Saturday, August 15, 2015

When email marketing campaigns go awry: Q&A with Austin Jelcick of Cyagen Biosciences

Earlier this week I received an unsolicited email message from a company called Cyagen Biosciences inviting me to cite its “animal model services” in my scientific publications. By doing so, I was told, I could earn a financial reward of $100 or more. And since the amount would be based on the Impact Factor (IF) of the journal in question, the figure could be as high as $3,000 — were I, for instance, to cite Cyagen in Science (IF of 30). 
Austin Jelcick
The email surprised me for a number of reasons, not least because I am a journalist/blogger not a scientist. As such, I have never published a research paper in my life, and have no plans to do so. Moreover, I have only the vaguest idea of what an “animal model service” is, let alone how I would cite a company selling such a service in a scientific paper.

But mostly I was surprised that — at a time when thousands of researchers are calling for the abandonment of the Impact Factor — any company would want to tie its reputation to what is widely viewed as a sinking ship.

Curious as to why I had received such a message I searched on the Web for the company’s name, only to find that the link from Google to Cyagen’s home page delivered an error message.

Eventually locating an email address I contacted the company and asked if it could confirm that the message that I received had been sent on its behalf (It appeared to have come from a direct marketing company called Vertical Response).

The next day I received a reply from Cyagen product manager Austin Jelcick, who explained that I had received the message “as part of our marketing campaign which is currently seeking to raise awareness within the scientific community for our citation rewards program.”

As I was associated with “several blogs and articles related to open access journals and publishing” he added, it was assumed I would be interested in “our newly launched campaign to actively reward scientists for citing us in their materials and methods section while simultaneously encouraging them to submit into higher impact journals for increased awareness of both their study and our services offered.”

He added: “we felt that it would be beneficial to the researcher to receive a sort of ‘store credit’ for doing something they already must do as part of the publication process.”

Now intrigued, I invited Jelcick to do an email Q&A so that he could explain in more detail who the company was and why it had launched this campaign.

Very surprised by the offer


While I was swapping questions and answers with Jelcick by email the company’s campaign was starting to attract a good deal of commentary on the Web.

Yesterday, for instance, high profile physician and science writer Ben Goldacre published a blog post entitled, “So this company Cyagen is paying authors for citations in academic papers”.

Goldacre concluded, “Perhaps my gut reaction — that this feels dubious — is too puritanical. But I am certainly very surprised by the offer.”

Goldacre’s intervention also sparked a post over on Retraction Watch entitled, “Researchers, need $100? Just mention Cyagen in your paper!”

By now there was also a steady stream of comments from scientists on Twitter, expressing everything from puzzlement to outrage — see this for instance.

By late yesterday Cyagen clearly felt the need to make a public statement, which it did by means of a Q&A on Facebook, explaining: “Please find below some of the questions which were asked of us and our response which should help clear up the misunderstanding which has occurred about this promotion.”

The post went on to list seven questions and answers. What the company did not explain, however, is that these had been extracted from the interview I was still in the process of doing with Jelcick. That is, Cyagen did not cite me!

What has become clear is that the company believes that its email invitation has been misunderstood. Linking to the Facebook post from a comment on Goldacre’s blog, Jelcick went so far as to complain that Cyagen has become a victim of “some gross miscommunication”.

Richard Van Noorden appears to agree, saying on Twitter that the story has been “gleefully badly reported”. He explained: “you can’t get $100 by citing them. You get a discount voucher for their products”. He nevertheless suggests that Cyagen should withdraw the offer “pronto”.

It would seem that the mistake Cyagen made was to link its promotion to the much-maligned Impact Factor, which has become a red rag to many scientists. (See also the first comment below).

Anyway, below is the full list of 17 questions and answers that make up the interview I did with Jelcick. Some of the answers are a little repetitive, but given the confusion surrounding Cyagen’s email I have chosen not to edit them.

See what you think.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Open peer review at Collabra: Q&A with UC Press Director Alison Mudditt

Earlier this year University of California Press (UC Press) launched a new open access mega journal called Collabra. Initially focusing on three broad disciplinary areas (life and biomedical sciences, ecology and environmental science, and social and behavioural sciences), the journal will expand into other disciplines at a later date.

One of the distinctive features of Collabra is that its authors can choose to have the peer review reports signed by the reviewers and published alongside their papers, making them freely available for all to read — a process usually referred to as open peer review.

This contrasts with the traditional approach, where generally the reviewers names are not disclosed to the authors, the authors names are not disclosed to the reviewers, and the reviewers reports are not made public (commonly referred to as “double-blind” peer review).

