Guardian Measles Vaccine Animation

It should come as no surprise to university folk to learn that metrics are getting out of hand. This is complex territory but John Gill in the Times Higher is not happy – and neither are many academics.

Mention of metrics inevitably calls to mind the REF, the UK’s six-yearly self-assessment and self-flagellation exercise. It’s something of a bête noir for neuroscientist and super-blogger David Colquhoun, who has an interesting proposal for reforming UK universities so as to avoid the more insidious effects of the REF. I don’t always agree with David but he always makes you think.

Elsewhere on the cultural landscape, I read another good book by novelist James Salter and delighted in Andy Marmery’s fun making rockets with water bottles and ethanol. The RI Channel is going from strength to strength — this week they also released videos of the 1980 Christmas lectures by crystallographers David Phillips and Max Perutz.

That said and much as I love my crystallography, the video highlight of this week is the news that Simon Singh’s and John Lynch’s fabulous film about Fermat’s Last Theorem is now available on the BBC iPlayer. In my humble opinion it remains one of the best science documentaries ever made. Treat yourself (UK only, I’m afraid).

With apologies to Ed Yong, who has been in the linking business for much longer and does it so much better.

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All That Is, by James Salter

In 2013 I was captured, captivated by the spare prose of James Salter’s The Hunters, a story of the tense competition between US fighter pilots in the Korean War. All That Is is similarly spare, and like The Hunters quite a masculine novel, but it is a different beast.

All That Is

Initially I was concerned that Salter’s compact style might be ill suited to the span of his narrative, which tracks the life of Philip Bowman from his time in the navy during World War II, and through his life and career as a publisher in New York. Salter sweeps through Bowman’s war experience and early post-war years, and loops back to his childhood, in the space of twenty pages. But then I simply fell into step with the author. There was no click; somehow the mist cleared and I recognised a trusted friend.

Bowman’s life unfurls in under four hundred pages. This is a big book thanks to its subject – how to live – but it does’t feel like a big book because of the poetic economy of Salter’s prose. He writes of the efflorescence of Bowman’s first deep relationship: “It was love, the furnace into which everything dropped.” The surety of such observations and the elegant, almost unseen, architecture of Salter’s writing permeate the novel; only very rarely does the poetry seem forced.

The style is all of a piece with the self-confidence that grows within Bowman as he sees himself forging a path through life, both in his relationships with women and his developing professional prowess. And yet, he is never quite in control—he and the people around him are buffeted by events—and nor can he completely understand or connect with the people who fill his life. There is a plangent note of loneliness that seems inevitable but has somehow to be confronted.

All That Is is a rewarding read. James Lasdun’s review goes into more detail on the themes explored in Salter’s narrative and is pretty much on the money.

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Open access and the humanities

At the end of 2013 and 2014 I wrote blog posts on Occam’s Corner (over at the Guardian) to list and briefly review the books I read in each of those years. I want to develop this practice into a good habit because it spurs me to read; and I hope it might also serve to flag up titles of interest to others. I am planning to do the same thing again when 2015 draws to a close but this time I am trying to ease the task by writing short reviews as I go along.

So here goes with the first one because I have just finished Martin Paul Eve’s Open Access and the Humanities (subtitled Context, Controversies and the Future).

Open Access and the Humanities (cover)

This book will mainly be of interest to humanities scholars, particularly if they have felt overwhelmed or bamboozled by the STEM-led drive to open access modes of scholarly publishing. I hope many of them will read it. Eve is up-front about being an advocate but lays out the issues with care and candour. The implications of the changes under way in academic publishing may be widely disputed but this is no heated polemic. As further incentives to humanities readers, at 152 pages in the printed version the book is concise and, appropriately, there is an open access version that can be downloaded for free.

Open Access for the Humanities is divided into five short chapters that cover the background to open access, the economics of academic publishing in a digital world, the implications of new forms of licensing, monographs (the longer form of academic writing favoured in the humanities) and innovations in peer review that arise from the shift to OA.

Inevitably there is some overlap in the opening sections with Peter Suber’s Open Access (which I reviewed previously) but few of Eve’s readers will have read that book and he serves them well by providing a cogent digest of the history and technicalities of OA. I particularly appreciated his tracing of the roots of OA to the open software movement and, in particular, to Richard Stallman’s innovative thinking about how new models of licensing needed to be developed for a digital world. Throughout, Eve’s examination of how the drive to OA intersects with strong academic, economic, political and cultural cross-currents is studded with insight. He usefully separates the economics of publishing from the economics of academic prestige, questions the shifting perceptions of value of humanities scholarship situated within an increasingly marketised university system and a digital culture that demands greater transparency and engagement, and finds some common ground for humanities scholars and the authors of scientific research.

