Pure Pedantry

I attended a panel discussion chaired by David van Essen entitled (R)evolution in Scientific Publishing: How will it Affect You? It was focused on what the implications of the Open Access movement in science are, and what scientists should expect from that. For those of you who don’t know, the Open Access movement is a push to make all journal articles published freely available to the public. This while a very laudable goal raises some issues, not the least of which is who is going to pay for publishing if all the articles are free. Nick Anthis from The Scientific Activist and I debated the issue earlier this year. I also reported when the Public Library of Science — an open access publisher — was required to raise their rates due to financial issues.

My comments and notes are below the fold.

The panelists included the following panelists:
Mark Doyle — Assistant Director, Journal Information Systems, American Physical Society
Heather Joseph — Executive Director, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)
Donald Kennedy, PhD — Editor in Chief, Science and President Emeritus, Stanford University
Michael Keller — Stanford University Librarian, Director of Academic Information Resources, Publisher, HighWire Press, and Publisher, Stanford University Press
Jasna Markovac, PhD — Senior Vice President and Director of Development, Elsevier
Diane Sullenberger — Executive Editor, PNAS

I will publish my notes below, but I want to talk about a little interchange that I had with the panelists about blogging during Q&A.

After everyone had spoken I asked the question: What are the possible benefits and drawbacks of the interaction of Open Access with alternative media such as blogging? I basically got blank stares. When I clarified that I wanted to know what they thought about copyright and versions issues in comparison with the benefit in publicizing science, the comments that I got were kind of a mixed bag and anecdotal. I believe that Donald Kennedy compared blogging to a flea market and said that he doesn’t read them. Grrr. Sometimes scientists can be such jackasses.

Having recieved that response, I will make the following comments:

  • 1) Don’t trust anyone over thirty. I don’t think that anyone on this panel had half a clue what blogs are or what they can do.
  • 2) I really feel like the publishing community is underestimating both the possible boon and the possible problems of the union of alternative media and completely open access. Say for instance Open Access is taken to fruition. Then every time I post on a scientific paper, I can cite the paper and include portions of it. This has the possible benefit of people checking that what I said was correct and conveying science to a much larger audience. It could also have the drawback in that correct citation can become an issue. Also, if I post the Open Access article is it still copyrighted? What if the version is updated? I think these are all relevant issues, and no one is thinking or talking about them.
  • 3) The analogy between blogging and Open Access science is in my mind a compelling one. Both are involved disseminating information to a much broader audience. Both are movements from the bottom up. They are two means of disseminating information that are destined to be associated.

I was frustrated that I got so written off about this, but there is not much to be done about it. Most of the older scientists I know are ambivalent about the Internet and what free access to their articles will do, much less to the blogging and what public knowledge of their articles will do.

There. I’ve said my peace.

With respect to Open Access and its prospects, everyone seemed reserved but bullish. Open Access journals such as PLOS have been having trouble turning a profit. Basically everyone is saying that they are fully willing to experiment with different models to make this work, but the one(s) that will be selected in the end will be the one(s) that is capable of remaining solvent.

Many panelists noted that essentially there is no difference in the funding between Open Access and the current system – both are funded by the tax payers. If that is true, then readers desire more access, and I think we should give it to them. Donald Kennedy said that “I find it hard to find a distinguishable moral high ground in this.” By in this he means the difference between the government paying for libraries and the government paying for authors. As a consequence, he would just like to see the widest access available.

Mark Doyle also made a comment that I also found compelling. Basically he said that if you were going to design a system from scratch, you probably wouldn’t want to design a system this way. You would want something with more access. The question isn’t where we are going. The question is how we are going to get there.

Take home: This is probably going to happen, but the exact model for it is not clear. Expect a diversity of experiments in this area over the next several years.

Here are my notes from the meeting. I am paraphrasing because I am not a stenographer:

Mark Doyle: Authors would really like to save money. Authors would not like to spend that money on publishing, and authors will vote with their feet. They performed an experiment where they tried paying, and it eviscerated the journal because they all moved to commercial journals where they were not expected to pay.

