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The Political Economics of Open Access Publishing – A series

27 September 2015 6 Comments
Victory Press of Type used by SFPP

Victory Press of Type used by SFPP (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the odd things about scholarly publishing is how little any particular group of stakeholders seems to understand the perspective of others. It is easy to start with researchers ourselves, who are for the most part embarrassingly ignorant of what publishing actually involves. But those who have spent a career in publishing are equally ignorant (and usually dismissive to boot) of researchers’ perspectives. Each in turn fail to understand what libraries are or how librarians think. Indeed the naive view that libraries and librarians are homogenous is a big part of the problem. Librarians in turn often fail to understand the pressures researchers are under, and are often equally ignorant of what happens in a professional publishing operation. And of course everyone hates the intermediaries.

That this is a political problem in a world of decreasing research resources is obvious. What is less obvious is the way that these silos have prevented key information and insights from travelling to the places where they might be used. Divisions that emerged a decade ago now prevent the very collaborations that are needed, not even to build new systems, but to bring together the right people to realise that they could be built.

I’m increasingly feeling that the old debates (what’s a reasonable cost, green vs gold, hybrid vs pure) are sterile and misleading. That we are missing fundamental economic and political issues in funding and managing a global scholarly communications ecosystem by looking at the wrong things. And that there are deep and damaging misunderstandings about what has happened, is happening, and what could happen in the future.

Of course, I live in my own silo. I can, I think, legitimately claim to have seen more silos than the average; in jobs, organisations and also disciplines. So it seems worth setting down that perspective. What I’ve realised, particularly over the past few months is that these views have crept up on me, and that there are quite a few things to be worked through, so this is not a post, it is a series, maybe eventually something bigger. Here I want to set out some headings, as a form of commitment to writing these things down. And to continuing to work through these things in public.

I won’t claim that this is all thought through, nor that I’ve got (even the majority of) it right. What I do hope is that in getting things down there will be enough here to be provocative and useful, and to help us collectively solve, and not just continue to paper over, the real challenges we face.

So herewith a set of ideas that I think are important to work through. More than happy to take requests on priorities, although the order seems roughly to make sense in my head.

  1. What is it publishers do anyway?
  2. What’s the technical problem in reforming scholarly publishing
  3. The marginal costs of article publishing: Critiquing the Standard Analytics Paper and follow up
  4. What are the assets of a journal?
  5. A journal is a club: New Working Paper
  6. Economies of scale
  7. The costs (and savings) of community (self) management
  8. Luxury brands, platform brands and emerging markets (or why Björn might be right about pricing)
  9. Constructing authority: Prestige, impact factors and why brand is not going away
  10. Submission shaping, not selection, is the key to a successful publishing operation
  11. Challenges to the APC model I: The myth of “the cost per article”
  12. Challenges to the APC model II: Fixed and variable costs in scholarly publishing
  13. Alternative funding models and the risks of a regulated market
  14. If this is a service industry why hasn’t it been unbundled already (or where is the Uber of scholarly publishing?)
  15. Shared infrastructure platforms supporting community validation: Quality at scale. How can it be delivered and what skills and services are needed?
  16. Breaking the deadlock: Where are the points where effective change can be started?

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  • Richard Poynder

    14. Why were these issues not settled before the OA movement began advocating for pay-to-publish gold OA, and before it began lobbying governments and funders to introduce open access mandates?

  • Jan Velterop

    This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how a ‘movement’ emerges and evolves. It starts with an idea that an increasing number of people feel strongly or very strongly about, and then a process of ‘progressive insights’, over time, shapes not only the evolution of the original idea, but also the evolution of issues around it and questions about it and the manner and scale of any abuse of the system (there always is abuse of any system), the possible responses to that, the way things are perceived (e.g. APC as ‘pay-to-publish’, or hybrid as ‘double-dipping’, which are at the very least rather simplistic), et cetera. Many of these issues amount to hypothetical questions, even thought experiments, and even if they could be resolved, their outcome would no-doubt throw up new questions and issues. The idea of expecting all these issues to be worked through before advocating any practical effort to effect change is one that is effectively supporting the forces of conserving the status quo.