Since Collabra is offering open peer review on a voluntary basis it remains unclear how many papers will be published in this way, but the signs are encouraging: the authors of the first paper published by Collabra opted for open peer review, as have the majority of authors whose papers are currently being processed by the publisher. Moreover, no one has yet refused to be involved because open peer review is an option, and no one has expressed a concern about it.

Collabra’s first paper—Implicit Preferences for Straight People over Lesbian Women and Gay Men Weakened from 2006 to 2013was published on 23rd July, and the reviewers’ reports can be found here.

So how does open peer review work in practice and what issues does it raise? To find out I emailed some questions to UC Press Director Alison Mudditt, whose answers are published below.
Alison Mudditt


RP: Presumably both the author and all the reviewers have to agree to open peer review before Collabra can publish the reviews? What percentage of the papers it publishes does Collabra expect will have the reviews published alongside?

AM: Authors choose open peer review as an option upon submission, so it is always their decision and as such they have already agreed in advance. Reviewers are made aware that authors have chosen this option and could opt to decline the review if they are unwilling to have their review comments made publicly available.

As a secondary option, whether or not open review has been chosen by the author, reviewers can sign their reviews. So it is possible to have reviewer comments be open, but the identity of the reviewer remain anonymous. Or, for that matter, have closed review, but reviewers sign their reviews. This is all described here.

With only one published article it is hard to project what the percentage will be, but at this point the majority of authors—for the papers currently being processed in our system—have opted for open review.

We are not targeting certain percentages, but rather want to put new options in front of people, especially given the numerous critiques of traditional closed peer review systems. This will not be for everyone, but we believe there’s much to be learned from experimentation with new models.

RP: Will Collabra make any effort to seek out reviewers who are comfortable with open peer review?

AM: The academic editors are selecting reviewers, and their top consideration will of course be the reviewer’s expertise for any given paper.

We make all the options and elements of Collabra clear when inviting external editors to be involved. Some editors are particularly interested in the open review option, and other editors have not commented on it.

No one has refused to be involved because it is an option or expressed a concern about this option.

RP: I assume that not all the correspondence is shared when Collabra publishes the reviews, and perhaps they might be edited in some way first (at least sometimes)? If so, what considerations/editorial rules are applied before making reviews public?

AM: Currently, the “open review file” is constituted by the reviewers’ comments on the reviewer form, the editor’s comments to the author based on the reviewers’ comments, and the author’s response—all as captured in our editorial system.

It is clear on the review form that there is an area for confidential comments to the editor that would not be shown to the author nor included in the openly available comments. But, for the remainder of the form, it is made clear that comments may be seen by the author and used without editing.

What is not currently shown is any earlier version of the paper and any comments or tracked changes on that. We will continue to monitor this policy and will consider other options, if it seems that useful or important elements are being omitted by not including earlier versions/changes.

And, obviously, if any discussion occurs outside of the editorial system between a reviewer and an editor, that will not be captured.

As regards editorial rules and considerations for any edits or omissions, we would discuss that with the editors as they came up. It is hard to say in advance what that might be (other than any information which is confidential and not even being revealed in the paper), so we’ll deal with that on a case by case basis.

Naturally, we would opt to be transparent about this happening should it occur beyond normal confidentiality considerations. For now we will see how it goes with it’s being clear on the form that comments may be used as written.

RP: Having started down this road (and so given concentrated thought to the matter), what would Collabra say were the pros and cons of open peer review?

AM: Speaking on behalf of UC Press (I’m not sure it’s appropriate to speak as “Collabra” in this context), we think that the inner workings of the peer review process are, purely and simply, interesting for any reader, but in particular for people who would like to see more transparency in this process.

There is clearly an argument to be made that making things open (rather than, for example, the double blind process) will help to reduce biases, problematic opinions, or hierarchical sensitivities that can affect the review process.

Equally importantly, open review starts to demonstrate the value added by the review process and to recognize the contributions of reviewers to scholarship

Finally, we all know that traditional peer review has not put a stop to whole disciplines being rocked by scandals of fabricated data and unquestioned results, and it’s possible that open peer review will actually help to improve the scholarly record.

On a related note, one of our other aims with Collabra is to get rid of the phrase “peer review lite” which has plagued the type of review that Collabra (and other OA titles) employs.

We characterize our review criterion as being “selective for credibility only”—checking for the scientific, methodological, and ethical rigor of a paper, and removing, as much as humanly possible, more subjective reviewing criteria for novelty or anticipated impact. Open reviews will support this mission—to show that there is nothing “lite” about this kind of review (and in fact, sometimes quite the opposite).