Although Eve clearly favours an OA future for humanities scholarship, he is careful to explore the counter arguments. Sometimes these are dealt with immediately, as in his challenge to the writings of Robin Osborne on this topic (PDF)); elsewhere it is left to the reader to weigh up the issues.

Ultimately, although he may not have cut the Gordian knot preventing the humanities from warmly embracing OA (which academic community has?), Eve has at least unpicked some of it with his assiduous inspection of the arguments. I would have to read the book again to do full justice to a treatment that engages a complex topic on all fronts but I’m afraid don’t have the time right now. I do know that I shall be returning to Open Access for the Humanities for guidance as the debates rumble on.


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Impressions of Australia

I have been struggling to write something about my trip to Australia in August, my first visit to that great continent and undoubtedly a highlight of 2014. In my determination to get away from the rather banal what-I-did-on-my-lecture-tour-and-family-holiday trope, I ended up loading the first draft with too much historical and philosophical baggage. By one point I had even included mention of the career-defining voyages of Darwin and Huxley, as if they bore any comparison to our month long flit across the country.

Eventually I came to my senses and realised all I really wanted was to tour through the photographs that I took of a place I thought I knew, from frequent encounters in films and on TV, but which I found at every turn to be delightfully discombobulating.

So here goes.

I knew of course that Australia is filled with weird and wonderful creatures that are not readily seen in Britain but nothing quite prepares you for that first encounter with a Kangaroo, which happened for us at the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary near Brisbane.

They have such an apparently relaxed and thoughtful outlook on life.

That chilled demeanour is also shared by Koalas, Australia’s greatest and most obvious statement of cuteness.

In the seas off Queensland, we came across humpback whales. We have been whale-watching several times before in the coastal waters near Boston in the US but have yet to tire of meeting these magnificent creatures…

…even if they are rather shy.

We flew to Lady Elliot Island at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef for a day of snorkelling with the fishes. It’s a tiny place, just long enough for a landing strip.

The day was rather overcast and rainy but, as long as you kept your wetsuit zipped, the sea — and the sea creatures – remained inviting. We dived in from three separate locations around the island, equipped with a high-definition GoPro 3 video camera, which allows me to share just a couple of minutes of a quite wonderful experience:

South of Brisbane, on the recommendation of Jenny Martin, we visited O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. The view from the balcony of our chalet, which was propped up on stilts among the leafy canopy, was quite beautiful.

Just as impressive was the wild-life. We caught our first glimpse of a wallaby, foraging furtively in the undergrowth.

But the birds were particularly eye-catching. You have to wonder why the birds of Britain have to be so drab in comparison.

From Brisbane we flew south to Sydney which felt like an odd blend of London and New York, mixed in with a large dose of something new. The underground stations were at once familiar and unfamiliar.

Of course we paid homage to Sydney’s iconic architecture, first the the opera house where we enjoyed Rigoletto…

…and then the harbour bridge, which we battled across on a grimy day of wind and rain.

The vibe in Melbourne was different but no less lively. It had the most European feel of all the cities we visited. We enjoyed the jangle of old and new…

…and, once again, the proximity to the water…

…which provides endless opportunities for taking photographs that are dead arty.

From Melbourne I took a day trip to Hobart on Tasmania to give a lecture to the local Chemical Society. It was a short visit but there was just enough time to drive to the top of Mount Wellington – a climb that defeated Darwin. It’s a shame he missed such a spectacular view.

And finally we headed to Perth for the last stop of our trip. Perth is sleepier than Sydney or Melbourne but still has its own charms, not the least of which were the heat and the light. All through our tour the Australian mid-winter foxed us with its warm sunshine and six o’clock sunsets.

The birds seemed to be enjoying the sunshine too, either at rest…

…or in the air.

In the last days of our visit, Australia still had surprises in store. No-one quite knows how the Pinnacles formed.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at nature when it has triumphed time and again even in the harshest conditions, both in plant…

…and animal form.

That insect – a beetle? – is scuttling across rippled sand dunes…

…that were big enough for surfing, Australia’s final bemusing and amusing gift to us.

