A Turbulent Year in the Publishing World

In 2017, scientists, regulators, and publishers clashed in a series of lawsuits, boycotts, mass resignations, and more.

By | December 15, 2017

ISTOCK, ERHUI1979As subscription prices soar, preprints rise, and open access spreads, conflicts have ignited across the publishing world. Here is The Scientist’s roundup of events that made headlines this year.

Sci-Hub gets sued

This year, two major publishers, Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS), won their lawsuits against Sci-Hub, a popular pirate website for academic papers. A New York district court awarded Elsevier a default legal judgement in June, ordering the site to pay $15 million in damages. In November, a judge in a Virginia district court ruled in favor of ACS, awarding it $4.8 million in damages and issuing a broad injunction that allows the society to demand that Internet service providers (ISPs), domain name registries, and search engines associated with the site censor it.

Some scientists and members of the technology sector and have raised concerns about the latter request. “[This] was a very important, unprecedented, and, I think, mistaken judgement made by the court without any adversarial argument,” Peter Suber, the director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, which facilitates the university’s adoption of open-access policies, told The Scientist in November.

Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub’s founder, told The Scientist in September that the site plans to ignore the lawsuits. “Even though it is possible to introduce difficulties for Sci-Hub to access content, [it is] not possible to prevent this completely,” she added.

Since November, at least four of Sci-hub’s domains (sci-hub.cc, sci-hub.io, sci-hub.ac, and sci-hub.bz) have permanently shut down. However, many Twitter users are keeping track of the domains that remain active.

Elsevier and ACS are also seeking legal action against ResearchGate. This October, the two publishers filed a lawsuit in Germany to prevent the academic social networking site from sharing copyrighted content. The Coalition for Responsible Sharing, which includes five publishers—ACS, Elsevier, Brill, Wiley, and Wolter-Kluwer—started issuing takedown notices to the site the same month. The site then moved to restrict access to 1.7 million articles.

Universities boycott Elsevier

FLICKR, CHARLOTTE HENARD

More than 100 German universities and research institutions cancelled their Elsevier subscriptions this year to put pressure on the publisher during ongoing negotiations for a more affordable and open access subscription agreement. Since mid-October, around 20 scientists have also joined the protest by resigning from the editorial boards of Elsevier’s journals.

Negotiations for a new nationwide licensing agreement between Elsevier and the DEAL project, an alliance of German institutions led by the German Rectors’ Conference, are stuck in a deadlock. DEAL is pushing for a “publish and read model,” which would include access to all of Elsevier’s journals and allow papers with German first authors to become freely accessible for readers around the globe.

The DEAL project is also negotiating new contracts with two other major publishers, Springer Nature and Wiley. Those talks have been more successful—in both cases, the two sides have agreed to extend subscriptions while discussions continue.

“Nobody wants Elsevier to starve—they should be paid fairly for their good service,” Ursula Flitner, the head of the medical library at Charité–Berlin University of Medicine, told The Scientist in July. “The problem is, we no longer see what their good service is.”

For those bracing to lose access to Elsevier journals in the new year, librarians at German institutions note that people can still request papers through services such as interlibrary loans. A number of free, legal alternatives for accessing paywalled articles have also emerged this year.

See “A Growing Open Access Toolbox

Editorial board walkouts

ISTOCK, SPRNG23

Elsevier was not the only publisher that faced resignations from editorial boards in 2017. In November, 19 researchers stepped down from the editorial board of Scientific Reports after being notified that the journal would not retract an allegedly plagiarized paper.

Michael Beer, a biomedical scientist at Johns Hopkins University, claimed that the article in question, which described a computational method to pinpoint regulatory DNA sequences, copied significant portions of a PLOS Computational Biology paper that he coauthored in 2014. Months of arguments ensued after Richard White, Scientific Reports’s managing editor, made the decision to issue a correction, adding credit to Beer and his colleagues, rather than a retraction. 

Following the resignations, Suzanna Farley, the executive editor of Scientific Reports, notified Retraction Watch that the journal would be assembling a senior editorial committee to further access the case.

During the same month, the entire editorial board of the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health (IJOEH) resigned. A dispute began this spring when the journal’s 22 board members, along with eight former members and a founding editor, sent a letter to the journal’s publisher, the Taylor & Francis group, citing concerns about a newly hired editor with industry ties and the retraction of a paper that criticized industry-sponsored research into asbestos exposure.

Shortly before the mass resignation, the group brought its concerns to the National Library of Medicine, requesting disciplinary action for the alleged censorship of papers that do not align with corporate interests.

OMICS in hot water  

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This March, SCOPUS, Elsevier’s publication database, removed multiple journals belonging to the OMICS Publishing Group. The India-based open access publisher is currently facing a lawsuit from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for allegedly engaging in predatory publishing practices.

The FTC filed a complaint last year, claiming that OMICS was guilty of numerous deceptive practices, such as publishing articles without proper peer review, misrepresenting scientists as editors, and waiting until papers were accepted to disclose high publication fees. In November, Judge Gloria Navarro of the District Court of Nevada ruled in favor of the FTC and issued a preliminary injunction against the publisher, ordering it to remove misleading claims from its websites.

See “Identifying Predatory Publishers

Rise of the preprint

ISTOCK, OSTAPENKOOLENA

Early this year, three funding agencies, the U.K.’s Medical Research Council (MRC), the Wellcome Trust, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced that preprints were welcome in grant applications.

This move is indicative of a shifting attitude toward preprints in the publishing world. Since 2016, journals have been hiring “preprint editors” to peruse preprint servers to identify and solicit manuscripts worthy of publication. “Editors are paying very close attention—at a whole number of journals—to the preprint atmosphere,” Christopher “Casey” Brown, a geneticist at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Scientist in January. “The role of editors is changing a bit, there is more interest in this sort of thing.”

In addition, multiple preprints servers emerged this year, including EarthArXiv, PaleorXiv, and NutriXiv. Others, such as the American Geophysical Union’s Earth and Space Science Open Archive (ESSOAr) and Yale University’s MedArXiv, are preparing to launch in the near future.

See “Do Preprints Require More Rigorous Screening?

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