On August 25, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against three related academic publishers, OMICS Group, iMedPub, and Conference Series, along with their president and director, Srinubabu Gedela. The complaint provides a laundry list of extremely concerning behaviors on the part of the publishers, most of which involve lying to submitting authors. After investigating these complaints, I’ll take a brief look at what this filing means for the world of scholarly publication.
The FTC filing claims that Gedela participated in deceptive business practices in order to solicit academic articles from authors. These publishers claimed that their journals had academic experts on editorial boards and serving as peer reviews, had high impact factors, and were indexed in reputable databases such as PubMed Central. Authors whose work was accepted by these journals, operating under the impression that they had submitted to legitimate academic publishers, would then be informed of previously undisclosed fees that needed to be paid before publication. These fees would range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, and authors attempting to withdraw their manuscripts from publication would not be allowed to do so. Once an article has been accepted for publication, it is against academic practice to submit that article elsewhere, meaning that articles submitted to these journals were essentially stuck.
The claims made by the publishers were, in this case, false. Academics listed as editors or peer reviewers had no affiliation with journal, the impact factors provided by the publishers were not calculated by Thompson Reuters, and the journals did not show up in PubMed Central or other reputable databases. The publishers were, in essence, luring academics in under false pretenses and trapping their articles in limbo until exorbitant fees were paid.
This behavior was not limited to publications, however. The FTC filing also alleges that Gedela would organize conferences and claim that certain leading academics would be in attendance or participating in some way. Unsuspecting academics would register for these conferences, often paying large registration fees, only to discover that none of these experts had ever agreed to participate.
So what does this mean in the larger world of scholarly publishing? First and foremost it indicates that the FTC is growing more willing to pursue legal action against so-called “predatory publishers,” publishing companies that claim to adhere to usual academic standards but do not, in fact, do so. Though this problem is not a new one, but the FTC’s reaction is new. As Ioana Rusu, a staff attorney for the FTC, stated in an interview, this filing serves as a sort of announcement that the commission will be paying closer attention to the field of scholarly publishing. Though it does not have the resources to pursue action against all unscrupulous publishers in operation, the FTC does plan to target key offenders in order to set a precedent.
Though OMICS, iMedPub, and Conference Series were ostensibly Open Access (OA) publishers, it should be kept in mind Gedela and his ilk are not representative of OA as a whole. Many OA publishers are indexed in reputable and well-known databases and many do have impact factors. Smaller OA publications that are not indexed in large databases or do not have impact factors can nonetheless implement thorough peer review. This FTC action should, in fact, allow authors to feel more secure submitting to OA publications, as those publishers operating under false pretenses may no longer feel that it’s worth running their scam under the threat of federal legal action.
I’ll end here for now, but look for another post soon that will provide some simple actions that can help authors avoid falling prey to publishers like OMICS.
It would seem that I am doomed to continue writing about Elsevier. It was announced yesterday that the academic publishing giant had been awarded the patent for “online peer review system and method” by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The full patent is available here, but the abstract for the patent reads about as vaguely as possible:
“An online document management system is disclosed. In one embodiment, the online document management system comprises: one or more editorial computers operated by one or more administrators or editors, the editorial computers send invitations and manage peer review of document submissions; one or more system computers, the system computers maintain journals, records of submitted documents and user profiles, and issue notifications; and one or more user computers; the user computers submit documents or revisions to the document management system; wherein one or more of the editorial computers coordinate with one or more of the system computers to migrate one or more documents between journals maintained by the online document management system.”
This patent is concerning for a few reasons. First and foremost, I am reminded of the case of Soverain Software in the mid-2000s to early-2010s. Soverain was (and perhaps still is) a “patent troll,” a company whose entire business model relies on the filing of patents in order to extract money from other entities who are using technologies covered by these patents. In the case of Soverain, the company owned a patent on the online shopping cart, a near-ubiquitous bit of online shopping technology. Soverain would make its money by suing any company whose online store used an online shopping cart, including such giants as Amazon. In the end, Soverain bit off more than they could chew when pursuing legal action against online retailer NewEgg, whose lawyers essentially showed that some of the key patents behind the suit were invalid. You see, a patent is only valid if the technology being patented is new; if someone came up with it before you (which is known as the existence of “prior art”) then you can’t legally patent it. NewEgg showed that another entity had come up with the idea of an online shopping cart before Sovrain’s patent was filed, thereby invalidating it.
