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The Scientific Literature

Open Access With A Vengeance

Here’s something to keep an eye on: eleven of the largest national research funding agencies in Europe have announced a plan to require open-access publication of papers arising from their grants. The plan is that by 2020, all such work must be published in compliant open-access journals or on compliant open-access platforms.

There are quite a few other provisions as well: authors are to retain copyright without restriction, first off. Standards for that adjective “compliant” will be drawn up and made public for journals and platforms, and in cases where no such entity exists, the agencies will provide incentives and support for their formation. Another key point: “It is acknowledged that all scientists should be able to publish their work Open Access even if their institutions have limited means”, which means that institutions (and not individual researchers) are to pick up the cost, and apparently there will be subsidies available in cases where this isn’t feasible. To that end, open access fees will be standardized and capped across Europe.

And publishers take note: the “hybrid” model of publication is explicitly stated not to be compliant. That’s the one where some of the papers in the journal are open access (presumably because the authors paid for them to be) and the rest of them aren’t. The European funding agencies are saying that this isn’t going to cut it: work will be published only in venues that are completely open access.

This has to be the loudest and highest-caliber shot yet across the bow of the current subscription model in scientific publishing. How will Elsevier, Springer/Nature, Wiley and the others react? How will the scientific societies themselves react? That latter question will emphasize that some of them are, in fact, more publishers than they are scientific societies, at least as how that latter term is popularly perceived. (There are other organizations that are, financially, better thought of as life insurance companies or direct marketing providers than as any sort of membership society, but I don’t know if any of the scientific ones have quite made it to that point or not!)

At any rate, this has potential to really shake things up, and in a pretty short time frame, too. Grab some popcorn.

Update: here’s a piece at Nature on this.

55 comments on “Open Access With A Vengeance”

  1. biotech says:

    sounds great. I hope the NIH requires this. I am a politically right leaning guy and very pro business but I am still in favor of these requirements. I believe that the social contract of doing research with tax payer dollars should let the tax payers read those results free of charge.

    1. Isidore says:

      I don’t disagree, but it’s still funny how politicians are ready to spout pious words about safeguarding taxpayer money except when they spend it themselves.

  2. road says:

    I think this is a great move. But I wonder if the Open journals will adopt more advertising to generate revenue? Will we see ads in papers soon?

    1. Fuh Dje says:

      Every paper I read online already has an ad in the corner of the page – both open access journals and papers behind paywalls. Although, yeah, the ads in journals like plos are typically just links to other plos family collections/journals – not pipette ads like in Nature.

  3. BK says:

    If this is adopted by in the US, maybe it can be the final nail in the coffin for ACS…

    1. Thoryke says:

      And the death of ACS would be a good thing…why? [Forgive me if I am opening a can of worms here, but I’ve read this blog for years and don’t recall reading about problems with ACS].

      1. electrochemist says:

        Not sure what issues others have with the ACS, but personally, I abandoned my ACS membership about 6 or 7 years ago because I was sick and tired of their disingenuous campaign about a shortage of STEM workers. Totally untrue, and harmful to the general public’s perception of the issues faced by scientists.

        1. Derek Lowe says:

          That’s a reason I abandoned them as well.

          1. Anon says:

            Stem shortage has to be true since they hired an editor all the way from overseas.

        2. Thoryke says:

          Ah. _That_ I completely understand! While we clearly need people to be educated about science, encouraging people to go into fields that don’t have open jobs that match their training is indeed a problem. [See also: Ph.D. programs in the Humanities that pretty much just provide fodder for inadequately-paid adjunct positions, all the while insisting that there are going to be a big shake-out of full professors when the Boomers retire]

          1. Old Timer says:

            This I entirely disagree with…Humanities/Classics/Philosophy PhDs get good jobs outside of their “profession” because they can think, analyze, and write!

        3. Old Timer says:

          I abandoned them after my Be mug for the same reason. Now, I miss a substantial number of discounts 🙁

        4. hn says:

          ACS hasn’t taken this position for several years now. In fact, many of the ACS leadership are quite strident about the challenges of chemistry careers. chemjobber is a writer for ACS now!

          1. electrochemist says:

            Credibility takes years to develop, but only a minute to lose.

