AAAS – Blocking Access to the Scientific Literature Even When They Say It Is “Free”

UC Davis professor Jonathon Eisen should be knighted for winning his battle to obtain “free access” to his own 1999 paper.

…And finally I had it. It took about an hour. This may seem minor to many out there but it seems inappropriate to me. This paper represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of work funded by the Department of Energy and was published in 1999. The goal of the work was to share knowledge. And this is a major roadblock to sharing that knowledge. Plus, all the restrictions on use and reuse mean that anyone wanting to share the knowledge with others also is restricted. The agreements imply that I should not use anything from the paper in a talk or a class or in any way. There is no mention of Fair Use or any other hint that it would be OK to share the material for educational or scholarly purposes. And who knows what crap I am going to get sent to the email address I used for this registration.

So – why are there all these restrictions? I presume, to make AAAS money in some way. Is that a bad thing? Well, in principle I am all for publishers making money. I subscribe to many newspapers. I subscribe to many magazines. I buy lots and lots of books. I pay for music and movies and other works. I don’t download anything illegally. So why not just accept that people should pay for scientific papers? Well, because this paper, and 1000s and 1000s of others are different than all the other works I list above. Owen White and I (with some help from some others) wrote this paper. AAAS and Science did little except handle the peer review and do some copy editing. They just simply do not deserve the rights they are claiming to this article and to all the others. And as a society supposedly for the “advancement of science” it seemed to me that they should make it easier to access the old literature. They could certainly make all papers published more than 12 months ago freely and openly available and deposit them in Pubmed Central. It would be incredible beneficial to science and to scientists. But they do not. Is this in the interest of the “advancement of science”? Unquestionably no. But I guess they have decided it is in the interest of the “advancement of Science” where the journal and money for the society is the goal and the advancement of science is lost in the ether.

In the end, I deeply regret having ever published in Science. 15 years after publishing this paper I would definitely say it would have been better to have published in another journal – one that makes papers more openly and freely available. I cannot change the past. But I will not support AAAS or its activities in the present or the future unless they change policies and practices.

If you are an academic you really have to read Jonathon’s complete account, especially if you have free access through your university library to most everything behind the “academic paywalls”. If you are a civilian you already know how bad it is to be “outside the wall”. I deal with it every day, it sucks.

Full disclosure about the PLOS Mafia: Jonathan Eisen is the brother of open access journals PLOS Co-Founder and UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen. Jonathan Eisen is also PLOS Biology Advisory Board Chief. Here is a 16 minute video interview of the brothers on the 10th anniversary of PLOS Biology. Thank you PLOS!

Open-access scientific publishing is gaining ground

The Economist has an update on the gathering momentum of Open Access:

AT THE beginning of April, Research Councils UK, a conduit through which the government transmits taxpayers’ money to academic researchers, changed the rules on how the results of studies it pays for are made public. From now on they will have to be published in journals that make them available free—preferably immediately, but certainly within a year.

In February the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy told federal agencies to make similar plans. A week before that, a bill which would require free access to government-financed research after six months had begun to wend its way through Congress. The European Union is moving in the same direction. So are charities. And SCOAP3, a consortium of particle-physics laboratories, libraries and funding agencies, is pressing all 12 of the field’s leading journals to make the 7,000 articles they publish each year free to read. For scientific publishers, it seems, the party may soon be over.

It has, they would have to admit, been a good bash. The current enterprise—selling the results of other people’s work, submitted free of charge and vetted for nothing by third parties in a process called peer review, has been immensely profitable. Elsevier, a Dutch firm that is the world’s biggest journal publisher, had a margin last year of 38% (…)

 

Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral

Michael Eisen linked the captioned Guardian article by Open Access activist Dr. Mike Taylor. This is a target-rich environment for Taylor and Eisen. I highly recommend you just dive into Mike’s essay, which begins with a conversion confession:

Publishing science behind paywalls is immoral. There, I said it.

