Open Access — yes you can

For researchers who have never dipped a toe into the debates on open access that surge across the blogosphere it is all too easy to imagine that they need not get involved. For sure, people are increasingly aware that a decision of some sort needs to be made about OA once their paper is accepted for publication but that’s about as far as it goes. The complexity of the issue is off-putting — who has the time? — and there is in any case a vague sense that funding agencies (RCUK, HEFCE, NIH, the Wellcome Trust and the like) have the matter in hand so any sense of involvement or responsibility is, with little effort, shrugged off.

But to do so misses the real significance of the changes seeping through academic publishing. Worse, it overlooks the capacity the individual researcher to influence them.

The changes in train are as much cultural as technological: while the high-speed connectivity of the internet is enabling us to re-imagine publication by spreading research results faster and further than ever before, at the same time it is providing the democratic empowerment needed to challenge the status quo. Established publishers naturally seek to protect the advantages of hegemonies built up before the web came along; but these are not always aligned with the movement towards open access and it is now possible for each of us, working singly or in web-linked groups, to make a real difference.

In this post I want to go through a number of recent examples — some of them pretty straight-forward — that show how simple it can be to take part in the push for open access. The more of us that push, the faster we will get to where we want to be.


Get what you pay for: Last December I noticed that the PDF of a 2012 paper in Elsevier’s Journal of Virological Methods on which I am a co-author and which was supposed to be OA was marked “Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V. Published by Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.” The paper was clearly denoted as OA on Science Direct but there was no indication of this on the PDF. Since we had paid a hefty Article Processing Charge (APC) for the hybrid OA option to make our paper freely available in a journal that normally requires a subscription, this didn’t seem like very good service.

Through Twitter, and then in email exchanges, Elsevier’s Alicia Wise agree to attend to the defect and within about a month the PDF had been altered. The text now reads “© 2012 Elsevier B.V. This is an Open Access article under Elsevier’s open license:”. Alicia spent some time in our email exchanges explaining how tricky it had been to amend the PDF after publication; while I was grateful for the effort made, I couldn’t help pointing out that the trouble would have been avoided if the article had been marked up correctly in the first place, especially given the charge levied for Elsevier’s OA option. I understand several other problematic OA articles by Imperial College authors like myself have been brought to Elsevier’s attention by Chris Banks, our Director of Library Services, and have now been attended to. I recommend that you check your own OA papers are clearly marked as such; if not, please contact your publisher to insist on a fix.

Get behind me, paywall: I am not the only one who has been having technical difficulties with my OA papers of late. The Wellcome Trust, in an admirable move towards openness and transparency, recently published the details of their spending on open access publishing on Figshare. To be precise, they published the data as an Excel spreadsheet that was immediately digested, assimilated, annotated and improved by a variety of OA advocates, including Peter Murray-RustCameron Neylon, Ernesto Priego and Michelle Brook (of the Open Knowledge Foundation).

As Wellcome’s Robert Kiley subsequently reported, one of the key things this open, collective effort revealed was that some OA articles for which an APC had been paid remained behind paywalls or had not (as promised by the publisher) been deposited in PMC or Europe PubMed Central repositories or had not been marked up with the appropriate Creative Commons licences. As in my case, the problems are most likely due to processing errors but given the high fees levied for OA services by major publishers such errors are simply not acceptable. This episode underscores the need for openness and for community action to drive performance levels in OA publishing.

Get to know your Institutional Repository*: My December run-in with Elsevier must have sensitised my antenna. While I was following the green route to OA by depositing our first paper of 2014 (published in Elsevier’s Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters) in Imperial’s Digital Repository I took the time to read the copyright notice that the publisher insists on attaching to the entry. It says (with my highlighting):

“© 2013 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved. NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in BIOORGANIC & MEDICINAL CHEMISTRY LETTERS, Vol.: 24, Issue: 2, (2014) DOI: 10.1016/j.bmcl.2013.12.045”

Since the version I was permitted to deposit was the final accepted manuscript, which has been revised in the light of peer-review and contained no significant differences from the version published in Bioorg. & Med. Chem. Letters, the catch-all statement highlighted in red seemed inaccurate and likely to undermine the confidence of the reader in what they would get from this download. The statement in blue was true but only in the trivial sense in this case that some minor stylistic changes may have been made by the journal. To counter this, I added the following statement to the front page of my PDF:

“This version of the paper, which contains all the modifications made to reviewers’ comments, is the one that was accepted for publication. Essentially, it differs only in matters of formatting from the final published version.”

