Monday, December 19, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: OMICS Publishing Group’s Srinu Babu Gedela

***Update: On August 26th 2016, the US government (Federal Trade Commission) announced that it has charged OMICS with making false claims, and for failing to disclose steep publishing fees prior to accepting papers. The press release is here. The full version of the lawsuit is here.***

***OMICS Group CEO Srinubabu Gedela has denied all the allegations made by the Federal Trade Commission, and the company has published a detailed response to them here.***

***On November 22nd, 2017, a US federal court granted a preliminary injunction against OMICS temporarily halting the deceptive practices that the FTC claims it engages in by making false claims about its journals and academic conferences and hiding its publishing fees, which are up to several thousand dollars. The press release is here, the judgement is here***

***On March 29th, 2019, The US Federal Trade Commission won a judgement against OMICS, with US District of Nevada Judge Gloria M Navarro ordering the company to pay the US government $50,130,810. The judgement can be read here.***

In an article published in The Charleston Advisor in July 2010, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, described OMICS Publishing Group as a predatory Open Access publisher. “Having a large number of titles, as does the OMICS Publishing Group, is typical of predatory Open-Access publishers,” he wrote. “Also typical is each journal's broad coverage. By offering 68 titles each with a broad coverage, this publisher is tacitly saying it will publish anything.” 
Srinu Babu Gedela

Is Beall’s characterisation of OMICS fair? Founder and managing director of OMICS Dr Srinu Babu Gedela insists it is not. “We believe the peer review process is very important … I am confident about the quality of the review process used in OMICS’ journals.”

Nevertheless, OMICS has published at least one article that even OMICS itself accepts should never have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

There have also been complaints that OMICS clones the names of other publishers’ journals, and on one occasion copied text verbatim from a competitor’s web site. This too Gedela denies. These incidents, he insists, were simply mistakes, and OMICS corrected the situation as soon as the problem was drawn to its attention.

A further complaint is that the publisher has been bombarding researchers with email invitations to join editorial boards, submit papers to its journals (of which there are now 200), and attend conferences. OMICS does not deny that it uses bulk email services. Nor does it plan to stop doing so. Indeed, Gedela implies, these activities are likely to increase in line with the growth of its business. “As we plan to organise 50 conferences in 2012, we will be mailing invitations to researchers frequently.”

OMICS is just one of a growing number of controversial OA publishers: Beall’s list of “predatory” publishers has now reached 28, and continues to grow. But while many researchers are quick to complain about the activities of these publishers, should not the research community accept some responsibility for the current excesses of the OA Gold Rush

After all, OMICS says that it has now recruited 20,000 researchers to its editorial boards, and we can assume the other OA publishers are proving equally successful. This suggests that for every researcher decrying the activities of these publishers others are facilitating them. Are the latter not concerned that they are conspiring in the email bombardment of their colleagues? Do they not care that some of the journals on whose editorial boards they sit appear to be publishing papers that have had inadequate or no peer review? Are they not worried that some of these publishers may be engaging in dubious business practices?

So what is the background to the complaints levelled against OMICS Publishing Group, what are the details of those complaints, and how exactly does the company respond to them? Read the attached PDF file to find out ...


If you wish to read the rest of this introduction, and the interview with Srinu Babu Gedela, please click on the relevant 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.

PLEASE NOTE: Normally when I publish an interview I place the introduction before the interview. On the grounds that my introduction for this interview is longer than the interview itself, Srinu Babu Gedela requested that I publish the introduction after the interview, rather than before it. As a compromise solution, I have produced two versions of the text, one with the introduction at the end, and one with the introduction at the beginning. Readers can therefore choose which version they want to read. The link above goes to the version with the introduction before the interview. Those preferring the version with the introduction after the interview can access it here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Interview with Nicola Rylett: InTech's response

Yesterday I posted an interview with Nicola Rylett, the marketing director of Open Access publisher InTech. I prefaced the interview with an introduction in order to give readers some background to the publisher. I now publish a statement and response from InTech to that introduction. 

Underneath that is my response to InTech’s statement. 

InTech Statement:

In the piece, “The OA Interviews: InTech's Nicola Rylett”, there were a number of valid issues discussed in great detail. However, despite a series of lengthy conversations which sought to not only address these historical issues but also to highlight the significant changes that InTech have implemented in recent months to eradicate said concerns, the author remains almost entirely focused on cases dating back as far as 2006. This, in our view, is an unfair representation of where the company currently stands, and this failure to shed light on more recent events with a balanced perspective may invariably lead the reader to a misinformed conclusion about InTech. We ask that readers persist with reading this comprehensive article which concludes with the full interview that Nicola Rylett, marketing director participated in with Mr Poynder – here is where the balance of the article is redressed, although it is questionable whether the reader will continue reading by the time they reach Page 17 of the piece.

The interview between Ms Rylett and Mr Poynder raised a number of important, pertinent and extremely interesting points that were not only relevant to InTech but also to the wider publishing- and- open access communities. The subject of peer review remains a hot potato among industry commentators, with advocates and critics seemingly at loggerheads over the extent to which it is enforced combined with its ability (or inability) to remain be the “quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller” (Richard Horton, editor, The Lancet) and impartial, rather than err on the side of bias.

Finally, quality is another issue that needs to be addressed. While InTech has initiated a process of quality review within the organization in recent months, we believe the issue of quality per se is one that should be debated across the whole sector in the same manner that we need to openly deliberate how we can help increase the pace of transferrable knowledge in research globally, introduce innovative ways to meet and exceed customer requirements and expectations, and how we can maintain sustainability throughout the publishing community. 

Article response, comments addressed as follows:

The statement, “Meanwhile it appears that no researcher ever received any royalties from the publisher,” is an assumption made by the author and our non-response should not be taken as an indication of confirmation nor denial. This remains a confidential matter between author and publisher.

Value for money is mentioned throughout the piece and at this point, we would like to highlight the significant differences between the article processing charges (APC) among our contemporaries. PloS, for instance, levy a c.2,086EUR APC, Biomed charge a fee of c.1,610EUR, while InTech's APC is among the lowest in the industry, between 590EUR for Books and 870EUR for Journals. It is also important to stipulate, as readers of the full interview will note, that there are variations with regard to the overall service provided for authors under the APC.

The statement, “I asked Rylett to put me in touch with four or five authors who had been granted a waiver, which she agreed to do. At the time of writing this, however, I had still not been sent any names”, is accurate. However, due to data protection protocol we can only forward author contact details upon receipt of their confirmation that they are willing to allow us to do so. We have sought permission from authors and will duly forward their information to Mr Poynder, as requested.

The statement, “Would not one expect the paragraph breaks to either be indented or double-spaced?” We have introduced paragraph indenting along with a number of other changes to the overall layout of our books which have already taken immediate effect, which will be evident upon publication of titles published within the forthcoming twelve months.

The statement, “And here is a front page of a book published in 2006,” followed by the statement, “We might also want to ask why, given the undeniable difference in quality, an author would opt to pay to publish with InTech rather than publish without charge with a traditional publisher,” seeks to convey to the reader that the company has failed to address previous discrepancies since their airing of said example some five years ago. This argument, in our view, has little conviction and it would be remiss of anyone to judge a company as it is in 2011 based on a solitary example dating back to 2006.

The statement, “What I do know is that InTech's critics have long maintained that it has a tendency to promise more than it delivers...the publisher is prone to exaggerate its achievements [and] are now inclined to conclude that InTech has succumbed to the same temptation in publishing and citing the new TBI survey,” is the author's own opinion and not representative of the wider community. In our interview, both Rylett and TBI demonstrated the results of the survey in an open and transparent way and it should be noted that Mr Poynder has continued to refute its findings, which is his prerogative.

The statement, “In other words, researchers based in the developing world who know they will be rejected out of hand by the traditional scholarly communication system, either because of where they are based, the quality of their written English, or both”, is the authors own opinion and should not be taken or accepted as a statement of fact. China and others members of the so-called BRIC nations and other countries have been largely unrepresented in the scientific publishing community, and InTech has enabled prospective authors who would ordinarily be excluded from doing so to have their work published and freely accessible. Language should not and will never be a barrier to becoming published with InTech - providing the quality is of the standard that we deem as acceptable. Indeed, it should be noted that like most of our contemporaries within the wider publishing community, we reject a significant number of proposals that we are presented with due to their failure to meet the required standards.

The statement, “Clearly one error InTech could make is to assume that it is enough to unleash on the world a plethora of upbeat PR messages and self-serving surveys, but omit to undertake the hard work necessary to improve its products, and to make the way it markets its services to scientists more acceptable,” is 100 per cent true in so much that if this is the approach we were to take then yes, that will invariably be the consequences of the company's inaction. However, that is not the stance we are adopting. Moreover, as the interview below will testify, we have already made significant strides in recent months to review all areas of the way we do business (focus on quality, customer services, external communications, etc.) and reacted accordingly which will effectively dispel much of the criticism levied against InTech by critics once the seeds we have sown now come to fruition over the course of the next twelve months.

The statement, “ is not clear that InTech plans to cease bombarding researchers with unwanted email invitations”, is a gross exaggeration. Anyone with a basic understanding of marketing could never accuse an organization which sends fewer than 5 emails over a given twelve month period of 'bombarding' the recipient.

The statement, “Today, [InTech] describes itself – unfairly – as “the world's largest open access book publisher”, is factual and not an attempt at self-aggrandizement. While there are a number of other open access players within our market, their focus is overwhelmingly focused on the publication of journals, with InTech operating predominately in books.

The concluding statement, “The problem may be that the particular niche InTech has created for itself, and the modus operandi it has built around that niche, may make it very hard to up its game without eroding its customer base”, is an unfair statement and we refute the implication from the author which suggests that the quality of both our authors and publications is sub-standard.


Comment from Richard Poynder:

I appreciate that InTech took the time to speak with me in the first place, and to subsequently respond to my introduction. Below I address those issues raised by InTech where I believe a response is called for.


I agree that some of the issues I raised in connection with InTech could usefully be viewed in the context of the wider problems associated with the quality of published research today, peer review, and author-pays open access publishing; and I agree that there ought to be an industry-wide debate about this. Perhaps that is something that OASPA could organise?

I disagree that my introduction was “almost entirely focused on cases dating back as far as 2006”. For instance, I drew attention to quality issues connected with recently published books, including at least two published this month (e.g. this one, and this one). Likewise, I drew attention to peer review issues associated with a book published last year (this book), and I also cited InTech’s own survey (published in April) in which respondents repeated the same complaints made to me in 2010, and which have been made historically about InTech. E.g. complaints that journal articles and book chapters published with InTech appear sometimes either be reviewed too lightly, or not reviewed at all. As one of those cited in the TBI survey put it, “If there would be a review process, the writing process would be more natural and the chapter could be improved.”

I can think of no publisher that would refuse to say whether they have ever, or do now, pay royalties to their authors. And why would they refuse? I invite InTech/Sciyo once again to answer the question I posed in the interview: Has it ever paid royalties to any of its authors and, if so, how much has it paid out since 2010 (without naming any authors, or breaching any client confidentiality)?


I agree that some Open Access publishers charge a higher APC than InTech. In light of the issues raised, however, some might argue that there is a danger here of trying to compare apples with oranges. It also assumes that the other OA publishers cited themselves provide value for money, which again some might question. As such, citing what other publishers charge may be to miss the point. The issue is this: what do authors get for their APC when they publish with InTech, and does that represent value for money; it is not a case of making price comparisons with other publishers.  


InTech says, “Rylett and TBI demonstrated the results of the survey in an open and transparent way and it should be noted that Mr Poynder has continued to refute its findings, which is his prerogative.”

I do not think it is accurate to say that I refuted the findings of the TBI survey. I aired the concerns of some OA advocates about the wider relevance of the survey, the way in which the results had been put into the public domain, and the selective way in which the data had been presented. Since I did not get answers to all my questions, I invite InTech again to address these ones:

·         Why did not the TBI survey state that only 5,000 of the 8,000 respondents to a survey that had polled 25,000 researchers answered the section on InTech?

·         Can the online survey that was used be made public?


InTech says, “China and others members of the so-called BRIC nations and other countries have been largely unrepresented in the scientific publishing community, and InTech has enabled prospective authors who would ordinarily be excluded from doing so to have their work published and freely accessible.” That is exactly the point I made. As I put it, “[O]ne could argue that InTech is providing a valuable service for those who are currently excluded from mainstream science.”


InTech says, “[W]e reject a significant number of proposals that we are presented with due to their failure to meet the required standards.” I invite InTech to publish the figures on its rejection rates — for book proposals, chapter proposals and journal articles.


It seems to me that there are two important issues to consider with regard to email marketing. First, the number of messages sent out and the randomness or not of the targeting. Second, the purpose of the messages and whether or not the recipients have opted-in to receiving them.  As I understand it from InTech’s FAQ, the publisher continues to trawl public databases for details of researchers, and then despatches multiple marketing emails inviting them to buy a service from InTech. It is not clear to me that all the recipients of InTech’s messages have opted-in to receiving them. It also seems that many of them will not be existing customers of InTech. If that is not correct, perhaps InTech could clarify?

If it is correct, then I think it would be fair to say that InTech is sending out unsolicited commercial email, and in many legal jurisdictions this is subject to regulation. I don’t know what the current law on spam is in Croatia, but I believe the country is expected to join the European Union in 2013. It is my understanding that Article 13 of the EU Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications regulates the use of email addresses for marketing purposes, and it established an opt-in regime. As such, I am told, unsolicited emails can only be sent with the prior agreement of the recipient.

But I am not a lawyer, and I am sure that InTech has taken legal advice on this. It might, however, be helpful if the publisher could confirm that its email marketing activities are conformant with Croatian law, and that they will be conformant with European law?


My comment regarding InTech “unfairly” calling itself the world's largest open access book publisher was in fact a typo! It should have read “Today, [InTech] describes itself — not unfairly — as the world's largest open access book publisher”. I will correct that in the PDF.

I assume that InTech’s main competitor in this field is Bentham eBooks?

The introduction and interview can be accessed here (PDF file).

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The OA Interviews: InTech’s Nicola Rylett

The history of Open Access (OA) publisher InTech is a complicated and somewhat confusing one. According to a Scribd presentation, the company was founded in Vienna in 2004. Over the subsequent seven years it has undergone a series of name changes, moved country, and attracted considerable criticism, both for the quality of its peer review and the way in which it markets its services. The company appears to inhabit a strange binary world: while some accuse it of repeatedly spamming researchers, and preying on the vulnerabilities and egos of researchers in order to make money, the company itself maintains that it is a victim of misinformation and misperception, and that it has a growing and happy customer base. As evidence of the latter, it cites a survey that it commissioned earlier this year. 81% of those responding to the survey, says InTech’s new marketing director Nicola Rylett, rated their publishing experience with the company as either 'excellent' or 'good'.

What do we make of these conflicting pictures of InTech? The quality of peer review can be difficult to assess. Nevertheless, the publisher has acknowledged problems with its peer review in the past, and when I drew Rylett’s attention to a chapter in one of its recently published books she agreed that the quality was “unacceptable”. It also seems fair to conclude that the company’s marketing techniques leave a lot to be desired. However, Rylett insists that InTech is addressing these issues. To that end, she explains, it is currently recruiting a new middle and senior management team.

It seems clear that InTech has proved very successful in selling its pay-to-publish services to thousands of researchers around the world. But can it persuade the wider research community, the scholarly publishing industry, and the Open Access movement to endorse it?