What does this have to do with Elsevier’s patent? Well, as you may suspect, many in the scholarly publishing community have reacted to the patent with claims that prior art for online peer review exists. Martin Paul Eve (Professor of Literature, Technology, and Publishing, Birkbeck, University of London) scoffed at the notion that no prior art exists, and David Crotty (Editorial Director, Journals Policy, Oxford University Press) replied to Eve’s tweet by pointing out that much of what is claimed to be innovative in Elsevier’s patent is covered by the system developed by the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium. And, though Eve indicated that he thinks the patent may be legally unenforceable, he is also concerned that other entities may not have the resources to legally challenge Elsevier’s claims.
Therein lies the problem. Even if the patent isn’t legally enforceable, Elsevier is a very large academic publisher who is not afraid to use its lawyers when it feels that such action is necessary. Much of the innovation happening in peer review workflows is a result of smaller entities, entities that do not have the resources to fight a legal battle against Elsevier even if it was likely that they would win. The difference between this case and the Soverain case above is that the scholarly publishing world does not have a NewEgg to push back against Elsevier’s claims. Elsevier can essentially run roughshod over any other scholarly publishing entity who wishes to implement online peer review. Whether it does remains to be seen but, as I mentioned above, Elsevier’s track record is cause for concern.
There is another, possibly more concerning issue, though, one which Brandon Butler (Director of Information Policy, University of Virginia Library) called out on Twitter and one that has been a recurring theme in this blog as of late. Elsevier has begun to hedge its bets in the event that Open Access (OA) publishing becomes standard practice for academics. Since a movement towards OA will presumably make control over the end result of the publishing process less profitable, Elsevier is seeking to profit off of the rest of the scholarly publishing pipeline. Several months ago, Elsevier acquired the OA repository SSRN; the depositing of pre- and post-prints into SSRN has been an essential step in the publishing process for authors in a wide range of subject areas. Now Elsevier hopes to profit off of the peer review process as well. And, as was the case with their acquisition of SSRN, this latest move by Elsevier has me worried as to what they might do next.
In my last post for the Scholars Cooperative, I gave a brief overview of a major issue occurring as a result of Elsevier’s takeover of SSRN, that many papers on SSRN were being taken down due to “copyright concerns.” It seems that articles uploaded without a statement indicating explicit permission from the copyright holder to deposit the article in SSRN are being taken down without warning. At the end, I indicated that a possible alternative to SSRN, SocArXiv, was in the process of beginning operations. Philip Cohen of SocArXiv recently gave an interview with the scholarly communication blog In the Open discussing the project and its future.
The entire interview is worth a read, but it should be noted that the Center for Open Science has set up a temporary site where authors can begin submitting articles to SocArXiv.
Over the long Memorial Day weekend, member states of the European Union agreed on a resolution that all scientific research papers produced in EU would be Open Access by the year 2020. This is obviously welcome news for both OA advocates and for scientific researchers the world over, as they can ostensibly look forward to broader access to research. It bears a bit of further scrutiny, though, especially since write-ups from The Guardian and Science Magazine get quite a bit wrong about OA. I also want to quickly say that, though the rest of this post is critical of the resolution, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I’m happy to see awareness of OA being raised abroad, and I hope to see scholarship in the US follow suit. Instead, I just hope to explore what this resolution does and does not mean for OA.
There is some skepticism as to whether or not achieving this goal is possible, and that skepticism is justified. As reported in the Science Magazine article, even The Netherlands, considered by many to be the EU’s OA frontrunner, had targeted 2024 for its own attempt at going 100% OA for scientific articles. The EU’s League of European Research Universities, while enthusiastically supportive of the 2020 goal, says that it will not be easy to achieve; the EU’s Competitiveness Council, the group of science, trade, and industry ministers responsible for the resolution, provided little concrete information on moving towards this goal.
On the surface, it does seem as though this has potential to be impactful for scientific researchers all over the world, not just in Europe. Stevan Hanard of the University of Québec, an advocate for OA, told Science Magazine that he sees Green OA methods, such as deposit in institutional repositories (IRs) like our own DigitalCommons@WayneState, as the best way for the EU to achieve their goal. Green OA has long been the preferred method for many libraries, including here at WSU, as it does not require the authors or institutions to pay fees in order to make the work OA. If the EU pushes for IR deposit to be the primary means of achieving this OA resolution, that will certainly spell significant change for much of the scholarly publishing world. Why? Well, that requires a quick aside to talk about how IR deposits and copyright interact.
