Why is Open Access floundering? Libraries have not let piracy do its job.

(Inflammatory first paragraph)

Libraries are their own worst enemies: they continue to support profiteers while hiding the true cost of publishing from their own users.

(Settling into the argument – first some background)

We all know the story, we pay the academics to write the papers they give for free to the publishers who charge us to read them.  That’s not wrong, per se, but for the huge profits the publishers make.

Elsevier’s annual adjusted profit 2016 NZD$3,903,247,320
(RELX Group 2016)
Marsden Fund 2016/17 NZD $57,800,00
(Royal Society of New Zealand n.d.)

The profit from the largest academic publisher would fund all of New Zealand’s research 675 times over.  In my view, that profit is government money that is given as a subsidy straight into shareholder’s pockets.  I would prefer that money went into research, and that the optimal business model for publishing research is a non-profit one.  We can argue about that some other time, but I hold that the superprofits made by academic publishers are profiteering.

 Profiteering:  The action or fact of making an excessive or unfair profit, esp. by the sale of necessary goods at extortionate prices. (OED Online n.d.)

So, what is to be done?

Lets look at other business.  Music and book publishing has changed vastly since the internet has given cheap reproduction and near ubiquitous access to digital material.  It didn’t want to, but had to.  I don’t think that it had to is in question, but why did it?  What were the drivers?  My simplistic argument is Piracy. If its cheaper and more convenient to pirate something, then people will, and official revenue streams will wither.  As a result one whole reason for creating stuff (i.e. being rewarded for it) disappears, and we are all the poorer.  Copyright exists as a way to make sure people do new stuff – so the creators get paid.  Until the gift economy can reliably put dinner on the table, copyright remains a good idea to protect innovation.  (We can argue about what copyright means, and how the present implementation is broken later.)

(The good bit)

Libraries are good corporate citizens.  They obey the rules until they don’t, and then it’s with very clear and sophisticated reasons.


Source Unknown. Would love to know.

Libraries have very successfully hidden the questionable practices of publishers by acquiescing to their demands.  Tell an academic how much their institution pays for digital access to stuff they wrote and gave away for free and I promise you, they’ll blanch.  then say, you could have that money back for research, if you give me 10% to keep the publishing system going with non-profit publishers, and they’ll sign.  (There’s always a few nay sayers, but being a stirrer is part of the job description, and I love them for it).

But I digress.

A recent article in The Idealis suggested that libraries should employ interns to assess what journals they should drop when the material is available as Open Access (Gonzales 2017).  I say we should include what material is also available including those through piracy. Piracy is not fair, not legal and not ethical.  Neither is profiteering, but we seem to be happy to support that.  Just as importantly: neither profiteering nor piracy is sustainable.

(the modest proposal)

See how many of your users already use pirate sites to gather their research material – there are institutional logs for that, and you don’t have to identify anyone while you’re doing it.  See that it is already having a big effect on access to information.  Think about cutting down your subscriptions, and sending that money to OA initiatives that support the research done at your institution.  Encourage overlay journals as an alternative to peer-review.  (There isn’t too much research, there are too many papers).  Break up the big deals, so that the small journals need to flip to OA or die.  Keep looking at the amount of piracy done by your institution, and use it as an index of how effective the change of model is, because when legitimate access becomes convenient, piracy will die.


Gonzales, L. (2017, April 25). The Forbidden Forecast: Thinking About Open Access and Library Subscriptions. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from https://theidealis.org/the-forbidden-forecast-thinking-about-open-access-and-library-subscriptions/

profiteering, n. (n.d.). OED Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved from http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/152105

Royal Society of New Zealand | Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. (n.d.). Retrieved April 25, 2017, from http://www.mbie.govt.nz/info-services/science-innovation/research-organisations/key-partners/royal-society-of-new-zealand/?searchterm=marsden%2A
RELX Group. (2016). RELX Group Annual reports and financial statements 2016. Retrieved from http://www.relx.com/investorcentre/reports%202007/Documents/2016/relxgroup_ar_2016.pdf




Are the expectations for data management plans too high?

I’m in the process of setting up a data management plan (DMP) workshop at Canterbury.   I attended (yet another) fantastic ANDS webinar on setting up DMP resources, and I was struck by the very high expectations some have of what they are trying to achieve.  It made me think about we are trying to get out of it ourselves.

One of the best bits (and I’ll link once the webinar is available) was discussing what the benefits of DMPs are.  In  my mind they have always been like human and animal ethics proposals – it’s a tool to think with, to help you establish your research in a knowing way, and to encourage you to seek guidance on questions that arise in the process.

DMPs have some fantastic potential -if they describe a project well they can provide machine readable metadata for the entire research lifecycle.  They can act as an electronic order form for digital resources (compute power, storage, ‘publishing’ space).  They can even hold researchers to account in how they are going to share their data, so the fear of being gazumped at the end is overruled by their decision to open their data at the start.

I think this is reaching too far at the moment though.  Let’s gather some DMPs – especially from compliant postgraduates –  see if we can answer the immediate questions that arise, provide and guide them good-enough solutions (storage, publishing, licencing) and then work out what we need to do in a prioritized way next.  Putting the demands of perfection and completeness on the process creates too much overhead – just too much work – for those who have to complete them.

I got  a feeling that some DMP programmes were about _policing_ data, rather than as a part of a conversation and guidance about data.  As a librarian, I don’t want to be a cop – I’d much rather be colleague.

Bealls Gone.

In the last few days the infamous “Beall’s Blacklist” of ‘predatory journals’ has gone (see reactionwatch’s reaction).  Though I have argued before that I prefer the phrase questionable to predatory, and white to blacklists, it’s not with much pleasure that I note Beall has obviously been pressured to withdraw his work.

I would guess there have been the normal academic political shenanigans, of which the less I am aware of the better.  Truth is subjective, and in faculty meetings, exponentially so.

Beall’s contribution was making the problem of profiteering journals a sexy, dangerous topic.  The downside was his inability to draw a link between the obviously unethical scams running out of India and the less obviously unethical scams being run out of (ooh, say) the Netherlands.

There is a bit of wailing and moaning in the comment-o-sphere claiming he was the only person singlehandedly protecting scholars from those evil scammers.  The slap of face-palms from every scholarly publications office in the world combined into audible applause for such wonderful schemes as http://thinkchecksubmit.org/.  Give an academic a blacklist, and he’ll publish well for a day.  Show them how to assess a journal, and they’ll publish well forever!

Beall’s withdrawal from the scene makes racketeering in scholarly publishing a bit duller, and that’s sad.  However, it does make the process a lot more thoughtful, and more reflective.  Once of the most trenchant critics of alternative business models for scholarly publishing has gone, and now we are going to have to work it out for ourselves.


Hello all.  This site has been the victim of hacking, so I am currently rebuilding it from scratch to eradicate all the nasties left behind.  All the old content should be re-imported in the next day or so.

Why EndNote® will never get better.

EndNote® is a very popular bibliographical manager.  I’ve been supporting it for over 10 years, and it was pretty established when I met if first in the mid 2000’s.  It does some pretty cool things, and if you show someone who has to manage references in a document how it can build a bibliography, that’s all the all the sales job you have to do.

However, there are a number of other tools that do the same thing.  EndNote, in NZ at least, has the lion’s share of the market, and it will continue to do so, and the support infrastructure provided by academic libraries means it is probably the only tool of its type anyone has heard of.

And here is the problem.  EndNote’s business model is to sell institutional licences for its product to academic institutions, and they then upgrade the product religiously every September (which is a total PIA for those of us in the Southern Hemisphere).  The upgrades are generally pretty minor.  All the ancillary costs normally provided by a software vendor in terms of support and marketing are done by the institutions – there must be an EndNote class running somewhere in NZ at least a couple of times a week that is not funded in any way by the people making the money out of the product.   There is no training support or materiel.  There is no real pressure for the software to be improved, as the sales are solid and steady.  It would be foolish for them to pour money into development when that could be used as profit.

To the end user, the product is ‘free’, as the institutions bear the cost, so moving to an open source alternative means no advantage to the user, and as most institutions don’t actively support alternatives, then there is a cost in time and anxiety for the person using the odd thing no-one else uses.

Interestingly there is a tight knot group of supporters for bibTeX, a bibliographical manager for LaTeX documents.  As they get support from their peers, and can’t use common tools like MS Word as their disciplines require a much higher level of typographical functionality than Word can provide, that set of costs is mitigated.

Like the Vi/Emacs Macintosh/PC Android/iOS wars, choice of a bibliographical manager is usually tightly defended – if the user has made a choice.   Usually they have not consciously made one and are just using the thing they ended up with, and as long as institutions keep forking out behind the scenses for EndNote licences that will be the default.  And that means it will never get better.

Resources to help determine the quality of Open Access journals

[Edit: Richard White, from my old parish at Otago University pointed out this is a resource to discover good OA journals that are reputably open – their content may still be as dodgy as ever.  Hopefully though, authentically Open means higher transparency, and a higher standard of work. 26 Sept 2017 ]

I recently had to compile a list of what to look for in an OA journal at work, and I thought I’d publish it here too.

Here’s the list of things I use to determine if it’s a ‘good’ OA journal:

My personal take of what to look for is any journal that solicits articles on its web front page, in larger or equal type to announcing its most recent issue, is problematic, and worth a further look to see if it is legitimate.

Audrey Angelo, and my path to librarianship.

scan20100406_162920The following is text from a talk I gave at the Aoraki LIANZA AGM, when we were asked to share stories about librarianship.

The photo behind me is my mother, Audrey Jean Angelo-Duncan, and I’d like to take a few minutes to talk to you about her, and tell you the story that started me on my path to becoming a librarian.

My mum was many things. She retrained, like me, in her mid 40s, first getting school certificate and going on to becoming a kindergarten teacher here in Christchurch. Before then she had been a stay at home mum – but not a stay at home woman. When she got to London in the late 1950s the biggest town she had been in was Christchurch – and that had been passing through to board the ship that took her to Europe. Mum and Dad were from Southland – Dad from Gore, and mum from Mataura. They left as soon as they had the opportunity. In 1960 they bought a VW beetle, and drove it from London back to NZ – following what became the hippy trail: Yugoslavia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, over to Australia, and then to NZ.

She had a great sense of humour, and she was adventurous.

She was a smoker. She smoked all her life, until her late 50’s, when she stopped, so she had emphysema in her later years. It killed her in the end, and it caused a lot of health problems on the way.

The moment I want to talk about is after she had a mastectomy for breast cancer. She was pretty stoic about that: the recovery rates were good, and though she had breathing problems, she had a good life. She told me the worst thing she expected from having the mastectomy was going aqua jogging afterwards. I suggested a prosthesis, but her concern was more about the fact that unbalanced with only one boob she would just spin in the water.

After the operation she never wore a prosthesis when she went aquajogging.

A few months after the mastectomy her health started to go down hill. She couldn’t get enough oxygen into her bloodstream, and it got so bad she was admitted to the ICU.

I’m not sure if you’ve been in the ICU, but its an amazing place. Big screens, hooked up to sensors had all of mums vital signs measured in real time. A nurse was with her all the time. She wasn’t getting better. I called my Brother to come down from Hamilton, and we took turns sitting with her reading Alexander McCall Smith books about generously proportioned women who were adventurous and brave. A year or two afterwards I was recognised by some of the ICU staff who had been listening as intently to the stories as we had been reading them. You forget that you’re never alone in hospital.

The problem was oxygen. Mum just couldn’t get enough into her blood. She had been a smoker, and her lungs were damaged. She had been on courses of prednisone, and she even had a breathing thingy at home, a machine that humidified the air for her.

I walked into the ICU three or four days after she had been admitted, and the atmosphere had changed. Mum was looking a little better, and more responsive. The nurses seemed relieved. Some of the doctors took me aside and said that the problem hadn’t been with mum’s lungs after all. They were pretty certain it had been a bad reaction to herceptin – a very rare side effect from a normally really useful anti cancer drug she had been given to reduce the chance of relapse. Aas they were talking I looked over and saw a printed journal article lying beside mum’s notes. The article, the single one in the world, that talked about the side effect. The authors were German, and had published somewhere that had been picked up by Ovid.

Someone, one of the ICU doctors maybe, and done some research and looked up mum’s symptoms and history. And they found the answer.

In Dunedin the University Medical Library and the part of the hospital the ICU are in are connected over a street by a bridge. I remember thinking that maybe someone in the library had helped, I knew they often did. I thought about the system that means they could find the article, the databases and the search tools, and the digital literacy required, and I thought, I want to be part of that. I want to help. I want to be a tiny part of the system that means that someone else’s mum gets a diagnosis, or a treatment, or at least some comfort from knowing what’s going on.

A few years later I was given the opportunity to retrain, and like my mum, I took it. Now I have the privilege to work with people who believe in open access to information, in making the results of all medical trials available. Sometimes people think I’m a bit predictable when it comes to the solutions for fixing the currently broken scholarly publishing business model. That’s OK. But I don’t come from some ivory tower position. Its because that open access saved my mum’s life. She died a few years later, from the trouble with her lungs. She’d be proud of what I’m doing now.

50 shades of questionable – predatory publishing redux.

I’ve been supporting a group of postgraduates who edit a long lived New Zealand Journal, NZ Natural Sciences We are talking about moving it onto our ‘lightweight journal publishing model’ platform in due course, more of which later.

I’m really proud to support the current editors, Katie and Brendon.   This is a journal that has run since the 70’s, edited by a few postgrads, who then enter academia and mentor others in running it.  As well as being an outlet for new research, it gives postgrads a taste of reviewing, editing and soliciting new work, which must be invaluable for their skills as research authors.

We have traversed some really interesting territory as we prepare to migrate the journal.  Applying modern licensing retrospectively (CC-BY, o’course), talking about preservation, and wondering what the hell to do with a statement from copyright New Zealand.  (Answer: its not a bill.  Its money.  Not that you could easily tell from the statement).

