How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?

I am angry. Very, very angry. Personally I have never liked how scientific journals charge us to read the research that we produce, and that we review for them free of charge. But that is another debate for another day. What I really hate is how they abuse this power to stifle debate in the name of their business interests. This is now going to dramatically affect the quality of a paper into which I poured a huge amount of effort – a critique of the (lack of) evidence for striped nanoparticles. (More information can be found here and here.)

The oft-repeated mantra is that science is inherently self-correcting, as all science is up for debate. In theory this is true. If you come up with a new shiny experiment and the data point to a new modified theory, everyone is happy: new science has corrected old science. If, however, you stumble across a shoddily written paper in a high profile journal– something with systematic flaws or a paper with poor analysis — and you try to correct the literature, now, suddenly, you are the villain. You write a paper pointing out the flaws, submit it, and journals reject it or delay its publication for years. One journal even told us that “[We] do NOT publish papers that rely only on existing published data. In other words [We] do NOT publish papers that correct, correlate, reinterpret, or in any way use existing published literature data.” Wow! So, apparently, the old guard of closed-access scientific publishers are not interested in the idea that they might have published articles with errors in. Correcting the literature is not important!

So if the journals aren’t interested, what happens if we blog about it? Blogging is a great way to spread information. The first paper critiquing the evidence for striped nanoparticles (one I was not involved with) was published only after a two-year fight. After this, blog posts have been used to further the debate. How did the journals react to this? Science published an article mostly centred around the claim that we are bullies!

If online blogging is frowned upon, and the gate-keepers of the scientific literature are uninterested in admitting that it has ever published something containing mistakes, then how does scientific debate proceed? The obvious answer is to publish in one of the new, not-for-profit, open-access journals. Open-access publishers perhaps have less invested in protecting their brand from criticism, but still come with the peer-reviewed stamp of approval. In fact, open-access is taking off so quickly that some traditional publishers have set out to ruin its name with embarrassing poor investigative journalism. So submitting to an open-access, not-for-profit journal was our next step. And, for me, it was a step that took a huge amount of time and effort.

For months I analysed old raw data and compared it to the published data. This was all done while I was in the last busy year of my PhD, despite the work being largely irrelevant to my PhD, and not included in my thesis. Why did I do this? Because the work was so poor it offended my sense of good science and I felt that the record needed to be set straight. The final paper was written and submitted to PLoS ONE (and also uploaded to the arXiv). We had some frustrations and delays at PLoS ONE, but that is another story. Eventually our paper was accepted.

I was happy. The traditional publishers who published the work we’re critiquing can’t censor our paper now, can they? It isn’t their journal, so they can’t refuse to review/publish it. It’s also not one of these uppity blogs — it’s a peer reviewed journal, so neither the publishers nor certain members of the scientific community can look down their noses at the format.

But they still have one trick up their sleeve. Copyright. They own the copyright on the papers we criticise, and many of the new open-access journals they hate so much use Creative Commons licensing. They have the right to refuse permission to reuse parts of their figures. But just how can anyone write a self-contained critical article about data misrepresented in figures without being able to include at least some of the original results for critique and analysis?

For our paper we needed permission to reuse figures from four publishing houses. The Royal Society for Chemistry has allowed us to use their figures (and we thank them for that). Nature Publishing Group and the American Chemical Society have not yet replied — let’s hope they stand up for open debate. Wiley, however, have refused us permission to use THIS figure:
Reanalysis of Yu and Stellacci dataPanels a, c, and f are from the original paper. The figure is used to show that we can recreate the figures (b and d) from the original by interpolating the raw data, and we contrast this with the raw data and show that the features result from a few pixels in the raw data (g) and are not present in a second equivalent image taken simultaneously (e and h). The impact of this figure is entirely lost without the original images. It has been suggested that we replace these panels with URLs to the original figures, a superb way to guarantee that most casual readers will never see them.

The journals want us to produce content for them, to review content for them, and then to buy this content back off them. They do this while claiming to serve the academic community. This frustrates me, but I am at the start of my career, and I need to play the game to progress. But Wiley go a step further. They then hog this content from fair criticism, and actively hinder scientific debate. This is a step too far.

I am not happy to just keep my head down while a corporate giant tries to hinder work which I poured so much time into. Their decision is petty and short-sighted, but more than that, it shows how we cannot trust the flow of scientific discourse to publishers who care more about profit and their intellectual property than they do about free debate of ideas.

I try to be professional in my work-related online discourse, but I think, on balance, the politest response I can muster is “Fuck you, Wiley”.

29 thoughts on “How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?

  1. I’m no expert on copyright, but surely using these figures in a critique would surely fall under “fair use”, wouldn’t it? As long as you are not claiming the figure to be your own work, and you provide a reference to the original source, you shouldn’t even need the journal to waive copyright.

    • I Agree with Carlos Perez, in my opinion content usage in critical discussion must not be restricted by copyright. I am not a lawyer but I think it is good idea to talk to some copyright specialists to determinate whether Wiley’s behavior is lawfull.

