The so-called Academic Spring and Research Public-ation

Following the Wellcome Trust’s announcement regarding their forthcoming open-access journal, eLife and proposed policy that the results of the research they fund will need to be freely available within 6 months of first publication, there has been quite an increase in coverage of the so-called ‘Academic Spring’, in recent weeks, mainly in The Guardian.  Following Alok Jha’s unnecessarily long-winded summary, we had Stephen Curry making the case for open access; predictable hot air from the Government (and RCUK); an Editorial and  letters; followed by a ’roundup’ (apparently an ironic attempt to highlight the repetition and duplication we’d already endured).  The following week saw more letters; Science Blog articles by Mike Taylor and Peter Coles; and, just when we thought it was safe, a fresh re-hashing by John Naughton in The Observer.  I do not intend to attempt a synthesis here: the core issues have been discussed in ample detail in the aforementioned articles (and numerous preceding ones).  If you’re looking for more detailed discussion of the various issues surrounding the subject, from the scientist’s perspective, the SV-POW! blog is a much better source than The Grauniad.  To see for yourself where it all started, read Tim Gowers’ original blog post.  My intention here is merely to put the subject into context and to make one or two observations.

In the 1990s, when journal articles were still almost exclusively on paper, the internet was of relatively little use to the majority of us, other than for email correspondence and (limited) bibliographic research.  You could get thesis abstracts from ASLIB and lists of article titles from databases such as BIDS (occasionally you might even have found a few online abstracts), but if you wanted full-text articles it was off to the library with you.  If you wanted to use articles from the current volume of a journal at home, you had no choice other than to queue (and pay) for the photocopier in the library.  Back in those days, anyone could walk into most university libraries in the UK and read the current issues of all the journals subscribed to by that institution.  It wasn’t uncommon to see groups of sixth-formers from local schools in the journal sections of university libraries, at lunchtime or after school.  However, since the advent of online subscriptions, due to the high price of maintaining online access, largely as a result of the costly ‘bundling’ deals imposed by publishers, many universities have had to drastically rationalise their paper subscriptions.  Stroll through the journal sections of many British university libraries, today and you will notice that the bound volumes of a large number of journals end abruptly around 2004-2006.  This seems particularly tragic where those bound volumes extend back to volume 1 of a title (or into the 19th Century, in some cases).  Those missing volumes can still be accessed on the computer terminals in those libraries, but only if you have an account.  Aside from Nature and Science, one or two token titles for their more affluent departments is all many libraries can afford on paper, these days.

This is one example of how the internet can serve to make information more exclusive, in sharp contrast to the popular perception of the effect of the internet on the transfer of information within society.  The ‘information super-highway’ is a toll road, for sure.  Another key characteristic of the online journal subscription model is its ephemeral  nature: with a paper subscription a library gets one copy of that year’s volume to archive and use forever; an online subscription gives access to all the volumes available online for a finite period – unsubscribe the following year and lose everything.  It’s easy to see how, by using price and online bundling to drive down paper subscriptions, publishers have put themselves in an extremely powerful position from which they can continue to aggressively drive up the price of online subscriptions, regardless of whether or not they are allowed to continue their unethical ‘bundling’ practices.  As the gap between libraries’ paper holdings and current volumes widens, the publishers’ grip on these universities’ short and curlies tightens.  While 10,000 academics boycotting Elsevier, to a greater or lesser degree, has undoubtedly had  some effect, whole fields of research are conspicuous by their virtual absence from the Cost of Knowledge list.  These are the fields in which Elsevier own the vast majority of the high-impact journals.  We’ll probably have to wait until after the next REF (formerly RAE) assessment, to see how many (if any) UK workers from these fields feel able to come out of the woodwork.  Harvard University’s recent memo to its 2,100 staff may be a more critical sign that publishers have pushed their luck too far.  If more institutions throw their weight behind their staff in this manner, we might start to see action on a much larger scale.  Mike Taylor’s prediction may already be fait accompli.

So what does it all mean for the average layperson?  Precious little, I’m afraid.  The Wellcome Trust’s move towards open access is highly unlikely to lead to a significant increase in readership for the research they fund.  After all, as someone pointed out in the comments section of one of the aforementioned Guardian articles: Cancer Research UK has had a similar policy for quite some time.  Has this led to an increase in public perception of the fact that much of what they fund is bland repetition or mere vivisection for vivisection’s sake, in a world where such ‘research’ has been rendered all but obsolete by numerical modelling?  Is the average person better able to make a properly informed decision when they have a collecting tin thrust into their face outside a supermarket?  Of course not.  Most people are entirely ignorant of whether or not research articles are freely available to them because they have absolutely no interest in reading them.  If there was any real demand for this kind of material, it would be readily available via bittorrent.  As Brant Moscovitch points out, the key problem is not one of public access to research findings in their current form, but one of making research findings accessible to the non-specialist.  Given the appalling standard of British journalism, these days, it may be high time academics began to overcome their traditional reticence on this matter, if they’re at all interested in reaching a wider audience.  Unfortunately, the Fred Pearces of the world are few and far between.  However, relatively few researchers will be sufficiently motivated to meet this challenge; even fewer will have the necessary aptitude to succeed.  Anyone who has been involved in large interdisciplinary research projects will have witnessed the total inability or sheer lack of will many scientists manifest, when it comes to making their research more readily understood by those from other fields, even when the potential benefits (i.e. increased impact in real terms) are clear.

