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UK plans to open access to publicly funded scientific articles

Posted by Amir C. Akhavan  
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 17, 2012 12:28PM
I don't like the way they're doing it. Instead of giving up to £50 million to science publishing companies they should invest in a ground-up new system for free distribution of scientific information.

It's not like it's even hard to do...

Jolyon
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 17, 2012 12:32PM
They should do this:

1. Pass a law that any publically funded research must be published for free online. It can in addition be given to a paid journal, but not exclusively.

2. Build a system that allows UK Science to publish papers online (who wants printed journals any more), with full peer review etc.

3. Instead of money going to publishers and their shareholders, use some of this £50 million to pay directly back to reviewers for their tine.

Commercial scientific journals are dinosaurs, we need an asteroid.
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Amir C. Akhavan July 17, 2012 01:08PM
Yes, I agree, and yes, money is still used inefficiently (publishers are involved in the talks, after all grinning smiley ).
But I am happy that they start to realize that something is wrong with the current system.
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Jean-Yves Lamoureux July 17, 2012 01:11PM
Jolyon,

To me, as a Canadian, the grass is greener in UK, 'cause at least, your scientists have the freedom to publish !

You spoke of dinosaurs, so... have a look at what OUR government does to Science :

http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Critics+instructions+Environment+Canada+scientists+Montreal+conference/6500175/story.html

Hope for you that reading about the hardships of others will be of some comfort !
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Jean-Yves Lamoureux July 17, 2012 01:12PM
Oups...

Sorry, should have written Amir and Jolyon !

My mistake... sad smiley
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Owen Lewis (2) July 17, 2012 02:29PM
I think it's a complex issue and one incapable of solution/ improvement by any single initiative. Indeed, some equally valid concerns pull in opposed directions.

It seems to me a fair and underlying principle that those who have paid for the research (in this particular, the UK taxpayer) should benefit the most from it. The idea that this benefit is best reaped by open publication via the net is entirely unclear and (IMO) probably more wrong than right. The profits of paper publishing houses is but a trivial side-issue it seems to me, in comparison to the financial rewards to garnered from the application of research.

The question then becomes one of what range of measures are required - in a world still run as separate sovereign states with competitive as well as cooperative interests to protect and prosper the several national commonwealth that has been invested in research. This relates directly to what may be (and when it may be) put in the public domain rather then to the means of dissemination and the matter of charges for access. I think that the Canadian example raised is most likely to concern the what/whether/when of publication rather than the 'how'.

In consideration only of the 'how' of publication, I'd agree that the day of high priced (at least high priced to the man in the street) publication of publicly funded research is largely over and that that most such publishers willl have to seek new employment for their talents within a decade from now. The is no respectable argument for the continuation of the present system, though its birth in the Age of Enlightenment was a boon. Only the recent ubiquitous access to fast (and cheap) data transfer and storage has caused what has worked well for 300 years to irritate, pinch and chafe.

But there are no free lunches - ever. The setting up and running of means to receive, store and forward publicly-funded information on a massive scale - and with a first class search engine to boot - will cost a substantial amount of money. I see no reason why this cost should be yet another charge on the British taxpayer in general. Rather, the system should be self-funding to the greatest extent. This should mean pay-as-you-go access - and one returns to something that will look remarkably like one of the existing electronic publishing houses winking smiley Albeit, there *might* be some reduction in the scale of charges winking smiley
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Spencer Ivan Mather July 17, 2012 04:08PM
I agree onehundred percent with Jolyon on this, and yes it is an utter waste of money when it can be given to reveiwers!
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John Montgomery July 17, 2012 04:32PM
Just to add to Jean-Yves comments, I think it is going to get even worse and I think our scientists think so too...they are taking to the streets to protest "the death of evidence"
http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/story/2012/07/09/f-scientists-rally.html
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Rob Woodside July 17, 2012 05:32PM
The Harper government in Canada has all the answers, so they don't need science. The problem is that science contradicts Harper's ideology and in Harperland that is just so much the worse for science. Harper is a control freak and so the problem is simply solved by muzzling the scientists and cutting their funding. If I went backpacking these days I'm not sure what flag I'd sew on the backpack. Being from Harperland has become an embarrassment sad smiley

I'm really surprised that this has moved ahead relatively quickly. Jolyon is right, but nothing will happen without greasing the publishers who make money by selling tax supported research to tax supported individuals, libraries and institutions. Paying the peer reviewers would be a nice touch.
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Phil M. Belley July 17, 2012 06:07PM
I was at the science protest on the Hill, expressing my discontent with 2000 others (and handing out fossils/minerals). It was excellent. Rob: Perhaps sew the Canadian flag, but upside down?

