Three years of open access efforts: preprints are my future

Like many people, I started to boycott Elsevier 3 years ago. I went for the full boycott: I pledged not to publish any paper in Elsevier journals anymore, as well as not to review for any of their journals. I declined the first invitation to review on November 25, 2013. I am an established scientist with a wonderful permanent position at the CNRS, almost 60 papers already published, and enough grants secured for a few years. It was therefore much easier to do it for me than for someone trying to get a place in the sun.

Although I did not kept track every papers I decline to review, I probably declined to review 30 to 40 papers, give or take. Most editors (not all) quickly removed me from their reviewer database, so that I stopped receiving invitations from them. Others did not, so I kept declining and sending the same message for 3 years. I receive more papers than I can review anyway, so that it did not change my overall reviewing activity.

I had a small paragraph (I found one on the internet somewhere and adapted it. Can’t remember where, sorry about that) that I always sent to the editor whenever I declined a review, explaining why I did so. From the 40 papers or so I declined to review, I got feedback about my message only twice.

One editor-in-chief emailed me once, and was rather sympathetic to my cause (he was himself publishing some of his papers in open access journals). He told me he never had such straightforward and strongly worded comments on this topic before, even though some (many?) people discussed it with him. I understood that these people were scared from being blacklisted by the journal.

The other feedback was from an editor-in-chief I personally know … as he is my former PhD supervisor. Of course he disagreed with me, but we had a good discussion on the topic. I didn’t convinced him to resign from the journal.

Other than this: no feedback whatsoever. None. No one cared. As far as I can tell, it did not make any difference. And I assume that I was probably the only one to decline the review for these reasons (the materials science community is not exactly at the edge of open access efforts).

The other side of the boycott were my own papers. A few Elsevier journals are quite important in my domain. Before starting to boycott them, I published 13 papers in Elsevier journals (Acta Materialia, Biomaterials, Journal of the European Ceramic Society). The last paper I published in an Elsevier journal was in 2012. I did not published with them anymore after that, unlike many other scientists who pledged to boycott them. There are many reasons to break this boycott (mainly: not putting students or postdocs in a difficult position by excluding a relevant journal for their paper).

Whenever we had a paper ready for submission, we had to choose a journal. Although I always raised the question and explained my reasons, I never forced my co-authors to comply with my own choices. Their response was so-so. Most of them did not care too much, although they understood my point. We always found a good solution (in terms of journal). The two main issues discussed were (1) why just Elsevier, and not Wiley (I published 15 papers in the Journal of the American Ceramic Society, published by Wiley), Springer, etc. which are for profit publishers too ? and (2) the APC costs. On this last point, I was in a rather good position, having a large grants where APC are eligible cost. However, this also means not using this money for something else in the lab. As this fantastic grant is coming to an end, I may have to reconsider my opinion on this, though.

I also recently asked an editor to make my paper open access. YMMV, but hey, if you don’t ask, you’ll never know. In this case, I accepted an invitation at the condition of the paper being made open access, and the editor kindly accepted (the publisher agreed to make a few papers -which they deemed important enough- open access every year). Very nice (I have to write the paper, though). This will not work for most papers, although APC can sometimes be waived if you have good reasons).

I therefore experienced with a few open access journals, with various degrees of satisfaction. The open access journals I submitted to were either not for profit or society journals (PLOS OneScience and Technology of Advanced Materials, Materials, Inorganics), or mega open access journals from the big players (Scientific Reports, ACS Omega). We also published a few other papers in paywalled journals, and made the preprints available for them.

I did not spent too much on APC. I paid them for PLOs One (happily), Scientific Reports (not happily), and Science and Technology of Advanced Materials (twice. Reasonable APC), and that’s it. The APCs were waived in Materials (the paper was an invited review). We also had a feature paper in a paywalled journal that was made open to anyone (without actually asking, which was very nice). The APC of our latest paper (in ACS Omega) were reduced from $2000 to $0 ! A $500 transfer discount (the paper was rejected from another ACS journal), plus 2x$750 waivers offered by the ACS because I previously published two other papers in one of their journals (Langmuir). Overall, it was thus not a huge amount spent on APC during these three years.

Although I initially quite liked the idea of these mega journals, I have a different opinion today, after a few years of seeing what they published. In some of these mega journals, there is a lot of so-so, or frankly terrible papers (won’t name, won’t shame). In others (e.g. PLOS One), our community is not publishing, so I almost never found anything relevant in them (we published in PLOS One because I wanted biologists to see this paper, which was about antifreeze proteins. And they found it.).

Overall, I still believe in the value of journals, for the filtering they provide (or that authors provide by choosing to submit to them). Even though I use Google Scholar and the likes for keeping track of what is published (through keywords and alerts), I am also following a number of journals to see what the different communities are up to (e.g. Langmuir, Soft Matter, etc.). I cannot achieve this with the mega journals. There is just too much noise, and too many communities publishing in these journals.

