Friday, February 26, 2010

Open Access linked to Alabama shooting

Some Open Access (OA) advocates shocked by the shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) may not be aware of the OA link to the story: The last paper authored by Amy Bishop — the researcher charged with killing three of her colleagues – was published in the International Journal of General Medicine, an OA journal published by New Zealand-based OA publisher Dove Medical Press. Since Bishop cited three of her teenage daughters as co-authors of the paper, and Dove charges an article-processing fee for publishing papers, commentators have been quick to conclude that OA is little more than vanity publishing. Dove is a member of the Open Access Publishers Association (OASPA). Is OASPA asleep at the wheel?

On 12th February 2010, Amy Bishop, a 45-year-old biology professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, allegedly shot dead three of her colleagues and wounded three others — in what was quickly characterised as a rampage shooting.

Reporting on the incident the following day the New York Daily News explained: “Bishop returned to the faculty meeting shortly after being denied tenure around 4 p.m. and opened fire in a third-floor meeting room at the Shelby Center for Science and Technology,”

The paper added that if she is convicted Bishop, a Harvard University-trained neuroscientist, could face the death penalty.

Not adequate

As news reporters and bloggers began sifting through the data in an effort to understand what had gone so tragically wrong, and why Bishop had been denied tenure (assumed to be the trigger for the shooting), they soon alighted on her web site.

“Most of Ms. Bishop's published papers concern nitric oxide, a molecule that cells use to communicate with other cells,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on 15th February. “But at high levels, nitric oxide is toxic. It is believed to play a role in the development of certain cancers — and also neurodegenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease.

“If those mechanisms can be somehow turned into genetic therapies," continued The Chronicle, "they might eventually lead to new treatments for a variety of neurogenerative ailments. That was the premise of a $219,750 grant that Ms. Bishop received in 2008 from the National Institutes of Health.”

However, it seems that UAH had concluded that Bishop was not showing sufficient promise to justify being given tenure. “[A]ccording to several accounts — including a Chronicle interview with her husband on Sunday — Ms. Bishop's output was not regarded as adequate by the tenure committee at Alabama," explained The Chronicle. "She was notified last spring that she did not get tenure, and although she made several appeals of that decision, they were ultimately unsuccessful.”

All of which would seem to imply that UAH's decision was heavily influenced by Bishop's publication record. And that apparently was not so great: she had published only one peer-reviewed paper in each of the years 2004, 2005, and 2006, and she published no papers at all in 2007 and 2008, reported The Chronicle.

True, last year Bishop published three papers, but this was still not deemed sufficient — partly, The Chronicle seemed to suggest, because one of those papers "appeared in the little-known International Journal of General Medicine”. As we've stated, this is an OA journal published by Dove Medical Press.

The Chronicle added that other biologists who do similar work on neurodegenerative disorders “tend to publish at a much faster clip.”

However it was Bishop's OA paper — entitled ‘Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival — that journalists and bloggers began to home in on, and not without cause perhaps.

Vanity journal?

On 15th February, for instance, The Daily Kos pointed out that the International Journal of General Medicine charges authors to publish their papers. This fact alone, The Daily Kos seemed to imply, meant that the paper would have been inadequate. But there was more.

“Forget the fact that the Chronicle of Higher Education calls the journal ‘little-known’. Forget the fact that the it's a vanity journal, which only has an ‘honorary’ rather than a real editorial board and which rapidly accepts and publishes almost anything submitted, as long as the author pays the publication fee of many hundreds of dollars. Forget the fact that the journal is published by ‘Dove Medical Press,’ which is infamous for spamming people about its fraudulent journals. Here's the kicker — Bishop almost certainly listed her own minor children as the lead authors of the article!”

The Daily Kos' conclusion, it seems, was that any researcher who pays to publish their work must be engaged in some form of vanity publishing. If, in addition, the author cites her own children as co-authors the quality of that work must inevitably be low. That the publisher also promises to make the papers it publishes available rapidly seemed only to confirm such a conclusion.

Initially it was The Daily Kos' "kicker" that attracted most attention, and was invariably viewed as evidence not only that Bishop's work was inferior, but that Dove Medical Press and (by implication) OA at large was suspect.

On February 18th the Wall Street Journal noted : “On the university's Web site, Ms. Bishop listed 16 published academic articles that she co-authored between 1992 and 2009. The most recent listed article was published in May 2009 and names her husband and three of her four children, all of whom are under 19 years of age, as co-authors.”

Bishop’s husband, James Anderson Jr., (also 45), told the WSJ that the paper was “a family research effort that evolved out of a science-fair project. ‘Some families do soccer. We do science’.”

A week later the Boston Herald devoted an entire news story to the Dove paper, under the headline: “Amy Bishop, husband listed teens on research paper”.

When The Herald asked UAH spokesman Ray Garner about the paper, he insisted that the school was unaware that Bishop and Anderson had put their daughters’ names to a research project, “for which the paper also credits the school and the couple’s home-based science research company Cherokee Lab Systems. ‘It’s unusual,’ Garner said.”

For by now another blogger had discovered that “googling with street view the claimed address for Cherokee Labsystems — 2103 McDowling Dr. SE, Huntsville, AL — shows a residential home and not a laboratory allegedly involved in genetic research.”

By 20th February The New York Times also appeared to have concluded that having a research paper published in an OA journal was to engage in vanity publishing. Indeed it directly referred to the International Journal of General Medicine as a vanity journal or, as it put it, "essentially a scientific vanity press."

As interest in the Dove paper grew news reports began to use the term OA directly, and generally not in a flattering way. In a further NYT news report published on 22nd February, the paper commented. “One 2009 paper was published in The International Journal of General Medicine. Its publisher, Dovepress, says it specialises in ‘open access peer-reviewed journals.’ On its Web site, the company says, ‘Dove will publish your paper if it is deemed of interest to someone, therefore your chance of having your paper accepted is very high (it would be a very unusual paper that wasn’t of interest to someone).”

Peer review

But is it fair to characterise Dove, or OA publishing at large, as "essentially a scientific vanity press"? After all, this assumes that published papers are not peer reviewed. However, while it clearly it has not helped that Bishop cited three of her teenage children as co-authors of her paper, can we conclude from that that Dove does not have papers evaluated before publishing them?

Not necessarily: On the same page that The Daily Kos cites as evidence that Dove's journal is a vanity publication it is also stated, “Although peer review is rapid it is also very thorough — at least 2 peer reviewers comment on each paper. Many authors have found that our peer reviewer’s comments substantially add to their final papers.”

On the other hand, Dove's claim that it will publish anything "deemed of interest to someone" could imply something quite different.

