Tag Archives: Elsevier

The ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat

When you work in the open access space, language matters. It is very easy to distract the academic community from the actual discussion at hand and we are seeing an example of this right now. The emerging narrative seems to be that open access policies, and specifically the UK Scholarly Communication Licence (UKSCL), are going to threaten academics’ ability to choose where they publish.

The UK-SCL Policy Summary is explicitly “an open access policy mechanism which ensures researchers can retain re-use rights in their own work, they retain copyright and they retain the freedom to publish in the journal of their choice (assigning copyright to the publisher if necessary)”.

Let’s keep that in mind when considering the following examples of the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument that have crossed my path recently.

Sowing the seed 1

In January Elsevier sent an email to their UK editors (and some non UK editors) about the UKSCL.  It was written in a friendly tone expressing ‘concerns’ about the UKSCL. The ‘choice of publication’ argument appeared three times in this letter:

  • [The UKSCL] …“we believe may have a negative effect on UK research and may impact whether and how researchers publish in your journal”.
  • Elsevier fully supports the need for research institutions to use the articles published by their researchers, but further discussion is needed to ensure the SCL does not compromise the sustainability of academic journals or restrict researchers’ ability to publish quickly and easily in journals of their choice.
  • A key concern is that the SCL may restrict a UK researcher’s ability to choose where they publish (given there is no guarantee a copyright waiver will be granted) and ultimately threaten the publication of UK-based papers.

Note that this letter was inaccurate at best, and not just on this point. Under the UKSCL, copyright remains with the author and is free to be assigned to the publisher. The UKSCL is not restricting publisher or journal choice. Only the action of the publisher would achieve this.

Sowing the seed 2

On 26 and 27 February I attended the Researcher to Reader conference which attracts a mixture of publishers, library and administrative staff and some researchers. During the event one of my Advisory Board colleagues, Rick Anderson tweeted this comment:

“Most startling thing said to me in conversation at the #R2RConf: “I wonder how much longer academic freedom will be tolerated in IHEs.” (Specific context: authors being allowed to choose where they publish.)

Rick was quoting someone else, but he ended up in something of a Twitter argument over this tweet, including from Matt Ruen who asked: “Is there any evidence that researchers are actually being prevented from publishing what & where they want? Or is it just that if you want to get certain grants (or tenure/promotion), you have to play by the rules of funders/institutions? Because it has always been so.”

It seems the ‘restricting choice of publication’ message has been clearly disseminated. It is now coming back out from the academic community. Here are two examples that have happened very recently.

The British Academy

On 27 February, I also attended a meeting at the British Academy to discuss the UKSCL. The British Academy is considering their position on open access. They last published something on this in 2014 – see “Open Access journals in the Humanities and Social Science” – and they are consulting with their community to see if the position has moved. I applaud them for this and there is no criticism of the British Academy in what is described here. They are not creating this narrative, they are passing it on.

In preparation for their discussions, the British Academy recently surveyed their membership about the UKSCL. Amongst other questions the survey included the ‘restricting choice of publication’ bogeyman in the context of journals that have longer embargoes. One question was “Opinion of 12 month embargo impact on choice of journal”. The options included:

  • “I would strongly oppose not being able to place the article in the journal that I preferred” and
  • “I would regret not being able to place the article in journal that I preferred”

What is surprising about the result of this question is that only 55% of fellows and 48% of post doctoral fellows chose the first statement.

The problem here is that the ‘restricting choice of publication’  was invoked as an option for an outcome of a 12 month embargo. It is very unclear under what circumstances the ‘restricting choice of publication’ situation would occur in these conditions. Indeed, the number of respondents that chose the option ‘I think the situation is unlikely to arise’ was 14% of fellows and 7% of post doctoral fellows.

The British Historical Society

Then in the same week as the Researcher to Reader conference and the British Academy meeting, the British Historical Society released “The UK Scholarly Communications Licence: What it is, and why it matters for the Arts & Humanities”. I won’t go into this document in detail – that needs a more comprehensive discussion. But I will pick up on one of the points in the paper.

