Tag Archives: embargoes

Scare campaigns, we have seen a few

In a sister post, I identified the latest scare offensive in the ongoing discussions around open access as: ‘restricting choice of publication’. In this, there is an implied threat from editorial boards and publishers that if the UK Scholarly Communication Licence (UKSCL) were to be in place, then these journals would refuse to publish articles from affected researchers.

In this post I want to look at other threats that have been or are lurking in the shadows in the open access debate. The first is tied fairly closely to the ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat.

The new scare – threats to ‘Academic Freedom’

The term ‘Academic Freedom’ comes up a fair bit in discussions about open access. In his tweet sent during  the Researcher to Reader conference*, 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.)

In this blog I’d like to pick up on the ‘Academic Freedom’ part of the comment (which is not Rick’s, he was quoting).

Academic Freedom, according to a summary in the Times Higher Education is  primarily that “Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation”.

This definition was based on the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Statement on Academic Freedom which includes, quite specifically, “full freedom in research and in the publication of results”.

Personally I read that as meaning academics should be allowed to publish, not that they have full freedom in choosing where.

Rick has since contacted the AAUP to ask for clarification on this topic. Last Friday, he tweeted that the AAUP has declined to revisit the 1940 statement to clarify the ‘freedom in publication’ statement in light of evolution of scholarly communication since 1940.

The reason why the Academic Freedom/ ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat(s) is so concerning to the research community has changed over time. In the past it was essential to be able to publish in specific outlets because colleagues would only read certain publications. Those publications were effectively the academic ‘voice’. However today, with online publication and search engines this argument no longer holds.

What does matter however is the publication in certain journals is necessary because of the way people are valued and rewarded. The problem is not open access, the problem is the reward system to which we are beholden. And the commercial publishing industry is fully aware of this.

So let’s be clear. Academic Freedom is about freedom of expression rather than freedom of publication outlet and ties into Robert Merton’s 1942 norms of science which are:

  • “communalism”: all scientists should have common ownership of scientific goods (intellectual property), to promote collective collaboration; secrecy is the opposite of this norm.
  • universalism: scientific validity is independent of the sociopolitical status/personal attributes of its participants
  • disinterestedness: scientific institutions act for the benefit of a common scientific enterprise, rather than for the personal gain of individuals within them
  • organized scepticism: scientific claims should be exposed to critical scrutiny before being accepted: both in methodology and institutional codes of conduct.

If a publisher is preventing a researcher from publishing in a journal based on their funding or institutional policy rather than the content of the work being submitted then this is entirely in contravention of all of Robert Merton’s norms of science. But the publisher is not, as it happens, threatening the Academic Freedom of that author.

While we are here, let’s have a quick look at some of the other threats to researchers invoked in the last few years.

Historic scare 1 – Embargoes are necessary for sustainability

In the past the publishing industry has tried to claim research on half-life usage of research articles as ‘evidence’ for the “green open access = cancellations” argument. This sounds plausible except for the lack of any causal link between green open access policies and library subscriptions. The argument here is that embargoes are necessary for the ‘sustainability’ (read profit) of commercial publishers.

We should note the British Academy’s own 2014 finding that “libraries for the most part thought that embargoes for author-accepted manuscripts had little effect on their acquisition policies” and that any real cancellation issue was “the rising cost of journals at a time of budgetary constraint for libraries. If that continues, journals will be cancelled anyway, whether posted manuscripts are available or not.”

My debunking of this claim dates back to 2015 although it did raise its head again loudly in 2017 during discussions around the UKSCL. It is not uncommon for a researcher to express concern about their chosen journal’s viability because of open access. The message has been successfully pushed through to the research community.

Historic scare 2 – The need for full copyright

Copyright is supposed to protect the content creator. The argument I hear repeatedly about why publishers need authors to sign their copyright over to publishers is so they can ‘protect the author’s rights’. But when people sign their copyright away to another entity, copyright becomes a purely economic tool for financial exploitation by that entity.

There is no doubt publishers protect their own copyright. Indeed owning it allows maximum freedom to make money from the content (and prevent anyone else from doing so). But strangely whenever I have asked for examples of publishers stepping in to protect an author’s rights as the result of a copyright transfer agreement, there has been no response.