Who then would have made the decision to publish the Bishop paper, and is it possible to confirm that Bishop's paper was peer reviewed? When I spoke to Dove Medical Press Publisher Tim Hill in 2008 he said: “The Editor-in-Chief and/or their Associate Editors make the decision as to what is published and what is rejected.”

So I emailed the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of General Medicine Professor Scott Fraser, a consultant ophthalmologist at Sunderland Eye Infirmary in the North East of England. My emails, however, have so far gone unanswered.

(In looking up Fraser's name on the Dove site I was surprised to note that he appears to be the Editor-in-Chief of no less than nine Dove journals).

I also emailed Hill. Could he confirm that Bishop's paper was peer reviewed? And was he aware that Bishop had cited three of her teenage daughters as co-authors of her paper?

“We do ask that all co-authors be cited in any paper sent to us,” Hill replied. “Dr Amy Bishop was the corresponding author of this paper. Her paper (‘Effects of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors on motor neuron survival’) was peer-reviewed by 3 experts and revised by Dr Bishop prior to an editorial decision to accept the revised paper for publication.”

Hill concluded: “It appears, on the basis of media reports, that she [Bishop] was in breach of our authorship criteria.”

The problem is that as the number of controversial incidents connected with OA continues to grow (e.g. here, here and here) it is no longer enough for OA publishers simply to assure the public that the papers they publish are peer reviewed. It has got to the point where they really need to be able to demonstrate that it is so.

What would doubtless help, therefore, is if OA publishers embraced the practice of open peer review. After all, if reviewer reports were all freely available on the Web the world would be far better able to judge whether or not a paper had been peer reviewed, and how thoroughly.

In fact, some OA journals do already practice open peer review — including some of the journals published by BioMed Central (e.g. here) and OA journals like Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (ACP) — e.g. here.

Dove, however, does not. As Hill explained to me in 2008, “We adhere to the traditional manner of conducting peer review."

But peer review is only one issue: There is also the issue of author-pays. The media response to the Bishop paper, and the assumptions made, has served once again to draw attention to the fact that the author-pays business model that most OA publishers (and a growing number of subscription publishers) now utilise is deeply problematic. In fact, it has become the Achilles Heel of the OA movement. As The Daily Kos post amply demonstrates, whatever its claimed merits or demerits, the public is deeply sceptical about it.

Nor is it just the public: It is becoming increasingly apparent to the research community that the APC rates now being levied by OA publishers are unjustifiably high, and that asking authors to pay to publish is prone to abuse (which would appear to confirm public scepticism).


Whatever the details of the publication process the Bishop paper was subjected to, and the thoroughness with which it was evaluated, the incident has undoubtedly been an embarrassment for Dove. Since Dove is a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, an organisation created to self-regulate the OA publishing market, it is also an embarrassment to the OA publishing community at large.

In its efforts at self-regulation OASPA has drawn up a code of conduct. This code of conduct does not require OA publishers to verify the identities of all the authors cited in papers they publish, but the publicity around the Bishop paper has underlined the continuing credibility problem that OA publishers face, and the difficulties of maintaining adequate quality control in an environment in which authors have to pay to be published.

What are OASPA's views on the incident? In the hope of finding out I emailed a list of questions to the organisation. Amongst other things, I asked whether OASPA was concerned that three teenage children had been cited as co-authors of a peer-reviewed paper published by one of its members, whether it felt that having one person act as Editor-in-Chief of nine Dove journals might not be excessive, and whether it was desirable that the International Journal of General Medicine should have only an honorary editorial board.

In reply I received a short statement: “The issue raised could affect any publisher, and we do not wish to be drawn into a discussion around this tragic incident.”

Many subscription publishers would doubtless disagree that the same thing could happen to any publisher. Be that as it may, the whole episode serves once again to cast OA in an unsavoury light, and must surely leave researchers, research institutions, as well as the tax-paying public, with the strong impression that OA publishing is a somewhat shoddy business. Unfortunately, OASPA's reply suggests that OA publishers remain dangerously oblivious to the credibility gap yawning in front of them.

Certainly some librarians appear to be baffled. On 23rd February Beth Transue, a librarian at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, posted a note to the MEDLIB-L mailing list. Providing a link to the NYT article of 20th February she commented: "Making this situation more complicated is that the publisher [Dove] is a member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, which also lists members such as BioMed Central, BMJ Group, Oxford University Press, and Sage. It isn't clear to me how Dove became a member of this association, given their review practices, especially in comparison with these other reputable publishers."

Transue then asked: "Has anyone on this list had any experience with this publisher or journal?."Do you have it listed in your holdings? Do you plan to remove it from your holdings lists? We are considering removing all journals from this publisher from our holdings, and I was wondering about what other libraries might be doing."


The Bishop incident raises one further issue, or at least it ought to: and that is another issue of transparency — because Dove is one of a number of OA publishers strangely secretive about who owns and manages its business.

When I spoke to Hill in 2008 he would say only: “The company headquarters are in the UK. We have offices in the UK and here in Auckland. Dove is owned by six private individuals and we have some 20 employees.”

When I pressed Hill to name those six individuals, he declined. Not only is that odd in itself, but it is odd that OAPSA failed to ask the same question before welcoming Dove into its organisation. Even today OASPA has no idea who owns Dove. Since one of the reasons for founding OASPA was to help improve transparency in the OA publishing market this seems anomalous indeed.

So far as Hill is concerned the question of who owns a private company is nobody's business but its own. Many, however, would disagree, especially when that company makes its profits out of public funds. As I put it in 2008: “[I]t is primarily public money that researchers will be using to pay to have their scholarly papers published in OA journals. Is it not reasonable therefore for taxpayers to expect to know exactly what is being provided for that money, and who will benefit from any profits that are made as a result?”

And I am not alone in believing this. Commenting on my interview with Hill, Cornell's Phil Davis remarked at the time: “The interesting thread that Poynder explores is the lack of transparency (and thus accountability) of some of these start-up companies. While certainly not limited to OA publishers, the open access movement is very focused on transparency and public accountability as central framing issues. One may argue that access to public funds requires both access to the output of the research and access to how the money was spent. You can't have it both ways.”

Peter Suber, de facto leader of the OA movement, is also uncomfortable with the lack of transparency over the ownership of some OA publishers. In fact, he told me, he had been under the impression that transparency of ownership was a pre-condition for membership of OASPA. "At least I am deeply suspicious of publishers who are unwilling to disclose their owners," he told me. "We need that kind of transparency to be able to investigate whether the owners have financial interests, e.g. with pharma companies, that might compromise the integrity of their journals."