I also raised the matter with Alicia Wise and was glad to learn that Elsevier is working to re-phrase the boilerplate statement that it applies to deposited post-prints. I look forward to reading the re-drafted text. It is important that precise language is used so that the very real value of work made available through repositories is clear to users. If we can’t get this from publishers, we will have to work with our repositories to eliminate all sources of confusion.

Get to know your rights: A question of language was also raised by Kevin Smith, Scholarly Communications Officer at Duke University in the US who recently observed that the licence to publish used by Nature Publishing Group (NPG) required article authors to waive their moral rights. This was a demand too far in his view since, as he put it, moral rights are broadly understood to include “the right of attribution and the right to preserve the integrity of one’s work”.

NPG’s Grace Baynes countered that the publisher had no intention of undermining authors’ rights of attribution but was seeking to preserve its ability to make corrections to papers (as is sometimes necessary), so as to maintain the integrity public record. I’m pretty sure that’s genuine, but you have to ask why the publisher couldn’t have come up with a more refined form of words in the first place to acquire the legal authority to preserve the academic literature without threatening authors’ right of attribution. And I don’t just mean that as a figure of speech. You have to ask — as those commenting beneath Grace’s statement have done. It’s an important part of the process and, thanks to NPG’s commenting facility, easy to do. So far, we have yet to see any undertaking by the publisher to amend the wording of their licence to publish but now that the matter is out in the open I hope it will be resolved. But this is only likely to happen if the community remains vigilant.

Get value for money: The analysis of the Wellcome Trust’s data on the charges it pays to different publishers for open access publishing articles highlighted high cost of hybrid OA, an issue that was also raised in a recent assessment of the OA publishing market by Bo-Christer Björk and David Solomon. Their report, commissioned by a consortium of funders that included the Trust (Disclaimer: I was on the steering group that oversaw the preparation of the report), revealed that the average fee for hybrid OA (~$2,700) was almost twice the average cost of publishing in a ‘born-digital’ full open access journal (~$1400).

These numbers should give researchers and funders pause for serious thought. Contrary to what was first envisaged, hybrid OA funding has not been used by publishers as a mechanism for flipping their journals to full OA. Instead it is increasingly seen as an additional revenue stream for publishers that does not deliver value for money to the research community. Concerns about double-dipping expressed by the UK House of Commons and Science Minister David Willetts have for the most part yet to be credibly addressed. In part that’s because the resolution is technically difficult but Harvard’s Stuart Shieber has analysed the matter with typical incisiveness and correctly diagnosed the root of the problem: publishers are reluctant to lubricate the transition to OA because it should create a functioning market for publication services that in the long run is likely to reduce revenues (PDF).

Get with the groove (of the new): As far as possible therefore (within the constraints of ongoing collaborations), I shall be avoiding the hybrid OA route and aim instead to publish with fully OA titles that offer a good service at a competitive price. My group’s most recent paper was submitted to one of the newest kids on the block, PeerJ, an online-only, fully OA journal established by Peter Binfield, Jason Hoyt and Tim O’Reilly that opened for business in 2012.

I’ve written before about PeerJ’s ground-breaking pricing models (which start with a one-off ‘membership fee’ of $99 that permits an author to publish one paper a year) but this was the first time I had tried the journal myself. It was an interesting and positive experience. For a start I took advantage of their recent offer to publish peer-reveiwed papers for free if they were first submitted as a pre-print to PeerJ PrePrints. Like the recently established BioRxiv (of which I am an affiliate), this is a laudable attempt to tempt researchers in the biomedical and life sciences to get into the habit of rapid and early publication that has long been the norm in several sub-disciplines of physics, mathematics and computer science through the ArXiv.

