Monday, February 27, 2012

Elsevier steps away from Research Works Act

Elsevier has today posted a statement on its web site indicating that it no longer supports the Research Works Act (RWA). 
Michael Eisen design

The news follows an outcry against the publisher for supporting the bill, and the launch of a site encouraging researchers to commit to boycott Elsevier. Currently the number of researchers who have signed on to the boycott is approaching 7,500.

I attach some excerpts from Elsevier's statement below:

At Elsevier, we have always focused on serving the global research community and ensuring the best possible access to research publications and data. In recent weeks, our support for the Research Works Act has caused some in the community to question that commitment.

We have heard expressions of support from publishers and scholarly societies for the principle behind the legislation. However, we have also heard from some Elsevier journal authors, editors and reviewers who were concerned that the Act seemed inconsistent with Elsevier’s long-standing support for expanding options for free and low-cost public access to scholarly literature. That was certainly not our intention in supporting it. This perception runs counter to our commitment to making published research widely accessible, coming at a time when we continue to expand our access options for authors and develop advanced technologies to enable the sharing and distribution of research results.

While we continue to oppose government mandates in this area, Elsevier is withdrawing support for the Research Work Act itself. We hope this will address some of the concerns expressed and help create a less heated and more productive climate for our ongoing discussions with research funders.

"We are ready and willing to work constructively and cooperatively to continue to promote free and low-cost public access through a variety of means, as we have with research funders and other partners around the world.

The full statement can be read here.

UPDATE: Elsevier has today also published a Letter to the Mathematics Community. Amongst other things, this addresses the issues of pricing, open access and the RWA.

FURTHER UPDATE: Elsevier's vice president marketing communications Chrysanne Lowe has posted a message to the library community on the Liblicense mailing list.

The message confirms that Elsevier has withdrawn its support for the RWA, and ends, "We recognize that the recent legislative debate is far from the only issue at hand. We acknowledge that, as the largest of the commercial publishers, we take a sizable share of your serials budget. However, relative to our competitors, we are also confident that we deliver a significant share of value in terms of articles, usage, citations, and improved research productivity."

FURTHER UPDATE:  Alexander Howard reports that he has received a joint statement from the sponsors of the RWA -- Reps. Darrell Issa and Carolyn B. Maloney -- saying that they "will not be taking legislative action" on the RWA. The statement adds:

As the costs of publishing continue to be driven down by new technology, we will continue to see a growth in open access publishers. This new and innovative model appears to be the wave of the future. The transition must be collaborative, and must respect copyright law and the principles of open access. The American people deserve to have access to research for which they have paid. This conversation needs to continue and we have come to the conclusion that the Research Works Act has exhausted the useful role it can play in the debate.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Back to Budapest

Ten years ago, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations (then known as the Open Society Initiative) gathered together a group of people who believed passionately that publicly-funded research ought to be freely available on the Internet. 

Open Society Archives
It was a somewhat disparate group of people with varying interests and agendas. But over the course of two cold December days in Budapest, the group hammered out a common vision, and an agenda. This was then articulated in a public declaration — a declaration they called the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and a declaration that  gave birth to the open-access (OA) movement.

The BOAI called for all publicly-funded research articles to be made freely available on the Internet, and in such a way that any user could “read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.”

It also proposed two ways in which this objective could be met. First, by researchers self-archiving any papers they published in subscription journals on the Internet themselves (aka Green OA); second, by researchers opting to publish in open-access journals so that the publisher made their work freely availale online (aka Gold OA).

Thus was born the open-access movement, and a decade of heated advocacy, joyful successes, and sometimes bitter disappointments. In the process, OA has become both the hottest and the most controversial topic within the world of scholarly publishing.

As Open Society Foundations’ Melissa Hagemann put it recently, “Today, Open Access is at the forefront of discussions about scholarly communications in the digital age. Open Access  is taught in universities, debated in Parliaments, embraced and opposed by publishers, and most importantly, mandated by over 300 research funders and institutions, including the largest funder of research in the world, the U.S. National Institutes of Health.”

Hagemann added however, “[T]he fight for open access to research has not been won. The U.S. Congress is considering reversing the NIH mandate in a bill — the Research Works Act — backed by traditional publishers.”

Against this background, last week the Open Society Foundations once again gathered together a group of open-access advocates, along with a number of research funders, and asked them to agree on what they think needs to be done over the next ten years.

The event took the form of a roundtable discussion, with topics discussed including policy, sustainability, new metrics, and research re-use issues.