Time to wake up

In short, what many OA publishers seem to have failed to take on board is that OA raises transparency issues not just about the quality of the services provided, but about the public's right to know how tax-payers' money is being spent, and who is pocketing the proceeds.

Given the number of scholarly publishing scandals in recent years it is becoming increasingly difficult for the public to trust the peer review process; when the ownership of the companies in charge of that process is similarly non-transparent, public confidence in how its tax dollars are being spent can only be further undermined. What is needed is transparency both of process and of ownership.

All in all, it is hard not to conclude that OASPA has fallen asleep at the wheel. Now is the time to wake up. And the first thing it should do — after smelling the coffee — is to insist that Dove either immediately publish full details of its ownership, or leave the organisation. And is it not also time for OASPA to set about persuading members to embrace open peer review? Transparency aside, the latter would have the benefit of helping to assuage the growing concerns about possible abuse of author-pays publishing.

Whatever it does, OASPA is going sooner or later to have to address the poor public image associated with author-pays scholarly publishing.

I hope in the near future to return to the question of the ownership of Dove Medical Press — as well as the ownership of Libertas Academica, the OA publisher managed by Tim Hill’s son Tom Hill (likewise based in New Zealand).

Friday, February 12, 2010

The OA Interviews: Sciyo's Aleksandar Lazinica

In their efforts to derail the onward march of Open Access (OA) opponents have conjured up a number of bogeymen about Open Access publishing. First, they maintain, asking authors to pay to publish could turn scholarly publishing into a vanity press. Second, they say, OA publishing will in any case inevitably lead to lax or even non-existent peer review. Third, they argue, OA publishing is not financially sustainable. I felt the breath of all three bogeymen on the back of my neck recently, as I conducted an email interview with the CEO of OA publisher Sciyo, Aleksandar Lazinica — an interview that led the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA) to ask Sciyo to remove OASPA's logo from its web site. 


Aleksandar Lazinica, CEO, Sciyo

At the heart of the criticism deployed against OA publishing is the claim that levying an article processing charge (APC) on authors will inevitably corrupt the age-old process of scholarly publishing, and the independent peer review system on which it is based.

Certainly one obvious consequence of "author-pays" publishing is that the nature of the relationship between publisher and author changes radically from the traditional arrangement. While most researchers will doubtless obtain the necessary funds to pay to publish from their institution or funder, they nevertheless become paying customers of publishers not, as heretofore, supplicants seeking a free publishing slot.

For publishers it means migrating from a business environment in which their marketing efforts are focused primarily on selling journal subscriptions to intermediary libraries, to one where they have to sell a publishing service directly to authors.

Amongst other things, this means that many OA publishers have had to start utilising the mass marketing techniques characteristic of business-to-consumer (B2C) markets, rather than the business-to-business (B2B) methods traditionally associated with scholarly publishing. 

Cultural shift

For some this cultural shift proved difficult, with angry researchers reporting that they were being bombarded with spam messages that — they complained — were unwelcome, badly targetted and probably illegal. (Some argue, for instance, that legislation like the UK Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 and New Zealand's Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act, outlaws the "cold calling" approach that some OA publishers are even now engaging in).

The spam plague was exacerbated by a rash of new publishers entering the market and launching hundreds of new journals — for which it was necessary to recruit in double quick time thousands of researchers willing to sit on journal editorial boards and submit papers.

By the end of 2008 it was clear that unless something was done the entire OA publishing industry could fall into disrepute. Consequently a group of OA publishers — including BioMed Central (BMC), Public Library of Science (PLoS) and Hindawi — created a new organisation called the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA).

One of the main tasks OASPA set itself was to "Promote a uniform definition of OA publishing, best practices for maintaining and disseminating OA scholarly communications, and ethical standards."

How effective OASPA has proved in reducing the spam plague remains for now unclear. In the middle of last year, for instance, I myself (a journalist, not a researcher) received several bulk email messages inviting me to submit papers to a couple of scientific journals published by OASPA co-founder BMC. (BMC publisher Matthew Cockerill, however, vehemently denied that the company had done anything untoward in emailing me in this way, or that it has ever been overzealous in its direct marketing activities).

But however legitimate these continuing mass solicitations may be, their effectiveness has to be in doubt — since it inevitably means asking recipients to pay to publish, and researchers are used to getting their papers published in a very different way. As Cornell postgraduate student Phil Davis put it last year: "Most of the journals in which I aspire to publish never ask me for a manuscript. They don't need to. They receive thousands of voluntary contributions each year and turn most away."

As a result, many researchers receiving these messages immediately conclude they are being invited to participate in some form of vanity publishing, particularly when the invitations arrive from unknown publishers. This serves to breathe life into the vanity press bogeyman.

These suspicions lead naturally to the further conclusion that, even if the invitations are not from a vanity publisher, since there must be huge pressure to accept papers (in order to generate revenue), the publishers concerned will inevitably set more lax peer review standards than traditional subscription publishers.

Such fears were fuelled last June when it was reported that OA publisher Bentham Open had accepted a software-generated "nonsense" paper, for which it demanded a publishing fee of $800. With a chorus of "we told you so", critics quickly wheeled out the peer-review bogeyman.

And such incidents, combined with the dawning realisation that mass email invitations are as likely to alienate researchers as they are to "clinch a sale", inevitably also feed the "sustainable business model" bogeyman, with critics arguing that OA publishers have still to arrive at a viable business proposition. 

Free for all

Against this background my curiosity was piqued last December when I received a press release from an OA publisher called Sciyo announcing that it was discontinuing charging APCs for the papers it publishes in its journals.

The release also announced that Sciyo plans, from this year, to pay royalties to authors who publish chapters in its OA books (although these authors will still pay an APC — of 470 euro). The royalties, the release explained, will be based on the number of times an author's chapter is downloaded.

Curious, I emailed Sciyo and proposed an email interview. My request was accepted, and after several interchanges with the company's Communications Director Jelena Katic, I was passed over to the CEO of Sciyo, Aleksandar Lazinica.

As the interview proceeded I also learned that Sciyo views its current strategy as a transitional arrangement only: the long-term plan, said Lazinica, is to dispense with APCs all together, and move to what he called a "free for all" environment — in which all the research Sciyo publishes (both journals and books) will be published without charge, but will nevertheless be made freely available on the Internet.

"We strongly believe that the APC has no future," Lazinica told me, adding that Sciyo is therefore exploring a number of alternative revenue streams. In the interim, he added, the APCs generated by charging authors to publish book chapters will subsidise the cost of publishing papers without charge in Sciyo's journals.

Could it be, I wondered, that Sciyo has discovered a business model able to slay both the vanity press and sustainability bogeymen in one fell swoop?