Funding agencies need to buy in because the authors do not appear like they are going to pay.

Donald Kennedy: Scientists have a vested interest in the widest distribution of information available, and for this the Internet is the best game in town. The question is how to pay? Editting costs money. The open access movement has a different strategy; the author pays upfront (which he notes is really code for NIH and the government paying). Donald Kennedy said that “I find it hard to find a distinguishable moral high ground in this.” By in this he means the difference between the government paying for libraries and the government paying for authors.

Michael Keller: High Wire releases all articles to the world after a certain period determined by the publisher. Currently about 1.5 million are available for free. Open Access as it exists now is not the only business model available for increasing access. The experiment is still running, but there are others being tried. He believes a mistake was made in not recognizing the “various nuances” in the publishing community. There are those interested in profit; there are those interested in the moral mission of science. Libraries are also at fault for failing to use their economic clout to demand larger access.

He is worried about the implication of PubMed Central damaging the not-for-profit publishing community. (Ed. He did not clarify why.) He is also concerned with the politicization of science publishing. His big point: peer review is essential, regardless of model. Experiment in prepublication review is good; we need to make sure it is just as good.

What is coming next? He predicts increasingly more useable data from scientific discovery. This will result from numerous ways. Crossovers will be important. Aggregation of data will be important. We should expect better semantic indexing to find articles more quickly. Taxonomic indexing is also likely to improve. Navigation, particularly GUI navigation, is likely to improve interconnectivity in the way articles are presented. Finally, blogs and other media are likely to be more interconnected with the system than before.

Another point: Open publishing is international. Because it is in English it is freer and more available to everyone in the world. It makes us more into a global village than before.

Another point: A big issue for scientists is justifying our research to the public. It is really important for the people out there working in jobs to understand the return on the investment science is producing.

With respect to SfN and the Journal of Neuroscience, he would like to see prepublication access. Also, he would like to see the ability for authors to pay for open access.

Jasna Markovac: Elsevier publishes 1800 journals. The size of the company poses a moral dilemma because their journals include hard science journals. Economies of scale are good, but there are pitfalls because you tend to treat your customers as a monolith.

They are becoming interested in customizing their product for the customer. What the different scientific communities are looking for is different. There is also a generational issue. Some scientists still demand only print. Another message from their customers has been that there is too much out there, that science is “overpublished.” They want to help break down the information and make it more useable.

More issues: Certain groups are more familiar with Open Access than others. Where should information be posted? What sort of format should the results be in? Should it be the publishers or the authors? When should the posting happen? What is technically “the publication”?

Her overall position is “it’s all an experiment.” The Open Access model started on shaky grounds, but it is still possible. She feels uncomfortable with the author paying prior to posting because of conflict of interest issues. She would feel more comfortable if the author pays after acceptance and publication for free access. Elsevier is testing some of these issues. They do allow author posting for their original manuscripts. They are offering scientists funded by NIH options to comply with Open Access legal requirements. They also have delayed access.

For a company the size of Elsevier it is sometimes difficult to see changes, but it is interested and they are excited about the possibilities of Open Access.

Diane Sullenberger: She provides experience from PNAS. Two revenue streams author charges and subscriptions. They have an accounting rule that prevents account reserves making money a special issue for them.

Access, Inoperability, Interpretation, and Sustainability are her major issues for Open Access.

Access falls into two categoires: research and access to underlying data. PNAS has a policy of making it free after 6 months. They tried one month, but they lost too many subscribers. For a fee, after acceptation authors can pay for free access. The numbers of authors electing this option is increasing — neuroscientists are the highest participants. With respect to raw data access, they remain committed to access to data critical to the articles they publish.

Interoperability. We have too much data, but computers can read quicker than we can. Material should be structured for easy meta-analysis. They challenged researchers to do so with 5 years of old PNAS papers, and the results were promising. They are trying to encourage more such experiments.

Interpretation. Quality control — should anonymous peer review survive? Many models are being tried. One of these is ranking — social bookmarking. Outreach is also an issue.