Open access journals initially tried to differentiate themselves also by providing new services to the authors, such as altmetrics. However, this is not the case anymore today as pretty much all journals are jumping on the train (I like to know how many times my papers were downloaded, even though it is sometimes a bit depressing). In my own experience, it is difficult to tell if our papers received more attention because they were not behind paywalls, although I’d like to believe so. But hey, the idea it to make everything accessible. Who knows when and how a paper will be useful to someone and make an impact ? Nobody has any answer to this question (which is a good thing I believe).

In the meantime, preprints have attracted a considerable attention, and develop rapidly. Although physicist have used arXiv for ever, chemists (chemRxiv), biologists (bioRxiv), and many others (SocArXiv) are now joining the game, and journals are increasingly opened to preprints (of course). Elsevier now has a Romeo-green policy regarding preprints for its journals. As more and more people know about preprints, they also head to these servers when looking for the access to a paper they don’t have access to (search engines point to them, too). This is therefore a very cost-effective solution for making papers available right now. Feel free to argue in the comments below.

A number of other openness initiatives have also gained a lot of steam recently, besides papers. I am talking here about the data and figures, of course. I have become a huge fan of services like Figshare or Github. There is as much value (if not more) in sharing data and code (and giving them DOI to get citations and keep track of their use), than in just publishing a paper. Even if you are not convinced by this, just think about your h-index: people are more likely to cite your paper if you give them stuff (tools, data) they can reuse. Being an increasingly avid user of image analysis, we are now providing our codes (Python) whenever we publish a paper (2 papers so far, here and here, and more coming soon). The code is a Jupyter notebook with Python code and explanations inside, trying to explain as precisely as possible what we did so that people can check, replicate, reuse or iterate if they are interested. Based on the download counts, it proved almost as popular as the paper. This one was accessed 1589 times, and downloaded 219 times (while the paper itself was accessed 3064 times to date)! I was positively surprised by this. It also initiated a new project and collaboration on open data (in the pipe, be patient). I am certainly going to continue in this direction in a foreseeable future.

Besides the code and data, I found another very interesting use for Figshare (or anything similar you’d like): claiming the copyright of my own figures, so that their reuse (by yourself or someone else) is easy and does not depend on publishers. I started thus to upload a number of figures to Figshare (before submitting the paper). No editor has complained about this so far (I suspect editors actually like it since they like to have a clear view of which license is used). This is not very useful for simple plots: as long as you provide the data, they can be easily replotted in most cases. For complex plots or drawings and images that took a lot of time and efforts, I found this idea very exciting and incredibly simple to implement. It takes 2min per item to upload and tag it on FigShare.

Based on this analysis, where do I stand today?

  • Regarding the boycott to Elsevier: I will do my best to avoid them, but if the community we are targeting is publishing (reading) in an Elsevier journal, so be it. Like I said, Elsevier is Romeo-green on preprints, so we can make the paper available at no cost, and for me, that’s good enough for now. Our main criterion for selecting a journal is (and has always been): which community do we target ? Who do we think will be the most interested by our paper?
  • Reviewing: because nobody cared about my boycott in these journals, I am not declining reviews anymore (I am not accepting ALL reviews either, so don’t send me everything). There’s no reason I can’t kill papers like everybody else, right?
  • Whenever I give a talk, I always mention on my slides if the papers are open access. I see more and more people doing this. It raises awareness among those not convinced yet.
  • Preprints: yes, yes, and yes. This is now my number one criterion. If the journal does not allow preprints and is not open access, it will probably be a no-go. On the short term, I believe that preprints are the easiest way to make papers available at no cost (the cost of running arXiv is not negligible but the cost per paper is incredibly low, compared to the typical APC).
  • Data, code, presentations: Figshare ! I love it. We now always release the codes we developed, even if I am not a good coder (ahem). The feedback on the data/code we released so far was excellent. I also started to share the slides of my talks too, with a very good feedback.
  • Keeping the copyright of my own figures using Figshare (or something similar if you don’t like Figshare). I’ll try to do this as much as possible. I love the idea and its simplicity. Figshare items can be embargoed, so this is not an issue in principle if you have a super fancy paper coming up.
  • Mega journals of for-profit publishers: I most likely won’t publish with them anymore. Besides the APC issue (I am not going to pay $5k for a paper), I just found too much noise in these journals. It has become very clear that this is just another way of making money for them. Other mega journals: same reasoning applies.
  • Educate our students about the publishing system, so that they can make their own choices, knowing how it works. This will take a generation or two, so we’ll have to be patient.

Even if you do not want to pay to make your papers open, there is therefore a lot you can do today to make your papers and their code/data available. Even though it’s nice to see individuals fighting for this, I believe that the most efficient way to change the system is for the funders to require open access. The ERC does this now. Other funders are joining the trend. Even reluctant academics will change their habit, because they won’t have the choice. And this actually be done rapidly. The journals will have to adapt, somehow.

That’s my position today. Feel free to argue in the comments or on Twitter.