Nicola Rylett
InTech first came to my attention in 2007, when researchers began to raise questions about a Vienna-based company called I-Tech Education and Publishing which, they complained, was sending out unsolicited emails inviting scientists to contribute chapters to books — for which a 380Euros publication charge was being demanded. Many appeared to be concluding that the company was engaged in either mass spamming, or scamming, or possibly both.

At the time, I contacted the CEO of the company Vedran Kordic, who posted a response to the American Scientist Open Access Forum. “[M]ore than 1,500 authors published to date in the open access mode by us,” he said. “There is no one of them thinking that this is a kind of online cheat or that we are working on pay-publish mode.”

Over the next couple of years the complaints appeared only to grow, and by now researchers were posting their grievances on blogs as well as mailing lists. At some point the company changed its name to In-Tech. It also began to launch scholarly journals.

In November 2009 the company changed its name again — to Sciyo. It also created a second web site that appeared to be running in parallel to In-Tech’s site ( And shortly afterwards it announced that anyone publishing a book chapter with the company would receive royalties. These would be based on the number of times an author’s work was downloaded.

An OA publisher paying royalties was a novel idea; an idea, however, greeted with some scepticism. Nevertheless, it stimulated me to contact the company again — an enquiry that led to my doing an email interview with Aleksandar Lazinica, who introduced himself to me as the CEO of Sciyo ...


If you wish to read the rest of this introduction and the interview with Nicola Rylett 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. 

To read the interview and introduction (as a PDF file) click here.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Interview with BioOne’s Mark Kurtz

Historically, peer-reviewed journals were published by scientific societies on a non-profit basis. Today scholarly publishing is dominated by a handful of large commercial publishers focused on maximising their profits. This has left small society publishers struggling to survive and libraries unable to afford all the journals they need. Unable to compete with commercial publishers, many societies have given up and sold or outsourced their publishing activities to them—a decision that inevitably leads to a rise in the price of their journals.

Some, however, have sought survival by banding together and creating online collections of their combined journal portfolios. This is the objective of the Learned Journals Collection; and it is the aim of BioOne, which currently provides online access to 167 titles from 126 different non-profit bioscience publishers. I spoke recently with BioOne’s director of business development Mark Kurtz. The conversation was a further reminder for me that while the Open Access (OA) movement now looks set to solve the access problem, it is far from clear that it will solve the more fundamental affordability problem confronting the research community.

Writing in D-Lib magazine in 2000 Rick Johnson—then enterprise director for The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)—pointed out that until the end of World War II scholarly publishing had operated somewhat like a gift economy. As he put it, “For nearly 300 years—since 1665, when the Royal Society of London published the first modern journal, Philosophical Transactions—societies satisfied the need for scholars to communicate among themselves and so maintained their role as the principal scholarly publishers. Research articles were ‘gifted’ to societies by authors and returned to the community in low-cost journals.”

Following the explosion in research funding after the war, however, societies increasingly struggled to cope with the ensuing flood of papers. Spotting a market opportunity, commercial companies quickly filled the vacuum. In doing so, these profit-hungry corporations quickly realised that the demand for scholarly journals is remarkably inelastic. So they did the rational thing, said Johnson, “they raised institutional prices of journals dramatically and relentlessly to exploit the elasticity curve.”

Given this inelasticity, Johnson added, the traditional “circle of gifts” between scholars and their society was replaced not with a real market economy, but a “dysfunctional hybrid.”

Unsurprisingly, the new entrants were soon engaged in an orgy of acquisitions and consolidation—aided by the alacrity with which some societies rushed to outsource their publishing activities to them when they saw how easy it is to generate large sums of money from scholarly journals if your goal is to maximise revenues rather than simply communicate research. By collaborating with commercial companies, these societies realised, they could not only ensure their own survival, but also make a healthy surplus that would allow them to subsidise their other activities.

As a result, today a few large commercial companies own thousands of journals apiece, and are generally able to set their own price.

Serials crisis

Thus was born the serials crisis, which has had the research community in its grip now for several decades. Unable to keep up with the constant increase in subscription prices, libraries began to cancel journals. Publishers responded by increasing their prices further, hoping to make up the lost revenue. This simply triggered further cancellations, and each time the price of a journal was increased a few more libraries cancelled their subscription. It was a vicious cycle that seemed likely to destroy the scholarly communication system.

Determined to staunch the bleeding, publishers came up with a new strategy: they put all their journals online and invited libraries to buy their entire journal portfolio on an all-or-nothing, multi-year basis—a business model that came to be known as the Big Deal.

Why, given their straitened circumstances, would libraries agree to buy even more journals? Why, moreover, would they agree to lock themselves into multi-year contracts? Because if they did so publishers promised them access to a much greater number of electronic journals than they had had print subscriptions to—for the same price.

At first, everyone seemed happy with the Big Deal. When the contracts came up for renewal, however, libraries were confronted with a stark choice: Pay the publisher’s new asking price (inevitably higher) and renew the contract; or go back to buying on a title-by-title basis and face the painful task of telling faculty that they were about to lose access to many of the journals they needed to keep up with developments in their discipline. In the circumstances, most librarians opted to renew the Big Deals.
Soon the Big Deals were devouring most of a library’s budget, forcing it again to start cancelling journals. This time, however, it was the journals of those publishers who did not offer their own Big Deal that were targeted—these were invariably the journals of smaller publishers, and usually those of society publishers.

