Exposing PseudoAstronomy

July 19, 2012

Free Science for All! (in England, Anyway)


I’ll introduce this post by saying that, the more I age, the more my political/social/financial ideas turn somewhat libertarian. Not that I support Ron Paul, not that I support a teensy tiny impotent government, but I think that some models of business are antiquated and that many redundant bureaucracies need to be eliminated.

Why am I discussing politics? It’s because of how scientific journals work. A new proposal in Britain indicates we might be in for a change, and I think for the better.

How Journals Work

For at least the past several decades, if not century or two, most main-stream scientific journals would work as follows: Author writes paper, editor evaluates paper, editor rejects or sends out for independent review, reviews go back-and-forth for a bit, then paper is ultimately accepted or rejected.

At this point, or even upon initial submission, the author is required to sign over all copyright claims to the paper that they wrote. The journal then owns the copyright. The journal will publish the paper, maintain it in their archives, and has all rights of distribution and reproduction.

The author also has to pay the journal to publish their paper in what we call “page fees.” This can cost upwards of several thousand dollars (my last two papers were $2400 and $2600, respectively). In the past, authors were given personal “preprints” that usually numbered 50ish gratis after which they had to pay for more; they could then give these to colleagues. Otherwise, the authors had to pay for a copy of their paper. Nowadays, this is handled by author personal copy PDFs, and we are still legally forbidden from keeping copies of papers on our personal websites (though most violate this).

To recap: Author does work, then has to pay journal to publish their paper, journal owns all copyrights and author cannot distribute nor can colleagues get a copy unless they or their institution subscribes to the journal. The public getting free access? –forget about it.

Given my first paragraph in the intro, you can guess how I feel about this model. (I think it’s antiquated and outdated and we need something new, if you couldn’t tell). I understand that it was a model that probably worked well for awhile and I can understand the purpose in, say, the 1930s – and maybe even the 1990s – but not today.

It should also be noted that most of us are now funded through government agencies/institutes and that our grants pay both for our work. As in, public money paying for us to do research, then paying for us to publish them, but the publications being closed to people unless they pay for it yet again.

Open Access Journals

There are several journals that do not have paywalls, and I applaud them. Unfortunately, they are usually lower-tier journals that authors do not want to publish in because they have a low Impact Factor (IF) – a measure of how often articles from them are cited. (The journal Science has an IF of around 49, Nature has 52, while the highest IF planetary journal that’s NOT affiliated with either of those is around 3.5-4.0.)

There are some exceptions. The Astrophysical Journal is one of them, as is Astronomy and Astrophysics. These are two major astrophysics journals and their articles are generally free. But, no big planetary journal follows this model, and I do not know about other fields. Science and Nature, the two highest IF journals in the world, do not have open access.

The United Kingdom Takes Notice

Apparently, someone in the UK has taken notice of this and decided they agree with me. Well, not me specifically, but their thinking is similar to mine. To quote:

“Currently, scientists and members of the public have to pay the leading scientific journals to see research that has already been paid for from the public purse. Under new proposals the government will pay publishers a fee each time a paper is published. In return the research will be available to those who wish to see it. The total cost of the subsidy is estimated to be £50m a year which will be taken from funds that would otherwise have been spent on research.”

That last line makes sense to me. I’ve submitted two grants to NASA this year, and in the budget section, I had to guesstimate how many papers would come from the research, in what journal(s) I would publish them, and how much it would cost. Then this cost per year was added as a line-item to the budget. If I didn’t have to do that, it would make budgeting a tad easier and it would throw out several middlemen.

Final Thoughts

There are of course critics of this. And publishers will likely be ticked. I doubt the current model can survive too much longer, but I also doubt that the proposal in the UK will survive in exactly its current form, and I’m sure it will be even longer before it catches on in other countries.

I hope that it does, though, at least in some form that preserves the intent. I recently had a press release about some of my research, and several journalists asked me for a copy of the paper. I could not provide it to them legally because I had not been given my personal author copy yet, and I think that’s bad.



  1. I like that they said “this is how much money is going directly from the government to the publishers.”

    Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia has been working on this a lot. (Slight COI note: I’ve been around Wikipedia since 2004 and know Jimmy and generally support what he does.) He gave a nice talk at the British Medical Journal where he explained, to a bunch of medical researchers and publishers, just what this would mean for the science and how it wouldn’t hamper things (details like researchers having six months or a year from first paper to have their raw data to themselves to write further exclusive papers, exact time to be worked out, that sort of attention to nuts’n’bolts detail of a researcher’s life). I am also told by other Wikimedia contacts that Elsevier et al know damn well the jig is up, and people want them sincerely dead for very good reasons. It’s interesting times, and I think good ones.

    Comment by David Gerard — July 19, 2012 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  2. I concur. I’ve only published through Elsevier and AGU, and, seriously … it’s just an archaic system.

    Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2012 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

  3. What I don’t understand is why more sciences don’t use arXiv or a clone of it. It works fantastically well for physics, and the day-to-day communication in physics actually happens on arXiv and the blogs, with the journals becoming a sort of chronicle – it’s entirely unclear to me why other sciences can’t do the same. This puzzles a lot of other people too. Does someone need to go first?

    Comment by David Gerard — July 19, 2012 @ 12:21 pm | Reply

  4. The reason people want Elsevier dead dead dead is supporting the Research Works Act. That made a lot of people actively hate them who didn’t hate them before. Frankly, that action means we have to kill them and must not rest until they are destroyed and the ground salted.

    Comment by David Gerard — July 19, 2012 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

    • I’m not familiar with that.

      Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2012 @ 12:24 pm | Reply

      • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Works_Act – an attempt to ban requiring open access for US government funded research. Elsevier’s support for it led to a petition from scientists undertaking never to write, edit or review for an Elsevier journal.

        Comment by David Gerard — July 19, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

      • Wow. That is kinda crazy. I would’ve signed that petition if I’d known about it. There was this, though: “On February 27, 2012, Elsevier announced the withdrawal of its support for the bill, citing concerns from journal authors, editors, and reviewers.” But still, it’s kinda like Chik-Fil-A today back-pedling on what their CEO said about same-sex equality.

        Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2012 @ 12:38 pm

  5. Astronomy/astrophysics uses it extensively. But not planetary. I really don’t know why – it wasn’t anything I was trained for (as in advisor says, “remember, submit to arXiv!”) in grad school but I used it all the time in undergrad. I think there’d just need to be a concerted push to use it and then it would be. They usually have a booth at the Lunar & Planetary Science Conference, but it’s ill-trafficed.

    Comment by Stuart Robbins — July 19, 2012 @ 12:23 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: