PhD students: Don’t ‘occupy publishing’, just do your bit

Academics are getting more and more unhappy about the state of scientific publishing in the UK in what is becoming known as the ‘academic spring’. Timothy Gowers wrote in the THE recently about why he – like many academics – is boycotting the publisher everyone seems to resent most: Reed Elsevier. There’s also a campaign going on, to try to force journals to widen their access.

This is quite a complex and sensitive issue, but I have often thought that given the kind of information-rich world we live in, there must be quite simple ways of communicating research results without the publisher middle men. Researchers already post links to their research papers on their academic home pages – perhaps they could just post the whole paper there without ever bothering to give it to Elsevier?

Well, of course, the problem is that this process wouldn’t automatically be subject to peer review, there would be no collection of work in a single location and so on. It would also take a paradigm shift in attitudes of truly heroic proportions for anything like this to be adopted. Gowers says he wants people to ‘set up cheaper alternatives, which takes time and work’ and to ‘think about’ the issue.

As a PhD student hoping to eventually get a job, it would not be appropriate for me to start hurling insults at people like Elsevier. I actually have a better opinion of them than many scientists. I happen to think that academic publishers do care about the problems with the current system, and are trying to make it better. It just takes time, and, really, any change has to originate from the scientific community. A business will never change a profitable mode of operation completely, just out of the goodness of its heart.

So what can a PhD student do to help? I say, to start with, we should begin to make our research findings as freely available as possible. In an effort to promote this sort of thinking, I have made a decision. As I near the end of my PhD I will submit as many as possible of the compounds I made during my research to ChemSpider SyntheticPages, a free repository of synthetic chemistry procedures. If databases like this were used consistently and widely, we might eventually move organically towards a situation where information is much more freely available.

In fact, there are such initiatives springing up across most of the sciences. Physical scientists already have arXiv (although that’s old), for example. And in an unexpected (to me) move, the Wellcome Trust have just announced they will be putting in place sanctions for researchers they fund who refuse to publish in their open access medical journal, eLife.*

So I challenge you – if you are a PhD student – to start making your research data available for free, as far as you reasonably can.

My first chemspider synthetic page is here: DOI 10.1039/SP540

*[Edit, 13.04.2012. I should have said ‘open access journals, including eLife’. They are not forcing people to publish in that particular journal – that would be a bit unreasonable!]

This entry was posted in Peer Reviewed Research, Publishing, Science, Science and society, Science communication. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to PhD students: Don’t ‘occupy publishing’, just do your bit

  1. Akshat Rathi says:

    It’s a simple but powerful idea. I hope more people catch on to it.

    PS: It seems that the reactions that I had submitted (back in 2009) have more than 3000 combined views on it today. ( and

  2. Your statement about the Wellcome Trust policy is not correct. It is true that Wellcome plans to enforce their long-standing open access policy more vigorously (public access within 6 months of publication), but their is nothing in their policy saying that you have to publish in elife.

    Kudos on working to do your bit – I agree that it is not fair to ask people to risk their careers for the sake of open access. If an Elsevier journal is where you feel that you need to publish, then note that Elsevier is “green” on self-archiving – so please be sure to self-archive a copy of your peer-reviewed work as soon as possible in your institutional repository. Details on publisher policies are available through Sherpa RoMEO here:

    A list of open access repositories is available here:

    If your institution does not have a repository, there is My Open Archive:

    Thanks also for speaking up on this barrier for new scholars. I have met a few scholars who have been very enthusiastic about open access – even setting up new OA journals – who felt, understandably, that they had to go to toll access journals when getting ready for the job search. The more we say about this dilemma, the better. It isn’t that we prefer TA, it’s that much as we love OA, like anyone else we need to earn a living.

  3. Tom Phillips says:

    Sounds like a great decision!

    I’ve also been thinking lately about ways I could share my results online (only started my PhD in September, so got plenty of time left). Most of my work is on nanoparticle synthesis, so ChemSpider won’t really work for me as it seems to be focused on organic chemistry, but something like FigShare, Github or institutional repositories could be really useful for providing lots of TEM/SEM images, spectra and code for data analysis to readers. I hope it becomes more popular and PhD students are in a great position to push this practice to wider audience.

    I’d like to see this kind of thing lead to source data for figures etc being referenced in papers – it’d be very useful (and another step towards “open science”).

  4. Pingback: Taking Open Access into Our Own Hands — scientifics

  5. joshuahowgego says:

    I like Tom’s idea of the raw data from graphs etc being referenced. If this could be published online and given a simple DOI, people could easily check it for themselves. I’m actually looking at a paper right now, where I don’t believe one of the figures.

    I guess it is a matter of trust. It’s unfortunate that there are cowboy scientists out there.

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