Thursday, October 12, 2017

Q&A with PLOS co-founder Michael Eisen

Last month I suggested on Twitter that the open access movement has delayed the revolution in scholarly communication that the internet made possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my tweet attracted some pushback from OA advocates, not least from Michael Eisen, co-founder of open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS).
Photo: CC BY 4.0; Source here
Eisen objected strongly to my assertion and later complained that I was not willing to engage with him to defend what I had said. For my part, I did not feel it was possible to debate the issue adequately on Twitter, so we agreed to do a follow-up to our 2012 Q&A

Last week, therefore, I emailed Eisen a Word document explaining why I had made the assertion I had, and posing 14 questions for him. I published the explanation here yesterday.

The first question in the list I sent to Eisen was: “How would you describe the way the OA movement has developed, and the impact it has had on scholarly communication? Why do you disagree that the movement has delayed open access? What is the movement’s current status and potential? What needs to be done to ensure the revolution takes place sooner rather than later?”

Eisen did not respond to this first question, I assume because he felt that his answers to the other questions addressed the points. He did, however, answer all the other questions, which I publish below.

For anyone who might not be aware, PLOS started out as an OA advocacy group, and in 2000 launched an online petition calling on scientists to pledge that they would discontinue submitting papers to journals that did not make the full text of their papers freely available (either immediately or after a delay of no more than 6 months). The petition attracted tens of thousands of signatures, but few of the signatories changed their behaviour.

In 2003, therefore, PLOS reinvented itself as an OA publisher and began to launch its own journals. Since then it has become a significant presence in the scholarly communication world.

Eisen, an evolutionary biologist who studies flies at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founded PLOS with former director of the US National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus and biochemist Pat Brown. Eisen is still on the PLOS Board.

Earlier this year Eisen announced his intention to run for the United States Senate. 

The interview begins …


RP: OA advocates have long maintained that pay-to-publish gold OA will create a “true” market for scholarly communication, something the subscription model never has. As a result, they argue, the price of scholarly communication will start to fall with OA, thereby solving the affordability problem. I believe this was your view too. In 2012, for instance, you pointed out on my blog that the subscription model creates a “disconnect between the people making the decision about where to publish and the people who pay the subscription bills. This means that there is very little effect on author demand if prices go up.” You added that this inefficiency is “absent from gold OA.” Have your views on this changed in any way in the past 5 years? Do you expect pay-to-publish gold OA to eventually exert downward pressure on prices? (Contrary to Elsevier’s view that “average APCs would need to rise to fund the infrastructure currently paid for via the 80 percent of articles [still] published under the subscription model”).

ME: I still believe a service model for publishing creates a better market than the subscription model for the reasons outlined above. But it’s clearly not working as well as I would like it to. Prices have not dropped, nor seem likely to in the near future. You can point to several reasons.

·       people aren’t really paying for a service, they’re paying for a brand, and the brand value of something like “Nature” swamps the actual cost of the service so it’s not really a sane market

·       costs haven’t really dropped – publishing software still sucks and is expensive and the whole process requires far too much human intervention

·       costs have been externalized again through deals to pay for pay charges

Even with all this being true everything’s still better if we have a world with universal APCs than one with universal subscriptions since material is no longer paywalled. But the market advantages of APCs have yet to be realized.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Has the open access movement delayed the revolution?

Last month I posted a couple of tweets that attracted some pushback from OA advocates. In the process I was accused of being a species of “Russian troll bot”, of having an unspecified “other agenda”, and then told that unless I was willing to engage in “constructive discussion” I should pipe down.

Amongst those to object to my tweets was PLOS co-founder, and feisty OA advocate, Michael Eisen (see below). 

Evidently dissatisfied with my responses, Eisen declared that it was silly to make inflammatory statements on Twitter and then say that the platform is a bad place for discussions. However, after a few rounds of back and forth with my critics, I had concluded that it was not going to be possible to debate the matter in short bursts without ending up simply swapping insults. So, I proposed to Eisen that we do a follow up to the Q&A we had done in 2012.

Eisen agreed, and last week I emailed him the text below by way of explanation as to why I had made the comments I had, along with a number of questions for him to answer. I plan to publish Eisen’s answers in the next couple of days. (Now available here).

What sparked the disagreement? It began when I tweeted a link to a confessional interview that Leslie Chan had given on the OCSDnet website. Amongst other things, Chan conceded that he had, over the years, given a lot of bad advice about open access.

