Monday, July 17, 2017

On sponsorship, transparency, scholarly publishing, and open access

Sponsorship in the research and library communities is pervasive today, and scholarly publishers are some of the most generous providers of it. This generosity comes at a time when scholarly communication is in sore need of root-and-branch reform. However, since publishers’ interests are no longer aligned with the needs of the research community, and they have a vested interest in the legacy system, the research community might be best to avoid publisher sponsorship. Yet researchers and librarians seek it out on a daily basis.


While the benefits of this sponsorship to the research community at large are debatable, publishers gain a great deal of soft power from dispensing money in this way. And they use this soft power to help them contain, control and shape the changes scholarly communication is undergoing, often in ways that meet their needs more than the needs of science and of scientists. This sponsorship also often takes place without adequate transparency. 

Sponsorship and lobbying (which often amount to the same thing), for instance, have assisted legacy publishers to co-opt open access. This has seen the triumph of the pay-to-publish model, which has been introduced in a way that has enabled publishers to adapt OA to their needs, and to ringfence and port their excessive profits to the new OA environment. Those researchers who do not have the wherewithal to pay article-process charges (APCs), however, are finding themselves increasingly disenfranchised.

Sponsorship has also to be seen in a larger context. With paywalls now viewed askance, and pay-to-read giving way to free-to-read, more and more content is being funded by the producers rather than the readers. This has a number of consequences. Above all, it has made it increasingly difficult to distinguish neutral information and reporting from partisan content created solely to serve the interests of the creator/sponsor. Now commonly referred to as “fake news”, this is normally associated with biased and/or false information about, say, politicians, elections, and celebrity deaths etc., and its origin and purpose is often unknown.

But open access has presented science with the same kind of problem. With many authors now choosing (or having) to pay for the publication of their papers, and publishers’ revenues directly related to the number of articles they publish, unscrupulous authors are now able to find an outlet for any paper regardless of its quality. 

It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish legitimate science from pseudoscience. This is in part a consequence of publishers’ use of sponsorship (and lobbying) to foist a flawed business model on the science community. And by continuing to dispense sponsorship, publishers are able to perpetuate and promote this model, and maintain their grip on scholarly communication.

These are the kinds of issues explored in the attached essay (pdf file). It includes some examples of publisher sponsorship, and the associated problems of non-transparency that often go with it. In particular, there is a detailed case study of a series of interviews conducted by Library Journal (LJ) with leading OA advocates that was sponsored by Dove Medical Press

Amongst those interviewed was the de facto leader of the OA movement Peter Suber. Suber gave three separate interviews to LJ, but not once was he informed when invited that the interviews were sponsored, or that they would be flanked with ads for Dove – even though he made it clear after the first interview that he was not happy to be associated with the publisher in this way.

The essay can be accessed as a pdf file here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Open Access Interviews: Jutta Haider

Many of us join causes and movements at different times in our lives, if only because we like to feel part of something bigger than ourselves, and because most of us have a healthy desire to improve the world. Unfortunately, movements often fail to achieve their objectives, or their objectives are significantly watered down – or lost sight of – along the way. Sometimes they fail completely.

When their movement hits a roadblock, advocates will respond in a variety of ways: “True believers” tend to carry on regardless, continuing to repeat their favoured mantras ad nauseam. Some will give up and move on to the next worthy cause. Others will take stock, seek to understand the problem, and try to find another way forward.

Jutta Haider, an associate professor in Information Studies at Lund University, would appear to be in the third category. Initially a proponent of open access, Haider subsequently “turned into a sceptic”. This was not, she says, because she no longer sees merit in making the scientific literature freely available, but because the term open access “has gained meanings and tied itself to areas in science, science policy-making, and the societal and economic development of society that I find deeply problematic.”

Above all, she says, she worries that open access has become “a business model, an indicator for performance measurement, tied to notions of development purely imagined as economic growth and so on.”

This is not how open access was envisaged when the movement began.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The OA interviews: Philip Cohen, founder of SocArXiv

(A print version of this interview is available here)

Fifteen years after the launch of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) the OA revolution has yet to achieve its objectives. It does not help that legacy publishers are busy appropriating open access, and diluting it in ways that benefit them more than the research community. As things stand we could end up with a half revolution.

But could a new development help recover the situation? More specifically, can the newly reinvigorated preprint movement gain sufficient traction, impetus, and focus to push the revolution the OA movement began in a more desirable direction?

This was the dominant question in my mind after doing the Q&A below with Philip Cohen, founder of the new social sciences preprint server SocArXiv.

Preprint servers are by no means a new phenomenon. The highly-successful physics preprint server arXiv (formally referred to as an e-print service) was founded way back in 1991, and today it hosts 1.2 million e-prints in physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics. Currently around 9,000-10,000 new papers each month are submitted to arXiv.

Yet arXiv has tended to complement – rather than compete with – the legacy publishing system, with the vast majority of deposited papers subsequently being published in legacy journals. As such, it has not disrupted the status quo in ways that are necessary if the OA movement is to achieve its objectives – a point that has (somewhat bizarrely) at times been celebrated by open access advocates.

In any case, subsequent attempts to propagate the arXiv model have generally proved elusive. In 2000, for instance, Elsevier launched a chemistry preprint server called ChemWeb, but closed it in 2003. In 2007, Nature launched Nature Precedings, but closed it in 2012.

Hope springs eternal


Fortunately, hope springs eternal in academia, and new attempts to build on the success of arXiv are regularly made. Notably, in 2013 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) launched a preprint server for the biological sciences called bioRxiv. To the joy of preprint enthusiasts, it looks as if this may prove a long-term success. As of March 8th 2017, some 8,850 papers had been posted, and the number of monthly submissions has grown to around 620.

Buoyed up by bioRxiv’s success, and convinced that the widespread posting of preprints on the open Web has great potential for improving scholarly communication, last year life scientists launched the ASAPbio initiative. The initial meeting was deemed so successful that the normally acerbic PLOS co-founder Michael Eisen penned an uncharacteristically upbeat blog post about it (here).  

Has something significant changed since Elsevier and Nature unsuccessfully sought to monetise the arXiv model. If so, what? Perhaps the key word here is “monetise”. We can see rising anger at the way in which legacy publishers have come to dominate and control open access (see here, here, and here for instance), anger that has been amplified by a dawning realisation that the entire scholarly communication infrastructure is now in danger of being – in the words of  Geoffrey Bilderenclosed by private interests, both by commercial publishers like Elsevier, and by for-profit upstarts like ResearchGate and Academia.edu (see here, here and here for instance).

CSHL/bioRxiv and arXiv are, by contrast, non-profit initiatives whose primary focus is on research, and facilitating research, not the pursuit of profit. Many feel that this is a more worthy and appropriate mission, and so should be supported. Perhaps, therefore, what has changed is that there is a new awareness that while legacy publishers contribute very little to the scholarly communication process, they nevertheless profit from it, and excessively at that. And for this reason they are a barrier to achieving the objectives of the OA movement.

Reproducibility crisis


But what is the case for making preprints freely available online? After all, the research community has always insisted that it is far preferable (and safer) for scholars to rely on papers that have been through the peer-review process, and published in respectable scholarly journals, in order to stay up to date in their field, not on self-deposited early versions of papers that might or might not go on to be published.

Advocates for open access, however, now argue that making preprints widely available enables research to be shared with colleagues much more quickly. Moreover, they say, it enables papers to potentially be scrutinised by a much greater number of eyeballs than with the traditional peer review system. As such, they add, the published version of a paper is likely to be of higher quality if it has first been made available as a preprint. In addition, they say, posting preprints allows researchers to establish priority in their discoveries and ideas that much earlier. Finally, they argue, the widespread sharing of preprints would benefit the world at large, since it would speed up the entire research process and maximise the use of taxpayer money (which funds the research process).

