Saturday, 27 January 2018

Germany won't pay for Nature's "scientific porn", and other messages from Couperin's open science days

Earlier this week, there was a mini-workshop in Paris called Couperin’s open science days 2018. (Original title in French: Journées sciences ouverte 2018.) I followed most of it via webcast, and I will now summarize some of the salient points. The videos are available online, but most of them are in French.

The German way: Horst Hippler and Ralf Schimmer


The most important messages came from Germany: the country whose academic institutions have thought seriously about scientific publishing, and have organized themselves so as to drive the needed reforms. The most salient manifestation so far has been the standoff with Elsevier, and it was nice to have further details on the strategy.

The basic idea is that nobody should pay for reading articles. The German DEAL consortium wants to pay for publishing instead, according to the Gold open access model. Current subscriptions prices value each published article around 5000 euros, and the aim is to eventually pay of the order of 1000-2000 euros per article. The price should be the same for all journals. The consortium is negotiating with the publishers along these lines, with contracts that would last one year (rather than several years for the traditional big deals), and a transition of at most three years from the current system to the desired system. The negotiating tactic amounts to waiting for publishers to accept DEAL’s demands, without caring about subscriptions running out.

Now comes the statement by Horst Hippler that gives its title to this post: Nature’s editorial process gives much power to in-house non-specialist editors, and is not scientifically sound. Nature is therefore not a scientific journal, and should be considered, according to an unnamed colleague, as "scientific pornography". Consequently, the consortium does not plan to include Nature in the deals that it is negotiating. Hippler’s calm demeanour and implacable logic may explain why no more people were knocked off their chairs when hearing that.

Ralf Schimmer summarized the approach’s basic principle as an open access mandate for money, rather than for researchers: money spent on scientific publications should always come with an open access requirement. The discussion about Nature shows that there may be quality requirements as well.

It was impressive that such radical ideas were formulated by officials who are involved in actually implementing them. What matters is now that other countries follow. The Dutch official Koen Becking said that Netherlands’ VNSU plans to do just this in upcoming negotiations with Elsevier. However, the French and Spanish consortiums, while ready to rhetorically embrace the German ideas (and other fashionable ideas), do not plan to do anything similar, as was clear from their representatives’ interventions.

Couperin's powerlessness


Jean-Pierre Finance heads Couperin, the French consortium that was organising the workshop. He was talking about "initiatives in favour of open science". Discussions, workshops, initiatives: Couperin is ready to do that much for open science, provided the usual business of big deals with legacy publishers is not disturbed.

Jean-Pierre Finance was speaking right after Vanessa Proudman, whose first order of business was to denounce the projected European directive on copyright as a threat to open science. Finance was then only slightly embarrassed to read a slide that praised the directive for going in the right direction! Finance positioned himself as a cheerleader for anything that claims to be about open science, as if Couperin had no power to do anything substantial about it. His conclusions are that many things are happening, and many actors are involved. (I am not caricaturing.)

So Couperin apparently plans to remain a friendly-face tax collector for predatory publishers. When directly asked, after Hippler’s talk, what he thought of the German way, Finance only gave an evasive answer. Couperin’s powerlessness is probably congenital: the consortium’s mission is to sign deals, and no deal is not an option. But do not count on Finance for acknowledging it and proposing remedies.

Other noteworthy soundbites


Jean-Sébastien Caux gave a dynamic and entertaining speech about his work on founding and operating SciPost. The insistence on open peer review (on top of open access) was most welcome. He explained that SciPost positions itself as a top-quality journal that largely emulates traditional journals (while being independent and much cheaper), although he is well aware that our current notion of an article is artificial and possibly doomed. Publishing an article costs SciPost about 300 euros. And the plan is to release the code behind SciPost in a few month.

Bernard Rentier started with a thorough demolition of the impact factor, concluding that anyone who uses it for evaluating researchers should be fired. He then embarked in proposing an admittedly complicated system of evaluation.

Benoît Kloeckner said that paying the "centre Mersenne" for formatting articles costs 7 euros per page. Such data about costs should of course be compared to the 5000 euros per article that legacy publishers are charging.