The preprint submission was slightly nervy — old habits die hard — but I was assuaged by the knowledge that our preprint would immediately be subjected to peer review. Even so, because the manuscript was going straight into the public domain**, I found myself fretting more than ever over possible errors.

As it turned out our preprint, which reported the solution and crystal structures of the polypyrimidine tract binding protein, didn’t take long to become a full-fledged paper. Submitted on 20th Jan 2014, we had an editorial decision — accept with minor revisions — by 3rd Feb that was based on three reviews. The reviewers were thorough and professional; one pointed out a technical problem with our crystallographic data analysis that we had overlooked and when we looked again it turned out they were correct. Those who might like to have a look at the details can do so because we and the reviewers agreed that our correspondence should, like the paper, be made freely available online.

Having made our corrections the revised manuscript was re-submitted and accepted on 14th Feb and shepherded into publication on 13th March. The online layout of our paper is clean and clear, as is the PDF that you can freely download. Needless to say, it is clearly marked as being distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 licence, the copyright having been retained by the authors. I take Richard Poyner’s point that OA advocates should be careful not to ally themselves to particular publishers, for fear ceding strategic control of the developing OA market (see page 21 of his recent interview (PDF)), but I nevertheless applaud the innovation and professionalism of PeerJ’s operation. I will certainly be submitting papers there again and think that in an open market, they will win a decent share.

There, I’m done (for now). Your turn.


*Update (22-4-14): Another good reason for those in the UK to get to know their institutional repositories is that HEFCE has announced that to be eligible for the next Research Excellence Framework exercise, essentially all publications will have to be deposited in an institutional or subject repository on acceptance for publication. This new policy kicks in from 1st April 2016 but you might as well get into the habit now.

**Update (22-4-14): Mike Taylor pointed out to me that ‘public domain’ can technically be taken to imply publication under a CC0 licence, which permits reuse without attribution. That is not the case here since our preprint was made available under a CC-BY licence. This licence stuff is complicated.

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25 Responses to Open Access — yes you can

  1. Well, if you will publish with Elsevier, what do you expect?
    As soon as I read Tim Gowers’ “Elsevier: my part in its downfall”, I vowed never again.

    It’s great that you’re supporting PeerJ. I’m about to try them myself.

    • Stephen says:

      For the record, in both the cases mentioned I was not the senior author and didn’t get to choose the publishing destination. Nevertheless both papers are freely available.

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  3. Curt Rice says:

    This is a nice summary of some of the challenges with both hybrid OA and even w/ green OA. Regarding the former, the OA fund at my own university (Tromsø) will pay author fees for gold OA but not for hybrids, and I think this is a good decision for just the kinds of reasons you point out. The green problems reflect (at least from Elsevier) their deeply entrenched resistance to OA. This is the company that instituted a policy stating that you can put pre-publication versions on your university archive — UNLESS your university has a policy requiring this. Then your university has to negotiate (=pay) for the privilege! I call this their “anti policy policy” and it is obnoxious.

    I think one of the key issues in the transition to OA is to explore how to use a paradigm shift to also fix other problems, e.g. the increasing unreliability of peer review. I pointed out some of the problems in a piece at the Guardian ( and also sketch an alternative here:

    Governments and research councils could easily do much more to promote OA. Just for fun, I made one suggestion in “17,493 ways to hold universities more accountable”:

    Thanks again for a great piece!

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Curt. Not sue which Guardian article you are referring to since your link is to your Guardian profile…

      On the question of the shift to open access shifting other aspects of the publishing system, I whole-heartedly agree (and hope this was implicit in my post). I think open review is in a growth phase and hope more and more journals will adopt it. One of the most impressive exemplars (which I think implements several of the desirable features identified in your piece on open evaluation) is the multi-stage open peer review operated by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, whose review system is described in this Frontiers article.