I also completely agree with Jolyon - public research should be made public via a public platform, not private (only makes sense!). Science literacy is too low, and lack of access (unless you want to shell out $40 per article) for the general population doesn't help.
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John Kirtz July 17, 2012 08:39PM
Unfortunately, many of the control freeks that have power over our income and taxes are not what you and I might consider wize men. Foolish to begin with or corrupted by their power, their main goal eventually becomes the perpetuation of their jobs and pensions. Often logic and reason take a back seat. Although we buy the vehicle and fuel, we are seen as annoying back seat drivers. Like the crazy driving instructions we sometimes get from an internet mapper, they apply a limited view to the world. One can hope the bad world economy and the protests of wizer folks(the taxpayers who should be the real drivers) will see that these Bozos are bannished to the circus where they can drive toy cars in circles.
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Owen Lewis (2) July 18, 2012 02:33PM
Well, one notes that there are no other suggestions as to how this very large 'free' resource should be funded. Or is there an inference that all UK tax payers must be required to fund the transfer of information not only to themselves but to a much larger world audience that:
1. Does not pay UK taxes and has no stake in costs of creating the information
2. Makes no reciprocal arrangement for 'free' information from within their tax areas to reach UK taxpayers.

There is a second issue also. Where is the strength in any case for unlimited 'free'( = state) provision of the best food for the mind that does not apply with greater force to the free provision to all of the best quality nourishment for the body? We *all* have bodies that require nourishment or else the mind dies along with the body. But less that 10% of the population (arguably, less than 1%) have minds fit enough and well-prepared enough to receive nourishment from access to scientific research papers - free or otherwise. That a quite disproportionately large percentage of these gather in public discussion groups such as this only serves to skew the public debate smiling smiley

*Someone* has to pay. The fundamental question remains, who should pay and why.

In the UK, we have a largely free education system through the primary and secondary levels for all and with subsidised and selective tertiary education made available only to some. Of these, some of the the very brightest will continue in research for years beyond and it is mainly from these very few that publicly funded scientific research papers come. It seems to me that there is a largely self-evident case for free access for all within the state's education system, be it as student, faculty member or state-subsidised researcher. Equally there is a self-evident case that those outside of the UK state education and research system (and that includes the likes of me and most of thee, I'll guess) should pay the full economic cost of access to such information on a pay-as-you-go basis. And no, I don't like paying any more than you - but it's fair on all other UK tax payers that I should.
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Alfredo Petrov July 18, 2012 02:54PM
We're not talking about paper, printing presses and postage here; but rather online information distribution, which costs only a fraction of what the old pre-internet ways cost. But we have allowed the obsolete paper publishers to reinvent themselves as middlemen between the information producers and consumers, and we let them demand that research results pass through their hands first! And to add insult to injury, instead of getting cheaper it has become more expensive to buy a research paper than it was in the old days when I could pay a few cents to photocopy it at the university library. Somebody is laughing all the way to the bank.
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Tom Tucker July 18, 2012 03:22PM
Related, but perhaps a little "off thread" - the US Geological Survey Library here in Reston, Virginia is a treasure trove of geologic information freely accessible to the public. However the recent conversion of current journals to digital media, and the licensing of them to USGS staff only, makes them inaccessible to us, the taxpayers who have paid for them.
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Dean Allum July 18, 2012 06:33PM
Tom, The USGS is one of the few government agencies that I thought is doing a good job of sharing technical reports. Am I missing something?

Here is their publications warehouse site. You can either buy a printed version or download most reports:
http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/#home

As an example, here is a free publication regarding the Rare Earth minerals which I am interested in.
http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5094/pdf/sir2011-5094.pdf


Jolyon, David, I do not see a link to "Free Geological Literature and Journals" on the Mindat Directory page.

