Journal news for February

News related to scientific journal publishing since 4 February.

Elsevier withdraws support for the Research Works Act

Since I covered this infamous draft US law and the associated boycott of Elsevier by academics (here and in news here) the flood of blog posts on the topic has continued, and I won’t attempt to summarise them here. But the pressure seems to have had an effect: on 27 February Elsevier announced that it is no longer supporting the act, although they ‘continue to oppose government mandates in this area’.

Meanwhile, a new act has been proposed, the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), which would mandate that all research funded by every federal funder with a budget over $100 million should be made open access 6 months after publication.

Industry group ‘threatens’ journals to delay publications

The Lancet has reported (pdf) that the Mining Awareness Resource Group (MARG) has written to several scientific journals advises journals not to  publish papers from a US government study of diesel exhaust and lung cancer until a court case and congressional directives are ‘resolved’. The editor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Dana Loomis, is quoted as saying ‘It is vague and threatening. This has a chilling effect on scientific communications—a matter of grave concern.’

New open access journal

The open access journal Biology Open has been launched by the Company of Biologists. The journal aims to provide the research community with ‘an opportunity to publish valid and well-conducted experimental work that is otherwise robbed of timeliness and impact by the delays inherent in submission to established journals with more restrictive selection criteria. ‘

Twitter and paper citations

An arXiv preprint has found a correlation between mentions of a paper on Twitter and its later citations.

Criteria for the UK Research Excellence Framework 2014 announced

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has announced the criteria and working methods that the panels for the assessment of research using the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) will use. REF will use citations as part of assessment but not impact factors or other bibliometrics (see page 25 of the full report for the statement regarding citations in the biology and medicine panel). Researchers at English universities will no doubt be scrutinizing the guidelines carefully.

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I’m sorry there hasn’t been a weekly Journal News recently, as I had hoped, and that this update is rather brief. I hope that the usefulness of these news updates depends more on their content than their regularity. If you want (much) more frequent updates from the world of journals and scientific publication, do follow me on Twitter!

The Research Works Act, open access and publisher boycotts

The open access movement has been around for decades, gradually building up, but this month there seems to have been an acceleration in the pace of change. I will try in this post to summarise the current situation as I see it.

The initial driver of this recent change was theResearch Works Act (RWA), a draft law proposed in the US that would prohibit federal bodies from mandating that taxpayer-funded research be made freely accessible online (as the NIH currently does). The two Representatives who are sponsoring the RWA, Darrell Issa and Carolyn Maloney, have received considerable amounts of money from the publisher Elsevier, which publishes many journals and is against open access (as reported on Michael Eisen’s blog).

The second important event was the decision of Cambridge mathematics professor and Fields Medal winner Timothy Gowers to publish a blog post on 21 January entitled ‘Elsevier — my part in its downfall‘ (after the late Spike Milligan’s book ‘Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall‘. (Gowers was the initiator of the Polymath Project, an experiment in open collaboration online between thousands of mathematicians, which Michael Nielsen lauded highly in his TED talk on open science.) Gowers summarised the criticisms of Elsevier:

  1. Their very high prices
  2. Their practice of ‘bundling’ journals into collections that libraries have to subscribe to together
  3. Their ‘ruthless’ negotiation tactics with libraries
  4. Their support of the RWA, and of the related acts SOPA and PIPA (both now postponed).

He was already quietly avoiding publishing in Elsevier journals and avoiding reviewing for them. But he decided that this quiet approach wasn’t enough: he called for coordinated action by academics. He comments that ‘Elsevier is not the only publisher to behave in an objectionable way. However, it seems to be the worst’.

This led mathematician Tyler Neylon to set up ‘The cost of knowledge‘, a page where researchers could publicly declare that they ‘will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate’. As of writing, this has over 2300 signatures.

In the past week the usual trickle of blog posts about open access and Elsevier has turned into a flood. I’ll pick out a few here:

Elsevier and their allies have responded:

But The Lancet, which is published by Elsevier, has said it ‘strongly opposes‘ the RWA, saying: ‘This short and hastily put together legislation is not in the interests of either science or the public’.

and others have criticised these responses (e.g. Mike Eisen, Drug Monkey).

The coverage is now reaching the mainstream:

It will be interesting to see what Elsevier says in a statement that was expected today, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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So, where do I stand? I am a freelance editor, working directly or indirectly for scientists and for publishers, on both open access and closed access journals. I worked for two years for Elsevier and then five years for BioMed Central, one of the leading open access publishers, and part of my job at BMC was to advocate for open access. I’m not a great fan of Elsevier, partly for the reasons that others give as described above, and partly because I think they (like many other publishers) are too keen on cutting costs and not keen enough on ensuring quality in their publications.