For most people outside of academia and the publishing industry, the increasingly polarised debate on this subject is of limited interest.  The term ‘Academic Spring’, together with the implication that the Cost of Knowledge protest can be equated with a movement in which many people laid down their lives, makes many of us deeply uncomfortable.  However, Kent Anderson‘s contention that the term was “inappropriately and cynically borrowed” by the open access movement is not entirely accurate.  While the coining of the term is widely attributed to Barbara Fister, as she states in her comment on Anderson’s blog post: she merely borrowed it from the unattributed article in The Economist  (note her use of the question mark).  It is The Guardian  that insists on repeating it as a slogan.  It could certainly be argued that, since Anderson is one of the publishing industry’s most outspoken opponents of the open access movement, leading his blog post with this criticism was somewhat cynical in itself.  Anderson has refined his polemic since his reaction to George Monbiot’s hyperbolic article last year (the part of the comments section where he accuses Peter Coles of hiding behind a pseudonym made me spit out my tea) and makes good points about some of the current nefarious practices of universities, but they’re hardly pertinent to the specific issue at hand.  Those on the other side clearly have a lot more to work with: Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel are recommended reading on the specific subject of Elsevier.  Leaving aside the arms dealing, legal bullying and political puppetry issues, the review bribery and fake journals scandals are a lot closer to home for academics.  It’s not that Elsevier are alone in engaging in such practices, merely that they were blatant enough to be publicly exposed.  While the status quo is already prone to abuse by publishers (e.g. citation pressure to inflate impact factor), there is a genuine risk of making the situation even worse in the now inevitable shake-up.

Elsevier’s partnership with Merck in bringing us the fake journals raises another issue with regard to where we might be heading from here: in the comments section of the article about Wellcome and eLife, some have expressed their uneasiness about the pharmaceutical industry becoming involved in publishing.  Of course, the Wellcome Trust divested itself of its financial interest in pharmaceuticals (or so it would appear, at least) when it sold out to Glaxo back in 1995.  However, how comfortable should we be about funding bodies controlling the peer review and potential impact of the research they (and their rivals) fund?  Likewise, universities clearly can’t be trusted to have control of research publishing (obviously not while the current UK funding allocation system pertains; almost certainly not, even if it didn’t).  This is not to say that the potential abuses this type of development could give rise to do not already happen to some extent (e.g. industry-sponsored ‘journals’ are not a new creation of Elsevier’s) – but can we afford to make them more commonplace?  Perhaps these needn’t be real concerns, since we’re unlikely to do away with the publishers altogether, as some would advocate.  Their insurance in the form of the terminus  in many libraries’ paper holdings certainly militates against this.  Aside from the issue of cost, it may really be a case of ‘better the devil we know.’  However, if we can assume that at least a significant proportion of those who have vowed never to deal with Elsevier again remain true to their word, it seems likely that many journals will have to change hands in the near future, if their names and reputations are to survive.  If this proves to be an accurate prediction, keeping an eye on such developments may prove very interesting indeed.

For this writer, the price of journal subscriptions is a peripheral issue.  However it is resolved, green or gold, will merely serve to paper over the cracks in the current system for a little while longer.  The fundamental shortcomings of the traditional peer-review process, in the modern context of sheer volume of papers produced and proliferation of journal titles, is an issue that will continue to rear its head.  Recent articles by  Carl Zimmer in the New York Times  and Marcus & Oransky in the Boston Globe  highlight the shocking increase in retractions in recent years, as a symptom indicative of a moribund system.  The root of the problem goes deeper than the ‘publish or perish’ culture, which has given rise to the system’s failure to sort wheat from chaff adequately.  Bill Mitchell‘s illustration of the way in which the dominance of the (degenerative) orthodox paradigm in economics is reinforced has wider relevance.  Many who have had well-produced findings with genuine implications rejected outright by Nature, only to marvel at some of the (increasingly likely later to be retracted) chaff that did manage to be included, must suspect that there are dark forces at work.  The fact that the ‘Academic Spring’ coverage in The Guardian  overshadowed Brian Deer‘s piece, which highlighted a more crucial issue, was a genuine shame.  The financial interests of those involved in all stages of the peer-review process may be critical to understanding its current lack of rigour in many scientific fields.  The anonymity of reviewers, together with the culture that perpetuates it, represents a serious problem for any potential resolution.  Given that journals and peer-review are international in nature, attempts at regulation on a national level would appear doomed to have little (if any) effect.   This isn’t the place for a lengthy digression but I might revisit these issues in greater detail in the future.

Finally, it remains to say a few words about some of the coverage so far and to comment on developments since I started writing this.  Luckily, Mike Taylor was on hand to dispel many of the myths being propagated, saving the rest of us the bother.  With regard to some of the proposed modifications that could be made to current research assessment methods: Alok Jha’s suggestion that current metrics, such as citation indices and journal impact factor, could be replaced or augmented by download numbers, bookmarks in social bookmarking services or even tweets and Facebook ‘likes’ is clearly risible: for me, it conjures up images of the aerial footage of the Countryside Alliance marchers filing around and around the block, in order to be counted multiple times, as part of a pathetic attempt to inflate the recorded number of marchers.  I don’t claim to have any better ideas, but if we really need a measure of the wider relevance of research, we’re going to have to look a lot harder than that.   Peter Coles‘ suggestion that only freely available papers should be accepted by the REF is looking increasingly likely to be redundant in the very near future.  David Willetts‘ announcement of Janet Finch’s forthcoming report on the subject was an interesting development.  While it is tempting to dismiss it as yet more shallow rhetoric on the part of the government, they clearly must have gone some way to convince her that it wouldn’t be a waste of her time.  Whether the result will turn out to be disappointing for all parties involved remains to be seen.  What is apparent is that, through the Research Councils and RCUK, the government has the means to force publishers to reform.  This should prove to be the nudge in the right direction that RCUK have long needed to embolden them to overcome their historical lack of will and actually start implementing policy.  Exactly what role the master of all things apocryphal, Jimmy Wales, is expected to play in all of this is anyone’s guess.