Tuesday, July 19, 2016

SocArXiv debuts, as SSRN acquisition comes under scrutiny

The arrival of a new preprint server for the social sciences called SocArXiv comes just a month after news that Elsevier is acquiring the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), a preprint repository and online community founded in 1994 by two researchers. 

Given the concern and disappointment expressed over the SSRN purchase by researchers, it is no surprise that the launch of SocArXiv has been very well received. Still smarting from Elsevier’s 2013 acquisition of Mendeley – another formerly independent service for managing and sharing scholarly papers – many (especially OA advocates) were appalled to hear that the publisher has bought a second OA asset. The reasons for this were encapsulated in a blog post by University of Iowa law professor Paul Gowder entitled “SSRN has been captured by the enemy of open knowledge”.

This concern has also attracted the attention of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which has launched a review of the SSRN purchase. The FTC is currently contacting many institutions and experts in scholarly publishing to assess the implications of the acquisition, presumably in order to decide whether it needs to intervene in some way.

Elsevier is understandably keen to downplay the interest the US government is showing in its latest acquisition. “The Federal Trade Commission is conducting a routine, informal review of our acquisition of the Social Sciences Research network,” vice president and head of global corporate relations at Elsevier Tom Reller emailed me. “Elsevier’s interest in SSRN is and has been about SSRNs’ ethos, a place where it is free to upload, and free to download. We are working cooperatively with the FTC, and believe that the review will conclude favourably.”

In other words, Elsevier does not believe the FTC’s interest in its purchase will lead to a formal investigation.

But however timely SocArXiv’s launch may be, the service is not a response to the SSRN acquisition, the director of the new service, and professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Philip Cohen assured me. “We were already in planning before we heard about the SSRN purchase.”

That said, the fledgling service is clearly keen to ride the wave of discontent that Elsevier’s latest move has engendered: it has begun to host preprints by means of a temporary arrangement until the platform’s construction is completed.

So what is SocArXiv? As the name suggests, it is modelled on the physics preprint server arXiv, and describes itself as a free, open access, open source archive for social science research. Authors are able to upload their preprints to the service and make them freely available to all. The papers will be provided with permanent identifiers to allow them to be linked to the latest version, or to versions published elsewhere. They can also be made available under Creative Commons licences, and analytics data will be provided to show how often papers have been accessed.

Registration to the service will be free and open to all, regardless of academic affiliation. In addition, registered users will be able to comment on and discuss papers.

A branded service


However, unlike arXiv – which was conceived (and still largely continues to act) as a supplement to the traditional scholarly publishing system, it is hoped that SocArXiv will disrupt the traditional system, and help to eventually supplant it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Open access and Brexit

The UK research community’s response to the recent referendum – in which a majority of 52% voted for the UK to leave the European Union (or “Brexit”) – has been one of horror and disbelief.

This is no surprise, not least because Brexit would have a serious impact on research funding in the UK. Nature reports that UK universities currently get around 16% of their research funding from the EU, and that the UK currently hosts more EU-funded holders of ERC grants than any other member state. Elsewhere, Digital Science has estimated that the UK could lose £1 billion in science funding if the UK government does not make up the shortfall in EU-linked research funds.

And a recent Outsell report noted that EU research funds accounted for, on average, more than £900m of funding each year between 2009 and 2015, or the equivalent of one-third of the competitive funding provided by the UK’s research agencies.

But what are the implications of Brexit for open access? Given the highly volatile situation the UK now finds itself in we cannot say anything for certain. However, any squeeze on funding will surely be detrimental to current plans to migrate scholarly publishing from a subscription to an open access system.

It is, after all, generally agreed that the transition to open access will require additional funding, if only in the short term. To this we should add that the UK has been one of the main advocates for open access within the EU, and globally.

Meanwhile, the other major advocate for open access in Europe – The Netherlands – is about to give up its Presidency of the EU. During their Presidency, the Dutch managed to persuade member states to agree to a commitment to make all scientific papers freely available by 2020.

There was always scepticism as to how achievable the EU goal is, but Brexit would seem to make it much less achievable. As The Wellcome Trust’s Robert Kiley points out on the questions I have posed about OA and Brexit, “The EU recently set a target of 100 per cent OA by 2020. How this was to be achieved was unclear, but without the UK at the table arguments in favour of gold will be less vocal.”

