Wednesday, January 18, 2012

US Forbids Open Access Publishing?


There's a proposed law in the US to prohibit researchers paid with public money to, well, make the results available to the public. They would not be allowed to publish in Open Access journals or to submit to public-access repositories. And not surprisingly it is slimeball companies like Elsevier (you know, the charming guys who created fake medical journals so pharmaceutical companies could push made-up data in support for their products) and Wiley Publishing that are behind it.

I've said it before, but I will no longer publish anywhere that is not Open Access. OK, if you look at my publication record that's not exactly a threat of earth-shaking significance. But I will also no longer review papers for closed journals. I do review quite a lot of papers; it's fun and it's a good way to stay abreast of a wider range of subjects. And publishers depend critically on a good supply of reviewers to do their (unpaid, unacknowledged) work.

I will — I already do, to some extent — make a point of using Open Access sources for citations and other resources when I can. I've said before that there's two kinds of citations in your papers. A few are central to your own work, and pretty much unavoidable. But most papers are really about establishing background for your work and give references to general knowledge, and there you often have any number of papers to choose from. The same group may have half a dozen papers that all cover the point you want to make, there may be several groups all working on the same thing, and any of them would be fine as a general reference.
I will make a special point of not dealing with Elsevier in any way, shape or form. Which leaves me with one issue: I'm a member of the Japanese Neural Network Society. I need to be a member to be able to attend and publish in their conferences and meetings. They have a Japanese journal of their own, but also co-publish an English language journal together with the European and International societies. Published by, you guessed it, Elsevier.

Resigning from the society is unproductive, and feels like overkill. I'm not dealing with Elseview when I'm going to a conference or something after all. As I'm not Japanese1 and just a simple post-doc I have zero clout in the society, protesting a long-standing publishing arrangement is futile. What I will do is simply ignore the English-language journal. Not publish, not review, and, where feasible and honest, not reference. Should not be too difficult as I have yet to do either.

Remember, while this suggested law is recent and US-centric, the instigators — the for-profit journal publishers — have been fighting to stay gatekeepers of research across the globe for years. It is a very profitable business, and they have shown there is little they would not do to stay in it no matter how much it hurts science, the scientists who they depend on, or the public that pays for it all.

#1 It's a question of language. Your ability to convince others about a controversial position is tightly coupled to your ability to make a strong rhetorical case. As my Japanese is barely usable I am unable to make good, coherent arguments, fully understand voiced objections, or formulate convincing answers.


  1. I applaud your stance and commitment to deal as little as possible with Elsevier in particular and non-OA journals in general. In my field there are only 1 or 2 minor journals published by Elsevier, so there's little I can do along those lines.
    I do wonder, though, if you were to get a great result that you could publish in e.g. Nature - would you still refrain from this and publish in a lesser OA journal? (I know, I know, a very childish way of playing the Devil's Advocate...) I could imagine that you wouldn't be allowed to keep that stance by your co-authors.

  2. Let's just say that particular problem is not likely to crop up in my case. ^_^

    And if you go one step below that level there are good Open Access alternatives for my field, beginning with PLoS and others too.

    So while there is a theoretical possibility of a real conflict it is not likely to arise in practice. And if it does, the first author calls the shots, I suspect. You can't really publish a paper without the free consent of the one who did most of the work after all.

  3. I don't know what's up lately with the US. World's big brother?
    First there's SOPA, which has gotten a big presence everywhere in the web and now there's this.
    If researchers use our money (I'm in favor of this) for investigations, anyone should be able to acess it and not have to pay some company (Elsevier) who just has appropiated the results of this research.

    Pardon me if I rather miss the point or gotten the facts wrong. Alas, I'm totally alienated of the scientific field.

  4. This is a scary thought. I love the open access journals and try to publish in them when appropriate, and pay to obtain open access for my papers when not. Not only is this good for science, and good for the public, but I think it is also important for our own progress as these papers are more likely to be read and therefore cited. While I'm impressed (to some degree) about your avoidance of citing work that has appeared in non-open access journals, I think this has to be balanced with the necessity of citing the appropriate work (as I presume you do). Within my own field in neuroscience I would find this extremely difficult to avoid citing certain papers simply because they have not been published in open access journals. However, I agree with you that we as scientists need to be strong in order to bring about the necessary changes to the scientific publishing culture.

    As a side note, the U.K. is going the other direction with funding agencies starting to require open access to the research - something I would hope will happen in more countries.

  5. David,

    I'm in neuroscience too, and it's of course impossible to completely avoid citing closed sources. But as I alluded to above, we really have two kinds of citations: The main papers that we build on for our work, and the background references we add simply to provide backing for various facts.

    The main papers are unavoidable of course, but they're not that many in general. A typical paper may have half a dozen or so main papers cited. The rest is all background — showing what you know of the subfield, providing backing for every fact you make use of, citations to make reviewers happy…

    And for those papers you usually have a fairly wide choice on what to cite. If you need a citation for, oh, the Hodgkin-Huxley model for instance, you have literally thousands of perfectly reasonable possible citations to choose from. And even with quite obscure facts like the tectum-parabigeminalis connectivity you still have several possible references. The group who did the work typically put out several papers covering the issue, published in various venues.

    And in practice I tend to do this already. Open Access means I can get the paper from home or when on the road, not just from my office. So when I'm working at home I am of course only able to see Open Access papers and will naturally choose only among them I do my literary searches. I bet this is a major part of why equivalent papers get more citations when they're open Access than when they're closed.

  6. Jan, what are your opinions on The Research Works act, which has drawn the ire of the online open access community over the past few months?



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