Greening your ocean and marine-climate science with MarXiv

Science makes a difference in the world right? It makes for better management, helps us take better care of our ocean, right? Well… that depends. Take this conclusion from a paper lead by Christopher Cvitanovic …

Through a case study of coral dominated Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) spanning three countries (Australia, Kenya and Belize), we find that primary scientific literature represents only 14% of information cited in management plans. 

Fourteen percent. Just let that number sink in. Cvitanovic’s paper highlights a number of reasons for this paltry figure. Some studies don’t express management implications of their findings, so managers aren’t sure what the work means for their plans. Then, even if managers can see how to action the science in their plans, lengthy publication times, relevant work may not have been published in time to be included. Finally, thanks to paywalls, managers don’t necessarily have access to the relevant science in the first place.

If you happened to click on the link to the paper above, you will see that it did not take you to the journal's website that the paper appeared in. You will also note that the paper has 'article in press' written on it. Although the ‘official version’ of the paper sits behind a paywall on the journal’s website, this ‘article in press’ version is freely accessible - and likely appeared online earlier than the official version. Welcome to the world of Green Open Access - and for us marine people, MarXiv.

In the beginning, there was the journal (and it wasn't financially viable)

Back in good old 1665, a young Henry Oldenburg set about to produce what is arguably the first scientific journal - Philosophical Transactions, Giving some Account of the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours of the Ingenious in many considerable parts of the World.  Although the Royal Society licenced and printed it for him, the journal was purely Oldenburg’s own venture. If there were sufficient science to fill the pages, it would be printed once a month and Oldenburg would be responsible for all of the costs - and reap any of the profits.

Oh, and as a brief aside, Oldenburg also implemented the first formal peer-review in Philosophical Transactions - but that's a story for another day.

Volume 1 of  Philosophical Transactions . Credit  Henry Oldenburg  (Public Domain)

Volume 1 of Philosophical Transactions. Credit Henry Oldenburg (Public Domain)

Oldenburg pushed out some 136 issues of Philosophical Transactions before he died. Although he did make some money from from the publication, it was not a huge money-maker for him and barely covered his rent. However, after his death the Royal Society did continue Philosophical Transactions for its members. Many other scientific journals also sprung up, but this was not the golden age of the journal by any stretch. Generally they all struggled financially - so much so that when in 1838 postage rates in the UK were set to increase, Richard Taylor of that now well-known publisher Taylor & Francis spoke out on the devastating impact it would have on the dissemination of science via the journal; 

“Scientific journals in this country are supported with very great difficulty… I have witnessed in my own recollection a failure of all the scientific journals almost that have been set on foot… They have all of them failed from an inability to cover their expense.” ~ Richard Taylor

At worse, any endeavour - including scientific journals - need to cover their costs of creation. Ideally, they should make some profit from which the endeavour can grow and evolve. So how did we end up with publishers that can’t even afford postage for scientific journals to ones turning millions of pounds in profits every single year?

Scientists aren't good business-people (most of the time)

Although Oldenburg and Taylor had many roles (it was not uncommon back then to have several professions), they were arguably first and foremost scientists. Robert Maxwell, on the other hand, was not a scientist at all.

Born in Czechoslovakia as Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch back in 1923, Maxwell fought during World War II before settling in England. In a post-war Europe, scientific journals were still struggling financially - German journals especially so. When Maxwell approached Germany's second largest academic publisher - Springer Verlag - with a business offer to use his connections to ship their journals to Britain, Springer jumped at the chance.

Meanwhile, the British Government had plans in motion to strengthen Britain’s scientific output. The result - British publisher Butterworths was paired with Springer, with Maxwell stepping in as manager. In 1951 Maxwell effectively purchased the company, and Butterworth-Springer became Pergamon Press, and it quickly became the model for the commercialisation of scientific knowledge at obscene profits. The secret sauce though came not from Maxwell, but from scientific editor Paul Rosbaud.

Paul's model was pretty simple. Get some prominent academics to showcase their work in a Pergamon Press journal dedicated to their field, and then sell subscriptions for those journals to universities. At the time it made a lot of sense. Post-war Britain (and indeed post-war USA and other nations) were keen to build their science, and universities - and crucially their libraries - found themselves well-funded. Journal creation does cost, and this model would guarantee those costs could not only be covered, but that the business of academic journal publishing could turn a profit.

Maxwell wholeheartedly embraced the model. He bought a number of other journals, he wooed scientists into becoming editors for free, providing content for free - and signing over their rights to the content that they had created. The journal became the primary means of disseminating science, and Maxwell (and later his competitors) owned it. Libraries would have to keep subscribing to journals for academics to keep up to date, and academics would have to keep publishing their work in those journals so it could be read. No wonder Maxwell described it as a "perpetual financing machine".

Did academics spot this early on? Sure, some probably did but as Maxwell astutely noted, academics don't generally pay for access to journals. The costs were hidden, born by another department - the libraries - who were, for a time at least, well-funded;

"If Pergamon could win the trust of scientists it could establish the standard journal in each specialisation, and that would give it a series of publishing monopolies . . . scientists are not generally as price-conscious as other professionals, mainly because they are not spending their own money.' ~ Robert Maxwell

Now, with the end of the golden-age of funding for universities, libraries are no longer able to bear the costs of subscriptions, and academics are more aware than ever that the commercialisation of science actually hinders it's dissemination to those who can't afford it. Yes, now this includes universities in wealthy nations, but it has always included those in less-wealthy countries, NGOs, stakeholder groups, small businesses, the individual person, and, as Cvitanovic’s article highlights, even Governments.


Opening up science (well, the publications at least)

Under the conventional model, users pay to access papers - even ones that are a product of taxpayer money. Under the open access model, things are a little different. Users don't pay for access - authors pay to publish. Alongside free to read publications, open access papers come in many flavours with different licences. These 'Gold Open Access' papers may appear in journals that only have open access publications and some may appear in hybrid open access journals, where some papers are paywalled and some are not.

For the end user, open access is great. Access to (open-access) papers is no longer dictated by how much cash you have available. What science can be published as Gold Open Access, however, is governed by how much cash the authors have. Remember - even if a publisher wants to just cover their costs, they need money to do that. If they want to grow, they need money to do that. If they want to make the kinds of profit Elsevier are, they need money to do that. The fees authors are charged vary, but they are rarely insignificant and appear to be rising. The result - a financial barrier to making peer-reviewed research publications open access in the first place.

Of course this hits those in less wealthy countries, small NGOs, small stakeholder organisations as so forth the hardest (though some publisher have waived open access publishing fees for those in 'developing countries'). It can also hit those from wealthy nations too if there simply aren't the funds available to publish.


Green is the new gold (kind of)

Whilst published paywalled papers typically can't be freely viewed or potentially even shared, preprints (before peer-review), whose copyright remains with the authors, can be. Depending on what copyright the authors have signed away to the publisher, postprints (after peer-review) and even accepted manuscripts may also be free of the paywall that sits in front of the final ‘official version’ of the paper. When an author 'self-archives' such versions of their work in a free and publicly accessible location, the paper is called Green Open Access. In one fail swoop authors can make their work more accessible - and meet any open-access requirements from funders - without spending a penny.


Is Green Open Access a perfect solution to open-access publishing and indeed open science… whatever that may look like? No. Lets take the preprint for example. Even though peer-review is flawed, it is still a crucial part of ensuring that the science is published is, to all intents and purposes, good science. Preprints have not gone through peer-review. Are they reliable? Can they do harm? Will they bring science into disrepute? Can these repositories become a home for fake science that can trick the unwary? These are some of the questions being asked by the medical community - and is something we should also consider because we ocean-related researchers are inevitably dealing with management, the natural environment, people, non-human life, and our climate.

We should also remember that “negative” or “no significant difference” results are rarely reported in journals. Is this a loss to the science world? For many the answer is a strong yes. Could they be submitted to a Green Open Access repository? Absolutely.

Green Open Access is not a perfect solution, but lets face it, if we wait for perfection we may never get there. As the old Italian proverb goes "Le meglio è l'inimico del bene" - or as we English speakers better know it, "perfect is the enemy of the good".

So where should us marine people archive the open access versions of our publications? Why MarXiv of course. 

MarXiv (pronounce the X and K and add an 'e' to the end)


At this point, I should highlight that I am a MarXiv ambassador. I volunteered for this because I would like to see a time when science is openly available to all. As scientists, we frequently criticize groups, organisations, governments, etc. for not using the latest science to make decisions with, but if we don't make our science accessible in the first place, then we have to accept our role in that failure. If we want to cut down the barriers that allow some of us to read and share our science whilst others can’t because of financial circumstances, the finances of our intuitions, or our nations, then we need to find workable solutions. Since both my science and engagement work is primarily ocean-based, supporting initiatives like MarXiv is, for me, a no-brainer.

As an ambassador I help authors navigate the process of  understanding what version of their work they can share on MarXiv, getting their work in the repository, and of course encouraging other scientists to share their ocean and marine-climate science on MarXiv.

MarXiv (which as the site tells us rhymes with 'archive') has a simple mission - "increase access to pay-walled academic literature in a legal manner". It's a free-to-use free-to-access research repository that accepts ocean and marine-science preprints, postprints, open access publications, reports, theses/dissertations, working papers, conference proceedings, posters, and more. It is very similar to other archive services that are dedicated to other fields like PaleorXiv (for palaeontologists - head there for all your open-access dinosaur science) or ChemRxiv (for chemistry-related fields).

Thankfully getting your work on MarXiv is not complicated nor time-consuming. There are some handy tips for working out what you can and can't legally share, and even a run-down of the self-archiving policies for some of the major journals. Once you are ready to share your work, you can find easy-to-follow instructions on the site and even a video to walk you through the process. Want to update your submission with a more updated version of the work you shared, or need to edit the metadata? No problem - you can do that too. Of course if you get stuck at any point, you can always reach out to MarXiv or one of its ambassadors.

Aside from feeling great that you've helped make your work more accessible, there are a number of other benefits for using MarXiv as oppose to just popping a PDF on your own blog, like increasing the chance of citations and indexing in Google Scholar. What's more, because it is a not-for-profit enterprise, there is a high chance that sharing your postprint on MarXiv won't break any copyright agreements - unlike some other for-profit websites.

So, what have you got to loose by putting your science in MarXiv (or if your working on dinosaurs, PaleoXiv)?

Header Image: Credit ninocare (Pixabay Licence)