            I will never respect the ACS again. The positions they took previously were too destructive and dishonest. I don’t care what their latest positions are. They previously demonstrated their fundamental lack of integrity as an organization at a point in my life where their propaganda was damaging to the careers of thousands of pharma chemists who were being laid off.

            At this point in my career (28 years of working after my post-doc), they have nothing of value to offer me. I know from speaking to countless colleagues that I am not alone in this regard.

        5. Anon says:

          They’re just useless to me. I haven’t actually decided whether they are actively harmful to scientists as a strategy, but they don’t seem to do or provide anything that helps.

      2. BK says:

        Derek and the other response sums it up better than I could say.

        But I like to say they essentially deliver nothing to chemists outside of academia, except for very expensive paywall journal articles.

        What is it that you find so useful from ACS?

        1. Chemjobber says:

          1. Cheap life insurance
          2. 51 issues of a great magazine*
          3. 50 free downloads
          4. A vague sense of belonging

          *Full disclosure: I write for them

          1. milkshaken says:

            5. Vague sense of foreboding that if I ever again need anything from ACS, I am totally on my own.

            Sometimes last year, my former colleagues published the work that I proposed and helped to develop – not just the work but the key ideas presented in the paper. Our company filed six patent applications where I am inventor on the technology, but later the CEO decided to retaliate. I have the same material presented previously at the ACS national conference, under my name. But when I wrote to the journal Biomacromolecules where my work appeared without attribution, their editor would avoid responding and her associate assured me “they take this very seriously” and then they took no action for 3 months.I go only excuses. When I reached ACS ethics committee liasson named Mr. Slater, he assured me ACS does not wish as a publisher to involve itself in this sort of disputes, whether I had clear evidence of plagiarism or not, and he recommended that I hire a lawyer. That totally sealed my opinion about ACS. If you look at ACS web page, you can find video with Mr. Slater in his role of top lawyer explaining how cool and advantageous is for you as an author to sign your copyright over to ACS so that it could continue to milk it in perpetuity.

          2. Ted says:

            Yep, those are pretty much the same reasons I have. I like reading C&EN at the lunch table at work (I’m the only chemist on staff, so it prompts a lot of interesting discussions), and yes, I’ve enjoyed Chemjobber’s contributions.

            I think of my ACS subscription as an old, stagnant marriage, where the love is gone, and the lives are separate, but neither wants the hassle or drama of formally breaking up (for the record, I’m quite pleased with my own spouse and marriage…).

            I’ll stick with the ACS only as long as my employer pays for it, or the ACS comps it while unemployed. I do find the ‘member benefit’ on the autocomplete cycle is slightly faster than cutting and pasting a DOI across a second tab…


        2. hn says:

          ACS also supports many educational programs for kids, teachers, and college students. I wish membership dues were less expensive, but I think ACS does a great job.

  4. Chrispy says:

    I find myself regularly using SciHub even though I have institutional access to many journals. It’s just too many clicks, handshakes, passwords, etc.

    1. anon temporarily says:

      Or because a journal (JCO) makes downloading purchased papers impossible.

    2. Pedro Ivan Ramirez-Montes says:

      Jeep far more easy

    3. Disgruntled PhD says:

      Yeah, that’s the main thing for me as well. Getting a paper through my university means finding the library website, activating their proxy, using the library’s search engine to find the paper again (which is almost impossible, so usually you end up using the search engine to find SCOPUS, then using SCOPUS to find your paper) and then it’s still not available about half of the time.

      Meanwhile, sci-hub is about 5 seconds of typing in the address bar away.

  5. b says:

    The best part about this is that it doesn’t impose regulations on the publishers, just the authors that receive grant money, essentially providing no choice for the publishers but to adapt. There is a lot that is incredibly frustrating about the current publication model.

    Just an example (I know the paper can be found elsewhere), but you can’t even read the Watson & Crick DNA paper without paying?! It’s 65 years old!

    1. cato says:

      To follow up on your comment–I imagine even with this new model, the publishers would still require a subscription for legacy papers…

  6. An Old Chemist says:

    I want SciFinder also to be free!!! And, OMG, will Chemdraw ever be free, along with the molecular modelling softwares? I guess that a small part of the NASA budget should be redirected toward the free access stuff for us little researchers. Now, when almost everyone gets laid off, we have an increasing need for free access to such tools.

