This month the open access journal PeerJ launched a new preprint server where scholars can post papers prior to submission for formal peer review and publication. Preprints are common in many disciplines, but have been unusual in the biology and biomedical areas that PeerJ focuses on. The culture of biomedicine and the academic overlap with highly competitive and potentially lucrative biotechnology and biopharm firms have retarded pre-publication release of results.
Pre-print servers are part of a growing trend. Over the last few years, the breadth of scholarly communication has begun to dramatically expand to support a life-cycle trajectory extending from the publication of small pieces of the research process in “nanopublications,” to the publication of pre-prints, and subsequently publications of record, often with post-print versions. With the launch of its preprint server, PeerJ hopes to capitalize on the growing comfort with pre-publication review and commentary that is increasingly accepted as a normal part of the publication lifecycle.
I was able to do a Q+A with the founders of PeerJ this last week, Pete Binfield and Jason Hoyt, to ask them more about their motivations.
PW: Why are you launching a pre-print server now?
PeerJ: Three reasons really:
Firstly, “Green Open Access” and the role of repositories are very important issues these days. The demand for Green OA is coming from both the top and bottom, and if you look at it, then the peer-reviewed portion of Green OA is covered by institutional repositories, but the ‘un peer-reviewed’ or draft versions of articles (i.e. the pre-prints) really have no major venues (at least not in the bio/medical sciences). So we view PeerJ PrePrints as one solution to that demand.
Secondly, academic journals themselves started out as non peer-reviewed venues for the rapid communication of results. Peer-review came about later on, evolving over centuries, to create something which has certainly introduced many positives for science. Still, ‘preprints’ also have many benefits that we no longer get to enjoy, because peer-review has come to dominate peoples attitudes towards what deserves to see the light of day. Now that more and more scientists are comfortable with the sharing attitude of the Internet (in part encouraged by the rise of Open Access), and as the costs of ‘preprinting’ are really quite low, it seemed like a good time to return to the roots of scholarly communication. Both peer-review and preprints have important roles to play in the ecosystem.
And thirdly, we believe that we are finally seeing a desire from the Bio and Medical communities for a service like this, but with no viable venue to meet that need. Just in the last year or two, we have seen biologists start to use the arXiv preprint server more (even though it really isn’t set up for their areas); we have seen services like FigShare and F1000 Research launch; and we have heard from many academics that they are eager to submit to something like this.
PW: In biomed, particularly, there has been a marked reluctance to pre-publish findings or early stages of papers because of the highly competitive nature of the domain. Do you think that is changing, or do you think you will attract a certain audience?
PeerJ: We do think that this is changing. It is common, of course, for early adopters to prove the value of a new way of doing things before the rest of a field will follow, and we believe that there is now a sufficient ‘critical mass’ of engaged academics who will use this service, to the extent that the rest of their communities will see what they are doing and give it a try as well. In this respect, we believe that earlier ‘failed experiments’ in the preprint space may have been simply (and unfortunately) too far ahead of their time to gain wide enough adoption.
In addition. although the default state for a PeerJ PrePrint will be to be ‘fully open’, future developments of the site will allow authors to apply ‘access’ and ‘privacy’ controls to create what we call ‘private preprints’. Specifically, in future authors will be able to limit the audience for a specific preprint (e.g. to just collaborators) or only make part of the preprint visible (e.g. just the abstract). In this way, we hope to make people comfortable enough to share to an extent that they might previously have been uncomfortable with.
PW: Researchers are increasingly publishing smaller bits of their research workflow, e.g., as data or even specific queries or lab runs. In some ways, a pre-pub server could be seen as a very conservative component of academic publishing. What do you regard as the “MVP” (Minimum Viable Product) for a pre-print publication?
PeerJ: We’re focusing on what we support best, long-form writing that is still a necessary step (for the time-being) on the road to a formally peer-reviewed publication. It’s a good fit for the lifecycle of a manuscript. Therefore, as a general rule, the MVP could be considered as “something which represents an early draft of a final journal submission”. On the other hand, there are no restrictions to the exact format used for these preprints, so we are actually hoping to see the use cases evolve due to an intentional lack of what is or isn’t allowed.
In terms of content, the only thing we don’t allow as a PrePrint for the moment are clinical trials or submissions which make therapeutic claims (as well as things which don’t fit within our Aims and Scope, or adhere to our Policies).
PW: How does pre-print fit into the economic model that peerj is running?