For the moment that's not clear, since Lazinica would not go into details about the alternative revenue streams he is exploring, although he did provide a clue: "We are basing our future development on the assumption that in the online environment the number of eyeballs is what counts and that people using a particular service do not necessarily have to be the ones paying for it," he told me, adding, "As soon as we're ready, we will be sharing the specifics with the community."

Time will tell. But what about the peer review bogeyman? 


I took time out between the to-ing and fro-ing of emails with Sciyo to do some web research.

As a result I discovered that Sciyo is not a new company, but one originally founded in 2004 as In-Tech. And I recalled that In-Tech was a publisher already known to me. I had first come across it in 2007, when I was alerted to the fact that researchers had begun complaining that they were receiving what they felt were suspicious invitations to pay to publish book chapters. On contacting the company, however, I was told that the invitations were entirely legitimate.

But similar complaints have continued to dog the company. Last year one disgruntled researcher — who said he had received repeated invitations from In-Tech — wondered whether he might have been targetted by a variation of the so-called Nigerian Scam.

A press released published last November announced that In-Tech had been renamed Sciyo. This has not, however, curtailed criticism of its email solicitations, with recipients still inclined to believe that they are being approached by a vanity press, or even perhaps a disreputable organisation. Sciyo's offer of royalties has likewise been greeted with scepticism.

To its credit, Sciyo appears to have been assiduous in its efforts to reply publicly to critics, insisting that those receiving its email invitations are not chosen randomly, and that all Sciyo's publications "undergo rigorous refereeing". As such, the company stresses, "Chapters which don't meet the quality criteria do not get published, meaning it is not vanity publishing or any sort of pay-to-publish scheme."

Faced with what appeared to be an increasingly muddy picture I emailed a dozen or so authors who had published with In-Tech/Sciyo. Only a few replied, but the responses I received were not entirely positive.

Commenting on Sciyo's plans to pay royalties, one of those I contacted emailed me: "I do not think this would be for the benefit of the authors but of the journal. It pushes authors to advertise their work (as if it were perfume in Harrods) in order to receive a small amount of money. The journal will receive more visits and therefore it will be ranked in the best places of the scientific community." 

Achilles Heel

Another one of the authors to reply was critical of In-Tech/Sciyo's peer review process. As he put it, "The review process is blind, but it is actually non-existent. We never received any real review for our papers, rather just an acceptance note for an initial abstract. The full papers were not reviewed at all and, furthermore, for some papers we did not have a chance for proof reading. Finally, two articles of ours were published without notifying us at all, in one case (the journal) the initially submitted draft was taken as it was and suddenly appeared on the web some months later (I just accidentally noticed this publication when I searched the web)."

He added: "I do not know how their review process works internally, but from what I experienced and heard from others, I fear, in comparison to all other publishers/journals/books I have experiences with, In-Tech/Sciyo ... well, I cannot even begin to compare it. It is simply highly unprofessional."
Other researchers have posted comments directly on the Web claiming that work they have published with In-Tech was also not peer reviewed.

When I asked Lazinica to comment on this he was unfazed, saying: "Admittedly, consistency in peer review is our Achilles heel and it is also one of our priorities in 2009/10. We do not have a bullet proof review system yet. We have managed to improve the process a lot but there is still an unacceptably high deviation in the quality between the publications."

From one perspective Lazinica's response could be viewed as refreshingly honest. When Bentham Open was accused of not conducting proper peer review the publisher repeatedly denied the charges — even after the editor of the Bentham journal concerned resigned, complaining that he had not seen the fake paper before it was accepted. (It is, of course, possible that the allegations made against Bentham were inaccurate).

Lazinica, by contrast, appeared to be holding up his hands and saying a loud mea culpa about the inadequacy of In-Tech/Sciyo's peer review. (Although when I asked him to confirm whether the problem was a consequence of inadequate peer reviewers, or whether the company does not always send papers out for external review, he declined to answer directly). 


From another perspective, Lazinica's response suggests that the OA peer review bogeyman is alive and well.

For Lazinica went on to argue that the current model of peer review is in any case outdated. He added rhetorically: "[W]hat is the purpose of such reviews, other than to be seen to be abiding by some formal regulations? Scientific publishing today is still at the same level as it was in the 19th century, with journals and the review process still the main parts of it. After more than 100 years, I believe it's time to move on and apply new mechanisms. Readers are the ones who should review the article by reading it or not."

The implication appears to be that Lazinica believes peer review would be better conducted after publication, rather than prior to it.

As it happens, many would be sympathetic to Lazinica's views. Peer review is regularly criticised for being little more than a charade.

Writing in The Lancet ten years ago Richard Horton famously put it this way: "Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong."

And since then, many believe, peer review has got worse. Only this month the BBC reported that an open letter had been sent to major scientific journals by 14 leading stem cell researchers alleging that "papers that are scientifically flawed or comprise only modest technical increments often attract undue profile. At the same time publication of truly original findings may be delayed or rejected".

The claim, said the BBC, is that "a small group of scientists is effectively vetoing high quality science from publication in journals."

Critics argue, the BBC added, that in some cases " it might be done to deliberately stifle research that is in competition with their own." 


But however justified Lazinica's views on the inadequacies of peer review may be, it is perhaps problematic when a publisher responds to criticism of his own peer review process by arguing that the practice is outdated.

For whether one likes it or not, peer review remains the sacred cow of scholarly publishing. However inadequate and pointless the research community may at times feel it to be, any publisher speaking out against peer review needs first to be able to demonstrate that his system is as good as it gets.

Moreover, publicly Sciyo appears to take a somewhat different line on the quality of its peer-review. "We aim to provide quality tools and infrastructure facilitating science communication," it says on its web site. "That means providing first-class peer reviewed literature compliant with the highest standards of scientific publishing and then making it freely available to anyone, anywhere in the world."

And if Lazinica is happy to concede that his company does not have a bullet-proof peer review system in place those researchers paying 470 euro to publish book chapters are bound to wonder what they are getting for their money, particularly given that Sciyo expects authors to help market their work.

Finally, Lazinica's comments will doubtless concern other OA publishers who, as we have said, face continuing claims that OA inevitably means lax or non-existent peer review. As the author who spoke to me about his experiences of publishing with In-Tech put it, "It might be that I have a little bias regarding OA resulting from my past experience with this publisher."

Unsurprisingly, therefore, OA advocates were concerned to hear Lazinica's views on peer review, particularly since In-Tech was a member of OASPA (as was Sciyo until my interview), and OASPA was created to ensure high standards in OA publishing, including the best possible peer review.

