Guerilla open access, public engagement with research, and ivory towers

Despite the growth of open access publishing, there is still a massive and growing archive of peer-reviewed research that is hidden behind paywalls. While academics can reach most of the research they need through library subscriptions, researchers, professionals and the broader community outside of academia are effectively cut off from the vast majority of peer-reviewed research. If the growth of file sharing communities transformed the entertainment industry more than fifteen years ago, is a similar transformation in academic publishing inevitable?

Together with Enrico Coiera and Ken Mandl, I published an article today in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. In the article, we considered the plausibility and consequences of a massive data breach and leak of journal articles onto peer-to-peer networks, and the creation of a functioning decentralised network of peer-reviewed research. Considering a hypothetical Biblioleaks scenario, we speculated on the technical feasibility and the motivations that underpin civil disobedience in academic publishing.

It appears as though academics are not providing pre-print versions of their article anywhere near as often as they could. For every 10 articles published, 2 or 3 can be found online for free, but up to 8 of them could be uploaded by the authors legally (this is called self-archiving, where authors upload pre-print versions of their manuscripts). Civil disobedience in relation to sharing articles is still quite rare. Examples of article-sharing on Twitter and via torrents have emerged in the last few years but only a handful of people are involved. There it not yet a critical mass of censorship-resistant sharing that would signal a shift into an era of near-universal access like we saw in the entertainment industry in the late 1990s.

However, as the public come to expect free access to all research as the norm rather than the exception, it might be more likely that the creation of an article-sharing underground will come from outside academia. What is unknown is whether or not the public actually want to access peer-reviewed research directly. From the little evidence that is available on this question, it seems that doctors, patients, professionals of all kinds, as well as the broader community might all benefit from the creation of an underground network of article-sharing, and it may even serve to reduce the gap between research consensus and public opinion for issues like climate change and vaccination, where large sections of the broader community disagree with the overwhelming majority of scientific experts.

Given the size of recent hacks on major companies, there appears to be no technical barriers to a massive data breach and leak. However, by removing the motivations behind a Biblioleaks scenario, publishers and researchers might be able to avoid (or skip over) a period of illegal file-sharing. University librarians could build the servers that would seed the torrents for pre-prints, helping to ensure quality control and improving the impact of the research in the wider community. Researchers can and should learn the self-archiving policies for all their work and upload their manuscripts as soon as they are entitled or obliged to do so. Prescient publishers might find ways to freely release older articles on their own websites to avoid losing traffic and advertising revenue.

Bohannon’s Science Sting – playing devil’s advocate and proposing a solution

[Update: I realise that perhaps many of you are not going to have the same perspective about the Science Sting that I have purposefully taken here (hence the title). Apologies in advance.]

It took a journalist (albeit one with a PhD in molecular biology) to reveal the extent of the peer-review problems among predatory journals. Bohannon submitted fatally flawed and boringly bad articles to a set of open access journals that charge fees to publish. Of 255 submissions with results, 157 journals (62%) accepted the article. This did not come as a surprise to a lot of people who have been watching or interacting with this vast underworld of predatory publishing.

Simply, fee-charging predatory open access publishers make more money if they accept more articles. It’s not going to be good for business in the long-term (because of reputation problems) but it seems to be working quite well for a number of publishers right now. The need/desire for profits is also a big problem in subscription journals but often for very different reasons (where profit relies on denying access).

But is it working for them? There is limited evidence to suggest that business is good for predatory journals. Hindawi (previously listed as borderline predatory) apparently makes 52% profits, which is phenomenal compared to the already obscene 36% operating profits reported by Elsevier. The reason why business is so good is the direct consequence of the publish or perish mentality that pervades academia. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of students graduating with PhDs each year, the low overheads associated with starting a journal, and paid gold open access becomes an attractive business proposition for any shonky operator.

Response from those heavily invested in open access

Bohannon tells us that he talked about the work with “a small group of scientists who care deeply about open access”, and in the news article explained carefully that the growth of open access has multiplied the problem of predatory journals. This is because predatory publishers are much more likely to opt for a paid gold open access model. I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. The problem is that people who care deeply about open access appear to have often interpreted the news article in a defensive way because of their particular perspectives on open access. There’s a whole bunch of responses to the article that come from the full spectrum of open access advocates and I have made a list below.

To play the devil’s advocate, here’s what they have often missed in their responses.

  • Bohannon correctly included the suggestion that targeting the low end of subscription journals could produce the same result and explicitly indicated that he did not examine them.
  • The article is directed at a particular subset of journals that charge fees and are listed on the DOAJ or on Beall’s list. The aims match the selection of journals and both are clear. At no point does Bohannon say that the chosen set represents open access generally.
  • It is an article about peer review. The fact that the targeted journals were all paid gold open access journals is important to note but that point has very little to do with the huge problems in peer review, which we all know are pervasive and a bigger problem in gold open access.

The results also show that Beall’s list does a reasonably good job of compiling the problems. It was nice to see that Beall was (mostly) vindicated in his identification of dodgy publishers. Over 80% of the journals on Beall’s list accepted the article after some kind of a review. For journals on DOAJ, the proportion was 45%. Much lower but still substantial.

It was unsurprising that Beall’s list produced the highest proportion of accepted articles and the highest proportion of missing peer review, that DOAJ produced fewer in each of the two. Glass-half-full types would have focused more heavily on this to show that there were in fact plenty of good open access journals that do charge fees, do undertake peer review or reject on first principles, and noted that even among a targeted group of journals accused of predatory behaviour, some still undertook peer review.

So what?

There are two important things we need to remember when interpreting the results of the Bohannon’s Science Sting. Firstly, predatory journals and open access journals are not synonymous but there are a lot of predatory journals that are open access. Bohannon did not conflate them in his report and explained his methods better than most journal articles I’ve seen recently. Secondly, if open access is to eventually replace the subscription model completely, then the people that are best placed to tackle predatory journals using open access models are the people that are already measuring, curating, listing and analysing open access. Houses in order, so to speak.

DOAJ should be the first to act – directly with the journals that accepted the paper, and then with the wider group of fee-charging journals. It doesn’t matter what proportion of subscription articles *would* have accepted the papers, the problem still exists no matter how much the “lack of a proper control” or “Science conspiracy against open access” arguments get thrown around to dilute the message.

Solving the problem

If you want a radical solution to the problem of bad peer review in predatory journals, there’s an obvious one that no one seems to be suggesting:

Remove profits from publishing entirely.

The method is simple. Only index and recognise articles that are published with non-profit and flat-rate subsidised (platinum open access) journals – like some of those published by the various scientific societies. Don’t pay journals for “how much” but for “how well”. If subscription journals and for-profit open access journals can’t be cited, indexed, or contribute to career progression, then the market for predatory journals disappears.

What others have been saying

Here is a list of other responses to Bohannon’s Science Sting.

1. Graham Steel: The Publishing “Sting”, the reaction, and the outcome

2. Åse Innes-Ker: A publishing sting, but what was stung?

3. Björn Brembs: Science Magazine Rejects Data, Publishes Anecdote

4. Claire Shaw: Hundreds of open access journals accept fake science paper

5. Peter Suber: New “sting” of weak open-access journals.

6. Curt Rice: What Science — and the Gonzo Scientist — got wrong: open access will make research better

7. Martin Eve: Flawed sting operation singles out open access journals  – and a longer version

8. Ernesto Priego: Who’s Afraid of Open Access?

9. Nigel Hawkes: Spoof research paper is accepted by 157 journals

10. Michael Eisen: I confess, I wrote the Arsenic DNA paper to expose flaws in peer-review at subscription based journals

11. Mike Taylor (SV-POW): John Bohannon’s peer-review sting against Science

12. Fabiana Kubke (makes good points about navigating open access): Science gone bad

13. Lenny Teytelman (interesting take & new analysis): What hurts science – rejection of good or acceptance of bad?

14. The Directory of Open Access Journals: DOAJ’s response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

15. Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association: OASPA’s response to the recent article in Science entitled “Who’s Afraid of Peer Review?”

