Thursday, October 12, 2017

Q&A with PLOS co-founder Michael Eisen

Last month I suggested on Twitter that the open access movement has delayed the revolution in scholarly communication that the internet made possible. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my tweet attracted some pushback from OA advocates, not least from Michael Eisen, co-founder of open access publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS).
Photo: CC BY 4.0; Source here
Eisen objected strongly to my assertion and later complained that I was not willing to engage with him to defend what I had said. For my part, I did not feel it was possible to debate the issue adequately on Twitter, so we agreed to do a follow-up to our 2012 Q&A

Last week, therefore, I emailed Eisen a Word document explaining why I had made the assertion I had, and posing 14 questions for him. I published the explanation here yesterday.

The first question in the list I sent to Eisen was: “How would you describe the way the OA movement has developed, and the impact it has had on scholarly communication? Why do you disagree that the movement has delayed open access? What is the movement’s current status and potential? What needs to be done to ensure the revolution takes place sooner rather than later?”

Eisen did not respond to this first question, I assume because he felt that his answers to the other questions addressed the points. He did, however, answer all the other questions, which I publish below.

For anyone who might not be aware, PLOS started out as an OA advocacy group, and in 2000 launched an online petition calling on scientists to pledge that they would discontinue submitting papers to journals that did not make the full text of their papers freely available (either immediately or after a delay of no more than 6 months). The petition attracted tens of thousands of signatures, but few of the signatories changed their behaviour.

In 2003, therefore, PLOS reinvented itself as an OA publisher and began to launch its own journals. Since then it has become a significant presence in the scholarly communication world.

Eisen, an evolutionary biologist who studies flies at the University of California, Berkeley, co-founded PLOS with former director of the US National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus and biochemist Pat Brown. Eisen is still on the PLOS Board.

Earlier this year Eisen announced his intention to run for the United States Senate. 

The interview begins …


RP: OA advocates have long maintained that pay-to-publish gold OA will create a “true” market for scholarly communication, something the subscription model never has. As a result, they argue, the price of scholarly communication will start to fall with OA, thereby solving the affordability problem. I believe this was your view too. In 2012, for instance, you pointed out on my blog that the subscription model creates a “disconnect between the people making the decision about where to publish and the people who pay the subscription bills. This means that there is very little effect on author demand if prices go up.” You added that this inefficiency is “absent from gold OA.” Have your views on this changed in any way in the past 5 years? Do you expect pay-to-publish gold OA to eventually exert downward pressure on prices? (Contrary to Elsevier’s view that “average APCs would need to rise to fund the infrastructure currently paid for via the 80 percent of articles [still] published under the subscription model”).

ME: I still believe a service model for publishing creates a better market than the subscription model for the reasons outlined above. But it’s clearly not working as well as I would like it to. Prices have not dropped, nor seem likely to in the near future. You can point to several reasons.

·       people aren’t really paying for a service, they’re paying for a brand, and the brand value of something like “Nature” swamps the actual cost of the service so it’s not really a sane market

·       costs haven’t really dropped – publishing software still sucks and is expensive and the whole process requires far too much human intervention

·       costs have been externalized again through deals to pay for pay charges

Even with all this being true everything’s still better if we have a world with universal APCs than one with universal subscriptions since material is no longer paywalled. But the market advantages of APCs have yet to be realized.

RP: You are critical of for-profit publishers, and I suspect you feel they ought to be banished from the scholarly communication garden. In an editorial for The New York Times in 2012, for instance, you said, “Researchers should cut off commercial journals’ supply of papers by publishing exclusively in one of the many ‘open-access’ journals that are perfectly capable of managing peer review (like those published by the Public Library of Science, which I co-founded). Libraries should cut off their supply of money by canceling subscriptions.” Neither of these things has happened. Indeed, most libraries are now paying APCs on top of subscriptions, and frequently it is the expensive form of OA (hybrid) offered by legacy publishers that they are funding. In Europe, meanwhile, Big Deals with legacy publishers are being converted into OA Big Deals. Presumably, you are disappointed that libraries are doing this. But how do you think it will play out over time, and what implications might it have? What can OA advocates now do to stop legacy publishers continuing to set the OA agenda, diluting open access, and continuing to overcharge for the services they provide?