This document invoked the ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument under the heading: “(D) UK researchers’ continued access (as authors) to non-UK scholarly journals”. This section made the point:

“In addition, the editorial boards of several established non-UK and UK published journals (e.g. the American Historical Review and Past & Present) have indicated that they are unlikely to agree to publish an article which has already been published via an institutional repository.” Note that both named journals are published by Oxford University Press.

Ah, there it is. The first identifiable threat.

So it seems this ‘restricting choice of publication’ argument is striking fear into the hearts of many researchers.

Hang on…

Shall we consider the statement by those editorial boards for a moment?

Green open access works with the Author’s Accepted Manuscript (AAM), not the Version of Record (VoR). The AAM is placed in a repository with an embargo – 12 months in the case of the UKSCL for Humanities and Social Sciences journals.

This ‘indication’ by those editorial boards highlights two an issues:

  1. The embargoed AAM will only be available before the final VoR is published if the journal’s publishing processes are very slow, meaning there is a period of more than 12 months between an article being accepted for publication and it being published CORRECTION 13 March: The 12 month embargo kicks in once the work is published. This makes this point moot in the context here but further underlines the second point.
  2. By their own admission, these journals provide such little value add between the AAM and the VoR that having the AAM available in an institutional repository 12 months after publication means there is apparently no subsequent point publishing the work in the first place.

Neither of these points This does not paint those journals in very good light.

Who is the bad guy here?

I personally consider this simply another in a long series of scare campaigns. But for the sake of argument, let’s observe who is at fault if this restriction were to occur.

If an editorial board is by its own admission prepared to make arbitrary decisions about what they will publish based on people’s location and their policy requirements rather than the quality of the work, does this not fly in contravention of the idea that the ‘best’ research is published in that journal? It points directly to editorial decisions being made on economic  or political grounds.

The problem in this scenario is not open access, it is not funders, it is not the UKSCL. The problem is with the editorial boards and publishers. Why are researchers not pushing back on them and demanding that editorial decisions be made solely on the basis of the work?

Published 13 March 2018
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

Half-life is half the story

This week the STM Frankfurt Conference was told that a shift away from gold Open Access towards green would mean some publishers would not be ‘viable’ according to a story in The Bookseller. The argument was that support for green OA in the US and China would mean some publishers will collapse and the community will ‘regret it’.

It is not surprising that the publishing industry is worried about a move away from gold OA policies. They have proved extraordinarily lucrative in the UK with Wiley and Elsevier each pocketing an extra £2 million thanks to the RCUK block grant funds to support the RCUK policy on Open Access.

But let’s get something straight. There is no evidence that permitting researchers to make a copy of their work available in a repository results in journal subscriptions being cancelled. None.

The September 2013 UK Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Fifth Report: Open Access stated “There is no available evidence base to indicate that short or even zero embargoes cause cancellation of subscriptions”. In 2012 the Committee for Economic Development Digital Connections Council in The Future of Taxpayer-Funded Research: Who Will Control Access to the Results? concluded that “No persuasive evidence exists that greater public access as provided by the NIH policy has substantially harmed subscription-supported STM publishers over the last four years or threatens the sustainability of their journals”

I am the first to say that we should address questions about how the scholarly publishing landscape is shifting with systematic data gathering, analysis and discussion. We need to look at trends over time and establish what they mean for the ongoing stability of the scholarly literary corpus. But consistently evoking the ‘green open access equals cancellation so we should have longer embargoes’ argument is not the solution.

Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all.

The half life argument

Publishers have been trying to use the half-life argument for some time to justify extending their embargo periods on the author’s accepted manuscript. Embargoes are how long after publication before the manuscript (the author’s Word or LaTeX document, usually saved as a pdf) can be made available in the author’s institutional or a subject-based repository.