As a result, more and more societies decided that, if they wanted to survive, they had no option but to fall into the arms of a commercial publisher. This further distorted the market, putting those societies that remained independent under great pressure to partner up too.

Meanwhile, the on-going struggle to pay for journals meant that libraries faced a mounting affordability problem; and as libraries cancelled more and more titles, so researchers were confronted with a growing access problem.


Unsurprisingly, libraries began to search around for solutions to these twin problems. In 1998, for instance, a group of libraries founded SPARC—to “correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system”. And Rick Johnson was recruited as executive director of the new organisation.

Several new initiatives were launched as a result, including SPARC Leading Edge, SPARC Alternative and SPARC Scientific Communities. It was from the latter that BioOne emerged, conceived as an “aggregation of the full-texts of high-impact bioscience research journals.”


If you wish to read the interview with Mark Kurtz 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. 

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

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Big Deal: Not Price But Cost

The September issue of Information Today has published an article I have written on the Big Deal.

The article is available in full here. Below are a few extracts from it: 

What is the issue?

First introduced by Academic Press (AP) in 1996, the Big Deal—in which publishers sell online subscriptions to large bundles of electronic journals—is now the principal means by which academics access research literature.

When it was introduced, the Big Deal was widely seen as a solution to the so-called serials crisis, and both publishers and librarians embraced it enthusiastically.

However, the Big Deal today is the biggest bugbear for librarians and currently the focus of a face-off between U.K. librarians and publishers.

How did an initiative that was once viewed so positively become an object of dislike and derision? What is the solution? 

What is the Big Deal?

A Big Deal “may consist of hundreds of titles—often the publisher’s entire journals’ list—sold in a bundled package to a consortium of libraries on a one-price, one-size-fits-all basis,” according to Ingenta’s Mark Rowse in 2002.

In other words, research libraries combine to buy a single all-you-can eat subscription for a set fee and for a set number of years (usually 3). This fee is invariably based on the cost of the member institutions’ historical print subscriptions.

As Rowse explained, “A publisher might supply a whole list for the price of the sum of the original print subscriptions of a library consortium, with an electronic premium added, generally in the range of between 5 and 15 percent.”

In addition, a built-in percentage increase of around 6% per annum became standard. 

What was the Big Deal’s attraction?

For libraries, the perceived benefit of the Big Deal was “access to a greater number of journal titles and a stronger negotiating position through the purchase of a greater volume of content by large consortia,” says Fred Friend, honorary director scholarly communication at University College London. 

Why has the Big Deal become librarians’ greatest bête noire 15 years after its introduction?

Ivy Anderson, director of collections at California Digital Library points to three issues, concerns that only actually became apparent over time. These she characterizes as budgetary concerns, policy concerns, and systemic concerns. 

What is the nub of the problem?

[L]ibrarians have never denied that the Big Deal increases usage and lowers per-article costs. Says Anderson, “It has to be acknowledged that the large publisher journal licenses have expanded access and lowered the unit cost of much journal content relative to what the cost of those journals might have been without those deals, particularly when publishers have been willing to cap price increases in exchange for multi-year revenue guarantees.”

However, she points out that the problem is that lower per-unit costs do little to help librarians grapple with the more fundamental affordability problem confronting them.

To understand this problem, Anderson wrote on the liblicense mailing list earlier this year one has simply to juxtapose two well-known charts, “one from ARL documenting the long decline in the proportion of research university funding allocated towards libraries, and another reproduced by STM documenting the equally steady increase in journal publication over time. These trends have long been on a collision course.”
The relative decline of library budgets

What is the publisher’s perspective?

For their part, publishers rightly point out that if the scholarly publishing system is to continue functioning (in its current form at least), they have to be paid for the services they provide. Speaking to me last year, Derk Haank pointed out that journals are currently growing in volume by 6% to 7% per year. As a consequence, he said prices must inevitably go up.

“We have been doing all that is possible over the last couple of years, and will continue to do so to ensure that our price increases are lower than the volume increases. But not increasing our prices is not an option in the long term,” he said.

One can argue about the level of profits publishers ought to be making from the public purse, but Haank’s general point is hard to gainsay.

He added, “I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem. I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it.” For that reason, he suggested, “The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread.”

[Haank also said]:“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit … We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.” 

UK librarians confront publishers

But librarians can hit walls too and ... some already have. Many are simply no longer able to pay publishers’ asking prices. And nowhere is this discontent more evident right now than in the U.K., where the Big Deal first saw the light of day.

Frustrated by the insupportable cost of the Big Deals and angry at what they see as publisher recalcitrance, U.K. librarians have decided that enough is enough.

Two years ago, Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which represents the so-called Russell Group of universities, and whose membership consists of 30 major institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester universities, Imperial College, the London School of Economics, and The British Library, made a decision. With its Big Deal contracts with both Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell due for renewal in January 2012, RLUK instructed JISC Collections (which acts on its behalf in content licensing matters) to take a firm line in renewal negotiations.

Specifically, RLUK is insisting that in future its member institutions are billed in sterling rather than euros, that the bills are staged rather demanded upfront and—most striking of all—that prices are rolled back to where they were in 2007 (with an allowance for RPI).

In practice, says Deborah Shorley, director of library services at London University’s Imperial College (who is chair of the RLUK group leading the revolt), this would effectively amount to a 15% reduction in current prices. 

