Just Say No – The Roberts/Ashburner Response

UPDATE: see follow-up post “The Roberts/Ashburner Response” to get more of the story on the origin of this letter.

I had the pleasure of catching up with my post-doc mentor Michael Ashburner today, and among other things we discussed the ongoing development of UKPMC and the importance of open access publishing. Although I consider myself a strong open access advocate, I did not sign the PLoS open letter in 2001, since at the time I was a post-doc and not in a position fully to control where I published. Therefore I couldn’t be sure that I could abide by the manifesto 100%, and didn’t want to put my name to something I couldn’t deliver on. As it turns out this is still the case to a certain degree and (because of collaborations) my freely-available-article-index remains at a respectable 85% (33/39), but alas will never reach the coveted 100% mark.

Nevertheless, I have steadily adopted most of the policies of the open letter, especially as my group has gotten more heavily involved in text-mining research over the years. This became especially true after a nasty encounter with one publisher in 2008 caused campus IT to shutdown my office IP for downloading articles from a journal for which our University has a site license, which radicalized me into more of an open access evangelist. After discussing this event at the time with Ashburner, he reminded me of the manifesto and one of its most powerful tools for changing the landscape of scholarly publishing – refusing to reviewing for journals/publishers who do not submit their content to PubMed Central (see the white-list of journals here).

I have dug this letter out countless times since then and used versions of it when asked to review for non-PMC journals, as it expresses the principles in plain and powerful language. I had another call to dig it out today and thought that I’d post the “Ashburner response” so others have a model to follow if they chose this path.

Enjoy!

From: “Michael Ashburner” <michael.ashburner@xxx.xxx>
Date: 30 August 2008 13:48:03 GMT+01:00
To: “Casey Bergman” <casey.bergman@xxx.xxx>
Subject: Just say No

Dear Editor,

Thank you for your invitation to review for your journal. Because it is not open access and does not provide its back content to PubMed Central, or any similar resource, I regret that I am unwilling to do this.

I would urge you to seriously reconsider both policies and would ask that you send this letter to your co-editors and publisher. In the event that you do change your policy, even to the extent of providing your back content to PubMed Central, or a similar resource, then I will be happy to review for you.

The scientific literature is at present the most significant resource available to researchers. Without access to the literature we cannot do science in any scholarly manner. Your journal refuses to embrace the idea that the purpose of the scientific literature is to communicate knowledge, not to make a profit for publishers. Without the free input of manuscripts and referees’ time your journal would not exist. By and large, the great majority of the work you publish is paid for by taxpayers. We now, either as individuals or as researchers whose grants are top-sliced, have to pay to read our own work and that of our colleagues, either personally or through our institutes’ libraries. I find that, increasingly, literature that is not available by open access is simply being ignored. Moreover, I am very aware that, increasingly, discovering information from the literature relies on some sort of computational analysis. This can only be effective if the entire content of primary research papers is freely available. Finally, by not being an open access journal you are disenfranchising both scientists who cannot afford (or whose institutions cannot afford) to pay for access and the general public.

There are now several good models for open access publication, and I would urge your journal to adopt one of these. There is an extensive literature on open access publishing, and its economic implications. I would be pleased to send you references to this literature.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Ashburner

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14 Responses to “Just Say No – The Roberts/Ashburner Response”


  1. 1 Africa Gomez January 8, 2012 at 12:17 am

    I was discussing today that not reviewing is a low cost strategy that, if taken en masse is likely to make a dent on the for-profit, non-access publishing industry. We do it for free, so we might as well be picky. Thank you for sharing the letter. I will indeed be using it in future.

  2. 2 Miguel van Bemmelen January 8, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Nice model; I would however correct the following “typo” to avoid others relaying it repeatedly:

    “literature relys on” -> “literature relies on”

    Thanx

  3. 4 Mike Taylor January 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I am doing the same, and encouraging other to. See my recent article in Times Higher Education: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=417576&c=1

  4. 6 ucfagls January 19, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Thanks for posting “The Ashburner Response”; it will be most useful when I need to decline a review invitation next time round.

  5. 7 trashbird1240 January 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    I remember telling a librarian about the JSTOR/Aaron Swartz case and she said “Oh they have a policy saying that you can’t use automation to access the journal.” My response was “They have a policy against using the internet in the way it was intended?”


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