In posting a link to the interview I commented, “I wish all OA advocates could be this honest, rather than repeating out-dated mantras & promoting failed approaches.” 

By way of background, Chan was (with Eisen) one of the small group of people who attended the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) meeting in 2002. It was from that meeting that the term open access emerged, and BOAI is viewed as the moment the OA movement came into being. As such, Chan’s confession seemed to me to be a significant moment, not least because it was made with more candour than I have come to expect from OA advocates.

OA advocate Stephen Curry responded to my initial tweet by saying, “Also true that OA has stimulated many to think seriously about & challenge current practices around research evaluation. Myself included.” To this I replied, “To some extent, I agree. But I would phrase it this way: the internet made a revolution possible, open access has delayed that revolution.”

Eisen denounced my comment as “one of the most ridiculous, misguided, and frankly ignorant statements about scholarly publishing ever.

Anyway, below is why I said what I did in those tweets.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Open Access Interviews: Justin Flatt on the Self-Citation Index


In a recently published paper, Justin Flatt and his two co-authors proposed the creation of the Self-Citation Index, or s-index. The purpose of the s-index would be to measure how often a scientist cites their own work. This is desirable the authors believe because current incentive systems tend to encourage researchers to cite their own works excessively.

In other words, since the number of citations a researcher’s works receive enhances his/her reputation there is a temptation to add superfluous self-citations to articles. This boosts the authorh-index – the author-level metric now widely used as a measure of researcher productivity.

Amongst other things, excessive self-citation gives those who engage in it an unfair advantage over more principled researchers, an advantage moreover that grows over time: a 2007 paper estimated that every self-citation increases the number of citations from others by about one after one year, and by about three after five years. This creates unjustified differences in researcher profiles.

Since women self-cite less frequently than men, they are put at a particular disadvantage. A 2006 paper found that men are between 50 and 70 per cent more likely than women to cite their own work.

In addition to unfairly enhancing less principled researchers’ reputation, say the paper’s authors, excessive self-citation is likely to have an impact on the scholarly record, since it has the effect of “diminishing the connectivity and usefulness of scientific communications, especially in the face of publication overload”?

None of this should surprise us. In an academic environment now saturated with what Lisa Mckenzie has called “metrics, scores and a false prestige”, Campbell’s Law inevitably comes into play. This states that “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

Or as Goodhart’s Law more succinctly puts it, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

However, academia’s obsession with metrics, measures, and monitoring is not going to go away anytime soon. Consequently, the challenge is to try and prevent or mitigate the inevitable gaming that takes place – which is what the s-index would attempt to do. In fact, there have been previous suggestions of ways to detect possible manipulation of the h-index – a 2011 paper, for instance, mooted a “q-index”.

It is also known that journals will try and game the Impact Factor. Editors may insist, for instance, that authors include superfluous citations to other papers in the same journal. This is a different type of self-citation and sometimes leads to journals being suspended from the Journal Citation Reports (JCR).

But we need to note that while the s-index is an interesting idea it would not be able to prevent self-citation. Nor would it distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate self-citations. Rather, says Flatt, it would make excessive self-citation more transparent (some self-citing is, of course, both appropriate and necessary). This, he believes, would shame researchers into restraining inappropriate self-citing urges, and help the research community to develop norms of acceptable behaviour.

Openness and transparency


However, any plans to create and manage a researcher-led s-index face a practical challenge: much of the data that would be needed to do so are currently imprisoned behind paywalls – notably behind the paywalls of the Web of Science and Scopus. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Open Access Interviews: Rusty Speidel, The Center for Open Science

The Center for Open Science (COS) has announced today that six new preprint services have launched using COS’ preprints platform, taking the number of such services to 14. 

The announcement comes at a time when we are seeing a rising tide of preprint servers being launched, both by for-profit and non-profit organisations – a development all the more remarkable given scholarly publishers’ historic opposition to preprint servers. Indeed, so antagonistic to such services have publishers been that until recently they were often able to stop them in their tracks. 

In 1999, for instance, fierce opposition to the E-BIOMED proposal mooted by the then director of the US National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus caused it to be stillborn.  

Publisher opposition also managed to bring to a halt an earlier initiative spearheaded by NIH administrator Errett Albritton. In the early 1960s, Albritton set up a series of Information Exchange Groups in different research areas to allow “memos” (documents) to be mutually shared. Many of these memos were preprints of papers later published in journals.

