AI boffins rebel against closed-access academic journal that wants to have its cake and eat it

Thousands refusing to submit, review, or edit for Nature Machine Intelligence journal

Thousands of machine-learning wizards have signed an open statement boycotting a new AI-focused academic journal, disapproving of the paper’s policy of closed-access.

Nature Machine Intelligence is a specialized journal concentrating on intelligent systems and robotics research. It’s expected to launch in January next year, and is part of Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s top academic publishers.

The joint statement written by Thomas Dietterich, a professor of computer science at Oregon State University in the US, and signed by more than 2,000 academics and researchers in industry, states that “they will not submit to, review, or edit for this new journal.”

He said that free and open access journals speeds up scientific progress since it allows anyone to read the latest research and contribute their own findings. It also helps universities who can’t afford subscription fees or pay for their own papers to be open access.

“It is important to note that in the modern scientific journal, virtually all of the work is done by academic researchers. We write the papers, we edit the papers, we typeset the papers, and we review the papers,” he told The Register.

"This work is paid for by our employers. For publicly funded universities such as mine, this is a big financial transfer from the taxpayers and tuition-paying students to the publishers. Why should our employers then be expected to pay again to read the published paper? Journal publishers used to do the copy editing, typesetting, printing and distribution. But nowadays, printing and distribution are all electronic. So we don’t see any value in paying the publishers."

The AI hype has fuelled a flurry of research papers. The large majority of them are published straight to arXiv, a website full of free research that have not been submitted for peer review yet. AI research moves at lightning speed and, as new ideas emerge and groups report ever improving benchmark results, its beneficial to report results quickly on arXiv for fear of being beaten by other researchers.


Academic publishing is a murky business. Publishers like Nature often make money by charging researchers a fee for publicizing their work and billing universities and readers for annual subscriptions or access to particular articles. Experts in the scientific community, however, are not paid for the peer review process.

“Machine learning already has a thriving open-access publishing community,” Zachary Lipton, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who signed the statement, told The Register.

"Nature poses an especially sizable threat to drag the community back because of the prestige that the brand carries in other fields. It's important for senior researchers to band together and flex their collective influence to send a clear signal that we are not on board."

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The quick and easy nature of arXiv, however, often means that the quality of research is hit or miss. Dietterich said that it contained a “huge amount of slapdash work”, making it hard to “find the diamonds hiding in this blizzard of work.” He believes that academic journals will still continue to be useful, but the research has to be free and open.

Some studies, however, such as DeepMind’s AlphaGo breakthrough with the ancient Chinese game Go have been published in official journals like Nature. DeepMind doesn’t have an official company policy about where to publish their work. That decision is left up to the researchers, and sources familiar with the matter told us 23 of them have signed the statement excluding themselves from Nature Machine Intelligence.

In a statement directed to Dietterich on Twitter, Nature Machine Intelligence said: “We respect your position and appreciate the role of OA journals and arXiv. We feel Nature MI can co-exist, providing a service - for those who are interested - by connecting different fields, providing an outlet for interdisciplinary work and guiding a rigorous review process.” ®

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