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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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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile