Nature’s shiny sounding copout on open access

Nature has an editorial in this week’s issue on broader issues surround access to the scientific literature.

Several people have sent it to me with some variation on “Wow, Nature is saying good things about open access”. I was skeptical, given that Nature has a long history of occasionally saying the right things about open access one day, but then editorializing against it or running news pieces with a strong negative slant the next. There are things to like here. The piece does reaffirm Nature’s opposition to the Research Works Act – indeed, they dismiss it as an inconsequential distraction. And it expresses a useful sentiment:

In short, the literature is becoming ever more multifaceted, and intermediaries will be needed to supply added value and usability. It is hard to imagine such a primary literature and all of those seeking to add genuine value to it thriving when its key results are behind subscription firewalls.

But it follows this up with the bromide publishers have trotted out for a decade:

But a vision for open access in which all results — text, data, grey literature and so on — are immediately available in their published versions requires the costs of that added value to be paid for.

This is such an incredibly disingenuous and patronizing thing to say. The scientific community is well aware of this – spending on the order of $5 billion a year of public money to support biomedical research journals – with Nature receiving a healthy chunk of it. And, as Nature is well aware, one of the main reasons governments have not shifted this money from wasteful subscriptions that provide access to a limited number of people is that most publishers have failed to offer such to option, and have opposed any move towards government support of real open access. And yet, Nature - arguably the most powerful publisher in the biomedical sciences – denies any agency, placing responsibility squarely on the government’s shoulders:

Above all, they need to find the money to make the vision viable. Only then will the open research literature truly come to fruition, and only then will those wishing to provide added value be able to invest confidently in doing so.

But what do you think publishers would say if the government did what I have long argued they should – announce tomorrow that they will no longer fund journal subscriptions and will shift all of the money they currently spend on them to support open access publishing. I am sure publishers would start shrieking about how terrible it was for the government to intrude in the free market, like Nature does in this piece:

The only way that can happen is for governments to recognize the complexities of this terrain, and the damage that can be done to the providers of added value and to research itself as a result of poorly considered prohibitions or compulsions.

This is what annoys me most. It reinforces what is the biggest hypocrisy pushed by publishers – that governments have to spend billions of dollars to support the services they provide, but have no right to specify the terms under which publishers should operate. This “give us the money, but don’t tell us what to do” sentiment is exactly the same as that spewed by Elsevier in the Research Works Act.

Nature has always been very savvy about changes that are coming in scientific publishing. They clearly understand the issues, and – with projects like Digital Science – are trying to position themselves to capitalize on this future. But if Nature had any guts at all, and if they really believe that the future can not be realized “when its key results are behind subscription firewalls”, they wouldn’t dispense the kind of copouts we find here. Instead, they would lay out - and embrace – a clear plan for governments and other research funders to embrace real open access.

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19 Comments

  1. Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    Nature (that is, NPG, that is, Macmillan) will do exactly as Elsevier is doing, because it is a for-profit company and has no other choice. They will be smarter (sneakier) about it, and hide much more effectively behind their public faces, many of whom are genuinely on the side of science — but they will do exactly as Elsevier does. They will support anything that props up the failing subscription model, because every month that it survives is another month of existing profit levels, which will drop significantly in a 100% OA world.

  2. DrugMonkey
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    What bill said. Plus, Nature is the most hilarious practitioner ever of doubletalk…it extends beyond OpenAccess. Look at several things they’ve published about impact factor for example. And the breast beating about missing Nobel papers. And the chest thumping when anyone says anything in public that accurately reflects the under water shenanigans involved in securing a publication in their flagship journal…

  3. Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    “spending on the order of $5 billion a year of public money to support biomedical research journals”

    Where are you getting this number? (Not doubting you, just wondering.)

    As far as federal money flowing to journals, if the US govt refused to allow journal subscriptions as an indirect cost–they are already disallowed as direct costs–then journals theoretically could just go to an Open Access publication and/or submission fee model, with publication and/or submission fees allowable (as they are now) as direct costs.

    Under that model, what do you think a journal like Nature would have to charge as submission and publication fees if they completely did away with subscription fees and went total Open Access, and wanted to keep their revenues exactly the same?

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

      “spending on the order of $5 billion a year of public money to support biomedical research journals”

      Where are you getting this number? (Not doubting you, just wondering.)

