How to access Open Access?

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.

Light at Mykenes

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.

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23 Responses to How to access Open Access?

  1. chall says:

    Interesting post Stephen! Thanks for all the links (there were quite a few I haven’t seen earlier this week). I do wonder if one part of the “profit margin” on some of the publishing companies might have to do with the journals that aren’t that popular (i.e. low IF or more nieched), which might make the overall look on the companies and profit give the “margin a little smaller”. If you know what I mean? You do address some of it in your last three paragraphs so maybe I’m just rehashing it?

    That said, I think OA is good. And that it ties into the whole debate on “publicly funded research should be accessable to the public since “they/we” paid for it. I wonder if people really know how much money ‘we’ pay for publishing in (some of) the non-OA journals. I for one didn’t really know until the bill for the article came in the “accepted” mail…

    I look forward seeing where this will all lead.

  2. Ben Toth says:

    Elsevier claim that they reduce subscription prices to reflect the number of papers OA’d. But the claim doesn’t add up, and anyway, the costs of peer-reviewing have already been met when they levy the OA-mandate charge of around $3,000 per article affected. Elsevier claim that this isn’t double dipping. But to anyone outside Elsevier it will look like double or even treble dipping.

  3. Frank says:

    Stephen, I am not sure what you mean by Would it not be better to get the transition over and done with?.

    Michael Nielsen pointed out that it took 100 years for the idea of science journals to become embedded, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect the system to change to open access, open data etc overnight. Science is multinational and “multicultural” – each sub-discipline has its own publication and sharing practices. I think that it will take some time for this change to run through the whole of science.

    I think the campaign against Elsevier is spreading, though this report from a financial analyst suggests it is a storm in a teacup and will blow over. I have had a few people recently ask me about Elsevier and how our subscriptions with them work, so I think more researchers are curious about how those articles get onto their desktop. (Hint: it isn’t by magic!). I agree that it will take concerted action by scientists to effect change. But PhysioProf pointed out that while it is fine for established scientists to boycott “glamour mags”, this may have the effect of blighting the careers of postdocs who work in their labs and who need those prestige publications on their CV. I am not sure how we can get around that problem.

    BTW, if you have about a week to spare and want to read everything written about the RWA and Elsevier, John Dupuis has compiled a monster list.

    • Stephen says:

      I guess I was trying to say that we should be pushing for change so that the transition moves faster though I take yours and Nielsen’s point that a major cultural change is required and this will not happen overnight. This will be a long haul. In part I wrote this blogpost to anticipate the inevitable withering of interest in the blogosphere in this issue by looking for ways to sustain the momentum.

      I think PhysioProf and I are more or less on the same page. His reply to Michael Eisen’s call to arms makes a good point that not all PIs are in similarly privileged positions. That is why I agree that the role of well placed champions — FRSes in this country, HHMI investigators in the states and so on, have a potentially crucial role to play in leading on this issue.

  4. We need to keep talking about it – to librarians. After all, isn’t archiving and making the work of their faculty accessible exactly what libraries original purpose? Is there anything these corporate publishers do that libraries couldn’t do better or more cheaply? I don’t see why we should continue to hand the control over our communication media to businesses that don’t add anything worthwhile to the process.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks for the comment Björn but I don’t quite follow the argument in your post (assuming I have understood it correctly). Why put libraries in charge of offering contracts for publisher services (organising peer review, copy editing, formatting)? I don’t see how this differs substantially from the current situation, where authors deal directly with publishers.

      It’s important to remember that publishers do add value to the process of disseminating the scientific literature (even if all authors have sob-stories about hassles with dealing with submission processes). As the commenter you cite points out, most scientists wouldn’t have the wherewithal to format their papers themselves (though I do!), so there is still a place for professional companies being involved. It is the question of ownership I think that has suddenly come into focus for many people as a result of the RWA and the revelation of the publisher’s mindset (already implicit in copyright transfer agreements). This, I think is what needs to be re-negotiated (in favour of OA, of course).

      Have I missed your point?

      • I guess my post wasn’t very well written, then. I’m trying to say that libraries are perfectly capable to do whatever it is publishers are doing now (with all the obvious benefits). Even if there would be components one or the other library wouldn’t want or couldn’t do, there is no reason not to outsource those. Given that the property stays within academia, the services which are contracted (I’m not saying they should be contracted, nut they could) will see competition for the service and such avoid the monopoly-like structure we have today.

        The main idea is to keep the most important part of our work – the content – in our hands and leave individual institutions with a affordable choice as to which of the things that extend beyond the content to do in-house.

        • Stephen says:

          I agree that the monopoly – or, more precisely, the market clout – of the big players has led to price gouging and that we authors have been too lax about handing over the copyright on our papers, and perhaps offering our peer-reviewing and editing services for free. But I’m still not entirely convinced that libraries are best placed to take responsibility for publishing. However, we can agree to disagree on that. The important point, on which I suspect we have a common view, is the need to find ways to drive down prices and open up access.

          I have an open mind on exactly how that should be achieved, but it seems likely to involve publishers of some sort.

          • Indeed, we completely agree on driving down costs and open up access – but why stop there? Journal rank is not only one of the underlying root causes for the existence of parasitic publishers, there is now also rather solid peer-reviewed evidence that it is linked to retractions and unreliability in science in general, so why not get rid of the cause of much evil instead of fiddling with the symptoms, especially given that I still haven’t heard a single reason why NOT to get rid of publishers? We would hit many birds with a single stone, so why be content with throwing a pebble at a giant vulture in the hope that it might fly away?

