Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Open access science

Far from being an ivory tower, nowadays science looks more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of Orcs.  It doesn't help that scientists don't seem to understand that the public has a right to have access to the results of the research work performed with their tax money. We need to make science more open if we want to be ablet to act on the knowledge that science is producing (image credit "crossbow and catapults")

In the 1990s, when the Internet was young, I had the idea of an "open access journal" in what was my scientific field at the time: surface science. The idea was that scientific research is paid by the public and that, therefore, the results of scientific research have to be freely accessible to the public. So, together with a few colleagues, we started an Internet site called "The Surface Science Forum" which made research papers in surface science freely available on the Web.

It was not a success. The "Surface science forum" survived for a few years, but it never had a real impact. In 2000, I was moving to a different field and I decided to close the forum. If you are curious, you can still find it here.

But the problems with scientific publishing that the Surface Science Forum had tried to address are still there and, with time, are becoming more and more serious. Not long ago, George Monbiot gave a good description of these problems in an article on "The Guardian" He says:

Distrust [in science] has been multiplied by the publishers of scientific journals, whose monopolistic practices make the supermarkets look like angels, and which are long overdue for a referral to the Competition Commission. They pay nothing for most of the material they publish, yet, unless you are attached to an academic institute, they'll charge you £20 or more for access to a single article. In some cases they charge libraries tens of thousands for an annual subscription. If scientists want people at least to try to understand their work, they should raise a full-scale revolt against the journals that publish them. It is no longer acceptable for the guardians of knowledge to behave like 19th-century gamekeepers, chasing the proles out of the grand estates.

What Monbiot says is true: in giving the results of their work to publishers for free, scientists are exploited as if they were seasonal fruit pickers. Of course, there would be nothing wrong in this practice if the money paid for accessing scientific papers were to go to finance research or to pay for services useful for research. But that's not the case. Commercial publishers don't finance research and they face very modest costs for their activity. Peer reviewing, for instance, is performed by scientists for free (again!).

Scientists are not supposed to be dumb and, normally, they aren't. This behavior of theirs is the result of a specific factor: the fact that scientific papers are a sort of "currency" in the world of science. Money, as well known, is nothing but credit and, for scientists, each paper is a form of credit that can be later redeemed in terms of career advancement, grants, academic positions and the like. It is "money", in short.

Scientific publishers have managed to act as "banks" for this scientific currency. As banks, they guarantee the value of the currency they manage; actually they create it in the form of published papers that they stamp with their seal of quality, just as Roman Emperors stamped their denarius coins with their face.

So, it is understandable that scientists don't want to see their currency debased. For them, publishing outside the system is the equivalent of printing counterfeited money. It is not only valueless, it may actually have a negative value, damaging the scientist's reputation. for instance, in some quarters, keeping a blog is considered as a blot on a scientist's reputation. That was the attitude that had doomed the "Surface Science Forum" and which is still the prevalent one in science.

But times are rapidly changing. Once, science might have been seen as an ivory tower, able to keep its own currency.  Now, it looks more and more like a battered citadel besieged by an army of orcs with catapults. The situation is especially bad with climate science, object of political spin campaigns designed to destroy the reputation of individual scientists as well as of the whole field. The public tends to ask science for miracle solutions to our problems and people are disappointed when told that there is none. Disappointed people tend to become aggressive, as you can see, as an example, in some comments on the recent case of the E-Cat scam. In this situation, the traditional methods of scientific publishing are not going to enhance the prestige of science.

Fortunately, scientists seem to be discovering that they can't stick to the old ways any longer. After all, the quality of a paper doesn't reside on the seal of a commercial editor, it is guaranteed by the peer reviewing process. And scientists are doing peer reviewing, not editors. So, scientists tend to publish more and more in "open access journals", which just didn't exist up to not long ago. There is now an "open science movement", and a movement to boycott Elsevier, singled out among the many scientific editors as an especially bad one.

Is all that enough? Surely, these are positive developments, but we must do more. Science is not an ivory tower and not even a besieged citadel. It is an enterprise designed to produce knowledge and we badly need this knowledge in this difficult moment. It is not enough to make this knowledge available to those who paid for it, we must also strive to make it understandable to those who can act on it. How to do it? Well, there are many ways. For a start, if you are a scientist, why don't you keep a blog?