PeerJ: First it should be noted that authors who ‘preprint’ with PeerJ have no obligation to submit that item for formal peer-review – they can go to any journal that accepts preprints that have not been peer reviewed. Our membership plans allow for one public preprint per year for Free Members, and paying users can have unlimited public preprints. Paid memberships also have different levels of private preprints, but that isn’t available just yet. This is a similar model to several repository type services, such as GitHub, with a mix of public and private options. We expect private preprints to be attractive to those who want to test the waters of preprints, but restrict access to groups that they choose themselves.
PW: Are you requiring a CC-By license on pre-pub contributions? If so, do you think it discourages submissions from researchers who are sensitive to potential commercial gains from their work?
PeerJ: Any ‘public’ preprint will be published under a CC-BY license. The PeerJ Journal is also under the same license, and so if this license dissuades researchers, then they would also have been dissuaded from submitting a Journal article for the same reason.
PW: How do you imagine a work flowing within the PeerJ environment from a prepub status into an official publication?
PeerJ: The submission form that PeerJ PrePrint authors use is basically the same submission form that PeerJ Journal authors use (although there are some missing questions which are relevant to a preprint, and some fields are “Suggested” rather than “Required”). Because of this, it will be quite easy for an author to take their preprint submission and ‘convert’ it into a journal submission (they would simply have to supply a few extra bits of metadata and perhaps a fuller set of original files). Therefore, we expect a PeerJ PrePrint author to publish their preprint, get feedback, perhaps publish revisions etc, before then deciding it is ‘ready’ to be submitted to a Journal. If they choose PeerJ as their journal then it will be a simple matter to submit it to the journal for formal peer reviewed and eventual publication (assuming it passes peer review). If the preprint version had already gathered any informal comments then clearly those could also be used in the formal evaluation by the Journal’s Editors and Reviewers.
PW: How do you imagine a pre-print server generating additional traffic or “buy-in” for PeerJ? Will a pre-print server be able to increase the overall conversation that happens at peerj.com?
PeerJ: Our first focus is to make sure that we’ve built a service that researchers enjoy and engage with. We look at metrics such activity rates and engagement time as a barometer for whether what we are building is actually benefiting anyone. We are not worrying about traffic levels, but rather engagement levels. The traffic and new members will follow if we build something that researchers love.
ReadersFirst, the international coalition of libraries seeking to reassert control of user discovery and access for digital content, turned out on a rainy, cold afternoon at Seattle Public Library during ALA Midwinter to discuss their goals with the library vendor community. Members of the ReadersFirst (RF) steering committee ran over the organization’s history and mission, and then elicited engagement with senior representatives from the companies selling services that often, at present, conflict with the goals of RF.
RF seeks a common, cross-content discovery layer in the library catalog so that users only experience the library’s own web services. RF’s goal is for content providers and platforms, such as Overdrive, to provide APIs that enable users to request and retrieve materials without additional vendor interaction. For example, ebooks could retrieved “under the hood” from Overdrive without the user needing to re-authenticate or encounter systems beyond the library catalog. Currently, because libraries are forced to subscribe to services from multiple vendors, the user’s experience of digital media use is fractured with multiple vendor accounts, and ebooks are then accessed through different paths ranging from download to cloud-based access. As steering committee member Christina de Castell of the Vancouver Public Library said, “We don’t need the reader to know where the library bought the ebook from.”
Tom Galante of Queens Public Library reinforced, “The reader should be able to look at their library account and see what they have borrowed regardless of the vendor that supplied the ebook.” Continue reading
San Antonio, Texas has a history of supporting mavericks; in fact, the word originates from a signer of Texas Independence, Samuel Maverick, whose grandson, Maury, also held true to his surname. Now that Bexar (pronounced “Bear”) County, San Antonio’s home, is committed to building a new public library, BiblioTech, that will be devoid of all printed books, County Judge Nelson W. Wolff stands to follow in hallowed South Texas footsteps. Judge Wolff is a progressive politician who was also the founder of Sun Harvest Farms, a natural foods grocery store chain. As an elected County official, the Judge is something of an overlord along with the County Commission over many essential County-wide functions and services, including taxes and infrastructure investments.
“BiblioTech,” a play on the Spanish word for library, biblioteca, will open up on the south side of the county as a test of the proposition that providing a mix of services centered on Internet access and access to e-books is a cost effective strategy for providing information resources and library services to far-suburban and rural communities. Although the city has been providing library services to the county, it recently upped the tab from $3.7MM to $6.7MM – the highest city-county bill in the nation. As growth in unincorporated areas outside the city limits continues, the city has found it increasingly expensive to provide library services to areas without much in the way of their own tax base.
