When it comes to scientific publishers, I just don’t know who to trust anymore.

This article is a direct follow up of my previous post: How can we trust scientific publishers with our work if they won’t play fair?

When I posted my last post I knew who the good guys were: PLoS ONE, a non-for-profit open-access journal who had agreed to publish a controversial article and were actively seeking for permission for us to reuse figures from other journals.

I also knew who the bad guys were: Wiley, a huge publishing house that makes large profits directly from our science and library budgets and who were refusing us permission to reuse images.

The story got a lot more attention than I had expected. Wiley and Nature Publishing Group both submitted comments on the blog, the Times Higher Education wrote an article about it, some other blogs picked it up, and quite a few people contacted me privately. However, it turns out things are a lot less simple than I had thought.

Before I get into this I want to give a brief update on the other publishers in this saga. The Royal Society of Chemistry had already given us permission when the blog post was uploaded, but we were waiting to hear from Nature Publishing Group (NPG) and the American Chemical Society (ACS). NPG gave us full permission a couple of days after the blog post, they also contacted me personally, and contacted PLoS. ACS remained silent until questioned by the Times Higher Education for their article, they incorrectly told the reporter that they had reached out to me and gave us permission. Then after the Times Higher Education article went live they gave contacted PLoS to tell them that they would NOT allow the images to be reused under PLoS ONE’s licence. Was this a dirty trick or just internal confusion at ACS? Either way they have hardly showered themselves in glory.

Now the plot thickens. After I wrote my blog post we learned more about the creative commons licence from a range of sources, including Wiley themselves. It turns out that what PLoS had told us—essentially that to use images in a CC-BY publication requires the images to be relicenced as CC-BY—was not true. Any content previously copyrighted can be used, with permission, in a CC-BY article as long as it clearly marked as not being CC-BY. This is the path that Wiley and ACS wanted to take.

Problem solved! Or so I thought. I may disagree with Wiley and ACS’s stance, I believe they should not be restricting access to the output of publicly funded science, but then I am and idealist and that is their business model. At least we have a way to proceed.

Here is where things get worse for PLoS ONE, they first seem blissfully unaware that the they can simply mark copyrighted images instead of relicencing them. After we suggest the option we get an email asking us to remove these panels from the next draft. We ask again why we can’t simply watermark them to say they are not CC-BY, and they say they have contacted ACS and Wiley “to see if we can find an approach compatible with our CC-BY license.” This seems ridiculous to me. I don’t understand the term “our CC-BY license”, it is my understanding that this is THE CC-BY licence and a compatible approach has been suggested. It seems that PLOS are now the ones holding us up. Further googling shows that they are not the only open access journals to have inflexible policies on using images in CC-BY publications.

The final twist in the story so far is that, as of yesterday, Wiley reversed their previous decision and are allowing full CC-BY use of the images in question. The only stumbling block that remains is the ACS images, and whether PLoS will allow us to watermark them as not CC-BY in the publication.

So who do we trust? Wiley are still a company making huge profits from selling our work back to us, but at least they took the time to solve this issue. Or PLoS, open-access and non-for-profit is great, but it seems they have manufactured this problem by stubbornly refusing to use a standard part of the CC-BY licence. It seems we can’t trust any of them!

Please PLoS, can you sort this out? I don’t want to spend any more time playing inter-journal politics or reading copyright laws and licences, I’m a scientist, I want to play in my lab and read science articles.

6 thoughts on “When it comes to scientific publishers, I just don’t know who to trust anymore.

  1. Yeearg.

    I hope all of the publishing groups take a step back and reflect on the absurdity and inefficiency of this entire situation. What good are these “protections” doing? They are only preventing critical analysis, many authors might have just relented by now.

    I’m glad to see that publishers have at least responded on blogs and twitter, but I would hope that they could release statements recognizing there is a very serious problem here.

    I always thought PLOS were the good guys as well, they’ve come across as the most inept here. They really need to:

    A) Address these gross inefficiencies.

    B) Look at this situation and make it explicitly clear how authors should proceed in situations like this in the future.

    There has been a profound amount of inconsistency amongst the publishers and it seems to reflect a lack of a clear understanding of how the Byzantine copyright system *actually works*.

  2. One possibility would be that you get the ACS (and Wiley) images directly from Stellacci (or rather from the person in his group that created the images). This person still owns the copyright to those images and could create a derivative version of them (e.g. change the layout of the scale bar or change colours of lines/arrows in the image). Then you could use this new version of the image without the copyright concerns associated with the ACS/Wiley-figures.
    Stellacci would of course have to play along…

  3. Hi Julian,
    First of all, I’m sorry for how long this is taking, but I want to assure you that it is top priority for us.
    We want to ensure that your paper is fully re-usable, mineable, machine-readable etc. That is central to our mission as open-access publishers.
    To do this, we need the whole article to be fully CC-BY, not CC-BY-except-for-where-we-say-it’s-not. Adding exemptions like that will make the whole corpus unstable for things like data mining (and whatever else the future brings), and devalue your paper and the others we publish. That’s the reason we are trying to obtain permission.
    We are *this* close to getting this sorted, so I ask that you just bear with us a little longer.
    Damian (from PLOS ONE)

  4. yet another week goes by…

    If there has been a systematic effort by some party to delay and dull the impact of this very important paper, they have been successful.

    I hope PLOS considers writing a meta-editorial on the absurd delays that have been encountered with getting this paper out. It really is required here given the incredible difficulty that the authors have had in correcting the scientific record.

    • Hi nanonymous.

      My blog comments are 99% spam 1% real so I have a very heavy filter on. Somehow I missed this. Better late than never?

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