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. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Open access and Africa

In November I reported that PLOS CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the open access publisher in order to take up a position as Senior Advisor for Science Communication and Advocacy at an African organisation. 

At the time, PLOS said it could not say exactly where Marincola was going as it had to wait until the organisation concerned had held its board meeting in December.

But last week Marincola confirmed to The Scientist that the organisation she will be joining is the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), based in Nairobi, Kenya. (I am not aware that PLOS itself has put out a press release on this). Marincola will be leaving PLOS at the end of the year (this week), with PLOS Chief Financial Officer Richard Hewitt serving as interim CEO from January 1st 2017.

We can surely assume that Marincola will be advocating strongly for open access in her new position at the AAS.

But where does this leave PLOS? I discussed this and the challenges I believe PLOS currently faces in November, but I was not able to get Marincola’s views. In a Q&A published yesterday, however, The Scientist asked Marincola where she saw PLOS’ place in today’s open-access publishing marketplace.

Marincola replied, “The first and primary mission of PLOS when it was founded was to make the case that open-access publishing could be a sustainable business, whether in a nonprofit environment or a for-profit environment. So the very fact we have a lot of competition now is extremely satisfying to us and it is, in itself, a major part of our vision. As Harold Varmus said when he cofounded PLOS, if we could put ourselves out of business because the whole world becomes open-access STM publishing, that would be the greatest testament to our achievements.”

Meanwhile at Elsevier

Marincola is not the only publisher to have developed an interest in open access, in Africa, and in the African Academy of Sciences. In 2014 Elsevier announced that it was partnering with AAS to support researchers by means of a publishing training programme. This, it said, would include offering access to Elsevier Publishing Connect and providing support for hosting live, online webinars.

And last year SciDev.net reported that Elsevier is planning to launch a new African open access mega journal (presumably in the style of PLOS ONE). This would be free to readers, but authors and their organisations would have to pay to publish – although SciDev.net indicated that internal discussions were taking place over whether publishing fees should be waived for the first five years.

One of the organisations Elsevier was said to be working with in developing the mega journal is the AAS. The other partners in the group are the African Centre for Technology, the South African Medical Research Council and IBM Research-Africa.

SciDev.net anticipated that the new journal would be launched this year, with the first papers being published in 2017. If the journal is still planned, then presumably the launch date has slipped.

Clearly there is growing interest in promoting open access and OER in Africa. But some believe that the involvement of people and organisations from the Global North can be a mixed blessing, as they can end up setting the agenda in a way that is not conducive to local conditions. One African tweeter commented recently, “The agenda for, and lead in, African studies should be set by African scholars.”

The same sentiment is often expressed about publishing and publishers, especially when large for-profit companies like Elsevier get involved. In a blog post last year University of Cape Town OA advocate Eve Gray said of the planned new mega-journal: “Could this venture under the Elsevier banner provide the impact and prestige that the continent’s research has been so sadly lacking? Or could it be simply that it could provide a blank slate for Elsevier, experimenting in the face of market uncertainty?  Or, at its crudest, just a neo-colonial land-grab in the face of challenges in the markets that Elsevier dominates?”

Certainly as it confronts growing hostility in Europe (and German researchers face the new year without access to its journals as a result), Elsevier must be keen to develop new markets in other parts of the world.

But as always with open access and scholarly publishing there are no simple answers, nothing can be predicted, and opinion is invariably divided.

Postscript: I emailed the African Academy of Sciences and asked whether Marincola will be working on Elsevier's new mega-journal in any way. As of writing this, I have yet to receive a reply.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Tracking Trump

While many, many words have already been spilled on the manifold implications of the surprise win of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections, I am not aware that much has been written about what it might mean for Public Access, as Open Access is called in the context of research funded by the US Government.