It’s too early for us to be able to identify specific problems with open peer review for Collabra, although we are aware of studies suggesting that it may be harder to get reviewers and it may lengthen the review time. Our limited experience so far does not support either of these concerns.

The other cons of open peer (as opposed to double blind) review are clearly to do with concerns about bias, the highly variable nature of peer review, and the additional costs it could impose on an already overtaxed system.

For example, a reviewer might be worried about openly and critically reviewing a more senior author and believe there could be a negative effect on her own career.

Our hope is that a more open system will improve the integrity of the peer review process, but the reality is that any system will be subject to the biases of human nature—we just think that this is more likely to be surfaced through greater transparency.

RP: Does Collabra think that there are occasions when open peer review is inappropriate? If so, when and why?

AM: Anything raised in peer review of a confidential nature which does not make it into the published article should be carefully removed from any open peer review comments that get published during open review.

That said, we (UC Press) are not really the drivers of how open peer review will evolve in Collabra or elsewhere. Since Collabra works only with external editors, editorial policies should emerge that are firmly based on the standards of each research community that publishes in Collabra.

If a community-driven majority standard emerged which stated that, in certain situations, open peer review was inappropriate, then we would respect such a decision.

RP: Are there any other learning points that have emerged as Collabra has sought to implement open peer review?

AM: It’s too early in the launch of Collabra to really be able to comment, although we have been pleasantly surprised at authors’ and reviewers’ willingness to consider the option of open peer review. That seems to be a great start for this concept.


An earlier Q&A with Alison Mudditt can be read here.



Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Emerald Group Publishing tests ZEN, increases prices: what does it mean?

When in July 2012 Research Councils UK (RCUK) announced its new open access (OA) policy it attracted considerable criticism.
Photo courtesy of swiftjetsum626
Initially this criticism was directed at RCUK’s stated preference for gold OA, which universities feared would have significant cost implications for them. In response, RCUK offered to provide additional funding to pay for gold OA, and agreed that green OA can be used instead of gold (although RCUK continues to stress that it “prefers” gold).

At the same time, however, the funder doubled the permissible embargo period for green OA to 12 months for STM journals and 24 months for HSS journals. This sparked a second round of criticism, with OA advocates complaining that RCUK had succumbed to publisher lobbying. The lengthened embargoes, they argued, would encourage those publishers without an embargo to introduce one, and those who already had an embargo to lengthen it.

There was logic in the criticism, since one rational response to the adjusted RCUK policy that profit-hungry publishers would be likely to make would be to seek to dissuade authors from embracing green OA (by imposing a long embargo before papers could be made freely available), while encouraging them to pick up the money RCUK had put on the table and pay to publish their papers gold OA instead (which would provide publishers with additional revenues).

It was therefore no great surprise when, in April 2013, Emerald Group Publishing — which until then had not had a green embargo — introduced one. Nor was it a surprise that it settled on the maximum permitted period allowed by RCUK of 24 months.

It was likewise no surprise that Emerald’s move also attracted criticism, not just from OA advocates but (in May of that year) from members of the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee, which was at the time conducting an inquiry into open access.

When taking evidence from the then Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts, for instance, the MP for Northampton South Brian Binley said “We have received recent reports of a major British publisher revising its open access policy to require embargoes of 24 months, where previously it had required immediate unembargoed deposit in a repository.” Binley went on to ask if Willetts could therefore please have someone contact the publisher and investigate the matter.

At the time I also contacted Emerald. I wanted to know the precise details of its new policy and to establish who would be impacted by it. This proved a little difficult, but it turned out that Emerald had introduced a “deposit without embargo if you wish, but not if you must” policy — an approach pioneered by Elsevier in 2011, but which it recently abandoned.

While the wording of the Emerald policy may have changed a little since it was introduced, at the time of writing it appeared to be the same in substance: authors are told that they can post the pre-print or post-print version of any article they have submitted to an Emerald journal onto their personal website or institutional repository “with no payment or embargo period” — unless the author is subject to an OA mandate, in which case a 24 month embargo applies.

Monday, June 22, 2015

HEFCE, Elsevier, the “copy request” button, and the future of open access

At the 2001 meeting that launched the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) the newly-fledged OA movement outlined two strategies for making the scholarly literature freely available. Later dubbed green OA and gold OA, these are now the two primary means of providing open access, and both types have been mandated by research funders in the UK. For instance, in 2013 Research Councils UK (RCUK) introduced an OA policy that favours gold open access, and in 2014 the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced what is essentially a green OA policy, which will come into force next year. So how does the future for open access look?
Just to remind ourselves: With gold OA, researchers publish their papers in an open access journal and the publisher makes them freely available on the Internet as a natural part of the publication process. With green, OA researchers continue to publish in subscription journals, but then self-archive a version of their work in an open repository, either a central repository like PubMed Central, or an institutional repository. Meanwhile, the official version of the paper (version of record) remains behind a subscription paywall on the publisher’s site.