As one member of the OA community commented to me (on a non-attributable basis) after reading Lazinica's remarks: "Sciyo seems to plead guilty to the charge that it skimps on peer review. First it says that peer review is the company's Achilles Heel. Then it pretends that peer review is an obsolete 19th century practice and argues that readers should judge for themselves. Although these two replies are actually inconsistent, they both acknowledge serious laxity (in the first case, inadvertent and regrettable, and in the second case deliberate and advantageous). This laxity should be a concern to OASPA."

OA advocate Stevan Harnad also believes that OASPA should be concerned: "Sciyo seems to want to do high-volume, fleet publishing; they don't seem to be doing peer review; probably they can't find the competent reviewers willing to review for them; and now they think readers should do the reviewing. (Journals with such low-level standards and practices are just capitalising on author publish-or-perish needs to produce a product that could never survive if they had to charge subscriptions to user institutions, rather than publication charges to eager authors.)"

And with Sciyo's emailing activities continuing to attract criticism from recipients — many of whom assume that they are being spammed haphazardly — the publisher's activities seem to pose a double challenge to the OA publishing industry: OASPA's web site states quite clearly that: "Any direct marketing activities publishers engage in shall be appropriate and unobtrusive."

In other words, OASPA would appear to deprecate spamming. Yet, as Harnad points out, Sciyo's recruitment process "looks to me like spamming."

While we should certainly welcome the kind of experimentation that Sciyo is engaged in, one is tempted to conclude that its activities will make it more difficult for OASPA to slay the bogeymen that critics of OA publishing have conjured up.

However, Lazinica denies that the company has done anything OASPA should be concerned about: "All Sciyo's activities conform to OASPA's ethical standards," he told me.

And on its marketing activities he said: "Our author database to date consists of a respectable number of registered members. These are informed about Sciyo activities on regular basis."
Yet messages appearing on the Web complaining about the company's activities would seem to belie this — e.g. this message posted by Dr Sanjay Velamparambil in March 2009. 

Same but different

When I contacted OASPA President Caroline Sutton for her views, she commented: "OASPA takes very seriously the importance of compliance by its members with its code of conduct, including ensuring that peer review processes are genuine, and that email marketing is responsible. The issues raised regarding In-Tech/Sciyo will be carefully reviewed by OASPA, and action will be taken if they are found to be substantiated."

In a spirit of transparency, Sutton sent a copy of her quote to Sciyo, at which point there was a strange twist in events: Shortly afterwards, I received an email from Lazinica. "I am surprised by the review issue, and do not see where the problem is at all," he wrote.

He added that there had been a misunderstanding. Contrary to what he had said during the interview — ("Sciyo was founded in Vienna in 2004 as In-Tech. In 2008 we moved our headquarters to Croatia to cut down on operating costs. In November the company changed its name to Sciyo" ... Sciyo and In-Tech are the same company."); contrary to what the company's press release of 20th November 2009 said ("Effective today, In-Tech is changing its name to Sciyo and continues publishing using a new website, ... The company ownership and management remain unchanged"); contrary to what it says on Sciyo's web site; and contrary to what its Scribd company backgrounder says — Lazinica now insisted that Sciyo is not in fact the same company as In-Tech.

"Sciyo is a new Open Access publisher," he said. "Sciyo has no publications yet; the first Sciyo book will be published in May/June this year. So how does anyone know anything about the Sciyo review process?"

He continued: "Sciyo has taken all In-Tech publications, which without doubt have high scientific quality (which can be seen by the number of readers); Sciyo has a different strategy and development policy than In-Tech."

He concluded: "We were aware of In-Tech's process disadvantages, and Sciyo has improved the services and processes which were inherited from In-Tech."

Sutton, however, emailed me to say that she stood by her earlier quote. She added: "We have taken Sciyo's name off of the OASPA website, and have asked Sciyo to remove the 'member of OASPA' logo from their site. OASPA has asked Sciyo to apply for membership at which time we will be reviewing carefully their practices and policies. Sciyo has agreed to apply for membership."
Let's hope that this matter can be settled to the satisfaction of both OASPA and Sciyo: that OASPA finds Sciyo's practices and policies sufficient to warrant membership, and that the publisher is therefore able to put OASPA's logo back on its web site.

We are, however, left with two questions:

- Did not OASPA review In-Tech's practices and policies carefully prior to accepting it as a member of the organisation in the first place?

- In the light of this comment posted on the Web a month after In-Tech became Sciyo, how confident can we be that Sciyo's bulk emailing activities are any different from those of In-Tech?

If you wish to read the interview with Aleksandar Lazinica please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

If you would like to republish the article on a commercial basis, or have any comments on it, please email me at 

To read the interview with Aleksandar Lazinica (as a PDF file, including this introduction) click here.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Germany plans enquiry into the digital society

On 14th January the Christian Democratic Union and its Union partner in the German government the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CDU/CSU) proposed setting up an Enquete Commission to examine the implications of the Internet on society. Amongst other things, the Commission will be asked to look at initiatives for providing free access to publicly-funded research. Could this announcement be connected with the e-petition in support of Open Access (OA) launched in Germany last November? Does it herald a change of heart about OA on the part of the German government?

When governments are at a loss over how to tackle an issue, find themselves confronted by demands from citizens that they would rather not address, or face growing public conflict over an important question, they tend to launch an enquiry, produce a white paper, or appoint a commission to make recommendations.

With many governments now more than ever in doubt about the best way to respond to the host of issues raised by the Internet — including copyright, file-sharing, pornography, network neutrality, digital governance, OA etc. — we've seen a lot of enquiries, commissions and reports in recent years, all of which have proved to be controversial in one way or another.

Last year, for instance, saw the publication of a UK report called Digital Britain. This was immediately attacked by web companies like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo — on the grounds that it could give the UK government "unprecedented and sweeping powers" to amend copyright laws.

Last month a French report proposed a "Google tax" on online advertising revenues. Designed to subsidise musicians and newspapers struggling to adapt to the digital era, the idea was criticised for proposing that taxpayers fund "out-of-date businesses".

And in the US the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been struggling to realise the principles of "network neutrality" that it outlined back in 2005 with its Internet Policy Statement. Amongst other things, the FCC's proposals have been criticised on the grounds that they would stifle innovation and open the door to government control of the Internet.

Free unfettered access to the Internet

Now, it seems, it is the turn of Germany, with the CDU/CSU proposing the establishment of an Enquete Commission on The Internet and the Digital Society. To operate under the aegis of the German Parliament (Bundestag), the Commission will consist of 13 members of parliament from the different German political parties and 13 external experts proposed by the political parties.