The half life of an article is the time it takes for articles to reach half their total number of downloads.

The argument goes along the lines of ‘if articles have a longer half life then they should be kept under embargo for longer’ because, according to a blog published at the beginning of this year by Alice Meadows Open access at Elsevier 2014 in retrospect and a look at 2015: “If an embargo period falls too far below the period it takes for a journal to recoup its costs, then the journal’s survival will be jeopardized.”

The problem with this argument is that there has been, and continues to be, no evidence that permitting authors to make work available in a repository leads to journal cancellations. It is ironic that the consistent line on this issue from the publishers has been that the half–life argument is helping ‘set evidence-based policy settings of embargo periods’.

The half-life spectre was raised again at this week’s STM meeting by Philip Carpenter, executive vice president of research at Wiley where he noted that only 20% of Wiley journal usage occurred in the first 12 months after publication and referred to a 12 month embargo offering only ‘limited protection’ according to The Bookseller.

Evidence for the green = cancellation argument

The need for longer embargoes – 1

The way the ‘evidence’ for this argument has been presented is telling. There is a particular paragraph in Meadow’s blog that is worth republishing in full:

How long those embargo periods should be before manuscripts become publicly accessible is a key issue. To help set evidence-based policy settings of embargo periods, we have contributed to growing industry data. Findings of a recent usage study demonstrated that there is variation in usage half-lives both within and between disciplines. This finding aligned with a study by the British Academy, which also found variation in half-lives between disciplines – and half-lives longer than those previously suggested.

Despite looking like links to two separate items (which gives the impression of more ‘evidence’), the first two links in the section above to ‘industry data’ and to a ‘recent usage study’ both lead to the SAME November, 25, 2013 study by Phil Davis into journal half life usage that started the whole shebang off. The study looked at the usage patterns of over 2800 journals found that only 3% of the journals had half-lives of 12 months or less. The fewest journals with this short half-life were in the Life Sciences (1%) and the highest in engineering (6%).

While in no way criticising the findings of that study, it should be pointed out that the author clearly states that the study was funded by the Professional & Scholarly Publishing (PSP) division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP). The work has not been peer reviewed or published in the literature.

The British Academy report Open Access Journals in the Humanities and Social Sciences does not appear to be available online any longer.

Now, there is no dispute that there are differences in usage patterns of articles between disciplines. This is a reflection of differing communication norms and behaviours. But there is a huge logic jump to then conclude that therefore we need to increase embargo periods. Peter Suber went into some detail on 11 January 2014 (yes, we have been swinging around on this one for a while now) explaining the logical flaw in the argument. At the time Kevin Smith also noted in a blog “Half-lives, policies and embargoes” that “we should not accept anything that is presented as evidence just because it looks like data; some connection to the topic at hand must be proved”.

The need for longer embargoes – 2

Meadow’s blog went on to say:

There are real-world examples where embargo periods have been set too low and the journal has become unviable. For example, as published in the The Scholarly Kitchen, the Journal of Clinical Investigation lost about 40 percent of its institutional subscriptions after adopting a 0-month embargo period in 1996, so it was forced to return to a subscription model in 2009. Similar patterns have been seen with other journals.

The issue referred to here has nothing to do with the half life of research papers that are being made available open access through a repository. This refers to a journal that went to a GOLD Open Access model in 1996 (publishing open access and relying on non-subscription revenue sources), but eventually decided they needed to impose a subscription again in 2009. Not only is this example entirely unrelated to the embargo issue for green Open Access, it happened six years ago. Note the blog does not link to other ‘similar patterns’. They do not exist.

Green policies mean cancellations

The half-life argument has replaced previous, even less substantial ‘evidence’ provided by the publishing industry in 2012. The study was cited as evidence for the argument that “short embargo periods are likely to lead to significant cancellations” by Wiley in a 2013 blog post Open Access – Keeping it Real and by Springer in an interview published as Open Access – Springer tightens rules on self archiving.

The study was conducted by the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). However the study, which was written up and published online had some major methodological issues. It consisted of a single poorly worded question:

“If the (majority of) content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, would you continue to subscribe? Please give a separate answer for a) Scientific, Technical and Medical journals and b) Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Journals if your library has holdings in both of these categories.”

An analysis of the study highlighted methodological criticisms. The work was not peer reviewed. But there are deeper questions about the motivation behind the survey. The researcher was the Chair of the ALPSP Research Committee and was on the steering committee for the Publishers Research Coalition, raising questions about her (and the study’s) objectivity. There are several other issues relating to the validity of the researcher.

What is the real problem?

There is no doubt that open access policies are causing disruption to publisher’s funding models. That is hardly surprising and in some cases may well be the intent of the policy. But presenting spurious arguments to try and maintain the status quo is not moving this discussion forward.

The point is we do need evidence. If green OA is causing cancellations then let’s collect some numbers and talk about the issues:

  • How does this affect the scholarly communication system?
  • What are the implications?
  • Does this mean publishers will fold (unlikely in the short term)?
  • Will some journals close (possibly)?
  • Is that a problem?
  • Perhaps we need to consider issues relating to the reward system and what is valued?

But I will give the last word to the person who caused me to write this blog in the first place – Philip Carpenter, executive vice-president of research at Wiley who, according to The Bookseller said at the STM meeting: “We’ll need to think hard about what factors influence library purchasing decisions; we don’t know enough [about that]”.

Hear, hear.

Published 16 October 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

Dutch boycott of Elsevier – a game changer?

A long running dispute between Dutch universities and Elsevier has taken an interesting turn. Yesterday Koen Becking, chairman of the Executive Board of Tilburg University who has been negotiating with scientific publishers about an open access policy on behalf of Dutch universities with his colleague Gerard Meijer, announced a plan to start boycotting Elsevier.

As a first step in boycotting the publisher, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has asked all scientists that are editor in chief of a journal published by Elsevier to give up their post. If this way of putting pressure on the publishers does not work, the next step would be to ask reviewers to stop working for Elsevier. After that, scientists could be asked to stop publishing in Elsevier journals.

The Netherlands has a clear position on Open Access. Sander Dekker, the State Secretary  of Education has taken a strong position on Open Access, stating at the opening of the 2014 academic year in Leiden that ‘Science is not a goal in itself. Just as art is only art once it is seen, knowledge only becomes knowledge once it is shared.’

Dekker has set two Open Access targets: 40% of scientific publications should be made available through Open Access by 2016, and 100% by 2024. The preferred route is through gold Open Access – where the work is ‘born Open Access’. This means there is no cost for readers – and no subscriptions.

However Gerard Meijer, who handles the negotiations with Elsevier, says that the parties have not been able to come close to an agreement.

Why is this boycott different?

It is true that boycotts have had different levels of success. In 2001, the Public Library of Science started as a non-profit organization of scientists ‘committed to making the world’s scientific and medical literature freely accessible to both scientists and to the public’. In 2001 PLoS (as it was then) published an open letter asking signatories to pledge to boycott toll-access publishers unless they become open-access publishers. The links to that original pledge are no longer available. Over 30,000 people signed , but did not act on their pledge. In response, PLOS became an open access publisher themselves, launching PLOS Biology in October 2003.

In 2012 a Cambridge academic Tim Gowers started the Cost of Knowledge boycott of Elsevier which now has over 15,000 signatures of researchers agreeing not to write for, review for, or edit for Elsevier. In 2014 Gowers used a series of Freedom of Information requests to find out how much Elsevier is charging different universities for licence subscriptions. Usually this information is a tightly held secret, as individual universities pay considerably different amounts for access to the same material.