Many had assumed that OA would provide these kind of benefits. In addition to making papers freely available, it was assumed that open access would introduce a quicker time-to-publish process. This has not proved the case. For instance, while the peer review “lite” model pioneered by PLOS ONE did initially lead to faster publication times, these have subsequently begun to lengthen again.

Above all, open access has failed to address the so-called reproducibility crisis (also referred to as the replication crisis). By utilising a more transparent publishing process (sometimes including open peer review) it was assumed that open access would increase the quality of published research. Unfortunately, the introduction of pay-to-publish gold OA has undermined this, not least because it has encouraged the emergence of so-called predatory OA publishers (or article brokers), who gull researchers into paying (or sometimes researchers willingly pay) to have their papers published in journals that wave papers past any review process.

The reproducibility crisis is by no means confined to open access publishing (the problem is far bigger), but it could hold out the greatest hope for the budding preprint movement.

Why do I say this? And what is the reproducibility crisis? Stanford Professor of Medicine John Ioannidis neatly summarised the reproducibility crisis in 2005, when he called his seminal paper on the topic “Why most published research findings are false”. In this and subsequent papers Ioannidis has consistently argued that the findings of many published papers are simply wrong.

Shocked at Ioannidis’ findings, other researchers set about trying to size the problem and to develop solutions. In 2011, for instance, social psychologist Brian Nosek launched the Reproducibility Project, whose first assignment consisted of a collaboration of 270 contributing authors who sought to repeat 100 published experimental and correlational psychological studies. Their conclusion: only 36.1% of the studies could be replicated, and where they did replicate their effects were smaller than the initial studies effects, seemingly confirming Ioannidis’ findings.

The Reproducibility Project has subsequently moved on to examine the situation in cancer biology (with similar initial results). Meanwhile, a survey undertaken by Nature last year would appear to confirm that there is a serious problem.

Whatever the cause and extent of the reproducibility crisis, Nosek’s work soon attracted the attention of John Arnold, a former Enron trader who has committed a large chunk of his personal fortune to funding those working to – as Wired puts it – “fix science”. In 2013, Arnold awarded Nosek a $5.25 million grant to allow him and colleague Jeffrey Spies to found the Center for Open Science (COS).

COS is a non-profit organisation based in Charlottesville, Virginia. Its mission is to “increase openness, integrity, and reproducibility of scientific research”. To this end, it has developed a set of tools that enable researchers to make their work open and transparent throughout the research cycle. So they can register their initial hypotheses, maintain a public log of all the experiments they run, and the methods and workflows they use, and then post their data online. And the whole process can be made open for all to review.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Copyright: the immoveable barrier that open access advocates underestimated

In calling for research papers to be made freely available open access advocates promised that doing so would lead to a simpler, less costly, more democratic, and more effective scholarly communication system. 

To achieve their objectives they proposed two different ways of providing open access: green OA (self-archiving) and gold OA (open access publishing).

However, while the OA movement has succeeded in persuading research institutions and funders of the merits of open access, it has failed to win the hearts and minds of most researchers. 

More importantly, it is not achieving its objectives. There are various reasons for this, but above all it is because OA advocates underestimated the extent to which copyright would subvert their cause. That is the argument I make in the text I link to below, and I include a personal case study that demonstrates the kind of problems copyright poses for open access.

I also argue that in underestimating the extent to which copyright would be a barrier to their objectives, OA advocates have enabled legacy publishers to appropriate the movement for their own benefit, rather than for the benefit of the research community, and to pervert both the practice and the concept of open access.

As usual, it is a long document and I have published it in a pdf file that can be access here

I have inserted a link to the case study at the top for those who might wish only to read that.


For those who prefer paper, a print version is available here.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The NIH Public Access Policy: A triumph of green open access?

There has always been a contradiction at the heart of the open access movement. Let me explain.

