As Academic Publishers Fight And Subvert Open Access, Preprints Offer An Alternative Approach For Sharing Knowledge Widely

from the this-is-the-future dept

The key idea behind open access is that everyone with an Internet connection should be able to read academic papers without needing to pay for them. Or rather without needing to pay again, since most research is funded using taxpayers’ money. It’s hard to argue against that proposition, or that making information available in this way is likely to increase the rate at which medical and scientific discoveries are made for the benefit of all. And yet, as Techdirt has reported, academic publishers that often enjoy profit margins of 30-40% have adopted a range of approaches to undermine open access and its aims — and with considerable success. A recent opinion column in the Canadian journal University Affairs explains how traditional publishers have managed to subvert open access for their own benefit:

An ironic twist to the open-access movement is that it has actually made the publishers richer. They’ve jumped on the bandwagon by offering authors the option of paying article processing charges (APCs) in order to make their articles open access, while continuing to increase subscription charges to libraries at the institutions where those authors work. So, in many cases, the publishers are being paid twice for the same content — often charging APCs higher than purely open access journals.

Another serious problem is the rise of so-called “predatory” open access publishers that have distorted the original ideas behind the movement even more. The Guardian reported recently:

More than 175,000 scientific articles have been produced by five of the largest “predatory open-access publishers”, including India-based Omics publishing group and the Turkish World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology, or Waset.

But the vast majority of those articles skip almost all of the traditional checks and balances of scientific publishing, from peer review to an editorial board. Instead, most journals run by those companies will publish anything submitted to them — provided the required fee is paid.

These issues will be hard, if not impossible, to solve. As a result, many are now looking for a different solution to the problem of providing easy and cost-free access to academic knowledge, this time in the form of preprints. Techdirt reported earlier this year that there is evidence the published versions of papers add very little to the early, preprint version that is placed online directly by the authors. The negligible barriers to entry, the speed at which work can be published, and the extremely low costs involved have led many to see preprints as the best solution to providing open access to academic papers without needing to go through publishers at all.

Inevitably, perhaps, criticisms of the idea are starting to appear. Recently, Tom Sheldon, who is a senior press manager at the Science Media Centre in London, published a commentary in one of the leading academic journals, Nature, under the headline: “Preprints could promote confusion and distortion“. As he noted, this grew out of an earlier discussion paper that he published on the Science Media Centre’s blog. The Science Media Centre describes itself as “an independent press office helping to ensure that the public have access to the best scientific evidence and expertise through the news media when science hits the headlines.” Its funding comes from “scientific institutions, science-based companies, charities, media organisations and government”. Sheldon’s concerns are not so much about preprints themselves, but their impact on how science is reported:

I am a big fan of bold and disruptive changes which can lead to fundamental culture change. My reading around work on reproducibility, open access and preprint make me proud to be part of a scientific community intent on finding ways to make science better. But I am concerned about how this change might affect the bit of science publication that we are involved with at the Science Media Centre. The bit which is all about the way scientific findings find their way to the wider public and policymakers via the mass media.

One of his concerns is the lack of embargoes for preprints. At the moment, when researchers have what they think is an important result or discovery appearing in a paper, they typically offer trusted journalists a chance to read it in advance on the understanding that they won’t write about it until the paper is officially released. This has a number of advantages. It creates a level playing field for those journalists, who all get to see the paper at the same time. Crucially, it allows journalists to contact other experts to ask their opinion of the results, which helps to catch rogue papers, and also provides much-needed context. Sheldon writes:

Contrast this with preprints. As soon as research is in the public domain, there is nothing to stop a journalist writing about it, and rushing to be the first to do so. Imagine early findings that seem to show that climate change is natural or that a common vaccine is unsafe. Preprints on subjects such as those could, if they become a story that goes viral, end up misleading millions, whether or not that was the intention of the authors.

That’s certainly true, but is easy to remedy. Academics who plan to publish a preprint could offer a copy of the paper to the group of trusted journalists under embargo — just as they would with traditional papers. One sentence describing why it would be worth reading is all that is required by way of introduction. To the extent that the system works for today’s published papers, it will also work for preprints. Some authors may publish without giving journalists time to check with other experts, but that’s also true for current papers. Similarly, some journalists may hanker after full press releases that spoon-feed them the results, but if they can’t be bothered working it out for themselves, or contacting the researchers and asking for an explanation, they probably wouldn’t write a very good article anyway.

The other concern relates to the quality of preprints. One of the key differences between a preprint and a paper published in a journal is that the latter usually goes through the process of “peer review”, whereby fellow academics read and critique it. But it is widely agreed that the peer review process has serious flaws, as many have pointed out for years — and as Sheldon himself admits.

