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Europe’s open-access drive escalates as university stand-offs spread (nature.com)
302 points by edwinksl 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 79 comments

There is a relatively simple alternative. Just declare that if the government pays for most of the research, resulting articles cannot be copyrighted. It is already the case in the United States that most works by US government employees cannot be copyrighted. Once there is no copyright, there is no way to prevent distribution. If people paid to do the research, they should be able to get the results. There really is no excuse anymore for the old publishing System. It was important at one time, but its time has passed.

Anything NIH/NSF-funded is available through open access since 2008: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NIH_Public_Access_Policy

The real problem is that young tenure-track faculty need publications for tenure. This wasn't always the case at teaching colleges, until perhaps 15 years ago at a so-so 4-year college you were perfectly fine with the papers from your PhD. Nowadays it's different, there's a need for publications and gutter journals. At the high end you need papers in high-profile journals and publishers will oblige on that front, too.

My understanding was that this was NIH only and not NSF (though the NIH has a much larger budget so it's the majority of such funding).

Most of the work done by the US government is not done by civil servants but by contractors, and the contractors hold the copyright. That tidbit of copyright law is not as useful as you might expect.

> Most of the work done by the US government is not done by civil servants but by contractors, and the contractors hold the copyright. That tidbit of copyright law is not as useful as you might expect.

Correct, but I figured most people here would not be interested in the details of government contracting regulations. I actually do know some things about it. If the work is done by contractors (as most work for the government is), then it depends on the contract. Usually the key part is which "data rights" clause is included in the contract from the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and/or FAR supplement, which can be modified in various ways in a specific contract. Papers and software get special complicated additional rules.

In any case, my point was simply that "eliminating copyright in certain cases to serve the public interest" is not a new idea - there is already some existing practice.

I though that nonsense was only something that photographers did.

I do contract web dev work for clients all the time. Should I be retaining all copyright?

That's a complex question. Most companies take care of this by requiring you to explicitly sign over the rights to the work. There are two terms that you should look into: 'work for hire' and 'automatic protection'.

A good place to start is here:


In many jurisdictions, the work produced as a contractor or an employee belongs to the company. There is no need to have a clause for it.

It's poorly written, throwing legal terms around out of their context. It does not state the countries or states where it's supposed to apply.

Highly recommend to find a better source that than. Even the title is click bait, the article doesn't talk about source code ownership.

It's not because of any insidious details of the contracts. It's an unusual tidbit of copyright law that a work of the government is not copyrightable. But work done by contractors is not done by the government. It is done by a private entity that is perfectly able to hold and retain copyright. The incentives are such that the government doesn't really care whether it (or the people) have ownership of the IP rights, just that the government is free to use it. So the contractors sell the government the unrestricted right to use it, for government purposes only. The contractors often offer a smaller bid for letting them keep the copyrights, which from a direct, first-order financial perspective is a better deal for taxpayers.

It makes sense, no? It's easy then to use your prior work to make you more effective, by being able to re-use parts of it in the future.

If you are in the United States, and are truly a contractor rather than an employee [1], and there is nothing in your contract that specifically says you are making a "work for hire", then you almost certainly do own the copyrights.

If you author a work, copyright only goes to whoever paid you if either (1) you are an employee and work is created within the scope of your employment, or (2) you are not an employee but it is a "work for hire".

For a work to be a work for hire, there are three requirements that all must be satisfied.

1. The work must be specially ordered or commissioned.

2. There must be a written contract that states it is a work for hire.

3. It must fall into one of nine categories:

• a contribution to a collective work

• a translation

• a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work

• a supplementary work (e.g., foreword, illustration, editorial notes)

• a compilation

• an instructional text

• a test

• answer material for a test

• an atlas

A bit of Googling turns up a few articles from IP and business law firms saying that most software does not fall under any of these categories and so cannot be a work for hire [2]. On the other hand, there are at least four district court cases that have concluded that software can fall under compilations and under contributions to collective works [3] and so can be works for hire. (But remember, even if in a particular case your software does fall under one of those categories, without the contract saying in writing that it is a work for hire it isn't, and so you retain the copyright).

Probably the best approach, if you want your client to own the copyright, is to include in the contract that you assign the copyright to the client. There is some sample language for a contract copyright assignment in [2].

