On religion

(I speak for myself. Although I am employed by Faculty of 1000 (F1000) and this post is about the company, I am not writing on behalf of F1000: this is my opinion only.)

Somewhere on the internets the other day I came across a comment about Faculty of 1000, written by one of our (erstwhile) Faculty Members. At least I assumed it was a Faculty Member: the gist of the comment was that he was no longer participating in the project because F1000 is not open access.

Now, you might think that’s a noble stand. After all, our chairman is the man who effectively invented open access, and you might be forgiven for thinking that philosophy would permeate his other ventures (you’d be wrong, but you might be forgiven for thinking it). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how stupid that stand is, and the angrier I became.

Open access has taken on the mantle of a religious crusade. Open access, it seems, is a panacea for all ills, adhered to by faith in the face of any evidence to the contrary. All journals, all publications, should be made freely accessible at the point of consumption, according to their wild-haired, starry-eyed prophets.

To anyone with half a brain, this is ludicrous. Allow me to take the example of F1000 itself, and show you why open access is unsustainable in this instance. It won’t take long.

Faculty of 1000 publishes short evaluations of published papers. Mini-reviews, if you like. About 1200 every month, covering most areas of biology and medicine. We only publish evaluations of papers that are reckoned to be worth reading–important, or interesting, or worth bringing to a wider audience. Depending on discipline, 1-2% of what’s indexed in PubMed makes it into F1000. It’s a filter, highlighting the best work in any particular field.

Who does this evaluating and reckoning?

You do. To be precise, nearly 10,000 scientists and medics, leaders in their respective fields whose opinions, and work, are respected by their peers. Faculty Members. When they see a paper worth evaluating, they’ll write it up, give it a rating and send it in. We’ll edit the report and put it live on the website; categorized and indexed.

Our Faculty Members do this for the good of the community, because they get value from it and because it’s actually quite prestigious to be invited to join the Faculty.

We don’t pay Faculty Members to do this (just like journals don’t pay authors to publish their papers). There are a couple of reasons for this. First, we do not, ever, influence Faculty Members’ choice of papers. We help them choose, by providing tables of contents of journals they might be interested in and providing search tools so they can find papers relevant to their field. But we offer no financial or other incentive; nobody can accuse us of influencing what gets evaluated. We don’t actually, care which papers they pick, as long as they’re good.

But the main reason is that we couldn’t afford to. Twelve hundred evaluations, and we’d probably have to offer at least fifty quid per so Faculty Members didn’t feel insulted: three-quarters of a million pounds per year right there.

And we have a large staff. There are thirty people whose job it is to ring our ten thousand Faculty Members and commission evaluations. You do the math. That’s taking into account the editorial team, hosting, the development team and–because we need to sell this project to finance it–sales and marketing. Because everything is curated, our marginals are significant.

We sell subscriptions to the service. Our charges are based on the number of full-time equivalents at the subscribing institute. I don’t know exactly what we charge, but it’s not horrendously expensive: we used to sell personal subscriptions at US$150 per year (and you get The Scientist thrown in too).

So those subscriptions pay for everything. Yes, we’ve got advertising, but the amount of advertising needed to pay for an operation like this would make the site unusable.

What to do? Personally, I’d love to make F1000 open access. But it’s not going to happen. The only way it might is if we charged our Faculty Members, who we already have to hassle to produce evaluations for you, each time they wrote something. Until publishing on F1000 counts as CV points (and believe me, we’re working on it), that’s not going to happen–and probably not even then.

Look, one of my colleagues is trying to set up another section, or ‘Faculty’ on the site. This involves recruiting a couple of Heads of Faculty, who then appoint Section Heads to run the sub-disciplinary areas. These Section Heads nominate ‘ordinary’ Faculty Members to do the actual evaluating. And we can’t get people to do it, in this specialty. “What will you pay me?” they ask. These mucking fedics have essentially ensured that this particular Faculty is still-born.

And you want it to be open access?

Saying F1000 should be open access is like walking into a shop and saying the bread they sell should be free to anybody who wants it, because that’s what your religion believes. You could, I suppose, persuade somebody to run the infrastructure for free; get someone else (lots of someone elses) to hassle people for their evaluations; have students edit all the text; get someone to come in at 3 in the morning when the server falls over; maybe even get a bunch of like-minded individuals to code the user, editor and contributor websites. But in the real world?

Get a grip.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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20 Responses to On religion

  1. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Ah. Medics. Don’t get me started on this. Oh, you did. OK then. So the docs have asked for cash to review stuff for F1000? Excuse me while I don’t fall off my stool in amazement. Although doctors and scientists commonly have similar academic and motivational blood running in their veins, they experience different environments, which inevitably results in phenotypic differences. Specifically, scientists are exposed to the commercial world when a Fischer rep turns up wanting to sell a bag of Eppendorfs in exchange for a fridge magnet. Doctors are more used to being shown £500,000.00-worth of protein-engineered drugs and being taken to Monte Carlo to talk about it.
    Of course, those days are over, but the culture persists in more than just niches in the bleach-scrubbed pavement of progress. Pharma, the source of the much-missed Orient Express tickets to the Riviera, has done much to clean up its act; and, in many companies, the merest suggestion of impropriety can land you in the Job Centre. But, oddly, for doctors, whose own institutions (e.g. Stanford) have spearheaded squeaky-clean interactions with industry, have been slow to get the program. Too often we initiate projects with doctors and the first thing we see is the hand going out for cash.* In most cases, the hand is retracted when slapped by a carefully-worded email, but the point serves to demonstrate two points: 1. Pharma, the easy target is actually far more careful than it is given credit for; 2. Doctors, who are vocally represented by a small number of right-minded worthies are brought down by a fairly decent number of gold diggers.
    Of course, the press are not interested in Point 2, because that is no fun. They prefer to ignore Point 1 and fire both barrels at the innovators of healthcare (for the baby children dammit!). Nevertheless, many doctors baulk at the idea of being asked to do anything extracurricular for free, which it why I did not spit my coffee out when I read Richard’s post. Rather, I swilled it around, swallowed it slowly and tapped my pipe out with a resigned sigh.
    *Becoming less frequent, but if you suddenly find yourself working outside of Europe and the US, you can get a nasty surprise.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    We don’t know if the complaining person was a medic though, do we? Phenotypically sounds more like a scientist, with the OA bent.

  3. Henry Gee says:

    In general, I’m inclined to agree. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

  4. Alejandro Correa says:

    Hi Richard: in first place of all, thanks for having the opportunity to be part of Faculty of 1000. Although I’m not an active participant in Faculty of 1000.
    I eulogy your work and the work of the other members that are part of Faculty of 1000. However in my case I have not had the time like to publish some interesting document, in certain way I’m not sure that how could contribute in Faculty of 1000, it is possible that your you can guide me or to give some idea.

  5. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Jenny, I might have misunderstood, but I think that the clue is in: “‘What will you pay me?’ they ask. These mucking fedics have essentially ensured that this particular Faculty is still-born.”

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think we’re in danger of talking at cross purposes here. The mucking fedic anecdote is an example of why F1000 can’t switch to an ‘author pays’ model. The specialty of the FM talking about OA is somewhat irrelevant.
    I’ll add, because I forgot to in the main body of the post, that FMs and their practices/labs do get free subscriptions to the service, regardless of their parent institute’s subscription status.
    AC, not sure what you’re asking, there. If you’re talking about F1000 reviewing your papers, like I say, I can’t influence that. If you’re talking about joining the Faculty (as a full or Associate member) then that depends on your field, and how well you are respected within it. It is down to the approbation of your peers (you’re not the first to ask that question of me, by the way!).

