Open Access: Going for Gold?

Tonight the Science Communication Forum at Imperial College held a debate called Open Access: Going for Gold? with Stephen Curry (Imperial) and Mark Thorley (NERC, RCUK). The debate was chaired by Richard Van Noorden (Nature News).

Update 2 (28th September): you can listen to the debate on Figshare and here’s a useful link to RCUK’s open access policy (PDF).

Lots of things were discussed but a couple things in particular stuck in my mind writing this on the way home.

RCUK require for CC-BY for gold, but only CC-BY-NC for green

Under the new RCUK policy researchers must either pay a fee to publish in a gold open access journal or alternatively publish in a closed access journal and then deposit the article in a repository within 6 months [1].

Gold articles must be published with a CC-BY licence. This is good as it means anyone can do what they want with the work as long as the original authors are attributed. However, green articles deposited in a repository after the embargo period are only required to have a CC-BY-NC licence, meaning that you cannot use the work for commercial purposes.

This is very disappointing. Sadly it wasn’t discussed in the debate. CC-BY-NC is, as tweeted during the debate, a licence of fear. All it says is that the authors couldn’t think of a way to make money out of the work, so they’ll be damned if anyone else does. The work might as well have never happened.

Thorley talked about open access benefiting “UK PLC”, but CC-BY-NC is at complete odds with this. CC-BY-NC stifles innovation and progress. Furthermore, if the state funded the research, then the state and the rest of society should benefit from it. Under CC-BY-NC, no one benefits.

Green is of poorer quality than gold?

A couple of people doubted the quality of papers published straight to repositories like arXiv. I’m not so convinced. Firstly, they assume the reader is stupid and can’t work out for themselves if a paper is a load of nonsense. Secondly, it assumes that peer review weeds out all the bad papers. It doesn’t. Someone suggested a kitemark to say that a particular paper in a repository is trustworthy. I hope I don’t have to explain why that’s an awful idea.

Thorley did at one point say something about gold papers being better for the lay person. Curry looked quite suprised. This is a completely different debate. Just because a paper is literally accessible to the public doesn’t mean the information contained within it is intelligible to the public. But if someone is interested enough to be reading papers I don’t think gold/green will really make that much of a difference to them—not enough to justify an APC. I wonder what percentage of papers even undergo any major revisions between submission and publication.

Concluding thoughts

CC-BY-NC for green is a real disaster. I sincerely hope RCUK revise their policy so that it’s the same as gold.

I still can’t make up my mind about green versus gold. On the one hand, I think everything should go straight into repositories like arXiv. Forget journals and use the money we save to help fund and develop repositories, (although I know this is really very unlikely to ever happen). But on the other, if we are going to pay journals to publish work, we should expect more in return. Not just PDFs, but high quality (interactive?) documents including data and code in reuseable formats and tools to help us do things like text mining. I can’t help but think there’s very little innovation in publishing, especially considering the size of their profit margins.

It’s clear a lot more will happen in the open access debate. As Thorley said, this isn’t an event, it’s a journey. Hopefully it won’t be too arduous.

Update: gold—a free market for innovation?

Having slept it on it I can see where RCUK are coming from with their preference for gold, but I think they’re overestimating what publishers actually offer at the moment. Do most journals currently add enough value for it to be worth the APC? I’m not sure. I get the feeling people tend to think that every journal produces papers as beautiful as NPG. Authors will be paying the journal to publish, therefore we should expect more in return—especially considering the tidy profit margins. At present, I don’t think gold is that much better than green in that respect.

If, as Curry said, scientists end their addiction to impact factors (increasingly likely as HEFCE will be enforcing their ban on them), gold might lead to a more free market-like situation. Scientists will look around for journals that offer the best value for money. This could really drive innovation in scientific publishing as publishers are going to be competing in terms of what they can offer scientists rather than what the journal can do for an author’s career.

(Updated on 09:02 on 27th September 2012 with additional section.)

[1]: Thorley said that the embargo periods vary in length from publisher to publisher. He was pretty clear about 6 months and said 12 months was “a joke”. Personally I think 6 months is still far too long. It also raises the question: do publishers only add such little value that its only worth 6 months? Why bother with it in the first place?

The way-it-should-be-ness

The BBC have published an audio slideshow called Chair Champions on Charles and Ray Eames, designers best known for their furniture. The Eames Lounge Chair is probably their most famous work.

