Home » Open Science » Open Publication

Open Publication

Peter Cameron is a half-time Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of St Andrews, and an Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Queen Mary, University of London. His blog is cameroncounts.wordpress.com. Here we are publishing his new blog post which he kindly wrote for our website. It consists of three parts: Open Publication (below), Open Data and Open Software (the fourth part of the trilogy, called Open Research Funding, appeared later). If you would like to leave comments for the author, please leave them here.

The Internet has brought about big changes in the way we do science. Recently, a word very much favoured by science funders is “open”. I want to say a few things about this, under three headings (open publication, open data, open software) which raise different issues for the scientific community.

I write as a pure mathematician here. Some of the issues are not so relevant in mathematics; others are relevant, but perhaps with a twist. There are things which concern all scientific researchers.

Open publication

On the face of it, open publication (accessible to all readers without cost) sounds as harmless as apple pie. But all is not so simple …

Part of the difficulty comes from different attitudes taken by different funders. In the UK, the research councils’ policy mandates open access publication for articles which they fund. Their preferred method is gold open access, where the author pays an APC (article processing charge, or “page charges”) to the publisher, who then makes the article freely available. They also permit green open access, which involves publication of the author’s accepted version of the article (not the publisher’s version) on a free site such as the arXiv or an institutional repository within a certain time of publication (between 6 and 24 months, depending on subject and publisher).

(The arXiv is a preprint server on which, after an introduction, anyone is free to post a paper; there is no refereeing, but the resource is becoming the first port of call for many researchers.)

APCs are funded by block grants to universities and other research organisations by RCUK. This has the unwanted side effect that decisions about who can publish have been put into the hands of managers who distribute the money. (Indeed, like all special grants of this sort, there is no mechanism to ensure that it is used for the intended purpose at all!)

By contrast, the funding council’s policy is essentially green open access with the period allowed being a maximum of three months (from acceptance, rather than from publication as with the research councils). This applies to papers eligible for the 2020 REF (research assessment). In view of this policy, I do not understand why a British academic should ever pay page charges, since the article has to be made freely available anyway.

The HEFCE policy has also caused some confusion. A previous version of the policy explicitly permitted the arXiv for the deposit of articles, though this appears to have disappeared from the present version. But some universities are insisting that their staff put papers in an institutional repository, where it is easier for administrators to manage, even if not so easy for other researchers to find.

A consequence of the stampede to gold open access which should have been foreseen (but apparently wasn’t) is the rise of predatory publishers which advertise rapid publication (often by skimping on refereeing) as long as the APC is paid. In one or two cases, a journal has been “exposed” by an author submitting a bogus paper to it; but the practice is now extremely widespread. I even came across a journal where authors could “jump the queue” for publication by paying money to the journal.

There is a different solution, which neither RCUK nor HEFCE seem to have considered, referred to as diamond open access. A diamond journal is run by volunteers rather than commercial publishers; publication is free both to authors and to readers. I can’t find a convenient list of diamond open access journals; but they include the long-established and influential Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, as well as a journal of which I have the honour of being an Editor-in-Chief, the Australasian Journal of Combinatorics. David Wood has given me a list with a few more examples: J. Computational Geometry, New York J. Mathematics, Documenta Mathematica, Discrete Maths. & Theoretical Comput. Sci., J. Graph Algorithms & Applications, Contributions to Discrete Mathematics, Theory of Computing, Ars Mathematica Contemporanea, and INTEGERS.

A slightly different model has been pushed by Tim Gowers, who has established a journal Discrete Analysis. (Even Tim agrees that the term “diamond” is not really appropriate here.) This is an “epijournal”, and works like this: you write a paper, put it on the arXiv, and email the journal to say you wish to submit it. It is refereed in the traditional manner; when it is accepted, the journal simply puts a link to the accepted version on the arXiv. Tim’s journal is currently free to both authors and readers; he estimates that it will cost ten dollars per published paper, but this cost is currently being covered by a grant from his university. (In any case, ten dollars is a couple of orders of magnitude smaller than typical commercial APC.) He describes his new journal here, and invites contributions. (He has recently announced that part of Terry Tao’s solution to the Erdős discrepancy problem has been submitted to Discrete Analysis.)

It is clear that academic publishing is in the throes of great changes, and I would be rash to predict the final outcome; but my view is that we should support diamond journals by sending them our best papers, so that administrators will not be able to overlook them.

Continued in Part 2: Open Data