Those still not tired by this stage can see more pictures in the Australia album on my flickr account. Here’s hoping that 2015 will bring something to match the excitement of our antipodean adventure.



Posted in Science, Travel | Tagged | 5 Comments

Vanity project

I haven’t written a book. And this is it.

Cover photo

Well, I did write it of course. The words are mine. But there is nothing new here. I’ve just pulled together a selection of my blog posts from the last six years and self-published it as a hard-back book titled A Thousand Nothings using the services of It wasn’t that hard.

Still. It is a bit… awkward. I’m telling myself that I have done this for my parents, which is why the book has been rushed out in time for Christmas. But truth be told, I was also curious to see what a book by me might look like. And maybe, just maybe, it might entice a few more readers to my blog.

Anyway, here is the blurb I came up with for the back cover:

“I won’t promise to post regularly; that way I will avoid the repetition of future apologies for failing to write. I won’t promise to be unembarrassed to admit that I am a blogger. I won’t promise to have anything terribly insightful to say. But I will share my experiences of science – such as they are and as frankly as I can.”

With these words Professor Stephen Curry started writing his science blog in 2008. His aim was to demystify the business of being a scientist working in the UK in the 21st century but the journey turned out to be much more engaging than he had ever imagined. This book contains a personal selection of his most interesting and significant blog posts. It is probably too long.”

All of my proceeds from this vain endeavour will be donated to Amnesty International. If I detect the faintest sniff of interest, I will try to come up with an ebook version. I’m also publishing the book under a Creative Commons CC-BY licence so there is an open access version available as a PDF (8.9 MB).

I don’t know why I feel so exposed.


Update, 08 March 2015: I finally got around to formatting the book so that if could be made available as a ebook, which is now on sale for just £0.99 at  I also took the opportunity to trawl through the text to weed out residual typos and errors. These changes have also been made to the printed and open access versions.


Posted in Scientific Life | 10 Comments

Prize-winning video

Well this is nice. The Celebrating Crystallography video made last year by the Royal Institution, which I narrated and helped to script-edit, has won the the EuroScience New Media award. Full details are available on the RI blog but it’s great to see a project come to such fruition.

The film came about as a result of an STFC grant on which Mike Glazer and I were co-applicants, alongside the Gail Cardew from the RI. The project itself was led by Rob Cawston who was the RI’s web channel manager and worked on it alongside Ed Prosser. Of course the script of any film is a key element but the real genius here for my money is the imaginative and funny way that the story was animated by the folks at 12foot6. Even if I do say so myself, it’s a joyous 3 minutes that gives a great snapshot of an important piece of science.

Ed has promised me a photo of the “ridiculously heavy trophy thing” which I will add in due course. Until then, please have a look at the winning video.


Posted in Communication, Science, Science & Media | 4 Comments

Copyright Infringement

This morning I received an email from a publisher inviting me to write a chapter for an ‘upcoming hardcover edited collection’ on a topic of research to which I have made a number of contributions over the years.

I politely declined because of the terms of the copyright transfer agreement that the publisher was good enough to provide up front. I have obscured the name of the company but otherwise it read:

“I (and my coauthors) hereby assign and transfer to XX all rights of copyright ownership and permissions to the article/chapter, including without limitation or restriction, all rights of reproduction, derivation, translation, distribution, sale, reuse, and display of the work, in whole or in part, including recompilation, cross-publication and stand-alone publication, in any and all forms of media now or hereafter known, including all electronic and digital media, as protected by the laws of the United States and foreign countries and to authorize others to make such uses of the work. These rights will become the property of XX from the date of acceptance of the article/chapter for publication and extend for the life of the copyright. I understand that XX, as copyright owner, has authority to grant permission to reproduce the article/chapter.”

As little as three years ago I might have seriously entertained an invitation encumbered by such conditions. But such agreements are, in my view,  no longer fit for purpose in academia.

I work at a university that receives a substantial portion of its income from the public purse and I rely on public funding for my research. I agree it is appropriate to pay a reasonable charge for the costs of quality publishing services — as part of making the work freely available, which in turn is part of returning value to the public for its investment and adding further value to it by ensuring that dissemination and use of my work within and beyond the academic community is as effective as possible.

The clause above infringes my capacity to do my duty as part of the scientific community. Could I suggest that publishers still using such clauses contact their lawyers and start re-writing?


Posted in Open Access, Scientific Life | 14 Comments