BiblioTech fits into Judge Wolff’s pattern of encouraging the long-term development of San Antonio. The vision anticipates a multi-location facility providing community information needs, with the first site serving as a model; it would be open into evening hours, available to registered County residents, and would provide access to up to an anticipated 10,000 ebook titles, supported with a pool of up to 100 e-readers. On January 15, 2013 the County gave its permission to release an RFP for an e-reader provider, a RFQ for an architect to remodel some existing underutilized County space, initial budgetary capital and operations (for computers and ebooks, among other things), and the creation of an advisory board.
Taking advantage of a visit to San Antonio, I was able to sit down with the Judge to talk about this new initiative and its longer term goals. In a wide ranging interview that included senior staff, I was impressed with his awareness of the overall public library environment. Partly inspired from the local UTSA engineering library, which went bookless in 2010, and Stanford’s engineering library, Wolff is alert to the dramatic shifts in digital access. I raised the most obvious objection from other library directors – that no digital library can be comprehensive today because of publisher reluctance to license their books – and he readily acknowledged that not all literature could be presented to county residents through an ebook platform. Yet, he was hopeful that forward-looking demonstrations of community libraries such as BiblioTech would encourage publishers to enlarge their offerings, reaching readers that lacked any bookstore.
Judge Wolff sees BiblioTech as not just a model for Bexar County, but far beyond it. With great enthusiasm, the County’s staff is rapidly gathering information about e-book vendors and licensing models; educating itself about national initiatives such as ReadersFirst; and has contacted innovative libraries ranging from New York Public to Chattanooga. BiblioTech will have a strong children’s area, with dedicated technology support and a concentration on children’s e-literature. More broadly, as expected from a leader long engaged in State and local politics, Wolff is beginning to consider what mix of community information needs can be presented through its facility; citizen education is considered an important element. And, perhaps because of its newness and innocence, it seems everyone has leapt to provide assistance. Even praise on the layout, size, and staffing of Apple stores has brought offers of help from unexpected places.
The serious grappling with what future libraries will embrace extends well beyond how they will address books. The BiblioTech team is also considering digital access to music and movies. Although the Judge’s staff had little exposure to maker spaces and some of the other forms of technology engagement and education, they were eager to learn about the range of opportunities. Wolff has been instrumental in bringing large concerns into San Antonio, such as Toyota’s newest truck manufacturing facility – on the same side of the city as BiblioTech – and has formed strong ties to Rackspace, a native San Antonio startup. and powerful cloud storage and computing provider. The opportunity to reshape libraries in San Antonio is significant, and with it there is an opportunity to inform what libraries look like across the globe.
Thanks to a suggestion from David Riordan of the New York Public Library Labs, I got a quick introduction to Field Trip, a new augmented reality (AR) Android app that emerged out of Google last autumn. Field Trip comes out of an internal startup called Niantic Labs at Google headed by John Hanke, who created an early online mapping application called Keyhole. Keyhole was acquired by Google and turned into Google Maps under Hanke’s leadership. I think Field Trip points toward a new generation of geolocal story telling, enabling us to find stories and interact with narratives wherever we happen to be. Continue reading
This last week, the Douglas County Library (DCL) system announced that they had acquired 10,000 ebook titles from the leading self- and independently-published e-book distributor, Smashwords. At an average of $4.00, this required an expenditure of $40,000 to purchase, not merely license, a large number of ebooks for the readers of Douglas County, nearly doubling the number of titles that DCL owns to 21,000. The deal was culminated through the legal equivalent of a sketch on a cocktail napkin, not a 330 page contract with multiple addenda.
This purchase is an example of the Smashwords Library Direct program, which allows libraries and library consortia to purchase large numbers of self-published titles in a streamlined and automated fashion using whatever selection criteria they see fit; additional large library consortia, such as California’s Califa, are expected to follow DCL’s suit. Smashwords permits its authors and publishers to set their own library prices using a web-based pricing tool; the majority of its participating authors have opted for library prices at below-market levels, reflecting the premium value they place on library exposure and promotion.