Regards,
Dean Allum
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Rock Currier July 18, 2012 07:17PM
I think that what is fundamentally needed is an easy and inexpensive system to handle micro transactions. I you want to look at a particular article on line the charge for it should be some small fraction of a dollar and you could access it and be charged for it by clicking on a link. This way the author/reviewer/web site could receive some payment for their work. It would provide greater rewards to those whose was perceived more important, useful and or entertaining. This is the way the world has always worked. Such systems are slowly developing and I would hope would be soon applied to micro transactions. There would be a lot of kinks to work out along the way but I suspect that is where we are heading.

Rock Currier
Crystals not pistols.
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Tom Tucker July 18, 2012 08:47PM
Yes Dean, the USGS is in the forefront in making their own publications digitally available, but I'm referring to journals they subscribe to. The library used to have a large "reading room" with score of journals from around the world, freely available for all to access. The area is now quite barren. Very dismal. I recently tried to access an article in a contemporary journal which is in their catalog, but it was not available to the public. It's only available for "staff".
And of course, unrelated, all of their over-the-counter public sales offices for maps and documents are closed also. Of course their extensive open stacks of older publications in the library remain a treasure, accessible to everyone who can pass the security checkpoint.
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Owen Lewis (2) July 18, 2012 11:04PM
Alfredo Petrov Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> We're not talking about paper, printing presses
> and postage here; but rather online information
> distribution, which costs only a fraction of what
> the old pre-internet ways cost. But we have
> allowed the obsolete paper publishers to reinvent
> themselves as middlemen between the information
> producers and consumers, and we let them demand
> that research results pass through their hands
> first! And to add insult to injury, instead of
> getting cheaper it has become more expensive to
> buy a research paper than it was in the old days
> when I could pay a few cents to photocopy it at
> the university library. Somebody is laughing all
> the way to the bank.

It costs whatever it costs. I'm not as sanguine as you that those costs are trivial. Very few indeed have ever made a fortune out of publishing reference works, electronically or otherwise, though a some have made a decent living out of it. But whatever the costs are, kibbitzers, domestic businesses and all foreign concerns, personal, business and state, should not expect a taxpayer subsidy from another country.

We already (in the UK) have the essential principles well-established. E.g. The Land Registry now holds electronically records of almost all land ownership, buildings thereon and all legal rights, constraints and charges attaching to these. A search of the Registry, possibly with copies thereof, are an essential pre requisite to contracting to purchase real propert. Those with only a speculative interest may well also find it worth their while to conduct Registry Searches for any of a variety of reasons. Such searches are not particularly cheap, GBP 25 - 40 being about the current range of charges, per on-line search, depending on what exactly the searcher wants.

Searches of other registries of govt held information charge similarly. Births, deaths, marriages, laws, regulations, maps of the UK and much more; all are available on-line in return for payment. And so it should be. These services, meeting private and business needs not only serve the nation but subsantially meet their own running costs, with any surplus minimising the forward tax burden on those who paid to create the resources in the first place.

There really are no free lunches and we should not seek such at the expense of others.
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 18, 2012 11:23PM
You're not in the least bit comparing like with like Owen.

Building and maintaining a land registry database is a monumental task.

Putting a bunch of PDFs online, that's not. Give me the contract, I'll do it. Trying to say downloading a PDF should, in any way, cost £20 - £40 is just way out of track with reality.

This isn't a matter of free lunches. The UK Govt is paying £50 million to publishers that it really does not need to.
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Jeff Weissman July 19, 2012 12:07AM
I am not going to comment on per-article fees for downloading articles from journals - but part of the value added for this pay-per article service is periodic table-of-contents updates, highly specialized searches, automatic links to referenced articles, etc... done much better and more effectively than a Goggle search. SciFinder, Web-of-Science, etc. are very effective and efficient in finding relevant articles amongst 1,000,000's published.
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Evan Johnson (2) July 19, 2012 08:00AM
Wouldn't paying reviewers potentially lead to bias? I mean, I guess they're often (in- or)directly funded by the government, but can you imagine the idea of peer-review working on a directly-funded basis? Would articles that receive more hits get more funding? Dangerous to objectivity, all that.

Now, don't even get me started on the journals, in biomedicine it's a maze, and an expensive one at that.
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 19, 2012 08:07AM
I imagine if it's done properly the payments would be made to the departments where the reviewers work to offset against time they spend doing reviews rather than payments directly into the pockets of the reviewers.
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Branko Rieck July 19, 2012 09:53AM
An interesting discussion, thank you Amir for bringing this to our attention!

