Archive for academic publishing

Academic Spring Time

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on April 11, 2012 by telescoper

Catching up on the last few days’ activity on the Twittersphere I realise that at last the Academic Journal Racket has made it into the mainstream media. The Guardian ran an article on Monday reporting that the Wellcome Trust had weighed in on the side of open access to academic journals, and followed this up with an editorial this morning. Here are the first two paragraphs.

Some very clever people have put up with a very silly system for far too long. That is the upshot of our reporting on scholarly journals this week. Academics not only provide the raw material, but also do the graft of the editing. What’s more, they typically do so without extra pay or even recognition – thanks to blind peer review. The publishers then bill the universities, to the tune of 10% of their block grants, for the privilege of accessing the fruits of their researchers’ toil. The individual academic is denied any hope of reaching an audience beyond university walls, and can even be barred from looking over their own published paper if their university does not stump up for the particular subscription in question.

This extraordinary racket is, at root, about the bewitching power of high-brow brands. Journals that published great research in the past are assumed to publish it still, and – to an extent – this expectation fulfils itself. To climb the career ladder academics must get into big-name publications, where their work will get cited more and be deemed to have more value in the philistine research evaluations which determine the flow of public funds. Thus they keep submitting to these pricey but mightily glorified magazines, and the system rolls on.

These are the points many academics, including myself, have been making for several years apparently with little success. What seems to be giving the campaign against the racketeers some focus is the boycott of rapacious publishing giant Elsevier I blogged about earlier this year, which was kicked off by mathematician and blogger Tim Gowers; the petition now has over 9300 signatures. Elsevier is one of the worst of the racketeers, which is deeply ironic. When Galileo, having been forced to recant by the Inquisition, wrote the Dialogues concerning Two New Sciences and got them published in non-Catholic Leiden, by Elsevier…

Elsevier has since withdrawn its support for the infamous Research Works Act, but I hope that doesn’t mean the campaign will dissipate. For the sake of the future of science, the whole system needs to be systematically dismantled and rebuilt free of parasites.

Today I see there’s a related piece in the Financial Times (although it’s blocked by a paywall) and I gather there has also been coverage on BBC Radio over the last few days, although I didn’t hear any of it because of my current location.

The fact that this issue  has garnered coverage  from the mainstream media is a very good thing. Academics have put up with being ripped off for far too long, and it’s to our shame that we haven’t done anything about it until now. Now I think the public will be asking how we could possibly have accepted the status quo and sheer embarrassment might force a change.

Another thing that we need to realise is the extent to which the Academic Journal Racket is feeding off the monster that is Research Assessment, specifically the upcoming Research Excellence Framework. The main beneficiaries of such exercises are not the researchers, but  the academic publishers who rake in the profits generated by the mountains of papers submitted to them in the hope that they’ll be judged “internationally leading” (whatever that means).  If the government is serious about Open Access then only papers that are freely available should be accepted by the REF. If that doesn’t shake up the system, nothing will!


Update on the Elsevier Affair…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on February 11, 2012 by telescoper

No time for a post of my own this morning, as I’m off to the department to help with a UCAS admissions visit day. I’ll take the opportunity, therefore, to point you towards mathematician Tim Gowers’ excellent blog for an update on the Elsevier boycott (and related issues) that I posted about a while ago.

P.S. At times like this I’m so grateful WordPress brought the “reblog” option back, although I’m not sure I like the new format…

Gowers's Weblog

A group of mathematicians have been putting together a statement that explains some of the background to, and reasons for, the Elsevier boycott. This statement, which has been signed by 34 mathematicians (we are confident that many more would be happy to endorse it, but we had to stop somewhere), is now ready for release. If you are interested in reading it, then click here.

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Planck Publications

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on December 2, 2011 by telescoper

I just noticed that a Special Issue of Astronomy and Astrophysics which contains the early science papers from Planck has now finally appeared, swelling a considerable number of personal bibliographies just in time for the next round of grant and/or job applications!

The thing is, though, that these papers were all placed on the arXiv in January 2011, so it has taken almost 11 months for them to get officially published. Such a delay seems ridiculous to me in this digital age.  I wonder why it took A&A  so long to publish these papers? Were they all held up by refereeing delays? Are the final published versions significantly different from the arXiv version? I’ve only looked at a few, and can’t see any major changes.

Or maybe this is all normal for A&A?

If you know, please tell…

Of course the main science results from Planck won’t be out until 2013. I wonder how long they’ll take to referee?

A Poll about Peer Review

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 13, 2011 by telescoper

Anxious not to let the momentum dissipate about the discussion of scientific publishing, I thought I’d try a quick poll to see what people think about the issue of peer review. In my earlier posts I’ve advanced the view that, at least in the subject I work in (astrophysics), peer review achieves very little. Given that it is also extremely expensive when done by traditional journals. I think it could be replaced by a kind of crowd-sourcing, in which papers are put on an open-access archive or repository of some sort, and can then be commented upon by the community and from where they can be cited by other researchers. If you like, a sort of “arXiv plus”. Good papers will attract attention, poor ones will disappear. Such a system also has the advantage of guaranteeing open public access to research papers (although not necessarily to submission, which would have to be restricted to registered users only).