On the question of open access, see also this article on the New York Times (h/t Bart Anderson)


  1. There has been a spate of articles of late in which the authors describe a serious level of Fukushima contamination somewhere, say, Texas or Nagasaki. The public (including pregnant mothers and parents of small children) is hearing of these articles second-hand from those with subscriptions, and some are wondering aloud why they were not told of the contamination at the time, rather than ten months after the fact. And it turns out this has to do with the "currency" -- one's work must go through the traditional channels and make money for the publishers, otherwise it does not help advance one's career. I, among others, see moral implications for the scientists in this instance, and not just the publishers. If they don't see something here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_access that meets their needs, they are going to have to learn to do some blogging, then.

  2. The way science is published is a disgrace. Major publishers like Elsevier make higher margins than Coca-Cola.

    At the same time there is more or less fraudulent activity going on through suppression of data.

    See the British Medical Journal's first edition of this year about widespread suppression of data from pharmacological research. Unfortunately their case is weakened by it being behind a pay-wall! But read this account of it for example:

    Krumholz HM (2012) Missing Data: The Elephant That’s Not in the Room. http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhusten/2012/01/04/missing-data-the-elephant-thats-not-in-the-room-guest-post/

    I've just been doing a review of jatropha- I believe something similar is happening there i.e. that scientific information is not getting to investors who simply believe what biofuel companies are telling them - and are losing their shirts.

    Science is being squeezed and suppressed by business - many scientists are afraid to speak out because they depend on them for funding.

    1. Whilst I welcome the move to more open access journals and books, this is not without its attendant difficulties.

      There are costs involved over and above that of the time academics take in preparing papers, peer-view and running Web-publishing facilities.

      You are not going to be able to do away with the editor or editorial board.
      You are going to have to manage these facilities in a way that a librarian does, cataloguing, indexing and preserving. Preserving in particular is a non-trivial task for information held on electronic media.
      You are very likely be best advised to make a printed copies that can be preserved for the future unless you can guarantee the Internet will survive.

      Incidentally, it is a long time since I picked up a chemistry journal published by Elsevier, but the ones I remember were published using very high quality glossy paper, i.e expensive.

    2. Well, Mike, about printing on glossy paper I can tell you a little story. After that the Soviet Union fell, in the 1990s, I went many times to Russia and I discovered that Soviet journals were usually printed on poor quality paper. Another thing that happened after the fall was that there was a great dearth of toilet paper and so......

      Seriously, about your observations, it is true that life is much easier if you have an editor who helps you with the nitty-gritty; you know, proofreading, typesetting, all that. Doing all that alone is a lot of work and none of us is a professional. But in my experience editors have been cutting corners everywhere they could. The last text I published was proof-read by an Indian lady in Bombay. Very nice lady by all means but, if you think about that, the final result has been a text in English written by an Italian and corrected by an Indian. Maybe not so close to perfection. But, al rit, I speek goud Engrish of cours.

  3. Scientific Associations as well as public funders of research need to look more closely at this subject and take some responsiblity for the science carried out or published (or not published) under their name. I was increasingly dismayed 15 or 20 years ago when science for Crop Breeding became increasingly proprietary - literally hidden within very large expert Corporations, and almost like operations of Banks with the connivance of government civil services under "commercial in confidence".

    In the old days substantial paper books with small production numbers could justify hefty subscription. Our public library system though in UK allowed low cost paper reprints (now for a much higher cost but still well below on-line purchase). I have found that many authors will send me an author's copy' pdf after a genuine request for study on my part. This has been specially useful in medical research relevant to a Heart Support group that I belong to.

    Something more than the following example of 'guerilla' opportunism is what is required, but I found a way round some very recent Elsevier publication of articles mostly relevant to this Blog.
    Not all the papers were publicly funded but they represent open collaborative and accountable enquiry, with editorial control by reputable scientists. "7th Biennial International Workshop “Advances in Energy Studies”.
    My 'free copies' had to be obtained by a circuitous route, it has to be said.
    The pdf 'purchase' option per article was 'upfront' for $35.95 via regular in-journal search .
    I went for the journal "sample copy" online and reached
    Then clicked on 'show preview', then scrolled down to 'Introduction' (or first heading) and clicked on that.
    That brought up the whole articles. I then used 'select all' for an individal article of interest and copied and pasted to a Word document for my own study.
    Worth doing, but not I guess intended by the publisher?
    I don't know the copyright position.

