White House Endorses Open Access Research

February 24, 2013

For a few years no, there has been a growing movement in the research and academic world to provide free or low-cost access to research results.  Traditionally, these results have been under the control of the publishers of academic journals, which charge high annual subscription fees; when access to an individual article is available, it commonly costs $30-40 or more.  I’ve written here several times about the growing trend among organizations, including The Royal Society, Princeton University, the World Bank, and the National Academies Press, to make some or all of their content available at no charge on the Web.   Last summer, the Research Councils UK announced a new open-access policy that applies to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, effective April 2013; this was in part the result of a British government policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge.

The US government, of course, provides funding for a great deal of research, too, and there have been increasing calls to make the results of that research freely available, including a petition, on the “We the People” section of the White House web site, which attracted 65,704 signatures.  On Friday, the administration released a response from Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which announced a move toward open access:

The Obama Administration agrees that citizens deserve easy access to the results of research their tax dollars have paid for.

Details of the new policy are contained in a memorandum [PDF] to Federal agencies, directing those with R&D budgets of more than $100 million to develop plans under which all research will be made available to the public, free of charge, within 12 months of original publication.  This approach is modeled on the existing Public Access Policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Individual agencies need not copy the NIH policy exactly; they are allowed, in principle, to make adjustments to fit their particular fields of research.  And there will be the customary exemptions for national security and other sensitive areas.

We should probably expect a certain amount of squabbling over the details of these policies; after all, the journal publishers have a vested economic interest in the status quo.   There have already been some complaints that the announcement does not go far enough toward completely open access, and doubtless there will be more.  As with any new policy, the odds are that the initial implementation will fall short of perfection.  Yet I think that, on the whole, this is a very positive step.  Once open access to even a part of the research results is granted, it will be very difficult to go back.

Open-Access Mathematics Journals

January 29, 2013

I have written here a number of times before about the movement toward providing open access to scholarly research.  I’ve noted before the decisions by a number of different organization, including Princeton University, the Royal Society, the JStor research archive, and the World Bank, to provide open access to some or all of their research publications.  There have been launch announcements from some new open-access journals, notably in particle physics and in the life sciences.

Now Nature is reporting, in a recent news article, that a new series of open-access journals in mathematics is being put together.  The plan is that these journals will have a peer review process similar to traditional print journals, but will post their articles on the arXiv pre-print site, hosted by the Cornell University Library.

The initiative, called the Episciences Project, hopes to show that researchers can organize the peer review and publication of their work at minimal cost, without involving commercial publishers.

“It’s a global vision of how the research community should work: we want to offer an alternative to traditional mathematics journals,” says Jean-Pierre Demailly, a mathematician at the University of Grenoble, France, who is a leader in the effort. Backed by funding from the French government, the initiative may launch as early as April, he says.

The “epijournals” would provide Web directories to the articles approved by their review processes, along with editorial reviews, and possibly forums for comments.   Readers might have to give up something; for example, reviewed articles might not follow formatting standards to the same extent as articles in traditional journals.   On the other hand, the general availability of articles would be substantially increased.

One of the supporters of this project is the Cambridge University mathematician Timothy Gowers, a recipient of the Fields Medal (often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of mathematics”).   He has a blog post that explains the idea of these “overlay journals” in more detail.

What is an arXiv overlay journal? It is just like an electronic journal, except that instead of a website with lots of carefully formatted articles, all you get is a list of links to preprints on the arXiv. The idea is that the parts of the publication process that academics do voluntarily — editing and refereeing — are just as they are for traditional journals, and we do without the parts that cost money, such as copy-editing and typesetting.

There was a time when the typesetting and copy editing function provided real economic value (although, of course, not necessarily what the publishers were charging for it).  Today, though, better technology (think MathML or LaTeX) allows authors to prepare publishable drafts with reasonable effort.

Mr. Gowers was also a prime mover in the Elsevier boycott movement, launched early in 2012.  He’s apparently done some “sounding out” regarding the possibilities in one of his areas of interest:

Apparently, the plan is for the whole thing to start this April. Because I have known about the project for some time, I have quietly sounded out a few people in additive combinatorics, and it seems that there is enough enthusiasm that we will be able to start an epijournal broadly in that area …

I’m glad to hear of this development, and I hope that the new journals will be a success.   As I’ve said, one of the most important potential benefits of the “Internet Age” is the wider availability of knowledge, particularly to a large chunk of humanity that would otherwise, for reasons of geography, politics, or economics, never have had a chance.

New Open-Access Journal Publishes First Articles

October 16, 2012

I’ve written here a number of times about the growing movement, in the academic world, toward more open-access forms of publication,  (Most recently, I wrote about an open-access agreement for publications in particle physics, negotiated between journal publishers and a research consortium.)  Now Wired reports that a new open-access journal for medicine and life sciences, eLife,  has just published its first research articles,

The new journal is a collaborative effort sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Wellcome Trust, and the Max Planck Society.  Although the project is still in its early stages — the Web site, scheduled to be launched this winter, is not yet complete — the editors felt that they had received enough high-quality papers to get started with publication on the eLife site.   In an editorial accompanying these first articles, the editors describe the project’s objectives this way:

The three legs of eLife’s initial mission are: to publish outstanding science under an open-access license; to create an unparalleled editorial process that is decisive, fair and efficient; and to fully utilize digital media in the presentation of new research. The guiding principle of the project is to serve the interests of science, scholars and society.

