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