Don’t Pay Twice for your Oranges

(July 12th, 2016) May was a momentous month for science. World leaders called for scientific publications to be made freely available for all and some scientists, including David Fernig, went on a review strike.

On Friday May 27, the EU research ministers of science, innovation, trade, and industry published a commitment to make Open Access to scientific publications the default option by 2020. This ambitious target should boost and accelerate the transition towards an open science system, which entails, amongst others, open access to scientific publications and the optimal reuse of research data, citizen science and research integrity.

To ensure the success of this top-down regulation, it clearly has to be combined with bottom-up approaches, based on ethical rules and social norms. And what better way to force a paradigm shift from bottom-up than simply to say no?

In a statement on his blog, David Fernig (Professor of Biological Chemistry at the University of Liverpool) felt the need to clarify why he has been on a review strike since January 1st 2014. When Scientific Reports of Nature Publishing Group asked him to review a manuscript, he bluntly refused. Why? It’s simple: he will only undertake reviews for open access and learned society journals.

“The publishing model needed to change 20 years ago, and it is now finally changing. At the moment, the goal in publishing is to make money, which shouldn’t be the goal. Research is communication, so it shouldn’t be for profit!”, he tells Lab Times. “Open Access will only be the norm if we stop giving that which is most precious, our time, to closed access journals. I really think the wider community needs to start to be selective in reviewing.”

Fernig says that it is all, in essence, very simple: society pays scientists in the public sector, and these scientists therefore rely on the profit that society makes. As a consequence, he reasons, scientists have a duty to not waste that profit. As profit equals money and money equals time nowadays, researchers should invest their time wisely. And he achieves exactly that with his review strike: freeing up four to five hours every time he refuses to review a manuscript, to spend that time on, “something that is constructive on the long term”.

Moreover, he argues, scientists have the responsibility to make their results publicly available, which is not possible with traditional journals. Fernig believes that, as the level of education level rises, more and more people are able to understand scientific papers to a reasonable degree.

Some traditional journals are now offering the option to make an article open access after publishing; for a fee, of course. But Fernig can only shake his head about this business model. “You don’t go buy oranges and pay for them twice at different counters”, he says. “Science communication is pushed into the trap of glamour, instead of communicating results, models, and measurements of the natural world. It is perverting science in a very unhealthy way. So, we shouldn’t work for them!”

David Fernig is not the only scientist to have initiated a review strike with the aim of changing the system. Other strikers include Eva Alisic (Trauma Recovery Lab, Monash University), Gavin Simpson (Quantitative Environmental Scientist, University of Regina) and Michael Taylor (Research Associate in Earth Sciences, University of Bristol).

In fact, 16 years ago, 34,000 scientists, researchers and librarians signed the “Open Letter to Scientific Publishers”. It stated, “We pledge that beginning in September 2001, we will publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to only those scholarly and scientific journals that have agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they have published, through PubMed Central and similar online public resources, within 6 months of their initial publication date.” A 2008 analysis showed that most of those scientists who wanted to change the publishing system stuck to their pledge. However, very few of the signatories published exclusively in open access journals.

Once again, there has been a call for action on open science. Will it become a reality this time? “It is nothing more than a recommendation: it is the articulation of the beginning of an ambition”, Fernig says.

Let’s hope that more scientists take the decision to stop paying twice for their oranges.

Hedwig Ens


Last Changes: 08.18.2016