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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Biomarker Caution | Main | A Federation of Independent Researchers? »

April 11, 2012

A New Journal (With Bonus Elsevier-Bashing)

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Posted by Derek

You know, I think that we really are seeing the breakup of the current model of scientific publishing. Spät kommt er, doch er kommt: it's coming on slowly, and in stages, but it's looking more and more inevitable. Take this news from the Wellcome Trust, one of the largest funding agencies in the world for medical research:

Sir Mark Walport, the director of Wellcome Trust, said that his organisation is in the final stages of launching a high calibre scientific journal called eLife that would compete directly with top-tier publications such as Nature and Science, seen by scientists as the premier locations for publishing. Unlike traditional journals, however, which cost British universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year to access, articles in eLife will be free to view on the web as soon as they are published. . .

Walport, who is a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain's premier scientific academy, said the results of public and charity-funded scientific research should be freely available to anyone who wants to read it, for whatever purpose they need it. His comments echo growing concerns from scientists who baulk at the rising costs of academic journals, particularly in a time of shrinking university budgets.

That journal is being launched with the Max Planck Gesellschaft and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, so it's definitely something worth taking seriously. And outside of that new journal, they're going as far as considering sanctions in funding for any researchers who don't adhere to their open-access policies (basically, free within six months of publication in a journal). I was looking up some papers from back in the 1980s the other day, and was reminded, by contrast, of the policies of some of the commercial publishers: never free, ever, no matter how old it is, or who funded it. Gold, those journal archives are: the costs are long gone; it's all been digitized for years and sits on the servers. But anyone who wants to look at a thirty-year-old paper in Tet Lett had better get ready to pony up. Patents expire, as they should, but copyright? Hah!

Elsevier says in the article that they're committed to offering their customers "choice", and that gosh, the subscription model is just so darn popular that they don't see how they can go against the wishes of their customers by getting rid of it. I particularly enjoyed this quote:

A spokesperson for Elsevier said the company was open to any "mechanism or business model, as long as they are sustainable and maintain or improve existing levels of quality control".

This is the Elsevier that can't manage to fix their own RSS feeds for months, that set up a whole fake-but-real journal division for the advertising revenue, that solicits good textbook reviews on Amazon in exchange for $25 gift cards, that charged people $4500 a year to read a journal stuffed with the editor's own nonsensical papers, and whose chemistry titles repeatedly let through howlers that even undergraduates could have spotted?

That level of quality control is going to be quite a strain to keep up. And yes, I know that the other publishers hardly have clean records, but they managed not to be quoted about their quality control. This time, anyway.

Comments (28) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Anonalso on April 11, 2012 7:39 AM writes...

"the subscription model is just so darn popular"

Seriously? The guys at Elsevier must have been working at the record companies before going into scientific publishing. I have been saying for years that publishers should go the iTunes system. Buy a whole album (ie. issue) for a low flat rate (forever vs 48h of access) or a single article for a low flat rate (forever again). Store in a cloud; access wherever and whenever. Follow your favorite artists (i.e. groups). Also, allow comments on research (like the use of triethylamine HCl in a reaction as a catalyst is not novel), track popularity, etc.

Newer articles are more expensive (ie. $.99) older articles are $0.25. Oldest are free. Researchers would pull down a ton more papers, especially if they had the front end that stored and organized the articles for them like iTunes.

Just my 2c.

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2. chris on April 11, 2012 7:42 AM writes...

I would not be surprised if Apple are not already considering it. They have just brought out iBook author for text books.

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3. jesse on April 11, 2012 7:54 AM writes...

With all the publish angst lately, I'd be more interested in looking at ways to get rid of journals entirely. If you were starting from scratch to design a system to disseminate research results, would it really by a clunky pdf or a horribly formatted web article. Trying to read figures on a computer is a terrible experience. Half the time the figures can't even be viewed clearly in a large format (cell articles of the future are an example of this).

A bunch of plos one style journals just fix on problem (and do so without a good mechanism to filter the junk out). The whole publishing experience is a mess. We should start over.

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4. Anonymous on April 11, 2012 7:57 AM writes...

Okay, I knew Europeans misspelled cyclize, color, and center, but balk? Jeez, it's like a completely different planet over there!

On a serious note, I'm surprised and happy to see this happening. Is it possible that in 20 years we'll see ACS/RSC return to being grassroots organizations focused on members rather than subscription/membership fees? (Ha ha, I crack myself up)

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5. Robert Maxwell's trust fund on April 11, 2012 8:15 AM writes...

@1 The obvious difference is that music created by recording artists is not paid for with taxpayer dollars.

