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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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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.