In brief, an author can only deposit their work in an IR (or other repositories) if the copyright holder permits it. Many (though not all) academic publishers require authors to sign over copyright (or at least to give the publisher an exclusive license to distribute), and hence it is often the publisher who gets to decide if an author can deposit their work in an IR. There is currently no standard among publishers, and it can in fact be quite a chore to determine the specifics of a publisher’s policies with regards to IR deposits. Were all EU researchers required to publish in journals that permitted IR deposit, this would cause a significant shift in the practices of these academic publishers. They would be forced to re-evaluate their policies regarding IR deposits (and possibly copyright), or risk missing out on submissions coming from the EU.
There are, of course, some very important caveats:
Most importantly, Green OA is not currently the preferred OA method for much of the research emanating from the EU. As pointed out in the Science Magazine article, the resolution did not express any preference as to OA method, and governments such as that of The Netherlands have long been supporting Gold OA methods instead. Putting things simplistically, Gold OA is a system whereby the author or authors of an article pay an article processing charge (APC) to the publisher to offset the percieved loss of subscription revenue on the publisher’s part. In the EU (and in the US), these APCs can be quite expensive and are often written into grant proposals. It is hard to know what the scholarly publishing landscape would look like were the EU to push Gold OA, but it would likely put an increased financial strain on any researchers unable to secure grant funding for their research.
Possibly just as important is the fact that the Competitiveness Council has been very vague about this resolution. Anyone who has some familiarity with the ins and outs of OA knows that many publishers who do allow authors to deposit works in IRs require that they be embargoed for a certain amount of time, anywhere from several months to several years. The council’s statement, as reported in Science Magazine, specified that scientific research should be published “without embargoes or with as short as possible embargoes.” This sadly leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it will remain to be seen if the Council specifies something more concrete in the future. It is perhaps a bit telling that a representative of the Council said specifically that the resolution “[…] is not a law, but it’s a political orientation for the 28 governments.”
Finally, as a bit of a post-script, this resolution seems to be concerned solely with scientific research and does not apply to research outside of the STEM fields. This is not entirely surprising, since the Competitiveness Council is comprised of ministers of science and industry, and drafting resolutions on research in the arts and humanities may be outside of the council’s purview. Still, it is unfortunate that no similar resolution has been released for research in non-STEM fields.
Over the holiday weekend, some interesting news broke via the twitter of Rik Smith-Unna, a PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK. In a GoogleDoc shared by Smith-Unna, he described a situation whereby his entire institution was blocked from access to all of Wiley’s materials under the assumption that a legitimate, academic information mining crawl was, in fact, a botnet or some similar sinister process. He goes on to describe the university being contacted by Wiley to determine the source of this “data breach”. At the root of all this confusion? Several DOIs, or Digital Object Identifiers, assigned to resources associated with Wiley products.
A brief aside for any unfamiliar with DOIs: a DOI is sequence of letters and numbers meant to uniquely identify a particular digital object (hence the name), and are widely used for scholarly articles published online. They allow any user to quickly and easily navigate to the primary online home of any such article, regardless of whether or not platforms, URLs, or journal names have changed since the item’s publication; this is an invaluable service for researchers and librarians, among others. CrossRef, a not-for-profit association of publishers, handles much of the assignment of DOIs for scholarly materials.
So what was the problem with the Wiley DOIs accessed by Smith-Unna? In short, they were fake: dummy DOIs meant to catch anyone attempting to crawl through, and harvest information on, materials hosted by Wiley online. On the surface, this doesn’t seem like poor practice on behalf of the publisher. However, in addition to blocking access because of legitimate scholarly inquiry (as was Smith-Unna’s above), there are some serious issues with this approach.
First, as mentioned by Geoffrey Bilder (CrossRef’s Director of Strategic Initiatives) in a reply to Smith-Unna’s tweet, CrossRef discourages publishers and content platforms from using fake DOIs or DOI-related things in this way. As Smith-Unna points out, the value of DOIs is that they are both unique and stable; a DOI remains the same regardless of any platform or URL changes, and each DOI is associated with one, and only one, digital item. Muddling this up with “fake” DOIs that are not stable and are not unique compromises the whole system. Can you imagine a researcher trying to access a legitimate article through its DOI and getting rerouted to one of these dummy DOI pages? Not only would this be very problematic for the researcher, it may also cause a situation like Smith-Unna and Cambridge found themselves in. Independent researchers and researchers at smaller institutions may not have as much of an ability to convince a large publisher that their accessing that DOI was legitimate, too.
Second, there are likely better ways of combating unauthorized crawling. Many other sites have do this just fine without relying on dummy DOIs. According to Bilder, in conversation with Smith-Unna on Twitter, this is not the first time CrossRef has encountered this behavior, but other platforms have stopped after CrossRef contacted them. If other platforms in the scholarly publishing realm are able to adequately cope with the threat of unauthorized crawling without resorting to setting up dummy DOIs, then why use them? The obvious answer is that it is easy, but I expect that, not that Bilder is aware of the situation, Wiley and its platforms will cease using this method.
