Show me the data!

OpenCon 2015 Brussels was an amazing event. I’ll save a summary of it for the weekend but in the mean time, I urgently need to discuss something that came up at the conference.

At OpenCon, it emerged that Elsevier have apparently been blocking Chris Hartgerink’s attempts to access relevant psychological research papers for content mining.

No one can doubt that Chris’s research intent is legitimate – he’s not fooling around here. He’s a smart guy; statistically, programmatically and scientifically – without doubt he has the technical skills to execute his proposed research. Only recently he was an author on an excellent paper highlighted in Nature News: ‘Smart software spots statistical errors in psychology papers‘.

Why then are Elsevier interfering with his research?

I know nothing more about his case other than what is in his blog posts, however I have also had publishers block my own attempts to do content mining this year, so I think this is the right time for me to go public about this, in support of Chris.

My own use of content mining

I am trying to map where in the giant morass of research literature Natural History Museum (London) specimens are mentioned. No-one has an accurate index of this information. With the use of simple regular expressions it’s easy to filter hundreds of thousands of full text articles to find, classify and lookup potential mentions of specimens.

In the course of this work, I was frequently obstructed by BioOne. My IP address kept getting blocked, stopping me from downloading any further papers from this publisher. I should note here that my institution (NHMUK) pays BioOne to provide access to all their papers – my access is both legitimate and paid-for.

Strong claims, require strong evidence. Thankfully I was doing my work with the full support and knowledge of the NHM Library & Archives team, so they forwarded one or two of the threatening messages they were getting from the publishers I was mining. I have no idea how many messages were sent in total. Here’s one such message from BioOne (below)

Blocked by BioOne

Blocked by BioOne

So according to BioOne, I swiftly found out that downloading more that 100 full text articles in a single session is automatically deemed “excessive” and “a violation of permissible activity“.

Isn’t that absolutely crazy? In the age of ‘big data’ where anyone can download over a million full text articles from the PubMed Central OA subset at a few clicks, an artificially imposed-restriction of just 100 is simply mad and is anti-science. As a member of a subscription-paying institution I have a paid right to be able to access and analyze this content surely? We are paying for access but not actually getting full access.

If I tell other journals like eLife, PLOS ONE, or PeerJ that I have downloaded every single one of their articles for analysis – I get a high-five: these journals understand the importance of analysis-at-scale. Furthermore, the subscription access business model needn’t be a barrier: the Royal Society journals are very friendly with content mining – I have never had a problem downloading entire decades worth of journal content from the Royal Society journals.

I have two objectives for this blog post.

1.) A plea to traditional publishers: PLEASE STOP BLOCKING LEGITIMATE RESEARCH

Please get out of the way and let us do our research. If our institutions have paid for access, you should provide it to us. You are clearly impeding the progress of science. Far more content mining research has been done on open access content and there’s a reason for that – it’s a heck of a lot less hassle and (legal) danger. These artificial obstructions on access to research are absurd and unhelpful.

2.) A plea to researchers and librarians: SHARE YOUR STORIES

I’m absolutely sure it’s not just Chris & I that have experienced problems with traditional publishers artificially obstructing our research. Heather Piwowar is one great example I know. She bravely, extensively and publicly documented her torturous experiences with negotiating access & text mining to Elsevier-controlled content. But we need more people to speak-up. I fear that librarians in particular may be inadvertently sweeping these issues under the carpet – they are most likely to get the most interesting emails from publishers with respect to these matters.

This is a serious matter. Given the experience of Aaron Swartz; being faced with up to 50 years of imprisonment for downloading ‘too many’ JSTOR papers – it would not surprise me if few researchers come forward publicly.

Anecdata On Sharing Science

October 1st, 2015 | Posted by rmounce in ARCS2015 - (0 Comments)

[This is my competition entry for the ARCS2015 essay competition hosted at The Winnower. I’m using their excellent WordPress plugin to automagically transfer this post from my blog to their site at the click of a button.]

There’s a 1,000-word limit for this competition, so forgive my brevity. I could easily write ten thousand! These are merely a couple of vignettes.

To really understand why open is better, you should try traditional science. Otherwise, you won’t see all the most awful practices as these are usually hidden from view.

My first peer-reviewed paper was published in a popular glamour magazine called Nature. Most academics read it for the News and Jobs sections, but it also publishes some research articles too. Editorially, it selects research articles for publication on the basis of their news-worthiness which has unfortunate side-effects: significantly more of these stories eventually get retracted or corrected, relative to other journals which focus more on the correctness of the science.

My one-page, one-figure article simply pointed out that an article the magazine had previously published on its front cover was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to notice this either. Amazingly, it took the journal 160 days from submission to publication to publish my small contribution. This was my first author-experience of the vast inefficiency, bureaucracy, and secrecy practised by traditional ‘closed’ science journals.

