Sunday, December 17, 2006


In Why I Am The Enemy (Caveat Lector), Dorothea Salo says "I am the enemy because I will become a publisher." (Unfortunately, Caveat Lector doesn't allow comments, so that's why my response is here.)

Enemy? Perhaps I'm disappointing you not to regard you as the enemy. Quite the contrary, welcome to the world of publishing, Dorothea. Please do become a publisher. Many have come before you, and many are successful. And please don't think of becoming a publisher as being 'the enemy'. There's more than enough enmity in the world and we don't need more of it. Why don't you just become a competitor? That's possible, you know; publishing is a completely free world. You won't need a diploma or licence or permit to publish. And you'll no-doubt make a success of it. Welcome again – the more the merrier.

You're right, authors "have absolutely zero duty to journal publishers", as you put it. Why should they, anyway? They just use publishers to their own ends (you'll find out when you become a publisher). And rightly so; that's what publishers are for. Publishers just want to be paid for what they do. Though I sometimes get the feeling that that is considered exceedingly outlandish and strange. May I ask if you want to be paid for your job, Dorothea? Still, when you've become a publisher?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Peace be on Earth!

Jan Velterop
PS. The exchange between Stevan Harnad and myself that you are referring to is not a dust-up. It is just an exchange of opinions. A 'rich exchange' perhaps, and we certainly do have different views on how to get to open access (not on open access itself), but I object (as I'm pretty sure he does) to seeing such exchanges described in terms of enmity and dust-ups.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scale and scalability

Scholarly publishing is a pretty large-scale pursuit. The results of every serious research project outside the intramural confines of industrial R&D must be interpreted and published, or the research is deemed not to have taken place. Even a lot of industrial research is published – though some, mainly in the more obscure journals, purely for the purpose of ‘prophylactic disclosure’, in case an invention is not deemed worthy of patenting, yet if patented by anyone else, could become a ransom threat (an invention that has been disclosed can never be patented anymore, a trick also used by ‘open sourcerers’ to ensure that their code cannot be appropriated). But I digress. If the estimate of 25,000 journals is in the right ballpark, and each publishes 40 articles per year on average, about a million new articles is being added to the literature every year. It’s probably even more than that. And if the average rejection rate is 50%, these 25,000 journals actually process at least 2 million articles per year. A number of these articles will ‘cascade’ through the journal pecking order and finally be published somewhere, having been processed and peer-reviewed several times (let’s hope the resulting fine-layered publication hierarchy is worth such a waste in the system).

A veritable industry, this scholarly publishing. Good that there are professional, independent organisations that take on the drudge of all that work. Perish the thought that researchers would have to organise it all by themselves.

So everybody is thankful for what the publishers do? No. There is a problem: they want to be paid for what they do, and they don’t even do what we want them to do, which is to give everybody free, open access to whatever research they publish.

Two ‘solutions’ have been proposed. One that deals with the cost of publishing only; and one that deals with open access only, ignoring any issues of cost.

The solution that deals with cost only is the one that holds that the costs are too high and it’s all the fault of ‘commercial’ publishers. Instead, all scientific publishing should be done by not-for-profit scholarly societies. On the face of it, journals published by these NfPs (NfP journals don’t exist – just NfP publishers, who still wish to see their journals turn a surplus – the non-tax-payer's equivalent of, or euphemism for, profit) do seem to have lower subscription charges. Which is sort of easy, if one makes a subscription a compulsory part of membership. And levies page charges. And pays no tax. Many society publishers can offer relatively low-priced subscriptions, and still make revenues that on a per-article basis, are similar to what is being realised by commercial – I prefer to call them independent – publishers. Or more, which is, given their NfP status, kept in reserve or spent on good causes, of course.

It certainly works. The point, however, is that such publishing is not scalable. If it would just be the NfP status of society publishers, an increase of scale would have happened long ago. Nobody has ever tried to stop NfPs from cheap journal publishing. But it isn’t the NfP status that is the cause of lower prices; it is the fact that the membership yields much of the revenues needed to support the journals. And imagine 25,000 journals each sustained by enough society members to result in low subscription prices. It just doesn’t stack up. Otherwise we should have seen strong growth in NfPs. Interestingly, the contrary took place. Independent publishers started to flourish because societies couldn’t deal with the growing volume of articles and the increased international and interdisciplinary nature of science. Many still can’t – particularly the ones with relatively low membership or relatively voluminous journals – and testimony of that is that a growing number of societies are ‘outsourcing’ their journal publishing to independent publishers.

Cheap subscriptions do work for some journals, but cannot work for all, and it has precious little to do with the NfP status of the publisher.

The ‘solution’ that deals with open access only, ignoring any issues of cost, is of course what is known as ‘self-archiving’. Self-archiving assumes that librarians paying for subscriptions that are not necessary anymore, keep journals economically viable. Self-archiving, after all, is only meant to “fulfil the access-needs of would-be users who cannot afford access to the proprietary journal.” So here you are, librarians: even though it’s all freely available, if you can afford to take a subscription, please do. Charity is a good thing, of course, but not exactly the most robust foundation for an activity that is so much part of research and without which much of the academic world would be lost: recording research results in peer-reviewed journals.

I couldn’t have said it better than Stevan Harnad himself, on 10 December 2006, on the AMSCI Open Access Forum (not yet archived there as I'm writing this): “I, for one, have never doubted that [publishers making journal articles open after a short embargo] could cause cancellations. But anarchic author self-archiving, of each author's postprints, in each author's own IR, in uncertain proportions and at uncertain rates, are [sic] another story”. Precisely.

Which means that self-archiving is also not scalable. As long as there is only a small number of authors engaged in self-archiving, and it is done anarchically and unpredictably, it will work. Publishers will have little practical problem with it and librarians will not cancel subscriptions on that basis alone. Take the anarchy and unpredictability out of it, however – for instance via self-archiving mandates – and it would all be, to borrow Stevan’s phrase, another story.

Putting it another way: if self-archiving were to succeed, it would fail. Succeeding, after all, means sufficiently increasing in scale to provide open access to a meaningful proportion of the literature. Which would, of course, lead to cancellations. No publisher, be it an independent or NfP, could afford to allow authors to self-archive in such circumstances, and ‘green’ would fade out of existence.

It is possible, of course, that the chaos of self-archiving leads to a phase transition to a stable and truly scalable method, open access publishing, a.k.a. ‘gold’, but it seems a rather circuitous and acrimonious route to take. Why not stimulate ‘gold’ straight away, especially since a rapidly increasing number of publishers offer it? Why not lobby for an open-access-mandate, instead of for a self-archiving-mandate? It can’t be the money, though it would change the relative proportion of costs, between institutions, and that’s probably where the rub is. It's understood that it needs to be done, but “you first, sir!” A sur-place as it’s known in track cycling, where whoever moves first lessens his chances of winning.

The advantages of ‘gold’ are huge. Immediate open access to the research literature; costs move – up or down – with the research activity itself; a functional market, with fair price levels as a consequence; discouragement of spurious, speculative, or ‘ultra-light’ submissions; elimination of visibility as an element in perceived quality; and I’m probably forgetting to mention a few.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Access matters?

A question mark? Strange perhaps, to put a question mark in the title. When I posed the question at the recent RIN/DTI/RCUK scholarly journal workshop in London, a possibly stranger thing was that the resounding 'yes' that I expected didn't come. Instead, all that Richard Charkin (of Macmillan, Nature), who chaired the meeting, could come up with was "You've got us [the panel] stumped."

That being so, it is still a valid question. If we don't understand to whom access matters and why, we are not likely to achieve much. I can see two levels on which the question applies: one practical and one principle.

On a practical level, self-evidently, access matters to users. No access, no users, after all. But does it matter to authors, librarians, publishers, funders? If so, why? If not, why not? The question is also important. It is not users who are in a position to drive OA. Authors, librarians, funders, and perhaps publishers are.

Users find access important. Do authors, too? Although they are also users and thus part of the user community, I'm not sure. They should find it important, given that exposure of their articles is a prerequisite for being cited, which is the 'currency' that 'buys' them their future career and funding prospects. Various studies demonstrate that open access (i.e. increased - even vastly increased - access) enhances this exposure and results in increased citations. But do they care? Do they even think about access to their articles? It wouldn't be the first time that people react differently depending on the hat they're wearing at the minute. Some authors clearly do care, but it does appear to be a small minority growing only ever so slowly. Could it be that access and citations to their articles are being seen as a given, an environmental factor that's just there, like the weather, and just as impossible to influence? Or are the enhanced exposure and increased citation levels of OA regarded as no more than 'promise-ware', delayed gratification at best, in the 'am I bovvered?' category?