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6. MTK on April 11, 2012 8:20 AM writes...

If we look at most periodical publishing models, it's generally advertisers that pay for the bulk of it, not readers, although a small fee may be assessed to the reader.

So who are the advertisers in a scientific journal? The researchers, of course. So what about a scientific publishing model where researchers pay to have their articles published and the journal be open access. In fact, the ACS was doing this with their "Author's Choice" program a couple of years ago. I'm not sure if that program still exists, but basically authors could pay a fee to provide open access.

For a journal like that to succeed, it would have to have a very high prestige factor or else people would just publish somewhere else for free. But how many would pay to see their research in Nature or Science? A lot of people, I'm guessing. As long as Nature or Science diligently protected their brand, ie kept junk out no matter how much was offered to publish it, it might work.

A great side effect of this would be if a critical mass of journals did this, that people would be less inclined to publish crap, because it would cost them money. At the same time, less people would feel the need to pay to subscribe to something that was mostly crap. Eventually, in my dream world, everything would funnel to the pay-to publish, but read-for-free journals and those journals would be of higher quality than currently exists.

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7. PPedroso on April 11, 2012 8:28 AM writes...

Dear MTK,

you have an enormous amount of faith in the good nature of the human being.
That is a dangerous proposal.

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8. watcher on April 11, 2012 8:44 AM writes...

A concept that is long overdue, as long as the review process is thorough, properly critical, and free of politics (eg, a "new" buddy system compared to the "old" buddy system).

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9. MTK on April 11, 2012 9:16 AM writes...


In my defense, I did qualify it as "my dream world". :)

I'm not totally stupid, anyone can foresee the possible abuse and corruption in such a system, but at the same time we have that now in many ways.

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10. MoMo on April 11, 2012 9:27 AM writes...

There is a God Afterall! Its high time this happened, and the Sharks are loosing their teeth! First PlOS and now this! Hallelulah!

Now they will suffer like all of us scientists who plugged cash by the handfuls into such journals and copy machines! I could buy a Porsche from all the money I stuffed into Hayden!

The elitists are on the run now, and if Americans had more spines they would have run this up the flagpole many moons ago-How Dare Publishers Profit from the American Taxpayer-Funded Research?

But whoever in their industry thought of this, I admire as a businessman-like taking candy from a baby!

Count your Days Dinosaurs of Publishing!

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11. opsomath on April 11, 2012 9:52 AM writes...

eLife is a stupid name. It sounds like it was selected by a committee that had had hipness described to them, but had never actually observed it.

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12. Immunoldoc on April 11, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

Let's see a commitment to publish high-quality, well-controlled negative data. Indeed let's see active QC by the journals, selecting high visibility papers and requesting active confirmation of some published reports (committing to publish the best work). Just the concept that poor studies could be publicly "outed" will encourage investigators to demand quality from their "employees".

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13. Renegade Sci on April 11, 2012 10:08 AM writes...

@ Anonalso You are the winner... I vote we put you in charge! :D

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14. Anonalso on April 11, 2012 11:04 AM writes...

@13 -- Thanks, but I do not think publishers would like to be "Steve Jobs'd."

@5 -- You are right that most research is tax-payer funded and should be available to the public. But maybe that is part of the problem. As an independent researcher under this model, you could develop and publish science and reap the benefits from that work. It would be similar to how Apple treats developers right? You publish an app say for organic pKa's -- which there is one -- and people buy and you get 70%. For researchers who publish research that is independent of funding, they get 70-80% of the download fee, thereby helping to further fund their research. If the science is high quality, this funding could be lucrative and allow groups to go after things that are truly on the edge rather than in the realm of "safe keywords" for grants.

Quick math here -- 1 article of high quality science sold at $1.00. Downloaded 100,000 times worldwide in first 60 days. $100,000 x 0.7 = $70,000 to the researcher. Further funding their studies.

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15. NJBiologist on April 11, 2012 11:27 AM writes...

@1 Anonalso "The guys at Elsevier must have been working at the record companies before going into scientific publishing."

I love it. You really have to wonder about this.

@14 Anonalso "Quick math here -- 1 article of high quality science sold at $1.00. Downloaded 100,000 times worldwide in first 60 days. $100,000 x 0.7 = $70,000 to the researcher. Further funding their studies."

More specifically, further funding studies in popular areas of work, or areas that will attract the attention of the outside world. I'm not sure that's a good incentive system.

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16. Anonymous on April 11, 2012 11:35 AM writes...

Copyrights should get no more than a 5-7 year lifespan. Even that is too long - 18 months sound better to me. But something comparable to the post FDA approval period on patents sounds at least a bit more reasonable (once you subtract the development time).