However, this is all just my view and I have no idea really how strongly others rate  the current system of peer review. The following poll is not very scientific, but ‘ve tried to include a reasonably representative range of views from “everything’s OK – let’s keep the current system” to the radical suggestion I make above.

Of course, if you have other views about peer review or academic publishing generally, please feel free to post them through the comments box.

Science Publishing: What is to be done?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on September 10, 2011 by telescoper

The argument about academic publishing has been bubbling away nicely in the mainstream media and elsewhere in the blogosphere; see my recent post for links to some of the discussion elsewhere.

I’m not going to pretend that there’s a consensus amongst all scientists about this, but everything I’ve read has confirmed my rather hardline view, which is that in my field, astrophysics, academic journals are both unnecessary and unhealthy. I can certainly accept that in days gone by, perhaps up to around 1990, scientific journals provided the only means of disseminating research to the wider world. With the rise of the internet, that is no longer the case. Year after year we have been told that digital technologies would make scientific publishing cheaper. That has not happened. Journal subscriptions have risen faster than inflation for over a decade. Why is this happening? The answer is that we’re being ripped off. What began by providing a useful service has now become simply a parasite and, like most parasites, it is endangering the health of its subject.

The scale of the racket is revealed in an article I came across in Research Fortnight. Before I give you the figures let me explain that the UK Higher Education funding councils, such as HEFCE in England and HEFCW in Wales, award funding in a manner determined by the the quality of research going on in each department as judged by various research assessment exercises; this funding is called QR funding. Now listen to this. It is estimated that around 10 per cent of all QR funding in the UK goes into journal subscriptions. There is little enough money in science research these days for us to be paying a tithe of such proportions. This has to stop.

You might ask why such an obviously unsustainable situation carries on. I think there are two answers to this. One is the rise of the machinery of research assessment, which plays into the hands of the publishing industry. For submitted work to count in the Research Assessment Exercise (or its new incarnation, the Research Excellence Framework) it must be published in a refereed journal. Scientists who want to break the mould by publishing their papers some other way will be stamped on by our lords and masters who hold the purse strings. The whole system is invidious.

The second answer is even more discomforting. It is that many scientists actually like the current system. Each paper in a “prestigious” journal is another feather in your cap, another source of pride. It doesn’t matter if nobody reads any of them, ones published output is a measure of status. For far too many researchers gathering esteem by publishing in academic journals has become an end in itself. The system corrupts and has become corrupted. You can find similar comments in a piece in last week’s Guardian.

So what can be done? Well, I think that physics and astronomy can show the way forward. There is already a rudimentary yet highly effective prototype in place, called the arXiv. In many fields, including astronomy, all new papers are put on the arXiv, and these can be downloaded by anyone for free. Particle physics led the way towards the World Wide Web, an invention that has revolutionised so many things. It’s no coincidence that physicists are also ahead of the game on academic publishing too.

Of course it takes money to run the arXiv and that money is at the moment paid by contributions from universities that use it extensively. You might then argue that means the arXiv is just another journal, just one where the subscription cost is less obvious.

Perhaps that’s true, but then just take a look at the figures. The total running costs of the arXiv amount to just $400,000 per annum. That’s not just for astronomy but for a whole range of other branches of physics too, and not only new papers but a back catalogue going back at least 15 years.

There are about 40 UK universities doing physics research. If UK Physics had to sustain the costs of the arXiv on its own the cost would be an average of just $10,000 per department per annum. Spread the cost around the rest of the world, especially the USA, and the cost would be peanuts. Even $10,000 is less than most single physics journal subscriptions; indeed it’s not even 10 per cent of my departments annual budget for physics journals!

Whenever I’ve mentioned the arXiv to publishers they’ve generally dismissed it, arguing that it doesn’t have a “sustainable business plan”. Maybe not. But it is not the job of scientific researchers to support pointless commercial enterprises. We do the research. We write the papers. We assess their quality. Now we can publish them ourselves. Our research is funded by the taxpayer, so it should not be used to line the pockets of third parties.

I’m not saying the arXiv is perfect but, unlike traditional journals, it is, in my field anyway, indispensable. A little more investment, adding a comment facilities or a rating system along the lines of, e.g. reddit, and it would be better than anything we get academic publishers at a fraction of the cost. Reddit, in case you don’t know the site, allows readers to vote articles up or down according to their reaction to it. Restrict voting to registered users only and you have the core of a peer review system that involves en entire community rather than relying on the whim of one or two referees. Citations provide another measure in the longer term. Nowadays astronomical papers attract citations on the arXiv even before they appear in journals, but it still takes time for new research to incorporate older ideas.