      I also hope that the broader readership enabled by open access will increase engagement of the public with science and scientists.

  4. Charles Oppenheim says:

    Make sure the senior author does not assign copyright to the publisher but instead grants it a licence to publish. It’s not rocket science.

    • Stephen says:

      It may not be rocket science but it’s still complicated. Setting aside the problem that sometime co-authors don’t always give you the time or opportunity to intervene (ahem), it’s far from trivial to know how to enforce your rights. Most authors only encounter this decision after acceptance of the manuscript and while they are just trying to tie off the details of publication so that they can get on to the next thing.

      Clearly, it would be good to sort out rights well in advance — ideally even before the choice of journal. But with many journals, it’s hard to know in advance exactly where you stand. One of Kevin Smith’s points was that NPG didn’t make their demand of a moral rights waiver clear up front.

      I know you can check your rights at Sherpa/RoMEO and I will endeavour to do this in future when not publishing in a fully OA journal. I’m also aware that SPARC has come up with an addendum to publishing agreements that authors can use to retain copyright but I don’t know of anyone who has been able to use this instrument successfully. This whole area seems mired in complexity. If anyone can point me to a site that makes it crystal clear, I’d be much obliged.

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  6. Charles Oppenheim says:

    Stephen neatly sums up the problem.. It’s just a form to sign, and they want to move onto other things. That’s why educating authors in the issues at an early stage of their careers is crucial.

  7. Great article, Stephen. Really sums up the issues we’re facing re: open access quite well – thank you for sharing. Have you had a look at While we don’t include the life sciences, I thought it might still be of interest to you as we’re fighting the good fight in regards to open access. I’d love to hear your impressions, if you have the time.

  8. Stephen says:

    For information — on Twitter, John Inglis (@JohnRInglis) pointed out a useful Wikipedia page that lists the preprint policies of academic journals. Looks like a useful resource.

  9. cromercrox says:

    In addition to what Charles Oppenheim posts about the difference between ‘copyright’ and ‘licence to publish’, it needs to be said that a publisher will retain copyright on the page, including its design elements and so on, without retaining copyright on the contents themselves, which belong to the author. This is a subtle distinction often lost on authors, but it is important and necessary. It allows a publisher to archive papers online even after the 6-month grace period covered by the licence expires. (Disclaimer – I am an editor at Nature).

  10. Paul Brookes says:

    Another PeerJ fan here. We now have 2 papers there and expect to send more. Haven’t tried the pre-print option yet, so that will be an interesting experiment. Disclaimer – I’m an academic editor at PeerJ.

    An important point about pricing… the charges are largely what they are because that is what the market will bear. PLoS got there first and set the bar at $1350 (for PLoS One, the other PLoS family journals charge considerably more), and everyone else just followed suit. When asked outright why they charge $1500 for a paper, several editors I have spoken to simply recite “that’s what PLoS charges” or “that’s the industry standard”. As authors, we’ve simply allowed this pricing to creep into our peripheral vision, and now it’s become an accepted part of doing science. At no point in the past decade was there a major push-back by scientists regarding this price point. The result is that academic publishing is still one of the most profitable businesses on the planet. Even the OA guys are raking it in (PLoS is a >$20m/yr. operation). Of course, when you challenge them, they tout “sliding pricing scales” for people in poor countries or with genuine academic hardship, but if you have any kind of grant/funding, you’re expected to cough up the full price. The nice thing about PeerJ, is the price really forces you to stop and think about what you’re getting for your money. What could I do with that $1400 savings? What lab equipment or supplies could I buy with that money instead of lining the pockets of a publisher?

    One other point is that it takes some chutzpah for academic scientists to do this (go all out on OA). I sent our first paper to PeerJ back before it was even listed on PubMed. It still doesn’t have an impact factor. At the time, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I had just got a major grant funded. In addition I’ve been tenured for several years. As such, the pressure to publish in traditional journals was somewhat lessened, but this is not something everyone can do. Junior folks with tenure committees and grant reviewers haranguing them for more publications in “top rank” journals are going to give these people what they want. I admit that as my own grant reaches the end of its funding cycle in a few years’ time and I plan the renewal application, I’ll probably submit more papers to traditional publishers because that’s what the reviewers are looking for. There’s a sweet-spot in the whole funding/promotion/tenure situation, where one can throw caution to the wind and go OA, but the only way to encourage people to gamble their careers on this, is to remove the underlying pressures.