Four articles have been published so far.   Two are on cell biology, one on genes and chromosomes, and one on genomics and evolutionary biology.  There are also accompanying “Insight” articles, giving the perspective of an expert in the field.  At the moment, because the eLife site is still under construction, the actual articles are hosted at PubMed Central [PMC], the public archive for life and biomedical science literature at the US National Library of Medicine.  Both HTML and PDF versions of the articles are available.

This is, of course, not the first open-access journal.  But it has some fairly influential and financially strong supporters, so it’s an interesting addition to the scene.  I also think that each new substantial open-access alternative gives the whole movement (which I heartily support) additional credibility.

UK Research Councils Announce Open-Access Policy

July 22, 2012

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
— Sir Isaac Newton

Back in December of last year, I posted a note about the British government’s policy decision that all publicly-funded research should be made available online, free of charge.  Now, according to a report at Nature’s “News Blog”, the Research Councils UK (RCUK), a group of seven government-funded agencies that provide research grants, have announced a new open-access policy (press release), which will apply to all research that they fund, wholly or in part, beginning in April, 2013.

This is a significant step forward, because the new policy is not just a statement of principle, but has quite specific requirements for future research publications.  There are two ways in which the requirements can be satisfied.

Science journals have two ways of complying with the policy. They can allow the final peer-reviewed version of a paper to be put into an online repository within six months. Alternatively, publishers may charge authors to make research papers open-access up front.

The RCUK are big enough — they collectively spend about £ 2.8 billion ($ 4.4 billion) on research grants every year, to have a significant influence on how the systems works.

Apparently for historical reasons, which I have not managed to track down, the first option (up to six months’ embargo) is sometimes called the “green” option; the second (pay up front) is, similarly, called the “gold” option.  RCUK has said that it will make annual block grants available to institutions to support the “gold”, pay in advance, option.  Also noteworthy is the new policy’s requirement that papers with pre-paid open access be published under a Creative Commons license: specifically, the CC-BY license.  (Creative Commons licensing is, in broad terms, open-source licensing for documents.  This blog is published under a Creative Commons license — see the “Legal Stuff” sidebar for details.)

The “green” (temporary embargo) option is similar to the policy of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), although the NIH allows an embargo of up to  twelve months.   The Wellcome Trust, a major UK health charity, also has a similar policy.

Clearly the new policy is motivated by, and has the support of, the UK government.  The Department for Business Innovation & Skills (BIS)† has also announced its support for open access; in particular, it accepted the main recommendations of the Finch Group. a task force on open access headed by Prof. Dame Janet Fitch, OBE.

I’m a big fan of the open access movement.  I can see no justification at all for charging citizens (i.e., taxpayers) to look at research results that they paid for in the first instance.  Even putting aside this argument from principles of equity, a cornerstone of the scientific method is exposing results to widespread scrutiny, so that errors can be detected, and so that other can build on the work that has been done.

† I cannot help thinking that the BIS name is unfortunate.  My feelings are perhaps colored by my experience at an early job.  The company had an “Office of the Future” department.  I wished, more than once, that we could get to the “office of the present” as a starter.

New Open-Access Journal Launched

June 15, 2012

I’ve written here a few times before about efforts by academic authors to make research results openly accessible on the Web.  A faculty advisory committee to the Harvard University Library has recommended that all faculty members seek to move to open-access publications.  There has also been a boycott, organized via the Web site thecostofknowledge.com, of the journals published by Reed Elsevier, which are particularly expensive; there are now more than 12,000 academics who have signed up to join the boycott.

A new article posted at Technology Review describes another move away from the traditional publishing model.  A new open-access, peer-reviewed journal, PeerJ, covering medical and life sciences research, has been launched, and will operate on a membership model.  There are several tiers of membership.  The most basic level, which requires a one-time fee of $99, entitles an author to publish one article per year with PeerJ; the author must also agree to perform peer review on one article annually.  Members also have access to all of the published material.

This strikes me as a potentially valuable development.  Like many other content production businesses, the economics of publishing research have been fundamentally changed by the Internet.  Traditional publishers will argue that they perform a “gatekeeper” function, by ensuring that research is refereed before it is published.  There is a certain amount of truth to this; however, the argument is undercut by the fact that the peer review is usually performed, in many cases without compensation, by the same academic authors that write the papers in the first place.  When digital publication reduces the marginal cost of additional copies to, effectively, zero, it is not reasonable to expect to continue collecting large economic rents just by virtue of owning a printing press.

Open Access: Another Approach

May 7, 2012

I have written here a number of times before about the movement toward providing open access to scholarly research, most recently in connection with the recommendation of faculty advisors to the Harvard University library that all faculty members to move to open access publication.  I’ve also talked about  the boycott of Reed Elsevier journals, organized via the Web site, thecostofknowledge.com.   (There are now 11,282 researchers who have signed on to the boycott.)

Professor Andrew Appel, of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy [CITP], has posted a three-part article on this issue the CITP’s Freedom to Tinker blog.   [Direct links to Part 1Part 2, and Part 3]    He first points out that some professional societies, such as the ACM, the IEEE, and USENIX, do not require one-sided license agreements to publish papers in their journals.  He then goes on to propose four alternative strategies for dealing with less reasonable journals and organizations.

  1. The consulting-contract model
  2. The charitable donations model
  3. The contract-hacking model
  4. The union organizing model

The whole article is a bit tongue in cheek — I especially like his “contract hacking” model, in which the author modifies the publication contract before signing and returning it, on the theory that no one ever reads the returned copies — but it is nonetheless a serious look at the issue, and a good reminder to academic authors that they really do have the power to change things.

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