I laid out the options to the ed. team.  You could use something like Hindawi or Scholastica to host the journal, but you’d need a revenue stream.  And it was that, the way to get funds to support the publication, which is currently free as its just a bunch of files on a departmental web server at the moment and a google site, that caused a level of complexity they didn’t want to deal with.  And quite right too: adding a treasurer, accounts, tax, and all that stuff detracts from the aims of this exercise.  Editors change from year to year, and keeping commercial relationships with service providers is a big part of what journals do now.

So it was fascinating when they forwarded me an email from Exelely.  It was a cold-call to the editors asking if they would be interested in letting them host the journal, for a fee, which would be paid for with Article Processing Charges (APCs).  Its a pretty standard business model: the heart of so called Gold Open Access.  Exeley have an interesting offering, providing a lot of the commercial services you’d expect.

The question that bugged me though, as up front and open as Exeley appeared, is what seperates them from a ‘predatory’ publisher?  I’d rather call the phenomenon  ‘questionable’ publishing, as its never really clear cut who qualifies as predatory. What level of service from a publisher qualifies them to make profit from scholarly communications?  There are obvious lines you can cross: for example, hijacking, where a journal that emulates another so closely you can’t tell the ‘real’ one from the predator.  How about double dipping, where a journal collects APCs and charges journal subscriptions at the same time?  The IEEE make it really clear that they reduce subs for organisations that contribute APCs.  Elsevier, not so much.  Then there is Exeley.

I have an opinion that any profit made from the work that government pays for (and occasionally industry) is wastage in the system.  An inefficiency when improved with allow more money for the actual research, the stuff that makes our world progress.  Money taken away from creating new knowledge.  I realise that this could be carried reductio ad absurdum, especially when you start thinking about equipment, but consider that in NZ, at least, universities don’t pay goods and services taxes.  Why would the government collect its own money back?  Now that the nominal cost of reproducing data is approaching zero, and storing it is becoming cheaper [1] making a profit from this seems questionable.

After a few night sleeping on it I realise what my problem is with Exeley.  Its for-profit.  That, in my mind, makes it questionable.  Not predatory, as they don’t seem to be profiteering, but I’ve recommended to Katie and Brandon that they don’t follow up on their offer. Its entirely up to them of course.  if Exeley was a non-profit and belonged to the Open Access Scholarly Publisher’s Association,  and its code of conduct, then I’d be far more likely to tell them to take a closer look.  As it is, we have a good solution for the NZ Natural Sciences journal that will meet most of their needs, and we can provide it for free.


[1] Dear archivists, yeah, I know.  Disk and maintenance ain’t free.  But I’m making a point!


Research parasite?

Iparasites have a slightly more relaxed attitude towards the research parasite discussion.  As we all know, a recent NEJM editorial called those who used other researcher’s data research parasites.  The blowback was instant.  Twitter went into its normal self-righteous explosive mode, and a few quick blogposts basically forced the authors into restating their positions.  Not change them, just restate them.

I have seen some really good and sophisticated discussions online, but a point that seems obvious to me hasn’t floated past my reading list.  If you don’t work with other people’s data, then you have no idea how useful it is.  Its like an English department that only writes novels, and never reads another authors.  Until now, the research framework has always been about experimentation and the creation of data.  I know this is a huge overstatement, but look at the heroes: John Snow, The Large Hadron Collider, Einstein.  They create theories, test them against new data, falsify, rinse and repeat.  However, we have moved past a point of data scarcity – data is now abundant.  This is a fundamental, honest to god Popperian paradigm change.   Its not surprising some people who have invested their entire careers playing (and playing well) in a game that has suddenly changed its rules are going be very reactive.

Maori Folk Tales of the Port Hills

This little book, published in 1923 by James Cowan, is a collection of material given to him by Hone Taare Tikao (sic) (Hōne Tāre Tikao).  It has a lot of stuff about Whakaroupo, Rapaki and the harbour basin from pre European contact.

I’d like to digitise it and make oit available as a wee personal project, and I’m going to blog about the process.  I can see there are a number of issues I’m going to need to work through.

The law.  This is has been published in 123, and the author died in 1943.  As far as I’m aware this puts the book in the public domain, but I’ll run that past a real legal person.

Permission.  I’ll need to get permission from the University of Canterbury Library to use their copy of the work, and to use their book scanning equipment.  I suspect if I have all the other things sorted.

I’ll also need to get permission from the local Iwi, Ngāi Tahu, to reproduce Tikao’s image (which is in the book) and reproduce the stories that are in it.  Though I reckon the words themselves are unemcumbered by law, but the stories belong to the land, and the people of it.  I’m going to talk to some people at the national Library about ways of approaching this, and I hope to talk to people at the Rapaki Marae.

The goal is to produce the text to put into various repositories, and make it as available as appropriate.

Even the tiny amount of work I’ve done so far shows me that the author and the narrator were fascinating men.  Hopefully this wee project will help people study them further.