The most promising aspect of the deal – and one that I hope will set a precedent – is that it was concluded through Smashwords’ acceptance of a simple document [pdf], “Statement of Common Understanding for Purchasing Electronic Content.” The keystone clause underpinning the Common Understanding’s resolutions is: “The Library affirms that it will comply with U.S. Copyright Law.” It subsequently specifies in clean and commonsense language what that means: i.e., purchase is not a transfer of copyright; the library will loan one copy for each ebook copy purchased; and it will not make derivative works such as films or translations. It affirms DCL’s right to make archival or preservation copies (Copyright Section 108(c)), and the ability to make accessible copies available to the reading impaired (Section 121). The whole document does not cover two pages. There is also a handshake agreement that should an author or publisher publish material through Smashwords without necessary rights and the library owns that title, then Smashwords will issue a request for the library to remove that title from its collection. The library will receive a refund for its purchase.
This is a model for a straightforward and civil agreement between publishers and libraries that rests solidly on current copyright, without the need for confining and restrictive licensing agreements that add complexity, increase user frustration, and diminish access without providing significant additional protection for rightsholders. I hope more publishers will be willing to take the Common Understanding, and its premise, as a template for building stronger and more trusting relationships.
As we start a new year, it might appear that the hurdles facing public libraries have never been greater. With financially burdened communities; ebooks, movies, and music increasingly delivered through walled gardens by technology companies that have no resonance with free-to-all service; and rapidly evolving modes of publishing, it would appear that libraries are in a tight corner. That may all be true, but there are signs of rescue, signs of hope.
One of the best things coming is the growing awareness that public libraries need to solve their own problems. That is not an easy proposition; public libraries come in all shapes and sizes, from Boston and New York research libraries to small town libraries in the American west. However, the internet bridges both vast distances and town/gown differences, and we are starting to see a whole new community of libraries emerge. A portion of this effort is being negotiated through the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), but the greater and more important aspect is being developed peer to peer.
A current example is the ReadersFirst initiative, a growing collaboration of libraries that has endorsed a straightforward set of propositions that seek to provide more seamless access to digital resources. ReadersFirst seeks simple but high impact goals: make content like ebooks more portable between providers, and more available to patrons; simplify integration into library discovery systems to ease access by patrons; and make content available in any useful format, whether EPUB, Mobi, or a website. And in this effort, amazingly, they may succeed.
The United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO) just released an extremely important announcement revising the UK’s copyright laws, bringing them more up to date with a digital age. “Modernising Copyright: A modern, robust and flexible framework” (pdf) formalizes permissions for a wide range of acts that in the U.S. are likely to be judged as Fair Use, but which have not obtained the benefit of explicit endorsement.
One of the IPO’s singular provisions in “Modernising Copyright” – that contracts cannot overwrite existing copyright exceptions and limitations – will have widespread repercussions. IFLA is helping drive similar discussions in international deliberations at WIPO focusing on libraries and archives. The U.S. Congress should give serious consideration to adopting a homologous principle. The UK, whose copyright framework is broadly similar to the U.S., now stands at the forefront of European thinking on copyright. Continue reading
Although it is not a popular opinion, I believe that library ebook borrowing erodes ebook sales, at least modestly, particularly of frontlist titles, net of whatever positive marketing effect libraries have in introducing new books and authors to readers. Obviously, it would be useful to verify this with solid data, but it is damnably difficult to construct a reliable instrument with control cases. Determining whether (and how) innovative, alternative models of ebook retailing might impact both publishers and libraries bears further examination, and recently I have started thinking about the possible impact of ebook subscription services.
Most considerations of library e-book lending take into account the potential commercial impact on digital book markets, as well as consumer expectations of the e-books we buy. Without question, there are gaping holes in ebook functionality that frustrate readers. For example, the inability to lend an e-book I’ve purchased to my wife is a maddening display of pecuniary greed that diminishes the overall value of the publishing sector.
When it comes to the market impact of library e-book lending, there are many factors to bear in mind. One is the suggestion that potentially losing some frontlist sales while profiting from reader introductions to more authors and books is a worthwhile trade, ultimately smoothing the revenue curve across publishers’ available inventory. Many publishers, however, believe that community services such as Goodreads already do a good enough job with recommendations, while delivering more efficient and stronger direct sales.
Brian O’Leary, meanwhile, has convincingly argued that libraries are the first, best defense against piracy, bringing readers into the market who would not otherwise buy copies, and that failure to accommodate the demand for borrowing a free e-book, however inefficiently, would engender far worse consequences in consumer behavior than losing a modest number of sales from library lending. But so far, the focus of the current discussion on e-books has failed to examine truly alternative measures, like subscription access.
