Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Disgrace of the Royal Society

I am astonished at the behavior of the Royal Society regardling publication. As dozens of funding agencies and societies and individuals move towards Open Access for publications, the Royal Society crawls back into the medeivel hole from which it originated.

In article after article, the Royal Society's publishing folks rant on and on about the evils of Open Access publishing. NOTE .... THANKS TO DBERGESSON FOR POINTING OUT THE MISTAKE IN THIS BLOG. I USED A QUOTE FROM THE WRONG ROYAL SOCIETY HERE. I AM LEAVING IT IN TO KEEP THE ORIGINAL POSTING. I STILL FIND THE REAL ROYAL SOCIETIES POSITION ON OPEN ACCESS TO BE ANNOYING. SEE COMMENTS FOR MORE DETAIL.

For example, in a recent article from RSC:

But the Royal Society of Chemistry’s director of publishing, Peter Gregory, disagrees. ‘We have absolutely no interest shown from our editorial board members, or our authors, for open access publishing,’ he said.

Gregory believes that the open access author-pays model is ‘ethically flawed’, because it raises the risk that substandard science could be widely circulated without being subjected to more rigorous peer review. This could be particularly problematic in chemistry, where rapid, open access publication could be used to establish priority ahead of more time-consuming patent applications from rival groups, he added.

What this basically means is that the Royal Society wants to continue to make money publishing the results of scientific research that is largely funded by the government and the public. And that they are willing to have people suffer (e.g., die unnecessarily because their doctors do not have a subscription to the Royal Societies journals) rather than use their supposedly brilliant minds to come up with a way to make money and simultaneously make the research freely available. The NIH, Wellcome Trust, and dozens of other groups are pushing for Open Access. Yet the Royal Society is sticking to their old boys club ways (to see how old boys clubbish they are go to here).
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If we actually go to the details of the Gregory quote above, I have a hard time knowing where to begin with the flawed logic here. For example, the idea that substandard science does not get published in non Open Access journals is just absurd. Consider the latest example of the Korean Cloning scam. Those articles were published in top non open access journals. Same thing with just about every other case of bad science or scientific fraud in the last twenty years. The claim by Gregory is simply unfounded. First, Open Access journals do not say there should be no peer review and they tend to be peer reviewed even more carefully than non-open access journals. Just try publishing a paper in PLoS Biology, which I have found to be more stringent than Science. Why is this? Becuase scientists are more willing to commit time to reviewing for such journals because their work benefits humanity rather than some publisher like Gregory.

Another reason Gregory's claim is unfounded is evidenced by the physics community. They put preprints out for the world to see, which allows for global peer review, rather than peer review by a select list of people. The idea that peer review as it is in current non open access journals is perfect is completely ridiculous. Sometimes you get objective reviewers, but other times you get people that, even if they wished to be objective, would probably have a hard time doing so. This is unavoidable in any peer review system. The more open the publication system and the peer review system is, the more likely it is to avoid outrageous variation in quality.

The Royal Society should be ashamed. They are preventing the distribution of scientific findings and trying to maintain a publishing system that limits the speed of scientific advances and enriches the publishers at the expense of governments and the public.

So I suggest that anyone who knows someone harmed by a doctor who did not know what they were doing, or anyone who wishes for scientific advancement to proceed at a rapid pace, to consider writing to your favorite member of the Royal Society and asking how they feel about this.

To contact the Royal Society directly go here.

I have been unable to come up with email lists of society members but if anyone can find one I will post it.

4 comments:

  1. The argument that the Royal Society is using is what's called FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt). Basically, when you can't explain why your product is better than the competition, you simply try to come up with unjustified horror stories that could happen if you used a competing product (In the mainframe days IBM was a master of this tactic, claiming that using other brands of computers would be risky; today Microsoft and others do the same for Linux and open source in general).

    But as much as the Royal Society's arguments are bogus, not reading the Transactions is hardly a great loss. As important as it was historically, the Transactions is no match for the PNAS. While I probably read a PNAS article that was referenced from some other article at least once a week, the only article I *ever* recall reading from the Transactions was Lewontin and Gould's Spandrel paper from 1979.

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  2. Yes, I agree I rarely look at things in their main magazines but they do have a series of publications and they should get out of the dark ages. Although if you look around their webstie, they also promote the fact that Prince Charles and some of his kin are also in the Royal Society. Not exactly reserved for the most academic/learned members of the UK.

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  3. I'm pretty sure the Royal Society of Chemistry is not the same organisation as The Royal Society that you are discussing (Transactions, oldest scientific society etc). The Royal Society's position on Open Access is posted at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=3882 and they're cautious, but they do offer an open-access author-pays option for publication in their journals (otherwise access is free after one year).

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  4. Yes, I believe you are correct. The Royal Society . I was referring to is the one with the elected fellows and the history going back to folks like Newton. The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) probably picked its name to make it sound like the bigger Royal Society .

    The quote I used is indeed from the Royal Society of Chemistry, which was a pretty big screw up on my part. However, in general the bigger and older Royal Society has been against Open Access as well.

    For example, the fellows of the Royal Society a few years ago had to write a ( letter criticizing their administration.

    It is true that The Royal Society is now testing some type of Open Access. But they have lagged far far behind the US National Academies in adopting Open Access for real.

    I will make some notes in the main text to make this screw up of mine clear.

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