So what do OA advocates think about the current situation? Below long-time proponent of open access, and Professor of Structural Biology at Imperial College London, Stephen Curry offers some thoughts.

As an indication of just how uncertain the situation is note that Stephen asked me to preface his answers with this statement: “Readers should please bear in mind that my answers have been composed while I am still keenly feeling the pain and confusion surrounding the outcome of the EU referendum. Ask me again tomorrow and my answers could well be different.”
Stephen Curry

The interview begins …


RP: I realise that Brexit raises more pressing issues for UK academics than any impact it might have on the transition to open access, and that much still remains uncertain about how Brexit will play out, but what in your view would be the likely implications for open access if the kind of fears expressed in, for instance, this piece in Physics Today were to be realised?

SC: You’re right that there are many more pressing issues – loss of funding, loss of a leadership role within EU research programs, loss of influence – to say nothing of the fact that the UK now feels a much more unwelcoming place to students and staff from overseas.

The scale of this seems unimaginable. And everyone is disorientated because it’s clear that there is no plan for Brexit at the moment. It is all still to be worked out.

In the meantime, there is still the hope that the process of leaving will unravel; that the country, seeing the damage being inflicted, will find some way to step back. But even that just adds to the ongoing confusion and uncertainty. With all this going on, it is hard even to think about OA.

RP: Brexiteers say that it is “unlikely that universities will be bereft of funding”. But how confident can we be that Brexit will have little or no impact on university funding, and that if the UK does suffer economically costs for open access will not be one of the first victims?

SC: Brexiters have consistently underplayed the risks and costs of leaving the EU – as has already become plain.

The UK is a net contributor to the EU overall but ‘wins’ in terms of research funding. That will disappear if our subsequent agreement (and when will that be fashioned?)  doesn't include a commitment to freedom of movement, and that doesn’t seem likely right now.

Even if we save on the EU contribution (by no means guaranteed, especially if we want access to the single market), the ongoing decline in the pound, the drop in the stockmarket and the flight of industries and jobs will likely propel the economy into recession, reducing tax receipts and the possibility that the government will be able to ‘compensate’ UK science for the loss of EU funds. To do so the government would have to demonstrate a commitment to investing in R&D that has not been evident from past settlements of flat cash or, more recently, flat value.

In those circumstances, there could well be pressure on funds for OA. But perhaps that might make RCUK/UKRI get tough on fundees to seek value for money when publishing? They’ve been reluctant to date but these are strange times. Who knows?

RP: In 2013 RCUK anticipated that a full transition to open access would be completed within “around five years” [2018] and that by that time 75% of OA papers would be published as gold OA. It is also now widely accepted that – at least in the short term – a transition to open access will require additional funding (to pay the APCs generally needed for gold OA). If UK research funders and institutions faced a reduction in funding as a result of Brexit might the money needed for a transition to OA no longer be available, or significantly curtailed? If so, what sort of threat would that present for the OA movement?

SC: I think there’s a risk of that. I’m never sure what you mean by “the OA movement” – to me it’ is a heterogeneous collection of individuals and organisations with diverse emphases on the key articles of the various declarations – but it would pose a challenge to those of us in the UK who advocate the wider adoption of OA for scholarly research. I, for one, am up for that challenge. The argument for OA remains unchanged and the means to achieve it have always been the subject of debate.

RP: One possibility, I guess, is that much greater stress would be placed on green OA. But green OA does not offer any kind of transition to open access does it? And as publishers impose ever more onerous embargo conditions does green OA really offer a realistic long-term solution?

SC: That could be a direction to go in, particularly with the start of the HEFCE policy. I don’t think green OA is the long-term solution though it’s an effective interim measure. We will have to be vigilant in spotting and calling out extensions to embargo periods – particularly since I have not seen any convincing evidence that they are a cost to publishers.

RP: Presumably there are also implications for the EU. Along with The Netherlands, the UK has been the main driver of OA at a European level. As a result, in April the Amsterdam Call for Action on Open Science set a target of achieving full open access for all scientific publications by 2020 [A goal subsequently agreed on by the ministers of science, innovation, trade, and industry of member states at the May Competitiveness Council]. With the UK set to leave the EU might we see a fall-off in interest in OA within the EU?

