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Scholarly publishers and their high profits

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I recently published the below chart to document the outrageous profit margins of scholarly publishers in the sciences.

Screen Shot 2013-01-09 at 12.35.26 PM

This post is to provide the sources for the numbers in the chart.

The Woolworths number comes from their website, where they write “As a group, Woolworths Limited makes less than seven cents in the dollar before we then pay interest and tax”.

The Rio Tinto figure of 23% is based on the operating profit they report divided by the consolidated sales revenue in their 2011 financial summary.

Apple’s profit of 35% is based on these numbers, dividing their operating income for the year ending September 2012 of 55.2 billion by the revenue for the same period of 156.5 billion.

The 34% number for Springer comes from Heather Morrison’s PhD thesis, in which she writes that “Springer’s Science + Business Media (2010) reported a return on sales (operating profit) of 33.9% or € 294 million on revenue of € 866 million, an increase of 4% over the profit of the previous year.”

For Elsevier, I used the figure reported by investment analyst Claudio Aspesi.

For Wiley, I again used Heather Morrison’s analysis in her thesis, based on $99 million in profit on $245 million in revenue.

Thanks to Nick Scott-Samuel and Mike Taylor.

Written by alexholcombe

January 9, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Opening access with peer reviewing pledges

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Most academics agree that most scientific articles should be freely available, but we’re stuck in a system where scientific articles still tend to be submitted to journals that one needs a subscription to read.

One way we researchers perpetuate this system is by donating our labor to provide “peer review” of manuscripts that will require others to pay hefty subscription fees to read.

Over the years, some researchers have pledged to no longer do this. It’s been only a trickle, and I thought getting more visibility for open access pledgers would help the cause. I made a web page listing those I could find and also created a site people could pledge with, but getting the pledge right is tough.

Some think we should refuse to do any reviews for journals that are not open access- journals whose articles are behind paywalls rather than free for anyone to download. Mike Taylor wrote an angry article advocating this, and several commenters agreed with him, such as Peter Murray-Rust, who frequently blogs about the issue. In the area of computer security conference proceedings and journals, there’s been enormous success with a strong pledge, thanks to an independently- and concurrently-created excellent pledge registration website by Stuart Schechter. Although it’s evident that in the computer security conference and journal domain, the field may be ready and has the infrastructure to transition almost immediately to full open access, I don’t think that’s true in most of the traditional sciences.

Unwillingness to sign on to a categorical pledge of no reviewing for closed journals is something I’ve heard from many colleagues, including several long-time open science advocates that I’ve been communicating with about the issues over the last few months. I’ve come to share two of their objections:

The hypocrite objection It looks hypocritical to refuse to review for closed journals unless one also stops submitting manuscripts to closed journals. Where one submits to is more constrained, by one’s co-authors and one’s career prospects, so it’s harder to stop submitting. Although I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with donating one’s reviewing time only to open access journals, I do know it looks hypocritical (I have been called a hypocrite for this reason), which hurts the cause. This also can lead to the perception that pledgers are finding a convenient way to shirk the extra work of reviewing. Maybe these arguments can be won with individual name-callers, but it takes a lot of time to win those fights.

The green road objection Most journals, including closed access journals, allow researchers to put their post-print (their final version of the manuscript, before the publisher type-sets it) up on the web in their university’s or institution’s digital repository. In other words, the only thing stopping all these articles from being freely available is the authors themselves. If everybody posted their articles in their institution’s repository, then the articles would all be free, publishers couldn’t charge exorbitant subscription fees (although they might still have a role) and we wouldn’t have to win any fights or topple any publishers. This is called the green road (as explained here by Stevan Harnad), as opposed to the gold road of paying open-access journals to publish our articles. If you believe this is the best way to achieve open access, then you may be more concerned with supporting this then to starving the closed journals.

A couple other, more straightforward objections I heard were that some people want to continue reviewing the best articles in their field (or not give up that opportunity if they are junior and aren’t asked often) and others are in fields that don’t have a good open-access outlet, meaning they would end up not reviewing any articles.