My only area of expertise is mineralogy, so I’ll stick with this and my following comments are valid only in this area.

One matter often overlooked is that the individual research facilities actually do have it in their hands to force a change in regards to the great publishing houses (at least in an optimistically ideal world).

What do you think would happen if the top 500 research facilities (I’ll not comment on how we would rank them) decided to approach the great publishing houses united and tell them: “We are not going to submit any papers to you for publication and we will cancel all subscriptions from your house, if you do not allow us to publish a PDF-version of the papers on our respective homepages after a grace period of 1 year for free.”

The University of Vienna spends more than 2 million Euros for subscriptions – annually! So cancelling the subscriptions, if done by the above mentioned top 500 institutions would probably impact the publishing houses with a half a billion to a billion Euros annually. This would probably have them scrambling to the negotiating table.

Such solution does have appeal for both sides. No research facility can afford to wait out the grace period of one year, so the publishing houses will keep their (expensive) subscriptions and thus the economic impact for the publishing houses would be noticeable, but relatively small. But on the other hand after the grace period has expired, the knowledge would become public domain.

If the number of top notch research facilities is large enough, I think such a revolution could really happen. But, to be honest, I doubt that there is yet enough pain (e.g.: financial drain) involved for the institutions themselves and the need for change is not yet big enough, so we still have to rely on the solutions our elected representatives come up with (if any!), and we all know that these have the rare talent of making a mess of whatever they touch.

Branko
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Owen Lewis (2) July 19, 2012 11:48AM
Jolyon Ralph Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> You're not in the least bit comparing like with
> like Owen.
>
> Building and maintaining a land registry database
> is a monumental task.

If you say so. And how monumental a task is compiling an online registry of births, deaths and marriages? I think even I might manage that.

> Putting a bunch of PDFs online, that's not. Give
> me the contract, I'll do it. Trying to say
> downloading a PDF should, in any way, cost £20 -
> £40 is just way out of track with reality.

But no one said that, Jolyon. What was said that that the search and distribution system should at the least pay for itself and not be free of charge to all-comers.
What constitutes a sufficient scale of charges to achieve that remains entirely to be determined but I'd anticipate it being in pounds per item rather then in pence.

> This isn't a matter of free lunches. The UK Govt
> is paying £50 million to publishers that it
> really does not need to.

If you say so. But there is a cost (whatever it is) to publishing. It's clearly right that, in the case of the publication and dissemination of publicly-owned information, that cost to the national purse should be kept as low as possible, consistent with a good quality of service. However (and speaking as someone who was employed by UKG for a couple of decades) in-house provision of non-core services is more often than not an obscenely expensive way of doing things. This is not as simple a matter as one of 'Govt wastefulness'. Big and even medium-sized businesses frequently find the same, with out-sourcing of non-core activities very often the most cost-effective method of provision. So yes, once a system is settled on, there is every reason why a renewable 5 year contract for its operation should not be put out to tender, giving you the opportunity to bid for it, Jolyon.

My point is not who gets paid to do it or how much/little the cost is. Rather it is that all consumers, outside of the state paid/subidised education and research system, should pay the full cost for what they receive, rather than becoming yet one more leech on the back of the long-suffering UK taxpayer.
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 19, 2012 12:58PM
As we have seen all to well recently in the UK, outsourcing doesn't always work very well either.

The point being raised here, quite simply, is that if public funds are used to fund research, no private instituiton or individual should have the exclusive right to profit from the distribution of that information.

So, sure, if the govt builds a system with contractors and they reckon it costs £10 per PDF to distribute, that's fine.

But if I decide I want to distribute that PDF further, for free (or, at my cost), when it's no further cost to them (other than lost opportunity of sale - but we've already said this should not be for profit) - then they should have no right to stop me.

i.e. Research publicially funded should be publically owned and therefore put into the public domain.

Research that is privately funded can be dealt with differently.

This may in fact increase the amount of private funding to research, if companies realise the only way to control access to research information is to ensure they fund it entirely themselves rather than rely on government funding.

Jolyon
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Phil M. Belley July 19, 2012 02:38PM
So Owen, should USA have charged brits for using the polio vaccine, since that is where it was developed? Should Canada have charged them for the Experimental Lakes research that lead to the ban of phosphate in detergents (we Canadians paid for that research)? Britain should lead by example, setting up a system that others can emulate, and reduce costs for everyone.