ME: The most important thing to do now is to get publishers – commercial and non-profit – out of the process. The whole industry is unnecessary and needlessly cumbersome and expensive. We should all just publish in places like bioRxiv (assuming its software gets better and produces finished documents people are happy to read) and do all peer review post publication. There should be little or no money transacted in the process – the infrastructure should be subsidized so it’s free to both publish and access all the content.

RP: What is your view on the trend we are seeing whereby funders and institutions are creating their own publishing platforms, mostly it seems using the F1000 Research platform? Might this offer a long-term solution? Could we see NIH doing something similar? Are there risks in funders publishing their own research?

ME: At some point funders will realize that they should just subsidize publishing completely. They should take charge of either publishing the work they fund, or funding organizations that do the publishing (e.g. bioRxiv). In this way there’s no barriers to publishing or to accessing material. What publishers [funders?] should not do is take over peer review of their content. That should be done outside of the publishing process and involve the community writ large.

RP: When we spoke in 2012 you said that your hopes for PLOS in the near future were, “A big push to reduce the time from acceptance to publication for PLOS ONE, and a renewed emphasis on PLOS Currents as a way for scientists to rapidly communicate their work to their colleagues.” Have these two hopes been fulfilled? (I am not sure PLOS Currents has attracted many papers, has it?)

ME: No.

Third revolution


RP: As I understand it, PLOS is now embarking on what it calls its third revolution, which consists of enabling the immediate posting of research, open evaluation, and community review. Is this an ambitious enough program given the speed with which legacy publishers are now moving to co-opt open access, and entrench themselves ever more deeply into the research workflow?

ME: I hope so. I’ve said this elsewhere and I’ll say it again. PLOS has been far too slow to move beyond the advance it created with PLOS ONE. Most of the vision Pat [Brown], Harold [Varmus] and I had for PLOS remains unfulfilled. I think the plan is ambitious enough. The challenge is as it always has been to execute it in a way that is attractive to researchers and ultimately doesn’t just create a new economic model for publishing but changes publishing so fundamentally that it can’t be co-opted by legacy publishers.

RP: I believe you are a long-time fan of preprints, and last time we spoke you argued that today’s pre-publication peer review can and should to a great extent be done away with “leaving only a very thin process for screening submitted articles to make sure they’re appropriate and real works of science.” From what you say above, I guess you feel that preprint servers like arXiv and bioRxiv are the way forward? Might they offer a way for the research community to finally free itself of commercial publishers and their exorbitant prices?

ME: Yes. We should all publish in bioRxiv and review papers outside of journals. It’s the only way forward.

RP: Do you think there is any conflict between your views about OA and scholarly communication and the way in which PLOS operates, not least its continued dependence on charging researchers costly APCs?

ME: I do not run PLOS. My views about science publishing are not always in line with PLOS’s actions or statements. Nor should they be. I am on PLOS’s board. I offer my input and ideas for how I think publishing should work. Sometimes the rest of the board agrees and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes PLOS succeeds in implementing our vision. Sometimes it doesn’t. As a general rule my ideas are more radical ideas than what the organization is comfortable pursuing. Do I wish they always did what I wanted? Sure. Do I think science publishing would be better if they did everything my way? Of course. But that’s not the way the world works.

PLOS runs a business based on APCs. There are good reasons for why PLOS did this and why it continues to do so. I, on the other hand, have long argued that we need to get rid of APCs and that the best end state for publishing is one in which the infrastructure is subsidized for everyone, making it both more efficient and more fair. I hope in the long run this business goes away and I will do everything in my power to see that it does. But that doesn’t mean I can or should just wave a wand and have PLOS stop using APCs.