    1. Peter S. Shenkin says:

      Of course, you’d also have to lay off the computational chemists who are creating the tools you wish to make free.

      Having said that, OpenSource, largely developed by individuals who separately have day jobs, has come a long way in this area, and that is bound to continue.

    2. zero says:

      Why NASA as opposed to NIH or perhaps NIST?
      If this is for redistributive reasons, the DoD budget wouldn’t even notice the cash had gone missing as long as you only take a few pallets of $100 bills.

    3. Jaakko Kirjasalo says:

      In an university, the university library will end up paying anyway, whether or not it’s a journal subscription or an open access fee. I think it’s important to understand that scientific literature is not a “product” in the same sense as bread or a cup of coffee are a product. Scientific publishing should serve science, not just generate profits for publishing companies.

  7. JE says:

    A disaster for society. Economics always wins. Whoever pays for something controls it. When readers pay only the journals that publish quality content will survive. When authors/institutions pay the journals that publish anything and have the lowest costs will survive.

    What will follow is a large bureaucratic mess of ever-changing lists of ‘acceptable’ journals, bribery from publishers to get on the list etc.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      The pre-OA model does not seem to have quite proven that only the journals that publish quality content will survive, though. Has it? You later points are definitely something to worry about, though. There had better be real standards that are hard to game. Are we heading towards a world of preprint servers, where the main cost is keeping the hardware connected?

    2. sgcox says:

      This is a serious and important point. However attractive and justified open access model feels, it promotes driving the quality of publishing down and spells the end to the very idea of pier review process.

      1. Kismet says:

        No, it is a nonsense point if you think about it. It implies today there exists a free market where the readers choose to pay for the best papers, which is far from the truth.

        1. sgcox says:

          I think about it and no, it is certainly a not a nonsense point. I do however agree with you, there is indeed no free market for best papers you wish to pay for. But we had a semifunctional proxy – high impact magazines which supposedly cared about their credibility. And even though I get dozed a lot by by Arsenic Life, Acidic Stem Cells, Sirtuins and so forth, I still rely on the _existence_ of a peer review and a due diligence by editors which will all disappear under “pay as you go” process promoted by an open access model.

    3. Ray says:

      Won’t reputation still be king? If every journal went open access today, it would still be just as prestigious to publish in Nature or Science. Just because a journal is OA doesn’t mean it has to change its standards for publishing.

      1. anonymous coward says:

        I think the assumption is “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” (for example Twitter, Facebook, TV, etc.). If reputation drives people to publish in journals, then maintaining reputation would get them better content and might be worth preserving. Most journals won’t have that, though – they’ll be getting what they can get. Since the price authors can pay would be capped, then the only way journals can make money is by volume, and getting volume likely means lower quality (since there’s only so much good stuff).

        Businesses will follow the money. For most journals, reputation won’t matter enough to outweigh the money they would get by publishing more. At least there’s nowhere to bundle articles up into opaque bonds, or otherwise this would look like the US housing crash.

    4. Chris Phoenix says:

      “Whoever pays for something controls it” – only as far as the market is free. For a counterexample to your statement, look no farther than health care. When the sellers write their own regulations (for their whole market), the buyers are shafted.

      Several factors converge to make journal access less than free-market. So don’t invoke “economics” to claim a revolt against the current system (not market, system) will lead to disaster.

  8. Big Freddie says:

    Not to overshare…having had a few papers that broke into the “some thousands” of citations, and the top ten all time list at the journal we eventually published in, be rejected without review from Nature makes me feel a little overjoyed at the idea that history, rather than editors, could become “gatekeepers”. I think journal editorial “skew” has given us lumbering collaboration collectives pushing instantly pre-falsified models like “clockwork genomes with major effect loci” which have literally resulted in the waste of billions of “post genome” dollars…some expressed as grants, some as concrete. Anything that leads to the atomization of groupthink in science is to my mind the only way forward. “money flows like water through the hands of fools” could be NIH’s “in God we Trust”…more ideas, smaller ideas, fast fail to new ideas…this would advance the frontier…IMHO 🙂

  9. tm says:

    There is an irony to watching people rejoice over this shakedown of the academic publishing industry, even when many of the scientific insights and in some cases even the small molecules themselves that have turned huge profits for our industry have similarly come from taxpayer funded researcher.

  10. JB says:

    Good. The entire academic publishing charade is a scam. Why, as a scientist, do I have to find funding for all of the experiments, perform the experiments, write the manuscript, make all of the figures, do all of the data analysis, have to spend time being a graphic designer, and have to spend time altering files and formatting of manuscripts so they’re compliant with a journal’s requirements? Then on top of that, have to spend money for the privilege of publishing in a journal? It is a complete racket. What exactly do journals provide anyway? They don’t help with making figures, don’t make art work for you, don’t spend the inordinate amount of time messing around with formatting issues, and don’t do any of the science. They get all of your work for free, claim ownership of it, and take the money they charge to people who want to look at all the work you did with tax payer money. I hope for profit a academic publishing goes the way of the RIAA and music.

  11. Anonymous says:

    1. Some people complain that drug company profits are too high. (Historically, >10%; 13%? 15%? What are the current averages?) The profits at academic publishers make pharma look like idiots. >20%? Even >30%? Annual textbook revisions (that make it hard to reuse previous editions) surely help with that.

    2. Does anyone have some data on the funding sources for papers currently published in Science, Nature, PNAS, etc.? It is probably substantially from gov agencies that have announced or may announce that they are going along with the EU mandate. However, there have been some biggies over the years that were not. (a) Bednorz and Muller superconductors, funded by IBM, came up the other day and they published in Zeitschrift fur Physik (Springer). (b) DuPont: nylon, teflon, kevlar … all w/o gov funding (c) other industrial labs. But what is the percentage breakdown? If Science / Nature (using the current paywall status quo) ONLY published allowed (mostly industrial or privately funded research) research, would we see top notch stuff? Better? Worse?

    3. Nature has also recently had some essays on PEER REVIEW. In particular, some favor publishing referee reports (anonymously) and replies along with the papers. I’m for that! Many contributors to Pipeline probably have stories about seeing papers that they trashed in review get published only to be exposed as trash after publication.

    Another comment on Peer Review addressed the shortage of (competent) referees. I think that grad students and post docs make excellent referees (at least where I was schooled). Several professors were journal editors and officially solicited students to review submissions. Other professors would unofficially ask trusted students to review manuscripts they received from outside editors (possible ethics / confidentiality violation, but it got a better review).

    On-line, open access publishing could also accommodate comments or Phase IV post-publication review.

    4. I also abandoned the ACS. They do NOT represent my interests and actually work against them in some cases.

  12. Scott says:

    The funniest thing that could happen out of this would be the major (high impact factor) journals being unwilling/unable to comply with the EU regs, so that nobody from Europe (or rather, taking European money) publishes in them for a decade or so.

    Then the Universities have a horrible realization that their expert professors aren’t high enough scoring to keep on staff anymore.

    1. Jose says:

      That’s an interesting point- really why should Elsevier etc. care? If they can charge (gouge) enough non-EU PIs, then who cares?

  13. Li says:

    What’s the oldest “open source” scientific journal out there? How’s its financial health? If we allow volunteers to control, does anyone expect this to end well? ACS, AMA, ASTM, oh the list is long, all have been ‘corrupted’ by the interests of the individuals (and their backers) who take control. I’m betting that we’re gonna get what we pay for. I see some parallels between the “advantages” of Communism and the “advantages” of Open Sourcing papers. In theory, both are great ideas…(Of course, the theories being used are not even close to realistic, but details, details…)

    1. Reviewer says:

      “If we allow volunteers to control, does anyone expect this to end well?”

      A huge part of the process IS run by volunteers. Where do you think peer reviews come from? Every paper, in a pay or open access journal, has ~$5-10k of volunteer labor donated (2-4 reviewers, ~5 hours/review, $500/hr expert consulting rate), and that’s just for one round of peer review.

      1. Anonymous says:

        Reviewer: I assume you are a reviewer. Have you ever seen your carefully written comments on bad mss completely ignored by the authors and editors? Just wondering.

        (Reposting old peer review story.) AJ Birch told the story about a conversation with RB Woodward: RBW said he doesn’t referee mss. Birch said, ~’But don’t you owe it to the community to referee a few papers every now and then? After all, they referee your papers.’ RBW said, ~’My papers don’t need refereeing.’ 🙂 And, of course, there are the stories that RBW would return mss without revision regardless of the referee comments and tell the editors to publish as is. And they did.

        I would like to see referee reports and responses published as supp info, along with the main paper. This suggestion has come up many times before, as well as in recent Nature opinion pieces.

        1. toluene says:

          Nature journal have already started publishing reviewer’s comments and author replies

          1. Reviewer says:

            It’s currently optional, and if it stops being optional, I will have a strong incentive to take the other way of opting out of having your peer reviews published – declining to review the paper.

  14. Reviewer says:

    Hadn’t heard the Woodward story!

    I haven’t had many bad experiences with this, but I usually use a pretty light touch as a reviewer regarding whether I think something is in scope for a journal/significant enough an advance, taking the opinion that this is ultimately decided by the editor, so why invest emotionally in it? My reviews are pretty much only: 1) is this new, and if so, as new as they’re claiming/do they need to add citations/tone down the language, and 2) is this correct and have they shown it? I try to write the kinds of reviews I’d want to get and I generally push to get competitors’ papers into glam journals because I deliberately chose a field that was as far from zero-sum as possible (vs., e.g., structural biology), and I feel like my field’s success is my success.

    If I feel like an editor or journal is really ignoring my reviews, that’s one of the two cases where I’ve stopped working with them – the other being being abusive to reviewers. I will very rarely review for MDPI anymore because they’re the most guilty of this. They ask for 1wk turnaround and even within that week, I’ve had them contact me and 1) say we made a decision, send your review if you want but we don’t need it, or 2) a few days into the review period, say we just need your review to decide, can you send it immediately? It certainly seems like they’re over-requesting reviews to get their turnaround times down. It seems like some of these journals have managed to weaponize the feel-good aspects of open access and the volunteer/sharing culture in science.

    I love preprints and open access, but I do not want my referee reports public, either as an author or referee. Peer reviews are a conversation between experts and they’re not really meant for public consumption – I worry this could lead to someone uninformed taking quotes from reviews out of context. Beyond that, I just would rather not have people playing guess the reviewer with these. It’s a running joke that nobody can ever get these right, but sometimes you can. I’ve figured out one of my co-reviewers on a paper I refereed (they later confirmed) before based on some language/formatting idiosycrasies I’d seen in emails with them in the past. With machine learning, ID-the-author is only going to get easier. No thanks!

    1. Ted says:

      If I know that my review comments are going to be published, my review will inevitably be different. This creeps away from the reviewer as impartial critic/shepherd to partial owner. The whole idea behind a peer review is to work out the kinks before public display.


      1. Reviewer says:

        Exactly. Too many times I’ve heard people talk about a bad paper and say “the reviewers should have caught that.” In a perfect world, sure, but in the end this is an imperfect process where you’re hoping 2-4 people’s expertise overlaps enough with the paper that every aspect of the paper can be evaluated. We’re all busy and might have 5-10 hours to devote to these if we’re lucky – and the incentives in science have strongly encouraged people to emphasize the flashy aspects of their work and obfuscate the limitations as best as possible. Expecting reviewers to catch everything is simply not realistic, and publicly presenting the reviews does precisely what you describe regarding some level of partial ownership. I also just don’t write as nice of prose in a review as I would in a published manuscript – the technical points are all there, but they don’t always read pretty! If reviews are published, I’ll want them to be more polished, that means it will take more time, and that means I’ll say no more often.

  15. Anonymous Researcher snaw says:

    Sometimes Open Peer Review can be very interesting. For instance, a paper a couple years back documenting the latest version of Clustal, a widely used Bioinformatics tool. The referees basically said, it is great to see a new version of this important tool, but maybe the technical details could go into the Supplemental Information for those readers who care, and the text of the paper itself summarize what is new in this version from the perspective of the typical biologist user. The authors agreed this was a reasonable suggestion, so the end result was a relatively short paper with a long Supplemental Information PDF file.

    Being a Bioinformatics nerd myself, I read both the main paper and the Supplemental Information file with close attention.

    1. Scott says:

      I think I might have left that comment in the actual paper, perhaps with an author’s comment back along the lines of “why the heck didn’t I think of that in the first place?!?”

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