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.
A MORE RECENT INTERVIEW WITH THE PUBLISHER IS AVAILABLE HERE.
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.
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."
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, sciyo.com ... 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.
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