And librarians? I'm not sure they all find it important, either. The overriding concern that I hear seems to be about their budgets, not about access. In fact, I've even heard the argument that "less usage should mean lower bills." (Without the corollary, of course, that in such a model, increased usage would justify increased bills.) If one wants to go there, usage should logically be discouraged. Hardly the direction open access advocates will have in mind.

What about funders? They should have the strongest incentives and face the lowest hurdles. They spend money on research for the benefit of progress of scientific insight and, subsequently, of society as a whole. The widest possible access to the results of research they have funded, naturally matters to them. They don't even have to worry about cost. They pay for the traditional model of publishing, via the institutional overheads that are taken off every research grant, and earmarking a portion of those overheads for the purpose of providing open access to the peer-reviewed and formally published articles resulting from research they fund seems a no-brainer. Even 'prisoner-dilemmatoid' issues to do with a redistribution of costs that individual institutions worry about, shouldn't present a big problem for them, detached as they usually are from any given institution. They can afford the 'helicopter-view' – or if they prefer hot air over noise, the hot-air-balloon-view.

Where do publishers stand in this? There is a strand in OA-land that holds that the provision of open access has nothing to do with publishers: the self-archiving strand. They are right in some ways. Researchers can of course publish and self-archive to their hearts' content when it concerns so-called pre-prints (which doesn't mean pre-prints at all, but more something like pre-formal-publications). As soon as they involve publishers, by submitting their article for peer-review and formal publication – in order to make the article worth something for their careers and future funding prospects, for instance – the publishers are, well, involved. In a 'publish-or-perish' environment, this involvement is the difference between published and not published. Even though a 'pre-print' is published as soon as it is posted in a repository, in usual academic parlance – in the eyes of tenure committees, for instance – 'published' means 'formally published in a peer-reviewed journal'. The idea that publishers aren't involved at that stage, and therefore no party to the discussion, is nonsense.

Open access through self-archiving presents a dilemma for publishers. They fear for erosion of subscriptions. One of the self-archivers' responses usually is that there clearly isn't any issue because the vast majority of publishers allow self-archiving of the 'post-print' (another one of those strange words). They seem to be right, because indeed, most publishers do. They feel they ought to, as a gesture towards authors. But the way they usually phrase it – something like "authors are allowed to post the published article on their personal home page" – betrays that it is not exactly their intention to provide open access to the formally published literature in this way. The fact that a 'personal home page' or a public server makes no difference in a web environment is beside the point. They phrase it the way they do in order to try and keep a modicum of control. Because control is part and parcel of a subscription model.

Most open access advocates (moi incluis – mea culpa) have initially counted on authors to want open access. Elaborate arguments, some stronger than others, but clearly none of them 'killer-arguments', have been developed to present the benefits of open access to authors. From the hitherto slow and low uptake, it seems that most publishers, betting on the fact that authors probably can't be bothered, may have been right, at least so far. That's why the focus of open accessors is now on mandates.

Mandates express the funders' interest and may indeed accelerate the process. Ironically, to publishers, access only matters in a subscription model. In a 'payment for publishing services' model, access is irrelevant for income and can therefore be completely open. Publishers understand this and they are already offering more and more hybrid models, although until now few offer the open access choice for all their journal titles like Springer does, but this can be expected to continue to grow. At one point some will be in a position to make their journals OA-only, which entails being able to reject any articles that do not come with payment for the service of open access formal publication, much like OA-born journals like the PLoS and BMC ones do. Publishers have to concentrate on getting paid for the actual services they render. In the subscription model they get paid with copyright or exclusive distribution rights that authors transfer to them. In the article processing fee model they get paid with plain cash. Provision of access is becoming a very minor aspect in such a service model, as anybody can take the articles and run with them. Open access publishers differ from traditional publishers not because they 'provide' open access – what both provide is formal publication. They differ in that they do not rely on controlling access to secure their income.

On a principle level, access matters because knowledge generated with public funds is meant to be public. It certainly is by public funders. Why else would they spend the money on research if not for the common good? And isn’t the common good best served by the maximum possible access to the results and interpretations of that research? The access provided in the traditional subscription system is just not satisfactory, because it doesn’t ensure that anyone has it. The natural access limitations that come with subscriptions are a vestige of the print-on-paper past. Now that the means exist to achieve maximum access – the internet – it becomes an imperative. If a common disease hitherto could be kept in check by lifelong taking of medicines, that may have been a burden, but there was no alternative. If the same disease could now be completely, securely and quickly cured, and the average cost per patient of the cure would be the same as the average cost per patient of providing lifelong disease management, would we spend years discussing the price of the cure rather than go for it and deal with issues of cost later? Hard to imagine. And yet it seems that we are in precisely such a discussion with regard to open access.

We need the consensus that open access, in principle, is a good thing, and then focus our energies on finding ways to make it systemic and sustainable. Not on fudges.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Ego and Economics

Richard Poynder has recently (November 20, 2006) published a well-written essay entitled 'Open Access: Beyond selfish interests' (you can download the pdf via his blog). Because it is so well-written – he is a journalist after all – one may not easily spot that some of his observations are presented as foregone conclusions, yet are not supported or warranted. I must point out at least two of these red herrings, as they seem rather fundamental to the line of thought that is the leitmotiv of the essay.

In the very last paragraph of the essay, Poynder talks about “incumbent publishers intent only on preserving their hegemony over scholarly communication.”

Preserving their hegemony?

Publishers hold no more hegemony over scholarly communication than bakers hold over making bread. Anybody can choose to bake their own bread. Any researcher can choose to communicate with their peers themselves, as indeed they often do. There is no hegemony for publishers to preserve. Researchers do not ‘have to give away’ their articles to publishers – they can “just plonk their articles onto the internet”, as intellectual property law professor Dirk Visser of Leyden University recently put it (in Dutch, but I trust he agrees with my translation). And if they do have to publish, it is not publishers who compel them. Publishers provide services that enable researchers to attach credibility to their articles, so that they can be used to further their career and future funding prospects. The model to pay for such services in a roundabout way, via subscriptions, is a relic of the pre-internet past and an impediment to open access. Unfortunately, publishers are just as much locked into that model as the other actors on the academic stage, though an increasing number of publishers are keen to move on and try to support the provision of their services in a way that makes structural open access – immediate and full open access at the point of publication – economically viable.

Which brings me to the other observation that is unjustifiably presented as a foregone conclusion in Poynder’s essay. Some five pages before the end, he writes
“If funders were to mandate OA publishing those prices [the article processing charges – APCs – that OA publishers currently levy] would be locked in. And if APCs were treated as "part and parcel" of research, as Velterop proposes, there would be no mechanism for regulating prices — since researchers would be running up a bill at someone else's expense.”
He supports his observation by a quote from Harnad: “[no organisation] would not be happy to become a subsidised oligopolist, guaranteed its asking price by the government. McDonald's could make the same offer to lower and phase out the payment for its hamburgers if the government simply agrees to pay for them up-front, so every citizen can have a Happy Meal." And one from Roth: “[if politicians mandated OA publishing it would lead to] funding agencies being required to pay publication charges based on publisher demands, rather than economic reality."


This presumes that researchers, since they would be ‘running up a bill at someone else’s expense’ would just pay anything. They are running up a bill at someone else’s expense (their funders’) when they buy reagents, mouse strains, glassware, other assorted laboratory necessities. Do they really pay the providers of these goods based on the providers’ demands, rather than economic reality? Not when they have the choice of providers, one would imagine. This is where Poynder, Harnad, Roth, and I’m afraid many others, go wrong. They forget – or ignore – that unlike for subscribers, for authors there is a real choice of journal in which they publish, or at least to which they submit their articles. Where the party who pays (even if with 'someone else's money') is the party with the choice, the laws of economic do function, copyright becomes irrelevant as an economic factor, and the fact that information is a peculiar economic commodity becomes inconsequential. In that system, the tradable commodity is ‘service’, not information, and is subject to conventional market forces.

Jan Velterop

Friday, November 17, 2006

Price & Value

A lot of the criticism of science publishers is often reserved for ‘commercial’ publishers (I prefer to call them 'independent'), and a lot of that criticism takes the form of ‘too expensive’. Everything is ‘too expensive’ if the value to the potential buyer of something he desires doesn’t justify the price. In a normal functional economic system, the potential buyer just doesn’t buy in that case, or buys something that can be regarded as a substitute for what he initially desired, elsewhere, at a lower price.

Academic journals with their subscription models are not functioning along those lines, as they are monopoloid, i.e. non-substitutable, non-rivalrous. The paying party doesn’t have the choice. A subscribing library can’t just cancel an expensive journal and buy a cheaper one instead, because what his patrons find in one, they will not find in the other and vice versa. That’s why the model should be ‘flipped’, from a ‘user-side’ payment, to an ‘author-side’ payment.

In contrast to users, authors do have the choice. They can, in almost all cases, decide to go to another journal with their paper. And if price becomes a factor for them or their backers, they can weigh that in their decisions. For them, journals are substitutable, rivalrous. Even at the highest levels: if Science and Nature were to offer paid-for open access, at different fees, authors could simply choose to go to the cheaper one (supposing their article is acceptable for publication). It’s easy to see that in such a system the fees will experience pressure to settle on a level that is regarded as value for money.

Not everybody gets this, unfortunately. Disappointingly, Walt Crawford, in his December 2006 Sights & Insights, says, on page 24,
Velterop wants to “flip the model” and makes the highly questionable claim that assured funding for high-priced author-pays publication would cause “real competition” and “put downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on efficiencies.” How so? Journals don’t follow standard economic models, because each one is a monopoly.

It looks as if he has firmly planted the notion in his mind that journals are monopolies, always have been monopolies, always will be monopolies, and that there’s nothing that will change that. And he completely misses the point of the claim I make, which is simply that changing to a standard economic model – which is what author-side payment for publication (i.e. payment on behalf of the party with a choice) entails – will offer us a chance to create a functional market environment and to converge the perceived value and the fee (the definition of a fair price). If that’s a ‘highly questionable’ claim, then most of market economics is.

Those who see open access simply as a way to pay less are free to do so, of course, but it makes open access a mere negotiating lever with publishers. Haggling about prices is a time-honoured practice in just about any walk of life. It has little to do with the principle of open access. It would seem that lower subscription prices than the current ones would be an acceptable outcome to them, even without open access.

The problem really is that for non-substitutable, non-rivalrous, material, the market for subscriptions is intrinsically dysfunctional. It may sometimes look as though high prices cause cancellations, but low-priced journals have suffered cancellations as well, and what’s more, there is no discernible pattern that reliably shows a distinction between higher priced and lower priced journals in that regard. Certainly there is no evidence that lowering subscription prices result in a higher take-up of the journals for which that has been tried, and without such higher take-up, there is no improvement of access. In a functional market one would expect such cause and effect.

Open access is more fundamental than about price. It is also more fundamental than increased usage figures or citation counts. It is about the notion that results of research carried out with public money are public goods. Doing the research costs money. Publishing the results is imperative, regardless of usage or citations. It’s public availability that counts. Like the minutes of important public meetings. They are validated and recorded; and only read again and quoted if and when necessary. That doesn’t make them any less valuable. Publishing the results is part of research itself. Therefore the cost of publishing is part of the cost of research.

Should the cost of publishing be scrutinized? Sure. In the same way as the cost of research is scrutinized. We, society at large, justify paying more for top researchers than for beginning ones; we justify putting more expensive equipment in one laboratory than in the next. We balance the price and the value we perceive to be getting. If we give ourselves a chance to come to fair prices for the services of publishing, then we have gained a lot.

The current subscription system doesn’t give us that chance. Nobody knows what a fair price is. We are, absurdly, measuring ‘cost per download’, ‘cost of citation’ and the like and believe we are measuring value. Has anybody ever approached, say, the proceedings of a parliamentary debate in that way? Even just as a thought experiment? What is 'usage' anyway? Scientific articles are important documents. The only thing that valuing them by their usage and citation does is to make the usage and citation potential of articles into criteria for publishing them, instead of their intrinsic scientific merit. Thus making a brilliant article that few understand seem pretty worthless. And – possibly worse – making a poor, but controversial, popular, and fashionable article seem the more valuable of the two. Surely, that can't be where we want to go.

Jan Velterop

Monday, November 06, 2006

Subsidy or not to be

Subsidise, subsidise - but don't let the real issues evade your eyes (free after Tom Lehrer).

Recently, early November 2006, a quick thread was spun on the AMSCI open access list about subsidising journals (though the title of the thread is 'What Can and Should Be Mandated').

I've looked in Wikipedia for a definition of subsidy: "...generally a monetary grant given by a government to lower the price faced by producers or consumers of a good, generally because it is considered to be in the public interest". Would this also cover situations in which governments are the ones that provide the funds for consumers - because it is in the public interest - to buy the goods or services in the first place? I think it does, and that this provision of funds in the first place is a form of subsidy.

Ergo, all journals are subsidised. Although, a lot of microsubsidies could perhaps be seen as constituting a 'market'. The money for journals comes, to a very large degree, from governments. If not directly, then indirectly, via the circuitous route of research and learning institutions with their librarian gatekeepers and content collectors. The subsidy is just misdirected. And ill-suited to what the intention is: serving the public interest.

Why is that so? Subsidising the consumer, in order to be able to buy scholarly journals, is accepting the premise that a journal's value is primarily in its content. It isn't. While that perhaps used to be so, it isn't any longer as a result of the internet. The content can be found elsewhere, and for free. In a preprint repository, for instance, or even in a postprint repository. The internet has made one of the classical functions of publishing - dissemination - exceedingly easy to do by anybody else as well, and particularly by the author. Journals are no longer needed for dissemination per se.

The function of a journal was always much wider, even when all its economic value was bound up with just dissemination. Journals organise the formal acceptance and embedding of the literature in the record. They keep the 'minutes of science' as I mentioned in an earlier post.

This is a very important function of journals, as I argued in the same earlier post. And that's the function that needs to be 'subsidised'. If the same money that's now sloshing around in the L-sphere (licence sphere) were used to enable peer-reviewed articles to be added to the free and open Noösphere (knowledge sphere) by paying for the service of formal publishing rather than for access, we would have so much more 'bang for the buck': open access.

Here's an illustration why formal publication is important: for the UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has negotiated a licence with the Publishers' Licensing Society (PLS) to gain access to the formally published literature (only the "authoritative final version" will do; so they're not after the content, but after its label of authoritativeness, established by being published in formal, peer-reviewed journals), "only for the purpose of conducting the RAE." The licence is free of charge. Somewhat perverse, in my view: the system pretends to pay for access to the content per se, yet wants to have access to the real value of formally published literature for free. If HEFCE supported open access at source - the article processing charge model - then it would have free, open access to the material without any need for a licence and so would everyone else.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Bill Hooker has written a fine piece on open access. His exposé of the benefits of open access is convincing (not that I needed to be convinced any further). Unfortunately, he does repeat some of the misconceptions that have crept into the debate.

Open access is easy enough to arrange. As a researcher, you just deposit your article in an open repository of some sort and, as they say in England, “Bob’s your uncle!” So far, so good – no publisher involved. So where’s the problem? Well, it’s here: “[large publisher] won’t let me use their pdf versions…” Duh, as my teenage kids would say. Why would publishers let you? Or the question that should come before that: why did you bother a publisher with your article in the first place?

“Well, if I don’t have it published formally in a journal, then I won’t get the recognition I need for my tenure and future funding prospects” you might be inclined to answer. Right answer! After all, it’s ‘publish or perish’. So, ‘giving away’ your article to a publisher is not entirely without ulterior motives, it seems. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s be honest about it, you are not so much ‘giving away’ anything to a publisher than asking for a service: "please organise for my article to be peer-reviewed and published in the journal whose title will make it worth a lot more for me than the not-formally-published version could ever be."

And what does the publisher get in return for doing that service? Ideally, he should simply be paid for it, after which the formally published article, with the imprimatur that gives it ‘authority’, is as open as you, the author, choose. This concept is known as Open Access Publishing and is now (hooray, finally) offered by many a publisher, large and small, society-linked or independent.

But, as long as there are many authors who like to have the imprimatur and the formal publication, but don’t want to pay for it, it’s offered as an option. For those who don’t wish to pay, there still is the old way of paying, namely by transferring their copyright (or exclusive publishing rights, which amounts to pretty much the same thing). The publisher can then subsequently sell the article (mostly via subscriptions) and recoup his cost that way. This concept is known as traditional publishing, basically a relic of the print era, when it was realistically the only possible way and libraries indirectly paid the publishers for publishing services rendered to the authors. Allowing you to freely post the formally published pdf, is not a good idea in that model, certainly not without a reasonable embargo. Traditional publishers have already gone quite far by allowing the authors’ versions to be posted with open access.