However it is not uncommon for a researcher to tell you that this is one of the protections that publishers offer them. I defer to Lizzie Gadd here who has published thoughts around the distinctions between copyright culture and scholarly culture. She notes how many academics have been led by publishers to believe that the current copyright culture supports scholarly culture to a far greater extent than it actually does.

Historic scare 3 – Press embargoes

The HEFCE open access policy requires the collection and deposit of work within three months of acceptance (although the first two years of the policy pushed this timeline out to three months from publication).  This means that work is deposited into repositories, and the metadata that exists – the title, the authors, the intended journal and the abstract – is made available before publication. The work itself (and we are talking about the Author’s Accepted Manuscript, not the final Version of Record) is under an infinite embargo which will be set when the work is published. This process has its own problems, discussed elsewhere.

In 2016 there was a blow up about the metadata about an article being in the public domain before publication. Our office received multiple concerned calls by researchers asking us to remove records from the repository until publication because of fear that having that metadata available was in contravention of the embargo rules. They were concerned the journal would refuse to publish their paper. When we investigated, not only was this not publisher policy but if anyone had been threatened in this manner the publishers we contacted requested we forward the information so they could follow up.

It demonstrates how spooked academics can be by their editors/journals/publishers.


This latest ‘restricting choice of publication’ threat is just another in a long line of implied threats that the scholarly communication community is having to manage. Each time a new one looms we need to identify the source, develop evidence and information to counter the threat and try and work with our research community to reassure them.

Between this, and the huge amount of time we have to spend identifying dates of publication or managing publisher and funder policies or keeping track of the funds that are being spent in this space, we are exhausted.

But perhaps that’s the point?

Published 15 March 2018
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

* Note: In the past two years I have written a precis up about the Researcher to Reader event with summaries, see: ‘It is all a bit of a mess’ Observations from Researcher to Reader conference and ‘Be nice to each other’ – the second Researcher to Reader conference. Time pressure means I may not be able to do that this year, but see the Twitter hashtag for the event.

Watch this space – the first OSI workshop

It was always an ambitious project – trying to gather 250 high level delegates from all aspects of the scholarly communication process with the goal of better communication and idea sharing between sectors of the ecosystem. The first meeting of the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) happened in Fairfax, Virginia last week. Kudos to the National Science Communication Institute for managing the astonishing logistics of an exercise like this – and basically pulling it off.

This was billed as a ‘meeting between global, high-level stakeholders in research’ with a goal to ‘lay the groundwork for creating a global collaborative framework to manage the future of scholarly publishing and everything these practices impact’. The OSI is being supported by UNESCO who have committed to the full 10 year life of the project. As things currently stand, the plan is to repeat the meeting annually for a decade.

Structure of the event

The process began in July last year with emailed invitations from Glenn Hampson, the project director. For those who accepted the invitation, a series of emails from Glenn started with tutorials attached to try and ensure the delegates were prepared and up to speed. The emails gathered momentum with online discussions between participants. Indeed much was made of the (many) hundreds of emails the event had generated.

The overall areas the Open Scholarship Initiative hopes to cover include research funding policies, interdisciplinary collaboration efforts, library budgets, tenure evaluation criteria, global institutional repository efforts, open access plans, peer review practices, postdoc workload, public policy formulation, global research access and participation, information visibility, and others. Before arriving delegates had chosen their workgroup topic from the following list:

  • Embargos
  • Evolving open solutions (1)
  • Evolving open solutions (2)
  • Information overload & underload
  • Open impacts
  • Peer review
  • Usage dimensions of open
  • What is publishing? (1)
  • What is publishing? (2)
  • Impact factors
  • Moral dimensions of open
  • Participation in the current system
  • Repositories & preservation
  • What is open?
  • Who decides?