Sustainability. Should print survive? They believe the market is not ready to abandon print. Abandoning print would cut costs, but it would also cut revenue. They anticipate doing so in 5 years, but not yet.

The market will tell us what it wants.


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    October 17, 2006

    Jake, this is a great summary of the issues. I, too, am surprised there was not a greater understanding of blogging. Perhaps it’ll have to wait until folks like you, Shelley, and Evil get into loftier positions, or existing bloggers with R01s to get more engaged at the upper eschelon of societies and their publishing units. But don’t be so hard on some of us over-thirty folks. Some of us do get it.

  2. #2 Dorothea Salo
    October 17, 2006

    Please engage with librarians, at your institution and elsewhere! They can answer some of your questions, and they can help!

    Copyright, for example. Publishing an article open-access says NOTHING about who owns the copyright. You own the copyright to your work unless/until you sign it over to your publisher. Toll-access publishers are FAR more likely to ask you to sign over all rights than are OA publishers. You heard that right: you are liable to lose MORE rights if you publish toll-access!

    Self-archiving has zero impact on your copyright. You may, if you choose and if your publisher permits, attach a Creative Commons license to a self-archived article. You need not do so, in which case you reserve all rights you have not signed over to your publisher.

    As for peer review, this cannot be said often enough: nothing about OA invalidates peer review! Some OA publications are peer-reviewed. Some aren’t. The same is true of toll-access publications. Many self-archived articles were published in peer-reviewed publications, both OA and toll-access.

    It is true that most experimentation with peer-reviewing models is happening with OA publications, but it is vitally important not to extend this truth so far that it becomes the falsehood “OA publications are not peer-reviewed.”

    The citation problem is real, and is being discussed in the library literature. Consensus thus far is that we will have to get used to somewhat fragmented measures of article usage, and we need to start building the ability to emend and retract articles into our systems. This is not a purely-OA problem, however; toll-access publishers and databases struggle with it too.

    Again, librarians are very engaged with open access, and we are here to serve researchers. Please take advantage of our awareness! Feel free to contact me directly with questions, for instance.

  3. #3 Mark Doyle
    October 17, 2006

    Jake: Hmm, I am over 30 and I think I am somewhat trustworthy and clued in :^) A few comments/corrections:

    1) My point about scholarly communication looking substantially different if it had started in a digital age rather than evolving the world of print journals is really Paul Ginsparg’s (see for instance http://people.ccmr.cornell.edu/~ginsparg/blurb/pg01unesco.html ) – I can’t really take credit for it (though I too find it compelling).

    2) On the comment marked “Mark Davis[sic]”, I was specifically talking about the American Physical Society’s past experience with trying to make page charges mandatory across all of its journals. The High Energy Physics community in particular revolted with the result that journals published by commercial publishers w/o page charges (but that cost up to 10 times as much for a subscription) became much more popular. Page charges are a bit different than open access fees because authors don’t get any tangible benefit from paying page charges. However, with the existence of self-archiving on arXiv.org, the tangible benefit to an author to make their paper open access within our journals is diminshed. It does show that (parts of) the physics author community is wary about what they spend their money on (new piece of equipment, new postdoc, trip to a conference).

    3) It is unfortunate that your question from the audience was quite vague as originally phrased (which is why the moderator asked that it be repeated and clarified). I think if you had asked a less open-ended question and had been a bit more specific about what your concerns about the implications (both benefits and downsides) of Open Access and blogging, it might evoked a better response from the panel. Anyway, we here at the APS do think carefully about such issues. For publishers, we have to solve the nut of changing the economic model and issues such as the relationship between blogging and OA necessarily have taken a back seat for now. That said, within physics and math at least, arXiv.org provides a great foundation for the portion of the blogosphere concerned with current physics research (see for example Jacques Distler’s http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog/ and the posts therein as well as the other group physics and math blogs he hosts).

  4. #4 Joseph T Young
    October 19, 2006

    I think open access does have some interesting ethical issues, not the least of which is who pays. Do people really think the Fed or private foundtions will grant funds for research if the plan is to release the results to the web. And who will pay for the web space? The self-same NGOs or the Fed?

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