  2. Excellent post. Not so sure they are censoring, as believing it is bad for the “business model”.

    You may consider changing the end of the post – Jonathan Eisen was considering in a blog post how to respond to a very stupid comment from a reviewer of a grant. After several iterations, he came up with two, pithy, words
    “Love, Jonathan”
    It is somewhere on his blog (http://phylogenomics.blogspot.co.uk/)

  3. Dave,
    With all respect, I can’t think of a case for censorship that didn’t involve someone’s business model :)

    Julian I’ll bet the spotlight you’ve put on things will resolve this soon. As a backup, I seriously hope you consider a creative resolution by using an in place substitution of the original image, some ideas:

    -Clear statement that calls out Wiley’s reprehensible practice here, and add stick figures with stink lines.

    -Make a derivative work of the original image:
    In oil paint
    Photoshopped as a sports drink ad

    • I like the painting idea – especially a series of impressionist works taken through the working day, from early morning under artificial light, to the bright sunlight streaming in the lab window to evening and on to the inky depths of night, with light on just the one bench :)

  4. Carlos Perez is absolutely correct. You are entitled to copy the figures, etc., you wish to critique because there is a specific exception to copyright in all countries for criticism/review. No need to ask for permission, no fees to pay, as long as you say where you got the originals from. Just go ahead and copy.

    In a nutshell, the law is on your side.

  5. Ooohhh that sounds familiar. I too was involved, although in a much lower scale, in having to prove wrong a widely accepted theory, which in fact relied on artifacts. I did not have to fight major publishers, as you are doing. Good science needs people like you, who are not afraid to fight the big dogs to shed light on controversial matters!

  6. I raised fair use with PLoS ONE. The issue here is that PLoS will licence the paper as CC-BY, thus the image becomes CC-BY which is not covered by fair use (one can use but not re-licence, this is my understanding at least). This is why PLoS applied for permission. The issue, as far as I can see it, is Wiley not playing fair with scientific content. We are using a few panels from one of their papers to form a scientific argument. The “lost” content is negligible, and our work actually publicises (although not positively) their paper, driving people to it.

    Another avenue we will need to pursue is the possibility that PLoS can licence all our content as CC-BY, but leave the copyrighted figures under their old copyright. I am not sure how easy it is to release a different parts of a document under different licences.

    • Thanks for raising this. I’d like to clarify that our normal practice is to grant researchers permission for the free reproduction of an image or other material, provided that you include full acknowledgement of the source including the copyright line. This is an acceptable solution according to Creative Commons’ own guidelines on marking third party content, however, PLOS apparently requires all its content – including any that is reproduced from other sources – to be available under a CCAL license. We are happy to grant permission to reproduce our content in your article, but are unable to change its copyright status. I hope this helps but, if you have any further questions or concerns, please contact rightslink@wiley.com and I or one of my colleagues will be happy to address them.

  7. Thanks for raising this. I’d like to clarify that our normal practice is to grant researchers permission for the free reproduction of an image or other material, provided that you include full acknowledgement of the source including the copyright line. This is an acceptable solution according to Creative Commons’ own guidelines on marking third party content, however, PLOS apparently requires all its content – including any that is reproduced from other sources – to be available under a CCAL license. We are happy to grant permission to reproduce our content in your article, but are unable to change its copyright status. I hope this helps but, if you have any further questions or concerns, please contact rightslink@wiley.com and I or one of my colleagues will be happy to address them.

    • Dear Kris,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to this issue. You seem to indicate it is not possible to change the license of a picture once it is released, and that you therefore (regrettably) cannot make this image available (quoting: “…but are unable to change its copyright status”). To my knowledge, it is not a problem to change the copyright of a particular item from a more restrictive license to a less restrictive copyright scheme.

      For example, this has happened with many pieces of software when companies decide that their interests are better served by opening up the source code to the community.

    • No it doesn’t help, because you invoke the laws of copyright over the process of science.
      So you are a publisher, I agree.
      You have nothing to do with science.
      Consequently, I have withdrawn my labour from yours and other journals using this model. I have written about this here:
      http://ferniglab.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/a-resolution-growing-firmer-by-the-day-dont-be-a-commodity/

      When my colleagues do likewise, your business will no longer exist.
      Yours faithfully,
      Dave Fernig
      Professor of Biological Chemistry

  8. The solution, of course is quite simple: a meaningless cartoon that will doubtless find its way into textbooks :)
    It seems to me that this is an impasse, at least for now. So ways forward would include:
    1. Do not publish, keep pushing. Problem is that this particular duck seems to breed and your paper is stuck in limbo.