I know, I know. It’s an easy trap to fall into – I’ve done it myself. To my shame, several of my own early papers, and even a recent one, are behind paywalls. I’m not speaking as a righteous man to sinners, but as a sinner who has repented.

Having started my scientific life from rather a conventional stance, it took me a while to come around to this position. (You can watch my position evolve, if you care to, through this chronological series of blogposts: “Choosing a journal”, “Free work”, “Collateral damage”, “Private-sector”, “RCUK submission”, “Irritation”, “Versus everybody” and “Making public”.) But I’ve finally arrived. And it’s great that the UK government has arrived in the same place.

If you are a scientist, your job is to bring new knowledge into the world. And if you bring new knowledge into the world, it’s immoral to hide it. I heartily wish I’d never done it, and I won’t do it again.

But aren’t there special cases?

I really need to publish in Science/Nature/Cell for my career …

No. Michael Eisen, cofounder of the Public Library of Science (PLOS), doesn’t believe this is true and makes a strong case that we’re confusing correlation with causation. He notes that fewer than half of biology hires at Berkeley in the last decade have published in Science, Nature or Cell. Berkeley!

(…) 

But I can’t afford article processing charges (APCs) …

No. First of all, more than half of open-access journals don’t charge a fee at all. Among those that do, the average fee is $906 (£563) – a tiny proportion of most research grants. PeerJ, which launches this month, charges a one-off fee of $299 for a lifetime’s publications. Most fee-charging open-access journals offer waivers – for example, the no-questions-asked waiver at PLOS, where the philosophy is explicitly that no one should be prevented from publishing by lack of funds.

Tim Gowers, who is leading a boycott against the publisher Elsevier and is starting the new Forum of Mathematics journal says it “will not under any circumstances expect authors to meet APCs out of their own pockets, and I would refuse to be an editor if it did”.

(…) 

Great article, great comments, so many substantive comments that Mike followed up with this post.

Is it immoral to hide your research behind a paywall?

Mike Taylor’s followup post, which has also attracted lots of excellent comments. Here’s a sample

As noted a few days ago, I recently had an article published on the Guardian site entitled Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral. The reaction to that article was fascinating, exhilarating and distressing in fairly equal parts. Fascinating because it generated a fertile stream of 156 comments, most of them substantial. Exhilarating because of some very positive responses. And distressing because some people who I like and respect absolutely hated it.

Those people’s main objections were nicely summed up by a response piece by Chris Chambers, published a few days later on the same site: Those who publish research behind paywalls are victims not perpetrators. It’s a good, measured article, and I highly recommend it — not least because it’s apparent that while Chris thinks my tactics are all off, he makes it clear that he shares the goal of universal open access and further significant reform in scholarly communications.

So I’d like to clarify a couple of points that I didn’t make clearly enough in the original articles (but which I addressed in two separate comments on Chris’s article); and then I want to throw the floor open to see if we can hack through the more difficult issues that it raises.

A clarification

Chris wrote:

Do scientists who follow accepted publishing practices deserve to be labelled ‘immoral’, as Taylor claims?

The intention of my original article was not to say that the individuals who allow their work to go behind paywalls are immoral people, but that the act it itself immoral. If that feels like a fine distinction, it’s not. For a variety of pragmatic reasons, essentially moral people commit immortal acts all the time. At the trivial end of the scale, something as insignificant as not bothering to sort the recycling; at the other end, while no-one would claim dropping atomic bombs on civilian populations is an essentially moral act, many people would accept that in the context of WWII, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were justified or even necessary. (And please: no-one cite this as ‘Mike says publishing behind a paywall is exactly like nuking civilians’!)

So my goal in the original piece was not to castigate individuals as immoral people, but to push us all into deliberately thinking through the moral implications of our publication choices — decisions that all too many scientists still make without thought for the accessibility or otherwise of their work. I stand by my original assertion that it’s immoral to accept public funding to do research, then hide the fruits of that research from the public that paid for it. But that doesn’t mean that I am ‘labelling’ anyone. My apologies if that distinction wasn’t clear.

To summarise the intent of my article: the decision of where to publish is a moral one. Please, all you moral people out there, make a moral choice.