Once again held in Budapest, in the Open Society Archives, the discussion was chaired by Alma Swan, director of European advocacy at the Scholarly Publishing & Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).

“The aim,” explains Swan, “was to agree a list of recommendations outlining where we think energy and funding would be best directed over the next ten years.”

The list of recommendations is expected to be published in the next few weeks. When it is, I hope to publish an interview with Alma Swan.

** The interview with Alma Swan is now available here **

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The OA Interviews: Michael Eisen, co-founder of the Public Library of Science

Michael Eisen is an evolutionary biologist at University of California Berkeley and an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is also co-founder of the Open Access (OA) publisher Public Library of Science (PLoS).
Michael Eisen

Founded in 2000, PLoS was conceived as an advocacy group for what only later became known as Open Access. PLoS’ first initiative was to publish an Open Letter and invite scientists around the world to sign on to it.

Those signing pledged that henceforth they would “publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.”

Nearly 34,000 scientists from 180 countries signed the pledge; but while a small handful of publishers complied with the demands outlined in the letter, most blithely ignored it. Worse, most of the scientist signatories proved happy to forswear their own pledge, and continue publishing in the very journals that had turned a deaf ear to them.

Disappointed but undeterred, Eisen and the other two PLoS co-founders — biochemist Patrick Brown, and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus — reinvented the organisation as a non-profit publisher, and in 2003 they launched an OA journal called PLoS Biology. PLoS Medicine followed a year later.


Today PLoS publishes seven OA journals and is also experimenting with new OA services like PLoS Currents, which aims to minimise the delay between the generation and publication of new research. Papers are published within days of being submitted.

PLoS was able to become a publisher thanks to a $9 million grant it received in 2002 from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The challenge was to become financially sustainable before the grant ran out.

With this aim in mind, PLoS decided to levy a one-off article-processing charge (APC) for each paper it published. This avoids having to charge a subscription to those who want to access PLoS papers. Instead, the publisher can make all the papers it publishes freely available on the Web. Later dubbed Gold OA, this approach was originally pioneered by commercial OA publisher BioMed Central (BMC).

Many were sceptical that such a model could work, and not without reason: PLoS initially struggled to pay its way. But in 2006 the publisher launched PLoS ONE, a new journal that was not only radical in concept, but was to prove a financial saviour.

PLoS ONE is revolutionary in two ways. First, where journals are normally discipline specific PLoS ONE will consider any paper in any discipline within the hard sciences. Second, reviewers are told only to assess the technical validity of papers submitted, not their likely scientific importance or significance.

It turned out to be a winning formula, and PLoS ONE grew so rapidly that it is now the largest peer-reviewed journal in the world. It has published over 31,000 papers since 2006, 14,000 of them in 2011 alone, which represents 1 in 60 of all the papers indexed by PubMed that year.

Importantly, thanks to PLoS ONE, the publisher was able to announce last year that its annual operating revenues in 2010 had exceeded expenses for the first time.

But success has not come without controversy. Critics accuse PLoS of engaging in “bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.” By doing so, they add, it is lowering the quality of published research.

Undoubtedly, the acceptance bar is much lower at PLoS ONE than at other journals. Where The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine accept fewer than 10% of papers submitted, for instance, PLoS ONE publishes around 65% of the papers it receives.

However, as the potential financial benefits of the PLoS ONE model became evident, traditional commercial publishers rushed to create PLoS ONE clones themselves. Today, therefore, PLoS ONE is as likely to be celebrated for pioneering a new type of megajournal as it is to be criticised for its no-frills peer review.

Friday, February 10, 2012

John Wiley & Sons have no plans to endorse the Research Works Act

As opposition to the Research Works Act (RWA) grows, more and more scholarly publishers are distancing themselves from the proposed new bill. The latest is John Wiley & Sons.

Wiley has emailed me the following statement:

We do not believe that legislative initiatives are the best way forward at this time and so have no plans to endorse RWA. Instead we believe that research funder-publisher partnerships will be more productive.

Ongoing discussions with OSTP in the U.S., the Finch Group in the U.K. and research funders generally present an opportunity for research funders and publishers to work in partnership to develop tools to better identify, present and disseminate the results of publicly funded research — for example working together on initiatives to link published articles with funder information such as research reports, and finding new ways to manage and provide access to the rapidly expanding body of supporting research data as a critical reference tool for further scientific inquiry. At the same time, Wiley is actively exploring all sustainable business models for scholarly communication, including gold (funded) open access.

We believe this approach serves the interests of our diverse publishing partners (around 800 scholarly and professional societies), representing a broad range of opinion and policies on access.

Known formally as HR 3699, the RWA is a proposed new bill that would reverse the Public Access Policy introduced in 2005 by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). The policy requires that taxpayer-funded research is made freely accessible in the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed Central database within 12 months of publication.

The RWA would also prevent other federal agencies from imposing similar mandates on their funded researchers. As such, it poses a serious threat to the Open Access (OA) movement.

The RWA is backed by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and its Professional and Scholarly Division (PSP), which last December published a press release describing the bill as, “significant legislation that will help reinforce America’s leadership in scholarly and scientific publishing in the public interest and in the critical peer-review system that safeguards the quality of such research.”

However, since the beginning of January a growing number of publishers have been distancing themselves from the bill, including members of the AAP itself. Amongst those to do so are MIT Press, Pennsylvania State University Press, Rockefeller University Press, University of California Press, Nature Publishing Group, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAA), publisher of the well-known scientific journal Science.  

John Wiley, we should note, is also a member of the AAP, and its technical, medical, and scholarly business Wiley-Blackwell is one of the larger scholarly publishers. Wiley Online Library offers online access to over 4 million articles from 1,500 journals, 9,000+ books, and many reference works and databases.

As the list of RWA dissenters grows, OA advocate Peter Suber has been keeping tabs on a wiki page he has created at Harvard’s Berkman Center. In a Google+ post yesterday, Suber reported that there are now “19 publisher opponents of RWA and 46 major non-publisher opponents.” John Wiley will take the number of dissenting publishers to 20.

Further bad news for RWA supporters came  yesterday, when it was announced that a new version of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA) has been introduced into both the House and the Senate.

The FRPAA is the exact opposite of the RWA: Where the RWA would roll back the NIH Public Access Policy, the FRPAA would strengthen it — by reducing the maximum embargo period before published research papers have to be made freely available online from 12 months to six months.

And where the RWA would outlaw other US federal agencies from imposing NIH-like mandates on their funded researchers, the FRPAA would require all the major agencies of the federal government to introduce the new strengthened policy.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Battle of the Bills

As anger over the Research Works Act (RWA) continues to grow the open access (OA) movement has come up with the ultimate riposte — a new version of the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA).

The FRPAA is the exact opposite of the RWA: Where the RWA would roll back the Public Access Policy introduced by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2005, the FRPAA would strengthen it by reducing the maximum embargo period before published research papers have to be made freely available online from 12 months to six months.

And where the RWA would outlaw other US federal agencies from imposing NIH-like mandates on their funded researchers, the FRPAA would require all the major agencies of the federal government to introduce the new strengthened policy.

In a post on Google+, OA advocate Peter Suber reports that the new version of the FRPAA is expected to be introduced in both the House and the Senate today. 

The bipartisan House sponsors of the FRPAA are Mike Doyle (D-PA), Kevin Yoder (R-KS), and William Lacy Clay (D-MO), and the bipartisan Senate sponsors are John Cornyn (R-TX), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

In a message posted today on his web site, Congressman Doyle is quoted as saying:

“Americans have the right to see the results of research funded with taxpayer dollars. Yet such research too often gets locked away behind a pay-wall, forcing those who want to learn from it to pay expensive subscription fees for access.

“The Federal Research Public Access Act will encourage broader collaboration among scholars in the scientific community by permitting widespread dissemination of research findings. Promoting greater collaboration will inevitably lead to more innovative research outcomes and more effective solutions in the fields of biomedicine, energy, education, and health care.”

For those wanting more information about the FRPAA, Suber has created a wiki page at Harvard’s Berkman Center. This explains the new bill and its implications in greater detail. 

UPDATE: The RWA has been defeated

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Elsevier’s Alicia Wise on the RWA, the West Wing, and Universal Access

In recent years I have noticed that it is pretty difficult for journalists not attached to big media to obtain interviews with Elsevier executives — except where the purpose of the interview is to talk about a new product, or the company’s latest financial results. Certainly, Elsevier has appeared very reluctant to talk about Open Access (OA). 

This led me to conclude that the company believes it only needs to talk to two groups of people: its shareholders and its customers — where customer implies not the researchers whose papers provide the content published in its journals, but the librarians who purchase those journals, invariably by means of the controversial Big Deal (aka “bundling”).

All changed

Alicia Wise
If my conclusion was correct, it seems safe to say that this has all changed in the past month or so. And the reason why is clear: At the end of last year a new bill was introduced into the US House of Representatives called the Research Works Act (RWA).