It was thus made obvious to me from a very early stage of my PhD that there had to be other better, faster, cheaper, more-enriched ways of communicating science available. Nowadays I wouldn’t recommend anyone to use the traditional (read: slow, obstructive, secretive) means of post-publication commentary. If you want to communicate what is poor about a paper published at a traditional journal, writing to the journal is the very least effective means of doing so. Use PubPeer, PubMed Commons, blogs, Twitter, or even The Winnower for post-publication peer-review.  Making incisive, well-communicated points about research you have read, and sharing these thoughts, openly for others to read and comment on, is a valuable skill. Although hard to evidence, I believe I have gained respect and wider exposure for doing this myself, as have others e.g. Rosie Redfield whom I would not have heard of were it not for her excellent critique of the #arseniclife paper (for those who don’t know the about it: the original paper was published in another glamour mag, and was also subsequently formally-rebutted with neutrally-titled ‘Technical Comments‘ 177 days after online publication, despite Rosie’s much more timely blogged-rebuttal which went online 2 days after the initial publication). I’m not alone in thinking these are glaring examples of how traditional science communication is broken.

Even simply sharing your research talk slides online can be hugely beneficial for your career

Another thing I learned by experience, early-on in my PhD was that there’s a problematic absence of data supporting many research articles. To put it more bluntly; most articles have pretty figures and lovely prose but many simply don’t make the underlying data available. I discussed this at length, with evidence in a conference presentation at the Young Systematists Forum, 2010. I pro-actively put my talk slides online to share my ideas on this with the world and with the help of Twitter, this one small act of sharing a conference presentation directly-led to a multiplicity of benefits:

  • I was invited on to the council of the Systematics Association, so I can try to influence the future direction of the society towards data sharing, open access, and better publishing (it’s work in progress, large committees have a tendency to change slooooooowly)
  • I was invited to join an international collaboration to document the lack of data archiving for phylogenetic studies, which was published in 2012, in an open access journal, and has been cited 18 times so far
  • It also led to my first invited speaking slot at the Open Knowledge Foundation conference in 2011 (OKCon), which in turn helped me become aware of and successfully apply for one of the first Panton Fellowships for Open Data in Science (£8,000)

So one small act of sharing directly-led to Fellowship money, many speaking invites, additional publications/collaborations I wouldn’t have otherwise been involved with, and genuine influence within an academic society. Sharing my presentations, my ideas, my data, and of course my publications has clearly benefited my career, and if anything I’m only likely to go more open with my research in future, rather than less!

As my title alludes to, I’m well aware my stories are just anecdata. This isn’t an objective assessment of the benefits of open science, but the logical basis of the benefits are clear nonetheless: if you don’t share your work, less will know of it. Share freely and openly and you may find yourself with many more beneficial opportunities as a result. Go forth and upload your work today!

Using the NHM Data Portal API

September 30th, 2015 | Posted by rmounce in Content Mining | NHM - (0 Comments)

Anyone care to remember how awful and unusable the web interface for accessing the NHM’s specimen records used to be? Behold the horror below as it was in 2013, or visit the Web Archive to see just how bad it was. It’s not even the ‘look’ of it that was the major problem – it was more that it simply wouldn’t return results for many searches. No one I know actually used that web interface because of these issues. And obviously there was no API.

2013. It was worse than it looks.

2013. It was worse than it looks.

The internal database that the NHM uses is based upon KE Emu and everyone who’s had the misfortune of having to use it knows that it’s literally dinosaur software – it wouldn’t look out of place in the year 1999 and again, the actual (poor) performance of it is the far bigger problem. I guess by 2025 the museum might replace it, if there’s sufficient funding and the political issues keeping it in place are successfully navigated. To hear just how much everyone at the museum knows what I’m talking about; listen to the knowing laughter in the audience when I describe the NHM’s KE Emu database as “terrible” in my SciFri talk video below (from about 3.49 onwards):

Given the above, perhaps now you can better understand my astonishment and sincere praise I feel is due for the team behind the still relatively new online NHM Data Portal at:

The new Data Portal is flipping brilliant. Ben Scott is the genius behind it all – the lead architect of the project. Give that man a pay raise, ASAP!

He’s successfully implemented the open source CKAN software, which itself incidentally is maintained by the Open Knowledge Foundation (now known simply as Open Knowledge). This is the same software solution that both the US and UK governments use to publish their open government data. It’s a good, proven, popular design choice, it scales, and I’m pleased to say it works really well for both casual users and more advanced users. This is where the title of post comes in…

The NHM Specimen Records now have an API and this is bloody brilliant

In my text mining project to find NHM specimens in the literature, and link them up to the NHM’s official specimen records, it’s vitally important to have a reliable, programmatic web service I can use to lookup tens of thousands of catalogue numbers against. If I had to copy and paste-in each one e.g. “BMNH(E)1239048manually, using a GUI web browser my work simply wouldn’t be possible. I wouldn’t have even started my project.

Put simply, the new Data Portal is a massive enabler for academic research.

To give something back for all the usage tips that Ben has been kindly giving me (thanks!), I’d thought I’d use this post to describe how I’ve been using the NHM Data Portal API to do my research:

At first, I was simply querying the database from a local dump. One of the many great features of the new Specimen Records database at the Data Portal, is that the portal enables you to download the entire database as a single plain text table: over 3GB’s in size. Just click the “Download” button, you can’t miss it! But after a while, I realised this approach was impractical – my local copy after just a few weeks was significantly out of date. New specimen records are made public on the Data Portal every week, I think!

