Debating Open Access

July 8, 2013

Starting in April the UK research councils have pushed ahead with a policy that all research they fund must be publish in Open Access journals so that everyone has free online access to the research they funded. The issues involved are actually much more complex than this simple principle so it if you support Open Access you will agree that it is a good thing that they have rashly gone ahead rather than waiting for the inevitable long debate to reach some conclusions.

Now the British Academy has published 9 short articles by academics presenting their opinions. The British Academy supports the Humanities and Social Sciences and this is reflected in the fact that only one of the articles was written by a scientist (a biologist). The principles for publishing in the humanities are not very different from those in the sciences but support for open access from the humanities tends to be less enthusiastic than it is from the sciences.

One of the articles by historian Robin Osborne is particularly negative. He argues that academics should not be obliged to publish in open access because they get their skills and information from a wider range of sources than just those they are paid to look at by the research councils. He also claims that research should not be free to view by the public because they do not have the training to understand it. I think many people will agree with me that these arguments are outrageously misguided, yet he may represent the opinion of many academics in both the humanities and sciences so it is important to have these points debated openly.

The other articles recognize many of the complex issues involved such as the affect of open access on learned societies who are funded by their publishing empires and the wider questions about how peer-review needs to evolve. Another point made which is too frequently overlooked is the conflicting motivations behind the open access movement. For many scientists and mathematicians the main purpose of open access is to destroy the business model of private publishing houses who have been making vast profits by charging academics for their own research through their libraries. Just look up articles on the subject by John Baez or Timothy Gowers to see how true this is (the linked posts are just the most recent of many and I mostly agree with their views).

On the other hand the Finch Report which is behind the open access policy in the UK makes no mention of this and is only concerned with the need to make research more available to industry and the public. In fact they aim to protect publishers and increase the amount of the research funding spent on publishing in order to increase access. It is not difficult to see why this is. Elsevier is one of the top FTSE listed companies and the UK cannot afford to risk damaging such industry giants (even if they are really based in another country) Despite pressure from an academic boycott Elsevier-Reed have seen a more than 50% increase in their share price in the last year (see here for latest figure). They are also using their influence to push back on the extent of open access e.g. by arguing strongly against copyright reforms and trying to lengthen embargo times on green open access. See their position statements for the UK policy makers to get an idea of how this works.

Update: Robin Osborne has posted some of his article on the Gaurdian Network. It would be helpful if there were some rational comments to explain to him why it is wrong to stop the public reading academic research in case they misunderstand it.

Not Open_Access_logo2

UK Open Access policy launches today

April 1, 2013

The UK Research Councils RCUK have today begun the process of making all UK government-funded publications open access. Details of the scheme can be found here.

Some other countries are looking at similar initiatives or have already implemented them in some subjects (e.g. medicine in the US) but the UK scheme will be watched as a pioneering effort to bring Open Access to all public research.

Not Open_Access_logo2In fact the system will be phased in over a period of five years with 45% of publications to be open access this year. Both gold and green open access standards are approved. In the case of the gold standard publishers will be paid up front to make papers open access from the publisher’s website immediately from publication. The budget for this has been set at about £1650 per paper but there is considerable variability depending on the journal. It will be interesting to see if market forces can keep these prices down. Money will be allocated to research institutions who will distribute it around their departments. The figures are set out here.

The system will also accept the option of green open access where a journal simply allows the author to put there own copy of the paper online. Here there is a big catch: The RCUK will accept that the journal can embargo public access for six months or maybe even a year. To my mind this is not real open access at all. Publications should be open access from the moment they are accepted if not before. And there is another catch with this option. I don’t see anything in the RCUK guidelines to ensure that the document is put online by the author or that it will be kept online. For both open access standards it is not clear that there can be any guarantee that papers will be kept online forever. What if a gold standard journal disappears? What if a repository disappears? Under what circumstances can an author withdraw a paper? Perhaps there are answers to these questions somewhere but I don’t see them.

Another set of questions might be asked about how Article Processing Charges will affect the impartiality and standards of journals. You might also want to know if paying for open access up front will eventually reduce the cost to libraries of paying for subscriptions, or will they still always have to pay for access to papers published under the old system, and for papers that are privately funded?

I hope that the answer is that none of this will matter for long because another system of open access will evolve with a new way to do non-profit peer-review without the old journal system at all, but perhaps that’s just a pipe dream.