A much-discussed option for publishers is a subscription service to a comprehensive set of books for a modest fee, usually near $10 a month for a base level membership, with streaming access to titles that are convertible to downloadable ebook sales. This “Spotify-for-e-books” approach has seen recent entrants including 24Symbols, Jellybooks, and most recently Oyster, joining stalwarts Safari Books Online in technical literature, Tor (to an extent) in scifi/fantasy, and Harlequin in romance. In a kissing-cousins effort, Bilbary is attempting to marry borrowing from public libraries with publisher compensation via an innovative, subsidized rental model. It is also worth recalling that Google was entertaining the idea of eventual consumer subscription access to the Google Books library in its defeated settlement proposals. And Amazon, of course, could enter this market with rather trivial effort.
Thus far, however, no general trade book subscription effort has emerged, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The obvious challenge is establishing a deep, broad-enough list of titles to induce a large enough number of subscribers to join, and the appropriate rights for older backlist titles may not be present. In addition, the revenue question gets sticky once readers have been converted to subscribers. The economics are not simple, and the only thing that obviates the same, exact problem that libraries now face (the belief that library lends lead to lost book sales) is if you can attract enough people as subscribers who would otherwise not be reading at all, or otherwise reading at the base threshold of whatever membership level you can up-sell them into.
Nevertheless, there is a growing realization by publishers that setting up consumer-facing retail relationships as an alternative to Amazon’s monopsony has its benefits. This is evident in the hard slog that start-up Bookshout is encountering as it attempts to provide a vendor-neutral cloud-based bookshelf for readers. It is also evident in the launch of the beta-status Ownshelf, which is similarly attempting to crack the proprietary media silos of Amazon, Apple, and to a lesser extent Google.
Quixotically, the existence of these start-ups is reliant on the platforms created by the technology giants whose retailing arms they seek to interpose: if it weren’t for iOS and Android, and the growing ubiquity of mobile phones and tablets, these start-ups would have no chance. Unless Apple, Amazon, and Google have the gumption to eliminate all alternative e-readers from their app stores (which just might warrant a wee bit of interest from the Department of Justice) there is some room to maneuver.
But therein also lies the catch: any subscription service from publishers can’t simply rest on the laurels of a compelling list with attractive membership levels, and effective marketing. They must be able to bridge the reader, device, and catalog. In the sector of technology literature, for example, it is not for nothing that Safari Books Online hired the Threepress team that developed the Ibis Reader web application. Look for more of this in the future.
For publishers, offering a subscription alternative would have another outcome: it would make library borrowing unattractive. In other words, an effective subscription book service would nudge one of the most attractive segments of the library population into a consumer market: heavy readers, who heretofore have accepted the hassles of library borrowing rather than face the monetary burden of having to purchase individual titles. By delivering these heavy readers into a marketplace, subscription models could potentially leave libraries serving as the public community hospitals of the ebook market.
The key question is whether creating this alternative market is worthwhile for publishers. Rational publishers might recognize the benefits of moving avid readers from libraries into the marketplace through subscription models, as well as opening up a narrow wedge against Amazon. A subscription could also alleviate some piracy issues, because if there are ready market options, consumers will flock to those in most cases, rather than deal with downloading non-reflowable PDFs or uncorrected OCR’ed EPUBs from rogue digital book sites. On the flip side, a subscription service might give final proof to O’Leary’s insight that there is a market for content whose price is zero, forcing that small sector into the grey net by removing the library option.
For libraries, the emergence of e-book subscriptions may not be good news. A thriving subscription market might enervate the viability of libraries in ebook lending. Or, it might not. Perhaps library markets could be effectively married with subscription models, despite the costs of managing the synergy. But that would take a degree of flexibility and nimbleness on both sides of the ebook aisle that I have yet to see.
When I was working in the Open Book Alliance to defeat the Google Book Search proposals, one of the first things that I learned as a neophyte working the Hill was that one’s allies and foes on legislative action swirled in fluid kaleidoscopes. Coalitions formed and then re-formed depending on what was at issue, and who had a stake. Public positions could change suddenly and inexplicably, until one figured out whom had spoken to who.
So it was this weekend before Thanksgiving. On Friday, 16 November, the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC) released an amazingly liberal document proposing deep and substantive reforms in U.S. copyright law. Within 24 hours, on Saturday, 17 November, the report had been pulled from the House website and an email apology for its “inadequate” vetting had been flung out on the net. Hollywood had hit their phones, and the political volte-face was as dramatic as something out of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Continue reading