BOAI did not specify that OA journals should levy an article-processing charge (APC), but while OA advocates point out that most OA journals do not charge a fee, the reality (unless something changes) is that the pay-to-play model is set to dominate OA publishing.

Importantly, this means that although BOAI attendees assumed OA publishing would be less costly than traditional subscription method, use of the APC will make scholarly publishing more expensive, certainly during the transition to open access (which could last indefinitely).

And to the chagrin of OA advocates, much of the revenue generated by APCs is currently being sucked up by traditional publishers like Elsevier and Wiley, especially through the use of hybrid OA.

In reviewing the figures for 2013-2014, for instance, Wellcome’s Robert Kiley reported that Elsevier and Wiley “represent some 40% of our total APC spend, and are responsible for 35% of all Trust-funded papers published under the APC model.” (74% of the papers concerned were published as hybrid OA).

The story is similar at RCUK. As the Times Higher noted in April: “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.” In total RCUK paid out £10m, which is in addition to the subscription fees universities are already paying.

In effect, it would seem, traditional publishers are in the process of appropriating gold OA, and doing so in a way that will not only ensure they maintain their current profit levels, but that will likely increase them. And the profits of scholarly publishers, OA advocates argue, are already obscenely high.

Almost OA


But green OA advocates maintain that this is not inevitable, and have long argued that if implemented wisely, and strategically, open access can squeeze out the excessive costs of scholarly publishing, and so reduce publisher profits. However, they insist, this will only happen if researchers self-archive their subscription papers rather than opt for pay-to-publish. If researchers do this, they say, publishers will have to compete with repositories for access provision, and so will be compelled to downsize their operations. This in turn will put downward pressure on costs (and thus any publishing fees). Only at the point where these costs have fallen, argue green OA advocates, should researchers consider paying to publish.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Open Access Interviews: John Willinsky

Born in Toronto, Ontario, John Willinsky taught school for 8 years before taking a doctorate in the study of education, and subsequently became a professor of education at the University of British Columbia (UBC). In 2008, he moved to Stanford where he is currently the Khosla Family Professor in the Graduate School of Education.
John Willinsky
Willinsky’s interest in what later became known as open access began in 1998, with his efforts to bring the evidence of research to bear on local journalism. He quickly realised, however, that his ambitions were significantly challenged by the fact that most scholarly journals required a subscription to read, and many had yet to move online.

So he shifted focus, and instead began trying to convince journals and conferences that they should go online, in the hope that this would enable greater public access to research. To help persuade editors and journals to make the move he founded the Public Knowledge Project (PKP), which subsequently evolved into a partnership with the Simon Fraser University Library (which is where the development team is based, led by SFU Associate University Librarian Brian Owen) and Stanford University.

PKP’s first project was to develop an open source publishing platform called Open Journal Systems (OJS). This proved hugely successful, and by 2013 around 8,000 journals were actively using OJS as their online publishing platform.

PKP has gone on to develop a portfolio of other open source tools as well, including Open Monograph Press, Open Conference Systems and Open Harvester Systems.

Willinsky is greatly valued and respected by the open access movement, although he does not have the high public profile of OA advocates like Peter Suber, Stevan Harnad and Jean-Claude Guédon. This is partly because he was not present at key OA initiatives like the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), but mainly I suspect because he did not actively participate in the often-heated public discussions and debates that initially made the case for open access, and which brought the movement to the attention of the public.

While others were doing “the heavy intellectual lifting”, says Willinsky, “I was essentially tinkering away in the garage over the software, and scrambling with Brian Owen to find funding for the master builders of OJS.”

This of course is far too modest, if only because it ignores the fact that in 2006 Willinsky published one of the key texts of the open access movement — The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship.

The Access Principle, explains Willinsky was an attempt to establish open access as a worthy topic of scholarly treatment. “I wanted to assert that this was not simply a side line, like choosing the title of a journal, but really was part of what it meant to do research and scholarship, part of what it meant to claim to be producing knowledge for the benefit of the world.”  ...

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If you wish to read the interview with John Willinsky, please click on the link below.

I am publishing the interview 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.