The Dark Side of Open Access

January 18, 2013

Not Open_Access_logo2If you are an independent researcher as I am you will know the feeling of despair when you find a reference to a useful looking paper that is hidden behind a journal’s paywall with no free version available on the internet. Research institutions pay subscriptions that allow their members unfettered access but the rest of us have to pay a fee. For this reason I welcome the gradual move towards open access journals that will eventually mean that all research is available online with free access to everyone, but there is a darker side to this movement that I am a lot less keen on. Let’s take Philica as an example of an open access journal that I would certainly consider publishing as a show of support. It accepts submissions in any subject and I particularly like it because its peer-reviews are made public and allow for dynamic changes when subsequent research supports or refutes a published work. Unfortunately there is a catch for independent scientists. You can only register to publish in Philica if you are a full-time researcher employed by a  university, hospital and other research institution. Apparently open access does not mean open to submissions from all authors [update: 21/2/2014 The policy at philica has apparently changed a little and independent researchers can apply for membership if they can show that they are capable researchers].

In the traditional publication model it would be very unusual to find a journal that placed explicit limitation on who could publish in its pages. It is not something I had experienced before, but with open access journals this is becoming more common. For now there are still plenty of small open access journals that take submissions from anyone, but will they last? I sense that the thin edge of the wedge is in place and as it is driven in we will see unapproved researchers driven out in an effort to reduce the costs of publication. The result could have unexpected consequences for science and society.

Green, Gold or Diamond

Open access usually means that anyone can access papers for free. This comes in different forms sometimes termed green or gold open access. With green open access the journal allows authors to place a version of their paper on the internet where anyone can access it for free. Usually they do not allow the typeset version produced by the journal in this way but there is nothing to stop the online version being updated to reflect all changes made as a result of the peer-review. This works for the journals because university libraries cannot rely on authors to provide the open access copy and must therefore continue to pay the journal subscription.

With gold open access the journal itself provides a free copy of every paper online. Some long-standing journals experimented with this option but found very quickly that libraries would cancel subscriptions cutting off the journals revenue stream.  In some cases they have agreed to allow open access after a delay of a few years but new research is most relevant as soon as it appears so this is not a very satisfactory solution. Under pressure from funding agencies the new trend is for the journals to move towards payments from authors as an alternative to library subscriptions, but the payments can be several thousand dollars per publication which makes life particularly difficult for areas of theoretical science that can produce many papers with a low-budget. It is of course especially difficult for most independent scientists who may have no funding at all.

For professional scientists the ideal standard for open access is now being called platinum or diamond access meaning that it is free to publish and free to access. However, this does not mean that it is open for anyone to publish. There is no name available for that level of standard because professional researchers do not feel a need for it. Their only real concern is to reduce the cost of publishing which impacts research budgets. In order to make diamond open access possible it is necessary to reduce the cost of running a journal to virtually zero. This is perfectly feasible since the essential work of editors and reviewers is done for free by scientists out of a sense of duty and career promotion. If journals are published online only, the costs are reduced to whatever is required to run a website. This can also be reduced to essentially nil if there is a centrally run infrastructure.

This week Field medalist Sir Timothy Gowers has announced a new initiative funded in France that will provide just such as infrastructure. Scientists will be able to pull together and quickly set up epijournals in whatever area of science they choose at virtually no cost. Although they will be free to charge a publication fee if they wish, this is likely to be very low or zero and reader access will always be freely available because the system will run on the back of the HAL archive which is an arXiv mirror and open access to all readers. This is not the first project that has tried to change the way that science publishing runs but because it will be available to all areas of research and will have solid funding support it is likely to take over as the major platform for peer-review. The catch for independent research is that you will not be able to publish in epijournals unless you can submit to arXiv and that is not possible for everyone.

The scientists and mathematicians who are setting up the system do not seem to regard this as a problem. They believe that any serious researcher can easily find the endorser required to allow them access to arXiv, but as 1700 researchers who use viXra can testify this is not the case. At present about 15% of papers submitted to viXra are accepted in journals after peer-review, but this figure is likely to diminish to near zero if arXiv based journals take hold. To be fair Gowers has said that epijournals could allow linking to repositories other than arXiv. Whether they allow linking to viXra remains to be seen. My guess is that even if the epijournal infrastructure allows it, most individual journals will limit submissions to arXiv. In fact they may go further and only allow submissions from categories within arXiv that are related to the subject areas of the journal. This will reduce the overhead of having to reject too many papers that are off-topic and with near-zero budgets to work with this is going to be an attractive option. This could mean that even authors who find themselves limited to arXiv’s generic categories such as general maths and general physics may find themselves unable to submit to journals. I hope I will be proven too pessimistic but it seems to me that the writing is on the wall.

Why Does it Matter?