Ideologically, though, this is of concern because it demonstrates a lack of understanding or respect for researchers on the part of Wiley and other publishers. As Bilder tweeted, this is not the first time CrossRef has had to deal with this issue, meaning that Wiley is not the first academic publisher to use dummy DOIs or “DOI-like things”. DOIs have become an important part of maintaining the scholarly record; as I’ve said a few times above, they are unique and stable identifiers for (among other things) journal articles, and most citation styles now recommend including them in lists of references in order to simplify the process of tracking cited articles down. They may not be entirely essential to research, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an argument that they are not extremely helpful to research. By setting up fake DOIs, Wiley and other publishers are demonstrating that saving money is more important to them than maintaining the integrity of the DOI system. Preventing unauthorized crawling is something these platforms should be doing, yes, but setting up fake DOIs is only one way of doing this. It is a cheap and easy way of doing it, but that shouldn’t matter more to these publishers than the integrity of a system that is so beneficial to their consumers.
That is why we should find this kind of behavior concerning, because it demonstrates that supporting research is not the chief priority of these publishers.
It was announced yesterday that publishing giant Elsevier has purchased the popular open repository Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for an as-yet undisclosed sum, according to an article in Nature. SSRN is well-known as a leading repository for economics, law, the social sciences, and the humanities. Elsevier was quite to provide assurances that it still plans to offer free submissions and downloads through SSRN, though it is unclear if it will retain the policy of offering email subscriptions for a small fee. As reported in Nature, Elsevier is only one of several for-profit publishers that have tried (without much success) to start up their own preprint repositories in the past; it is not a huge surprise that they have now opted to acquire an established repository instead.
This move fits in with Elsevier’s recent attempts to develop interests in nontraditional markets related to scholarly communication and research. It was only a few short years ago that Elsevier purchased the citation management tool/academic social network Mendeley, likely in hopes of competing with sites like ResearchGate and Academia.edu. Joe Esposito, a publishing consultant who has long been critical of academic libraries’ attempts to move into the world of scholarly publishing, viewed the move favorably:
“Elsevier is now getting closer and closer to researchers with business models that don’t involve libraries. The positioning is well thought out: lock up revenues to the legacy publishing business, move into areas where piracy is not much of an issue, create deeper relationships with researchers and become more and more essential to researchers even as librarians become less so.”
This is, it would seem, a comment on the institutional repositories operated by many academic libraries. He also seems to be of the opinion that researchers should be more reliant on large, for-profit publishers instead of libraries and librarians. Never mind the fact that Elsevier has long been regarded as one of the worst offenders when it comes to restrictive publishing policies and price increases for its products. Should we not be worried, then, that they are seeking to control even more of the scholarly publishing market? Libraries in general have been working harder and harder to provide free and open access to scholarly materials, a policy taken up under the broad philosophy that:
- Free and open access to scholarship promotes further scholarship and is good for both academia and humanity as a whole
- Scholarly authors should have copyright control over their own works
We here at the WSU Library System are no exception to this. Elsevier’s actions are a bit concerning because they have no such philosophy and, in fact, many of their practices are antithetical to the philosophies underpinning free and open access. Their business model relies on acquiring the scholarship produced by researchers, primarily those working at academic institutions, securing the copyright to these works, and then reselling them back to the institutions that have, through their faculty, produced them. It’s not unreasonable to be wary of a large, for-profit publisher taking over an open repository like SSRN, especially when Elsevier has historically (it would seem) made it as hard as possible for authors to deposit to such repositories.
It will be interesting to see if and how the SSRN’s policies change under its new owner, especially with regards to any copyright arrangements that may be put in place. Other large repositories, like arXiv.org, do not require authors to sign over copyright and are dedicated to allowing authors to publish finished articles wherever they wish. According to Paul Ginsparg, one of arXiv’s co-founders:
“I always felt that it was an advantage that arXiv was not aligned with any particular publisher (or any academic ideology for that matter), making it more natural to ingest preprints that could simultaneously go to any publisher.”