Indeed, as defenders note, preprints allow far more scrutiny to be applied than with traditional peer review, because they are open for all to read and spot mistakes. There are some new and interesting projects to formalize this kind of open review. Sheldon rightly has particular concerns about papers on public health matters, where lives might be put at risk by erroneous or misleading results. But major preprint sites like bioRxiv (for biology) and the upcoming medRxiv (for medicine and health sciences) are already trying to reduce that problem by actively screening preprints before they are posted.

Sheldon certainly raises some valid questions about the impact of preprints on the communication of science to a general audience. None of the issues is insurmountable, but it may require journalists as well as scientists to adapt to the changed landscape. However, changing how things are done is precisely the point about preprints. The present academic publishing system does not promote general access to knowledge that is largely funded by the taxpayer. The attempt by the open access movement to make that happen has arguably been neutered by shrewd moves on the part of traditional publishers, helped by complaisant politicians. Preprints are probably the best hope we have now for achieving a more equitable and efficient way of sharing knowledge and building on it more effectively.

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Comments on “As Academic Publishers Fight And Subvert Open Access, Preprints Offer An Alternative Approach For Sharing Knowledge Widely”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The SMC has a credibility problem

First, there is no perfect system for disseminating knowledge. That said, the way the SMC responded to and defended the PACE trial in the Lancet (also known as the biggest medical fraud of the 21st century), shows they have a fair amount invested in preserving the power of the existing journals rather than being concerned about scientific integrity.

hamillhair (profile) says:

Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

I worked in academia for a while a few years ago, and preprints were quite useful back then too. My university had its own repository of papers which were either the final version if open access had been paid for, or the pre-print version if it hadn’t.

The final version of the paper accepted for publication had already gone through peer review, so the only real differences between the pre-print and print versions was the formatting. The actual content was identical.

Peer review is also over-rated. I’ve had papers reviewed and commented on by people whose comment were so bad that I was left not entirely convinced by the end that they could even read.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

I worked in academia for a while a few years ago, and preprints were quite useful back then too. My university had its own repository of papers which were either the final version if open access had been paid for, or the pre-print version if it hadn’t.

Useful, and also a huge problem. How is academia supposed to work if every group has its own samizdat repository? I never worked in academia but I sometimes needed papers in undergraduate courses, and consistently hit paywalls. Yes, if I really needed it I could beg the author for a copy, or schlep myself to the library and use their network to maybe bypass the paywall (if our Uni had a "repository", it wasn’t known to undergrads). But inevitably it was 2am, or a weekend, so I’d need to wait a day or two to find out whether the paper would even be useful to me. More commonly I’d find an immediatlely-accessible substitute, and I’d never know whether the original paper would have been more suitable.

Hell, I was on the fence about grad school and might have gone had my paper-writing experiences not had so much unpleasant bullshit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

How is academia supposed to work if every group has its own samizdat repository?

Academic librarians have the expertise needed to keyword papers for academic search engines. All the academic libraries are on the Internet, and so could either enable a library search to go to all libraries, or all keep and up to date copy of all library search indexes locally. Accessing a paper anywhere on the Internet is not a problem if it can be located.

I suggest that by building such a system, the academic libraries could enable open publishing, and even manage flagging when a paper is given peer review approval, along with any criticisms and comment by their academics for any paper in the system. In the longer term using academic libraries and librarians to manage the cataloging of academic papers should be a significant saving over current journal subscriptions.

The academics write and review academic papers, and local institutes can also be the gateway for private researchers, who probably use their libraries, and have contacts with their academic staff. The librarians are specialists in curation and cataloging of academic papers, and do that work for the institutes papers lodged in the library in any case. They just need to set up the federation systems, so that all the catalogs can be searched from one library, preferably by keeping a combined catalog in all library systems to keep the search load distributed, and UseNet protocols are the basis for doing that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

Accessing a paper anywhere on the Internet is not a problem if it can be located.

We have systems to do this. They’re called internet search engines. Everything you suggest would make Google et al. more useful too, as long as the papers are actually accessible without paywalls.

local institutes can also be the gateway for private researchers, who probably use their libraries, and have contacts with their academic staff.

You’re dividing the world into "researchers" and "non-researchers" here. I guess I’d have to be a "non-researcher"; I’d like to read papers in certain areas, but have no current academic affiliation. I was never really a "researcher" as an undergrad either. Then, as now, there were programs to put myself into the "researcher" group (alumni/undergrad library privileges, public-library affiliations, emails to (ex-)professors). They’re all kind of a pain in the ass, with various limits, and research suggests I’m not the only one feeling this way: unrestricted papers are cited more, even by "real" researchers.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

They’re called Internet search engines.