You may well ask why this matters. It is clear from the many discussions about open access on the internet that including publication access for all authors is not a concern for professional scientists. Much of the drive towards open access is being piloted by mathematicians and mathematics is rarely a controversial subject. Apart from a few rare cases such as the work of Godel or Cantor, mathematical progress is accepted very quickly. It is hard to argue with a proof. It is unlikely that any barrier could prevent a good work of mathematics from being recognized even if it came from an independent mathematician without the usual affiliations. But what about subjects more infested with the interference of politics? Take climate science as an example. Would it not be very tempting for the establishment to be able to undermine the work of climate skeptics simply by hindering their ability to publish? I suspect that journal editors will find it all too convenient that they can limit who can submit research by such artificial means. The wedge will be driven in further and it will become harder for scientists on the fringe to get the credibility they need from publication, or even to submit their work to someone who is at least required to read and criticize. Science is sleep walking into a Brave New World where anyone can speak but only the approved few can be heard. I think that those who are leading the fight for open access need to understand this now before it is too late. They must define open access to also mean openness for anyone to have access to the ability to submit for peer-review. At present their only concern is to remove the financial cost of access. Later they will see that such short-sightedness also has a cost.

UK to make all publicly funded research open access

July 17, 2012

A few months ago the UK government announced that it wanted all UK research that is funded from public money to be available through open access. Now they have told us how they plan to do it. They will pay the journals a fee for each paper they publish.

In the traditional publishing system journals charge people to read a paper, or libraries are charged a fee to hold copies of the journal. In recent years this has moved largely to electronic systems but the principle remains the same. In some cases the authors may pay the journal a fee for their work to be available to everyone for free, but this is the exception rather than the rule.

Now UK researchers will have to use the open access system for all their publications if it is publicly funded. This has to be a good thing because it will make the research more widely available, but how will it alter the dynamics of research?

According to an article in the New Scientist the UK government has set aside 1% of research budgets to pay the open access fees, but the fees are estimated to be £2000 per article. This means that there will be enough to pay for one publication for every £200,000 spent on research. This does not sound like very much, especially in subjects like theoretical physics where many papers are produced by doctorates and post doctorates who dont cost much. Is it enough? Will the money be distributed unevenly with theory departments getting much more of it? Let’s look at it another way. The total amount they have allowed for to pay for the fees is £50 million. At £2000 a paper that is enough to pay for 25,000 papers each year. So how many research papers does the UK produce each year. The answer is at least 100,000 and perhaps several times that. Clearly it does not add up. So how will the system shake out? It will be interesting to see.

Should you boycott Elsevier?

January 30, 2012

Some people include a few notable bloggers are saying that we should all boycott Elsevier who publish science journals and sell them at a good profit margin. Does this make sense? I wont answer that question but Iwill make this point: Elsevier is a profit making business who can set its margins according to how well it can persuade people that its products have good value (e.g. by attracting good authors to give it a high impact factor), and how well it can keep its costs down (e.g. by attracting unpaid reviewers) Elsevier have been doing this a little bit better than some of its rivals. If a boycott now reduces these margins they will increase them for any other publisher that is used instead by those authors and reviewers. Result: back to square one.

Of course there are non-profit organisations that publish journals, but the cost of their journals is not really that much better and they are not necessarily better at being open access either. If they were, then there would be no publishers making profits. So is there a real solution to the problem? If scientists don’t want to pay a high price for someone to organize their peer-review they have to find an efficient way to do it themselves. They have already found efficient ways to do the publishing and distribution (e.g. arXiv). Now they have to do the same for the more difficult task of peer-review. Until they do that any boycotts will be a futile game of pushing lumps and scientists will have to continue paying the market price for a commercial service.

That is my opinion, what do you think?

Update: John Baez has posted another follow-up discussing what else can be done to replace journals for peer-review. Apparently the life sciences are now ahead of maths and physics on this!


Peer Review 2.0

November 27, 2011

Peer review is an absolute necessity for recognizing good science and rejecting the false, but the traditional method of journal based peer review is not keeping up with modern needs. The more prestigious journals are more concerned with the potential a paper has to enhance their impact factor. With so many papers to choose from they can happily reject many, not because they are wrong but because they are not sufficiently mainstream to attract quick citations. When they do accept they place the final version behind a paywall and charge the taxpayers who funded it $30 to read each paper. Is this right?

Different areas of science have different needs and the resilience of journal based peer review can in part be attributed to its flexibility. The needs of maths and physics surpass what the journals offer and as a result the peer review process has been largely replaced by internal reviews, submission to open archives. Where work is more theoretical and speculative the journals do little to decide the validity. This is determined by citations, open discussions and further research leading eventually to experimental tests (we hope). But even here the journals have not disappeared. They remain because students and postdocs need the official stamp of approval that the journal offers in order to move to their next job. Can this role be replaced?