            • Stephen says:

              Tremendous rhetoric Björn but I don’t think it’s that easy. For sure there are more retractions in higher IF journals, in part because of pressure from authors and publishers to produce hot science (for want of a better phrase). But I think that even if there were to be a wholesale shift to OA publishers, scientists would still want to see a hierarchy of journals. We work in an extraordinarily competitive business and this sort of sifting or comparison of researchers and research is intrinsic to the process.

              As for not seeing a reason not to get rid of publishers, do you mean you are dead set against any private business being involved in the process of reviewing, formatting and disseminating research information? From my perspective, it is the balance of power between scientists and funders on one side, and publishers on the other that is out of kilter, (in part because of divergent views on OA), and needs to be rebalanced. The reason the RWA attracted so much ire, I think, is that in supporting it, Elsevier unwittingly revealed how strong it thought its rights to ownership were.

            • I have no doubt that most “scientists would still want to see a hierarchy of journals”. It’s just not a rational position. At least so far, the evidence (I’m writing a review article right now from the posts and papers therein appended below) says that a hierarchy of journals is not good for science. As scientists, we should reverse our positions in the face of evidence.

              Moreover, we now have the technology to do everything a journal hierarchy does better without any of its drawbacks, so clinging to journal rank in this day and age is really not only anachronistic but also quite irrational. Unless you have evidence I’m unaware of and I’ll change my mind.

              I’m also not dead set against private business in publishing (see my post quoted above!). I see libraries as the most natural and cost-effective entity to serve as custodians of our work and communication thereof. If there is a demonstrably better way of doing it, so be it, I’m not dogmatic. However, to keep commercial publishers in the loop in the face of demonstrably superior non-commercial alternatives is not a rational position.

              All I’m asking for here and in my post mentioned above is a good justification for keeping our system as it is when there is ample evidence that we should radically alter course.

              The evidence I’ll be citing in our article (in prep.) is in spread over these posts:

  5. Sorry, “no reason NOT to outsource those”…

  6. RMS says:

    I am a big supporter of OA. But I fail to see how the RWA is “an anti open-access piece of US legislation”. The RWA seeks to protect the rightfully owned copyright (authors knowingly and willingly transferred their copyrights) of articles published by the traditional publishers. It does nothing to go against open access publishers, who publish based on author fees and allow authors to retain copyright. This debate on OA has gone astray. There is no need to attack Elsevier or any of the traditional publishers with smear campaigns. Most highly acclaimed academics participating in this negative propaganda have arrived at their present positions (in MIT, Harvard and the like) by publishing in high impact and closed access journals. The more reasonable approach to supporting OA should be by publishing future “high impact” papers in OA journals (of Hindawi, MDPI, Versita Open,…), simple.

    • Stephen says:

      Hi RMS,

      Strictly you are correct of course – the RWA certainly leaves researchers with the option to go for OA publishers. And perhaps also the boycott is a blunt tool and some proponents have attacked Elsevier in a hot-headed fashion. But not everyone has and I think it is more useful to see this as a single battle in what is a long campaign, one that started long before Tim Gowers wrote his blog-post.

      And the campaign, as I see it, is about raising consciousness of researchers about the publishing process. In part we have been rather pliant in handing over copyright to publishers. In the past, perhaps this made sense. But since Elsevier now sees it as converting reports of publicly funded research into their private property (a view seen as extreme by many researchers) and used its massive presence in the market to drive price rises (only recently being challenged in negotiations), there are questions to be asked.

      I don’t think there is a simple solution to be had. As I hope I have tried to make clear in this and previous posts, there are many factors under consideration. Publishers are part of the problem, but so are scientists, as the piece Björn links to below makes clear.

      I take a pragmatic approach. I am glad there has been a stink about this because it gives us a chance to air this issue more thoroughly, to inform people of how the publishing business works, to ask if current publishing mechanisms are fit for purpose and, if not, to get more of the scientific community involved in seeking workable solutions.

    • Stephen says:

      I agree this is a very interesting piece. For what it’s worth I am pleased that the author, Martin Eve, agrees with me that leadership by senior academics is key. To give people a flavour, this is the concluding paragraph:

      Academic publishing is bankrupting our already financially-starved universities and I also remain suspicious of the author-pays open access model they want to introduce. The problem will not be solved solely through publisher boycotts that offer up at least one generation of early-career researchers to the sacrificial slaughter so that the cycle can either be broken or, more likely, continue once more. What we need instead are leaders, heads of departments, who understand the wider institutional problems and fight to reinstate that utopian idea of research as more than credentialism. We need leaders who no longer ask “Open access: what’s that?”. We need leaders who ask the right questions and, if they don’t get the right answers, work to destroy those systems (REF, hiring hostility and, only then, publisher profit margins) that cause the academy to autosubversively undermine its own purpose.

  7. Stephen says:

    Hi Björn – to respond to your comment above (the nesting system has run out of space):

    many thanks for laying out the detailed arguments behind your viewpoint. I’m very much looking forward to your review article. In the meantime, I’d recommend to all the four posts that you linked to — especially your analysis of the lack of correlation between IF and citations. This is just the sort of thing needed to shake up academics and I think it deserves wide attention.

    I think we’re largely disputing over mechanistic details, rather than broad principles. I certainly believe that efficiency savings over the current costs of operations like Elsevier’s are achievable but don’t know enough about the process and technology to see how best that can be done. I’m with you on wanting to break the stranglehold of IFs!

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