I was therefore interested last week to receive a copy of the current issue of David Wojick’s Inside Public Access newsletter. Wojick has been tracking the US Public Access program for a while now, and the latest issue of his subscription newsletter looks at what the arrival of the Trump Administration might mean for the Program. Wojick agreed to let me publish an edited version of the issue, which can be read below.

Guest post by David Wojick 

The transition team

To begin with, the Trump Administration has gotten off to a very slow start. The transition team did very little work prior to the election, which is unusual. Federal funding is available to both major candidates as soon as they are nominated. Romney’s transition team spent a reported 8.9 million dollars before the election. The Trump team has spent very little.

The transition team has a lot to do. To begin with it is supposed to vet applicants and job holders for about 4,000 federal positions which are held “at the pleasure of the President.” About 1,000 of these positions require Senate approval, so the vetting is not trivial.

There is a transition team for each Cabinet Department and the major non-Cabinet agencies, like EPA and the SEC. In addition to vetting applicants, the teams are supposed to meet with the senior civil servants of each department and agency, to be briefed on how these huge and complex organizations actually operate. Something as small as Public Access may not be noticed.

Each team is also supposed to begin to formulate specific policies for their organization. Given how vague Trump has been on policy specifics, this may not be easy. Or it may mean that the teams have pretty broad latitude when it comes to specific agency policies. There seems to be little information as to who makes up each agency team, so their views on public access are unknown at this point.

Moreover, the head of the Energy Department transition team was recently replaced, which has to slow things down a bit. DOE has been a leader in developing the Public Access Program. But in the long run the fate of Public Access is in the hands of the Department and Agency heads, and their deputies, not the transition team. Science related nominations have yet to even be announced.

The Science Advisor and OSTP

Then there is the issue of OSTP and the 2013 Memorandum that created the Public Access Program. The Office of Science and Technology Policy is part of the Executive Office of the President. It is headed by the President’s Science Advisor.

At one extreme the Memo might simply be rescinded. President Obama issued a great many orders and executive memos, in direct defiance of the Republican led Congress. Many of these orders seem likely to be rescinded and Public Access might get caught in the wave and wiped out. Then too, Republicans tend to be pro-business and the publishers may well lobby against the Public Access Program.

On the other hand, a public access policy is relatively non-partisan, as well as being politically attractive. The new OSTP head might even decide to strengthen the program, especially because Trump is being labeled as anti-science by his opponents.

The OSTP situation is also quite fluid at this point. No Science Advisor has even been proposed yet, that I know of. The vast majority of academic scientists are Democrats. The last Republican president took a year in office before nominating a Science Advisor, and he was a Democrat.

The American science community is watching this issue very closely, even though the Science Advisor and OSTP have very little actual authority. The Public Access Program is really something of an exception in this regard, but it is after all largely an administrative program. In the interim, OSTP has over a hundred employees so it will keep operating. So will the Public Access Program if the Memo is not rescinded.

In fact, the slower the Trump people are in taking over, the longer the Government will be run by civil servants who will favor the status quo. This will be true of all the Departments and Agencies. The worst-case scenario would be if OSTP were eliminated altogether. There is some discussion of this, but it seems unlikely as a political strategy. It would be viewed as a direct attack on science and it has no upside.

In any case, given that their internal Public Access Programs are well established, the agencies could decide to continue them, absent the OSTP Memo, or even OSTP.


Then there is the funding issue. The Public Access Program is generally internally funded out of existing research budgets. If these are cut, then Public Access might be internally defunded.

Both the Trump people and the Congressional leaders are talking about cutting funding for certain research areas. A prominent example is NASA’s Earth Science Division, which grew significantly under President Obama. If funds are actually cut, rather than simply redirected, then Public Access might take a hit.


On the other hand, every new Department and Agency head and staff will be looking for flashy new ideas, especially if they do not cost much. Public Access has a populist aspect, which is Trump’s theme, so it could well be presented this way.