Co-sponsored by Representatives Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), the RWA would reverse the Public Access Policy introduced in 2005 by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). This policy requires that taxpayer-funded research is made freely accessible online with 12 months of publication. The bill would also prevent any other federal agency from imposing a similar requirement on the researchers it funds. As such, the RWA would pose a significant threat to the Open Access movement.

Shortly after its introduction, the Association of American Publishers (AAP) — an organisation of which Elsevier is a senior member — published a press release welcoming the new bill. The RWA, it said, is “aimed at preventing regulatory interference with private-sector research publishers in the production, peer review and publication of scientific, medical, technical, humanities, legal and scholarly journal articles.”

However, the problem is that the research community views things rather differently, and so news of the bill quickly ignited a firestorm of protest, especially amongst OA advocates.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Open Access Interviews: Jan Velterop

In the world of scholarly publishing, Jan Velterop is a well-regarded “old hand”. But an old hand who has shown himself to be very receptive to new ways of doing things.
Jan Velterop
He began his publishing career at Elsevier in the mid-1970s, and subsequently worked for a number of other leading publishers, including Academic Press, Nature, and Springer. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, Velterop has always been willing to embrace new ideas, and new models, particularly those made possible by the Internet.

While at Academic Press in the mid-1990s, Velterop was one of the architects of what was to become known as the Big Deal — an arrangement by which large bundles of electronic journals are sold on multi-year “all you can eat” contracts. While the Big Deal has now fallen into disfavour, it was a revolutionary development in the world of scholarly publishing, and remains a very significant part of the landscape.

In 2000, Velterop joined BioMed Central, the first commercial open-access science publisher, and in 2001 he was one of a small group of people who gathered together in Budapest to discuss, “the international effort to make research articles in all academic fields freely available on the internet.”

It was at that meeting that the Open Access movement was born, along with the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI), and the BOAI statement — “the clearest and most generic of what Open Access means and should mean”, suggests Velterop.

Like the Big Deal before it, open-access publishing was initially scorned by other publishers. By 2008, however, it was clear that it was the wave of the future, a truth underlined by the acquisition of BioMed Central by Springer in October of that year.

Ever restless for new challenges, Velterop quickly moved on, and began to put his formidable talents to addressing the problems of information overload and the interoperability of data. To this end, in 2009 he was one of the initiators of the Concept Web Alliance, “an open collaborative community that is actively addressing the challenges associated with the production of unprecedented volumes of academic and professional data.”

Today, Velterop is CEO of Academic Concept Knowledge Limited (AQnowledge), a new company developing tools for “semantic knowledge navigation”. In particular, says Velterop, it is trying to “make the interfaces from the literature to open data resources financially sustainable.”

Velterop’s journey from traditional print publishing to the semantic web has inevitably impacted on his vision of what scholarly publishing is and ought to be — a vision now somewhat distanced from his erstwhile publisher colleagues.

At the beginning of January, for instance, Velterop wrote on his blog, “Looking at it as dispassionately as possible, one could conclude that peer review is the only remaining significant raison d’être of formal scientific publishing in journals.”

He then went on to make the heretical suggestion that traditional pre-publication peer review should be abandoned in favour of the “endorsement” model pioneered by the physics pre-print server arXiv. By doing so, he says, the research community could save the taxpayer $3 billion a year of unnecessary expense.

The heresy does not end there. Speaking of the future of scholarly publishing, and the role of publishers, Velterop says, “The evolution of scientific communication will go on, without any doubt, and although that may not mean the total demise of the traditional models, these models will necessarily change. After all, some dinosaur lineages survived as well. We call them birds. And there are some very attractive ones. They are smaller than the dinosaurs they evolved from, though. Much smaller.”

In short, if Velterop’s vision of the future of scholarly communication proves accurate, publishers can expect their role to be dramatically reduced, with obvious implications for their revenues, and thus for their profits. “I have for a long time felt that ‘publisher’ is a misnomer for the outfits that are called that, anyway,” says Velterop, “Publishing is what the author can do, and increasingly does, autonomously; it is the tagging of an article with a peer reviewed journal title that the ‘publishers’ do.”

It is, therefore, unsurprising that Velterop takes the view that publishers have made a serious error of judgment in pushing for the controversial Research Works Act (RWA) — a new bill introduced into the US House of Representatives at the end of last year that would roll back the Public Access Policy introduced by the US National Institutes of Health. “I truly don’t understand how a sophisticated industry could get itself into a PR disaster like the RWA,” he says.

More of Velterop’s views on these and other aspects of scholarly publishing can be read in the attached interview.


If you wish to read the interview with Jan Velterop, 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.