[1] Whether you are an employee or a contractor for purposes of copyright law is determined by the common law of agency rather than by what your employment contract says. A court would look at how much control the employer has over how the work is done, where it is done, the equipment used to do the work, the scheduling, what other work you can do at the same time, and similar factors.

[2] http://ccbjournal.com/articles/9954/work-hire-doctrine-almos...

[3] https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=59a4a8c4-c446...

>Sci-Hub, a website that illicitly hosts full copies of papers and is used by academics around the world, is also a big factor, says Joseph Esposito, a publishing consultant in New York City. “Without Sci-Hub the researchers would be screaming at the libraries and state agencies not to cut them off,” he says.

Well, if you're going to bet your future on Sci-Hub, at least donate to the project and start creating local laws that would allow local versions of Sci-Hub archives.

The sci-hub people have unfortunately been unwilling to allow backups of their data.

Just about 15 slots down on the front page there's a page about sci-hub torrents: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17115176

There are abundant mentions of torrents, and little to no mention of successful third-party mirroring efforts. The files are useless without metadata and a database-driven site to use them with - is that stuff now included?

>and little to no mention of successful third-party mirroring efforts

That's probably because space requirements are huge (tens of terabytes of storage) and it's probably not legal in most jurisdictions (probably none of them). Those two would probably stop most people who are thinking about this.

But let's say you managed to download and host it all and don't give a damn about law (maybe a Tor node?), you'd still have to grapple with bandwidth requirements for hosting such a huge collection of documents (including anti-DDoS provisions). Finally, I don't think the database itself is offered by anyone so you'd have to scrape the DOI data and create the front-end for the website.

So unless you're rich and are willing to throw lots of money at this, I don't think anyone is willing to do it for no financial benefit whatsoever (and a massive downside if you get caught by the long arm of the US DOJ/FBI).

That’s not scihub, that’s libgen. Different data sets.

It's kind of morbidly hilarious how if this spreads to the US at some point MIT will start using a service that they spent lots of effort to stop from being engendered in the first place.

what service is that?


"For her actions in creating Sci-Hub, Elbakyan has been called a hero and "spiritual successor to Aaron Swartz"."

It would be ironic if she won MIT's "disobedience" award:


Maybe ask Hal Abelson to do the address during the ceremony?

You ask why Elbakyan is politically protected but Swatrz was not. Does Russia have no publishing conglomerates?

First of all she is hiding and possible not even within Russian border. So no clue where your idea of political protection is come from. And there is little point in arresting her: there are far more people working on project and nothing going to happen if public face going to disappear.

What's more important it's can be tough to actually prove she actually did something illegal on her own. Of course for political activists there is no evidence required to put them in prison in Russia / Kazakhstan, but she is pro-Kremlin so it's not apply here.

I did not ask that. She's on the run as far as I know.


And it is 'Swartz'.

She's one _real_ hero. You should quit this neo-cold-war complottist baseless scatter-blaming.

She is based in Kazakhstan, and they don't exactly have a domestic science publishing industry, no.

What exactly do these publishers do that causes them to charge so much? Aren't they just hosting some pdfs and keeping editors on staff to look over the papers?

Journal prices were already high in the 1990s, but then the scientific societies, who had more reasonable prices, sold off the publishing arm to commercial publishers, and subscription prices went completely stratospheric. Greed in action, in short. Prices closer to what the market will bear and farther away from what it costs to provide.

> What exactly do these publishers do that causes them to charge so much?

Bean Counting. Captive audiences are always at risk of extortion.

> Aren't they just hosting some pdfs

The internet has been happy to provide that particular component of their empire for free.

> keeping editors on staff to look over the papers?

That's mostly outsourced (for free) to other researchers.

Even the copy editors do little work - they always are very insistent upon the author themself working through all of the style guide to make sure it conforms.

I think the main work they do is to lie about accepting LaTeX and scraping the PDF output instead so as to introduce new errors into articles.

Not really, in the sense that the reviews and editors are usually volunteers. Their main function seems to be negotiating and coordinating emails. Even for journals my university subscribes to, I'll often just get the paper from arXiv since it's easier.