SC: The UK has certainly been an influential voice (even if it hasn’t been able to induce many other nations to follow it down the gold-preferring route), but it is by no means the only one as far as I can tell.

The whole Brexit process could well be a huge distraction for the rest of the EU so perhaps the 2020 deadline (rather notional in any case for some?) might slip. But perhaps not – the HEFCE policy should be effective in achieving the aspiration in the UK and that could be an example for others. I’m not as clued into EU machinations as some but I will be sorry that the UK is excluded from EU discussions on OA.

Hope springs eternal: perhaps there are clever and pragmatic ways we might still be involved. There would be no want of volunteers in my view.

RP: While there has been much discussion over what the UK might lose financially as a result of Brexit, the UK is the third largest contributor to the EU budget. If it leaves, therefore, presumably the EU will face a 12.5% fall in its budget. Again, if transitioning to open access will – at least in the short term – cost more, is it not likely that the EU will need to cut its cloth, and that in doing so it will conclude that open access is not as high a priority as it was?

SC: The UK is a net contributor so I guess there will be some contraction of the EU budget. It won’t be 12.5% because the size of the EU would also fall if the UK leaves. The EU has its own economic woes but investors looking to exit the UK could well end up in the EU, so who knows what the net effect will be?

Part of the argument for OA in science and engineering is to disseminate the raw material for developing new technologies, and that hasn’t gone away. If anything the pressures of Brexit could make it seem more needed than ever. Who knows?

RP: What if any implications for OA are there here for those in North America and the rest of the world?

SC: If the UK loses some of its momentum on OA, I wonder if the some of the noise it has created around OA might be lost.

RP: What does this all mean for scholarly publishers?

SC: This is a fantastic opportunity for them to demonstrate what they really mean when they talk about being “partners” with the research community. I hope many will seize that opportunity to make a positive contribution to the situation.

Any hint of publishers seeking to take advantage of what is going to be a painful period for the UK research community should be called out and opposed. Like I said, hope springs eternal.

RP: Thank you for taking time to answer these questions.


Monday, May 30, 2016

The OA Interviews: Michaël Bon, Founder of the Self-Journal of Science

The OA movement has been fighting the wrong battle (all be it for a just cause), and for so long as it carries on doing so it will continue diverting and exhausting scientists and institutions in a fool’s game in which they have little power.” 

Fifteen months ago 35-year old French scientist Michaël Bon launched a new open-access publishing service called the Self-Journal of Science (SJS). 

SJS describes itself as a “non-commercial, multidisciplinary repository that provides journal-like services to entrust the evaluation, classification and communication of research to the unrestricted collective intelligence of the scientific community itself.”

What is noteworthy about SJS is that it is not another open access journal, but a new-style publishing platform, and one that could be viewed as a direct challenge to the top-down power structure of academia, and to the oligarchic editorial boards of legacy journals.

It is also worth noting that Bon was not aware of the open access movement when he conceived SJS. His aim was to fix what he sees as serious problems in the current scholarly communication system – problems of quality, of transparency, and of effectiveness. 

When he did find out about the open access movement Bon concluded that OA advocates have been trying to do things back to front, and as a result have played into the hands of publishers.

That is, in seeking to fix the access issue prior to fixing the structural flaws in the current publishing system the open access movement is overseeing the relocation of a broken model into a new environment. 

By contrast, says Bon, SJS is focused on exploiting the new environment to reinvent scholarly communication. In the process, he says, the access issue is solved collaterally – since openness is a given in SJS’ modus operandi.

If you want to find out more about how SJS works, about Bon’s philosophy and objectives, and where he thinks the OA movement has gone wrong, you can read a Q&A with him. This is available in a pdf file here. [Usual health warning: it is 28 pages long].

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Open Access Interviews: Sir Timothy Gowers, Mathematician

As the use of green open access policies looks increasingly like a failed strategy, and as universities, research funders, and governments in Europe seek to engineer a mass “flipping” of subscription journals to gold OA, has the open access movement reached a watershed moment? 

If so, how will it develop from here, is it headed in the right direction, and who should be leading the way

One remarkable thing about the OA movement is that it has primarily been driven by people other than researchers.

The President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, José van Dijck drew attention to this recently when she pointed out that the debate about open access has been mostly about what university administrators, librarians, government, funding organizations and publishers think, not what researchers think, or need. 