Many publishers, though, are offering the open access publishing option – so it’s time, dear authors, for you to choose.

Another misconception in Hooker’s piece is “For you as a taxpayer, this means that you are denied access to information you've already paid for (since I've always been funded by government grants).” The publisher doesn’t ‘deny access’ to the information. If anybody does, it’s the author. What stops an author from just posting the research results on some freely accessible repository and let the taxpayer have the benefit he deserves for putting up the money that sustains the author’s research? If he pays the publisher for the service of organising peer-review and attaching the formal imprimatur of a journal to his article, to give it the credibility and certification it needs, then he can also post the formally published pdf anywhere he likes. Payment could come out of the research grant. After all, publishing research results is part and parcel of research itself, so the cost of publishing is logically part of the cost of doing research. If the author ‘pays’ by means of transfer of copyright, then he must understand that such ‘payment’ can only be meaningful if the publisher is able actually to sell the article. Unless he believes, of course, that publishers ought to do whatever they do for nothing. This concept is known as the proverbial free lunch. Or as ‘cloud cuckoo land’ (after Aristophanes' classical fictional Nephelokykkygia or Nephelococcygia).

Jan Velterop

Monday, October 16, 2006

The use of usage

I came across an interesting article by John Ewing, Executive Director and Publisher of the American Mathematical Society, published in the Notices of the AMS this month (October issue). The article is entitled "Measuring Journals" and discusses impact factors and usage statistics.

Statistics are funny things. The decline of the birth rate in Western Europe coincides with the decline of the stork. Imagine the possible conclusions if you don’t understand the statistics (though they may confirm long-held beliefs). Usage statistics have to be understood before they can be used to come to any meaningful conclusions, if ever.

Even if we do understand user statistics sufficiently, how reliable can they really be? Not very, is Ewing’s conclusion. We have to be extremely careful when we use such ‘objective’ quantitative data for qualitative conclusions. Ewing further says that “Distrust of ‘subjective’ scholarly judgment is a modern disease – one that is profoundly anti-intellectual.” I would add that blind trust in ‘objective’ measurements is equally profoundly anti-intellectual.

Suppose we can be confident that we understand the statistics, does usage determine the value of journals and articles in the first place? I’m aware of the adage publish or perish, but not of one that says read or rot or download or be damned. Isn’t the value therefore more in the availability of a publication than in its usage? Isn’t there a strong value element of ‘just-in-case’ in scientific literature (like the value of insurance – where you’d probably avoid actual ‘usage’)? Isn’t there a strong value element in just making sure that research results are properly recorded (like the minutes of important meetings – they are not often read a lot, but it’s crucial that they are made)? The ‘minutes of science’ as I used to call it in the mid-nineties?

Isn’t it so that a manuscript with potentially interesting information is only made actually interesting if the outcome of a process of peer-review shows that it’s been formally accepted and acknowledged by the scientific community as worth adding to the body of literature, and labelled as such (with a journal imprimatur)? And isn’t there then more value in the label it carries (imprimatur, certification, however one calls it) than in the information itself (which may well already be out there in cyberspace and often is)? And isn’t that mainly a value for authors (remember: publish or perish) and their careers and future funding prospects rather than for readers (remember: there’s no read or rot)?

As an information exchange, many journals may already have lost their role. The internet is definitely taking over. But ‘usage’ of a journal as a formal recording and validation service has not disappeared. Arguably, that service is more valuable now than ever, given the difficulty of establishing the integrity of information available on the web.

In my view that means that the economic underpinning of journals by placing a monetary value solely on download usage is outdated. Much of the monetary value should, instead, be placed on the service of formally publishing the material. In an ‘author-side-payment’ model that is explicitly the case and such a publishing model also means that open access, i.e. universal availability, can be the natural condition of the formal, officially published articles.

Jan Velterop

Monday, October 02, 2006

Perelmanian Probity

On Saturday September 30, 2006, there was an item on Peter Suber’s Open Access News blog about Perelman, the reclusive Russian mathematician who published his proof of the Poincaré Conjecture not in a formal peer-reviewed journal but just in arχiv. That’s very nice of him, because arχiv is open access so the entire world can see what his proof is. He clearly doesn’t need to have his work formally published, and he doesn’t seem to need money either, having refused the Fields Medal and the material rewards that come with it.

Why don’t more physicists and mathematicians do this – publishing just in arχiv and not in a formal peer-reviewed journal? Why don’t researchers in other disciplines do it – publishing just in an open repository and not in a formal journal?

Well, Perelman is a pretty unique individual. A giant on whose shoulders to stand. Licet Jovi non licet bovi. Few researchers can afford not to publish in formal journals. For most researchers the adage is ‘publish or perish’. And ‘publish’ here means publish formally in a peer-reviewed journal.

It used to be so that in order to avoid perishing, most ‘non-perelmanic’ authors had to strike what has been called a ‘Faustian Bargain’. As in any bargain, it involved receiving and paying. An author could get published, but had to ‘pay’ with giving up the right to distribute the article himself, and give the journal publisher that exclusive right. I use the past tense, because there is an increasing number of possibilities now to make the bargain less of a Faustian and more of a fair one: get published in a formal peer-reviewed journal and pay the publisher for the service of arranging it all.

And there is of course what might be called the Mercurian Method of having one’s cake and eating it: publish in a traditional formal journal and subsequently in an open repository without paying anybody in any way, and taking the gamble that someone else – anybody else – will keep alive the formal peer-reviewed journals that most researchers continue to need as long as ‘publish (in those formally peer-reviewed journals) or perish’ remains the rule. It's possible of course that someone will. It's also possible to win the national lottery. If one is not prepared to pay in any way, Perelmanian Probity is better than a bet.

Jan Velterop

Research is research

I wasn’t there, but I understand that one of the main topics discussed at the recent JISC conference ‘Moving Towards Open Access’ was the question whether open access was suitable for all disciplines. Bit of a funny question, this. All scholarly research worth publishing is worth publishing with open access, I would have thought. Research is research. The question that should have been asked (and it may indeed have been the intended question), is whether there are, or should be, different ways of funding open access publishing in different disciplines.

The clearest way to think about the funding of the formal research literature, as the Wellcome Trust for instance does, is to see publishing as an integral part of doing research and therefore the cost of publishing as an integral part of the cost of research and thus entirely logically payable out of research grants. We hear quite often that such funding of the formal literature from research funds is not feasible in some disciplines – e.g. social sciences and humanities – simply because much research in those areas is not funded. Not funded? I wonder how social scientists survive. Maybe what’s meant is ‘not funded in the same way’.

No, the real difference between disciplines is the amount of money spent on the formal literature as a percentage of the amount of money spent on research. The 1-2% quoted by the Wellcome Trust probably doesn’t apply in the social sciences.

The money is clearly there; also in the social sciences and humanities. How else would subscriptions to journals in those areas currently be sustained? And there also is no difference between disciplines in that regard. Virtually all subscriptions, in all areas of research, are currently sustained via library budgets – money streams that are separate from research funds, but nonetheless available in 'the system'.

The central idea of ‘author-side’ payment in order to secure open access for the formally published research literature (and as a side benefit, transparency of the proportionality between the amount of research done and the cost of the literature) is to use the same money now used for subscriptions (reader-side payment) in a different way. Not extra money; the same money. Once that insight has broken through, we can start overcoming the practical (bureaucratic?) difficulties.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Nuclear Information Center (Brazil) maintains a portal to easy the identification and access to free journals available on the Internet. It is the Portal LivRe!(Free !), nowadays registering 2,525 free journals. I am announcing the implementation of a multilanguage searching interface. LivRe! now can be accessed in Portuguese, English and Spanish.

Portal LivRe! -

About LivRe!
LivRe! is the portal developed by CNEN - Comissão Nacional de Energia Nuclear(Brazilian National Nuclear Energy Commission), through its CIN - Centro de Informações Nucleares (Nuclear Information Center), aiming to ease the identification and the access to free journals available on the Internet.

The Portal covers scientific journals, magazines, bulletins and newsletters.

Free access journals are spreaded over several categories:

- free access to all the issues and articles. Great part of the titles are included in this category;
- free access requiring mandatory registration;
- free access only during a pre-established period from the publishing on;
- free access only after a period following publishing;
- partial free access, that means, only part of the articles are available for free.
The following data are available for each title: time coverage, language, secondary sources indexing the title, if it is a peeer reviewed journal, optional comments and contents description, as supplied by the publisher.

Beyond displaying journals by initial letter of its title, searches can be done by title words and by subject field.

