Students follow a lesson in a biology laboratory at the Roma Tre university (Photo credit: Tizani/AFP/Getty Images)
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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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”