The 190+ delegates from 180+ institutions, 11 countries and 15 stakeholder groups gathered together at George Mason University (GMU), and after preliminary introductions and welcomes the work began immediately with everyone splitting into their workgroups. We spent the first day and a half working through our topics and preparing a short presentation for feedback on the second afternoon. There was then another working session to finalise the presentations before the live-streamed final presentations on the Friday morning. These presentations are all available in Figshare (thanks to Micah Vandegrift).

The event is trying to address some heady and complex questions and it was clear from the first set of presentations that in some instances it had been difficult to come to a consensus, let alone a plan for action. My group had the relative luxury of a topic that is fairly well defined – embargoes. It might be useful for the next event to focus on specific topics and move from the esoteric to the practical.

In addition the meeting had a team of ‘at large’ people who floated between groups to try and identify themes. Unsurprisingly, the ‘Primacy of Promotion and Tenure’ was a recurring theme throughout many of the presentations. It has been clear for some time that until we can achieve some reform of the promotion and tenure process, many of the ideas and innovations in scholarly communication won’t take hold. I would suggest that the different aspects of the reward/incentive system would be a rich vein to mine at OSI2017.

Closed versus open

In terms of outcomes there was some disquiet beforehand, by people who were not attending, about the workshop effectively being ‘closed’. This was because there was a Chatham House Rule for the workgroups to allow people to speak freely about their own experiences.

There was also some disquiet by those people who were attending about a request that the workgroups remain device-free. This was to try and discourage people checking emails and not participating. However people revert to type – in our group we all used our devices to collaborate on our documents. In the end we didn’t have much of a choice, the incredibly high tech room we were using in the modern GMU library flummoxed us and we were unable to get the projector to work.

That all said, there is every intention to disseminate the findings of the workshops widely and openly. During the feedback and presentations sessions there was considerable Twitter discussion at #OSI2016 – there is a downloadable list of all tweets in figshare – note there were enough to make the conference trend on Twitter at one point. This networked graphic shows the interrelationships across Twitter (thanks to Micah and his colleague). In addition there will be a report published by George Mason University Press incorporating the summary reports from each of the groups.

Team Embargo

Our workgroup, like all of them, represented a wide mix of interest groups. We were:

  • Ann Riley – President, Association of College and Research Libraries
  • Audrey McCulloch, Chief Executive, Association of Learned and Professional Societies
  • Danny Kingsley – Head of Scholarly Communication, Cambridge University
  • Eric Massant, Senior Director of Government and Industry Affairs, RELX Group
  • Gail McMillan, Director of Scholarly Communication, Virginia Tech
  • Glenorchy Campbell, Managing Director, British Medical Journal North America
  • Gregg Gordon, President, Social Science Research Network
  • Keith Webster, Dean of Libraries, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Laura Helmuth, incoming president, National Association of Science Writers
  • Tony Peatfield, Director of Corporate Affairs, Medical Research Council, Research Councils, UK
  • Will Schweitzer, Director of Product Development, AAAS/Science

It might be worth noting here that our workgroup was naughty and did not agree beforehand on who would facilitate, so therefore no-one had attended the facilitation pre-workshop webinar. This meant our group was gloriously facilitator and post-it note free – we just got on with it.

Banishing ghosts

We began with some definitions about what embargoes are, noting that press embargoes, publication embargoes and what we called ‘security’ embargoes (like classified documents) all serve different purposes.

Embargoes are not ‘all bad’. In the instance of press embargoes they allow journalists early access to the publication in order for them to be able to investigate and write/present informed pieces in the media. This benefits society because it allows for stronger press coverage. In terms of security embargoes they protect information that is not meant to be in the public domain. However embargoes on Author’s Accepted Manuscripts in repositories are more contentious, with qualified acceptance that these are a transitional mechanism in a shift to full open access.

The causal link of green open access resulting in subscription loss is not yet proven. 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”.

However there is no argument that traffic on websites for journals that rely on advertising dollars (such as medical journals) suffer when the attention is pulled to another place. This clearly potentially affects advertising revenue which in turn can impact on the financial model of those publication.