The feedback I got (thanks especially to Fabiana Kubke and Rochelle Tractenberg) was that the hypocrite and green road pledging problems could be solved by adding some clauses to the pledge. The pledge I’ve arrived at is this:

I pledge to devote most of my reviewing and editing efforts to manuscripts destined for open access. For other manuscripts, I will restrict myself to one review by me for each review obtained for me by an outlet that is not open access.

The hypocrite problem is solved by the second sentence- one agrees to return the favor for each review of one’s own work that one gets from a closed outlet.

The green road problem is solved by the phrasing “destined for open access”. I defined “destined for open access” as “those that the authors or journal post on institutional or university web repositories, or those that are made open access by the publisher within 12 months.”  (the reason that personal webpages aren’t mentioned is that those are notoriously transient and not always indexed appropriately by scholarly search engines) The tricky bit is that one usually doesn’t know whether the authors will be putting their post-print in a repository, in which case my plan is to put the onus on the journal editor, telling them I can’t review the manuscript unless the authors have promised to put it in a repository. If the authors are funded by the NIH or the Wellcome Trust or are at certain universities with strong open access mandates, it’s reasonable to assume the manuscripts will be posted (although that doesn’t always happen).

I set up openaccesspledge.com, but didn’t try to promote it much, as I thought (as suggested by Mike Taylor) we might instead do some sort of multiple-choice pledge, but that would require some php programming that’s beyond me (any volunteers?), and I’m not sure it’s the best course. In the meantime we’ve collected more than 14 signatures- if you want to take the pledge, please sign.

What do people think of this?  Should we peer-review only for gold open access journals, or also for manuscripts headed for repositories?

Written by alexholcombe

October 24, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Can “Responsible Conduct of Research” include publishing science via blogs?

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For Open Access Week 2011, which starts today, I’ve made a video, a draft pledging website, an inspirational website, am giving a talk, and co-written a group letter. This post is about the letter.

As discussed in my last post, there’s a web-based course called “Responsible Conduct of Research” that many thousands of researchers are required to complete each year.  Brad Voytek spotted this question that seems a bit hostile (although quite possibly unintentionally) to new forms of scientific communication outside traditional journals.

I suggested we should write to the organization responsible for the course, and a few people commented on my post to indicate that they agreed. A few tweets later, we had a draft letter going. It’s been really cool to see how social media was able to quickly get a bunch of like-minded scientists together to achieve a goal. This in and of itself undermines the question that we wanted to question :)  Below see our letter- we emailed it to CITI and they responded promptly to thank us for the feedback and to say they’d consider the issues we raised.
———————————————————————————-
Dear Professor Braunschweiger (CITI co-founder) and Professor Ed Prentice (CITI Executive Advisory Committee chair):

We write to challenge the answer to one of the questions in the “Responsible Conduct of Research” online course. The question reads “A good alternative to the current peer review process would be web logs (BLOGS) where papers would be posted and reviewed by those who have an interest in the work”. The answer deemed correct by your system is “False” and the explanation provided includes the assertion that “It is likely that the peer review process will evolve to minimize bias and conflicts of interest”.

We question these claims for two reasons. First, we see real examples of rigorous science happening outside of the traditional system of journal-based peer review. Second, we believe that the future path of scholarly communication is uncertain, and indicating to young researchers that such an important issue is closed is both inaccurate and unhelpful to informed debate.

As an example of science that does not fit the mold suggested by the phrase “the current peer review process”, consider the use of the arXiv preprint server in certain areas of astronomy and physics. In these areas, researchers usually begin by posting their manuscripts to the arXiv server. They then receive comments by those who have an interest in the work. Some of those manuscripts subsequently are submitted to journals and undergo traditional peer review, but many working scientists stay abreast of their field chiefly by reading manuscripts in the arXiv before they are accepted by journals.

Even in areas that are more tightly bound to traditional journals, there are recent examples where both effective peer review of science [1] and science itself [2] have occurred primarily via blogs and other online platforms. In these cases, the online activity appears to have resulted in more rapid progress than would have been possible through the traditional system. A growing body of research suggests that scholars use social media in ways that reflect and produce serious scholarship [3][4][5].