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Open Access Interviews: Publisher MDPI

Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or more usually MDPI, is an open access publisher that has had a challenging few years. It has been charged with excessively spamming researchers in order to maximise APC revenue, it has been accused of publishing pseudoscience, and it has been criticised for publishing papers of very poor quality. This has occasionally led to editorial board resignations e.g. here and here.

The criticism came to a head in February last year, when University of Colorado (Denver) librarian Jeffrey Beall added MDPI to his controversial list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”.

Today I am publishing a Q&A with MDPI. First however, in the way of background, I want to rehearse some key events (in date order). Please scroll down if you want to go direct to the interview.
From left to right: Alistair Freeland, Delia Costache, Dietrich Rordorf, Maria Schalnich, Martyn Rittman, Shu-Kun Lin, Franck Vazquez






A target for criticism, but favoured by some


MDPI AG was spun out of the MDPI Sustainability Foundation in 2010 by the owner of both organisations Shu-Kun Lin, along with the then CEO of MDPI Dietrich Rordorf. In the process a number of journals were relocated to MDPI, and since then MDPI’s portfolio of open access journals has grown to 137. Last year MDPI published over 12,000 papers.

MDPI’s difficulties appear to have started in December 2010, when one of its journals — Life — published a paper by Erik Andrulis called Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life. Aiming to present a framework to explain life, the paper was greeted with scepticism and ridicule. The popular science and technology magazines Ars Technica and Popular Science, for instance, characterised the ideas in the paper as “crazy” and “hilarious”.

The publication of the paper led to a member of Life’s editorial board resigning, and Shu-Kin Lin published a response to the criticism. In his response, Shu-Kin Lin conceded that he had taken over responsibility for the review process when the researcher assigned to the task (a Professor Bassez) has pulled out for personal reasons. But he insisted that the paper had been properly peer reviewed, and that it had been revised in response to the reports of two reviewers. His explanation, however, attracted further criticism.

In April 2011 a second controversy erupted when the MDPI journal Nutrients published a paper called The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity Have Increased. This too attracted criticism, and an Australian economist created a website in order to launch a campaign to have the paper retracted. (There is also a Wikipedia page on the paper here).

The Australian Paradox paper has not been retracted, but it has twice been corrected by the authors (in 2011 and 2014), and in 2012 the Editor-in-Chief published an editorial about the paper, along with a response to the criticism from the authors. In addition, in July 2014 the University of Sydney (the institution where one of the authors is based) published an independent report concluding that of the seven criticisms that had been levelled at the authors the “only allegation substantiated concerned two ‘simple arithmetic’ errors, specifically an inconsistency and an incorrect calculation”.

Notwithstanding these controversies, MDPI has attracted many supporters, not least amongst OA advocates and cognoscenti of open access. When, on 31st October 2012, MDPI launched a new open access journal called Publications, for instance, it was able to recruit well-regarded scholars who specialise in research on open access to its editorial board. Currently, membership of the board includes Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk (Björk has also published in the journal), and at one time de facto leader of the open access movement Peter Suber also served on the board.

OA advocates have also proved more than willing to publish in the journal. Contributors include Heather Morrison (here and here), Martin Eve (here), John Wilbanks (here), and David Solomon (here). And in 2013 Björn Brembs agreed to edit a special issue for the journal.

Also of note, the Editor-in-Chief of Publications is John Regazzi, a former CEO of Ei Inc. (where he founded the first professional engineering online community — the Engineering Information Village). Regazzi is also a former CEO of Elsevier Inc. (I interviewed him for Information Today in 1998).

Likewise, a number of open access advocates serve on the editorial board of MDPI’s journal Data, including Peter Murray-Rust and Ross Mounce (although the journal does not appear to have published any papers).

Finally, we could note that at one point Suber was also on the editorial board of Future Internet, an MDPI journal that in January 2010 published an article by Jeffrey Beall called Metadata for Name Disambiguation and Collocation (a contribution that Beall later said he regretted).

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Co-publishing with Against the Grain

I recently agreed to co-publish four interviews with the ATG NewsChannel. The first of the Q&As is with librarian Marcus Banks, and can be read on the Against the Grain website here (or in the post below).

Marcus is a former editor-in-chief of the open access journal Biomedical Digital Libraries, a journal that had to cease operations in 2008.

Amongst other things, Marcus discusses the lessons he learned from his experience with Biomedical Digital Libraries, the economics of OA publishing, and the possibility of journals evolving into blogs.

Against the Grain publishes news about libraries, publishers, book jobbers, and subscription agents. Its goal is to link publishers, vendors, and librarians by reporting on the issues, literature, and people that impact the world of books and journals.