I've seen the books of some professional societies and it really costs between $1000 and $3000 per article to publish. You need a skeletal secretarial staff and archival server. Most editors and reviewers work gratis in hopes others will do samewise when it is time they want to publish. Some journal collect this cost front end, e.g. Public Library of Science. Then reading is free online. Others charge an annual subscription three figures for individuals and four figures for libraries. Lots of scientists have a communication component in their grants for conferences and publication. Library subscriptions come out of the overhead tax on research most institutions add.

> I've seen the books of some professional societies and it really costs between $1000 and $3000 per article to publish.

If it costs $1000 to publish a scientific article, your first task is to fire everyone involved in publishing.

The review of the scientific papers is done by volunteers, almost without exception. Most organizations expect camera-ready results. Few people want physical paper anymore; they're too inconvenient. PDF, please.

What we're talking about is "put a PDF on a static website, so that search engines can find it". The price actually necessary is vanishingly small. The prices here reflect the fact that various organizations have managed to gain exclusive rights over results they didn't fund to develop. Since there's a strong demand and a monopoly on supply, prices skyrocket. Econ 101.


”PLOS offsets publication expenses – including those of peer review management, journal production and online hosting and archiving – by charging a publication fee, also known as an Article Processing Charge (APC), to authors, institutions or funders for each article published.”

Their cheapest journal is PLOS One, at $1.595 per article.

Also, ”Manuscripts submitted to PLOS Special Collections may incur an additional fee”, which seems t be between $500 and $1.000

I think there's a useful analogy between these publishers and those companies that buy the rights to medicines developed by small research labs, and then raise the prices several fold. The question is not "why do they charge so much?", but rather "what was it you thought would stop them?" If there is no market-based restriction on their ability to raise prices, and there is also no government-based restriction on their ability to raise prices, then it is not too surprising if they raise prices. Not that this makes it right, of course.

Right? The answer to the question "Why do they charge so much?" is always "because people will pay them that much"

While I agree that the publishers are asking for too much, what they provide is the infrastructure and procedures for publishing. I think we'd both agree startups like Yelp and AirBnB provide some non-zero value, yet I can also ask, "What exactly do AirBnB and Yelp do that causes them to have a billion dollar valuation? Aren't they just hosting some images/reviews and keeping editors on staff to look over the posts?"

You are completely free to not use Yelp or AirBnB, not the case for Elsevier. They can charge too much because they have a monopoly.

Why aren't you free to now use Elsevier? There isn't some law saying you have to publish with them.

> There isn't some law saying you have to publish with them.

It's not the publication that costs money.

I feel like this is an unfair analogy. AirBnb and Yelp charge reasonable prices and take a mostly reasonable cut, if any at all. The publishing houses are charging enormous amounts, far beyond the value they add. Or so the argument goes.

Sure, I think we both agree that the price is not proportional to the service as I already stated. The grantparent post (and other posts here) was asking in a way that implied they weren't doing more than hosting pdfs. I was just pointing out that many of our lauded startups basically are just nothing more than network effect and content hosting as well. And in fact, if they could get away with charging Elsevier-like prices, they would immediately do so and be celebrated for it.

> our lauded startups basically are just nothing more than network effect and content hosting as well

I think it would be more accurate to call them "controversial", at best, rather than "lauded" or "celebrated", even here on HN.

To be fair, though, I don't think the controversy has tended to stem from them not providing/creating value and merely being rent-seekers. Rather, it's tended to be more regulatory issues (especially with AirBnB and the "gig economy"). Yelp may be the most notable exception, as it's in hot water for alleged extortion, which is easily rent-seeking, its content is user-generated, and it depends on popularity, if not the network effect.

That said, with all those startups, it's relatively easy to point to what they actually do that's of non-trivial value to their users and/or customers. With Elsevier, that's hard to identify, presumably because it simply doesn't exist.

EDIT: "Infrastructure and procedures to publish" is extremely thin, IMO. Procedures are just a one-off document, and something the authors and the volunteers that they outsource to do, not the "publisher". As for infrastructure, I'm willing to believe it, but, so far, all I've heard is that they just take papers and send them back out, without providing anything like publishing tools.

AirBnb adds 20 to 25%, it's really not reasonable.

How much do you think it should be? I personally believe if elsevier et al only profited 25% from publishing, prices would be much lower than they are now.

How much it should cost to put an entry in to database? It shouldn't be 30% of your revenue! The whole business model here is to gain customer eyeballs and once you get momentum, you do outright theft in to fruits of other people's labor.

Imagine amount of work done by a single AirBnB host to maintain his/her property, taking bunch of risks and trying to make whole transaction successful. In what world AirBnB is eligible to get 30% of that labor for merely allowing to insert a database entry in to their system? This whole trend was popularized by Steve Jobs where Apple is somehow eligible to get 30% cut for mere privileged of publishing app on their platform. Much of the reviews they do is automated and tiny amount of labor involved is often housed in India (just like Elsewiser). For adding an entry in to database, there should be fixed price and businesses shouldn't be stealing 30% from other people's work.

Competitors are closer to 10%.

Because they are able too, one of many reasons why we should go back to approving corporate charters only when they aren't detrimental to the public good.

Related essay:


Prices are set more by supply and demand than what a supplier does. In this case, government-enforced monopolies called copyright limits supply, which inflates prices.

> “Without Sci-Hub the researchers would be screaming at the libraries and state agencies not to cut them off,” he says.

I think this is the money quote. The strength they show in contract negotiations is only possible since no access just pretty much means unlicensed access by now.

Back before sci-hub you'd just email a colleague at an institution with the appropriate subscription. Even now I'm lazy enough to not read papers if I have to jump through hoops to get the full text.

Yes, the library had preprinted postcards that you would send to the authors, asking for a reprint. Researchers used to get 25 reprints per publication (more at nominal charge), and they would keep them in a filing cabinet. Some would collect stamps and/or show the reprint request around. (Look, another stamp from Nigeria!)

Springer Nature, TFA's publisher, aren't really a disinterested party in this discussion.

Article didn't seem biased to me though

Failing to justify the existence of publishers seems like a bias to me.

Why don't universities forbid hosting of conferences that aren't open access. Then years later forbid participation in such conferences.

We can pay publishers for another 10-20 years to access what they have. But we should stop giving them content.

Publishing is practically free.

Am I the only person left who still worries about the incentive alignment problem inherent in the pay-to-publish model? To a first approximation, everyone wants to make more money. Journals under an open access model make more money when they publish more articles, and the fastest way to publish more articles is to lower standards and accept more articles for publication.

Researchers also have a strong incentive to publish as much as possible in order to boost their citation counts, which serve as a proxy for prestige these days and which factor heavily into tenure decisions. Since grants and institutions[1] pay for open access publication fees, researchers have an incentive to select "predatory" journals with low standards and high fees. We already see this dynamic developing.

In short, all the incentives line up to encourage the publication of a large volume of low-quality research. Science already has a severe problem with junk research, especially in the social sciences where a large fraction of results simply do not reproduce. Do we want to make this problem even worse?

I'm sure the specific people involved in the system have the best intentions, but as a matter of history and of human nature, good intentions are powerless in the face of incentives. The most dangerous four-word phrase in human history is "This time, it's different".

[1] Google, for example, will pay open-access publication fees.

I don't think the incentives on the researcher side are that poor. I can't pay OA fees out of NSF awards. I have to do so out of discretionary funds, which are substantially harder to come by. I think carefully before paying them.

Also, all of my colleagues would laugh at me if I published in a junk venue. There's no win, at least in the top tier.

Have you been specifically told by NSF that you can't? I have included OA funds as line items in NSF (Earth Science division) budgets before, and never received any flak. However, none of the grants ever got funded, so maybe they didn't get the fine-toothed comb treatment following peer review.

No, just my business manager. It's possible I could do it if I line-item it in the budget. I'll try that. :)

> Also, all of my colleagues would laugh at me if I published in a junk venue.

That's the heart of the problem right there. Would you laugh your colleagues if they published in a junk venue?

Or would you look at the work on its merits and ignore the medium?

I'd ask them what the hell they were doing if they published in a low quality, predatory "journal". I think it's ethically wrong to lend credence to leeches.

I wouldn't do anything of the sort if they published on arxiv. We have a place to publish respectable work without fees and without peer-review. In some subfields of CS, we're also lucky enough to have high quality, open access venues without exorbitant fees (e.g., USENIX conferences). So pay-for-crap is not a necessary choice.

> I'd ask them what the hell they were doing if they published in a low quality, predatory "journal". I think it's ethically wrong to lend credence to leeches.

That's the whole point of this debate. All the paid access journals are leeches in one form or another.

No, many (if not most) academic fields have high-quality journals run by non-profit societies. In my field (geoscience) the best of these are trusted more than Nature and Science, which are higher impact even though it's common knowledge that there are more unreliable papers in the glamour journals, mostly because the editors optimize for impact instead of scientific solidity. The non-profit societies charge similar rates (a few hundred to a few thousand per article). The fees reflect outsourcing of web hosting, formatting (both LaTeX and Word are re-keyed to XML for many journals) and typesetting, as well as dead-tree publication costs which are actually common if rarely read.

Additionally, to get at your earlier question of evaluating a paper by its host journal: Because academics are strongly incentivized to publish in high-impact journals, if someone publishes in a crap journal it raises eyebrows, because the obvious question is 'why' and the obvious answer is 'because the authors didn't want rigorous review' or 'the work is of supreme unimportance'.

Furthermore, because of curation aside from peer review (editors weeding out solid but unimportant papers) the journal's brand makes a difference in how many people will actually see the paper. While many readers will come across papers either by specific searches in Google Scholar, or by going through the citations in a different paper, many of us still read the tables of contents of a few key journals every week or month to see what is being produced.

I'm a non-academic scientist (in the non-profit world currently) and though I will never face a promotion and tenure committee who really gets into impact factors etc., I still want my work to be as widely read as possible, so I push for the best journals that I can get in that still meet my criteria (non-profit societies that have open-access at least after a year embargo). Google Scholar also ranks papers by how highly cited they are, so there are still viral-type effects and getting eyeballs on a paper early greatly affects later discovery and engagement.

edit: I took 'paid-access' to mean 'pay to publish' which was the original thread's wording, and wrote based on that. Some of this reply still holds for 'pay to read' but not all.

I definitely meant pay-to-read.

Sure: that's the case today. My argument is that the open-access world still has a quality bar due to social inertia, that this quality bar exists in spite of the current incentive structure, and that over time, the incentives will come to dominate outcomes.

yes, journals do depend on accepting a certain number of publications... the good news is that for a good journal, that number is far far less than the number of submissions. Journals care most about their brand - that is, if journal x gets a reputation for publishing everything, people will only send them crap, and/or will avoid publishing there entirely for fear of guilt-by-association. What open access journals are selling to authors is rigorous peer review, editing, and help with getting the word out. As more open access journals appear, the competition for high-quality submissions will only increase.

Why are you assuming the alternative is pay to publish?

How else do you fund curation? Research without some kind of quality filtering mechanism is just a bunch of blog posts.

Why not some type of model that has universities support it, and get interested parties to peer-review them (much as is done now, since peer-reviewers aren't paid). Make it a non-profit and basically the universities come together to subsidize the hosting of the articles. Get rid of multiple journals completely, and instead have a great tagging and filtering system.

>How else do you fund curation?

Academic institutions have financial incentives in seeing that their faculty publish. When faculty get grants, there's almost always an overhead component that goes to the grantee's institution.

Maybe colleges/unis could explicitly pay faculty for their occasional service as peer reviewers. And/or offer some "softer" incentive, like an incremental advance towards tenure. The financial component could come out of grant overhead. A combo of these could motivate and pay for good curation.

Non-profit member-run organizations come to mind. “Pay” for publication with credits earned doing volunteer review work, or something like that. Or even just a pay to publish with a non profit mandate and board elected by the published researchers would eliminate much of the complained about incentive problem.

The problem here is having a for profit publisher, not the way in which that publisher makes its revenue.

Yeah, that's what I was thinking. But even don't have them pay for credits. Have a set fee, based on the number of universities in the organization, and then those who help subsidize storage can upload for free and get it peer-reviewed. Let the reviewers work for free, or even use some of the money to hire reviewers, and have authors tag their work and then be placed in the correct categories.

The whole problem with money and profit can be solved in as simple a way as making it an NPO.

because thats what how open access mostly works today

Discussed a couple days ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17097561.

Does anyone know what's the deal with IEEE? Lots of papers I encounter behind paywall are in IEEE Xplorer. I thought IEEE is non-profit institute (for engineers, by engineers). Why do they participate in this? What can we as IEEE members do to change this?

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