As for the future path of the current mainstream peer review model, we believe it is speculation to say that “It is likely that the peer review process will evolve to minimize bias and conflicts of interest”. The current peer review process may be under considerable strain [6] and unfortunately there is little evidence that it significantly improves the quality of manuscripts [7]. This raises the possibility that big changes are required, not just modifications to reduce bias and conflicts of interest. Furthermore, the question presupposes that the future entity into which peer review will evolve does not involve blogging. No one can see the future clearly enough to make that assumption.

We encourage discussion of this important topic, and would be interested in the inclusion in your program of material that sparks such discussion. However, we believe a true/false question on this topic to be inappropriate, as it limits rather than promotes discussion. All of us wish to see the development and optimization of rigorous systems, both new and traditional, for scientific scholarship. Requiring young researchers to adopt a particular position on this controversial, multifaceted issue may hinder open discussion and future progress.

Sincerely,

Bradley Voytek, PhD, University of California, San Francisco Department of Neurology
Jason Snyder, PhD, National Institutes of Health, USA
Alex O. Holcombe, PhD, School of Psychology, University of Sydney, Australia
William G. Gunn, PhD, Mendeley, USA/UK
Matthew Todd, PhD, School of Chemistry, University of Sydney, Australia
Daniel Mietchen, PhD, Open Knowledge Foundation Germany
Jason Priem, School of Library and Information Science, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Heather Piwowar, PhD, DataONE/NESCent, Canada
Todd Vision, PhD, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Cameron Neylon, PhD, Science and Technology Facilities Council, UK, Editor in Chief, Open Research Computation

[1] Online experimental peer review of the “Arsenic Life” paper that recently appeared in Science: http://rrresearch.fieldofscience.com/2010/12/arsenic-associated-bacteria-nasas.html
[2] Open Science is a Research Accelerator, M. Woelfle, P. Olliaro and M. H. Todd, Nature Chemistry 2011, 3, 745-748. http://www.nature.com/nchem/journal/v3/n10/full/nchem.1149.html
[3] Groth, P., & Gurney, T. (2010). Studying Scientific Discourse on the Web using Bibliometrics: A Chemistry Blogging Case Study. Presented at the WebSci10: Extending the Frontiers of Society On-Line, Raleigh, NC: US. Retrieved from http://journal.webscience.org/308/
[4] Priem, J., & Costello, K. L. (2010). How and why scholars cite on Twitter. Proceedings of the 73rd ASIS&T Annual Meeting. Presented at the American Society for Information Science & Technology Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh PA, USA. doi:10.1002/meet.14504701201
[5] Weller, K., Dröge, E., & Puschmann, C. (2011). Citation Analysis in Twitter. Approaches for Defining and Measuring Information Flows within Tweets during Scientific Conferences. Proceedings of Making Sense of Microposts Workshop (# MSM2011). Co-located with Extended Semantic Web Conference, Crete, Greece.
[6] Smith R. Classical peer review: an empty gun. Breast Cancer Research 2010, 12(Suppl 4):S13 http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/bcr2742
[7] Jefferson T, Rudin M, Brodney Folse S, Davidoff F. Editorial peer review for improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, 2:MR000016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/14651858.MR000016.pub3

Written by alexholcombe

October 24, 2011 at 9:48 am

Posted in academia, open access

Scientist meets Publisher- Explaining the video

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Academic publishing is stuck in an outmoded system. Most scientific research is paid for by government and non-profit university funds, but high-profit corporate publishers often control access to the results of the research. In this video, we showcased the absurdity of the situation and also pointed towards how to get ourselves un-stuck.

There are significant costs associated with what journal publishers do, so we need publishers in some form. But there’s no need for publishing to involve millions in profits and universities having to pay many thousands of dollars for a subscription to a journal.

In the video, the scientist mentions two of the ways we can move towards journal articles being available for free. First is supporting open-access journals. Most charge authors a fee, but one that is not too much higher than their costs, and the result is that anyone can download the article for free.