      It’s been quoted to me before based on journal revenues of ~$10b and estimates that at least half of the money comes, in one way or another, from public sources. I’m not sure exactly what this number includes, and I’ve tried to get people to give me a more accurate breakdown. I did some math for Berkeley, and, based on the total amount of federal grant revenue the university receives, and the 1.8% F&A rate allocated to library operations (not facilities) you get $4.8m per year, compared to a library acquisitions budget of $5.6m. Of course the library has other expenses, but this is at least consistent with that 50% number. On the other hand, the federal non-defense science budget is around $50b. Looking at overhead fractions allocated to libraries at various universities, I found numbers ranging from 1.5 to 2.5. So if we call it 2% on average, you end up with a roughly $750m direct contribution from federal granting agencies to libraries for acquisitions and operations in support of federal research in the US. Let’s say state contributions top it off to $1b, and then a roughly similar amount is spent overseas, you get an estimate of $2b. Less, and probably an underestimate, but still a huge amount of money.

      As far as federal money flowing to journals, if the US govt refused to allow journal subscriptions as an indirect cost–they are already disallowed as direct costs–then journals theoretically could just go to an Open Access publication and/or submission fee model, with publication and/or submission fees allowable (as they are now) as direct costs.

      This is exactly what they should do. You do this, and, without spending any more money (and probably spending less) governments get all the same services, but they also get universal open access.

      Under that model, what do you think a journal like Nature would have to charge as submission and publication fees if they completely did away with subscription fees and went total Open Access, and wanted to keep their revenues exactly the same?

      A lot. I’ve seen estimates of around $10,000, and it could be higher. The reason, of course, being that you’re paying for all the articles the editors rejected, on which they spent a considerable amount of time for every paper they accepted. (This is true with a subscription model too). The most obvious way to solve this is to not charge for publication, but rather for the submission and review. Nature could easily publish all of the scientific valid papers it receives, charge for the time the editors spent dealing with the manuscript, and only give their “gold star” to the best papers without forcing the lucky few who get that adornment to pay for the cost of rejecting everyone else’s paper. (This is the model PLoS is moving towards).

  4. Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    “They will support anything that props up the failing subscription model, because every month that it survives is another month of existing profit levels, which will drop significantly in a 100% OA world.”

    Why do profits necessarily drop in a 100% OA world? Couldn’t they make up 100% of their lost subscription revenues in submission/publication fees?

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

      Why do profits necessarily drop in a 100% OA world? Couldn’t they make up 100% of their lost subscription revenues in submission/publication fees?

      It’s definitely not necessarily true that profits would drop under OA – it obviously depends on what people are willing to pay. But there are a lot of reasons to believe it will be less profitable. The most significant being that, today, journals have an effective monopoly on the papers they have published, and papers are not a fungible commodity. If you don’t like what Nature is charging, you can’t just saw “screw it, Science is cheaper, I’ll just go read their papers.” Journals know researchers want access to everything, and that libraries are under tremendous pressure to provide it. Plus, the people who make decisions about where to publish and what they need to read (scientists) aren’t the ones actually paying the bills. These both lead to inefficiencies in the marketplace – first due to monopolistic pricing, and second due to limited feedback to people making decisions when prices rise. If these inefficiencies were removed, you have to figure prices and therefore likely profit margins would go down.

  5. Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    (This is the model PLoS is moving towards).

    PLoS ONE, anyway, for whom I am an enthusiastic academic editor.

    From what I understand, the other issue moneywise is that big publishers like Elsevier force institutions to pay subscription fees for shitteasse journals that no one reads by bundling them with their flagship journals. Those journals wouldn’t even exist if they had to survive on their own submission/publication fees. Although I guess publishers could fold those costs into the submission/publication fees of their other journals that people were actually interested in publishing in.

  6. Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    (This is the model PLoS is moving towards)

    PLoS ONE, anyway, for whom I am an enthusiastic academic editor.

    And just to be clear: the other PLoS journals are *not* like this, and are moving in the opposite direction, with greater and greater emphasis on “scope” and “impact” in the review process. In order to publish in PLoS Biology or the other PLoS journals besides PLoS ONE, every manuscript first has to run a gauntlet of “professional editors” (i.e., non-scientists) who first decide whether it merits real peer-review by actual scientists exactly like at Science, Nature, Cell, etc.

