Students follow a lesson in a biology laboratory at the Roma Tre university (Photo credit: Tizani/AFP/Getty Images)
Show Hide image

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.)

Show Hide image

Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

0800 7318496