    1. Well, Phil, many of us remember the time when it was all paper - no internet. When I was a student, there were little pre-printed cards with requests: "Dear colleague, I would greatly appreciate receiving a reprint of your paper....." We can still do that, via the Web. For instance, my university has basically no subscriptions to climate science journals. Every time I want to read a climate science paper I have to ask to the authors. They are always very kind but I feel poor and the whole thing is absurd. As I say in my post, we pay for the research with our tax money, we have a right to access the results

  4. Most publishers allow prepints to be made open access (with some minor obligations). In effect, it seems to me that publishing houses are migrating towards being special purpose search engines, with enhanced content (like raw data, movies of results etc.), and the pricing of the service might change accordingly. As you implied Ugo in your post, the internet as a route for scientific dissemination is a decade or so old, compared to a few centuries for print journals. In short, I think that the issue of open access will resolve itself in time.

    On the issue of making the *meaning* of our work accessible, surely there might be a lesson from Cassandra here: if you try to make the important conclusion too simple and hard hitting ("the horse is dangerous"), without the totality of subtle and complex reasoning (" the horse is hollow and full of 23 bad guys who will wait until we're all asleep before emerging and signalling their ships") you risk not being properly understood. However, there is a middle ground between some of the very esoteric language of our scientific discourse and sound bites. The problem lies in finding the balance.

  5. the problem with open access is that it actually means that the author has to pay the journal for publishing. i think this creates an obvious moral hazard for the journal. also researchers with very little funds (3rd world...) are not able to publish. here is a good summary from math point of view



    1. Well, Jukka, in principle you are right, but you are tackling the wrong problem, or so it seems to me. In terms of cost, a researcher is already paying the costs of publication; hidden in the overhead which is used to pay the subscriptions to journals by the university library. Open access journals only make these costs visible. And, for a third world researcher (and I am fast becoming one!) the big, big, problem is to access international research reports when your library can't afford (any more, as in my case) subscriptions to the best journals.

      Finally, in terms of "moral hazard", the worst that can happen with pay-per-publication is that some bad papers get published. It happens already a-plenty. The real moral hazard in research is not with the very minor cost of publishing, but with accepting research grants from companies or company-sponsored entities. These grants come with strings attached, as we all know. And that is THE problem - not a small one.

    2. of course i'm aware that in physics, chemistry, medicine, engineering the situation is very different. for you the cost is indeed very low. for us (and i guess humanities) it can be substantial because there are few grants which are typically very small (with or without strings). for example if you have a nice paper and then your department tells you that there is no more money for this year would you pay from you own money? or would you wait until next year and send the article january 1st? i think this is not at all farfetched scenario, considering the way things go nowadays.

      by the way recently one math journal send to its contributors a query about open access. i answered pretty much the same as above. the person in the journal then replied that "you will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the appetite to open access model was very low"...


    3. Ah, well, jukka, that's no surprise! I mentioned in my post my experience with the "Surface Science Forum" and I noted that scientists have very little appetite for open access. That's because, as I said, scientists see papers as their academic "money" and open access means "inflation".

      But the point is not what scientists like. The point is that science is paid by the public with tax money and the public has a say in what is being done with their tax money. If scientists want to keep their ivory tower, fine, but eventually they'll be starving in it!

    4. for me this has nothing to do with ivory towers. obviously we view this thing very differently. but i notice that you didn't say if you were willing to pay your own money to get your papers published.


  6. Having a scientific education and still being interested in some domains, I have bought some articles for around $30 a couple of times.

    But this is truly outrageous as a price for a single article (pdf file). On the other hand seems to me publisher also have a key role especially regarding referencing and keeping the things available.

    But it is always : either trying to get you into subscription, or outrageous prices for a single article.

    Seems to me a bet should be made : lowering prices a lot, making buying much easier, and in a true "atawad" environment (also for contents like music, movies, or simply websites), and in the end more "instances" bought. Something like below :

    But PO might make all this irrelevant anyway, also ...

  7. This could also be compared to what happened to the "OSI model" in telecoms compared to the internet, all the OSI model standards were ISO/CCITT documents published in Geneva, and that go by around $100 a standard, whereas the internet standards were(and still are) pure ascii text documents (RFCs) freely available.

  8. Ugo, what are your opinions on The Research Works act, which has drawn the ire of the online open access community over the past few months?


  9. Well, I signed the petition to boycott Elsevier. I already sent back to them a review that they asked me to do, mentioning the boycott. I am sure they were not happy about that. How they'll react, I can't know. Maybe one of these days you'll notice that no more posts are being published on "Cassandra" and you'll wonder for a while about what might have happened to me.......