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, 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.

Creative Wandering

May 23, 2012

The history of science has a number of stories (either real or apocryphal) of creative discoveries achieved at odd moments, from Archimedes in his bath to Newton and his apple.   Some new research, reported in an article at Nature, suggests that allowing one’s mind to wander may actually help to facilitate creative thought.

A team of psychological researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, conducted an experiment with a group of undergraduates.  The 145 participants were first given two minutes to answer two “unusual uses” quizzes, in which they were to list as many uses of a few everyday objects (e.g., a toothpick) as they could think of.  They were then divided into four groups; three of the groups got a twelve-minute break, each group with a specific activity:

  1. The first group was assigned a demanding task that required their concentration.
  2. The second took a (relatively) mindless reaction-time test.
  3. The third group just rested.

The fourth group had no break.

The subjects were then assigned to do another set of four “unusual uses” quizzes.  Two were the same ones they had completed earlier, and two were new.  The researchers then compared the scored of the four sub-groups.

There was a significant difference only in the sub-group that performed the “mindless” task during their break; they did much better on the quizzes they had seen previously.

Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed an average of 41% better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement.

Seemingly, the subjects who had the opportunity to let their minds wander during the break were able to continue to work on the problems they had just seen, though they were not consciously working on them.

“The implication is that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on. It didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability,” says Baird.

This is an interesting result, and one that I find consistent with some of my own experience.  I’ve often had the experience of being asked a question, feeling sure that I know the answer, but being unable to recall it immediately.  (I’m sure some readers, especially those who are getting to middle age, have had similar experiences.)    It is almost always the case, though, that the answer will occur to me sometime later, more or less out of the blue, when I am driving, taking a shower, or walking down the street.  It’s as if the original question had launched a mental “background process” to search for the answer.  As I’ve remarked in another context, I don’t think any of us has a terribly good understanding of how we think.

The article, which is in press, will be published in Psychological Science.

Harvard Library’s Faculty Advisers Push for Open Access

April 24, 2012

The movement toward providing open access to scholarly research seems to be continuing.  I’ve noted before the decisions by a number of different organization, including Princeton University, the Royal Society, the JStor research archive, and, most recently, the World Bank, to provide open access to some or all of their research publications.   According to an article at Ars Technica, a faculty advisory council to the Harvard University Library has just issued a memorandum urging all faculty members to move to open access publication as much as possible, because of what it terms “untenable” and “unsustainable” trends in the pricing of traditional academic journals.

… the Faculty Advisory Council is fed up with rising costs, forced bundling of low- and high-profile journals, and subscriptions that run into the tens of thousands of dollars. So, it’s suggesting that the rest of the Harvard faculty focus on open access publishing.

The library’s current budget for journal subscriptions runs to about $3.75 million.  Admittedly, this is not a large sum compared to the size of Harvard’s endowment, roughly $32 billion; but it is clear from the language of the memorandum that the members of the council have had enough of continually increasing prices that, in their view, have little economic justification.  Some of their complaints, such as the “bundling” of journal subscriptions, will sound familiar to readers familiar with the boycott of Reed Elsevier journals, organized via the Web site,  (Incidentally, when I first wrote about the boycott back in January, there were 1,335 researchers who had signed up to participate; the current total is 10,200.)  They feel that the increasing consumption of library resources for these expensive journals will compromise other parts of their mission.

The Faculty Advisory Council to the Library, representing university faculty in all schools and in consultation with the Harvard Library leadership,  reached this conclusion: major periodical subscriptions, especially to electronic journals published by historically key providers, cannot be sustained: continuing these subscriptions on their current footing is financially untenable.

They urge faculty members to submit research to open access journals, or at least those with reasonable access policies; to try to raise the prestige of open access publication; and to consider resigning from the editorial boards of journals with unreasonable subscription policies.

The recommendations are not binding on the faculty, but I hope that they will realize, along with academics elsewhere, that they do have the power to effect considerable change.  After all, they supply the “raw material”, in the form of their papers, that the journals need to exist, and they also supply most of the editorial work, usually for no compensation.  For too long, some of these journal publishers have not only bitten the hand that feeds them, but charged the rest of the body for the privilege.

World Bank Research to be Open Access

April 14, 2012

I’ve written here before about the encouraging trend to make more scholarly research available online at no charge, including efforts by JStor, The Royal Society, and the National Academies Press.  Now, according to an article at Ars Technica, the World Bank has decided to make its research and knowledge products, as well as the data underlying them,  available free of  charge under a new Open Access Policy.

…  the Bank says it will apply to “manuscripts and all accompanying data sets… that result from research, analysis, economic and sector work, or development practice… that have undergone peer review or have been otherwise vetted and approved for release to the public.

Most of the material will be made available under a liberal Creative Commons license [CC-BY].  The Bank has set up a new Web site, the Open Knowledge Repository, to make its work available for browsing and download.  (At the time I am writing this, there appears to be a problem with the site’s SSL certificate for secure [https:] access; you may get a security warning from your browser.)  There are currently more than 2,100 papers and books available in the Repository, and more will be added over the coming months.  Data sets will be available, too, and will probably be of considerable value to researchers, given the World Bank’s special insight into the process of economic development.

“Making our knowledge widely and readily available will empower others to come up with solutions to the world’s toughest problems,” World Bank Group President Robert B. Zoellick said in the Bank’s announcement.

It is great to see another significant institution move toward making information more widely and easily available.

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