RP: What do you make of Elsevier’s recent proposal to introduce what would effectively be geo-blocked open access? As I understand it, this would mean that papers for which an APC has been paid would be freely available only to researchers in the country that paid the publication fee.

ME: It’s completely ridiculous and I hope nobody falls for it. It’s doublespeak that rebrands subscriptions as open access.


Predatory publishing, Sci-Hub and OA policies


RP: Predatory publishing: There appear to be two schools of thought on predatory publishers. The first says that they are a big threat to the research community, and could seriously corrupt the scholarly record. The second says that the whole problem has been overblown by opponents of open access and, in most cases, so-called predatory publishers are simply new and naïve operations (often based in the global South) that are honourable and well-meaning but who need to be trained in the “best practices and standards in publishing” that have been developed over the years in the North. Do you subscribe to either of these views or do you see things differently again?

ME: I would say I more subscribe to the latter but it’s not cut and dried. I think the reality is we’re in a little bit of a wild west moment. There are lots of new publishers. Some sincere but inexperienced and naïve. Others who are just in it to make a buck who are basically fraudulent operations that don’t provide the service they claim they do.

I would love to help the former and do away with the latter. To a large extent, I think this can be done through education of authors. And, to be honest, I don’t worry too much about it since I think publishers as an entity aren’t going to be around for very much longer and this will just turn out to have been a blip in the history of science.

Also, I don’t worry about “corrupting the scientific record”. The whole scientific record is already corrupted by a peer review system in supposedly reputable journals that is not even remotely effective at keeping the scientific record “clean” (whatever that means). If people were really worried about protecting the integrity of the scientific record they would do away with pre-publication peer review and work to create a post-publication review system that would be far better at identifying work that is flawed and in highlighting work that is not.

RP: Sci-Hub: OA advocates are also conflicted over Sci-Hub. What are your views on the service, and how much of an impact is Sci-Hub having/likely to have on the OA movement, and on scholarly communication more generally?

ME: Sci-Hub is awesome. It’s a wonderful form of civil disobedience that has done more to advance the cause I care about – making sure that everyone on Earth can get access to all scientific knowledge – than anything else in history. I hope it survives legal and practical challenges and that it becomes so widely used that the subscription model collapses.

RP: Perhaps the biggest problem the OA movement has always faced is opposition, or just plain indifference, to OA from researchers themselves. That is why OA policies have become increasingly directive and demanding, if not downright oppressive. For instance, the UK’s HEFCE OA policy, in effect, threatens researchers with loss of employment if they do not comply. What is your current thinking on OA policies and their likely long-term effectiveness? Are they really necessary? Should there be a limit to the demands OA policies can make of researchers? Are they a threat to academic freedom?

ME: The biggest problem OA faces is where people publish determines how successful they are in their careers. Until the people behind OA policies actually work to address this fundamental problem, the policies they create will either have to be heavy handed or they will be ineffective.

Looking ahead


RP: How do you see open access developing in the next few years, and what role do you expect a) PLOS and b) legacy publishers to play in the process?

ME: Massive growth in using arXiv bioRxiv and other field specific preprint servers as the primary means of publication followed by the growth of post-publication peer review. I hope PLOS plays a role in this, and expect legacy publishers to watch it happen.

RP: Finally, can you say something about your Scientist for Senate 2018 project? I think you have badged your campaign as Liberty, Equality, Reality. However, your website seems a little bare on detail, certainly when compared to the program outlined by fellow scientist John Stolz, What specific changes would you work towards if you became a senator? In what ways (if any) would you hope to help the OA movement if elected? How much money have you received in donations? Have any publishers or research institutions/ organisations contributed to your campaign?

ME: More on all of these questions will be coming on my website soon. I haven’t raised a lot of money yet, certainly none from publishers.

As for what I can do to promote OA, when I am in the Senate one of the first things I will do is to introduce legislation placing all work created by or funded by the US government into the public domain.



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