Another way a researcher can make an article freely available is by depositing the “post-print” in their university or institutional repository. A “post-print” is the draft of the article after it has been peer-reviewed. After a researcher revises their article in accordance with the comments of reviewers, they’ve got a file that may have the same content as that which the journal typesets and publishes. Although the journal usually owns the copyright to the journal version (after the author signs the copyright form), the researcher still in nearly all cases can take their own file, the post-print, and put it in an institution’s official web repository.

If enough of us supported open-access journals, and deposited our other manuscripts in repositories, then journals could no longer charge exorbitant subscription fees. The reason is that with a high percentage of manuscripts available from open-access journals and repositories, universities would cancel their subscriptions to particularly expensive journals.

It’s not just authors that provide free labor to the publishers. It’s also the academics that review each of the articles. So, as reviewers we can also push things towards open access, by saying yes more often to reviewing manuscripts that will be open access, and less often to those that won’t. If we can get a lot of people together to commit to this, it will make a direct impact as well as let others know how many of us support open access. To organize that, I’ve drafted a website called openaccesspledge.com. It also lists other pledges.

Written by alexholcombe

September 22, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Speeding the slow flow of science

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The transmission of new scientific ideas and knowledge is needlessly slow:

Flow slower Solution
Journal subscription fees Open access mandates
Competition to be first-to-publish motivates secrecy Open Science mandates
Jargon Increase science communication; science blogging
Pressure to publish high quantity means no time for learning from other areas Reform of incentives in academia
Inefficient format of journal articles (e.g. prose) Evidence charts, ?
Long lag time until things are published Peer review post publication, not pre publication
Difficulty publishing fragmentary criticisms Open peer review; incentivize post-publication commenting
Information contained in peer reviewers’ reviews is never published Open peer review or publication of (possibly anonymous) reviews; incentivize online post-publication commenting
Difficulty publishing non-replications Open Science

UPDATE: Daniel Mietchen, in the true spirit of open science, has put up an editable version of this very incomplete table.

Written by alexholcombe

August 6, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Pioneering open-access pledges

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How can we reduce the ability of publishers to charge exorbitant fees to read articles we give them for free? This situation drains university budgets and prevents public access to scientific information.

One of many things we can do is referee manuscripts only for open-access journals. Another is to only publish in open-access journals. I’m trying to organize some kind of group pledge to make a stand on one of these or both. Let me know if you’re interested in joining. There are some complications in making a pledge that I’ll write about later. For now, I wanted to point people towards the real pioneers in this area.

Peter Suber, who has long chronicled and championed open access efforts, sent me some notes regarding previous pledges by individuals to support open access. I have pasted these notes below.

—————-
I find two kinds of individual OA pledges. In one, researchers pledge to make their own work OA, and in the other researchers pledge only to serve as referees for OA journals. Here are some examples of each:

* author pledges

–PLoS letter; originally a March 2001 letter to the editor of Science; here’s an archived copy and the signatures

Larry Lessig’s pledge (his original March 2005 post is offline, but here’s my post about it)

–Science Commons, Open Access Law: Author Pledge (June 2005)
http://sciencecommons.org/projects/publishing/oalaw/oalawpledge/
http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2005/06/oa-law-program-from-science-commons.html
–the signature link is now dead
http://sciencecommons.org/projects/publishing/oalawauthors

Danah Boyd (February 2008; also see my comment on it)

–Open Access Philosophy pledge (June 2008)
http://tomkow.typepad.com/tomkowcom/2008/06/open-resource-p.html

http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2008/06/free-philosophy-pledge.html

* referee pledges

–PLoS letter (above)

Ted Bergstrom (2001)

Nick Montfort (December 2007) (also see the many comments)

–Chris Kelty; mentioned in this March 2008 blog post but no precise reference or deep link

Martin Weller (June 2010)

Michael Rees (June 2010) (following Martin Weller)

There are also some institutional pledges in which the faculty apparently don’t have the votes for a strong OA policy and vote for a pledge to make their work OA whenever possible. I’ve omitted them here, but could easily send a separate list.