The CDU/CSU outlined its plans in a press release published on 14th January. "The Internet is no longer just a technical platform," it said, "but has become an integral part of the life of many people."

For that reason, it added, it is up to governments to "set the framework to protect the Internet as a liberal medium, and to ensure its integrity and operability ... [such that] ... citizens, businesses and academia have free, unfettered access to the Internet."

On 19th January Germany's Free Democratic Party (FDP) — the third coalition partner in the German Government — announced its support for the Commission.

Amongst the many issues the Commission will be asked to examine, writes German OA advocate Eberhard Hilf on his blog, is the need to increase awareness of intellectual property; how to ensure that the Internet operates as a competitive market; how to ensure free access to the results of publicly-funded research; and how to develop strategies to ensure free access to government information.

On OA the draft resolution proposes that the Commission consider: "Initiativen zum freien Zugang zu den Ergebnissen staatlich finanzierter Forschung (Open Access)" ["Initiatives for free access to the results of publicly funded research (Open Access)"].

That the question of access to publicly-funded research should be included in a shopping list of hot topics related to the digital society is striking, and surely demonstrates how successful the OA movement has been in getting what many might consider to be an esoteric topic on to the national political agenda. As Hilf puts it, "It demonstrates that the topic of Open Access is now receiving serious evaluation at the level of the German Bundestag."

The Internet Question

On the other hand, maybe it is not so surprising: last year OA emerged as a key battle zone in Germany in discussions about what one might call the "Internet Question". As Hilf points out on his blog, OA was the topic of considerable public discussion during 2009, after it became entangled in a smorgasbord of Internet-related issues — issues like copyright, file-sharing, censorship, and growing fears that German culture is in danger of being appropriated by American companies like Google and YouTube.

Matters came to a head last April with the so-called Heidelberg Appeal, an open letter entitled "The Freedom to Publish and the Protection of Copyright" that was sent to German President Horst Köhler, Chancellor Angela Merkel and the heads of Germany's 16 federal states. The initiative was spearheaded by the academic Roland Reuss, a science historian and researcher (e.g. on the work of the writer Franz Kafka).

The Heidelberg Appeal was an emotional and confused attack on Google Books, on YouTube and on OA, and was in part triggered by growing support for OA from the Alliance of German Scientific Organisations — a coalition whose membership includes The German Council of Science and Humanities (WR), The German Research Foundation (DFG), Leibniz-Gesellschaft, and the Max Planck Society.

Outlining its concerns, the Appeal said that authors' freedoms in Germany are currently under serious threat, both at an international level ("[I]ntellectual property is being stolen from its producers to an unimagined degree and without criminalisation through the illegal publication of works protected by German copyright law on platforms such as Google Books and YouTube."), and at a national level. ("The so-called 'Alliance of German Scientific Organisations' wants to obligate authors to use a specified mode of publication [i.e. OA]. This is not conducive to the improvement of scientific information").

Not only was the Appeal based on a misunderstanding of the aims and objectives of OA (OA advocates, for instance, have never suggested that researchers be compelled to publish in OA journals), but it conflated OA with other issues (Google Books, YouTube etc.) that OA advocates argue have little to do with it.

This misunderstanding too is perhaps not surprising — for all these issues do share at least one important thing in common: they all arise from the fact that the Internet fundamentally changes the way in which information can be copied, distributed and consumed.

As the Enquete Commission proposal acknowledges, this offers many opportunities, but also poses threats.

However, due to proactive lobbying by multinational corporations in the mid 1990s, governments have until now tended to focus mainly on the threats and, in the belief that in a knowledge society IP maximalism and increasingly draconian copyright laws are essential, embarked on a wide-ranging review and updating of copyright laws — both nationally, and internationally via organisations like the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO).

Amongst other things, this led to the introduction of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, and the 2001 European Copyright Directive.

But as the collateral damage that such laws can inflict on innovation, competition, and civil rights etc., governments have come under increasing fire from a raft of new pressure groups and new-style political parties.

So, for instance, after industry groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) persuaded governments to strengthen copyright laws, and sanction wide-ranging use of digital rights management (DRM) technologies in order to lock up content (even at the expense of traditional fair use rights), there has been growing criticism from organisations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Save the Internet.

What has emerged as the key issue is how companies and governments ought to respond to the challenges that the Internet poses, both the challenges to traditional business models, and the challenges to society at large.

Media companies, for instance, have consistently maintained that new laws need to be introduced to protect their legitimate business interests. Opponents counter that they would be far better adapting their business models to the new realities of the Internet rather than seeking to bend the new environment to the steam age models that they are accustomed to. Instead of focusing on the threats the Internet poses to their historical way of doing things, critics argue, large corporations should exploit the many new opportunities it opens up.

As criticism (and civil disobedience) has grown, so governments have faced growing pressure to rethink their approach, particularly as it has become increasingly clear that IP maximalism may do more harm than good, and may any case prove unsuccessful, even when large multinational companies are prepared to sue thousands of private citizens, including hapless mothers.

The Internet has also raised questions about control more generally, with growing concern about privacy, about censorship, about governance and governmental transparency, and about the principle of universal access.

Heated debate

How did OA become entangled in this troublesome net? Because copyright is as central to any discussion of OA as it is to many of these other issues. As for traditional media companies, for instance, copyright is the cornerstone on which the business of scholarly publishing is built.

Confronted by growing calls for (and even mandates requiring) researchers to maximise access to the papers they publish in scholarly journals — by self-archiving them — scholarly publishers have echoed large media companies: If the information that they sell is made freely available on the Internet by others (and in ways not previously possible prior to the Internet), it will destroy their businesses.

What is different about scholarly publishing, of course, is that the information in question (research) is created with public funds. Researchers give it to publishers without charge, and conduct peer review of colleagues' research without charge. Publishers then sell that information back to the research community in the form of journal subscriptions.

Effectively, therefore, the research community gives publishers a publicly-funded good; publishers then package it up in journals and sell it back. In a print world this packaging is expensive. In a world in which information is produced, distributed and read electronically, the costs fall away to zero, argue OA advocates. Consequently, they say, the research community should be paying considerably less for the now minimal service provided by publishers. Instead they are paying more.

At heart the argument for OA is that in a networked world publicly-funded research can and should be made freely available, not held captive behind toll gates that deny access to those who cannot afford the toll. Scholarly publishers should adapt to the new reality, or get out of the way, not seek to impose outdated models in the new environment.

The problem is that scholarly publishers are accustomed to making large profits from publishing research. OA threatens these profits, and even those publishers who have migrated to an OA publishing model still expect to charge unjustifiably high fees. Rather than adapt, in other words, publishers want governments to help them maintain their profit levels, even if doing so prevents researchers taking advantage of the Web's distributive power.