  7. Nigel Eastmond says:

    Ah. I thought that you meant that the mucking fedics had trashed the whole F1000 Medicine arm because of fiscal avarice.

  8. Mike Fowler says:

    While I think OA is extremely important in driving different access routes to academic publication, and the resultant pressure that puts on traditional publishing models, I completely agree that this argument doesn’t apply to F1000.
    Simply because F1000 doesn’t publish primary academic material. It’s more like the News of the Week section of everyone’s favourite journal that begins with “S”, or a chance discussion of an interesting article round the the coffee table, right?
    If people want to provide a further “community service” by highlighting and reviewing published literature, at no personal financial gain, in the hope that it bathes them in some sort of reflected personal altruistic glory (which is in part driven by F1000’s co-option of academic titles in their self-promotion), that’s perfectly fine-and-dandy.
    But, this may well lead to tit-for-tat behaviour, as has been recently noted with citation practices (but see also here for a better deconstruction). So it might not be so altruistic after all.

  9. tiurma simanjuntak says:

    nowdays, not only science fight against rudeness on the religion but also all subjects do. Your F1000 lab rat only one of the cases which overwhalming atheis business. (Agree that you are not the first to ask the question about lab routine…very tired..)
    Biology means study about living knowledge, but sometimes its also teaches students about how to kill and victims murder.
    negative and positive minded depends on how much you feel comfort with others who doesn’t respect nor believe your opinion.Eventhough i do hard work to get my best but maybe still on the wrong partner.
    but as my experience, in every field money is the great power of it !!!so get it….gud lak dollar…

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    Nige, no: just one section is looking dicey. 9,994 of our FMs are decent sorts.
    We have codes of conduct, Mike, and we try very hard to avoid cronyism and that kind of thing.

  11. Mike Fowler says:

    Richard: interesting point – that such codes-of-conduct are even considered a pre-requirement in a relatively young project.
    I didn’t intend to suggest that it does occur in F1000, merely that it occurs in academic publication, so F1000 shouldn’t expect to be immune.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    Yeah, we don’t expect to be. Although it’s a little galling when people criticize us for such things and don’t realize it applies equally well to the rest of publishing.

  13. Richard P. Grant says:

    Just had an interesting twitter exchange with Eric Suh.
    He makes the point that one of the points of OA is

    to create value-adding for-pay services like F1000…to allow free access to the source. The value is all in curation.

    (/me resists comment about login policy at NN)
    (too late)

  14. Ken Doyle says:

    Although I’m not a subscriber (I did sign up for the trial) of F1000, I see the value that it brings to scientists trying to keep up with the latest research in their field(s). When there is a demonstrated value to a service, there should be a corresponding price–simple market economics.
    I can see the argument for open access to primary literature when the research is taxpayer-funded, for example. However, that’s not the case with F1000.

  15. Richard P. Grant says:

    When there is a demonstrated value to a service, there should be a corresponding price–simple market economics.
    Absolutely. And we cannot ask for the price to be paid by the authors nor advertisers, so it has to be some form of pay-to-view.

  16. Alejandro Correa says:

    If you’re talking about joining the Faculty (as a full or Associate member) then that depends on your field, and how well you are respected within it. It is down to the approbation of your peers
    Richard: and ¿who they are my peers? 🙂

  17. Richard P. Grant says:

    AC, you are truly peerless.

  18. Alejandro Correa says:

    ¿For that Ricardo?

  19. Cameron Neylon says:

    Manual trackback…[” Richard Stallman and Richard Grant, two people who I wouldn’t ever have expected to group together except based on their first name, have recently published articles that have made me think about what we mean when we talk about “Open” stuff…In Richard Grant’s post he argues against the idea that the Faculty of 1000, a site that provides expert assessment of researcher papers by a hand picked group of academics, “should be open access”.]

  20. Richard P. Grant says:

     Nice post, Cameron. Thanks for the linklove.

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