All this means that I am sympathetic to the open access movement but am not an active advocate of it. I’m not currently in a position to refuse to work for closed access publishers, nor would that have much effect on their policies. When helping scientists choose where to submit their papers, I try to dispassionately present the arguments for different types of journals and encourage them to investigate open-access options, but the decision is up to them.

What I’d like to do is think through what effect a boycott would have on each affected journal. The first people to suffer will be the editors who handle manuscripts. Usually they have to ask several people before they get two reviewers to agree to look at a paper – with the boycott, they will get more noes before they get enough yeses.  If the editors are in-house staff, will this filter up to their managers, and to their managers’ managers, up to the top of the company? Maybe, but only if the proportion of people saying no to reviewing for the journal is big enough. And in the mean time the editors, who have no say in the policies of their company, will be having a hard time.

One way the boycott could perhaps be more effective would be if it focused on a few journals in well-defined, small fields where there is a limited pool of potential reviewers. In a small field, it might be possible for a sizeable proportion of researchers to refuse to review for a particular journal, so this would have a bigger effect.

I would hope that those refusing make their reasons clear (as in this example letter) so that in-house staff aren’t left wondering what is going on. The boycotters will also need to make it clear to the staff that it is their employers they have a problem with, not the editors and editorial assistants themselves. Extreme politeness and chocolate might go down well!

I hope everyone will also remember that there are many researchers who need to publish to keep their jobs or get funding and tenure. Not everyone has a free choice of where to submit their paper. Those who do not join the boycott should not be assumed to be enemies of it.

So if you are boycotting any particular publisher, spare a thought for both the in-house staff who have to put up with it and for the researchers who can’t join in.

Journal News

A brief summary of recent news related to journals and scientific publishing.

Journal of Errology

A new venture came to my notice this week that aims to provide “an experimental online research repository that enables sharing and discussions on those unpublished futile hypothesis, errors, iterations, negative results, false starts and other original stumbles that are part of a larger successful research in biological sciences.” It is not clear whether the Journal of Errology will succeed, but it is an interesting development that might fill a gap that journals are currently neglecting.


Another place to send your miscellaneous data is figshare, which relaunched this week. This “allows researchers to publish all of their research outputs in seconds in an easily citable, sharable and discoverable manner”. They are encouraging researchers to upload negative data, supplementary material that is too large for journal limits, and miscellaneous figures that aren’t likely to get written up as a paper.

The Research Works Act

You’ll probably have heard about the Research Works Act (RWA) being proposed in the US, which would prohibit the NIH or other federal bodies from mandating (as the NIH currently does) that taxpayer-funded research should be freely accessible online.  A summary for UK readers by Mike Taylor (@SauropodMike) is here. The act is supported by the American Publishers Association, and Twitter has been full of scientists lobbying journal publishers to come out against it. So far, the AAAS (publisher of Science) and Nature Publishing Group have been among the journal publishers opposing the RWA.

An open peer review experiment

AJ Cann (@AJCann) is inviting comments on a research paper (entitled “An efficient and effective system for interactive student feedback using Google+ to enhance an institutional virtual learning environment”) on his blog, as a form of open peer review. He’s received several reviews so far, as well as comments on the process.

A journal using WordPress

Andrés Guadamuz, the technical editor of SCRIPTed, the open access journal of Law and Technology, has written a blog post “Confessions of an open access editor” that mentions that the journal is now one of the few hosted by WordPress. Given the recent launch of Annotum, the WordPress add-on for authoring scholarly publications, it looks like WordPress is going to become more important as a platform in the future.

A survey on attitudes to open access

The International Journal of Clinical Practice (IJCP), published by Wiley, has launched a survey on what authors think about the idea of the journal going completely open access (rather than having it as an option as at present). They will be asking all submitting authors for the next six months and are also inviting others to write a Letter to the Editor with their thoughts. They seem to be genuinely interested in authors’ views and not pushing either for or against open access.

The ‘academic dollar’ altmetric

A post by Sabine Hossenfelder on the BackReaction blog (which I heard about via @ScholarlyKitchn) discusses a 2010 paper entitled “An Auction Market for Journal Articles” that suggests an ‘academic dollar’ “that would be traded among editors, authors, and reviewers and create incentives for each involved party to improve the quality of articles”. They are scathing about this proposal, describing it as an example of “Verschlimmbesserung”, defined by Urban Dictionary as “an attempted improvement that makes things worse than they already were”. Altmetrics may be on the rise, but it looks like this one won’t be taking off.


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