Searches can be refined selecting only peer-reviewed journals or only journals indexed by any secondary source.

Your collaboration by sending us comments or suggestions is essential to improve the LivRe! Portal. Talk to us, pointing out new journals for inclusion, suggesting new features or amending mistakes you have detected.


Luiz Macêdo

Nuclear Information Center
Brazilian National Nuclear Energy Commission

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Open access, quo vadis?

Now that alternatives for the term 'self-archiving' are being suggested -- presumably in an attempt to increase the number of self-archivers -- it may be time to face up to some uncomfortable truths. Let's be honest, open access is just not all that attractive to individual researchers when they publish their articles. I say that with pain in my heart, but we have, as proponents of open access, singularly failed to get enough support among researchers. Not for want of trying. The proposition is simply not strong enough.

That doesn't, of course, make open access any less desirable. But researchers, as we all, do live in an ego-system and the strength of a person's interest in anything seems to diminish with at least the square of the distance (metaphorical or otherwise) to his or her id. The benefits of open access 'to science' are apparently pretty distant to an average researcher. Now, I know that the case has been made that there are benefits at closer proximity to researchers' ids, such as increased citations to their articles, but they seem, grosso modo, wholly underwhelmed by those. Is it with the benefits of open access rather like with the benefits of dramatically reducing our energy consumption? Reasonable on a super-ego level, but not convincing enough for our id, or so it seems.

So what now?

Mandates, it appears. From the funders -- organisations in charge of the scholarly super-ego, as it were. They have the power to impose OA on their grantees, and maybe the duty. And as they mostly pay the bill for library subscriptions anyway (indirectly, via overhead charges of institutions, but they pay nonetheless), they could simply re-route that money to OA article processing charges and reform publishing in the process. They may still, and follow the excellent leadership of the Wellcome Trust in this regard.

There seems to be one thing standing in the way. Conflation of financial concerns with open access is, unfortunately, a major barrier to open access. If open access were a real priority, in other words, if the starting point would not so much be cost evasion, but the principle that for the amounts now spent on scholarly literature one could, and should, have open access, and if a widespread willingness were displayed on the part of funders and librarians to help flip the model, then I'm thoroughly convinced we would be much, much further with open access. And as for financial concerns, inherent in an author-side payment model is a much clearer scope for real competition, and that will put downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on efficiencies as any economist will tell us. Putting the horse before the cart might be a good idea, for a change.

There is of course the hypothesis, consistently put forward by Stevan Harnad (and Stevan is nothing if not consistent, you have to give him that), that we can have OA without reforming publishing and without damaging journals. Consistent, but unfortunately, that doesn't make it right. In his world of self-archiving, all peer-reviewed and formally published articles would be freely available with open access -- although perhaps in an informal version, but still -- and librarians would continue to pay for subscriptions to keep journals afloat. As evidence he puts forward that having effectively had a physics archive in which published articles have been available freely for a decade and a half or so, this has not discernably reduced the willingness of librarians to keep paying for subscriptions to the journals with the very same material. And indeed, he makes very plausible that in physices, over the last decade and a half, there has been no damage to journals. But then he extrapolates. This always makes me think of Mark Twain, who says in Life on the Mississippi (1884):
"In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over a mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oölitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-pole. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo [Illinois] and New Orleans will have joined their streets together and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

And although Stevan may even turn out to be right -- only hindsight will tell and we have to keep an open mind on that -- for societies and other publishers just to take his word for it or even his 'evidence' that his extrapolations are valid, would be a serious dereliction of fiduciary duty, and sooo unnecessary. Because with some political will, publishing can be reformed, and reformed very quickly, without damage, or even the threat of damage, to anyone. And thus the problems could be fundamentally solved instead of treated with sticky-plasters such as OA through self-archiving (great as institutional repositories otherwise are).

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Hooker on OA

In a comment on my last post, Bill Hooker makes the point that I mis-represented Stevan Harnad's position on peer review. I don't think I did, but for the avoidance of any doubt, I know that Stevan is a very strong supporter of peer review and so am I. In a way, that is precisely the problem. Stevan wants peer review, but not to pay for the process of formal publishing in peer-reviewed journals. That, he argues, should be done by librarians. I wouldn't dispute that, but according to him librarians should (or is it just will?) keep the subscription model going and in that way provide sustenance for the formal peer-reviewed journal system.

But why would librarians do that? If the articles published were freely available from elsewhere - institutional repositories - buying what looks like access to the formal peer-reviewed journals, but what is a donation to support them seems a rather convoluted idea.

Would it really not be better to sustain the system and secure OA by directly paying for the publishing services rendered rather than via subscriptions to access that can be had for free elsewhere anyway?

Bill Hooker also makes the point that "... it could conceivably become attractive for researchers - perhaps through the NIH, or professional societies, for instance - to co-ordinate the review process themselves, construct a robust search architecture that encompasses the vast majority of institutional repositories and thumb their noses once and for all at the STM publishing industry." Become publishers, in short. He is absolutely right.

Three comments:

1. Yes please. History is littered with groups of researchers that have organised themselves to do just that. Mostly in the form of a scholarly society expressly established for the purpose. And subsequently they have become publishers and joined the STM publishing industry, or outsourced the publishing of their journals to independent publishers.

2. If anybody has problems with the harnadian solution, it's scholarly societies that publish journals.

3. It is just possible that there may be reasons why researchers are researchers and publishers publishers. Everbody can sow the seed to grow the wheat to grind the flower to bake the bread. Who, after all, needs farmers, millers and bakers?

Jan Velterop

(Bill Hooker has followed up on his blog 'Open Reading Frame')

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

An 'Alms Race'?

In a posting entitled Mandating OA via Paid Publisher-Archiving (PPA) versus Author Self-Archiving (ASA), Stevan Harnad states "If research institutions and funders have the spare cash to pay whatever publishers ask today for PPA without having to take it away from research allotments, then the outcome (100% OA) is welcome and optimal for all."

I'll comment on PPA in a moment, but let's first look at this extraordinary statement. It reduces science publishing entirely to an 'alms race'. Publishers stretching out their hands in the hope that some benevolent librarian or funder will throw in a few coins, thus enabling the publishers to go on publishing. It beggars belief, if this expression was ever appropriate to use. What a way to sustain the formal peer-reviewed journal literature! The formal peer-reviewed journal literature is clearly worth very little. In his view.

Those with a 'harnadian' inclination should really not bother publishers at all with their articles. They should just 'archive' (read 'publish') them in some repository and move on. Shame the articles can't be labelled as having been published in a peer-reviewed journal, which would make them more valuable and be noticed and taken seriously, but hey, everybody can see them and the publishers just haven't been able to beg enough cash to publish them.

For those who do think that there is something of value in having a system of journals in which the peer-reviewed scientific literature is formally published, it is probably worth looking for more robust ways of economically sustaining them than just scrambling for alms.

Subscriptions, on the whole, currently sustain the journal system. But they have a downside. They do not, by definition, provide open access. So that's why new publishing models have emerged that do.

Unfortunately, Stevan derisorily calls these new publishing models PPA, for 'Paid Publisher-Archiving'. As if 'archiving' is what publishers do. Nobody pays a publisher for archiving and no publisher asks for payment for archiving. Publishers ask for payment for having an article peer-reviewed and formally published in a reputable journal. By having an article peer-reviewed and formally published in a reputable journal, it becomes worth a lot more than if it were just self-published. Worth a lot more to the author (or would some informally published article be seen in the same light by your tenure committee as one that's published in a journal with an impact factor?), worth a lot more to the reader (or would a citation to some informally published article be taken as seriously as one that's published in a journal with an impact factor?), worth a lot more to the funder, worth a lot more to science, and worth a lot more to society at large. If that were not the case, why should authors want to publish in journals? Why should funders and institutions expect (read: require) them to? Why should fellow scientists be keen to know where an article is published? Because there is no value in the formal peer-reviewed journal publishing system?

If there is value in the system, however, it needs to be properly sustained. Not with alms.

Jan Velterop

Friday, June 23, 2006

On the road

To Sally Morris's post on the SOAF list saying that she has "difficulty envisaging how the 'no-fee' OA model, dependent on (conscious or not) institutional or other subsidy, could possibly scale", Matt Cockerill responded:

"I think a reasonable analogy here would be to ask: can a road system scale without charging tolls? I think it is clear that road systems can scale without tolls. But on the other hand, tolls can certainly play a role, and play a bigger role in some countries than others. Non-toll roads can't be written off simply as 'unsustainable'. No one is arguing that building and maintaining roads doesn't have costs - just that there is more than one way in which they can be funded, and some forms of funding may have practical/convenience benefits (no one wants to have to pay 10 different tolls just to get to the supermarket)." End of quote.

