Ride the open access wave

This is a slightly modified version of an email I sent to several ESA officers and editors as part of a conversation we are having about ESAs recent position letter in support of the Research Works Act (read primers on the issue from an anti-RWA perspective herehere and here). It was written from the perspective of a long-time ESA member, editor at Ecology and Ecological Monographs and huge fan of the society and it’s journals.  I love Open Access but I love ESA and Ecology too: can we reconcile this contradiction with a marriage? 


Adapt or die: Open access is coming. It is unavoidable. The growth in the big open access journals, especially PLoS One, is staggering. There are many reasons why most scientists prefer these OA journals to more established society journals (including greater impact of our work, far more media coverage, no need to sign over the copyright, greater dissemination of our product outside the ivory tower, our quasi-socialist ideology, etc). The only drawback is the lack of prestige, but this is changing quickly. There are new OA journals starting up every month, e.g., Scientific Reports from Nature, Biology Open, and Open Ecology.  They don’t look threatening to our brand today, but neither did Ecology Letters, TREE and PLoS Biology when they were launched.

Take a look at this talk by Peter Binfield (publisher of PLoS One) about the breaking wave of OA:



ESAs pro-RWA letter was bad PR: There has been a staggering amount of negative commentary about ESA and other organizations (mainly for profit) that voiced support for the RWA. Most of this is on Twitter and on blogs. Even many of the for-profits and closed access journals and publishers that initially sat on the sidelines are now coming out in support of open access (and against RWA), e.g. NPG and AAAS.  Their positions might be insincere, but they understand the PR nightmare that vocally supporting the RWA would lead to.

See a partial list of publishers and scientific societies that oppose the RWA here.

Solutions: If we want our journals to survive, we are going to have to make them open access. Yes, it will be painful. But doing so will also better serve the membership, science, and society. Less altruistically, this will greatly improve the journals and their brand. In addition to moving to full OA, we should end print production of all society journals. This would reduce publishing costs, eliminate the very unpopular page limits and would greatly decrease publication time. We could also increase the number of papers we publish. You might expect that this would be tough, given the challenge of finding reviewers. But PLoS One has disproven this (I used to think PLoS One would fail for this reason). We are loosing reviewers (and editors) to other journals, especially to OA. Lets bring them back. Having an online, OA publishing model would also enable ESA to consolidate its complex and overpopulated ecosystem of journals and article types under a single or smaller number of brands.

In addition to OA, there are many other publishing innovations our competitors are adopting that we should consider, including video abstracts, multi-media long-form publications (perhaps developed using the excellent Atavist platform) for a broader readership, and a variety of data, lecture/presentation and graphical repositories we could be using.

Some middle ground: There are many extreme views out there on both sides of the RWA and OA debates. This one by David Crotty is somewhat centrist and addresses how societies like ESA can seize the OA movement to innovate and compete in an ever more competitive scientific publishing world:

For the not-for-profit publisher — the research society dependent on its journal, the research institution that uses a journal to fund research — extremism in either direction makes no sense. If one truly believes in one’s mission, then both the seemingly contradictory ideas of expanding access and preserving revenue streams are necessary and compatible. The goal should be to find ways to expand access while at the same time continuing to fund the important activities a society or institution provides

In the New York Times, open access advocate Michael Eisen declares that, “if the taxpayers paid for it, they own it.” This seems a bit odd coming from an employee of the University of California system. According to their last report, the UC system makes greater than $92 million per year from technology transfer — essentially putting the results of their research behind a patent paywall. It’s unclear how much of that $92 million-plus is the result of federally funded research, or when we taxpayers can expect a refund check.

This argument is typical of the over-the-top rhetoric meant to inflame emotions: “Publishers are stealing from the taxpayer!” Examined carefully, the argument holds no water. Try explaining your ownership the next time you try to board the taxpayer-funded subway, or go to an event at your local taxpayer-funded sports stadium.

But the absurdity goes both ways. Those calling for the Research Works Act have no data proving that mandates for opening access after an embargo period harms the subscription business. If the NIH’s 12-month embargo were so detrimental, where are the resultant decreases in journal revenues? How can you declare something harmful and try to ban it without actually providing any data on its actual impact? – David Crotty

I want to see ESA and it’s journals flourish and I think we have an opportunity to take the lead and ride the open access wave rather than getting crushed by it.


3 Responses to “Ride the open access wave”

  1. Don says:


    A couple of points. The ESA has an open access journal, Ecosphere; digital only and articles appear very quickly. It is about 18 mos. old and a huge success. Ecosphere will have ISI recognition soon. Ecosphere is similar to PLOS1 but has a more thorough editing process. The big difference is that Ecosphere is not boosted by the huge number of medical research publications that have led to PLOS1’s financial success.

    Ecology and the other ESA journals are a huger success than Ecosphere. Ecology is overwhelmed with submissions. Reports (20 pages submitted) in Ecology are open access. If authors were more inclined to write concise papers, more Ecology papers would be open access.

    Ecology is one of the greatest values in scientific publishing eigenfactor.org, search cost-effectiveness. Librarians love Ecology and other ESA journals because cost has not escalated astronomically as it has with for profit publications.

    Authors can vote for open access by sending all of their publications to Ecosphere. Actually, we anticipate something like this happening over time. ESA is contemplating a completely open access future. How to get there is the challenge.

    The letter that you are referring to was in response to the OSTP request for information. ESA has not yet taken a position on the Research Works Act.

    At some other point, we might discuss some of your economic metaphors, some of which I find to be pretty lame.

    Warm regards,

    Don Strong, Editor in Chief, ESA

  2. Elizabeth H. says:

    Hi John and Sea Monster, thanks for this post. A related hot topic is a boycott against Elsevier journals. I direct interested readers to an article in the Chronicle:

    -Elizabeth Havice

    • Don Strong says:

      Elizabeth: Yes. I advocate that the University of California drop all Elsevier subscriptions. Other faculty here support this position. Onward toward open access! Regards, Don

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