So, I had to bite the bullet and learn how to use the web API. Yes: it’s a museum with an API! How cool is that? There really aren’t many of those around at the moment. This is cutting-edge technology for museums. The Berkeley Ecoinformatics Engine is one other I know of. Among other things it allows API access to geolocated specimen records from the Berkeley Natural History Museums. Let me know in the comments if you know of more.

The basic API query for the NHM Data Portal Specimen Records database is this:

That doesn’t look pretty, so let me break it down into meaningful chunks.

The first part of the URL is the base URL and is the typical CKAN DataStore Data API endpoint for data search. The second part specifies which exact database on the Data Portal you’d like to search. Each database has it’s own 32-digit GUID to uniquely identify it. There are currently 25 different databases/datasets available at the NHM Data Portal including data from the PREDICTS project, assessing ecological diversity in changing terrestrial systems. The third and final part is the specific query you want to run against the specified database, in this case: “Archaeopteryx”. This is a simple search that queries across all fields of the database, which may be too generic for many purposes.

This query will return 2 specimen records in JSON format. The output doesn’t look pretty to human eyes, but to a computer this is cleanly-structured data and it can easily be further analysed, manipulated or converted.

More complex / realistic search queries using the API

The simple search queries across all fields. A more targeted query on a particular field of the database is sometimes more desirable. You can do this with the API too:

In the above example I have filtered my API query to search the “catalogNumber” field of the database for the exact string “PV P 51007

This isn’t very forgiving though. If you search for just “51007” with this type of filter you get 0 records returned:

So, the kind of search I’m actually going to use to lookup my putative catalogue numbers (as found in the published literature) via the API, will have to make use of the more complex SQL-query style:

This query returns 19 records that contain at least partially, the string ‘51007’ in the catalogNumber field. Incidentally, you’ll see if you run this search that 3 completely different entomological specimen records share the exact same catalogue number: “BMNH(E)251007”:

Thamastes dipterus Hagen, 1858 (Trichoptera, Limnephilidae)

Contarinia kanervoi Barnes, 1958 (Diptera, Cecidomyiidae)

Sympycnus peniculitarsus Hollis, D., 1964 (Diptera, Dolichopodidae)

NHM Catalogue numbers are unfortunately far from uniquely identifying but that’s something I’ll leave for the next post in this series!

Isn’t the NHM Data Portal amazing? I certainly think it is. Especially given what it was like before!

Yesterday, I tried to read a piece of research, relevant to my interests that was published in 1949. Sadly as is usual, I hit a paywall asking me for £30 + tax to read it (I didn’t pay).

Needless to say, the author is almost certainly deceased so I can’t simply email him for a copy.

The paper copy is useless to me, even though my institution probably has one somewhere. I need electronic access. It would probably take me an hour to walk to the library, do the required catalogue searches, find the shelf, find the issue, find the page, re-type the paragraphs I need back into a computer, walk back to my desk etc… That whole paper-based workflow is a non-starter.

I noted the article is available electronically online to some lucky, privileged subscribers – but who? Why is the list of institutions that are privileged enough to have access to paywalled articles not public information? It would be extremely helpful to know what institutions have access to which journals & which journal year ranges.

So I thought I’d do an informal twitter poll of people on twitter about this issue:

I received an overwhelming number of responses. Probably over a hundred in total. Huge thanks to all those who took part.

Given such a brilliant community response it would be remiss of me not to share what I’ve learnt with everyone, not just those who helped contribute each little piece of information. So 24 hours later, here’s what I now know about who can access this 1949 paper (data supporting these statements is permanently archived at Zenodo):

Mounce, Ross. (2015). Data on which institutions have access to a 1949 paper, paywalled at Taylor & Francis. Zenodo.

I’m not pretending the following analysis of the data is rigorous science. It’s not. It’s anecdata about access to a single paper at a single journal (a classic n=1 experiment). Of course it also relies on each contributor correctly reporting the truth, and that some potential responses may have self-censored. The sampling is highly non-random and reflects my social sphere of influence on Twitter; predominately US and UK-centric, although I do have single data points from Brazil & Australia (thanks Gabi & Cameron!). Nevertheless, despite all these provisos it’s highly interesting anecdata:

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland:
Of responses representing 41 different UK institutions including my own, only 3 have access to this paper, namely: University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, and University of Glasgow.
Had I got more responses from a wider variety of UK HEIs like the University of Lincoln and University Of Worcester where I also have friends, I suspect the overall percentage of UK institutions that have access would be even smaller! I’m particularly amused that it appears that no London-based institution has electronic access to this paper!

North America:
Of responses representing 29 different institutions in Canada and the United States, only 7 have access to the paper, namely: Virginia Tech, University of Illinois, University of Florida, North Carolina State University, Case Western Reserve University, Arizona State University, and McGill University. It’s intriguing that North American institutions appear to have slightly better access to this journal as originally the journal was published in London, England!

The ‘rest of the world’ (not meant in a patronising way):
Of responses representing 23 different institutions not based in the UK, Canada, or the United States, only 2 definitely have access to this paper: Wageningen University and Stockholm University. I note that the person who contributed data on Stockholm University access does not have an official recognised affiliation with Stockholm university and that they used alternative methods *cough* to discover this (just for clarity and to further demonstrate the sampling issues at play here!).

Despite asking far and wide. I only found 11 different institutions that actually have electronic access to this paper, and none from London where the paper was actually published.

