Show me the data!

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.

[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!

April Clyburne-Sherin asked an interesting question on the OpenCon Discussion List recently:

I am an author on a manuscript that my lab wants to publish in a subscription journal that normally retains the copyright. The manuscript is a desirable one so they are “willing” (haha) to provide it “open access” (that was my stipulation to my lab when they started speaking with the publisher). My lab is happy with this, but I do not trust the publisher and want to be able to negotiate a publishing agreement that guarantees:
  • We retain the copyright;
  • The article will be open access forever and no version will be behind a paywall at their journal ever;
  • That there are no sign-ins, registrations, DRM viewing issues, or other ‘free” obstacles to viewing the article.

Comment: Quite rightly, April does not trust the publisher to make the published work fully open access in perpetuity, and wants to do more as an author, with the publishing agreement (a formal contract) to ensure that the publisher will actually provide the exact services she wants.

Recent events this year, whereby Elsevier, Wiley and Springer have all been caught red-handed selling access to hybrid open access articles justifies this lack of trust. It’s a sad state of affairs that authors such as April & myself no longer trust some service providers to actually provide the services we pay them for (e.g. Open Access).

Some helpful links & pointers have been provided on the discussion list, and this may be a concern many other scholarly authors have so it’s valuable to collate, discuss and publicise possible solutions to the thorny problem of publishing agreements with legacy publishers. I certainly don’t pretend to have all the answers here and I think organisations like SPARC might want to act on this one.

Lorraine Chuen links to the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) ‘Resources for Authors’ page which amongst other things discusses the Canadian SPARC Author Addendum. I knew about the US SPARC Author Addendum, but I never knew there was a Canadian version too!

Matt Menzenski links to the University of Kansas Authors & Copyright page. I particularly like An Introduction to Publication Agreements for Authors (Armstrong, 2009) that they link to at the very top – it’s really useful information.

My Suggested Solutions

For my part, I chipped-in with four different ways that in their own way either partially or wholly fulfil some or all of the criteria April is looking for:

1.) Wait for them to send you their proposed publishing agreement & change the terms to ones you find agreeable

If they send you a standard CTA (Copyright Transfer Agreement) form as PDF, you can modify the wording of that PDF to terms you prefer and send it back to them and they probably won’t even notice as long as it’s signed & doesn’t look too different. It’s cheeky, but I got away with it for a book chapter once. Be careful to remove / replace the term ‘work for hire’ – it may look like an innocuous statement but apparently this is fairly key in legal terms – I neglected to remove that from my book chapter agreement.


2.) Transferring away your copyright away to another person
Not as easy perhaps for multi-author papers but Mike Taylor has a good (successful-ish) anecdote about transferring his copyright to his spouse, thereby preventing the Geological Society from taking the copyright of the work.


3.) Claim that one of the authors is a US federal government employee
Use Section 105 of the US Copyright Act by pretending that at least one of the authors is an employee of the US Government. Works of the U.S. federal government cannot be copyrighted by their authors in the US – they must be public domain, which is in practice achieved by applying the Creative Commons Zero waiver to the paper. The CTA form may contain a check box asking about this. If not, just email them about it. Michael Eisen famously, successfully liberated a NASA space research paper from behind a paywall at Science (AAAS), using Section 105 as justification.
Will publishers really bother fact-checking your assertion about the employment of one of the authors? I don’t think so. It could land them in big trouble if they dare disregard the US Copyright Act.


4.) Simply do not sign, or do not return the unfavourable publishing agreement
Another risky approach is simply not to sign or not to return the CTA the publisher sends you after acceptance (with the obvious risk that this could delay publication). I think this is perhaps the most promising approach, there is strong evidence that many academics currently employ this practice. When you think about it: publishers actually need our papers or they’ll go bust. They need a constant stream of content to justify their existence. If you don’t sign-off on their stipulated terms and conditions, after acceptance, they do have real pressures to get on and publish the paper anyway, especially with the increased focus on optimising submission to publication times these days.


I’ll let Reinhard Diestel (mathematician, University of Hamburg) have the last word on this post, it’s a solution I’m keenly interested in trying myself:
I stopped signing away my copyright on journal papers in the late 1990s. Interestingly, almost all publishers reacted either positively or not at all when I did not return the copyright form signed as requested: in all cases did they print the paper in question, usually without additional delay, and sometimes with unexpected understanding and support. (Yes, there have been one or two cases where things were a little more difficult at first, but these too were resolved amicably in the end.)” —


Roughly ten days after I first blogged about this (see: Springer caught red-handed selling access to an Open Access article), Springer have now made a curious public statement acknowledging this debacle:

Statement on Annals of Forest Science article

Berlin, 6 May 2015

A number of tweets posted by Prof. Luis Apiolaza on 27 April, and by others active on social media, suggest that Springer is charging for access to open access articles published in Annals of Forest Science. After looking into this issue, there is indeed an issue with the status of the article, but this has to do with the background of the journal itself.