During our discussions about the differences between press embargoes and publication embargoes I mentioned some recent experiences in Cambridge. The HEFCE Open Access Policy requires us to collect Author’s Accepted Manuscripts at the time of acceptance and make the metadata about them available, ideally before publication. We respect publishers’ embargoes and keep the document itself locked down until these have passed post-publication. However we have been managing calls from sometimes distressed members of our research community who are worried that making the metadata available prior to publication will result in the paper being ‘pulled’ by the journal. Whether this has ever actually happened I do not know – and indeed would be happy to hear from anyone who has a concrete example so we can start managing reality instead of rumour. The problem in these instances is the researchers are confusing the press embargo with the publication embargo.

And that is what this whole embargo discussion comes down to. Much of the discourse and arguments about embargoes are not evidence based. There is precious little evidence to support the tenet that sits behind embargoes – which is that if publishers allow researchers to make copies of their work available open access then they will lose subscriptions. The lack of evidence does not prevent the possibility it is true however – and that is why we need to settle the situation once and for all. If there is a sustainability issue for journals because of wider green open access then we need to put some longer term management in place and work towards full open access.

It is possible the problem is not repositories, institutional or subject-based. Many authors are making the final version of their published work available in contravention of their Copyright Transfer Agreement in ResearchGate or Academia.edu. It might be that this availability of work is having an impact on researcher’s usage of work on the publishers’ sites. Given that in institutional repositories repository managers make huge efforts to comply with complicated embargoes it is quite possible that repositories are not the problem. Indeed, only a small proportion of work is made available through repositories according to the August 2015 Monitoring the Transition to Open Access report (look at ‘Figure 9. Location of online postings (including illicit postings)’ on page 38).  If this is the case, requiring institutions to embargo the Author’s Accepted Manuscripts they hold in their repositories for long periods will not make any difference. They are not the solution.

Our conclusion from our preliminary discussions was that there needs to be some concrete, rigorous research into the rationale behind embargoes to inform publishers, researchers and funders.

Our proposal – research questions

In response to this the Embargo workgroup decided that the most effective solution was to collaborate on an agreed research process that will have the buy-in of all stakeholders. The overarching question that we want to try and answer is ‘What are the impacts of embargoes on scholarly communication?’ with the goal to create an evidence base for informed discussion on embargoes .

In order to answer that question we have broken the big issue into a series of smaller questions:

  • How are embargoes determined?
  • How do researchers/students find research articles?
  • Who needs access?
  • Impact of embargoes on researchers/students?
  • Effect of embargoes on other stakeholders?

We decided that if the research found there was a case for publication embargoes then agreement on the metrics that should be used to determine the length of an embargo would be helpful. We are hoping that this research will allow standards to be introduced in the area of embargoes.

Discoverability and the issue of searching behaviour is extremely relevant in this space. Our hypothesis is if people are following publishers’ journal pages to find material then the fact that some of the same information is disbursed amongst lots of repositories means that the publisher arguments that embargoes threaten their finances are weakened. However if people are primarily using centralised search engines such as Google Scholar (which favours open versions of articles over paid ones) then that strengthens the publisher argument that they need embargoes to protect revenue.

The other question is whether access really is an issue for researchers. The March 2015 STM Report looked at the research in this area which indicate that well over 90% of researchers surveyed in separate studies said research papers were easy or fairly easy to access which appears to suggests on the face of it little problem in the way of access (look for the ‘Researchers’ access to journals’ section starting p83). Rather than repeating these surveys indicators for how much embargoes restrict access to researchers could include:

  • The usage of Request a Copy buttons in repositories
  • The number of ‘turn-aways’ from publishers platforms
  • The take-up level of Pay Per View options on publisher sites
  • The level of usage of ‘Get it Now’ – where the library obtains a copy through interlibrary loan or document delivery and absorbs the cost.

Our proposal – Research structure

The project will begin with a Literature Review and an investigation into the feasibility of running some Case Studies.

Two clear Case Studies could provide direct evidence if the publishers were willing to share what they have learned. In both cases, there has been a move from an embargo period for green OA to removing embargoes completely. In the first instance, Taylor and Francis began a trial in 2011 to allow immediate green OA for their library and information science journals, meaning that authors published in 35 library and information science journals have the right to deposit their Accepted Manuscript into their institutional repository and make it immediately available. Authors who choose to publish in these journals are no longer asked to assign copyright. They now sign a license to publish, which allows Taylor & Francis to publish the Version of Record. Additionally, authors can choose to make their work green open access with no embargoes applied. In 2014 the pilot was extended for ‘at least a further year’.