What can RLUK’s strategy achieve?

RLUK’s strategy would appear to be the biggest challenge to the status quo for 15 years. But is it a potential game-changer?

Let’s put the question another way: If it succeeds in its objective, what will RLUK have achieved? If the fundamental problem faced by the research community is long-term affordability then how can a temporary price reduction resolve the deeper problem? After all, prices will doubtless creep back up again. And librarians will still be handcuffed to an inflexible system.

It is striking that most discussion about the Big Deal too often fails to examine the underlying questions raised by the serials crisis. Questions such as: Can the research community still afford the scholarly communication system it has inherited, or has the cost become too great?

And even if the traditional system is still theoretically affordable, could it be that those who ultimately pay for it (universities, research funders, governments, and ultimately taxpayers) are no longer willing to foot the bill as the costs go higher and higher?

The signs are that the answer to both questions is no. If that is right, then RLUK’s strategy can surely only provide short-term relief. Is there no way out of the impasse? 

A possible answer is mooted in the full 9,000-word article, which is freely available here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: Wellcome Trust’s Robert Kiley

Over the past year Open Access (OA) publishing has gained considerable mindshare, not just amongst researchers and librarians, but publishers too. This has been helped greatly by the perceived success of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) — which in 2010 managed to cover its operating costs with revenue for the first time. But as it becomes increasingly likely that OA publishing will prove no less expensive than traditional subscription publishing, a couple of key questions arise: How much will Gold OA eventually cost? And how will the research community pay for it? I explored these questions recently with Robert Kiley, Head of Digital Services at the UK-based Wellcome Trust, one of the world's largest medical research charities.

The consensus is that viability for PLoS was eventually achieved thanks to PLoS ONE and the “light” peer review model that it has pioneered. Indeed PLoS ONE is widely described as a “cash cow”, since it is believed to be subsidising not just the publisher’s flagship journals but practically the entire PLoS enterprise. For this reason, no doubt, traditional publishers are currently rushing to create clones of what PLoS itself describes as the first of a new breed of megajournals.

Amongst those to announce PLoS ONE look-alikes in recent months are the American Institute of Physics (AIP Advances), Nature Publishing Group (Scientific Reports), the Company of Biologists (Biology Open) and Sage (Sage Open).

In addition, practically all subscription publishers now offer a Hybrid OA option. This allows researchers to have their papers made freely available on the Web even when they publish in a subscription journal — if they agree to pay an article processing charge (APC). Designed by publishers as a way to offer OA without loss of revenue, Hybrid OA is invariable charged at premium rates — which range from between $3,000 to $5,000 per paper.

In short, despite their initial rejection (not to say repugnance) of OA, publishers now view it as a lucrative new revenue stream to have opened up in the scholarly publishing space. Indeed, they appear to fear that unless they move quickly they may lose out in what some have characterised as a “gold rush”.

This new attitude was articulated on the Liblicense mailing list recently by publishing consultant Joe Esposito, who assured list members “OA can grow and commercial publishers can become even more profitable, in part by co-opting OA publishing.”


In the meantime, however, many in the research community have resigned themselves to the fact that OA publishing may never provide the cost savings that it was expected to deliver. As former director of Penn State University Press Sandy Thatcher put it recently on Liblicense, “[W]ith the gold OA model, you are entirely at the mercy of publishers, who will charge what they need to make their preferred profit margin and will not be any more transparent than they are now about their actual costs. End users will benefit, but will the costs to the system be any less?”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: WebmedCentral’s Kamal Mahawar

In any discussion about scholarly communication today two thorny issues quickly emerge: the so-called access problem, and the problem of declining peer review standards. Kamal Mahawar, co-founder and CEO of a new web platform for publishing biomedical research called WebmedCentral, believes he has a solution to both problems. WebmedCentral, however, is not without its critics.

The access problem afflicting the research community is essentially an issue of affordability. Researchers submit a paper to a publisher, who then invites other researchers to assess it for quality and value. Assuming it is deemed to be adequate the paper is then published in a journal. To fund this process publishers sell subscriptions to their journals. Research institutions buy these subscriptions to ensure that their researchers have access to all relevant research being done around the world.

As library budgets have declined, however, research institutions have struggled to find the necessary money to pay for all the subscriptions their faculty require, depriving researchers of access to more and more research — a phenomenon known as the serials crisis.

Advocates of open-access publishing (as distinct from self-archiving) believe that the answer to this access/affordability problem is for researchers to abandon publishing in subscription journals and publish in OA journals instead. Rather than imposing charges for access (subscriptions), OA journals levy a publication fee, or “article-processing charge” on authors, or more usually their institutions. This enables publishers to make the papers they publish freely available on the Web, and so provide unfettered access to them.

The problem with OA publishing, however, is that the publication fees are far from cheap — around $1,350 to $3,000 per paper. Consequently, not all researchers have access to the necessary funds. While some OA publishers offer waivers for those without the wherewithal, this is generally done on a case-by-case basis, and the practice could very well be discontinued at some point in the future. If it was, indigent authors could find themselves unable to get their research published, particularly authors based in the developing world.

Raghavendra Gadagkar, a researcher at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, made this point eloquently in a letter to Nature in 2008. He concluded that author-pays OA, “does more harm than good in the developing world”.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Peter Suber: Leader of a Leaderless Revolution

The July/August issue of Information Today has published an interview I did recently with Peter Suber, the de facto leader of the Open Access (OA) movement. The interview is available online here.

Below are a few quotes taken from the interview. 

On why OA is necessary: 

“Authors need OA to reach all the readers who could build on their work, apply it, extend it, cite it, or make use of it. Readers need OA to find and retrieve everything they need to read and to allow their software prosthetics to process everything they need to process.

“OA doesn’t merely share knowledge. It accelerates research by helping authors and readers find one another. It’s compatible with intermediaries but not with intermediaries who erect access barriers to keep authors and readers apart.

“Basically we need it to solve a serious access problem hindering researchers both as authors and as readers. But we also need it to seize beautiful opportunities offered by the internet, especially the opportunity to distribute perfect copies of arbitrary files to a worldwide audience at zero marginal cost.” 

On the current situation with regard to Green OA: 

“To me, there’s no single finish line for OA. But we’re rapidly approaching the point where green OA is the default for new research articles, even if it coexists with TA [toll access, or subscription access] from conventional journals. Green OA is already the default for physics worldwide, and for medicine in North America, for different reasons.

“The pace of progress varies from field to field and country to country, but the direction of progress is the same everywhere. The curve is up everywhere. And the reason is the same nearly everywhere, namely, the rise of strong green OA policies at funding agencies and universities. Some policies are weak and have little effect, but the spread of strong policies is definitely enlarging the worldwide volume of OA research.” 

On the current situation with regard to Gold OA: 

“We’re making progress here as well. The number of peer-reviewed OA journals is growing fast, both among new journals and established journals converting from TA to OA. There are more OA journals making profits or surpluses. There are more OA journals earning reputations for high quality, high impact, and high prestige.

“There are more experiments with different business models for OA journals in different niches and more recognition that there are many different business models to experiment with. There are more universities and funding agencies willing to pay publication fees at fee-based OA journals—and significantly, these numbers are growing even in a deep recession.

“There’s more recognition that supporting OA journals is an investment in a superior way to support research, researchers, research institutions, and peer review. More OA journals are documenting that their conversion to OA increased their submissions and citation impact.

“The growing number of conversions from TA to OA suggests to me that small and medium-sized publishers are starting to see OA less as a threat and more as a survival strategy. The big deals are soaking up library budgets, library budgets are flat or declining, and journals excluded from the big deals have little future under the subscription model.

“In fact, I see a growing recognition that the subscription model itself is unsustainable in a world in which the volume of published knowledge grows rapidly, and subscription prices grow faster than library budgets and inflation.

I see more funding agencies and governments—not just libraries and universities coming to the conclusion that price barriers to this critically useful literature create harmful access gaps and undermine the public investment in research and peer review. These institutions have long been committed to green OA, but they’re increasing their commitment to gold OA as well. 

Suber’s message to publishers holding out against OA, especially those lobbying against self-archiving mandates: 

“I’d argue that they should accept the legitimacy of mandating OA for publicly funded research and focus their objections on the length of the permissible embargo. If they don’t, they’re putting their private interest ahead of the public interest and demanding that public agencies do the same. 

“If they don’t object to green OA mandates for publicly funded research and merely resist the idea of converting to gold OA themselves, then I have no objection. But I’d urge them to allow author-initiated green OA. I’d urge them to study the gold OA publishers who are paying their bills and making profits and study the real sustainability of the subscription business model in a world of rapidly growing research and flat or shrinking library budgets. But the choice is theirs, and I’ve never wanted government policy to go beyond regulating grantees to regulating publishers. 

“For me, the pitch to subscription-based publishers is fourfold. First, permit green OA. Second, study gold OA. Third, don’t stand in the way as public agencies act in the public interest. Fourth, don’t stand in the way as researchers and research institutions act in the interests of research.” 

On whether the PLoS ONE peer review model will become the dominant one for scholarly journals: 

“PLoS ONE is a significant model for a peer-reviewed journal, even against the background of other peer-reviewed OA journals. The rapid growth of PLoS ONE imitators is a significant development in journal publishing overall, especially in light of the fact that some of the publishers with PLoS ONE clones were formerly harsh critics of the PLoS ONE model.

“In any science where there is some professional consensus on methodology, it makes sense to separate methodological soundness from significance and to focus prepublication review on soundness. To try to cover significance as well as soundness increases the time and cost of peer review and introduces a subjective element into editorial judgment. 

“Significance is better judged by the entire community in open discussion after publication than by a few referees in private before publication. The stakes are higher than they might appear, since the longer prepublication review takes, the longer we must wait for the peer-reviewed article to become OA. 

“The model will spread because it’s less expensive than traditional peer review. It may even have originated because it’s less expensive than traditional peer review. I appreciate the need to save money, especially at OA journals. But my own view is that the cost reduction is a weaker argument in its favor than its speed and focus on questions amenable to scientific judgment.

“As with any kind of peer review, it can be done badly. But I don’t worry that it means the end of rigor. We can judge methodological soundness with more rigor than we can judge significance, at least in those fields where there is professional consensus on method. The idea that postponing judgments of significance will reduce rigor is nuts. Where we find lapses of rigor, therefore, we can’t attribute them to the model itself but only to its implementation. 