Annals of Forest Science is a journal owned by INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique). In 2009, when the article in question first appeared, the journal was being published by another company that allowed readers to read the articles without paying a fee (“free access”). When Springer started working with INRA in 2011 we agreed to add the 2007-2010 archives to SpringerLink, Springer’s online platform, in order to ensure a smooth transition and to give a wider distribution to the most recent articles. Since the copyright was not assigned to the author, and since there is no mention of the licensing used, we incorrectly assumed that the article was not open access.

It is clear that this article was intended to be open access, and it will be made so on SpringerLink as quickly as possible. Anyone that has purchased the article will, of course, be reimbursed.

Please note that we support Green Open Access and we feed all articles from INRA journals to the HAL repository after the 12-month embargo, making the articles freely downloadable there (this is clearly written on the journal’s webpage, with a link to the HAL platform). The article in question can also be found there for free (since 2011).

This has been an oversight, and we apologize for not being more thorough and vigilant.


Ruth Francis | Springer | Corporate Communications
tel +44 203192 2732 |


I am pleased that Springer are committing to reimbursing all (reader) purchasers of wrongly-paywalled articles, and I shall check my bank balance regularly in the coming weeks to see if they honour this promise.

I am also pleased that Springer see fit to formally apologize for their carelessness of publishing. I note that AFAIK neither Wiley nor Elsevier have apologised for similar incidents this year.

But I’m rather bemused by this wording they have chosen: “It is clear that this article was intended to be open access, and it will be made so on SpringerLink as quickly as possible”

Indeed it seems they chose this wording carefully, because as far as I can tell with my browser, Luis’s open access article is still on sale (see screenshot below).

Update: As of 2015-07-05 13:20 (BST) the article is now no longer paywalled. At the time of writing, as can be seen below it was clearly paywalled.



Springer SBM as an entity makes nearly a billion euros per year in turnover. Despite the considerable size, wealth and ‘experience’ in publishing, Springer can’t seem to unpaywall Luis’s article. Astonishing.

Last Friday, I genuinely thought Elsevier had illegally sold me an article that should have been open access. This post is to update you all on what we’ve found out since:

The Scale of the Problem

No one really knows how many articles are wrongly paywalled at all of Elsevier’s various different sales websites. So far, Alicia Wise (Elsevier’s Director of ‘Universal Access’) has admitted that 27 articles were wrongly paywalled in this latest incident and that “a handful” of these were sold to readers for $31.50 per article (source).

This wrong paywalling of paid-for ‘open access’ content also happened in 2014. I have a feeling it will happen in 2016 too…

Do we have the time and resources to keep checking all articles, at all providers of ‘hybrid OA’, to see if they are wrongly or illegally on sale?

Can we trust publishers of ‘hybrid OA’ to keep those paid-for articles outside the paywall, in perpetuity?

A lot of credit for unveiling this latest incident should be given to Marlène Delhaye, whom to my knowledge was the first person to uncover this latest round of problems at Elsevier.

Duration of Imprisonment

If one assumes that these 27 falsely paywalled articles were all from the transfer of the journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection from Wiley to Elsevier, which happened on January 1st, 2015, then we can perhaps assume that these articles were wrongly paywalled for a duration of 2 months and 9 days.

How many readers did these articles lose in that duration because the prospective readers could not get cost-free access to the full text from Elsevier’s websites? Most publisher websites track failed access attempts. For example JSTOR memorably admitted it turned away 150 million people attempting to read paywalled articles in one year.

I have been promised reimbursement for my purchases of articles that should never have been on sale in the first place, but what of the authors & funders of these articles? What compensation do they get? Their articles weren’t freely available to read for over 2 months – I’d be hopping mad if I was an author of one of those works. I think an appropriate calculation of financial compensation would be the price the article was on sale for, multiplied by the number of days it was wrongly behind a paywall.

Thus for this latest incident involving 27 articles, wrongly paywalled for 67 days, at a sale price of $31.50, I estimate the total bill for compensation owed to all the authors is: $56,983.50.  Considering the Elsevier STM publishing division had an adjusted operating profit in 2013 of £826 million, I think they can spare that loose change amount.

Apparently it was not ‘illegal’

Various people, Alicia Wise included, have been telling me that selling access to hybrid OA in this instance was NOT illegal. After a lot of discussion, I think I believe them.