I’m fascinated by this data, despite its limitations. I’d like to collect more and collect it more efficiently. Perhaps the librarian community could help by publishing exactly what each institution has access to? Although one conversation thread seemed to indicate that libraries may not even know exactly what they have subscribed to at any one point in time (Seriously? WTF!).

Why is this stuff important to know?

I often hear an old canard from certain people that we don’t need open access because “most researchers have access to all the journals and articles they need”. Sometimes some crap, misleading survey data is trotted-out to support this opinion. Actual data on which actual institutions have actual access to subscription-only research is pivotal to countering this canard. For example, it is extremely useful to point out that institutions like Brock University and University of Montreal do NOT have access to the bundle of Wiley journals.  Particularly at a time when maddeningly many societies have decided to start publishing …with Wiley e.g. the Ecological Society of America! It’s not very joined-up thinking and it’s going to create a lot of pain for a lot of people. Both Montreal & Brock & many other institutions with ecologists do not have access to the big Wiley bundle of journals. I’m sure there are useful examples in other subject areas too of mismatch between subscriptions held & needed access. The solution to this of course is NOT to re-subscribe, but to fix the problem at its source; to fully-recognise that access is a global issue and many people need access to a very wide variety of different journals, that a proper transition to an open access availability model is needed.

If I wait 26 years, it will be available for free in the Biodiversity Heritage Library. I hope I live that long!

What to do next?

If your institution isn’t listed in my dataset so far, please do still try and access this article and let me know if you can or cannot instantly access it via your institutional affiliations from Taylor & Francis.

Given we have researchers coming from all corners of the globe for OpenCon later this year, I will soon explore whether together, as the OpenCon community, we can do something like this on a grander scale to more rigorously document the patchy nature of subscription-provided access.

The final word

I’ll leave the final word, to the obvious ‘elephant-in-the-room’ that I haven’t discussed much so far, they are the 99.99% relative to us privileged institutionally-affiliated lucky-ones. I am very obviously aware of and do care about, independent researchers & readers of the ‘general public’; neither of which can afford subscription-access to most paywalled journals:

Today (2015-09-01), marks the public announcement of Research Ideas & Outcomes (RIO for short), a new open access journal for all disciplines that seeks to open-up the entire research cycle with some truly novel features

I know what you might be thinking: Another open access journal? Really? 

Myself, nor Daniel Mietchen simply wouldn’t be involved with this project if it was just another boring open access journal. This journal packs a mighty combination of novel features into one platform:

  • 1.) RIO will publish research proposals, as well as regular research outputs such as articles, data papers and software – this has never been done by a journal before to my knowledge
  • 2.) RIO will label research outputs with ‘Impact Categories’ based upon UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and EU Societal Challenges, to highlight the real-world relevance of research and to better link-up research across disciplines (see below for some example MDGs).


  • 3.) RIO supports a variety of different types of peer-review, including ‘pre-submission, author-facilitated, external peer-review‘ (new), as well as post-publication journal-organized open peer-review (similar to that pioneered by F1000Research), and ‘spontaneous’ (not journal-organized) post-publication open peer-review which is actively encouraged. All peer-review will be open/public, in keeping with the overall guiding philosophy of the journal to increase transparency and reduce waste in the research cycle. Reviewer comments are highly valuable; it is a waste not to make them public. When supplied, all reviewer comments will be made openly available.
  • 4.) RIO offers flexibility in publishing services and pricing in a bold attempt to ‘decouple’ the traditional scholarly journal into its component services. Authors & funders thus may choose to pay for the publishing services they actually want, not an inflexible bundle of different services, as there is at most journals.
Source: Priem, J. and Hemminger, B. M. 2012. Decoupling the scholarly journal. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience. Licensed under CC BY-NC

Source: Priem, J. and Hemminger, B. M. 2012. Decoupling the scholarly journal. Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience. Image licensed under CC BY-NC.


  • 5.) On the technical side of things, RIO uses an integrated end-to-end XML-backed publication system for Authoring, Reviewing, Publishing, Hosting, and Archiving called ARPHA. As a publishing geek this excites me greatly as it eliminates the need for typesetting, ensuring a smooth and low-cost publishing process. Reviewers can make comments inline or more generally over the entire manuscript, on the very same document and platform that the authors wrote in, much like Google Docs. This has been successfully tried and tested for years at the Biodiversity Data Journal and is a system now ready for wider-use.


For the above reasons and more, I’m hugely excited about this journal and am delighted to be one of their founding editors alongside Dr Daniel Mietchen. See our growing list of Advisory and Editorial Board members for insight into who else is backing this new journal – we’ve got some great people on board already! If you’re interested in supporting this initiative please do enquire about volunteering as an editor for the journal, we need more editors to support the broad scale and ambition of journal. You can apply via the main website here.

What is Journal Visibility?

August 28th, 2015 | Posted by rmounce in Publications - (2 Comments)

I’ve just read a paper published in Systematic Biology called ‘A Falsification of the Citation Impediment in the Taxonomic Literature‘.

Having read the full paper many times, including the 64-page PDF supplementary materials file. I’m amazed the paper was published in its current form.

Early on, in the abstract no less, the authors introduce a parameter called ‘journal visibility’. Apparently they ‘correct’ the number of citations for it.

We compared the citation numbers of 306 taxonomic and 2291 non-taxonomic research articles (2009–2012) on mosses, orchids, ciliates, ants, and snakes, using Web of Science (WoS) and correcting for journal visibility. For three of the five taxa, significant differences were absent in citation numbers between taxonomic and non-taxonomic papers.

I count over twenty further instances of the term ‘visibility’ or ‘visable’ in this paper. It is clearly an important part of the work and calculations. But what is it and how did they correct for it? All parameters in reputable scientific papers should be clearly defined, as well as any numerical ‘correction’ operations performed. Yet in this paper I honestly can’t find any given explicit definition of ‘journal visibility’. As Brian O’Meara points out, they define highly visible journals as “those included in WoS and with a good standing”. Good standing is not further defined or scored. No definition is given for what a lowly visible or middlingly visible journal is. All journals indexed in Web of Science are assigned an Impact Factor. Thus ‘included in WoS’ and ‘has Impact Factor’ are two ways of saying the same thing.

For the sake of clarity I will now quote and number all other passages in the paper, aside from the abstract, that mention ‘visibility’ or ‘visible’ (I have highlighted each instance in red):

1 & 2 & 3

In more detail, we address five questions: Does publishing taxonomy harm a journal’s citation performance? Is it within the possibilities of journal editors to influence taxonomy’s visibility? If more high-visibility journals opened their doors to taxonomic publications, would taxonomy’s productivity be sufficient for an increase in the number of taxonomic papers in these journals? Can taxonomy be published by taxonomists only or by a larger community? And finally, would the community use the chance to publish more taxonomic papers in highly visible journals?


Just 14 of the 47 journals published both taxonomic and non-taxonomic papers on the focal taxa on a yearly basis in the years 2009–2012 (Table 1). The analyzed taxonomic publications in these 14 journals might have experienced lower visibility than publications in the other 33 journals. This is due to the fact that the average IF 2012 of the 14 journals with both taxonomic and non-taxonomic publications was significantly lower ( 1.16±0.51 standard deviation [SD]) than the average IF of the other 33 journals ( 2.66±1.60 ; Student’s t -test, P<0.001 ).


Because of the correction for journal visibility, we consider the results for the 14 journals to be more representative of the citation performance of taxonomic versus non-taxonomic per se than the results for all journals.

6 & 7 & 8


For strengthening the impact and prospects of taxonomy, equal opportunity is needed for taxonomists and non-taxonomists. In practice, this means that taxonomists should be able to publish in highly visible journals (those included in WoS and with a good standing). Editors of highly visible periodicals that include taxonomy will contribute actively to reducing the taxonomic impediment and, considering our analyses, might on top of this do the best for their journals.

9 & 10

The IF 2012 of these 19 journals that (in principle) publish taxonomy ( 2.61±1.64 ) does, on average, not differ significantly from that of the 14 journals that do not publish taxonomy at all ( 2.73±1.61 ; Student’s t -test, P=0.84 ) meaning that equal visibility for taxonomists and non-taxonomists might, in fact, not be out of reach. In essence, for many editors of highly visible periodicals, it might not so much be a question of changing the scope of their journals but of increasing the frequency of taxonomic publications and thus simply of communicating the willingness to publish taxonomy to the community

11 & 12 & 13


It is not enough, however, for editors of highly visible journals to actively invite taxonomic contributions. A crucial question about whether increasing taxonomy’s visibility will work is the capacity of taxonomy to follow the invitation. One way to approach this issue is looking at the growth rate of taxonomy


To our knowledge, a comprehensive taxonomic literature database is available just for animals, Zoological Record (ZR). For 2012, the latest year considered here, ZR lists 2.1 times more publications on animal taxonomy than WoS (Fig. 2b, c). This indicates that already in the short term, there is sufficient taxonomic publication output for editors of highly visible journals to indeed increase their share in taxonomy.


On the whole, the capacity for increased publication of taxonomy in highly visible journals seems to be there. Accepting that the potential exists, there is still a question of whether taxonomy’s flexibility will be sufficient for a change in publication culture to be realized.

16 & 17 & 18 & 19


… This suggests that taxonomists indeed would use also other chances of publishing in highly visible journals, should the opportunity arise. The resulting shift from aiming at low visibility to targeting highly visible journals will be very important for taxonomists in working toward both an improved image (Carbayo and Marques 2011) and an improved measure of their scientific impact (Agnarsson and Kuntner 2007).

20 & 21 & 22

Editors of highly visible journals in biology could help (i) increase the visibility of taxonomic publications by encouraging taxonomists to publish in their journals (thereby generally not harming but possibly boosting their journals) and (ii) increase total taxonomic output by making it attractive for scientists working in species delimitation (with their primary focus different from taxonomy) to publish the taxonomic consequences of their research.

The task of taxonomic authors, in turn, will be to follow the invitation and to submit indeed their best papers to the best-visible journals available for submission—just as authors of non-taxonomic papers do.

My inferences on visibility

For independent, unbiased confirmation, I looked-up the definition of ‘visibility’ online and found:


visibility ‎(countable and uncountable, plural visibilities)

  1. (uncountable) The condition of being visible.
  2. (countable) The degree to which things may be seen.


