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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).

Hincks, W. D. 1949. IV.—systematic and synonymic notes on passalidae (col.). 
Annals and Magazine of Natural History 2:56-64. 
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00222934908653958

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).

millenium-development-goals

  • 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 <ross.mounce@gmail.com>
to: coordinator@methodsinecologyandevolution.org
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): https://twitter.com/RobLanfear/status/630523174061342720https://twitter.com/RobLanfear/status/630526920086568960
  • 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.

Sincerely,

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

Source: http://www.esa.org/esa/about/

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: https://therostrumblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/12/why-all-phd-students-should-do-a-policy-placement/ (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.

Source: http://blogs.library.duke.edu/scholcomm/2014/12/16/cancelling-wiley/

Postscript

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!