The agency civil servants are missing a bet if they do not see this opportunity to pitch public access. “Science for everyone” is a central theme of open access. So is accelerating science and innovation, which fits into the “Making America great” slogan of the Trump campaign.


More deeply, Congress is likely to be unleashed, after many years of partisan gridlock. This may be far more important than what the new Administration does. Congress controls the money and makes the laws and the lack of statutory authority for most agencies has been a vulnerability for Public Access.

In other words, while the OSTP Memo can be rescinded, a law is permanent (unless repealed of course). The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) introduced a mandatory Public Access Policy in 2008, but other agencies proved shy to follow its example, which is why we saw the OSTP Memo. This reluctance (along with a desire to provide Public Access with a more solid foundation) has also seen growing pressure for a statutory Public Access requirement for US Government departments.

Section 527 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 required that the Departments of HHS, Education and Labor introduce a Public Access Program along the lines of the OSTP Memo. More importantly, the proposed Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act is waiting in the wings.

FASTR would require that all US Government departments and agencies with annual extramural research expenditures of over $100 million make manuscripts of journal articles stemming from research funded by that agency publicly available over the Internet. First introduced in 2013, FASTR was reintroduced in 2015.

It is worth stressing that FASTR is a bipartisan bill, and was introduced to the Senate by Republican John Cornyn. As such, a Congressional mandate is well within reason.


If the Public Access Program disappears then CHORUS will need to redirect its efforts. It already has several pilot efforts going in that direction. These include working with the Japanese Government and several US universities.


In short, interesting times lie ahead for the US Public Access Program, as the Trump Administration emerges and begins to act, along with the now unfettered Congress. Inside Public Access will be tracking this action.

Information about Inside Public Access can be accessed here.

David Wojick is an independent engineer, consultant and researcher with a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Science and a forty-year career in public policy. He has also written 30 articles for the Scholarly Kitchen, mostly on OA. From 2004 to 2014 Wojick was Senior Consultant on Innovation for the US Energy Department’s Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI), a leader in public access.

Monday, November 21, 2016

PLOS CEO steps down as publisher embarks on “third revolution”


On 31st October, PLOS sent out a surprise tweet saying that its CEO Elizabeth Marincola is leaving the organisation for a new job in Kenya. Perhaps this is a good time to review the rise of PLOS, put some questions to the publisher, and consider its future.

PLOS started out in 2001 as an OA advocacy group. In 2003, however, it reinvented itself as an open access publisher and began to launch OA journals like PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. Its mission: “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication.” Above all, PLOS’ goal was to see all publicly-funded research made freely available on the internet.

Like all insurgent organisations, PLOS has over the years attracted both devoted fans and staunch critics. The fans (notably advocates for open access) relished the fact that PLOS had thrown down a gauntlet to legacy subscription publishers, and helped start the OA revolution. The critics have always insisted that a bunch of academics (PLOS’ founders) would never be able to make a fist of a publishing business.

At first, it seemed the critics might be right. One of the first scholarly publishers to attempt to build a business on article-processing charges (APCs), PLOS gambled that pay-to-publish would prove to be a viable business model. The critics demurred and said that in any case the level that PLOS had set its prices ($1,500) would prove woefully inadequate. Commenting to Nature in 2003, cell biologist Ira Mellman of Yale University, and editor of The Journal of Cell Biology, said. “I feel that PLOS’s estimate is low by four- to sixfold,”

In 2006, PLOS did increase the fees for its top two journals by 66% (to $2,500), and since then the figure has risen to $2,900. While this is neither a four- or sixfold increase, we must doubt that these prices would have been enough to make an organisation with PLOS’ ambitions viable. In 2008 Nature commented, “An analysis by Nature of the company’s accounts shows that PLOS still relies heavily on charity funding, and falls far short of its stated goal of quickly breaking even through its business model of charging authors a fee to publish in its journals. In the past financial year, ending 30 September 2007, its $6.68-million spending outstripped its revenue of $2.86 million.”