The curse of  journal prestige

And so we come to the vexed subject of journal rank. First of all, it’s encouraging to see that most people seem to agree at least that the effects of journal rank are A Bad Thing — that judging scientists by what journals they have published in is at best corner cutting, if not outright dereliction. This is not controversial any more, if it ever was: the ridiculous experience of PLOS Medicine as they  negotiated (yes, negotiated) their initial impact factor tells you all you need to know about such metrics.

As Chris wrote in his article:

In many (if not most) fields, the journals in which we publish are judged to be an indicator of professional quality. [...] Science is bad at being scientific: the actual quality takes second place to the perception of quality, which is so strong that journal rank creates its own biosphere.

The problem here seem to be one of wrenching an entire community out of a delusion at once. Because the things I hear over and over again are: 1. ‘Of course, I personally would never judge a paper by what journal it’s in, or judge a scientist by what journals her papers are in’. And 2. ‘I need to get my papers in glamourous journals so that people will judge me well’. Everyone is worried about being judged by the very criterion that they insist they would never judge by.

I don’t pretend to have a solution to this absurd circle. Well, I do: we should all just stop it. But I don’t have a strategy for reaching that solution. One thing that is infuriating to see is that even when the REF and the Wellcome Trust so very explicitly say ‘We don’t care what journal your work is in’, researchers continue to disbelieve them. I would love to hear constructive thoughts on what can be done about this.

Read the whole thing and the comments, where Michael Eisen closes the circle with this:

Can somebody please call snopes.com? Everybody here is do sure that you have to have a Science, Nature or Cell paper to get a fellowship/job/tenure because “somebody told them so”. So scientific of y’all. How about somebody look at some actual data? I have. I will post more details on my blog when I get a moment, but the basic things I have found are:

1) I looked at new hires in the top 10 biology departments in the US. All had recent assistant professor hires who had not published Science, Nature or Cell papers prior to getting their jobs. A fair number of new hires published their postdoctoral work in OA journals.

2) I looked at recent awardees of several major postdoctoral fellowship programs, and again, while there were certainly many people with SNC papers, in all cases there were exceptions.

3) I looked at two prominent young investigator awards, and, surprise surprise, there were a fair number of awardees without glamour mag publications (including one whose work was published in PLoS ONE).

So let’s cut out the “somebody told me” crap. Whether people said it or not, it’s simply not true. Is there a correlation between getting jobs and fellowships and SNC publications? Yes. Of course. Because, first of all, everybody believes it’s essential and works hard to get their papers there. And the same basic criteria for cutting edge science are used by the editors of these journals as are used in hiring/fellowship decisions. So there would be a correlation even if there were no causal relationship.

Do I think it helps to have glamour mag publications if all else is equal? Yes. It probably does a little.

Michael Eisen: 20 years of cowardice: the pathetic response of American universities to the crisis in scholarly publishing

I propose a simple solution. We should give the public access to the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which we publish our ideas and discoveries.Michael Eisen, December 22, 2005

The question inevitably asked is, “Who goes first?” Which major universities and which scholarly societies have the will, confidence, and financial resources to get the process started?

Our answer is simple and to the point. It is time for the presidents of the nation’s major research universities to fish or cut bait. Collectively, they have both opportunity and motive—and, in the Association of American Universities, they have an organization with the capacity to convene the necessary negotiations.Association of Research Librarians, March 1998

PLoS co-founder Michael Eisen has earned the right to call cowardice on the elite universities that have continued to allow the journal monopolies to maintain their out-date business model, and their extortion-level pricing. Other academics will sometimes write supporting open access, but overall their posture remains submissive. In this essay Michael is refreshingly clear and frank on why the serials crisis still exists, at least a decade after universities could have refused to pay the extortion:

When Harvard University says it can not afford something, people notice. So it was last month when a faculty committee examining the future of the university’s libraries declared that the continued growth of journal subscription fees was unsustainable, even for them. The accompanying calls for faculty action are being hailed as a major challenge to the traditional publishers of scholarly journals.