Since publishers appear to be unwilling to play ball, argue OA advocates, it is up to researchers to ensure that their papers are freed from the pay walls — by self-archiving.

The inevitable tensions arising from this conflict of interest became all too apparent in Germany during the process of enacting the European Copyright Directive into German law. The so-called "First Basket" of the new law was passed in 2003. Shortly afterwards, however, discussions about a "Second Basket" led to a heated debate, with the research community becoming increasingly resistant to the government's proposals.

The German Rectors' Conference, the Science Council, the Max Planck Society and other German education and research organisations, for instance, voiced strong opposition, and joined forces with an initiative co-founded by Hilf called the Coalition for Action: Copyright for Education and Research. (AB).

On 5th July 2004 the AB issued the Goettingen Declaration on Copyright for Education and Research, which argued that "In a digitised and networked information society, access to information worldwide for the purpose of education and science must be guaranteed at all times and from any place."

By now the research community had concluded that, whatever similarities the case for OA may appear to share with the case being made by media companies, and whatever the merits or demerits of the arguments used by media companies in pressing for stronger copyright laws, publicly-funded research should be treated as a special case.

From the ensuing debate emerged a proposal for a "Third Basket" — known as "The Education and Science Basket". At the centre of the discussion about the Third Basked was the issue of OA. As we saw, scholarly publishers disagree and the research community disagree over this. And the German Government appears still inclined to support the publishers' case.

Moreover, to the frustration of the OA movement, some researchers also appear not to get it yet. It was the distribution last year of a questionnaire to science organisations about the Third Basket by the German Federal Ministry of Justice, for instance, that sparked the Heidelberg Appeal. (AB's response to the questionnaire can be read here)


In its turn, The Heidelberg Appeal spurred a 31-year-old former chemist and now science journalist from Heidelberg, Lars Fischer, to launch an e-petition. Introduced on the Bundestag server last November, this proposed an amendment to the pending changes in German copyright law to require all scientific publications resulting from public funding to be made "openly accessible."

Speaking to me at the time, Fischer said that he had been offended by the Heidelberg Appeal. He added: "I learned that many scientists were as outraged as I was about the falsehoods in that document."

Did Fischer's e-petition play a role in the decision to propose a Commission? "I can only speculate," says Johannes Fournier of the German Research Foundation (DFG). But he adds that it "could be one reason for establishing the Enquete Commission right now."

Fischer also suspects there may be a connection. "I don't know for sure," he emailed me, "but when the petition was posted I contacted several local and federal politicians in all major parties and got a number of very encouraging responses, especially from within the CDU (thanks to science blogger Christian Reinboth, who is a local politician there). Moreover, the wording of the Commission proposal seems to relate the key argument of my petition. So I think it is likely that there is a connection."

Clearly, however, the Commission also has to be seen in the context of the wider debate about copyright. As Fournier points out, the proposal comes in the wake of the government's promise to "do further work on improving German copyright law."

Fournier adds: "Last year the Federal Ministry of Justice asked stakeholders for their suggestions on copyright improvement. Their responses had to be in by mid-June 2009, so at least some of the topics for the Enquete Commission have probably resulted from that enquiry."

Confused and conflated

As we've said, the Heidelberg Appeal was an oddly confused document. It is, however, a good example of the way in which quite different issues are often conflated — either through ignorance or, frequently, as part of a deliberate attempt to throw sand in the eyes of opponents by means of "FUD".

In their attempts to derail the OA movement, Scholarly publishers have been as guilty of FUD as anyone. They have argued, for instance, that OA will lead to "socialised science"; that "public access equals government censorship"; and that OA will cause the financial collapse of the scholarly publishing industry, and so the destruction of peer review.

Interestingly, recent events in Germany provide a striking example of how vested interests are happy to confuse a debate, or hijack it for their own purposes — an example that also demonstrates the way in which the Internet Question has become a Pandora's Box of complex issues whose relationship to one other is not always obvious. And like an ecosystem, tweaking one part of the system can have unexpected consequences for other — apparently unconnected — parts.

When last year the German Government set about introducing an amendment to a piece of key Internet legislation (Das Telemediengesetz), for instance, interest groups were quick to exploit public concern over child pornography for their own ends.

The original amendment — the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz — was intended to prevent child pornography from being distributed over the Internet. During the legislative process, however, the bill was broadened to also encompass the blocking of gambling sites, "killergames", copyright protected material, political hate pages, defamatory material etc. etc.

This attracted considerable criticism. "People did not object to the blocking of child pornography," explains Hilf, "but members of parliament began calling for the regulation to be extended. Lobbyists wanted new DRM rules added, for instance, and to allow web pages to be blocked in cases of copyright infringement."

Last May, with the debate in full swing, activist Franziska Heine launched an e-petition under the rubric: "No indexing and blocking of internet pages". This quickly attracted 134,000 votes, making it the most widely supported e-petition ever in Germany.

In the process the Internet Question turned into a political hot potato, thrusting a previously obscure political party called the Piratenpartei [The Pirate Party Germany] into mainstream German politics. Modelled on the Swedish Pirate Party, the Piratenpartei calls, amongst other things, for liberalisation of copyright laws, information privacy rights, support for the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz, and "open source governance".

Ordinary Germans, it turned out, had by now become sufficiently alienated by their government's approach to Internet-related matters that the Piratenpartei succeeded in getting over 2% of the votes in last September's federal elections.

The incident provides further evidence that the German Government may need to rethink its approach. Moreover, while the Zugangserschwerungsgesetz was passed by the German Parliament, in November President Köhler rejected it. "The attempts to extend the law led the President to refuse to sign it in its present form," explains Hilf. "This is an extremely rare event that happens maybe once in every 10 years. But people do not want Chinese web filters in Germany."

Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) does at least appear to have got it: Having voted for the Bill in June, it subsequently changed its mind.

It appears that we have to conclude that Fischer's petition can only have been one of a number of factors that led the CDU/CSU to propose an Enquete commission. It may however have been the final straw. "It added to the headaches of the conservative politicians of the CDU/CSU," explains Hilf. "Their election campaign for the German Bundestag last September rested on DRM, on Internet censorship, and on choking copyright laws. And it was for this reason that many normally liberal, or even conservative, people ended up voting for the Piratenpartei."

But does the Commission herald a change of heart on the part of the German Government about the Internet Question, or indeed of OA?

Canny political move?

Fournier hopes so."The establishment of the Enquete Commission indicates that the importance of the Internet and internet-related matters for all citizens, as well as for the economy, has at last been seen, and that politicians are willing to address the questions more thoroughly than ever before."