The 2015 Dutch boycott is significant. Typically negotiations with publishers occur at an institutional level and with representatives from the university libraries. This makes sense as libraries have long standing relationships with publishers and understand the minutiae of the licencing processes . However the Dutch negotiations have been led by the Vice Chancellors of the universities.  It is a country-wide negotiation at the highest level. And Vice Chancellors have the ability to request behaviour change of their research communities.

This boycott has the potential to be a significant game changer in the relationship between the research community and the world’s largest academic publisher. The remainder of this blog looks at some of the facts and figures relating to expenditure on Open Access in the UK. It underlines the importance of the Dutch position.

UK Open Access policies mean MORE publisher profit

There have also been difficulties in the UK in relation to negotiations over payment for Open Access. Elsevier has consistently resisted efforts by Jisc to negotiate an offsetting deal  – where a publisher provides some sort of concession for the fact that universities in the UK are paying unprecedented amounts in Article Processing Charges on top of their subscriptions because of the RCUK open access policy.

Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher. According to their Annual Report the 2014 STM revenue was £2,048 million, with an operating profit of £762 million. This is a profit margin of 37%. That means if we pay an Article Processing Charge of $3000 then $1,170 of that (taxpayers’) money goes directly to the shareholders of Elsevier.

The numbers involved in this space are staggering. The Wellcome Trust stated in their report on 3 March 2015 The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013 – 14: ‘The two traditional, subscription-based publishers (Elsevier and Wiley) represent some 40% of our total APC spend’.

And the RCUK has had similar results, as described in a Times Higher Education article on 16 April 2015 Publishers share £10m in APC payments: “Publishers Elsevier and Wiley have each received about £2 million in article processing charges from 55 institutions as a result of RCUK’s open access policy”.

Hybrid open access – more expensive and often not compliant

Another factor is the considerably higher cost of  Article Processing Charges for making an individual article Open Access within an otherwise subscription journal (called ‘hybrid’ publishing) compared to the Article Processing Charges for articles in fully Open Access journals.

In The Reckoning: An Analysis of Wellcome Trust Open Access Spend 2013 – 14, the conclusion was that the average Article Processing Charge levied by hybrid journals is 64% higher than the average Article Processing Charge of a fully Open Access title. The March 2015 Review of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access concluded the Article Processing Charges for hybrid Open Access were ‘significantly more expensive’ than fully OA journals, ‘despite the fact that hybrid journals still enjoyed a revenue stream through subscriptions’.

Elsevier has stated that in 2013 they published 330,000 subscription articles and 6,000 author paid articles. There is no breakdown of how many of those 6,000 were in fully open access journals and how many were hybrid. However in 2014 Elsevier had 1600 journals offering their hybrid option, and 100 journals that were fully open access (6%). Note that the RCUK open access policy came into force in April 2013. It would be interesting to compare these figures with  the 2014 ones, however I have been unable to find them.

While the higher cost for hybrid Article Processing Charges is in itself is an issue, there is a further problem. Articles in hybrid journals for which an Article Processing Charge has been paid are not always made available at all, or are available but not under the correct licence as required by the fund paying the fee. Here at Cambridge, the five most problematic publishers with whom we have paid more than 10 Article Processing Charges have a non compliance rate from 11-25%. With this group of publishers we are having to chase up between three and 31 articles per publisher. This takes considerable time and significantly adds to the cost of compliance with the RCUK and COAF policies.

According to the March 2015 Review of the implementation of the RCUK Policy on Open Access, ‘Elsevier stated that around 40% of the articles from RCUK funding that they had published gold were not under the CC-BY licence and are therefore not compliant with the policy’ (p19).

We support our Dutch colleagues

In summary, the work happening in The Netherlands to break the stranglehold Elsevier have on the research community is important. We need to stand by and support our Dutch colleagues.

NOTE: This blog was subsequently reblogged on the London School of Economics Impact Blog and later listed as one of the Top Ten Posts for 2015: Open Access. It was also listed as one of the blogs that had an average minute per page measurement of over 6 minutes and 30 seconds.

Published 3 July 2015, added to on 22 January 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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