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      CPP. I too am most enthusiastic about PLoS ONE – decoupling the decision to publish from the assessment of significance is the future of scientific publishing. And thus the selective model used by all of the other PLoS journals is obsolete. From the beginning our aim was a model like what we’ve started with PLoS ONE, with the other journals there to catalyze and smooth the transition. But just one point for the record. It’s not true that articles submitted to all other PLoS journals are assessed by professional editors. The community journals (PLoS Genetics, PLoS Pathogens, PLoS Computational Biology and PLoS NTD) are entirely run by active scientists – i.e. they only have academic editors. And I think these journals work very effectively. PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine have professional editors. But they always work in consultation with academic editors for every paper they handle. But, nonetheless, I agree that there is a disconnect between the culture of rejection that exists at high end journals and the way we should be doing things, and PLoS is transitioning away from this to a world where we review papers for validity and rigor, and simultaneously assess their audience, interest and impact in a way that will help readers navigate the literature – but where the two types of assessment are not coupled.

  7. Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Under that model, what do you think a journal like Nature would have to charge as submission and publication fees

    NPG has claimed, apparently with a straight face, that they would have to charge “in the region of £10-30,000″ ($15,700 to 47,000): http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/13105/1/399we28.htm.

    I also recall a claim of £40,000 ($62,800) but I can’t find a link for that.

  8. The Third Reviewer
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Can scientists simply refuse to review for journals that do not offer open access? What would happen to the high impact journals if the community didn’t provide their free gatekeeping service anymore unless their demands were met? I’d think twice about sending a paper to a journal that I knew couldn’t find reviewers and wouldn’t get to my article in a timely fashion.

  9. Posted January 27, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    But, nonetheless, I agree that there is a disconnect between the culture of rejection that exists at high end journals and the way we should be doing things, and PLoS is transitioning away from this to a world where we review papers for validity and rigor, and simultaneously assess their audience, interest and impact in a way that will help readers navigate the literature – but where the two types of assessment are not coupled.

    This is quite interesting. Can you give any more details of the plan? Is it going to be analogous to the Frontiers model, where all manuscripts would get submitted to PLoS ONE, and then would be “promoted” to one of the community journals if they achieve a given level of “impact” at PLoS ONE–measured by downloads, or whatever other metrics–and thence to PLoS Biology or Medicine if they achieve a given level of “impact” at the community journal? Or are the community journals and PLoS Biology and Medicine going to be eliminated completely, and everything gets published in PLoS ONE?

    Or is it gonna be a the following variation on what PLoS is already doing? You submit your paper to “PLoS”, it gets peer-reviewed for rigor as currently done at PLoS ONE and somehow (by editors, the same peer reviewers as assess rigor, some different set of peer reviewers?) “simultaneously assess[ed for] their audience, interest and impact”. Depending on the outcome of the latter process, you get an e-mail telling you, “Here are your reviews. Your paper is acceptable scientifically, but it is boring as shitte/kind of interesting/totally impactful, and so we are offering to publish it in PLoS ONE/PLoS Community Journal/PLoS Biology-Medicine.”

    Because that is going to be a hard sell in competition with the current scheme where you submit to the highest journal you can, and you might get shitcanned without review, but if you make it through review, you know what journal you are gonna be published in. Although some of the non-open glamour publishers actually kind of do the trickle-down process themselves: submit to Cell and get reviewed, editor tells you “not happening at Cell, but Neuron will publish your paper with these reviews”.

  10. Posted January 27, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    CPP: Nature actively promotes the same trickle-down approach with their stable of “second-tier” (their words) journals: “not good enough for The World’s Leading Scientific Journal™ but Nature Shitasse Journal #48 will take it”.