We could take this road analogy further. Roads are not paid for by tolls at every turn, as that would disrupt the flow of traffic (though the technology to introduce just that via satellite tracking is advancing fast). So tolls are only used for 'premium' roads (and tunnels, bridges, et cetera). Instead, the vast majority of the road infrastructure is usually paid for by state subsidies, which in turn, we must assume, are funded by road taxes and fuel excise taxes. These excise taxes are interesting, because it means that there is already an element of 'user pays', as more road usage means more fuel consumption means more excise tax paid. But that user-related charge is just part of the road payment structure. Every potential road user also pays via road tax, levied on the owners of cars whether they use them or not. They pay for access.

Would something like that work in science publishing? And would it be desirable?

To a degree, and in a way, the road tax simile is already there. Institutions pay for subscriptions for potential users. It's a 'just-in-case' provision. They pay for access, not usage. It is often said that payment for usage would be fairer. But we have to be very clear as to what usage and who the user actually is. It's certainly not just the reader. It's definitely also the author, who uses publication in a journal to give his article the formal status he needs for career advancement and impact. And it's also the institution itself, depending for recognition and reputation on the formal publication record of its research population.

So it would be fair were they all to pay their share. Practically all of the money streams involved would come together on an institutional level. The purse is filled with overhead charges on research grants, and for the purpose of sustaining scientific journal literature the funds could be disbursed partially via the library (subscriptions, i.e. reader-usage charges) and partially via the authors (article processing charges, i.e. author-usage charges). But one might want to be pragmatic here. Disbursement via library subscriptions inherently limits access to the journal literature, because that is the basis on which the whole concept of subscriptions is built. Disbursement via article processing charges makes open access economically feasible. Could the reader-side charge and the author-side charge perhaps be rolled up into a single charge, on an institutional level?

Could that be a way forward? Would it be possible to come up with a charge that reflects the total usage of a journal, by its readers as well as its authors, in a given institute? A way to sustain the formal peer-reviewed journal literature that balances the need to publish (publish or perish) with the need to have access (read or rot)? Or would it be a road to nowhere?

Jan Velterop

Friday, June 16, 2006

On donation and midwives

The notion that scientists ‘donate’ their research articles to journals is one that seems fairly widespread and it pops up in official reports such as lately in the “Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe” (download PDF). The context in this report (and often elsewhere) is concern about cost-effective use of public funds. On page 16 one can read “…the output of research is typically not bought by journals but ‘donated’ by publicly-funded researchers…” At least ‘donated’ is in inverted commas. Between the lines one reads “this is a problem”.

It is an interesting notion indeed, this laudable collective philanthropy. Scientists usually do not expect royalties from journal articles. Two, closely related, questions arise: why do they donate to journals, and why do they not expect royalties? Are they truly that unselfishly concerned with journals?

Would the problem not be instantly rectified if scientists stopped donating articles to journals? Who knows? Maybe the best thing is to try?

Or are they not donating to publishers, but to the world? How can that be a problem? To my knowledge there is not a scientific journal publisher in the world who would dream of standing in the way of a researcher donating his or her research to the world. Publishers are simply not involved if researchers just get on with donating, for instance by publishing their article freely available on the web, such as I’m doing now with this blog entry.

But perhaps it’s not that simple. Research donated that way may not be taken that seriously by the world. And particularly not by tenure-committees and the like. Unless, of course, it has the formal imprimatur of a peer-reviewed journal. In science, publishers are not, strange as it may sound, needed so much for publishing per se. But they are for formal publishing. The formal publishing process makes a potentially worthwhile article an actually valuable one. That’s the added value of publishing. Which scientists ask a publisher to add. Without the journal imprimatur, label if you will, the article is grey literature at best. The publisher is therefore a provider of a service to the scientist – not quite the receptacle for donated articles as portrayed.

To perform this service of adding value, a publisher needs to invest. Hire people; rent an office, set up systems and an organisation. That’s why he has to charge money, one way or the other. One way – the traditional way – is via subscriptions or licences; the other is via article processing charges. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but only the latter is an economically sustainable model to provide open access. And it’s not about keeping publishers in business; it’s about keeping a system of peer-reviewed journals going. And about providing sustainable open access to this peer-reviewed literature.

Not everybody agrees. Some believe that we can have free, open access and get institutional libraries to pay for subscriptions and so sustain the system of peer review journals. And they have evidence: the physics community. So it must be universally valid, mustn’t it? A brief digression: when an unsupervised toddler gets hold of a box of matches, lights them one by one, and blows them out again, it is entirely conceivable that the house does not burn down. Nonetheless, a sensible person would take the matches away as soon as he spots the toddler doing this. He would certainly not conclude that there is evidence that toddlers with matches do not burn down houses and proceed to give all toddlers a box of matches.

“We don’t need publishers to keep the peer-reviewed journals going” is a sentiment often expressed, “because we do all the work, such as peer review, ourselves anyway”. The story of the midwife comes to mind. Publishers are no more than the ‘midwife’ in the publishing process. Mark Patterson of PLoS used this analogy to great effect in a few recent presentations, when he pointed out that it would be absurd if the midwife were to restrict access to the child. He’s right. But without stretching the analogy too far, we do need and use the services of midwives widely. (And of course there are large areas of the animal kingdom where births always happen unassisted. But that’s the equivalent of just publishing on the web, without involving a publisher. Do Orang Utangs have the equivalent of midwives? I wouldn’t even be surprised if they do, actually.)

Midwives need sustenance, and so do publishers. Anybody can become a publisher (publishing is not regulated, unlike midwifery in most countries). Those who believe they can do it all themselves, without sustenance, ought to do it all themselves, without sustenance. But please, do make it more than a short-lived hobby-of-the-day. For the sake of science.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

On the Bill

The Cornyn-Lieberman Bill, a.k.a. the Federal Research Public Access Act or FRPAA, has evoked some strong reactions. Many - perhaps most - publishers are dismayed; many - perhaps most - open access advocated are delighted.

Yet I'm afraid I see the FRPAA as a bit of a dogs dinner. Fish nor fowl. The six months' embargo is a perilously short period of time for most publishers to recoup their costs via subscriptions. And it is useless as a stimulus to the development of sustainable open access publishing.

Of course, I know of assertions that a six months' embargo poses no threat to subscriptions; even that immediate open self-archiving is safe. The example ('evidence') invariably given is that of physics and the effect ArXiv has had on subscription [at least so far]. Evidence? Perhaps. But without a mechanism, or even hypothesis, that might possibly be seen as explaining the phenomenon. Not even like evidence that extremely diluted potions still seem to provide a cure for some diseases in some people. For that we have at least a hypothesis: placebo-effect. Even if publishers do not entirely reject the evidence, they simply cannot afford to bank on its broad and sustained validity. Hence, publishers' anxiety.

The only reason why there possibly is a six months' embargo in the Bill is a realisation that publishers need to be able to recoup the money they put into publishing. Given that Messrs. Cornyn and Lieberman realise this, it would have been better to require immediate open access and to acknowledge that publishing is part of doing research, and therefore the cost of publishing part of the cost of research, thereby stimulating publishers to seriously develop open access publishing models based on article processing charges.

Of course, I know of assertions that not all OA journals charge authors anything at all. This is undoubtedly so, but a quick look at those journals leaves one with the inescapable impression that ideas about scaling up that mode of operation to anywhere near the bulk of the serious journal literature firmly belong in the realm of unlimited impossibilities.

The whole world of scientific and scholarly research benefits from having robust and reliably sustainable open access publishing structures. Politicians do, too, because society as a whole does, too. And yes, publishers do, too.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Of free riders and bad pennies

In the open access debate, 'free riders' keep popping up like the proverbial bad pennies. Free riders are those who profit from open access to research articles, where in the subscription model they had to pay for access. Even UK parliamentarian Ian Gibson, in the last paragraph of his recent foreword to Neil Jacobs' book, sees free riders as problematic.

But are they? Once research results are published (i.e. made public), in any model, whoever sees a possibility to benefit (or profit) from applying the knowledge found in these research results, is free to do so. In fact, a strong commitment to and concomitant spending on research in a country is usually seen as closely associated with a strong economic performance and development of the economy. So why is it that free use of the results themselves, representing 99% of the cost of research, is not problematic but, instead, is rightly seen to stimulate the economy, yet free access to the published results, representing a mere 1% of the cost of research, is regarded as a problem?