The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) defined open access as being the:

“free availability [of research papers] on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.”

BOAI then proceeded to outline two strategies for achieving open access: (I) Self-archiving; (II) a new generation of open-access journals. These two strategies later became known, respectively, as green OA and gold OA.

At the time of the BOAI meeting the Creative Commons licences had not been released. When they were, OA advocates began to insist that to meet the BOAI definition, research papers had to have a CC BY licence attached, thereby signalling to the world that anyone was free to share, adapt and reuse the work for any purpose, even commercially.

For OA purists, therefore, a research paper can only be described as open access if it has a CC BY licence attached.

The problem here, of course, is that the vast majority of papers deposited in repositories cannot be made available on a CC BY basis, because green OA assumes authors continue to publish in subscription journals and then self-archive a copy of their work in an open repository.

Since publishing in a subscription journal requires assigning copyright (or exclusive publishing rights) to a publisher, and few (if any) subscription publishers will allow papers that are earning them subscription revenues to be made available with a CC BY licence attached, we can see the contradiction built into the open access movement. Quite simply, green OA cannot meet the definition of open access prescribed by BOAI.

To see how this works in practice, let’s consider the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy. This is described on Wikipedia as an “open access mandate”, and by Nature as a green OA policy, since it requires that all papers published as a result of NIH funding have to be made freely available in the NIH repository PubMed Central (PMC) within 12 months of publication. In fact, the NIH policy is viewed as the premier green OA policy.

But how many of the papers being deposited in PMC in order to comply with the Policy have a CC BY licence attached and so are, strictly speaking, open access?

There are currently 4.2 million articles in PMC. Of these around 1.5 million consist of pre-2000 historical content being deposited as part of the NIH’s scanning projects. Some of these papers are still under copyright, some are in the public domain, and some are available CC BY-NC. However, since this is historical material pre-dating both the open access movement and the NIH Policy let’s put it aside.

That leaves us with around 2.7 million papers in PMC that have been published since 2000. Today around 24% of these papers have a CC BY licence attached. In other words, some 76% of the papers in PMC are not open access as defined by BOAI.

The good news is that the percentage with a CC BY licence is growing, and the table below (kindly put together for me by PMC) shows this growth. In 2008, just 8% of the papers in PMC had a CC BY licence attached. Since then the percentage has grown to 12% in 2010, 14% in 2012, 19% in 2014 and, as noted, it stands at 24% today. 



So, although the majority of papers in PMC today are not strictly speaking open access, the percentage that are is growing over time. Is this a triumph of green OA? Let’s consider.

There are two submission routes to PMC. Where there is an agreement between NIH and a publisher, research papers can be input directly into PMC by that publisher. Authors, and publishers with no PMC agreement, have to use the NIH Manuscript Submission System (NIHMS, overview here).

The table above shows that the number of “author manuscripts” that came via the NIHMS route represents just 19% of the content in PMC. And since some publishers do not have an agreement with PMC, the number that will have been self-archived by authors will be that much lower. So the overwhelming majority of papers being uploaded to PMC are being uploaded not by authors, but by publishers, and it seems safe to assume that those papers with a CC BY licence attached (currently 24% of the total) will have been published as gold OA rather than under the subscription model.

We could also note that just 0.06% of the papers in PMC today that were deposited via the NIHMS have a CC BY licence attached, and we can assume that these were submitted by gold publishers that do not have an agreement allowing for direct deposit, rather than by authors. 

In short, it would seem that the growth in CC BY papers in PMC is a function of the growth of gold OA, not green OA. As such, we might want to conclude that the success of PMC is a triumph of gold OA rather than of green OA.

Does this matter? The answer will probably depend on one’s views of the merits of article-processing charges, which I think it safe to assume most of the papers in PMC with a CC BY licence will have incurred.

Either way, that today 76% of the content in PMC – the world’s premier open repository – still cannot meet the BOAI definition of open access suggests that the OA movement still has a way to go.