Yet it is researchers who create, quality check, and consume the papers that make up scholarly journals. They are the originators of, and primary audience for, the literature, so should they not have a large say in how scholarly communication develops?

As the financial consequences of gold OA become apparent, and as researchers are confronted with ever more onerous bureaucratic rules (policies) requiring them to make their work OA, however, this is likely to change. Certainly we can see researchers beginning to take more of an interest in the topic, and the signs are that they are not at all happy with the mess and confusion created by the OA movement.

Might we, therefore, see researchers become the foot soldiers of the next battle in the revolution the OA movement began? And might they want to do things somewhat differently?

If so, given his credentials who could claim to be better qualified to lead the troops over the top than Sir Timothy Gowers? 

Read the Q&A in the linked pdf and see if you agree. The interview is prefaced with an introduction.

To download the text click here.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Michał Starczewski interviews Richard Poynder for the Otwarta Nauka site

I was asked recently by open science advocate and historian Michał Starczewski if I would do a Q&A on open access for the Otwarta Nauka site based at the University of Warsaw. 

Below are the first two questions and answers. The full interview can be accessed here

It is also available in Polish here.

Image result for otwartanauka

Michał Starczewski: Do you think that openness is already a new standard in the world of scholarly communication, or is it still an ongoing experiment?

Richard Poynder
: Well, openness is certainly fast becoming a new standard in scholarly communication. What we don’t yet know, however, is exactly what openness means (or should mean) in this context, and exactly what processes and outputs it should apply to (and to what degree). We also don’t know who should best fund it, provide it, and manage it.

The OA movement is more than 20 years old. What surprised you most during this period?

What has surprised me most is the OA movement’s lack of organisation, or clear strategy on how to make OA a reality. As a consequence, we are now some 15 years away from the Budapest Open Access Initiative (where the term open access was adopted), and much still has to be achieved, not least clarifying the issues listed in my last answer. Apart from anything else, we still have no conclusive definition of open access. Given this, it is no surprise that there is a great deal of confusion about open access.

I think there are two main reasons for the failure of the OA movement to take a more structured approach. First, the research community is not actually very good at organising itself, particularly on a global scale. And it doesn’t help that researchers are increasingly incentivised to compete more than co-operate with one another.

Second, OA advocates have tended to approach open access more as if it were a religion than a pragmatic response to the possibilities the network provides to improve both the research process and scholarly communication (which should surely be the ultimate goal of open access).

These two factors have generated unhealthy schisms and disputes within the movement, with advocates spending too much time arguing over doctrine. 

We have also seen OA advocates become addicted to cheerleading and the shouting of slogans, which has deflected them from devoting sufficient time to developing practical strategies and tools to achieve open access. The assumption was that all that was required was to “convert” colleagues. When the movement failed to do that it began lobbying funders and institutions demanding that researchers be compelled to embrace OA, essentially they sought to offload the responsibility onto others.

It also has to be said that the strategies proposed and/or supported by OA advocates have often been cockeyed — not least the concept of the article-processing charge (APC). That anyone ever thought pay-to-publish was a sensible way of disseminating research is most odd. Not only is it impractical, but it has played into the hands of profit-hungry legacy publishers, and indeed any fly-by-night cowboy able to create a web site

I have also been surprised at how disconnected OA advocates are from the views of the wider research community — a tendency exacerbated by their habit of gathering together in their echo chamber of choice (conference hall, social media etc.) where their beliefs, prejudices and misconceptions are reinforced rather than subjected to a reality check. 

The recent Berlin 12 meeting suggests that this ghettoisation is increasing. As the meeting was entirely focused on “flipping” subscription journals to OA models it was “by invitation only” and the organisers chose not to invite any prominent green OA advocates, presumably to avoid any dissenting voices questioning the premise of the plan (although we cannot state this as a fact since the delegate list was secret).

All of which is to say that I have been surprised at how open access has been treated as a “cause” rather than a solution. And despite what OA advocates like to claim, the movement is not by nature democratic, but evangelical.

The French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”. OA advocates have sought to persuade colleagues by appealing to their hearts rather than their reason. 

While this approach may make sense in the context of deciding whether to believe in God (aka Pascal’s Wager), it is not very helpful when trying to persuade people of the need to change the way that research is disseminated. 