The standard Internet search engines are not the best means for researchers to find papers. It is preferable to use a search engine specialized to the academic cataloging system, which relies on manual keyword by librarians, and which avoids false positives on words use in references. This is not to say the papers cannot be indexed in the standard engines, but for academic searches the curated engines are preferable, especially as they reduce false positives.

As to limits on non-institutional users of institutional libraries, blame the Elseviers of the world, who want every possible user of the paper they hold the copyrights of to pay them for access. Institutions are basically charges by their size, and with restrictions to prevent the libraries becoming free access for the public. Indeed this is one of the problems driving the open access movement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

The standard Internet search engines are not the best means for researchers to find papers.

That’s correct, currently, and is why I said your suggestions could improve standard search engines. Search by author, by keywords, by inbound/outbound citations, by reviewers… maybe we need those more for papers, but they’d be useful everywhere. Why should I care whether the information I want is an academic paper, corporate whitepaper, webpage, forum post? If it’s responsive to my search, I want to see it.

As to limits on non-institutional users of institutional libraries, blame the Elseviers of the world

Oh, I am. So I’m a bit reluctant to get behind any kind of walled-garden federation system. They can waste time creating that while everyone else works on open-access systems.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

Elesvier and friends are the ones with the walled garden. If the Academic libraries federate to deal with the search, there is no reason that they would not allow the public to use their search engine. However, having had minor contact with that sort of system, it is not something for causal users, as it takes a bit of training to use effectively. Also, if you become a member of an academic library, you gain the ability to call on a librarian for assistance in finding things. Their primary role in life is curation, and finding things.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Pre-prints have been a thing for a while

If the Academic libraries federate to deal with the search, there is no reason that they would not allow the public to use their search engine.

That would be great, if possible; I don’t know that they can unilaterally force open access (they’re in a great position to try fair use on educational grounds, but how’s that working for Scihub?). I’m concerned the search results might link to paywalls in practice.

Usability is often a problem with specialized systems. Web searches became easier when it was no longer just computer nerds using them.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Grammar-Cop

Correcting spelling and grammar is a vital part of any media, but especially print (online or otherwise). But some people don’t like it when you point out corrections, so it would be better if a site had a special comment flag for corrections so that only the people working on the site saw those particular posts. That would at least cut back on the grammar-nazi comments. 🙂 says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Grammar-Cop

Wasn’t there a Supreme Court ruling that grammar cops don’t have to, like, actually know the language?

Welcome to English. We have a concept called “prepositional phrase”. It’s a grammatical construct which can be used to modify a noun.

Test: Pick out which of these sentences is correct:

One of these sentences are correct.
Two of these sentences is correct.
None of these sentences is… sigh.

Anonymous Coward says:

Publishers, like every other section of the entertainment/information industries just want to continue to get something for nothing! Why the hell should they have the right to refuse anyone having papers, unless they get paid, when the reports etc have already been paid for, in the main, from public funds and taxes? And, as usual, politicians encouraging this practice do so because of their palms being crossed with silver!
We all know that to date, the Internet is the best media distribution method we have and all sections of the industries mentioned above want total control of every aspect of it, simply because it is the best and obviously by far, the cheapest! Think of what these industries make now in profit and then x10 it, with x10 less outlay and you then know why they have lied and bribed so much to try to get what they so desperatly want! Nothing but greed for more money and more power! Disgraceful attitude that is preventing so much more, all through fear of losing what they have been used to controlling for so long!

@4:56am says:

Re: Politics, as usual

…yeah, it all boils down to ‘special interest politics’ — and elected government officials screwing the public/taxpayers in favor of academics/publishing special interests.

Solve the basic ‘political’ problem and forget these exotic workarounds (preprints, etc) to scientific information distribution.

With most research being PURCHASED by government/taxpayer $$$ — it’s a simple contractual matter to REQUIRE that research be automatically released publicly !

But the current academic-publishing-system (a narrow self-serving special interest) has colluded with your normal corrupt government officials to block public release of TAXPAYER-PURCHASED scientific research. That is the real problem to fix.

Politics as usual. Special interest control of government policy/spending is strongly evident throughout government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I imagine that an irresponsible journalist might be one who does not ask the probing questions that both Mr. & Mrs Everyone of Anytown, USA really wants to know. But instead publishes some cover up story attempting to lay blame upon their adversaries.

I imagine that an incompetent journalist ends up working at Micky D’s.

