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- The current scholarly publishing system is detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge and needs a radical shift. Publishers have already anticipated new trends and have tried to protect their profits.
- Current publishers’ power stems from the historical roots of their journals – and researchers are looking for symbolic status in the eye of their peers by publishing in renowned journals.
- To counter them effectively, we need to identify obstacles that researchers themselves might face. Journals still perform some useful tasks and it requires effort to devise working alternatives.
- There have already been many attempts and partial successes to drive a new shift in scholarly publishing. Many of them should be further developed and generalised.
- In this excerpt from a report prepared by the Basic Research Community for Physics, the authors discuss these successes and make recommendations to different actors.
The following article is an extended excerpt from ‘Against Parasite Publishers: Making Journals Free’, a report prepared by researchers with the Basic Research Community for Physics (BRCP). It was uploaded to Zenodo on October 16, 2022, and is available under a CC BY licence.
The report’s authors are1 Guilherme Franzmann, Janek Glowacki, Alice van Helden, Leon Loveridge, Pierre Martin-Dussaud, Markus Penz, Alexander Thomas, Eleftherios-Ermis Tselentis and Carlos Zapata-Carratala. The list of references is available in the full report.
An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good.
— Opening sentence of the BOAI declaration .
The current publication system, described in the first chapter2, is detrimental to the pursuit of knowledge. It is necessary to make a radical shift happen. Publishers have already anticipated the new trends, and have tried to shape them to protect their profits. To counter them effectively, we need to identify the obstacles that could be faced by the researchers themselves. First, it takes time and energy to change habits. Journals still perform some useful technical tasks, and it requires effort to devise working alternatives. More importantly, the power of current publishers stems from the historical roots of the journals they own, which have gained prestige over the years. Researchers are looking for symbolic status in the eye of their peers and superiors by publishing in renowned journals. Besides, the material conditions of researchers push them to ask for positions, promotions, and grants from funding institutions, which use the prestige of journals as a proxy to evaluate them.
Despite these difficulties, there have already been many attempts and partial successes to drive a new shift in scholarly publishing. Many of them should be further developed and generalised. We expose them in this chapter and make recommendations addressed to the different actors.
2.1 Repositories and Shadow Libraries
Like medieval copying monks who would have opposed Gutenberg’s printing, paywall remains anachronistic to the digital revolution. Nevertheless, a few ways by which to bypass paywalls, legal or not, have become increasingly popular.
arXiv – The website arXiv.org is an online repository where scientists freely store the preprints of their articles and make them freely accessible to anyone. It concerns mainly physics, mathematics, and computer science, where it has become an almost universal practice to post a version of a paper on arXiv. Since its creation in 1991, the number of submissions has grown exponentially. The total number of articles is approaching 2 millions, with a monthly submission rate of about 16,000. The arXiv is owned by Cornell University, and it has a budget of approximately $2.6 million per year, funded mainly by Cornell University, the Simons Foundation and many other companies, societies, and universities . Although arXiv was one of the first such repositories, many others have developed in other fields, such as Europe PubMed Central, CiteSeerX, and bioRxiv. The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) is trying to develop a global network of open access repositories with aligned policies and practices.
Guerilla Open Access Manifesto – Naturally, the ethical values of the early internet and hacker culture strongly influence the scientific community when it comes to sharing knowledge. Such ideas are reflected in Aaron Swartz’s (hacktivist and co-founder of Reddit) “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” written in 2008 . It starts with the words: “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves,” and continues to name Elsevier as an example. Like this report, Swartz offers basic ideas on what individuals can do to keep information free, and advocates guerilla tactics that would imply copyright infringements, but “only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy”.
In 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested and prosecuted for having organised a systematic download from the JSTOR digital repository. The judicial proceedings led him to commit suicide in 2013.
Sci-Hub – In 2011, the Kazakh researcher Alexandra Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a website providing free access to millions of research articles that were behind paywalls. At the beginning of 2022, it hosts 88 million articles , which means the majority of all articles ever published . It also receives more than 2 million search requests per day . These numbers show that Sci-Hub is widely used by researchers and this is true whatever the level of wealth of their country. In the top-20 from countries using the service, one finds China, USA, France, Brazil, India, Germany, Russia, Iran, Vietnam .