    2. Publish now, with a link and keep pushing. Advantage, paper comes out!

    3. Publish now with TWO links. One to the original paper, the other to a single figure with legend that is on a preprint server. The advantage of having two links, is that the preprint is Open Access. Th figure on the preprinter server is identical to the one in the paper. Wiley have yet to complain about the figures in the original preprint. If you just put up the relevant figure, not the entire article, on the preprint server, they your preprint is legitimately calling into question the data published in a Wiley journal. Legal action by Wiley against the preprint server would really damage their brand, since there would be rather more people up in arms, so a no go area for them. This is a good solution and not cumbersome, since the preprint is #OA, and all that happens is the reader gets a new page with the figure, rather than the link to a closed access journal. Of course, if the figures in question are identical to the ones in the current preprint, then the link in the paper can be to that.

    The order of action for (3) is
    First put the figures upon a preprint server, second request PLOS to put in the links.
    AND we keep fighting. This includes complete withdrawal of labour – reviewing, etc., as I discussed in my recent post:
    http://ferniglab.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/a-resolution-growing-firmer-by-the-day-dont-be-a-commodity/
    Time to stop now, as I feel a STRONG upwelling of vocabulary firmly based in the Anglo Saxon corner of our language!

  9. Wiley is allowing the criticism usage! They are just not allowing the hippy dippy free content for everyone expansion.

    Julian, it was a mistake to publish in PLOS given that. I know you are all amped up because of the work. And because of your general like for different publishing models. But really, I think you are being unfair to Wiley. And I say this as someone who is both anti stripey and pro free content. But just don’t mix two separate issues like this to the detriment of both.

    Publish the thing in a normal journal.

  10. What we have here are mistakes by both PLOS and Wiley:

    1. PLOS One’s assertion that all content in the article must be licensed under a CC BY (or CCAL in their terms) license is wrong. The CC BY license allows one to use content that is not CC BY, provided that it is clearly marked. One can even use material under fair use – again so long as it is clearly marked.
    2. Wiley is wrong to suggest that the illustrations have a copyright. Only original, creative content can be copyrighted. Data is not copyrightable. Unless the creators of the illustration made it up (which may be the case here), there can be no copyright.

  11. Have you considered asking the authors of the original article for the raw data underlying that image? It might not be the obvious thing to do (emotion may have already overtaken the more friendly scientific discourse in this case), but if you create a new image (crop it a bit or change the colorscale) and get permission from the original authors to publish it there won’t be any copyright anymore. The caption could read ‘data courtesy author so and so’ and the problem is solved.

    • Hi Erik. The issue is that our figure is comparing the raw data (which we have), with how it was presented in the original article. To do this we, unfortunatly, need to use the original figure from the article.

  12. I’m happy to confirm that permission was granted to reuse these figures from Nature Materials in Julian’s paper, published by PLOS under a CC-BY license. Upon receiving the request our permissions team let PLOS know on 12 September that we would be happy to grant permission and once we received clarification from PLOS on 19 September about the specific figures in question, permission was granted.

    We receive frequent requests from PLOS to reuse content published by Nature Publishing Group and in general we will permit figures to be reproduced under the same license as the article in which they are to be used.

    Nature Publishing Group publishes both open access and subscription content and our policies reflect that and our desire to ensure that licensing is simple for our authors and readers. For any queries please contact permissions@nature.com

    • Bravo NPG!
      Let us hope that ACS and WIley follow your example.

      I”m perplexed why PLOS didn’t make it clear that figures are generally resolved this way since:

      “We receive frequent requests from PLOS to reuse content published by Nature Publishing Group and in general we will permit figures to be reproduced under the same license as the article in which they are to be used. “

  13. Interesting to read, thanks for posting via linkedin (rarely use it, ironically). One shouldn’t worry too much about the “business models” of Wiley and the like; failure to adapt to technology (in this case, digital distribution of information) will see “legacy” publishers disappear: remember napster? :)

  14. Julian, any update?
    As far as I can tell between tweets etc. this is generally resolved?

    (it seems that neither PLOS nor Wiley any idea what they were doing in terms understanding how to work around licensing in this case).

  15. Here’s an update from Wiley:
    Wiley routinely grants permission for reuse of figures for research papers with full attribution to the source including the copyright line as recommended in Creative Commons best practice guidelines on use of third party material in articles using a CC-BY license. We have received and granted a number of these requests and most publishers are happy to follow the creative commons guidelines. However, PLoS insist that they will only reproduce third party material under the terms of a CC-BY license.

    Except where mandated otherwise, we respect our authors right to choose whether to publish in a subscription journal or on an open access basis and, if the latter, which Creative Commons license they wish to use. While most authors are happy for their work to be reused in scholarly research papers, many still choose to protect their work from other forms of without their knowledge or consent.

    In this particular case, since PLoS One are unwilling to adhere to the Creative Commons Guidelines, we have contacted the author of the requested paper and asked if he is willing to allow his figures to be republished by them under a CC-BY license. I am happy to confirm the author has agreed and we have now confirmed with PLoS One that we have granted this permission.

    We are committed to finding flexible solutions to copyright and licensing issues that meet the needs of all stakeholders, and we hope that other publishers will take the same approach.

    Jen Holton
    Director of Global Rights and Permissions, Wiley

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