    • Stephen says:

      I’ve heard elsewhere that price-points for open access were more or less plucked out of the air and have somehow stuck so I agree with you that PeerJ’s pricing makes for a very interesting talking point.

      You are also right to raise the thorny point of journal prestige and the perverting effect it has on career progression etc (which I’ve written about before). This has probably slowed the uptake of OA titles though I think that’s subsiding to a degree now that the OA publishing market has diversified somewhat; however, it still allows some to insist on very high APCs for hybrid OA.

      • Baptiste says:

        if I may interject here – I should disclose here that I do work for Elsevier and will express my own opinions. I’m not evil, I’m just a normal person. I’m about to launch a gold-OA journal and have looked into this quite a bit. I’m not here to fight, but there’s a rationale behind the APCs, and yes as commercial publishers this does include some profit, I’m won’t deny this…

        The APCs are not really pulled out of thin air:
        1. there’s a cost associated to handling, typesetting (20-50 USD per page on average), hosting etc. papers;
        2. there’s a cost associated to the honorarium and expenses paid to the editors;
        3. a cost was derived from the revenue associated to each paper estimated over the duration of its citation lifetime which often constitutes a significant chunk of the price…
        4. there’s a cost associated to the staff involved – just at the journal level this means a publisher, a marketing manager,a journal manager, a typesetter, sometimes a copy-editor. This does not include the management team, the necessary folks developing and supporting the editorial system or Sciencedirect etc. None of the people mentioned above work on a single journal, yet they need to be paid… Elsevier has worldwide 6700 employees…

        I think we should do a better job at explaining this…

        • Stephen says:

          Baptiste – Many thanks for commenting — I’m glad you felt able to do so.

          I don’t subscribe to the ‘publishers are evil’ trope. Many, such as Elsevier, are private companies that have commercial interests that they quite naturally wish to pursue — and that’s entirely reasonable, so long as the market works satisfactorily. For sure APCs are meant to recover the costs of production but the levels set are, as I think you acknowledge, in part also determined by consideration of what the market will bear. That’s OK by me but my intention here is to promote greater transparency in that market and a better understanding by researchers of the true costs of publication.

          In the past that transparency has been frustrated by the attempts of some publishers (Elsevier included, I’m afraid) to conceal their pricing in confidentiality agreements on purchasing contracts that university libraries are required to sign, a practice that has drawn criticism from the UK parliament in view of the public funding of much of the research base.

          At the moment the market will apparently also bear profit levels of 35% and above from the likes of Elsevier, Springer, Wiley & Sons, and even the open access publisher, Hindawi but, as a researcher and tax-payer, I hope not for much longer. I’m all for competition and a role for private companies in scholarly publishing but I think there are good opportunities for getting better value for money.

          • Baptiste says:

            Hey Stephen,

            I know that things aren’t ideal – on either side! but for gold-OA journal we really try our best to put the prices down, with the lesser associated contraints…

            I hope we reach another more or less stable point in the future, this constant state of fight (if not war) yields all sort of nasty things that the world could most likely do without…

            Anyway, I think this post – like the others – is well balanced and good to read!

  11. Dave Fernig says:

    Excellent post. I have just signed up to PeerJ and am at the revision stage. Most impressed so far and will, when I am able (as you note co-authors do not always agree) submit again.
    I also refuse to review for commercial publishers. This is an important step in terms of shifting the power balance.

    • Stephen says:

      Bear in mind that PeerJ is a ‘commercial publisher’. I have not ideological opposition to using private companies but am keen on promoting market mechanisms (supported by an academic culture no longer obsessed with impact factors) that will foster greater competition and, I hope, better value for money.

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