UPDATE 12 Jan 2012: I’ve made a better list and added more pledgers here, which provides a webtool for you to make your own pledge.

[From Peter Suber]

Written by alexholcombe

June 16, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Australian Research Council moving backward on open-access, too

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A few months ago when the 2012 Australian Research Council Discovery Project funding rules came out, I was excited to see them putting money into open access publication:

Publication and dissemination of Project outputs and outreach activity costs
may be supported at up to two (2) per cent of total ARC funding awarded to
the Project. The ARC strongly encourages publication in publicly accessible
outlets and the depositing of data and any publications arising from a
Project in an appropriate subject and/or institutional repository.

But you always have to read the fine print. When preparing my grant application, I discovered that one is not allowed to include publication costs as an item in the budget. We can only use the money that we have budgeted for other things, like lab equipment and personnel salaries. Given that the ARC only awards, on average, something like 60% of the money requested, few of us will have any to spare.

Another mistake I made was failing to compare the text to that of previous years. It turns out the ARC dropped a former requirement that researchers either deposit their data in a publicly available repository or explain why they are not doing so, and specifically identify which publications and data they have put in a repository. That was in there in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011:

1.4.5.3. The ARC therefore encourages researchers to consider the benefits of depositing
their data and any publications arising from a research project in an appropriate
subject and/or institutional repository wherever such a repository is available to the
researcher(s). If a researcher is not intending to deposit the data from a project in a
repository within a six-month period, he/she should include the reasons in the
project’s Final Report. Any research outputs that have been or will be deposited in
appropriate repositories should be identified in the Final Report.

Why did the ARC move backwards on this? Maybe they got sick of reading Final Reports in which researchers ignored this requirement or made lame excuses for why they weren’t following it. But dropping it wasn’t the appropriate response. They should have done what the NIH did in a similar situation. When NIH-funded researchers weren’t doing the recommended thing of making their publications open access (4% compliance), the NIH upgraded their recommendations into a mandate. And now the majority of NIH-funded research publications are publicly available.

Do the right thing, ARC. The Australian taxpayer is paying for it, the Australian taxpayer ought to be able to read it.

Written by alexholcombe

June 14, 2011 at 9:34 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Fast-tracking fees vs. open-access fees

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Several academic journals offer fast-tracking for a fee, and I’ve been complaining about it, mainly because it’s hard to see how this policy could be implemented without sometimes giving monied authors an advantage not only in time until publication, but also in likelihood of acceptance. Traditionally, acceptance into a journal was not affected by how much the authors pay, and many of us would like to see things stay that way.

Somebody asked me whether this fast-tracking fee thing is really all that different from that of author-pays journals like those in the PLoS family, which charge a fee for all manuscripts. Should we be protesting these as well? I don’t think so.

PLoS ONE (a journal that I edit for and advise) and all the rest in the PLoS family waive the fee for those who cannot pay:

We offer a complete or partial fee waiver for authors who do not have funds to cover publication fees. Editors and reviewers have no access to payment information, and hence inability to pay will not influence the decision to publish a paper.

A key aspect of the policy is that reviewers and editors are blind to whether the authors are paying, as this removes the possibility of bias. Unfortunately in the case of the fast-tracking for a fee journals, I don’t think they have enough staff to do this, whereas PLoS is big enough to have professional staff in the business office to handle the fee side of things separately from the science.

In an ideal world, journals would not charge any sort of fee, but in fact somebody has got to bear their cost. Indeed, currently journals are central to scientific communication. We should make them less important by consistently posting preprints to the web, as is done in physics. Publishers would then be less able to charge exorbitant fees for journal subscriptions, as the highly profitable Elsevier does for Experimental Brain Research and other journals.

Written by alexholcombe

June 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm

Posted in academia, open access

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Protest of fast-tracking fees. Two journals respond, and one bows out.