  11. fairscientist
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    just confused what you are promoting!!!! going through your recent publications, i found that you too have published in non-oa journals (Liu Z,Scannell DR, Eisen MB, Tjian R. (2011) Control of Embryonic Stem Cell Lineage Commitment by Core Promoter Factor, TAF3. Cell. 2011 Sep 2;146(5):720-31), that too v recently. i know that this is not a paper from your lab but you contributed to the paper (although cell permits individual author’s contribution to be mentioned in the acknowledgements section, the above paper does not include any of that. hence, hard to judge on the contribution from each author). don’t you think you are preaching one thing and practicing something else!!!! why not politely deny to be in the author list if the main pi decides to publish in one of the non-oa journals!!!! you could have asked dr.tjian to mention this explicitly this in the cell paper, like: dr. mbe contributed ….. to the paper and was originally a co-author but he, due to his lab’s, personal policy and moral stand (to me publishing in oa journals is moralistic) decided against putting his name as one of the authors. this by no way, diminish his intellectual contribution to this manuscript. he also takes scientific responsibility towards the data presented in fig .., fig … and table….

    i, at times, am bemused at the fairness preached for others to follow but there is a lot to be desired at the end of the person who is preaching fairness. a bit of honesty/fairness will go a long way.
    thank you.

    • Michael Eisen
      Posted February 2, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      I am happy to stand by my OA record. Every single paper my lab has published in the 10 years since I became a PI is open access.

      Yes, my name is on papers that are not OA, but those were cases where I and/or people in my lab helped out colleagues with their work. Although I always try to convince them to publish in OA journals, I do not always succeed. In some cases I have withdrawn my name from the author list, but I ultimately felt that was disingenuous. The problem is that the paper is not OA. My name not being on it doesn’t change that, and only serves to falsely absolve me of responsibility for having failed to convince my colleagues to do the right thing.

      I am, however, curious where you think I am being dishonest or unfair. Do I preach OA to my colleagues? Of course. Does it pain me every time they publish in a non-OA journal? Yes. Do I collaborate with scientists who don’t share my views on OA? Sometimes. Does that make me a hypocrite? You are free to feel what you want, but I think people who know how science works realize that there is a limit to what one can control, and I hope that my own OA publishing record speaks for itself.

  12. fairscientist
    Posted February 2, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    pl don’t get me wrong. i respect your championing the cause of oa. i wish other established investigators do what you are doing. if anything, we want more people doing the same thing as you are…

    the only thing that i was questioning, and i stand by that, is your not denying to be an author in one of the recent paper. i can understand why your students and post-docs want to be there, despite your displeasure, but i still can’t fathom why you, out of all who is voracious in promoting oa scientific publishing, agreed to be a author and not excuse yourself with a note published on the line as i wrote previously. i don’t think it’s disingenuous at all not to put yourself as one of the authors of that paper and mention in the footnote your scientific contribution and the data that you provided towards certain figures and tables in that paper. and that to me, is double standard, thats all i wanted to say. you are very established and don’t need one more cell paper to prove anything to anyone, so why not make a statement by doing this.

    also, something else that comes out from this. dr.tjian is well established, well respected and is a big guy. hence, i expect him to be convinced to publish in oa journals. i know, i might be crossing the line here, and its his choice to publish where he wants but i want to make a point here and that is if a senior professor from the same department to which you belong and a scientist of dr. tjian’s stature doesn’t buy the idea of oa journals, what message does it transmit to the meagre scientists like i!!!!
    thank you.

  13. Posted February 2, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    I struggled with my stance on these issues, and just decided in the end it was a copout to pull my name from the papers since it wouldn’t make them accessible and would only serve to hide my failure to have convinced my colleagues to do the right thing.

    But you’re right. My real failing was in not explicitly spelling out rules for collaborations before I became engaged in them. I do this now. I have a new collaboration with the Tjian lab and made it a precondition that any papers emerging from the work would go to an OA journal. I will do this from now on, and if my collaborators disagree, will refuse to consent to publication.

  14. fairscientist
    Posted February 3, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    i am humbled by your honesty. if anything, we need more scientists who can express their feelings honestly yet work within the given constraint of experimental science, fraternity politics and competitive grant systems. i sincerely hope that you succeed in your endeavor in converting scientists in your immediate surroundings, especially the influential ones, and those who are far off to the cause of oa.

    in the meantime, we, in our own little way, will continue to contribute to the oa cause and keep publishing in oa journals, even if it comes at the expense of getting denied in grant applications or receiving artificial respect from other scientists who think that publishing in nature, science & cell only constitute high quality, high-class science and publishing in the rest, well belong to the rest-class.

    thank you.

  15. Claudiu Bandea
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I think the exchange between Michael and ‘fairscientist’ is textbook material for the power of reasoning and decency; I only wish ‘fairscientist’ would have used her/his real name, as that would be fairer for her/him and for us and, yes, it would make for a better (transparent) world.

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