An interesting court case came to my attention recently, one which is perhaps not immediately applicable to the scholarly world but still may hold some interest. The lawsuit involves Paramount Pictures and CBS filing suit against Axanar Productions, Inc., a production company involved in the creation of a crowdfunded Star Trek fan film. Included among the many pieces of intellectual property that Paramount and CBS claim are being utilized by Axanar illegally is the fictitious language of Klingon, spoken by a race of the same name in the Star Trek universe. Before getting into that, though, a brief history of the production and ensuing lawsuit:
In 2014, Axanar Productions, Inc. released a 21-minute short film titled Prelude to Axanar. It was crowdfunded, and served as a sort of proof-of-concept and as a pitch to justify future donations in support of more productions. Another crowdfunding drive raised money for the construction of a studio and sound stage, and finally a third was started in order to support the filming of Axanar itself, envisioned as a feature-length, professional-quality film. The project was funded in August of 2015, and more information can be found in the production’s IndieGoGo page and its related pitch video.
In December of 2015, Paramount and CBS filed suit, claiming that Axanar planned to use a slew of copyrighted material. This initial complaint, which can be found here, was bounced back by Axanar‘s lawyers, claiming it was not specific enough. In March of 2016, an amended complaint was filed which included a list of specific instances of copyright infringement. Included on this list were things like the pointed ears sported by Vulcan characters, the uniforms and logos associated with Starfleet and the Federation, and, as mentioned above, the spoken Klingon language.
After a bit more back-and-forth, a third party entered the scene; the Language Creation Society filed a brief in order to support the notion that Klingon as a language is ineligible for copyright. The Klingon language was invented by Marc Okrand in 1984 for the film Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and it is upon this basis that Paramount and CBS claim to own copyright on it. However, the Language Creation Society’s brief notes that the language has developed far beyond what it was at its creation, and that this development has mostly been at the hands of Star Trek fans. It argues that Klingon has surpassed its roots and become a full-fledged language and, as such, is not entitled to copyright protection. The amicus brief filed by the Language Creation Society can be found in full here.
Why might this be important? Well, first and foremost, the United States court system has yet to address the eligibility of constructed spoken languages for copyright. Beyond that, the ruling may hold some significance for all constructed languages; an article in The Hollywood Reporter notes that coding languages, which are certainly artificially constructed, could be affected by this ruling were the judge to rule in favor of Paramount and CBS. In that case, it is not a huge leap to imagine the inventors of a coding language controlling its use with licenses if they are able to copyright the language itself.
A new article on entomophagy (i.e., eating insects) in North America was recently published by Dr. Maria Pontes Ferreira (Department of Food and Nutrition Science) and colleagues in the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed published by Wageningen Academic Publishers. This review article describes the history of entomophagy as practiced by native North Americans and early American colonists, detailing the species of insects that were mostly commonly consumed and their methods of preparation. Given the growing interest in re-introducing insects into the modern North American diet, this article helps pave the way for future studies on the nutritional value of insect-based foods. The article can be read for free here.
The Wayne State University Library System is pleased to have supported the open access publication of this article through the 2016 Open Access Fund, which underwrites publication charges for materials published in fee-based, peer-reviewed venues that are openly accessible.
If you’ve been following the news in the world of scholarly publishing lately, you’ve probably heard quite a bit about the website Sci-Hub. In brief, Sci-Hub was founded by Kazakhstani researcher Alexandra Elbakyan with the mission of circumventing copyright in order to provide free access to articles appearing in scholarly journals. Despite the fact that Elbakyan has been operating the site since September of 2011 (well over 4 years), it is only recently that we have seen widespread coverage of the site. Buzz has grown to such a point in fact, that a recent Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times has compared Elbakyan to Edward Snowden.
Considering that this NYT piece, titled Should All Research Papers be Free?, is the only exposure that much of the non-academia world will have to this situation, it is a shame then that the author draws so direct a line between Sci-Hub and the open access (OA) movement. Even more so, it is unfortunate that some OA activists have seemed to come out in unreserved support for Elbakyan and her mission, a fact which outlets such as Scholarly Kitchen were quick to point out. It is unfortunate because, according to Peter Suber (as quoted in the NYT article), “Unlawful access gives open access a bad name.”
Suber is director of the office of scholarly communication at Harvard, and is one of the OA movement’s pioneers. In a follow-up piece posted to his Google+ page, Suber expanded on his comments cautioning OA activists from getting too excited in their support of Elbakyan and Sci-Hub:
Giving support to the false impression that OA requires infringement misleads people about these facts, especially newcomers not familiar with the many kinds of lawful OA. Moreover, it gives anti-OA publishers a propaganda gift. […] The risk of unlawful OA services is that they could trigger a new wave of false assumptions about (1) the lawfulness of OA, (2) the wide range of lawful options for researchers to make their work OA, and (3) the importance of persuading researchers to make one of those lawful choices.
His post and the ensuing comments present an excellent case as to why OA activists should not be backing Sci-Hub, and of the dangers of linking the OA movement with Elbakyan’s activities.