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Peers, review your actions

Help usher in universal open access - stop giving free labour to publishers that lock research away, says Michael Taylor

Twenty years ago, academic publishers provided a valuable service to researchers. By printing articles, binding them into issues and sending them out into the world, they provided the only means then available for work to be disseminated. But the internet changed that: now it's easy for anyone to make their work universally available.

Despite this, commercial publishers continue to post record profits. Why? While we weren't paying attention, they established a stranglehold on our product - research papers - and authors feel they have no choice but to go along with the system that's in place.

It's a well-rehearsed truth that the government funds research; academics do the work, write the papers and give them to a publisher (often paying the publisher for the privilege); other researchers edit the papers, usually for no fee; other researchers provide peer review gratis; yet somehow the publisher ends up owning the result of the whole process - only to sell copies back to the researchers who did the work and the citizens who funded it.

Everyone knows this system is a historical hangover, but the cycle is hard to break. University libraries have to buy the journals so that their scholars can read them. And because only peer-reviewed articles are respected, scholars feel they have to place their work in the journals in order to advance their careers.

So it is understandable, if lamentable, that we give commercial publishers our research.

But what's truly mind-boggling is that we also review and edit for these corporations. For free. It's the editorial and review process that gives the crucial stamp of approval to research. But publishers don't provide this: it's one more thing that we give them. We feel obliged to contribute our time, effort and expertise because reviewing is seen as a service to the community. But it's become a service to corporations.

Why aren't we more furious about this? Is there any other field of endeavour where such a grotesque arrangement would be tolerated?

The solution, of course, is open-access journals, such as PLoS ONE, which charge authors a handling fee to cover their operating costs and make the resulting articles free for everyone, everywhere.

The problem is how to make the switch to open access: it can't be done overnight. When the transition is complete, the subscription fees saved by university libraries will be far greater than the handling fees spent by research groups. But in the short term, it's hard for researchers to find those fees from shrinking grants, knowing that the benefit will not be direct and immediate, but only over the long term as the shift towards ubiquitous open access accelerates. The problem will persist because university libraries and research groups are funded separately.

So the question becomes what we, as individual researchers, can do to accelerate the change. Simple: we can stop propping up the for-profit publishers that lock our research away. Like many colleagues, I publish my work in open-access venues whenever possible. But I recently took a further step: I will no longer offer free peer-review to non-open journals. If they want me to add value to a product that they did not create and will not release to the world, that's fine; but they can pay me for my time and expertise at a decent professional rate - £100 per hour, say.

Researchers, I urge you to join me in taking this simple stand.

It is good news that the Research Information Network has established a working group on improving access to research findings. But Dame Janet Finch, chair of this group, seeks "a solution that (publishers) can live with as well as everyone else". Why? Does the UK government have a moral duty to keep feeding inflated profits to Dutch and German corporations? Corporations with a business model based on restricting access to research?

The status quo is not merely unfortunate, it's exploitative and immoral. By giving those corporations our time and effort, we are helping to perpetuate it.

Readers' comments (7)

  • All authors and their institutions should make sure that they retain the right to use the materials (including on-line) in any way they wish. That still allows the publishers the proper rights to publish. Most publishers have under the counter arrangements where they can adapt to the restrictions placed in authors due to their employment, funding or contractual agreements. But ofte choose not to make this wekll jknown, relying on the ignorance of their authors and their isolated and individual position in this regard. A proper publications policy that does just enough to protect the right to reuse can assist an author to not be bullied by the publishers. But this cannot be well enforced as an individual. Hence a policy should be adopted by the organisation which employs or funds them. See http://www.inf.ed.ac.uk/publications/submission/copyright.html

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  • Thanks @Mike for raising this issue. I have blogged at length about what is wrong with scholarly publishing. (http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/07/09/what-is-wrong-with-scientific-publishing-and-can-we-put-it-right-before-it-is-too-late/ ). The solution is in the hands of academia but they are not interested in changing a broken system that honours personal glorification over access to information. The scholarly literature should be a fundamental human right (not necessarily cost free but universally available). Put simply, people die through lack of access to scientific literature. Your proposal is a valuable part of the change. It's simple. I do not review for closed access journals. I do not serve on their editorial processes. Reviewing is not measured in RAE / REF so it is no pain to give it up. (Unfortunately people will still want the glory of being editors on closed access journals)

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  • I have also blogged about this issue, "Access to peer reviewed journals" at http://ogrdy.ca/kh24A9. The next time I'm asked to review an article I plan to send a link to Mike's post in response to my reason why I won't do it. The more times we do this the more likely the publishers will start to "get" it. I'm not terribly enthralled with the process as it sits right now. Regarding the comment from Button above, "many open-access journals offer fee waivers for authors without institutional funding" I think "many" is a bit of an exaggeration. If you are in developing nation you may get a waiver. If you are a graduate student in the social sciences you might as well forget it. And forget asking your supervisor for funds to publish your papers. I've paid for every single one of mine, sometimes using my own personal money just to aid with career advancement. I also disagree with Button's comment, "There is certainly no lack of outlets for unfunded scholars wanting to publish their work as open access". Also not true. What if your area of specialty only has 6 or 8 journals? What if only one or two of those are open access? What if neither of them provide waivers? Such generalizations are dangerous and inaccurate. As a peer reviewer I would not accept an article containing these types of statements ;) What about patients who want to read articles about their illness? Some journals charge from $35 to $45 (USD) for one article. That's more expensive than many books! Totally absurd, unjustified and unwarranted. I look forward to more enlightened discussion and resulting change regarding these issues.

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  • I have blogged on some of this in http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/09/30/access-to-scientific-publications-should-be-a-fundamental-right/ . I refuse to review for closed access journals. I have written many times this year on http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/07/09/what-is-wrong-with-scientific-publishing-and-can-we-put-it-right-before-it-is-too-late/ and about 20 more posts. @TheWatcher I shall be at OSS in Mountan View BTW I posted earlier today but it hasn't appeared so apolgies if there is duplication

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  • Please also see petermr's post, "Access to scientific publications should be a fundamental right" http://blogs.ch.cam.ac.uk/pmr/2011/09/30/access-to-scientific-publications-should-be-a-fundamental-right/

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  • All: I've made a list of all previous open-access pledges that I've been able to find at http://www.openaccesspledge.com/?page_id=21 , and invite everyone to sign on at http://www.openaccesspledge.com/ It's important to let the community see that it's not just a few individuals pushing for open access in this way. Common objections to Michael's type of pledge are 1. If I as a scientist *submit* to closed journals and thus benefit from the peer reviews they solicit, it's not fair that I not return the favour and review for them 2. The "green road" of posting post-prints to open repositories may be better or a necessary adjunct to the "gold road" of paying for publication. The reviewing pledge we've formulated at openaccesspledge.com avoids both of these problems by including an even exchange for reviews at closed outlets, and allows reviewing of manuscripts destined for open repositories.

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  • I’ve also found saying “no” to reviewing for non-OA journals to be a very effective step in tha OA revolution. Michael Ashburner, University of Cambridge emeritus geneticist (http://bit.ly/zSTxCB), has provided a template for saying “no” to non-OA review requests, which hopefully can be of use as boilerplate to others: http://bit.ly/xdPfra

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