Despite the article being clearly intended to be freely available to readers upon publication by the authors, all parties agree they paid Wiley to make the article freely available, not behind a paywall.

Despite the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license clearly marked on the article at the Wiley site.


Well, author-publisher contract trickery is the answer, I believe.

Conventional open access publishers simply confirm, via an informed consent process, that the author knows and wants their work to be published typically under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). If it gets through the editorial & review process, it is published online solely under the terms of the CC-BY license, and this is clearly marked on the paper. Copyright is fully retained by the authors over their work at all times. It’s a clear one-step process. The publisher AND readers are both bound by the terms of the chosen CC-license.

But Elsevier, Wiley and other merchants of ‘hybrid OA’ do things differently. Typically, they grant themselves carte blanche rights for commercial usage in an author-publisher contract and then afterwards, they publish online the article under a Creative Commons (or other) license. In this case only the readers are bound by the terms of the ‘end-user’ licence – the publisher can to some extent do what they want with impunity.

Needless to say, I think this incident has unveiled a significant flaw / legal loophole in the way that legacy publishers offer ‘hybrid OA’. Authors under these ‘hybrid OA’ systems appear to lose the right to sue their own publisher for wrongful commercial usage of their work.

At the very least I think publishers should print the terms and conditions of the author-publisher contract within each publication itself, so that readers like myself are informed of their ‘special rights’, over-and-above those indicated by the Creative Commons license chosen.

No apologies, no formal statements …so far

I’ve seen a few blog comments here and there from Alicia Wise which has been helpful. It is noted that she has even “thanked” me for raising this issue. I have also been promised a refund for my article purchases.

But thanks is not what I wanted. I didn’t intend to do Elsevier’s system-checking work for them. I want a public apology for this incident, that includes the word ‘sorry’:

  1. To myself and others who were wrongly charged for access to ‘open access’ articles
  2. To the authors & research funders of those 27 articles that were paid-for to be made available to readers for free, ‘open access’.
  3. To all the prospective readers, who didn’t get to read those 27 articles for over 2 months because they were behind a paywall.


I accept that these articles were ‘mistakenly’ paywalled, but even when innocent mistakes are made, it is still polite to formally apologise for making them.

For my part, I’m happy to apologise for alleging that these article sales were ‘illegal‘ – it was a logical, justified statement to make at the time, but with hindsight it might not be factually correct. Sorry Elsevier, what you did was not quite ‘illegal’ it was just wrong.

Now I’ve said my public apology for my innocent mistake, perhaps Elsevier could publicly make their apology too?


  • you weren’t much loved in your short existence
  • you weren’t much use to readers or text-miners because we often couldn’t find where you were – hiding amongst shadows.
  • you were significantly more expensive than your ‘full’ open access cousins


In March, 2015 ‘hybrid OA’ died after a short-life of neglect. Elsevier put the final nail in the coffin, but it wasn’t just they who were responsible, other publishers were plainly guilty of hybrid OA neglect too.

Publishers gave birth to the cash-cow that was hybrid OA not long ago. The profits were immense: $5000 for a single article in some greedy cases. Yet after each ‘hybrid OA’ article was born, and the profit raked in, the hybrid OA articles were completely neglected post-publication. Much like their shuttered, not-allowed-to-play-outside-the-paywall brothers & sister articles. They were forgotten about, even though their authors had stumped-up significant funds upfront to ensure their freedom forever.

Hybrid OA - a cash-cow

Hybrid OA was a wonderfully profitable system for the publisher/carers. It enabled bountiful double-dipping – additional revenue for providing exactly the same content. Laughably, the publisher/carers claimed  that it was “not happening at all“, but anyone with a brain knew better.

But too much neglect of the hybrids over the years led to many high-profile instances of triple-dipping: subscription revenue, APC fees, AND $31.50 (+ tax) per article reader charges (for content that had already been paid to be made free for readers, forever).

A variety of rightly concerned funders started a trend banning authors from sending their articles to hybrid OA profiteer-merchants, for their own good. Only full OA venues could be trusted to actually do the job and the keep the articles outside paywalls.

In short, legacy publishers themselves killed hybrid OA through their own carelessness. Authors, librarians, research funders and readers simply didn’t trust publishers to do hybrid OA properly, and had amassed plenty of evidence of their ineptitude. They tried to sweep the problem of a flawed and difficult system under the carpet as just ‘bumps in the road‘ to open access but actually hybrid OA was just a wrong turn all along.

Hybrid OA Is The Wrong Way

Hybrid OA Is The Wrong Way