Hilf, however, fears that it is more likely to be a canny political move by the German Government than a genuine desire to re-examine the issues. "In a typical Mrs. Merkel strategy it was decided to appear to soothe the public by coming up with the idea of the Enquete Commission," says Hilf. "It will work away for some years but have little direct influence on politics."

It certainly won't produce any quick answers: The Commission is not expected to start its deliberations until the summer, and these will then last for two years.

Is there at least hope that in the meantime the aspirations articulated in the Fischer petition may be heeded? "The e-petition committee will consider it, formulate an answer and a recommendation to Parliament, but that does not mean that Parliament will necessarily do anything," cautions Hilf.

It is more likely, he adds, that while the Commission sits talking, the German Government will finalise its planned changes to Germany copyright law; and in a way that will please neither its critics, nor the OA movement. "The CDU/CSU and the FDP (liberals) are moving to introduce the Third Basket, and this will undoubtedly contain DRM and further restrictions, and it will try to curb OA."

He adds: "I expect the Government to declare OA mandates to be illegal, and to raise the bar on self-archiving — by, for instance, only permitting the author's copy to be archived."

Fellow German OA advocate Klaus Graf is equally sceptical. "I have little hope that there will be a support for OA," he says.

But Fischer has not given up. "Currently I'm thinking of ways to get my message to members of the Commission," he says pugnaciously. "I'm not done yet."

For his part, Hartmut Simon, a multimedia specialist at the University of Siegen and co-founder (with Hilf) of the AB, believes that the science and education community should be setting its sights higher than free access to research papers alone. "In my opinion there should be a much wider discussion about better (free) access to all digital information and works for educational and scientific purposes — as a general principle — equalling (and broadening) the fair use concept available in the USA."

Meanwhile, suggests Fournier, the challenge the Commission will face is nothing less than that of trying to square the circle. "If you look at the Coalition Treaty between the CDU and the FDP, and scan the sections that address the Internet, you will find a number of references to the need for data protection, privacy, and for the Internet to be viewed as an important tool for citizens," he says. "But these references are somehow in contradiction with those that propose better protection of intellectual property, and support for the commercial sector in its attempts to make money in the online world."

In other words, there is as yet little consensus on how to resolve the conundrum that lies at the heart of the Internet Question: Is it wise, or even possible, for governments to continue supporting the attempts of commercial organisations to impose their traditional business models on the fundamentally different landscape of the Internet, particularly when doing so threatens to stifle innovation, erode civil rights, and alienate the public, civil society and non-commercial interest groups like the science and education sector?

But for the moment it appears that no government is prepared to think the unthinkable, and prioritise the rights of ordinary citizens over the interests of business.

It seems, therefore, that the Enquete Commission will prove no less controversial than all the other enquiries, commissions and reports that have tried to square the circle.

May not be a bad thing

However, even if it is true that the Enquete Commission is a ploy by the German Government to soothe the public while carrying on as before, Hilf believes there are reasons to be optimistic — since it will inevitably spark further public debate, not just about issues like Google Books, censorship, file sharing and online privacy, but about OA.

"I fear that the Commission will be manned with too many lobbyists, but the public discussion that it will inevitably stimulate, and growing anger over the Third Basket, will raise public awareness of the issues," he says.

At the same time, he says, growing anger at the failure of the Government to support OA will spur the academic community to start introducing quasi-mandates. "Mandates like the one introduced at Harvard, which says in effect that faculty are expected to deposit their papers in the institutional repository, but individual authors are free to opt out."

All of which suggests that it may not be a bad thing that OA has become conflated with a host of other Internet-related issues in Germany. While this clearly leads to the kind of confusion we saw in the Heidelberg Appeal, it has at least put an esoteric subject before the public eye, and made it a topic of heated public discussion. And right now the OA movement's best hope lies in gaining wider public support.

As it happens, that was exactly what Fischer hoped when he introduced his e-petition. As he put it to me last year, his aim was "to demonstrate that there is broad public support for Open Access and to promote open debate about intellectual property laws in science. As far as I see it, Open Access has always been treated — even by its supporters — as a niche topic for experts. But that is wrong. It is an issue that in the long run concerns everyone, and many people understand that."

And indeed the signs are encouraging: While Fisher's petition attracted over 23,000 signatures by its December deadline, the Heidelberg Appeal still has only 2,676 signatories ("mostly from journalists and authors, not researchers", says Hilf).

But the real benefit of greater public debate says Hilf, could be that it will force politicians to look beyond the self-serving arguments of lobbyists, and examine the issues for themselves. "Currently we face a situation in which politicians are still too 'technically ignorant' about OA, and too eager to listen only to lobbyists paid by commercial publishers."

Hilf hopes therefore that a public debate will convince politicians that in a networked society it is essential that information is able to flow freely, and not be constantly hampered by toll gates, even if it means standing up to commercial interests to achieve it. Politicians, after all, have a responsibility to the whole of society, not just the more powerful, or the more vocal.

Moreover, as cyber activist Cory Doctorow points out, "An 'information economy' can't be based on selling information. Information technology makes copying information easier and easier. The more IT you have, the less control you have over the bits you send out into the world. It will never, ever, EVER get any harder to copy information. The information economy is about selling everything except information."

No better time

And there could be no better time for politicians to educate themselves in these matters: As a result of leaked documents, news emerged last year that the closed-door negotiations taking place in connection with the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) — a proposed plurilateral trade agreement for establishing international standards on intellectual property rights enforcement throughout the participating countries — are in the process of agreeing a catch–all IP solution that could be very bad news indeed.

Such an agreement, some fear, would not only put the future of web-based services like Flickr, YouTube and Blogger at risk, but threaten ordinary citizens with the withdrawal of their Internet service if a member of their household is even suspected of copyright infringement. Here is proof, were it needed, that more public discussion is vital.

Public discussion, after all, involves all the stakeholders, and so ensures that all the issues are aired. That is the way to achieve democratic consensus, not through secret negotiations between industry groups and legislators behind closed doors. While it is possible that the case for OA could get lost in such a wide-ranging debate, it does at least hold out the promise of raising its profile, and so achieving its ends.

That is why Hilf remains upbeat. "I expect to see a hardening of the legislation process, but growing public awareness of OA, self-archiving etc. The petitions, the Pirate voters, and the Enquete Commission, will all help to influence the public discussion in the long run. And it will surely become an issue in the next Parliamentary election."

And there is no better way of focusing politicians' minds than the prospect of elections. With the Piratenpartei waiting in the wings, German politicians have every reason to begin the hard task of rethinking their approach to the Internet, and the information economy.