Some publishers are exploiting the scientific Open Access movement — let’s crush them.

Rosie Redfield (the bulldog* of British Columbia) has been investigating the unscrupulous business practices of Apple Academic Press (AAP), and how this might be harming authors who publish in Open Access (OA) journals. The gist of the story is that AAP is republishing these scientific papers as book chapters, then selling the book for over $100. By all accounts, these compilations appear just like any other academic book, with the implication being that the chapters are original content written specifically for each book. This does not violate copyright, because the OA license allows republishing as long as attribution is provided (though it’s unclear to me that proper attribution is being given). However, this could cause a number of problems for authors, of which I am most bothered by the disruption of the citation system and the implication that the authors approved of the content in the compilation — including potentially misleading changes to the titles of “their” chapters.

Rosie has been bringing this issue to the attention of authors, and pushing OA publishers to be more proactive about addressing the problem of exploitative book publishers. Right now, the focus seems to be on refining the OA licenses and disclaimers, so that authors don’t find that they inadvertently gave up more control than they intended. I would like to see two additional types of responses: consumer education, and punishment of AAP.

1) Most of the problems that I’m concerned with arise from book buyers not being aware that the content of the book had been published elsewhere. If the publishers had been up-front about the fact that they collected previously published sources, we would not have any problem with proper citation or with the excessive price of the books. As Rosie wrote, the first step is to identify publishers who use these deceptive practices, and that’s not easy. After that, we need to find a way to get the word out.

Luckily, some people are in a position to address both of these issues in a rather straight-forward manner: Google and Amazon. Both of these companies have PDFs of parts of the book that Rosie used an an example: Epigenetics, Environment, and Genes (Amazon, Google). Google surely has the ability to compare the text against works that have been published online, and notify the consumer that the original work is available elsewhere. It seems that the book excerpts were provided by the publisher as an advertisement for the book, and if Amazon and Google don’t want to do these background checks, then they are facilitating the publisher’s fraud. Still, even if these companies don’t want to take responsibility for this (and don’t live up to their promise to “organize all the world’s information”), the rest of us can still leave reviews on the webpages, which others may read. I left comments on both the Amazon, and Google pages. Google also provides links to other websites that sell this book. Oddly enough, the Amazon page does not display my negative review, even though I was informed that it “went live“.

University Libraries are among the biggest consumers of these books. It’s part of their job to assure that they are stocking their shelves with high quality, useful books. I would consider a book like Epigenetics, Environment, and Genes to be a waste of money and I hope that my school’s librarians would be smart enough to avoid buying it. To help them out, I dropped them a little note through their online comment form, asking them to beware of publications coming from AAP. I hope it helps. If they become aware of this problem, maybe they will establish some system for validating that their books contain valuable contributions, and sharing their evaluations with other libraries.

2) It’s not enough to defend ourselves (as consumers) against these individual cases of fraudulent publishing. If we’re going to solve this problem (and take the pressure off of OA publishers), we need to discourage any publisher from pursuing these deceptive sales strategies. They should lose money and have their reputations damaged. The primary way to reduce their profits is through the above “consumer education” approach. Everyone profiting from this fraud deserves to be called out on it — from CRC Press to the editors of the individual books.

The other offensive response is to sue the publisher. I am not a lawyer, nor have I been directly harmed, so there’s not much for me to say here. However, since Rosie has been focusing on copyright law, I think this needs to be addressed. To me, it looks like these publishers have committed fraud, and I suspect that they could be successfully sued, if not in the USA, then in some other country. The Creative Commons (CC) publishing license is only tangential to this issue (unless the authors were unaware that their work could be republished in an overpriced book). Most of the anger at AAP seems to be over their fraudulent representation of the book chapters as original content that was contributed by the listed authors. The CC license allows work to be republished without the permission of the author, so shutting down AAP is not as simple as demonstrating that they never received permission to republish the work. However, there should be laws that address these specific injustices. Copyright restrictions are too broad to be used as a weapon to prevent fraud. The OA publishers clearly have an incentive to shut down AAP and discourage anyone else from following their business model, so maybe they are the best people to organize this response. As for me, I don’t have any pull in these institutions, so I will just try to increase awareness of this problem and the possible solutions.

This is not a problem with the Open Access publishing model — this is nothing more than unscrupulous people trying to make a buck by exploiting naive consumers in a rapidly changing market. These people should be handled, and we shouldn’t let it disrupt the development of Open Access publishing.

*In case it is not clear, I mean only respect with the nickname “bulldog”. I have admired Rosie’s tenacity and intellectual strength since I started research on bacterial genetics. More than once, she has challenged high-profile claims of other scientists, clearly listed the weaknesses of their arguments, and then made sure that everyone else was aware of these weaknesses. Based on her numerous blog postings, it looks like this energy is now being directed at AAP, and I trust that this problem is on the way to being solved.


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