Jul 112007

Peter Murray-Rust, a noted Open Access advocate and online publishing innovator in chemistry, has publicly resigned on his blog from the editorial board of Springer’s journal Journal of Molecular Modeling over Springer’s apparent handling of its Open Choice programme.

Under Springer’s Open Choice, authors can voluntarily have their paper made open access even within an otherwise subscription-based journal by paying a fee of $3000 to the publisher. All large publishers have such schemes, primarily as a response to the introduction of policies by research funders (such as the National Institutes of Health in the US and the Wellcome Trust in the UK) requiring authors to deposit a version of their accepted articles in a public archive.

Springer had gone rather farther than most, however, with the appointment in 2005 of Jan Velterop as Director of Open Access, who had made public statements about Springer’s commitment to real open access, e.g. with the use of a licence based on the Creative Commons licence.

Murray-Rust thought about publishing an article under Open Choice and decided to look at some existing examples to see what he got for his money. To his surprise, the Open Choice articles he found were marked “© Springer” and had links to the CCC Rightslink online permissions system.

It’s not entirely clear whether Murray-Rust attempted to discuss this with Springer or whether he immediately decided to resign[Update: see comment from Peter Murray-Rust below] , but whichever he couched his resignation in very robust language:

…it is absolutely clear that Springer has no intention of actually making this article Open Access even by their own “Your Research. Your Choice” promise, let alone the BOAI.

The best that can be said is that Springer don’t care a green fig about Open Choice – they clearly have made no effort to implement it with the care that is required. That’s certainly the impression that most of the large publishers give – they want to be able to say “we offered this choice but hardly anyone wanted to take it up”.

If Springer care about it they should give all the authors their money back. I think they have destroyed the idea of Open Choice for the whole publishing industry. It doesn’t matter what the details were – they have blatantly failed to deliver “full open access” and they have taken a lot of money for it.

Springer’s Velterop was left struggling to respond in a comment to Murray-Rust’s blog posting. He pointed out that

*any* copyright holder can make an article open access, and this *includes* the publisher

Technically true, but clearly not what authors would expect from reading the Open Choice rubric.

Velterop went on to blame the copyright line and Rightslink buttons on inflexibilities in the Springer production system and flaws in their Rightslink implementation, which is hardly great PR for the publisher — the “cock-up rather than conspiracy” defence.

He also pointed out that Springer had made some articles Open Choice without author payments to help measure usage (there presumably not being enough take-up by authors to produce any valid statistics on differential usage?), and that Springer had made some articles retrospectively Open Choice by agreements with various Dutch institutions.

Although Murray-Rust comes across as hasty in not securing an explanation from Springer before going public, the PR damage to Springer is surely greater. Springer’s Open Choice programme has been in place longer than most publishers, so it’s not unreasonable to expect they would have sorted out the associated production issues before now. They are also guilty of poorly managing expectations and scrambling to give expectations after the fact, rather than say including these details in a FAQ section on the Open Choice pages.

Update 2: Matt Hodgkinson has an interesting post about this – Open Choice takes a beating – on his Journalology blog.

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