Would that it were so. Rather than being a watershed event in the movement to reform scholarly publishing, the tepidness of the committee’s recommendations, and the silence of the university’s administration, are just the latest manifestation of the toothless response of American universities to the “serials crisis” that has plagued libraries for decades.

Had the leaders major research universities attacked this issue head on when the deep economic flaws in system became apparent, or if they’d showed even an ounce of spine in the ensuing twenty or so years, the subscription-based model that is the root of the problem would have long ago been eliminated. The solutions have always been clear. Universities should have stopped paying for subscriptions, forcing publishers to adopt alternative economic models. And they should have started to reshape the criteria for hiring, promotion and tenure, so that current and aspiring faculty did not feel compelled to publish in journals that were bankrupting the system. But they did neither, choosing instead to let the problem fester. And even as cries from the library community intensify, our universities continue to shovel billions of dollars a year to publishers while they repeatedly fail to take the simple steps that could fix the problem overnight.

The roots of the serials crisis

Virtually all of the problems in scholarly publishing stem from the simple act, repeated millions of times a year, of a scholar signing over copyright in their work to the journal in which their work is to appear. When they do this they hand publishers a weapon that enables them to extract almost unlimited amounts of money from libraries at the same research institutions that produced the work in the first place.

The problem arises because research libraries are charged with obtaining for scholars at their institution access to the entire scholarly output of their colleagues. Not just the most important stuff. Not just the most interesting stuff. Not just the most affordable stuff. ALL OF IT. And publishers know this. So they raise prices on their existing journals. And they launch new titles. And then they raise their prices.

What can libraries do? They have to subscribe to these journals. Their clientele wants them – indeed, they need them to do their work. They can’t cancel their subscription to Journal X in favor of the cheaper Journal Y, because the contents of X are only available in X. Every publisher is a monopoly selling an essential commodity. No wonder things have gotten out of control.

And out of control they are. Expenditures on scholarly journals at American research libraries quadrupled from 1986 to 2005, increasing at over three times the rate of inflation. This despite a massive reduction in costs due to a major shift towards electronic dissemination. These rates of growth continue nearly unabated, even in a terrible economy. (For those interested in more details, I point you to SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who tracks journal pricing and revenues).

The opportunity universities missed

Just as the serials crisis was hitting its stride in the mid-1990′s, fate handed universities an out – the internet. In the early 1990′s access to the scholarly literature almost always occurred via print journals. By the end of the decade, virtually all scholarly journals were publishing online.

This radical transformation in how scholarly works were disseminated should have been accompanied by a corresponding radical shift in the economics of journal publishing. But it barely made a dent. Publishers, who were now primarily shipping electrons instead of ink on paper, kept raising their subscription prices as if nothing had happened. And universities let them get away with it.

(…) The unholy alliance between journals and universities

The biggest obstacle to the rise of open access journals was (and to a large extent still is) the major role that journal titles play in how universities evaluate candidates for jobs and promotions. In most academic disciplines, careers are built by publishing papers in prestigious journals – those that are the most selective, and therefore have the most cache. Scholars rising through the ranks of graduate school, the job market, assistant professorships and tenure face a nearly contant barrage of messages telling them that they have to publish in the best journals if they want to succeed at the next step. Never mind that it is far less true than people believe. That people believe it is all that matters.

Almost everyone I know thinks that simply looking at journal titles is a stupid way to decide who is or is not a good researcher, and yet it remains. There are many reasons why this system persists, but the most important is that universities like it. Administrators love having something like an objective standard that can be applied to all of the candidates for a job, promotion, etc… that might allow them to compare not only candidates for one job to each other, but all candidates for any honor across the university. This is perhaps why no university that I know of has taken a forceful stand against the use of journal titles as a major factor in hiring and promotion decisions. And it is, I believe, a major reason why they are unwilling to cut off the flow of money to these journals.

It’s never too late

(…)

Read the whole essay for the solution. If Harvard is feeling squeezed by the extortion, then we may be reaching the tipping point.