Jan Velterop

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Back to nature

Information, in its natural state, flows freely. It spreads to wherever it can go, like water. It grows even in the process. Like the biblical loaves and fishes, which fed thousands and when everyone was satisfied, the remains amounted to more than the original basket full. Substitute 'food for thought' for 'food' in that story, and it doesn't sound so miraculous at all anymore. This is not an argument in favour of open access along the lines of "information wants to be free", since information has no mind of its own and doesn't want anything. Instead, it's just an observation. We have to do almost nothing for information to flow freely. Especially not now the internet enables that flow so easily. We do, however, need to employ all manner of artificial constructs if we want to restrict its flow: legal ones, such as copyright; technological ones, such as authentication procedures; and cultural ones, such as censorship.

For information and knowledge, open access is nature. Unfortunately, the second part of this sentence cannot be reversed and still be true, but that may yet come. Also unfortunate is that considerable amounts of intellectual efforts as well as financial resources are devoted to keeping the constructs needed to restrict information up to the task and enforceable. This is particularly unfortunate in the academic realm, where information and knowledge is primarily generated to be added to the 'noosphere', the knowledge sphere on which the whole world should be able to draw.

The reason why so much effort is being spent on restricting the free flow of information is clear, of course. Validating, organising, and disseminating information and knowledge is costly, is a value added to make the information and knowledge usable and reliable, and needs to be paid for somehow. Restrictions make it possible subsequently to require payment for lifting them.

It is widely understood – and rarely contested – that the tremendous value added by the science publishing industry to organising and providing ways to validate scientific information and knowledge and make it reliable, needs to be paid. However, the question that needs to be asked is, shouldn't the formidable intellectual efforts and resources that are now being spent on maintaining and refining the ancient restriction regime, be better spent on finding new ways to financially support the free flow of information and knowledge, suited to the circumstances of today? Especially since, ironically, that regime was developed centuries ago when copyright was conceived as a way of supporting the technology of its day in order to make the information flow more freely.

Open access is nature. Is it not better to harness and use the forces of nature to our benefit, rather than to fight them?

Jan Velterop

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Of profits and surpluses

The same review by Kate Corby that I referred to in my previous post, reports that "Willinsky makes a strong case for the contention that the aggressively competitive role commercial publishers play in academic publishing has had a negative impact on access for everyone."

What is interesting is that Willinsky (or is it Corby?) inserts the word 'commercial' here, as if not-for-profit publishers, mainly societies, generally support open access and are not 'aggressively competitive'. He doesn't seem aware of the fact that they generally don't and are. He also doesn't seem aware of the fact that a great many society journals are published on their behalf by commercial publishers. And he clearly has never sat in on negotiations between societies and the publishers who publish their journals.

If he had, he would realise that not-for-profit journals do not exist in any numbers. Most so-called not-for-profit journals are expected, by their not-for-profit owners, to make a handsome return (often called ‘surplus’, which is distinct from ‘profit’ only in that it is not taxable), an expectation which is passionately pursued (let's not call it 'aggressively'). Sure, this surplus is mostly being used for good purposes of the society's choosing, but these good purposes seldom have anything to do with the journals themselves or with open access.

There is nothing wrong with surpluses. Or with profits, for that matter. It's the way the free world works. And even the not-so-free world. It would, however, behove scholarly societies to support economically sustainable open access business models for the publication of their journals and make their surpluses that way. For the benefit of science. For the sake of enabling academic researchers to be "in the business of growing the world’s knowledge base", and yet thrive in the cut-throat environment of the 'ego-system' that the global scientific enterprise is, with its relentless 'publish-or-perish' culture. 'Aggressive competitiveness' is all around us, I'm afraid. Or is it 'passionate competitiveness'?

Jan Velterop

Of cost and value

Peter Suber's excellent blog Open Access News drew my attention to Kate Corby's review of John Willinsky's book The Access Principle. She says that "Perhaps the strongest point this book makes is that openly accessible scholarly information is more valuable [than] information published in journals with limited access."

On this point, I couldn't agree more with Willinsky. Yet if his point is valid, why is it that there are still plenty of members of the academic community, including OA advocates, who somehow balk at the idea of willing, OA-conscious publishers charging for the service of open access publishing? Isn't what one is prepared to pay for something an expression of its 'value'? So why is Academia prepared to shell out for subscriptions, but reluctant to pay for the article charges that come with OA publishing? In the aggregate, and in the traditional subscription model, Academia spends an amount far exceeding $3000 for every single article published in established journals. Why not spend that money on publishing all those articles with open access? And get more value to boot? Or is Academia just too anarchic to be sensible about this?

Jan Velterop

Friday, March 31, 2006


When I was looking in my thesaurus for an alternative to the word 'repository', I was given 'sepulchre' and 'tomb'.

Never realised that. Is that why one calls them Repositories of Institutional Publications? What's in a name? Or is there perhaps a subconscious message here? An element of 'nominative determinism'?

Jan Velterop

Monday, March 27, 2006

Of value and money

In a recent missive to all ACS (American Chemical Society) members, the Society’s President, E. Ann Nalley, warned against the dangers of jeopardising the tremendously useful, yet complex, journals-based system of publishing scientific research. In an open letter on her blog, OA activist Heather Morrison reacted to this, extolling the virtues of barrier-free access to the scientific research literature.

One might be forgiven for getting the impression that the two are at odds with one another. They might even think so themselves. However, both are right, in their own ways.

The journals system is tremendously useful. The validation and certification through critical peer-review, the stability it lends to scientific communication by providing a unique citation for each article – thus making it the version of record, the structure journals give to archiving, they all add great value to orderly scientific discourse and to maintaining the integrity of ‘the minutes’ of science. What Nalley fails to address – though it can be read between the lines – is the matter of cost. Nalley fears that if articles published in the ACS journals are made freely available elsewhere, their economic basis is seriously undermined.

Morrison doesn’t refute this. Instead, she is addressing a different point. It is evident that unhindered access to scientific research literature is beneficial for science, and hence for society. Not a word about cost, though. Who is she expecting to pay for it all?

If researchers want to communicate their research results, it is perfectly possible for them to make it all available to anyone in the world for free. All they have to do is post their material on a on a web site or to deposit it in an OA repository. Why don’t they just do that? Why bother a publisher? Or is the publisher perhaps providing them with something that makes their articles more valuable – to them and to science – than they would be if just published unofficially on the web?

That, of course, is the key. Journals (and thus: publishers) make unofficial, grey literature white, so to speak. Golden, even. They organise, operate and maintain a system that results in the ‘attachment’ of a journal ‘label’ to an article, which all of a sudden turns what is hitherto grey into a fully recognised publication, the version-integrity of which is guaranteed, and which is fully embedded in the official literature. That process adds tremendous value. But it carries costs.

Nalley’s letter is prompted by the NIH policies and Congressional draft bills that move towards requiring open access for federally funded research. The anxiety of the ACS and other publishers is justified as long as the NIH and congressional bills do not address the issue of costs associated with the tremendously useful journals system. They should take a leaf out of the Wellcome Trust book, which does address the issue with exemplary clarity. On their web site one can read that "…the Wellcome Trust […] will provide grantholders with additional funding to cover the costs of page processing charges levied by publishers who support the open access model" (my emphasis). The ACS should ask for that kind of commitment and clarity from the NIH, from other federal funding bodies, and from Congress. When open access is economically supported, Nalley and Morrison may find themselves on common ground after all.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What is an OA journal?

"Currently, the ISI Web of Knowledge includes 298 Open Access journals", according to Thomson Scientific. We also have the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), reporting (March 8, 2006) that it includes 2089 OA journals.

What, however, are 'Open Access Journals'? Do they exist? What's the definition? Journals that publish OA articles, or journals that publish only OA articles? Same question with regard to Open Access Publishers.

What does exist is publishers who publish journals in which open access articles appear. Not necessarily all the articles in a journal and not necessarily all the journals in a publisher's portfolio.

Why the distinction? Well, by focussing on exclusively OA journals or OA publishers one risks overlooking - no, one overlooks - all the open access articles that are published in journals that are not exclusively open access. This was already foreseen in the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing, in which the definition of open access carries the following rider: "Open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers."