16. Jeroen Bosman (an excellent description of the issues): Science Mag sting of OA journals: is it about Open Access or about peer review?

17. John Hawks (interesting take): “Open access spam” and how journals sell scientific reputation

It is also nice to see some of them disclosing their particular set of conflicts in their discussions. I have none. And here are some more reactions on Twitter and a discussion hosted by Science:

On open access – practical issues

Upulie Divisekera, prolific tweeter and all-around awesome scientist, wanted to write a thing about open access and was nice enough to ask me for some help. The result, which you can find on Crikey and read for free, captures the costs of publishing and the avenues through which journal publishers make obscene operating profits.

Long story short, it’s because the publishers have convinced academics to give them all their work for free, as well as do the quality assurance tasks. Then they charge the same communities of academics to access them, or they actually charge authors to give them their work for free in the first place. And through all of that, the costs of publishing have probably decreased because everything is online now, instead of in actual printed books that sit in libraries gathering dust. When we think about it like that, it doesn’t make the academics seem very smart. And it’s kind of true. I’ll explain why…

In case you didn’t catch the link to the article, which proved to be quite popular, then here it is.
Why science doesn’t belong to everyone (yet)

After the cost of knowledge became a thing, more and more of mainstream academia started to think about the open access movement and started to jump on the golden bandwagon. Essentially, open access just shifts the costs of publishing from the library to the scientist, but the money comes from the public either way, so I personally don’t see how this sort of shake-up will have a direct effect on the actual cost of knowledge.

There’s a simpler approach that should be considered the responsibility of every research academic considering the submission of a piece of research. And that is to check the self-archiving rules for each journal. It turns out that most of the decent journals to which we might consider submitting work allow researchers to upload pre-prints (yellow) or post-prints (blue/green) already (some after a delay), and most of them will publish your work for free. The journals that don’t give researchers the ability to self-archive are a small enough proportion that they are easily avoided without having to sacrifice readership, impact (and yes, your choice of journal does matter) and good old-fashioned prestige.

And then just let Google work its magic.

Soon enough, your pdf is available as one of “All X versions” on Google Scholar, and will be linked directly to your institutions’ (or your own) webpages. And if you are looking for an article of mine that is “behind a paywall”, google it first before you start bitching about it on the internet because the post-print version is available at the click of a button.

So why aren’t people doing it properly already?

Because it’s not new. It’s not a buzz word. Blue and green coloured-things might not as desirable as gold. But it is important. And if you’re a researcher, you owe it to the public to know it and get it right, on time, every time.

The Netherlands supports (with €) open access in science

As reported by BioMed Central, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) will provide 1 million to help scientists develop new open access journals or convert existing journals to open access.

I’m not entirely sure that the “unexpected consequences” might be, or even how many journals can be bought with 1 million euros but improving access to knowledge is, in my opinion, the most important thing being done in science this decade.

BioMed Central, of course, are very keen to help potential recipients start up open access journals, presumably because it fulfils two of their missions: improving open access and making profits.

A very interesting way to find journals, authors and related publications

This tool allows you to insert either a whole abstract or some keywords, to find related journals, their influence and other benefits (like being available for free after a certain amount of time). It also allows you to find relevant authors and the relevant articles they write.

I tried this tool on two recent drafts I finished and immediately came up with new ideas on where to submit them, confirmed my choice of a high-impact journal for another, and found a whole new stream of publications related specifically to the topic. I would not have found these articles otherwise, so I can certainly vouch for the ability of the tool.

This one is going straight in the bookmarks and will be accessed often.

A very interesting way to find journals, authors and related publications