John Smith says:

Research that is published creates an interesting quandry in that those who do NOT publish their findings, but instead exploit them, will profit more. Those who publish their secrets are giving up a huge advantage of being the only one to have that secret, in exchange for money and academic prestige.

Academia foolishly ignores the level of researcher ABOVE academia, who builds on published research to develop their own, unpublished research, whose findings they exploit for personal gain. If you publish all of your secrets, and I publish none of mine, who will have the edge? Not you.

It’s the equivalent of one coach in the Super Bowl publishing his playbook for some money, while the other uses that playbook to beat him. Just once in an NBA game, where the camera shows a coach diagramming a play at the end of the game, with the game on the line, I’d like to see the camera on the other coach with he and his team huddled around the television watching the play drawn by the other coach.

Even more interesting is the role of credentialism in discrediting the private researcher, whose work often builds on that of the public researcher. For example, if one person has been studying evolution on their own for a decade, and synthesized all existing research, allowing him to draw conclusions based on that research which are then added to by his private research, he will eventually have a more accurate body of knowledge simply because he has chosen not to share his work while his competition so generously has. You can apply this to ANY academic topic, btw.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Your premise assumes that the private researcher’s are correct in their findings. That may not always be the case, therefore your argument fails, at least partially.

While peer review can be gamed, it is better than no review, and the gaming can be found out with more reviews. This leads to the conclusion that open reviewing, rather than that directed by the journal, who has a profit motive in publishing more, rather than more correct. The private, unpublished findings would likely have little or no review, and mistakes, or doctored data, could invalidate any findings.

The point about exploitation for personal gain might fail if they go for a patent that while based upon their research, is also based upon the underlying research, which could (if the patent office were competent) provide prior art and invalidate that patent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you publish all of your secrets, and I publish none of mine, who will have the edge? Not you.

The counterpoint to that, is if nobody publishes their secrets, that is what they have discovered or learned, you will likely labor away in poverty because somebody else is hoarding the little piece of knowledge that would allow you to make real progress.

Beside which, it is only in limited fields, like chemistry, where once a product is out, reverse engineering is not possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“..those who do NOT publish their findings, but instead exploit them, will profit more.”

Profit does not necessarily equate to an increase in your monetary resources. There are many ways in which one can profit and they are not all monetary.

Secrets do not stay secret for very long and independent, parallel discovery has happened. So it does not “belong” to you for very long. Now whether you can profit is a different story.

John Smith says:

Re: Re: Re:

To address another point from above, let’s assume, en arguendo, that the private and public researchers have equal capabilities.

The stock market has various options pricing models which have changed the markets, but which would have been more profitable had they not been published, since the information is now baked into the price.

Psychology is a good example of how private researche is infinitely more profitable than published, peer-reviewed research. Secrets of getting jobs, finding lovers, finding cheap real estate, or exploiting any market inefficiency in general lose their advantage the moment they spread to the masses. Card-counting at Blackjack was a good example. If Edward O. Thorp had not published “Beat The Dealer,” casinos would have taken much longer to adapt, and may never have adapted. Likely there are methods in some financial markets (or gambling games) where this is still the case. Many top trading firms cite “proprietary methods” which could have been academic theses yet which instead enrich a single firm like Goldman Sachs or Accenture.

The private researcher is most definitely parasitic, but from an evolutionary standpoint, the parasite has a clear edge. This renders the uestion of peer review almost banal relative to the much larger dichotomy between that which known to the public (like computer programming languages) and that which is not (like Google’s page-rank algorithm).

Fortunately for humanity, most people have egos that need to be fed by attention and validation, so they wind up giving up the ghost and giving away the store, but it is the private researcher who can resist these urges who inevitably ends up ruling the world.

John Smith says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

To add, since the private researcher lacks the credentials of the academic, he is discredited for what is irrelevant, his work is dismissed, leaving inferior work for the peer-reviewed journals. This is a far greater cancer on human knowledge than any of the issues cited in this article.

That academia is ruled so much by money rather than intellect leaves less intelligenut people who happen to be financially privileged as our thought leaders, guiding humanity off a cliff with an inaccurate “GPS,” while those who are the most intelligent, but who happen to be poor, are left out of the discussions. The solution of course is to give full scholarships to those who qualify, but even there this is done more by credential than by simple raw intelligence.

hij (profile) says:

Embargo is just a way for medical research to be commercialized

With respect to the embargo issue, it is not uncommon for medical research to be shared with journalists especially when the results in the paper can be twisted in a way to help a manufacturer. An example of this is given here.

Some industries like to do this not to advance science but to advance their revenues. Be wary when someone tries to make a case that this is an important aspect of doing science.

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