And it is my belief that this approach has not only slowed progress but is allowing legacy publishers to co-opt the movement for their own ends ...


The full interview (11 questions and answers) can be read on the Otwarta Nauka site here.

It is also available in Polish here.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Why I won’t be doing that video interview about open access

Recently I was contacted by Library Journal (LJ) in connection with a series of video interviews it is conducting with open access “VIP’s and leaders”. The first interview – with the Director of Harvard University’s Office for Scholarly Communication Peter Suber – has already been published. Would I have some time to do an interview myself, I was asked? The project is for a new section of LJ’s web site sponsored by the open access publisher Dove Press.

I liked the idea of doing a video interview but I was instinctively shy of being associated with a project that has a large Dove Press banner on the top right hand corner proclaiming it to be the “exclusive sponsor” of the site, along with a list of featured articles with “Sponsored by Dove Medical Press” in prominent red ink strapped across the top of each one. I felt that taking part would amount to endorsing Dove Press, which for reasons I will explain below I did not want to do.

I emailed LJ back to say I was not comfortable with doing an interview for a site sponsored by Dove Press, and asked whether it would consider posting any such video elsewhere on the LJ site. Strangely, I received no reply to this. As I was now intrigued as to how this site had come about, who had suggested the idea, and what its purpose was I also emailed LJ’s Managing Editor. To this too I received no reply.

So what are my reservations about being associated with Dove Press? There are a number of issues here, including a discomfort with the publisher’s marketing and PR activities, a concern with its editorial processes, some puzzlement over its lack of transparency, and a suspicion that its commitment to open access is not as deep as I would like.

Let’s be clear, while some have accused Dove Press of being a “predatory” publisher, I am making no such claim here. Nor could I, since I don’t have sufficient information to make a judgement either way. I am just stating the reasons why I personally do not want to be associated with the company.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

The OA Interviews: Kamila Markram, CEO and Co-Founder of Frontiers

Based in Switzerland, the open access publisher Frontiers was founded in 2007 by Kamila and Henry Markram, who are both neuroscientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. Henry Markram is also director of the Human Brain Project.
 
Kamila Markram
A researcher-led initiative envisaged as being “by scientists, for scientists” the mission of Frontiers was to create a “community-oriented open access scholarly publisher and social networking platform for researchers.”

To this end, Frontiers has been innovative in a number of ways, most notably with its “collaborative peer review process”. This abjures the traditional hierarchical approach to editorial decisions in favour of reaching “consensual” outcomes. In addition, papers are judged in an “impact-neutral” way: while expected to meet an objective threshold before being publicly validated as a correct scientific contribution, their significance and impact are not assessed.

Frontiers has also experimented with a variety of novel publication formats, created Loop – a “research network” intended to foster and support open science – and pioneered altmetrics before the term had been coined.

Two other important components of the Frontiers’ concept were that it would operate on a non-profit basis (via the Frontiers Research Foundation), and that while it would initially levy article-processing charges (APCs) for publishing papers, this would subsequently be replaced by a sponsored funding model.

This latter goal has yet to be realised. “We dreamed of a zero-cost model, which was probably too idealistic and it was obviously not possible to start that way”, says Kamila Markram below.

Frontiers also quickly concluded that its non-profit status would not allow it to achieve its goals. “We realised early on that we would need more funds to make the vision sustainable and it would not be possible to secure these funds through purely philanthropic means,” explains Markram.

Consequently, in 2008 Frontiers reinvented itself as a for-profit publisher called Frontiers Media SA. It also began looking for additional sources of revenue, including patent royalties – seeking, for instance, to patent its peer review process by means of a controversial business method patent.

The patent strategy was also short-lived. “We abandoned the patent application by not taking any action by the specific deadline given by the patent office and deliberately let it die,” says Markram, adding, “we soon realised that it is far better just to keep innovating than waste one’s time on a patent.” (Henry Markram nevertheless remains an active patent applicant).

By the time the peer review patent had died it was in any case apparent that Frontiers’ pay-to-publish model was working well. In fact, business was booming, and to date Frontiers has published around 41,000 papers by 120,000 authors. It has also recruited 59,000 editors, and currently publishes 54 journals. By 2011 the company had turned “cash positive” (five years after it was founded).