Apparently, Research Libraries UK, a network of libraries of the Russell Group universities and national libraries, has already warned journal publishers Wiley and Elsevier that they will not renew subscriptions at current prices. If it were up to me I wouldn’t bother with a warning…


Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair — The Monbiot Rant (via The Scholarly Kitchen)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2011 by telescoper

I had to force myself to use the “Like” option on WordPress on this one, because that’s the only way to reblog posts….

This supercilious item is an attempt to counter a polemical piece in the Grauniad recently by George Monbiot. That article was about the extortionate cost and general uselessness of the so-called Learned Journals, i.e. precisely the Academic Journal Racket I’ve blogged about previously. I agree with most of what Monbiot says.

You can tell from the tone of the opening paragraph that this rejoinder doesn’t present a coherent argument because it launches straight into invective. And notice too that this from an academic publisher, so it’s hardly unbiased….

Nevertheless I thought I’d reblog this in the interest of balance. Indeed, if the best arguments for retaining the monstrous expense of “scholarly” journals are those presented here then it’s just a question of time before real scholars see them for what they are and get rid of them.

Come the revolution, next in line after the bankers….*

*For the benefit of the entirely humourless amongst you, let me stress that I am not advocating armed revolution, summary execution or any other form of violence against the academic publishing industry. This line is what we in my country call “a joke”.

Uninformed, Unhinged, and Unfair -- The Monbiot Rant I tried to ignore it. It deserved to be ignored — an ill-informed activist with academic aspirations using the Guardian as a pulpit to deliver a tiresome sermon filled with intentional misunderstandings, misinformation, and misapprehensions about academic publishing. It deserved to be ignored. Predictably, it caught fire in the blogosphere, on Twitter, and on Facebook. And now I feel compelled to jump into the fray. After all, the only coherent … Read More

via The Scholarly Kitchen

Dissembling Nature

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 16, 2011 by telescoper

Interesting that the Journal Nature is introducing a registration wall for its News pages. These pages have previously been free and, we’re told, will remain so. However, in order to access them one will now have to give a name and email address.

I heard about this On Wednesday (13th July) on  Twitter (via @NatureNews):

OK, we’ve got some news that may annoy: @NatureNews is going to start requiring registration to view some of our free news stories. (1/2)

Don’t panic! All the news is still free. We’re just going to ask for a name and an email. (2/2)

(For those of you not among the Twitterati I should point out that messages on Twitter have to be less than 140 characters long, hence the use of two tweets in this case).

My immediate reaction – and that of manyof my colleagues – is that this looks very much like the strategy pursued by the Times online edition. First introduce registration, then shortly afterwards turn it into a paywall. In the meantime can collect all the email addresses in order to send marketing spam to those who have registered.

I inquired as to what they were planning to do with the email addresses they would be harvesting in this way, but didn’t get a satisfactory reply. Then I received a message from another branch of the Nature twitter operation, @npgnews:

@telescoper Hi Peter. Thanks for your comments. We’re about to send a series of tweets in response to Nature News registration.

Being a reserved British type I was a bit annoyed by the  “Hi Peter”  from someone I don’t know and have never spoken to before, but didn’t respond. Instead I waited with baited breath for the in-depth explanation of what Nature is going to do. Eventually it came, in three tweets:

Thx for your comments about the Nature News registration system. We’re asking all readers to introduce themselves by registering once (1/3)

Registration enables free access to the Nature News content, which remains unchanged. (2/3)

We’re working hard to expand and introduce more tailored services for readers and registration is necessary for that (3/3)

To say I found this disappointing would be an understatement. What a load of flannel. Note the word “enables” in Tweet No. 2. Free access was previously enabled to everyone, but is apparently to be disabled in order to facilitate the collection of user data for some unspecified purpose. Tweet No. 3 is a masterpiece of non sequitur. Why does expansion of Nature News require a database of email addresses? And what can “more tailored services” mean other than restricting access? Needless to say, I won’t be registering. There are other plenty of other sources of science information

Nature is of course a business operation, and you have to see this move against the wider backdrop of traditional publishing companies trying to find the way forward in the digital age. As a commercial enterprise, they are entitled to charge customers, although I wish they would be a little more honest about their intention to do so. I would remind them however, that The Times‘ paywall has been an unmitigated disaster, in terms of the negative an effect it has had on the readership figures. Given the revelations of the past weeks about the behaviour of News International, I bet people who were foolish enough to register are now wondering who has their personal information now. Will Nature News go the same way?

More importantly, however, as a scientist, I think that Nature’s policy of copyrighting and restricting general access to scientific papers is fundamentally wrong and is actively damaging science. I believe that scientific results should be in the public domain, as should the data on which they are based. Open access is the way it should be. In the past, publishers greatly assisted in the dissemination of research both between academics and to the public. Now, I’m afraid, the academic publishing industry is simply parasitic, and it is a threat to the health of scientific research. Fortunately, I don’t think a drastic remedy is needed; it will wither away on it’s own. Let’s just let Nature take its course.