Maintaining a free public database is peanuts compared to what is spent on war, what is wasted in corruption, heck even what is wasted by giving free money to sports (why can't they build their own stadiums I wonder?). Look at how much money London is wasting on the Olympics (ground breaking research... vs who can run/jump/swim/skate fastest/highest/best). Why don't all countries pay their fair share in security costs too? Poor British tax payers, stuck to foot the bill.
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Owen Lewis (2) July 19, 2012 03:30PM
Jolyon Ralph Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
....
> So, sure, if the govt builds a system with
> contractors and they reckon it costs £10 per PDF
> to distribute, that's fine.

D'accord.

> But if I decide I want to distribute that PDF
> further, for free (or, at my cost), when it's no
> further cost to them (other than lost opportunity
> of sale - but we've already said this should not
> be for profit) - then they should have no right to
> stop me.

That'a another argument, i.e. who owns the information and the rights in it. We corporately - the state - owns it. That means that none of us as individuals has any right to determine its distribution and terms of use. That right lies with the owner. A small share holder in a company has no right to take and give away any company property, even though that property was, in some infinitesmal part, paid for out of the said shareholding.

Of course, as a citizen of the state (or anyone else for that matter), one can ask the owner for a licence to do x, y or z with some of what is owned. But it is the owner and not the applicants that will set the terms of the licence. Otherwise, all our lawful security in property ownership would be struck down.

>.... Research publicially funded should be
> publically owned and therefore put into the public
> domain.

We own the information corporately. The property rights are invested in the corporate body and managed for it by some of its employees (officers). Only the body corporate (through the deliberations and actions of its officers) can set the terms of licence under which such information can be used. This does not prevent the body corporate (the state in our instance) deciding to allow unrestricted disemination of large amounts of information but officers of the state would be failing in their duty were they to give away what has truly substantial monetary value. Access to such information is sold, often on a competitive basis. The duty of the said officers is to ensure that the (national) public good is best served under the laws made by the public's elected representatives.

> Research that is privately funded can be dealt
> with differently.

It must be. It is the property of private owners (and with a few exceptions) is not the business of the state to interfere with.

> This may in fact increase the amount of private
> funding to research, if companies realise the only
> way to control access to research information is
> to ensure they fund it entirely themselves rather
> than rely on government funding.

Maybe. I'd guess it's more likely that, in any such joint venture, the terms setting up the venture would include terms for the division of the profits from it winking smiley

Owen
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David Von Bargen July 19, 2012 04:02PM
Leave it to the BBC to sort of miss the elephant in the room. Biomedical research is already pretty much open access (after 6 months to a year - which granted in that field means it is of historical interest). Expanding the Pubmed software to handle other areas would probably be pretty trivial (publishers also are set up to handle it)
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Jolyon & Katya Ralph July 19, 2012 04:10PM
> That'a another argument, i.e. who owns the information and the rights in it. We corporately - the state - owns it.
>That means that none of us as individuals has any right to determine its distribution and terms of use.

This is something the US has got completely right, and the UK completely wrong.

In the US, publications by US Government agencies, such as NASA and USGS are regarded as public domain - because the public have already paid for them to be created, so it would be wrong to ask them to pay twice for them.

So, the public, every individual, has every right to determine the distribution of this material.

I'm not a fan on anything being "owned by the state". I'd much rather it was owned by humanity.
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Owen Lewis (2) July 20, 2012 12:06AM
Jolyon Ralph Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> So, the public, every individual, has every right
> to determine the distribution of this material.

Not so (US). The public may do so only where, in the US national interest, some information is withheld from the public domain. I.e. the public do not even know the information exists. I'll give you that the US is somewhat more liberal that the UK in this respect (and much more so that (say) Russia - but there is still quite substantial witholding; usually only for some period of time, as David intimates.

> I'm not a fan on anything being "owned by the
> state". I'd much rather it was owned by humanity.

And that's another argument again smiling smiley Which, perhaps, we don't need to open up. For me, it suffices that - for better or worse - we still still live in a world organised as, taxed as, and under government and legislation as nation states.

I might even agree with you that the nation states are as dinosaurs, living on borrowed time and headed for extinction. I only wish I could be so sure that what wiil follow them will prove more benign.
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