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17. Anonymous on April 11, 2012 11:52 AM writes...

The simple solution to this problem is to forbid any and all government sponsored research to be copyrighted when published. That would bring an end to this stupidity ASAP.

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18. Pete on April 11, 2012 12:39 PM writes...

May I congratulate you on a most excellent rant.

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19. Virgil on April 11, 2012 1:48 PM writes...

Publishing --> funding
Funding --> publishing
Publishing --> promotion
Funding --> promotion

As long as such systems exist, it will be very difficult to change one side of the triangle without also changing the other two. The government (i.e., the NIH) needs to play a more active role in this re-jigging of the publication system. One example... for journals without certain access policies, forbid NIH funded researchers to list publications in those journals on their RO1 progress reports. Watch the number of submissions to those journals rapidly diminish. Without this kind of measure, relying on academics to "do the right thing", when pressures such as tenure, promotion, and funding all hang in the balance, is not going to work.

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20. hn on April 11, 2012 3:14 PM writes...

@14: When was the last paper you published that had 100,000 readers?

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21. metaphysician on April 11, 2012 5:03 PM writes...


That's way, way too short. Note that copyright applies not only to specific works, but also to elements within them; an 18 month copyright limit would not only mean you couldn't sell your own book for more than 18 months, but you couldn't even keep other people from creating their own books with your setting and characters and selling them. It would create a *massive* disincentive for creative work.

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22. Anonalso on April 11, 2012 7:05 PM writes...

@20 -- I am sure none of my papers have been read 100,000 times. I am not that good.

However, fantastic total syntheses are probably read this much worldwide. Only the ACS or other journal tracking can show how much a paper is downloaded.

Still every little bit counts right? Even 10k downloads is $7k for the coffers of a PI.

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23. wodufi on April 11, 2012 8:25 PM writes...

Are we going to pay for publication in eLife? PLoS ONE charges $1350 for publishing an article. For me as a PI, the $1350 hurts because that's $1350 less for research. This is not to say that current publishing model works, I am just not sure the author-paid open access model is a better alternative for labs with modest level of funding - quite the opposite.

And don't get me started on all those "open access" journals from India that will happily publish any crap you send them as long as you enclose a check.

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24. A. R. on April 11, 2012 9:08 PM writes...

Oh, how I hate Elsevier. Last week, I tried to access a fifteen year old virology paper for a lecture I'm giving next week. Elsevier paywall.

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25. dick on April 12, 2012 3:41 AM writes...

I agree with Jesse (3)- it is time to start again from scratch. The dissemination of research results should be a major function of every university server. The money wasted in universities on journal subscriptions would easily pay for this. With searches as good as they are today, it would be easy to harvest all of the data you need - it is time to regroup and do something meaningful. Give science back to the scientists!

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26. Mark L on April 12, 2012 8:50 AM writes...

For anyone wondering about the value of Elsevier’s editorial quality control, check out this horrific piece of pseudo-science that has somehow recently made its way through:

Do pigmentation and the melanocortin system modulate aggression and sexuality in humans as they do in other animals?

Yes, they really do quote differing condom dimensions as part of their evidence…

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27. Tuomas Pylkkö on April 13, 2012 12:52 AM writes...

If you are wondering why copyright protection (70 or 75 years in most places) is much longer than patent, then you might find this interesting:

"The original length of copyright in the US was 14 years, and it had to be explicitly applied for. If the author wished, he could apply for a second 14 year monopoly grant, but after that the work entered the public domain, so it could be used and built upon by others."


"With the intense lobbying of Disney, each time its works came close to entering into the public domain under normal conditions, the US Congress has extended copyright length, until it's gone from the original 14 years, after which the work would become available to the public to build upon, to 70 years after the death of the author."


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28. Giagan on April 13, 2012 1:59 PM writes...

Today I received this gem in my RSS feed for Tetrahedron!

Shoes as a Source of First Impressions
Publication year: 2012
Source:Journal of Research in Personality
Omri Gillath, Angela J. Bahns
Surprisingly minimal appearancecueslead perceivers to accurately judge others’ personality, status, or politics. We investigated people’s precision in judging characteristics of an unknown person, based solely on the shoes he or she wears most often. Participants providedphotographs of their shoes,and during a separate session completed self-report measures. Coders rated the shoes on various dimensions, and these ratings were found to correlate with the owners’ personal characteristics. A new group of participantsaccurately judgedthe age, gender, income, and attachment anxiety of shoe owners based solely on the pictures. Shoes can indeed be used to evaluate others, at least in some domains.

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