Albritton’s project was greeted with angry complaints and editorials from publishers – including one from Nature decrying what it called the “inaccessibility, impermanence, illiteracy, uneven equality [quality?], and lack of considered judgment” of the documents being shared via “Dr Allbritton’s print shop”. The death knell came in late 1966 when 13 biochemistry journals barred submissions of papers that had been shared as IEG memos.

Seen in this light, the physics preprint server arXiv, created in 1991 and now hugely popular, would appear to be an outlier.

The year the tide turned


But over the last five years or so, something significant seems to have changed. And the year the tide really turned was surely 2013. In February of that year, for instance, for-profit PeerJ launched a preprint service called PeerJ Preprints

And later that year, non-profit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) launched a preprint server for the biological sciences called bioRxivRather than opposing bioRxiv, a number of biology journals responded by changing their policies on preprints, indicating that they do not now consider preprints to be a “prior publication”, and thus not subject to the Ingelfinger rule (which states that findings previously published elsewhere, in other media or in other journals, cannot be accepted). Elsewhere, a growing number of funders are changing their policies on the use of preprints, and now encouraging their use.

This has allowed bioRxiv to go from strength to strength. As of today, over 14,000 papers have been accepted by the preprint server, and growth appears to be exponential: the number of monthly submissions grew from more than 810 this March to more than 1,000 in July.

But perhaps the most interesting development of 2013 was the founding of the non-profit Center for Open Science. With funding from, amongst others, the philanthropic organisations The Laura and John Arnold Foundation and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, COS is building a range of services designed “to increase openness, integrity, and reproducibility of scientific research”.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

The State of Open Access: Some New Data

A preprint posted on PeerJ yesterday offers some new insight into the number of articles now available on an open-access basis. 

The new study is different to previous ones in a number of ways, not least because it includes data from users of Unpaywall, a browser plug-in that identifies papers that researchers are looking for, and then checks to see whether the papers are available for free anywhere on the Web. 

Unpaywall is based on oaDOIa tool that scours the web for open-access full-text versions of journal articles.

Both tools were developed by Impactstory, a non-profit focused on open-access issues in science. Two of the authors of the PeerJ preprint  Heather Piwowar and Jason Priem – founded Impactstory. They also wrote the Unpaywall and oaDOI software.

The paper – which is called The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles – reports that 28% of the scholarly literature (19 million articles) is now OA, and growing, and that for recent articles the percentage available as OA rises to 45%.

The study authors say they also found that OA articles receive 18% more citations than average. 

In addition, the authors report on what they describe as a previously under-discussed phenomenon of open access  Bronze OA. This refers to articles that are made free-to-read on the publishers website without an explicit open licence. 

Below I publish a Q&A with Heather Piwowar about the study. 

Note: my questions were based on an earlier version of the article I saw, and a couple of the quotes I cite were changed in the final version of the paper. Nevertheless, all the questions and the answers remain relevant and useful so I have not changed any of the questions.

The interview


RP: What is new and different about your study? Do you feel it is more accurate than previous studies that have sought to estimate how much of the literature is OA, or is it just another shot at trying to do that?

HP: Our study has a few important differences:

·       We look at a broader range of the literature than previous studies and go further back (to pre-1950 articles), we look at more articles (all of Crossref, not just all of Scopus or Web of Science – Crossref has twice the number of articles that Scopus has), and we take a larger sample than most other studies. That’s because we classify OA status algorithmically, rather than relying on manual classification. This allowed us to sample 300k articles, rather than a few hundred as many OA studies have done. So, our sample is more accurate than most; and more generalizable as well.

·       We undertook a more detailed categorization of OA. We looked not just at Green and Gold OA, but also Hybrid, and a new category we call Bronze OA. Many other studies (including the most comparable to ours, the European Commission report you mention below) do not bring out all these categories specifically. (I will say more on that below). Furthermore, we didn’t include Academic Social Networks. Mixing those with publisher-hosted free-to-read content makes the results less useful to policy makers.

·       Our data and our methods are open, for anyone to use and build upon. Again, this is a big difference from the Archambault et al. study (that is, the one commissioned by the European Commission) and we think it is an important difference.

·       We include data from Unpaywall users, which allows us to get a sense of how much of the literature is OA from the perspective of actual readers. Readers massively favour newer articles, for instance, which is good news because such articles are more likely to be OA. By sampling actual reader data, from people using an OA tool that anyone can install, we can report OA percentages that are more realistic and useful for many real-world policy issues.