“I agree with Stuart Shieber that the PLoS ONE model is bringing some high-prestige publishers to the world of gold OA, which will increase the number of high-prestige OA titles. I also agree that the number of new PLoS ONE clones will increase competition for authors, which will tend to improve terms, for example, with lower publication fees and less restrictive licenses.

“I also agree with Phil Davis that if PLoS continues to grant fee waivers no-questions-asked, and if the new PLoS ONE clones don’t, then PLoS could see a steady rise in the number of indigent authors, subtracting any savings it might currently realize from the model. I don’t see a good solution to this problem, except to make the case that all fee-based OA journals, including the new clones, should offer fee waivers in cases of economic hardship. But I don’t expect that argument to carry much weight with publishers who want to maximize profits and minimize the financial stability of a rival.” 

On whether OA will prove to be a cheaper way of publishing scholarly papers than the traditional subscription model: 

“There are good reasons to think that OA publishing costs less, and will continue to cost less, than TA publishing at the same level of quality. There are several studies suggesting this.

“However, there are also those who dispute the conclusion, generally without evidence or with misleading evidence, such as the experience of behemoth publishers with legacy overhead from the age of print and subscriptions. I’m happy to leave it an empirical question and wait for more decisive data to emerge. But my hypothesis based on present evidence is that OA publishing will cost less.”

There is much more in the 9,000-word interview, which is available in full here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Peer review: Still no practical alternative?

The UK House of Commons Science & Technology Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into peer review. It held its fourth oral evidence session on June 8th, taking evidence from both funders of scientific research and from Government. 


While the Committee gave no specific reason for launching the current inquiry it seems evident from the questions MPs have been asking that two particular incidents have been exercising their minds: the long-running saga over Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine scare, and the so-called Climategate incident.

In the June 8th session the Committee asked questions not just about the efficacy of peer review, but about scientific fraud, bias, the willingness of universities to investigate allegations of misconduct, and the need to make research data freely available so that others can access, examine and test them.

MPs seemed particularly concerned that universities may be unwilling to investigate claims of misconduct. As MP Graham Stringer put it in one of the questions he asked the witnesses, “There is a certain amount of evidence that very little fraud is detected in universities and major research institutions in this country. Do you think we should be doing more to try and detect that, because in one sense there is an interest within those bodies not to discover or expose the problems they have, to sweep it under the carpet, isn’t there? If you are running a university and you find you have a researcher who just writes down his figures without doing the work, which has happened in one or two cases, the university doesn’t want to say that it has been employing a fraudster for 10 years, does it?”

Politicians also probed the witnesses about the use of journal impact factors as a “proxy measure for research quality” when assessing the performance of academics, and whether “the growth of online repository journals” like PLoS ONE is a “technically sound” development.

Robust defence

For their part the witnesses put up a robust defence of current practices. They denied that universities would cover up fraud; they dismissed suggestions that the impact factor is used as a proxy measure of quality; and they insisted that, while it might not be perfect, there is no practical alternative to traditional peer review.

In support of the latter claim they repeated the oft-made analogy with Winston Churchill’s description of democracy. Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Thus it is with peer review, averred the witnesses: no one has come up with anything better.

Those with any experience or knowledge of how peer review works in practice might have been tempted to conclude that analogising peer review with democracy is to obfuscate the issue. At the very least, it appears oxymoronic.

Such a conclusion was all the more likely in light of the opening question and answer. The Chair suggested that it might be helpful to conduct some research into the efficacy of the current system — on the grounds that “evaluation of peer review is poor”. To this Wellcome Trust director Sir Mark Walport replied: “Peer review is no more and no less than review by experts. I am not sure that we would want to do a comparison of a review by experts with a review by ignoramuses.”

Sir Mark’s statement can only have served to remind the audience that peer review is more oligarchic than democratic in effect. Rather than encouraging egalitarianism, it promotes elitism, and all the privileges one might associate with an old boy’s club (appositely perhaps, there was not a single female witness called to give evidence on June 8th).

Of course the Churchillian analogy is not really meant to suggest that peer review is a democratic process. Nevertheless the witnesses’ repeated claims that the current peer review system is “good enough” would surely be challenged by many junior researchers, who frequently complain that scholarly journals tend to be controlled by small elite groups of insiders, invariably senior researchers.

As one researcher pointed out to me recently, this is particularly problematic for those working outside North American and Europe. As he put it, “Peer-reviewed journals with a high impact factor are either dominated by certain gangs, or groups, or the editors rely on the opinion of reviewers too much.”

The upshot, he added, is that “a small guy from Russia, Brazil or Thailand will never get published, even with excellent results, unless he or she has a prominent Western colleague as a co-author.”

In fact, it is not just researchers in less privileged parts of the world who can struggle to get published in scientific journals today. Nor is it only junior researchers who complain about the peer review system. In 2009, for instance, 14 leading stem cell researchers wrote an open letter to journal editors highlighting their disquiet at the way in which the system operates.

Speaking to the BBC about the letter Professor Lovell-Badge commented: "It's turning things into a clique where only papers that satisfy this select group of a few reviewers who think of themselves as very important people in the field is published.”

Responding in a (separate) BBC interview, Sir Mark downplayed the criticism. Scientists, he said, “are always a bit paranoid” about peer review. And to make his point Sir Mark again used the analogy with democracy — peer review is not perfect, but it is the best system that the research community has been able to come up with.