The main publishers (Elsevier, Springer Nature, the American Chemical Society, John Wiley, Cambridge University Press, etc.) sued the website for infringing copyright laws. As a consequence, Internet service providers were forced to ban the website in many countries, like France, Germany, Sweden, and the UK. The European Commission included Sci-Hub in its “Piracy Watch List” . There is an ongoing trial in India that opposes Sci-Hub to ACS, Elsevier, and Wiley. For the first time, Sci-Hub is defending itself in court because they could have a chance to win given India’s law . The political question at stake is that of the balance between the right to property and the right to knowledge. Whatever the outcome of these trials, the large popularity of the website shows that it answers a global need for easy access to specialised knowledge.
Library Genesis – Created in 2008 in Russia, the Library Genesis is a shadow library that stores books, in addition to the scientific articles of Sci-Hub. By the end of 2021, it offered more than 8 million books, in many languages, including academic books, essays, novels, comics, etc. The main publishers have sued the website and internet service providers have been forced to block it in many countries including the UK, France, Germany, and Russia.
Zenodo – The digital revolution has enlarged the set of possible formats of research outputs. It is precisely one of the features of the open repository Zenodo to accept all sorts of research files: publications, datasets, code, posters, etc. It was launched in 2013 by OpenAIRE, a program dedicated to the establishment of an online infrastructure to implement the Open Science policy of the European Commission. In 2021, it crossed the threshold of 2 million records.
- For universities, research institutions, research funders, and policy-makers, recognise officially the essential contribution of Sci-Hub, the Library Genesis, Alexandra Elbakyan and Aaron Swartz to the pursuit of knowledge. This symbolic recognition could take several forms like a formal declaration, giving official honour, creating a prize in their name, etc. More generally, defend activists who are sued for their actions in favour of the free access to knowledge.
- For policy-makers, fix as a general orientation the goal of developing a free and legal online platform to spread knowledge with a service quality as high as Sci-Hub or the Library Genesis. A first step could be the development of a multi-field and multilingual repository, on the model of arXiv, with easy bridges to other repositories. Then, action should be taken to allow the inclusion of all past publications, starting with the research which was funded by public money.
- For internet service providers who are forced to block Sci-Hub, block in return the publishers who have sued Sci-Hub, as it was done by Bahnhof, a Swedish ISP .
- For researchers, refuse systematically to assign your copyrights to publishers. First, protect your work by choosing a Creative Commons licence CC BY when uploading your work on a preprint server. Second, demand an amendment of the publishing contract whenever it contains an assignment of your copyrights to the publisher. Otherwise, your research output becomes the property of the publisher until seventy years after the death of all authors. Publishers must cease to be the owners of knowledge. 
- For researchers, mention Alexandra Elbakyan in the acknowledgements of your articles, in a sentence like: “The authors thank Alexandra Elbakyan for her help in accessing the scholarly literature.”
- For researchers, make sure the most up-to-date version of your articles is available on an open repository. The website dissem.in may help you in this task. Besides, in the reference section of your papers, always provide a clickable link to an open access version of the articles when it exists.
Researchers can refuse to collaborate with parasite publishers. Boycott can take several forms: refusing to review, to submit, or to be a member of an editorial board.
Journal Declarations of Independence – In 1989, most of the editorial board of Vegetatio (Kluwer Academic Publishers) resigned and launched the Journal of Vegetation Science (IAVS and Opulus Press Uppsala). They protested against high prices and lack of control of the board over the journal. This became the first example of a “journal declaration of independence” . Since then, many other boards have done the same. Unfortunately, in many cases, this has meant switching from one parasite publisher to another, with only better commercial conditions. Ideally, a declaration of independence should completely free the journals from parasite publishers (see section 2.3).
Public Library of Science (PLoS) – In 2000, a few well-known researchers in medicine and biology wrote an open letter calling for the establishment of an online public library that would provide the full contents of the published record of research and scholarly discourse. It added: To encourage the publishers of our journals to support this endeavour, 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 six months of their initial publication date. This open letter eventually gathered the signature of nearly 34,000 scientists . But in August 2001, not much had changed in the publishing industry, and PLOS decided to establish itself as a non-profit with the aim of developing an open access publishing alternative . In 2003, they launched their first journal, PLoS Biology. In 2006, they launched a multidisciplinary journal, PLoS ONE, with a peer-review only focusing on ‘rigorous research and ethics rather than perceived impact’ . Despite the non-profit status, the publication fees of PLoS are very high ($2,137 on average in 2019). PLOS has a publication fee assistance program for the authors unable to pay the publication fees, but it is hard to evaluate the overall extent of this fee reduction. Hence the initial call for a boycott has turned into a publishing initiative with an economic model identical to that which private for-profit publishers have developed since then.
