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Scientists criticise new “open access” journal which limits research-sharing with copyright

Restrictive copyright licenses and expensive submission fees have led to a significant number of scientists to criticise Science Advances, a new journal due to launch next year, for failing to live up to its open access principles.

One hundred and fifteen scientists have signed an open letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), one of the world’s most prestigious scientific societies and publisher of the journal Science, expressing concerns over the launch of a new scientific journal, Science Advances. The AAAS describes Science Advances as open access, a term used to describe free online access to research for members of the public - but the scientists who have signed the open letter say they are "deeply concerned" with the specifics of its model, claiming it could stifle the sharing of scientific knowledge.

The journal, expected to debut in 2015, asks scientists for up to $5,500 (roughly £3,300) to publish their research. Although most open access journals are supported by charging a similar article processing fee, Science Advances has an additional charge of $1,500 for articles more than ten pages long. Leading open access journals, such as PeerJ, the BMC series and Plos One, do not have such surcharges. Studies in Science Advances will also be published under a Creative Commons license which prohibits sharing by any commercial entity, which critics consider means that the journal is not truly open access.

Jon Tennant, an Earth scientist from Imperial College London and the person who initiated the open letter, said via email:

The $1500 surcharge for going over ten pages is ridiculous. In the digital age it's completely unjustifiable. This might have made sense if Science Advances were a print journal, but it's online only."

The 115 open access advocates propose that page surcharges will negatively impact the progression of academic research. They may encourage researchers to unnecessarily omit important details of their studies, cutting them short to make sure papers make it under the ten-page limit. Although an AAAS spokesperson describes their prices as “competitive with comparable open-access journals”, critics haven't been convinced:

The licensing issue is also controversial, as the use of a non-commercial license like the Creative Commons BY-NC one fails to meet the standards set out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Creative Commons licenses work by using copyright legislation - which usually tries to prevent the re-use of creative work - against itself, by explicitly releasing work with a license which states that certain kinds of remixing and sharing are allowed. However, the non-commercial CC license chosen by the AAAS is not used by organisations such as the Research Councils UK and Wellcome Trust, as it isn't seen as compatible with the principles of open access.

Open access should mean the unrestricted, immediate, online availability of scientific research papers. It allows people from around the world, including those who work outside academic institutions, to read and share scientific literature with no paywalls, and the right to freely reuse things like scientific papers without fear of copyright claims. "There is little evidence that non-commercial restrictions provide a benefit to the progress of scholarly research, yet they have significant negative impact, limiting the ability to reuse material for educational purposes and advocacy," the open letter argues. Using CC BY-NC would mean work published in Science Advances couldn't be used by Wikipedia, newspapers or scholarly publishers without permission or payment, for example. The journal will offer scientists the choice of a license without these restrictions, but anyone opting for this more open option will have to pay a further fee of $1,000 (£602). 

On 28 August, the AAAS appeared to respond to the open letter through Paul Jump of the Times Higher Education magazine, after surprise within the scientific community that the organisation had appointed open access sceptic Kent Anderson as its publisher. However, the New Statesman was later informed by Tennant that he had been told by Science Advances' editor-in-chief, Marcia McNutt, that a newly-created FAQ page on the AAAS site was in fact the formal response to the open letter. Tennant wrote:

The response in the form of an FAQ that does not acknowledge the open letter, or address any of the concerns or recommendations we raised in the letter, is breathtakingly rude and dismissive of the community the AAAS purport to serve."

Scientific knowledge is communicated and distributed more effectively when there are no restrictions. Many studies have showed that research papers made available through open access journals are cited more often than those in toll-based journals. The open access movement increases the chances of scientific research being discovered, which can lead to the collaboration of ideas, and the generation of potentially life-changing scientific insights.

"The AAAS should be a shining beacon within the academic world for progression of science," Tennant explains. “If this is their best shot at that, it's an absolute disaster at the start on all levels. What publishers need to remember is that the academic community is not here to serve them - it is the other way around."

(Update: This piece originally stated that all CC licenses have copyleft provisions when only the CC Share-Alike license does, and has been corrected.)

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How hackers held the NHS to ransom

NHS staff found their computer screens repleaced by a padlock and a demand for money. Eerily, a junior doctor warned about such an attack days earlier. 

On Friday, doctors at Whipps Cross Hospital, east London, logged into their computers, but a strange red screen popped up. Next to a giant padlock, a message said the files on the computer had been encrypted, and would be lost forever unless $300 was sent to a Bitcoin account – a virtual currency that cannot be traced. The price doubled if the money wasn’t sent within six days. Digital clocks were counting down the time.

It was soon revealed Barts Health Trust, which runs the hospital, had been hit by ransomware, a type of malicious software that hijacks computer systems until money is paid. It was one of 48 trusts in England and 13 in Scotland affected, as well as a handful of GP practices. News reports soon broke of companies in other countries hit. It affected 200,000 victims in 150 countries, according to Europol. This included the Russian Interior Ministry, Fedex, Nissan, Vodafone and Telefonica. It is thought to be the biggest outbreak of ransomware in history.