There is a fundamental issue here. Thinking in terms of 'journals' can be rather misleading, simply because of their extreme variability. (In the UK one measures one's weight in 'stones'. Stones? Any stones? No, of course not, stones with a defined weight.) It can mislead to notions such as 'OA journals are less/more prestigious than non-OA journals', or 'one is used less/more than the other'. It can mislead to the perceived importance of notions such as 'average price of journals', or even 'journal impact factor'. Journals are 'tags', 'labels', classifying, organising, tools. Lumping them and counting them and averaging them is fine as long as we realise that what we are concocting is a potage that may actually obfuscate rather than elucidate what the situation is regarding the constituent 'molecules' of scientific discourse: the articles.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tie rituals

Minutes after I posted 'Rituals', I saw this: What's the point of a tie?



On the Liblicense list, Heather Morrison addresses 'The Religion of Peer Review' and refers to an article by Alison McCook: Is Peer Review Broken? The Scientist, 20:2 (February 2006), page 26.

To ask if peer-review works is probably asking the wrong question. It's a ritual, not a scientific method. It's a cultural expectation. Just like wearing a necktie is in certain circles, and nobody asks whether they actually work. (They would, as a noose.) And to expect peer-review to act as an almost infallible filter is wholly unrealistic. If it is a filter of sorts, it is one that helps journal editors to maintain their journals' biases. If peer-review were a method of only ascertaining an article's scientific validity, we would neither need, nor have, so many journals. One in every discipline would suffice. But the ritual reaffirms bias. The bias of 'quality', for instance, or 'relevance' (though the question could be asked to what, exactly?). And why not? Just as bio-diversity is a good thing, 'publi-diversity' may be as well.

She also asks, in the same posting, if there is "scientific proof that current methods [of publishing] will work?", saying that the "...current approach has [...] led to the serials crisis." She has a point, asking about proof, as the question is being asked of open access publishing, so why not of traditional publishing. But talking about rituals, isn't it a ritual, too, to complain about prices increasing faster than library budgets? Nothing remotely scientific about it. There would be a point if library budgets had broadly stayed in line with research spending. But they haven't. Isn't it an article of faith that the budgets "could not conceivably rise" in line with the production of scientific literature?

Open access publishing, in addition to all the other benefits it has, also keeps the cost of scientific literature in line with research spending. This isn't, of course, proven yet, let alone scientifically. But how would one prove it without doing it in the first place? The proof of this pudding, I'm afraid, can only be in the eating, as the saying goes.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Too many papers, too many journals

The complaint is already an age old one, but it still does rear its head regularly. There is a thread on the Liblicense-list called 'Does More Mean More?' and David Goodman expresses concern about journal fragmentation on the SPARC OA Forum (SOAF).

Are the complaints and concerns justified? In just about every walk of life there is more information than one can comfortably deal with; the phenomenon is not limited to the academic world. It is pretty much a fact of life. There is not much one can do about the existence of ever more information in science, except perhaps to halt scientific inquiry and research. Few would argue that it would make sense to go down that route. So the question is: how much scientific information should be made available, i.e. published?

I think it should be as much as possible. There is no place for 'quantity control' of information. Perhaps someone can come up with a way to control duplication, that would be useful, but true duplication doesn't occur all that often, is my impression. There are many articles that could broadly be called 'confirmatory', but they do usually introduce a different angle, population, dataset, or other variable. And if they don't, and just verify research carried out by others, that, too, serves a purpose. If anything, not enough information is being published. Think about clinical trials, for instance, or negative results, which aren't published anywhere near often enough, even though their publication could save a lot of research effort, time and money. Often enough, negative results are simply not being published because journals won't have them.

But 'information' is not the same as 'amount of articles'. We all know about 'salami-slicing', when a given amount of information is published in a number of articles, where putting them in just one article would be perfectly reasonable and possible. This is of course a consequence of the 'publish-or-perish' culture that has taken hold of science.

'Publish-or-perish' may be considered necessary in the scientific 'ego-system' to drive research forward, but it does have some uncomfortable side-effects, of which driving up the cost of maintaining 'the minutes of science' is perhaps even one of the less serious. It also drives a major inefficiency in the system, namely the quest for getting associated with the highest possible Impact Factor (IF). (I say 'associated with', because having an article in a journal with a high IF doesn't mean that the article in question will have a high number of citations. The IF is an average - many articles have lower citations and many have higher ones -, the IF a historical figure - past performance is no guarantee for the future -, and the IF covers a specific time-window - cycles of citations are rather different in different areas -, and yet it is 'attached' to an article the minute it is accepted for publication.) Whence the inefficiency? Well, it used to be so that articles were mostly submitted to a journal that was considered most appropriate by the author, but the quest - or ego-systematic necessity, perceived or real - to get associated with the highest possible IF has lead to speculative submissions to journals with such an IF. This in turn has lead to overburdening of peer-reviewers, high rejection rates, time-wasting, increasing risk of ideas being purloined or priorites snatched, and general inefficiencies to do with the consequent 'cascading' of many articles through the system.

As for the idea that there should be too many journals, that's a different kettle of red herrings. In the modern world, journals are just 'tags', 'labels' that are attached to articles. These labels stand for something, to be sure, and not just for quality and relevance, but many also indicate a school of thought or a regional or national flavour. As such they are an organising mechanism for the literature, a location and stratification method if you wish. As fragmentation is not a problem in itself anymore with the availability of aggregators in most areas and link-outs to the actual articles on the Web, only extreme serendipitous browsing might conceivably suffer. We have to realise, however, that this was only ever possible in journals with the widest scope (serendipitous browsing that is facilitated by having journals with just a wider - as opposed to the widest - scope is also achieved by following a few more specialist journals rather than one wider title, and that's not a materially greater chore with electronic alerting systems in place). Inevitably the likes of Science and Nature are always mentioned, even though they represent a tiny proportion of the total literature and scaling up their publishing formula to the whole - or even a substantial part - of the literature is simply not possible, and hasn't been for at least the last 50 years or so due to the sheer weight of published research.

A curious argument is to blame journal speciation on the problem of vanity-publishing, as David Goodman does. Curious, because he is right, although I suspect he might not have the same reasons in mind as I do. In my view, just about all journal publishing is vanity publishing. Or maybe I should say 'career-advancement publishing'. Forced upon researchers by the tyranny of 'publish-or-perish', impact factors, and all manner of research assessment exercises.

Was Einstein right when he said that "not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted, counts"?

Open access publishing, paid for out of research funds, as a cost of research, does not solve all these issues, but it does allow more information to be published while the cost of publishing stays in line with the research effort. I wonder if the problems of more articles and journals discussed on the email lists mentioned would be seen in the same light if the link between the amount of literature that is generated and its cost were restored.

Jan Velterop

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Does more mean more?

This is a discussion thread on the Liblicense list, and David Goodman just posted an exceptionally good comment. Here it is, in full:

Perhaps the need for publishers to be in the filtering process at all, goes back to the days of print journals which had a fixed number of pages that they could afford to print. There was then an absolute need to select, and an obvious justification for author fees for excess pages. There was also a great temptation
to accept too many articles, and many had a waiting list, sometimes of more than a year.

Especially after the web developed, such waiting lists very often led to the extensive circulation of what we now call "Accepted preprints," to the extent that the actual publication is a merely a matter of record, every one interested having already read the preprint. Having read the preprint, most of us are most unlikely
to also read the article.

Now essentially all science journals are published in both print and electronic, and this page limitation no longer applies to the electronic version, though there is still a limitattion in processing costs. Many publishers are in fact publishing
immediately the final electronic version, such as Elsevier just announced. Everyone (with a subscription) can now read the final version right away, and the print will appear eventually.

If the electronic version were the only version, and if gold OA were adopted for paying "on behalf of the author" then a publisher could afford to publish everything that met the quality standard of the journal. The quality standard of the journal
could be determined in a number of ways.

When I was still a molecular biologist, the most prestigious journal for a article after Nature was PNAS, and printed anything sent by a Member of Academy, (there was also a page charge.) One did not want to ask one's friendly Member except for the very best work, and that was the QC.

Members themselves could publish what of their own work they pleased, and were given an allowance for page charges. Their having been chosen Members was the QC. (This is why the eccentric work of some senior scientists was published in PNAS.) The practices have been progressively tightened very much since then, but page charges remain.

There is little aggregation of content in PNAS, and none at all in Nature or Science, or, within medicine, in JAMA. This too is a possible publisher's function, but not a necessary one. Reading every article that cites one's own, is a widely used filter and removes the need for an aggregator. The widespread use of both
toll and non-toll A&I services is not journal dependent, and such services in their printed form have had a useful role for centuries.

We should all welcome the current acceptance of change in the publication system--from Peter and from other publishers.

Dr. David Goodman
Associate Professor
Palmer School of Library and Information Science
Long Island University
and formerly
Princeton University Library