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One of the things I love about science is that money can’t buy you admission into a journal. You simply got to do respectable science, as judged by other scientists. Getting accepted by a journal isn’t like getting accepted into a country club or a business deal. Although every system has its biases and science is no exception, at least there’s no actual money being handed over to grease the wheels.

That’s what I used to think, but then I discovered that at least 7 journals have begun offering fast-tracking for a fee. It’s hard to see how that could be done without sometimes giving the monied authors an advantage over those who don’t pay. For example, fast-tracking seems likely to leads to shortcuts by the editor or reviewers as they seek to meet the fast-tracking deadline.

Eighteen of my scientific colleagues around the world and I were concerned enough to sign a protest letter that I sent to the seven journals and many on their editorial boards. Five others have signed on since. At the time of our letter, I don’t believe that any of the journals had an explanation on their website of how integrity of the process would be maintained.

The response? About 6 weeks later, I’ve received responses from only two of the seven journals. Professor Gunther Eysenbach, editor of  the Journal of Internet Medical Research, to his credit had already given a robust defense in which he assured me that no shortcuts were taken with fast-tracked manuscripts. In his apparently more official response to our letter, he indicated that he would survey his authors and readers on their opinion of fast-tracking for a fee (I’m looking forward to seeing the results). Although I’d like to take his word for it that the money won’t lead the journal to favor those who pay, I believe that even those editors with the best of intentions and integrity will find it difficult to avoid being influenced by those who make a direct contribution to the bottom line. I might be cynical here; or maybe I’m just a good psychologist…

Professor Chris Cieszewski, editor of the Journal of Mathematical and Computational Forestry & Natural-Resource Science, seemed to think little of our letter and our motives, but to his credit he nevertheless added to the journal’s website a detailed description of the policy and some explanation of the reasoning behind the fee. The policy is slightly complicated and I should reserve discussion of the details for another post, but an important aspect is that those who cannot pay will receive a fee waiver. None of the other journals appear to do this, and it’s a reassuring feature (fee waivers are also given at some journals that request a fee for every manuscript published, such as PLoS ONE, about which I’ll say more in another post).

What about the other 5 journals? One of them, the Eurasian Journal of Analytical Chemistry, appears to have quietly deleted from their website all references to a fast-track option. Maybe we can take credit for that. As for the remaining journals who haven’t replied, they really owe authors and readers a full explanation of how their policy will maintain the integrity of the manuscript evaluation process. In my opinion, it’s difficult or impossible to do so, so they ought to forget about fast-tracking for a fee, but failing that they need to lay out a transparent process.

A few things they all ought to address are:

  • What happens if the fast-tracking period elapses and a reviewer hasn’t gotten their review in yet? Will the decision about the manuscript be made without that review?
  • How is the additional money used? Does any go to reviewers?
  • Does the action editor know when a particular manuscript is being fast-tracked? Do the reviewers? To avoid monetary influence, both should be blind to this, but that seems impossible if these things are to be expedited.
  • Will articles which benefited from fast-tracking be indicated in a note associated with those articles? Without such a policy, all articles in the journal may be sullied, at least in the minds of cynics.
  • Are the fees worth risking the appearance of favoritism for money and the consequent likely loss of public trust in science? (ok, so this one’s at the level of “when will you stop beating your wife?” but I couldn’t resist)
It would be nice to keep this whole affair fairly quiet, so as to fully preserve whatever public trust of science there is, but with no response to our letter or my repetitive blog posts from some of the journals, we may need to get some media attention to pressure the journals to address these issues.

Written by alexholcombe

June 5, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Posted in academia, open access

Tagged with

fast-track fee protest letter sent,

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I’ve just sent the fast-track protest letter with our original list of 18 authors to the several journals that charge a fee to fast-track.

I believe their policy imperils the fairness of the scientific publication system.

I’m sure we’ll need more support to convince some of these journals to discontinue their unsavory policy, so please add your name to the signatories here

I’ll soon be linking to the responses we receive from the journals.

UPDATE 3 May: I’m posting the responses at this google group and will blog about them later.

Written by alexholcombe

April 26, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Posted in academia, open access

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