By the above definition, which is not unreasonable, I would have thought that open access journals would have the highest ‘journal visibility’ as everyone with an internet connection is able to see articles in them without having to login or pay money to view.

Popular subscription access journals like Nature arguably have middling visibility as many scientists have access to them (although not that many actually read all the articles in them, I certainly don’t). Finally, many subscription access journals are known to be less widely subscribed to by both individuals and institutions e.g. Zootaxa (I would love to have data to demonstrate this more objectively, it is certainly true for UK Higher Education Institutions that significantly more subscribe to Nature than to Zootaxa).

I get the feeling that the authors of this paper did not score ‘visibility’ in this manner.

Many of the mentions of ‘visibility’ appear near discussion of Impact Factor (IF). Perhaps the authors mean to suggest that visibility and Impact Factor are one and the same thing or are highly-correlated? No evidence or citation is given to support this idea. I find this conflation of ‘visibility’ and Impact Factor to be simply wrong and dangerously misleading. Why?

Take the visibility of Elsevier journals for instance. They range in Impact Factor from 0 (many journals e.g. Arab Journal of Gastroenterology), to 2 (e.g. Academic Pediatrics), up to 45 (The Lancet). Yet I’d argue the visibility of most Elsevier subscription journals is the same because institutional libraries tend to (be practically forced to) buy Elsevier journals as a bundle – the euphemistically-titled ‘Freedom Collection‘. With the privilege of an institutional affiliation you typically either have access to all the Elsevier journals, including the cruddy ones, or you have access to none of them (in one ARL survey from 2012, 92% of surveyed libraries subscribed to the Elsevier bundle). Unfortunately very few academic libraries opt to subscribe to just a few select Elsevier subscription-only journals, rather than the bundle, MIT is one of the rare exceptions. Thus whether an individual subscription access Elsevier journal has an Impact Factor of 0, 2, 5, or 10 the global visibility of articles in Elsevier journals is relatively similar between different Elsevier journals, except only for the very most popular journals like The Lancet which might have an appreciable number of individual subscribers and institutions that subscribe to the journal without subscribing to the rest of Elsevier’s bundle of journals.

Journals aren’t a good unit of measure anyway – citations, views, downloads and ‘quality’ (broadly-defined) can vary greatly even within the same journal. Articles are a more appropriate unit of measure and we have abundant article-level metrics (ALMs) these days. Let’s not lose sight of that fact.

Surely this article needs correction at the very least? This is more than just a minor linguistic quibble. If the authors mean to say Impact Factor every time they say ‘visible’ or ‘visibility’ why don’t they just do this? Perhaps it is because Impact Factor is so widely and rightly derided, not to mention statistically illiterate (the distribution of journal article citations are well known to be skewed, you shouldn’t take the mean but the median to measure central tendency. The Impact Factor uses the mean in its calculation – oops!) they knew that it wouldn’t be meaningful and so masked it by using ‘visibility’ a weasel-word instead?

This article seems to be asking: Is it within the possibilities of journal editors to influence taxonomy’s visibility Impact Factor.

[Update 2015-09-19: since writing this, I notice my open access article has now been unpaywalled at Wiley’s site. No-one from Wiley has reached out to me to explain how, why, or when this happened. No compensation has been offered, nor any apology. I note that all the other articles in the special section, which should also be open access (CC BY) are still on sale, behind a paywall. Selling access to articles that should be open access is very scammy publishing. Shame on Wiley.]

I got invited to review a manuscript by a British Ecological Society journal (MEE) that is published with Wiley recently.

I rejected the request and will from now on decline to review for all Wiley journals. In this post I duplicate my email to the Assistant Editor (Chris Greaves) explaining why. FWIW Chris has handled my letter extremely well and will forward it on for me to where it needs to be seen/read within the British Ecological Society.

Below is the email I sent earlier today in full:

from: Ross Mounce <>
date: 18 August 2015 at 11:57
subject: Re: Follow-up: Invitation to Review for Methods in Ecology and Evolution

Dear Chris,

Thank you (and Rich FitzJohn) for inviting me to review this manuscript.

It looks interesting from the abstract and in other circumstances I would certainly agree to review it.

However, I refused to review this manuscript and will refuse to review any subsequent manuscript for this publisher (Wiley) because I believe they are actively impeding progress in science by choosing to operate a predominately subscription-based business model – artificially restricting access to knowledge that taxpayers (through government funding) and charities predominantly fund. Furthermore they do an extremely poor job of it.

  • They produce but actively withhold full text XML (even from subscribers). Reputable open access publishers have no qualms in making their full text XML available to all. This is deeply frustrating for those interested in synthesis, reproducibility and getting the most from published science in a time-efficient manner. As the manuscript I was just asked to review was principally about ‘automated content analysis’ I find this particularly galling and I am wondering why the authors thought it was appropriate to submit this to such a journal.
  • They use an outdated back-end system: ‘ManuscriptCentral’ which is by all accounts an extremely poor system. Wiley have made huge profits each and every year in the past decade and yet seem completely unwilling to re-invest that in improving their systems. There wasn’t even a free text box to explain my reasons for declining to review this manuscript. Utterly poor, neglected design. Try PeerJ or Pensoft’s submission system. They have clearly worked hard and invested time and effort into making publishing research better for everyone, not just their own profit-margin.
  • Wiley’s hybrid open access charge ($3000) is outrageously expensive and bears no resemblance or link to the actual cost of production or services provided. I am aware of the ‘discount’ levied for British Ecological Society members (down to $2,250). The ‘discount’ is only gained if one of the authors pays ~ $80 to join BES (full, ordinary member rate). That is still far too high. For context, some other open access fees: PLOS ONE charges $1350, PeerJ just $99 per author (the manuscript I was just asked to review has only 4 authors), Ubiquity Press journals $500, and Biodiversity Data Journal is still FREE ($0) whilst in launch phase. This to me is strong evidence of either deep inefficiency or profit-gouging or a mixture of both on Wiley’s part, none of which are excusable. I am certainly not alone in thinking this. See recent tweets from Rob Lanfear (an excellent scientist):
  • Wiley are a significant player in the modern oligopoly of academic publisher knowledge racketeering. Data from FOI requests in the UK show that in the last five years (2010-2014), 125 UK Higher Education Institutes have collectively spent nearly £77,000,000 renting access to knowledge that Wiley has captured. That’s just the UK. Wiley doesn’t pay authors for their content, nor do they pay reviewers. I don’t know why the British Ecological Society (BES) partners with these racketeers – I find this arrangement severely detrimental to the goals of BES and academic research.
  • Like the other big knowledge racketeers Wiley operate a ‘big bundle’ subscription system. By adding BES journals to this big bundle of subscriber-only knowledge, it makes it harder for libraries around the world to cancel their subscriptions to this big bundle. Wiley know this and hence are actively trying to acquire as many good journals as possible (e.g. ESA journals) to make themselves ‘too big to cancel’.
  • On a personal note, I am particularly aggrieved with Wiley because they are currently, without my consent, charging $45.60 including tax, to ‘non-subscribers’ for access to one of my open access articles that they have copied over from where it is freely available at the original publisher. Charging $45.60 to access something that is freely available at the original publisher is simply astonishing and is just another facet to the lunacy of the many and multiple ways in which Wiley and companies like it seek to profiteer from and restrict access to research.

For all these reasons and many more I simply cannot agree to review manuscripts for any Wiley journal. I am already boycotting Elsevier, and am considering applying the same to subscription-access Nature Springer and Taylor & Francis journals for similar reasons.

I urge the British Ecological Society to reconsider their ‘partnership’ with this profiteering entity and to pursue publishing with organisations that are actually competent at modern 21st century academic publishing, particularly those that support and actively facilitate content mining e.g. Pensoft, PLOS, PeerJ, eLife, Ubiquity Press, MDPI and F1000Research, to name but a few.


Ross Mounce



I feel relieved to have done this. Having reviewed for Wiley only last month it didn’t feel right. Why would I help them whilst boycotting Elsevier? They are essentially as bad as each other. My position is more logically consistent now.

Many thanks to others who have also publicly written about refusing to review for legacy publishers, these posts certainly helped me in my decision-making:

Mike Taylor: Researchers! Stop doing free work for non-open journals!

Heather Piwowar: Sending A Message

Ethan White: Why I will no longer review for your journal

Casey Bergman: Just Say No – The Roberts/Ashburner Response

PS Having read Tom Pollard’s post on this matter, I might also write to one of the authors to explain why I declined to review their article. I wish them them well and I look forward to reading their article when it comes out.


I read some sad news on Twitter recently. The Ecological Society of America has decided to publish its journals with Wiley:

Whilst I think the decision to move away from their old, unloved publishing platform is a good one. The move to publish their journals with Wiley is a strategically poor one. In this post I shall explain my reasoning and some of the widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of this change.

Society journals should not be a profit-driven business

The stated goals of The Ecological Society of America (ESA) are noble and I reproduce them here below to help you understand what the society in theory aims to do:

  • * promote ecological science by improving communication among ecologists;
  • * raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science;
  • * increase the resources available for the conduct of ecological science;
  • * ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers


Reading those four bullet points, it strikes me that a society with this stated mission should be a vanguard of the open access movement. An efficient, well-implemented open access publishing system, supported (and thus empowered) by the ESA would positively address all four of those goals.

Do I need to explain how open access would improve communication among ecologists? It should be obvious to most. Some facts:

Universities around the world do not have access to all subscription journals, not even Harvard. Wiley’s big journal bundle of subscriptions is no exception to this rule. Brock University in Canada is one such notable example. ‘Ecology and Evolution’ is one of two “main themes” of Brock’s Biology Department yet it does not have access to the Wiley bundle of subscription journals.

Furthermore, as the above tweet demonstrates many ecologists are not based at universities. Not all uses or readership of ecology journals is by ecologists, it’s absolutely not sufficient to just provide access to ecologists (alone). It’s vital that policymakers and the public have access to the latest research, no embargoes. Want evidence that policymakers lack access to research? Look no further than this blog post from a recent intern at the UK Parliamentary Office for Science & Technology (POST):

The level of access to journals was far lower than I had expected (it was actually shocking) – I ended up using my academic access throughout my placement.