The role of open discussion on the web is surprisingly controversial. In a recent post I queried a response to a question put to Brian Cox and Jeff Foreshaw in the Guardian. They were basically saying that blogging about science that is not yet peer-reviewed undermines the system. a littler later there was a similar article in the Guardian itself in which astronomer Sarah Kendrew defends blogging. But Cox and Foreshaw are far from isolated in their opinion. A link from that article leads to an interesting story about a question in a course about “Responsible Conduct of Research”. The question was as follows:

A good alternative to the current peer review process would be web logs (BLOGS) where papers would be posted and reviewed by those who have an interest in the work, true or false?

The correct answer according to the course is false. Lose a point if you thought otherwise. Well it is indeed the case that blogs alone cannot replace the current peer review system, but they are becoming increasingly important in discussing and judging some questions. Could it be possible to construct a system of peer review based on open web-based appraisals that would replace the journals? Nearly a year and a half ago I asked this question and suggested that a system based on something like stack exchange might be possible. It would not be easy and one thing is clear: It would have to be backed by people with more clout and credibility than me.

Happily some people who do have that kind of clout are now starting to think of the same idea. In particular Tim Gowers has been asking similar questions for peer review in mathematics (see here and here) As we have seen above, such a system is likely to be highly controversial as well as difficult to put together effectively, but at least it is starting to be discussed by people who matter. Mathematics is an area where it might work most easily because correctness in mathematics is very cut-and-dried. This is one reason why MathOverflow has been so much more successful than Physics Stack Exchnge. But as I said earlier, journal based peer-review holds its place because it is so flexible. To replace it we need a web-based peer-review system that can work across all disciplines.

viXra log top 10 posts of 2010

December 30, 2010

10 – “crackpots” who were right: the conclusion

For part of the year I ran a series of posts about “crackpots who were right” . This was the conclusion and it made it to number 10. The series as a whole did very well but none of the other individual posts were as popular.

9 – Energy Is Conserved (the history)

I also had a short but popular series of posts about conservation of energy in general relativity in which I argued at length with a number of other physicists who thought otherwise. This included a nice equation that shows how energy conservation works in a standard cosmology, something that many people claimed was not possible.

In an additional post I debunked a claim by Lawrence Krauss that energy is zero only in a flat universe, a claim that he had used to debunk religion! Krauss graciously responded but sadly I could not draw him into a longer discussion.

8 – Suzy at Last?

With many posts about the Large Hadron Collider and progress on its commissioning, it was a good time to speculate about what it might soon find. Personally I favour supersymmetry although we now know that this year’s data has only served to constrain the allowed parameter space. It will be interesting to see what come up next year.

7 – Quark-Gluon plasma seen in proton collisions – maybe

The LHC did some heavy ion collisions at the end of the year with spectacular results but the post that had the most hits was one about the report that a quark gluon plasma may even have been seen in single proton collisions

6 – Duff, String Theory, Entanglement and Hyperdeterminants

An especially nice outcome of this post was that I got to have a pint with Mike Duff and his students and talk about M-theory and their work on relations with quantum information theory. This inspired my recent contribution to the FQXi essay contest.

5 – Horizon: Before the Big Bang

The BBC ran a program about various theories proposed by a number of high profile physicists about what existed before the big bang. It was a bit misleading and unbalanced since it ignored the fact that many cosmologists still think there was “no before”.

Some people don’t like these kind of highly speculative theories and think it is bad science, but I think you have to be prepared to think outside the box and see where it takes you so that in time the correct theory can be found. So on the whole I thought it was a good program.

4 – Concentric Circles in WMAP

I was the first to blog about the paper by Penrose and Gurzadyan who claimed to have found circles in the WMAP CMB data. This was later disputed by other cosmologists but I don’t think the matter is completely resolved. Perhaps the more detailed data from the Planck observatory will answer the question when it becomes available. An interesting aspect of this story was the fact that peer-review had no part in it. The paper submitted to the arXiv and underwent blog review. Do we still need the journals?

3 – Vinay Deolalikar says P ≠ NP

This was claimed proof of the well known mathematical problem that carries a million dollar price tag. Deolalikar is an independent mathematician who works for HP. They issued a press release about the discovery that got a lot of attention.   The validity of Mathematical proofs is easier to resolve than physics theories and in this case the proof was found wanting after heavy discussion on other blogs. Again the official peer review process was not needed. Although there were not many comments here the interest in this story was so high that it made it to number three.

2 – A Fields Medal for Ngô Bảo Châu

When the fields medals were announced I was one of the first to report the results. One field medallist in particular became a national hero in his home country of Vietnam and there was a lot of interest from there making this the second most popular post of the year, wow!

1 – The Anti-Crackpot Index

And finally the most popular post was appropriately my anti-crackpot index designed to counter the Baez crackpot index. I have a feeling that this one will continue to get hits for a very long time.