Trusts worked all through the weekend and are now back to business as usual. But the attack revealed how easy it is to bring a hospital to its knees. Patients are rightly questioning if their medical records are safe. Others fear hackers may strike again and attack other vital systems. Defence minister Michael Fallon was forced to confirm that the Trident nuclear submarines could not be hacked.

So how did this happen? The virus, called WannaCry or WannaDecrypt0r, was an old piece of ransomware that had gained a superpower. It had been combined with a tool called EternalBlue which was developed by US National Security Agency spies and dumped on the dark web by a criminal group called Shadow Brokers. Computers become infected with ransomware when somebody clicks on a dodgy link or downloads a booby-trapped PDF, but normally another person has to be fooled for it to harm a different computer. EternalBlue meant the virus could cascade between machines within a network. It could copy itself over and over, moving from one vulnerable computer to the next, spreading like the plague. Experts cannot trace who caused it, whether a criminal gang or just one person in their bedroom hitting "send".

Like a real virus, it had to be quarantined. Trusts had to shut down computers and scan them to make sure they were bug-free. Doctors – not used to writing anything but their signature – had to go back to pen and paper. But no computers meant they couldn’t access appointments, referral letters, blood tests results or X-rays. In some hospitals computer systems controlled the phones and doors. Many declared a major incident, flagging up that they needed help. In Barts Health NHS Trust, ambulances were directed away from three A&E departments and non-urgent operations were cancelled.

The tragedy is that trusts had been warned of such an attack. Dr Krishna Chinthapalli, a junior doctor in London, wrote an eerily premonitory piece in the British Medical Journal just two days earlier telling hospitals they were vulnerable to ransomware hits. Such attacks had increased fourfold between 2015 and 2016, he said, with the money being paid to the criminals increased to $1bn, according to the FBI. NHS trusts had been hit before. A third reported a ransomware attack last year, with Imperial College London NHS Trust hit 19 times. None admitted to paying the ransom.

Hospitals had even been warned of this exact virus. It exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems – but Microsoft had been tipped off about it and raised the red flag in March. It issued a patch – an update which would fix it and stop systems being breached this way. But this patch only worked for its latest operating systems. Around 5 per cent of NHS devices are still running the ancient Windows XP, the equivalent of a three-wheeled car. Microsoft said it would no longer create updates for it two years ago, rendering it obsolete.

There are many reasons why systems weren’t updated. Labour and the Lib Dems were quick to blame the attack on lack of Tory funding for the NHS. It is clear cost was an issue. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Saturday, ex-chief of NHS Digital Kingsley Manning estimated it would take £100m a year to update systems and protect trusts against cyber attacks. Even if that money was granted, there is no guarantee cash-strapped trusts would ringfence it for IT; they may use it to plug holes elsewhere.

Yet even with the money to do so updating systems and applying patches in hospitals is genuinely tricky. There is no NHS-wide computer system – each trust has its own mix of software, evolved due to historical quirk. New software or machines may be coded with specific instructions to help them run. Changing the operating system could stop them working – affecting patient care. While other organisations might have time to do updates, hospital systems have to be up and running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In small hospitals, it’s a man in a van manually updating each computer.

Some experts believe these are just excuses; that good digital hygiene kept most trusts in the UK safe. "You fix vulnerabilities in computers like you wash your hands after going to the toilet," said Professor Ross Anderson, a security engineering expert at Cambridge University. "If you don't, and patients die, excuses don't work and blame shifting must not be tolerated."

It is not known yet if any patients have died as a result of the attack, but it certainly raised fears about the safety of sensitive medical records. This particular virus got into computer files and encrypted them – turning them into gooble-de-gook and locking doctors out. Systems were breached but there have been no reports of records being extracted. Yet the scale of this attack raises fears in future the NHS could be targeted for the confidential data it holds. "If it’s vulnerable to ransomware in this way, it could be vulnerable to other attacks," said Professor Alan Woodward security expert at the University of Surrey's department of computing.

In the US, there have been examples where ransomware attacks have led to patient data being sucked out, he said. The motivation is not to embarrass people with piles or "out" women who have had an abortion, but because medical information is lucrative. It can be sold to criminals for at least $10, a price 10 times higher than can be earned by selling credit card details. Dossiers with personal identification information – known as "fullz" on the dark web – help crooks commit fraud and carry out scams. The more personal details a conman knows about you the more likely you are to fall for their hustle.

Hospital data is backed up at least hourly and three copies are kept, one offsite, so it is unlikely any medical records or significant amounts of data will have been lost – although the hack will cost the NHS millions in disruption. A British analyst, who tweets under the name Malware Tech, became an unlikely hero after accidentally finding a killswitch to stop the virus replicating. He registered a website, whose presence signalled to the virus it should stop. Yet he admits that a simple tweak of the code would create a new worm able to infect computers.

Experts warn this event could trigger a spate of copycat attacks. Hacker may turn their eyes to other public services. Dr Brian Gladman, a retired Ministry of Defence director, and ex-director of security at Nato, points out that our entire infrastructure, from the national grid, food distribution channels to the railways rely on computer systems. We now face an arms race – and criminals only have to get lucky once.

"We’re going to get more attacks and more attacks and it’s going to go on," he said. "We’ve got to pay more attention to this."

Madlen Davies is a health and science reporter at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. She tweets @madlendavies.

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