RP: You estimate that at least 28% of the scholarly literature is open access today. OA advocates tend nowadays to cite the earlier European Commission report which, the EU claims, indicates that back in 2011 nearly 50% of papers were OA. Was the EU study an overestimate in your view, or has there been a step backwards?

HP: Their 50% estimate was of recent papers, and included papers posted to ResearchGate (RG) and Academia.edu as open access. Our 28% estimate is for all journal articles, going back to 1900 – everything with a DOI. We found 45% OA for recent articles, and that’s excluding RG and Academia. So, they are pretty similar estimates.

RP: In fact, you came up with a number of different percentages. Can you explain the differences between these figures, why it is important to make these distinctions, and what the implications of the different figures are?

HP: There are two summary percentages: 28% OA for all journal articles, and 47% OA for journal articles that people read. As I noted, people read more recent articles, and more recent articles are more likely to be OA, so it turns out that almost half of the papers people are interested in reading right now are actually OA. Which is really cool!

Actually, when you consider that we used automated methods that missed a bit of OA it is more than half, so the 47% is a lower bound.

RP: You coin a new definition of open access in your paper, what you call Bronze OA. Can you say something about Bronze OA and its implications? It seems to me, for instance, that a lot of papers (over half?) currently available as open access are vulnerable to losing their OA status. Is that right? If so, what can be done to mitigate the problem?

HP: Yes, we did think we were coining a new term. But this morning I learned we weren’t the first to use the term Bronze OA – that honour goes to Ged Ridgway, who posted the tweet below in 2014


I guess it’s a case of Great Minds Think Alike!

Our definition of Bronze OA is the same as Ged’s: articles made free-to-read on the publisher’s website, without an explicit open license. This includes Delayed OA and promotional material like newsworthy articles that the publishers have chosen to make free but not open.

It also includes a surprising number of articles (perhaps as much as half of the Bronze total, based on a very preliminary sample) from entirely free-to-read journals that are not listed in DOAJ and do not publish content under an open license. Opinions will differ on whether these are properly called “Gold OA” journals/articles; in the paper, we suggest they might be called “Dark Gold” (because they are hard to find in OA indexes) or “Hidden Gold.” We are keen to see more research on this. 

More research is also needed to understand the other characteristics of Bronze OA. Is it disproportionately non-peer-reviewed content (e.g. front-matter), as seems likely? How much of Bronze OA is also Delayed OA? How much Bronze is Promotional, and how transient is the free-to-read status of this content? How many Bronze articles are published in “hidden gold” journals that are not listed in the DOAJ? Why are these journals not defining an explicit license for their content, and are there effective ways to encourage them to do so?

This kind of follow-up research is needed before we can understand the risks associated with Bronze and what kind of mitigation would be helpful.

RP: You say in your paper, “About 7% of the literature (and 17% of the OA literature) is Green, and this number does not seem to be growing at the rate of Gold and Hybrid OA.” You also suspect that much of this green OA is “backfilling” repositories with older articles, which are generally viewed as being of less value. What happened to the OA dream articulated by Stevan Harnad in 1994, and what future do you predict for green OA going forward?

HP: First, I should clarify: our definition of Green OA for the purposes of the study is that a paper is in a repository and is not available for free on the publisher site. This is so we don’t double count articles as both Green and Gold (or Hybrid or Bronze) for our analysis.

We gave publisher-hosted locations the priority in our classifications because we suspect most people would rather read papers there. So, in our article when we say green OA isn’t growing, what we mean is that more recent papers that are only available in repositories are available as Green OA at roughly the same rate as older papers.

It is worth future study to understand this better. I have a suspicion: perhaps much of what would have been Green OA became Bronze and what we call “shadowed green” – where there is a copy in a repository and a freely available copy on the publisher’s site as well. I suspect publishers responded to funder mandates that require self-archiving by making the paper free on the publisher sites as well, in synchronized timing.

Specifically, Biomed doesn’t look like it has as much Green as I’d expect, given the success of the NIH mandate and the number of articles in PMC. We do know many biomed journals have Delayed OA policies, which we categorized as Bronze in our analysis. Did they implement these Delayed OA policies in response to the PMC mandates? Perhaps others already know this to be true... I haven’t had a chance to look it up. Anyway. I think the interplay between Green and Bronze is especially worth more exploration.

We do also report on all the articles that are deposited in repositories, Green plus shadowed green, in the article’s Appendices. We found the proportion of the literature that is deposited in repositories to be higher for recent publication years.

One final note: We actually changed the sentence that you quoted in the final version of our paper, because we were wrong to talk about “growing” as we did. Our study didn’t measure when articles were deposited in repositories, but just looked at their publication year. Other studies have demonstrated that people often upload papers from earlier years, a practice called backfilling.

I suppose in some ways these have less value, because they are read less often. That said, anyone who really needs a particular paper and doesn’t otherwise have access to it is surely happy to find it.

RP: You also looked at the so-called citation advantage and estimate that an OA article is likely to attract 18% more citations than average. The citation advantage is a controversial topic. I don’t want to appear too cynical, but is not the idea of trying to demonstrate a citation advantage more an advocacy tool than a meaningful notion. I note, for instance, that Academia.edu has claimed that posting papers to its network provides a 73% citation advantage. Surely the real point here is that if all papers were open access there would be no advantage to open access from a citation point of view?

HP: That’s true! And that’s the world I’d love to see – one where the citation playing field is flat, because everyone can read everything.

RP: What would you say were the implications of your study for the research community, for librarians, for publishers and for open access policies?

HP: For the research community: Install Unpaywall! You’ll be able to read half the literature for free. Self-archive your papers, or publish OA.

For OA/bibliometrics researchers: Build on our open data and code, let’s learn more about OA and where it’s going.

For librarians: Use this data to negotiate with publishers: Half the literature is free. Don’t pay full price for it.

For publishers: Half the literature is now free to read. That percentage is growing. You don’t need a weathervane to know which way the wind blows: long term, there’s no money in selling things that people can get for free. Flip your journals. Sell services to authors, not access to content – it’s an increasingly smart business decision, as well as the Right Thing To Do.

For open access policy makers: We need to understand more about Bronze. Bronze OA doesn’t safeguard a paper’s free-to-read status, and it isn’t licensed for reuse. This isn’t good enough for the noble and useful content that is Scholarly Research. Also: let’s accelerate the growth.

You didn’t ask about tool developers. An increasing number of people are making tools that they can integrate OA into. They should use the oaDOI service. Now that such a large chunk of the literature is free, there are a lot of really transformative things we can build and do – in terms of knowledge extraction, indexing, search, recommendation, machine learning etc.

RP: OA was at the beginning as much (in fact more) about affordability as about access (certainly from the perspective of librarians). I note the recently published analysis of the RCUK open access policy reports that the average APC paid by RCUK rose by 14% between 2014 and 2016, and that the increase was greater for those publishers below the top 10 (who are presumably focused on catching up with their larger competitors). Likewise, the various flipping deals we are seeing emerge are focused on no more than transferring costs from subscriptions to APCs, with no realistic expectation of prices falling in the future. If the research community could not afford the subscription system (which OA advocates have always maintained) how can it afford open access in the long-term?

HP: If the rising APCs are because small publishers are catching up with the leaders by raising prices, that won’t continue forever – they’ll catch up. Then it’ll work like other competitive marketplaces.

The main issue is freeing up the money that is currently spent on subscriptions. We think studies like this, and tools like Unpaywall, can be helpful in lowering subscription rates, and foregoing Big Deals, as libraries are increasingly doing.

RP: As you say, in your study you ignored social networking sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate “in accordance with an emerging consensus from the OA community, and based largely on concerns about long-term persistence and copyright compliance.” And you also say, “The growing proportion of OA, along with its increased availability using tools like oaDOI and Unpaywall, may make toll-access publishing increasingly unprofitable, and encourage publishers to flip to Gold OA models.” I am wondering, however, if it is not more likely that sites like Academia.edu (which researchers much prefer to use than paying to publish or depositing in their repository) and Sci-Hub (which is said to contain most of the scientific literature now) will be the trigger that will finally force legacy publishers to flip their journals to open access, whatever one’s views on the copyright issues Would you agree?

HP: It won’t be any one trigger, but rather an increasingly inhospitable environment. Sci-Hub is a huge contributor to that, and Academic Social Networks are too. Unpaywall opens up another front: a best-practice, legal approach to bypassing paywalls that librarians and others can unabashedly recommend. It all combines to make it easier and more profitable for publishers to flip, and for the future to be OA.

RP: Thank you for answering my questions.

Monday, July 17, 2017

On sponsorship, transparency, scholarly publishing, and open access

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The essay can be accessed as a pdf file here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Open Access Interviews: Jutta Haider

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

The OA interviews: Philip Cohen, founder of SocArXiv

(A print version of this interview is available here)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope springs eternal


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

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

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

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

Reproducibility crisis


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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