I like well-designed things. Not in the sense that they look a particular way, but that they fulfil a specific function extremely well. The couple designed objects that were both functional and stylish. The following from the end of the slideshow has stuck in my mind:

“Charles and Ray had this idea that good designs had ‘way-it-should-be-ness’. If something was really well-designed, then the idea of it being designed shouldn’t come up at all.”

I love this idea of ‘the way-it-should-be-ness’. In my own work, I try to find solutions to problems that are elegant. I want my solutions to have ‘way-it-should-be-ness’. Writing my MRes report led me to reflect on the last year and I’ve noticed that this desire to get the perfect solution has actually been a bit of hindrance.

I spent far too long sat at my desk searching the literature for the best solution. When I finally settled on a plan, it was a bit of a long shot. If it worked, it really would have been awesome. But it didn’t. The paper that I based my idea on was almost certainly suspect.

Around the time I was working on the dodgy reaction I read Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. It’s quite good. He’s like a better Malcolm Gladwell. Harford summarises the way Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky, who ended up being executed by the Soviet government for criticising them, solved problems as three ‘Palchinksy principles’:

  1. Seek out new ideas.

  2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.

  3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

I like them. I do the first, but my problem lies with the other two. Over the last year everything depended on this one reaction—a risky, naive strategy. There was little feedback and refinement. I ended up rushing another reaction towards the end so that my report on ended on a high note. After all, no one likes a sad thesis.

I bet Charles and Ray Eames didn’t come up with their objects overnight. There must have been hundreds of drawings and prototypes of the Eames Lounge Chair, but it’s easy to forget them as you only think of the final product. They probably worked in a similar way to Palchinksy.

Now I’m making an effort to work more iteratively. I still think of rather grand ideas, but instead of going for it in one enormous optimistic leap, I’m working towards them bit by bit, in a process of steady refinement.

I’ve already had some success last week working in this way. It gives much more positive mindset of working too. Hopefully I’ll soon have my own chemistry equivalent of the ELC and after refining it down I’ll look at it and think “yep, that’s the way it should be.”

Forget the scotch tape: how to make loads of graphene

Earlier this year I was writing a review about transparent conducting materials for organic electronic applications. As part of it, I wrote a fair bit about graphene. One of the key problems is that it’s difficult to scale the desirable properties of small pieces of graphene to large areas without resorting to quite challenging techniques.

In 2004, when Geim and Novoselov managed to isolate single-layer and few-layer graphene, they did it using Scotch tape to “mechanically exfoliate” graphite—basically using Scotch tape to peel off a layer of graphene from the graphite [1].

This technique gives very high quality crystals of up to 10 micrometres in size, but it’s limited to laboratory scale production—you’re not going to use this in a factory to make components for electronic devices. When I was writing the review, I wanted to write something along the lines of “…mechanical exfoliation, whilst producing very high quality graphene, is impossible to scale up…” but my supervisor told me to change it to something less definite, hinting these things have a habit of a coming back to prove you wrong.

To my surprise, someone has managed to scale it up. Chen and co-workers recently published a paper describing mechanical exfoliation of graphite using a three–roll mill [2]. Here’s a pen and paper sketch of their set up.

Sketch of the three roll mill set up used by Chen et al. to mechanically exfoliate graphene.
Sketch of the three roll mill set up used by Chen et al. to mechanically exfoliate graphene.

First they prepared an adhesive (polyvinylchloride (PVC) in dioctyl phthalate) which was poured between the feed and centre rolls. They then started rolls rotating then spread the graphite powder onto the adhesive. The adhesive runs in an S shape around the rolls. The graphene is continuously exfoliated to give graphene, unlike the scotch tape method where you exfoliate once with each application and removal of the scotch tape. After 12 hours of operation, you collect the material, wash it and then burn off the PVC to get the graphene. There’s a video (direct link) in the supplementary information showing the mill in operation.

I’m not entirely sure why anyone would want that much graphene in this form. For transparent conducting applications (where you want to maximise transparency and minimise electrical resistance) it’s likely you would still have high electrical resistances between flakes of graphene and poor performance. But it’s still a clever way of scaling up what, to me, looked like a completely unscalable process. I won’t be so certain when writing in the future.

[1]: K. S. Novoselov, A. K. Geim, S. V. Morozov, D. Jiang, Y. Zhang, S. V. Dubonos, I. V. Grigorieva, A. A. Firsov, Science, 2004, 306 (5696), 666-669. DOI: 10.1126/science.1102896.

[2]: J. Chen, M. Duan, G. Chen, J. Mater. Chem., 2012, 22, 19625-19628. DOI: 10.1039/c2jm33740a.