As part of the pilot, Taylor and Francis say a survey was conducted by Routledge to canvas opinions on the Library & Information Science Author Rights initiative and also investigated author and researcher behaviour and views on author rights policies, embargoes and posting work to repositories. The survey elicited over 500 responses, including: “Having the option to upload their work to a repository directly after publication is very important to these authors: more than 2/3 of respondents rated the ability to upload their work to repositories at 8, 9, or 10 out of 10, with the vast majority saying they feel strongly that authors should have this right”. There are no links to this survey that I have been able to uncover. It would be useful to include this survey in the Literature Review and possibly build on it for other stakeholders.

The second Case Study is Sage that, in 2013, decided to move to an immediate green policy. Both examples would have enough data by now to indicate if these decisions have resulted in subscription cancellations. I have proposed this type of study before, to no end. Hopefully we might now have more traction.

The Literature Review and Case Studies will then inform the development of a Survey of different stakeholders – which may have to be slightly altered depending on the audience being surveyed.  This is an ambitious goal – because the intention is to have at least preliminary findings available for discussion at the next OSI in 2017.

There was some lively Twitter discussion in the room about our proposal to do the study. Some were saying that the issue is resolved. I would argue that anyone who is negotiating the embargo landscape at the moment (such as repository managers) would strongly disagree with the position. Others referred to research already done in this space, for example the Publishing and Ecology of European Research (PEER) project. This study does discuss embargoes but approached the question with a position that embargoes are valid. The study we are proposing is asking specifically if there is any evidence base for embargoes.

Next steps

We will be preparing a project brief and our report for the OSI publication over the next couple of weeks.

The biggest issue for the project will be for us to gather funding. We have done a preliminary assessment of the time required to do the work so we could work out a ballpark figure for the fundraising goal. Note that our estimation of the number of workdays required for the project was deemed as ‘ludicrously low’ by a consultant in discussion later.

It was noted by a funder in casual discussions that because publishers have a vested interest in embargoes they should fund research that investigates their validity. Indeed Elsevier have already offered to assist financially for which we are grateful, but for this work to be considered robust and for it to be widely accepted it will need to be funded from a variety of sources. To that end we intend to ‘crowd fund’ the research in batches of $5000. The number of those batches will depend on the level of our underestimation of the time required to undertake the work (!).

In terms of governance, Team Embargo (perhaps we might need a better name…) will be working together as the steering committee to develop the brief, organise funding and choose the research team to do the work. We will need to engage an independent researcher or research group to ensure impartiality.

Wrap up summary of the workshop

There were a few issues relating to the organisation of the workshop. Much was made of the many hundreds of emails that were sent both from the organising group and also amongst the delegates before-hand. This level of preliminary discussion was beneficial but using another tool might help. It was noted that the level of email was potentially the reason why some of the delegates who were invited did not attend.

There was a logistic issue in having 190+ delegates staying in a hotel situated in the middle of a set of highways that was a 30 minute bus ride away from the conference location at George Mason University (also situated in an isolated location). The solution was a series of buses to ferry us each way each day, and to and from the airport. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together at the workshop location. This combined with the lack of alcohol because we were at an undergraduate American campus (where the legal drinking age is 21) gave the experience something of a school camp feel. Coming from another planned capital city (Canberra, Australia) I am sure that Washington is a beautiful and interesting place. This was not the visit to find that out.

These minor gripes aside, as is often the case, the opportunity to meet people face to face was fantastic. Because there was a heavy American flavour to the attendees, I have now met in person many of the people I ‘know’ well through virtual exchanges. It was also a very good process to work directly with a group of experienced and knowledgeable people who all contributed to a tangible outcome.

OSI is an ambitious project, with plans for annual meetings over the next decade. It will be interesting to see if we really can achieve change.

Published 24 April 2016
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
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