Beall’s list – Since the 2000s, the development of open-access models with APC has led to the appearance of fake journals. They look like academic journals but do not reach the same quality standards and are ready to publish any article for money. These were dubbed “predatory journals” by the librarian Jeffrey Beall, who started to maintain a list of them in 2012 . The list soon became famous and was used by researchers to boycott these journals. Beall was put under pressure by the concerned publishers, who obviously perceived the list as a threat to their business. One publisher, MDPI, was removed from the list after intense lobbying: “They tried to be as annoying as possible to the university so that the officials would get so tired of the emails that they would silence me just to make them stop.” He finally removed the list from his website “facing intense pressure from [his] employer, the University of Colorado Denver” .
One should not get confused: Jeffrey Beall is a clear opponent of the open access movement as a whole, with or without APC, with or without good peer-review. He regards the predatory journals only as the metastases of a more generally harmful open access movement. Instead, he defends the traditional view of a free market where articles are private commodities . Yet, his list can also be viewed as an alert calling for safeguards to the fair development of open access.
Beall was accused of labelling journals as predatory too easily, and there was a debate about what should be the discriminating criteria to consider a journal as predatory . What this debate revealed is that the delimitation between predatory journals and standard journals is fuzzy, as there is a continuous spectrum of practices. Some have established lists of criteria to identify predatory journals, like Think, Check, Submit, but it sometimes looks like a desperate attempt for the big publishers to distance themselves from smaller ones. And the distinction is not easy as their business model is basically the same: charging the author for publication. Insisting on the notion of predatory journals is missing the issue with commercial publishers. For that reason, we prefer to talk of parasite publishers, which certainly includes predatory publishers, but also any publishing company that makes huge margins from public funding. This notion appears much clearer than predatory, and it points more directly to the source of threat to science.
The Cost of Knowledge – In 2012, the Fields medal winning mathematician Timothy Gowers published a blog post in which he declared publicly that from then on, he would refuse to publish, referee, or be part of any editorial board in a journal owned by Elsevier . He encouraged other scientists to do the same and was joined by many renowned scientists. The movement has taken the form of a website, The Cost of Knowledge, where nearly 18,000 researchers have signed the call for the Elsevier boycott.
Projekt DEAL – In Germany, a coalition of about 200 universities and research institutes, the Projekt DEAL, was formed in 2014 to negotiate fair deals with libraries. The criteria are immediate publication in open access with permanent full-text access and a fair and reasonable pricing model. It is an example of a transformation agreement, which shifts the subscription-based reading (free publication, pay for read) to an open-access model with APC. Although deals were concluded with Wiley in 2019 and Springer Nature in 2020, no deal could be reached with Elsevier . Since 2018, all subscriptions with Elsevier have been cancelled. Such a decision has met the support of the German scientific community.
Other countries, like Norway or Sweden, are following a similar strategy . In France, the consortium Couperin, which negotiates in the name of many French institutions, has reached an agreement with Elsevier. In spite of partial successes in the negotiations, it is disappointing that a 12-month embargo is still required before the publications are made open-access . Thus, transformation agreements are very imperfect solutions which do not tackle the problem at its roots. They manage to obtain some improvements, but do not question the legitimacy of the power of commercial publishers.
- For libraries and consortia negotiating deals with the publishers, consider the termination of subscription contracts a serious option. In Germany, such a decision has received the support of scholars.
- For researchers, join the boycott of Elsevier and make your choice public by signing on The Cost of Knowledge.
- For researchers, refuse to review articles in commercial journals. Answer to the inviting editor as: “Thank you for contacting me. However, I am sorry to decline the invitation. This journal is owned by a publisher taking illegitimate profit on the work of scientists paid by public money. I prefer to dedicate my time to help fair and free journals like (pick your favourite diamond journal, see below). For more information on this topic and the ways you could tackle the issue as an editor, please take a look at the report of the BRCP.”
- For researchers, stop congratulating colleagues on the basis of having published in journals of high-impact factor.
Read the full report here.