Source: (2015-01-12)

If the ESA seriously wants to “ensure the appropriate use of ecological science in environmental decision making by enhancing communication between the ecological community and policy-makers” then making it easier for policymakers like those at POST to access research published in ESA journals would surely be a great way of doing that. How does the ESA expect to “raise the public’s level of awareness of the importance of ecological science” if most of the science that they themselves publish in their own journals is behind an expensive paywall? $20 for 30 day access to one article? Admittedly that’s cheaper than many but it’s simply not supportive of ESA’s mission.

Does this help raise the awareness of ecological science?

Does this unnecessary paywall help raise the awareness of ecological science?


Lastly, with respect to increasing “resources available for the conduct of ecological science” the ESA urgently needs to consider the big picture here. Wiley, Springer Nature, Elsevier and other legacy publishers are a major drain on the financial resources available for research. With their big bundle deals they ransom/rent access to libraries for sums that can be up to many millions of dollars, every year, per institution. Money should instead be diverted into efficient, high-quality publishing systems like JMLR, Open Library of Humanities, PeerJ, Pensoft and Ubiquity Press to name but a few. All of these not only provide open access, but also high-quality publishing services at a significantly lower cost. Many provide added extras such as semantically-enhanced full-text XML which would make synthesis of ecological science easier. Wiley does not provide direct access to per article full-text XML even to its paying subscribers! They do half the job for thrice the price. Why would ESA want to help to sustain and enhance Wiley’s famous 42% profit margin? These legacy publishers are strategically merging, and acquiring journals in order to make it harder for libraries to cancel their dross-laden ‘big bundle’ subscription packages. It doesn’t seem like a logical decision to me or others.

Comparing this to other recent journal publishing changes

To put into context the ESA move to Wiley, let’s look at three other recent examples of academic societies changing publisher:

1.) Museum für Naturkunde Berlin journals (flipping to open access)

In 2014 all of their journals moved away from being published with Wiley. Their two zoological journals which have been around since before the ESA was even formed(!) transferred to open access publishing with Pensoft. Their Earth Science journal Fossil Record also moved away from Wiley, to open access publishing with Copernicus Publications. Guess what? The sky didn’t fall. I predict the articles in these journals will start being read, downloaded and cited more now that they are open access to everyone.

2.) Paleontology Society journals (switching to arguably a more benign, less profit-driven legacy publisher)

In 2015 PalSoc journals switched to be published with Cambridge University Press (CUP). I’m not super enthusiastic about CUP but if a society really wants to do legacy publishing, without worsening the stranglehold of the big publishing companies over libraries then CUP, or other university presses (Oxford, John Hopkins, Chicago) seem like safer custodians of academic intellectual property to me.

3.) American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (moving to Wiley)

To provide a fair comparison it’s important to look at what happens when a society journal joins Wiley. I know of one such case recently: ASLO journals. The transfer to Wiley was far from smooth or professional. In the few months that Wiley had the ASLO journals, they managed to ‘accidentally’ paywall thousands of articles that should have been available for free (as per ASLO’s wishes) and charged actual readers for reading these older should-be-free articles.  I paid $45.60 for access to one such ASLO article at Wiley – it should have been made available to all for free. Both Springer and Elsevier have also been caught doing this. The ESA currently makes some articles in its subscription journals ‘free to read’ to all, so I shall be closely monitoring the new Wiley-ESA journal websites when they launch, to see if they make the same conveniently profit-generating ‘mistakes’ again.

How did this happen? Who was consulted? Why was this choice made?

I for one was completely unaware that ESA were looking for a new publisher. I would have tried to help if I had known. I have many unanswered questions over the consultation process. For example, the ESA has an Open Science section and mailing list, its members are extremely knowledgeable about the academic publishing landscape and publishing technology.

Was the ESA membership in it’s entirety specifically and clearly asked which publisher they would like the ESA to publish with? Did they ask their membership what features they wanted from their new publishing platform? I would have requested a platform that provides access to semantically-enriched full text XML – Wiley does not provide this. Given a choice, and the vital context and information given above I think few ESA members, policymakers, or members of the public would choose Wiley as ESA’s new publisher.

I gather from Twitter that “any and all” were invited to submit a proposal to publish ESA journals and that Elsevier submitted a proposal. But having a lazy tendering process only biases decisions towards major conglomerates who have the time, energy and resources to make slick proposals – I wonder if smaller but high-quality publishing companies were pro-actively approached by ESA to submit a proposal? In the public interest, I think the ESA should publish the names of all organisations who submitted proposals to publish ESA journals – I think just that data alone might potentially reveal flaws in the tendering process. I’m finding it really hard to reconcile the goals of ESA and shareholder-profits motivation of Wiley. I genuinely think the leadership of ESA is out of touch with its membership and that they may not have been properly consulted about this major change to the society.

This is a long post, and I’ve said enough, so I’ll leave it to a professional scholarly communications expert (Kevin Smith, Duke University), to have the last word about Wiley, and the recent trend towards cancelling Wiley subscriptions:

I don’t know if Wiley is the worst offender amongst the large commercial publishers, or whether there is a real trend toward cancelling Wiley packages.  But I know the future of scholarship lies elsewhere than with these large legacy corporations.



But perhaps we can turn this negative into positive by creating resources and impartial educational guides for academic societies on how to negotiate better publishing deals, and how to start a tendering process with an eye towards the inevitable future of open access? If SPARC or SPARC Europe already provides these resources please do point me at them!