Posted by: mattburleigh | July 16, 2012

Open Access Publishing – misguided & unimplementable

This morning, our “enlightened” Government had a bright idea. From April 1st 2013, all science research papers produced using UK taxpayer funding must be published in what’s called “open access” journals. That is, journals that anyone can access, where papers can be downloaded and read for free.

Sounds great. After all, in a democracy and meritocracy like our own, it seems absolutely right that taxpayers should be able to access all the papers we write.
Indeed, we astronomers have been doing this for years. In addition to publishing in refereed, “high impact” journals, we place almost all those papers on a preprint server, which anyone can access, called astro-ph. And we’ve been doing this since the early 1990s. After all, our cousins, the particle physicists, did invent the World Wide Web.

So this Government diktat is to be welcomed. At least, until you think it through. And then you realise that this is in fact opens a magnificent can of worms with potentially severely impacts on research budgets, and could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences, some damaging to careers, especially of young people. It is also a very handy way to transfer money from government science budgets directly to publishers, money which otherwise would be used to do, err, research. A number of these issues have been highlighted by Peter Coles (@telescoper) and his commentors on his blog.

Reading the various blogs and newspaper articles today, there is also clearly a large degree of misunderstanding occurring, and of course the usual malicious misinformation being spread around. So let’s clear up a few things first:

– UK scientists aren’t about to stop publishing in established journals. All that is happening is that the journals will agree to make our papers freely available to everyone, in return for us paying them for each paper they publish (instead of buying a subscription). That way, the publishing industry is completely safe. We could ignore the journals and publish online ourselves. We could even come up with ingenious ways to referee those papers. But the Government will almost certainly not allow them to be included in submissions for its league tables. They have to be in established high impact journals you see, otherwise how can we possibly be sure they are of sufficient quality? In any case, the Government have decreed “all research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access”.
What a wonderful bonus for the publishing industry!

– This researcher is absolutely in favour of open access to all journal articles. But not via the model proposed today.

– The journals astronomers publish in do not spend large amounts of money refereeing, typesetting and proof-reading our papers. They get us to do that. For free.

Right, now we’ve covered some of the more obvious bits of bullsh!t I’ve seen today, I’ll highlight a few, largely astronomy specific, concerns I have here.

If we are forced to publish in open access journals, does the British government expect the leading non-UK astronomy journals to become “open access” too? If not, does that mean UK astronomers cannot publish in ApJ, A&A, and indeed, Nature and Science? What if you are a co-author of a paper being sent by your foreign collaborator to a non-open access journal? Will we have to withdraw our names?

The UK Government are, in true ConDem style, making no new money available to pay the expected journal publication charges. Which will be on average £2000 per paper. Currently, our library buys subscription to the journals. That money will not be transferred to us. So we will have to use money that would otherwise pay for other activities. The only sources of cash I have access to are through my group. Budgets that are normally used to pay for conference travel, computers, and employing people. Budgets that are shrinking every year. So will my Head of Group
decide whether I can publish a paper? Will it be a choice between that and a conference (at which I would publicize the work)? Will the research councils provide additional funding so students can publish? What is their limit? What if the student is exceptional?

Maybe an internal committee would decide which papers produced in the dept will be published, since the budget will not be infinite. How would they decide? One can already see the potential for bias, incompetence, and nepotism…. My paper or the boss’s? Young temporary postdoc’s paper or that led by aging Professor in need of a submission for the REF? The paper by a “good chap” with “a great future ahead of him” or that by the recently married young lady “who will be pregnant within a year”?
What if the paper contains only null results? What if the field is one that gets relatively few citations? What if the committee man deciding my paper’s fate dislikes me, or sees me as a rival for promotion? How can we even contemplate the possibility of these situations occurring? How can we possibly contemplate allowing a situation in which we prevent our colleagues’, employees’ and students’ papers and work the opportunity of being refereed and published? Isn’t that what we are here for? And if not, what the f*** are we here for?

And dear reader, before you naively shake your head and say, “Burleigh you silly ar$e, of course this won’t happen”, I can assure you we already have internal committees deciding which of us are allowed to apply for postdocs. This recently caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth, not least from yours truly….

The Government are also insisting that all data that makes the paper should be freely accessible. Again, that’s a great idea in principle. And again, astronomers are largely ahead of the game. Many of the large telescopes and satellites we use already have public archives, usually with a year long proprietary period. But not all data comes that way.

For example, I have access to a privately funded telescope. Why should I make my private data available for a Yank to analyse, when they won’t reciprocate? I could be altruistic, but quite frankly I’ve been f***ed over enough times by people taking my data from an archive the day it becomes public. People who have no qualms about who they upset (a simple courtesy email or phonecall might have saved many a scientific relationship). I have no intention of giving those kinds of win-at-all-cost scientists any further advantage over me.

I also have access to telescopes which don’t maintain their own archives. Again, should I be forced to make my data available, when no-one else using those telescopes has to? Including potential rivals working on the same objects and topics.

What about theoretical models? I use models provided by foreign collaborators who, while happy to see the results published, do not wish for their models to be published. Does that mean I have to give up those collaborations and deny myself access to those models?

Should I just give up research? Or at least, research in such an environment as proposed today? I can assure you, plenty will, and they’ll take their ideas abroad.

Just a few worms crawling out of the can…. And a 15 minute conversation over lunch with some colleagues revealed many other concerns and pitfalls. For example, should we publish the raw data we collect, or the final calibrated data (which may have taken months of hard work)? Which bits of the theoretical models should be published? The point on the main graph or every timestep in a terrabyte-size simulation? Who pays for that data storage for 10 years, and is it affordable?

Open access sounds such a wonderful, liberal idea that who could possibly object? Indeed, I don’t. But I object to this stupid plan, and can only conclude that very little in depth thought has gone into this. A committee of allegedly eminent people has apparently spent many hours coming up with this recommendation to Government. One that completely favours the publishing houses and clearly screws the researchers. This so obviously flawed plan stinks to high heaven. And it is almost certainly unimplementable. By April 1st next year. Or at least, if it is implemented, it will do enormous damage to British science and scientists.



  1. […] with Peter Coles, Mike Merrifield, Andy Lawrence and Matt Burleigh (his blog post on the subject here) after the news from the UK was announced, about ways to incorporate the stamp of approval lent by […]

  2. […] so obviously flawed plan stinks to high heaven”: harsche Worte eines britischen Astronomen über den scheinbar tollen Plan der Regierung, wissenschaftliche Arbeiten aus dem eigenen Land […]

  3. Reblogged this on To the left of centre and commented:
    I wanted to reblog this as although I have written about this issue briefly, my analysis is much less detailed than that presented here. I don’t understand all the details of what is proposed by the Finch report but, as far as I can tell, the criticism of it here is pretty much spot on.

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