  • Richard Poynder


    I don’t disagree with your description of how movements tend to emerge and evolve. However, my concern is specifically with the open access movement. I also think it is great, by the way, that Cameron is raising these issues, and
    I applaud his wish to try and grapple with them.

    But let me explain my thinking in posing my question:

    OA advocates never satisfactorily resolved the many contradictions and disagreements that have always existed within the movement, and so they never adequately
    thought through how their goal would best be achieved (and scholarly communication improved as a result). My view is that this is partly because they did not create an organisation or foundation under whose aegis such a process could take place. As a consequence, the OA movement has often been little more than a disparate group of self-appointed legislators shouting at each other from their different silos, along with a growing number of for-profit and non-profit publishers whose primary goal has been to generate revenues, rather than re-imagine scholarly communication (PLOS aside perhaps).

    Importantly, OA advocates never convinced the wider research community that open access is something they should welcome or adopt. Having failed to do this, they turned to institutions and funders and set about persuading them that they should *compel* researchers to embrace OA. They have been reasonably successful in this process of persuasion but, so far, with very mixed results.

    Consequently we have ended up with a business model (pay-to-publish gold OA) that (as is becoming increasingly evident) makes little sense to anyone but publishers, and an alternative strategy (green OA) that looks set to create a fair degree of chaos, while further oppressing and alienating
    researchers — not least by increasing the level of micromanagement that they are subject to (particularly under the HEFCE model). Moreover, this process will
    by and large be controlled by professional managers who know little or nothing about research, and in many cases do not appear to particularly value it.

    In short, gold OA is in the process of being captured by legacy publishers and green OA is being captured by technocrats. Amongst other things, this is seeing an outdated model of scholarly communication (the journal) persist, and the purpose and value of research lost sight of. And it is going to take a great deal of effort to break the grip of these two powerful forces in order to move forward.

    Given this, I think it makes sense to ask the question I did alongside the questions posed by Cameron, if only to try and better understand why we are where we are today, and how attempts to improve scholarly communication could
    be better tackled going forward.

    In my view, the first step should be to try and get the wider research community involved in the discussions (not just interested parties), and to seek to convince them of the need for change. How one does this is the biggest challenge. I also think it would be ill-advised to try and force change on them again. And it is surely a discussion that ought to take place without the involvement of publishers.

  • Jan Velterop

    Richard, you say:

    “OA advocates never satisfactorily resolved the many contradictions and disagreements that have always existed within the movement, and so they never adequately thought through how their goal would best be achieved”

    Given that ‘OA advocates’ are not, and never were, an organised group, I wonder how ‘satisfactorily resolving’ issues could work. It is a movement; not a political party (and those are not necessarily capable of resolving issues unambiguously, either, as current events show). The only thing that makes ‘OA advocates’ into what might be perceived as a ‘group’ is the shared conviction that OA is good for science. Opinions differ, and always have, right from the beginning, about how OA should be achieved, and it could hardly be otherwise. The definition of open access, as given in the BOAI, is not accepted by everyone, and imposition of an orthodoxy by some sort of formal OA organisation is impossible, and, in my view, not even desirable.

    You also say:
    “OA advocates never convinced the wider research community that open access is something they should welcome or adopt.”

    I think you are wrong. The scientific community at large does welcome unencumbered access to the journal literature they want and need. The thing is that for many it simply looks like that anyway, because the institutional library provides that. At a large cost which is totally invisible to most researchers. They may hear about it, read about it, but they don’t ‘feel’ the cost, as libraries – especially in OECD countries – simply still, somehow, provide access to the bulk of what researchers need. In the light of a legacy of not being confronted with any cost of access, the cost of publishing with OA, very visible for researchers as a result of APCs, meets with resistance, and that is understandable.

    I’m no fan of mandates per se, but I do believe in the merits of clear and fair contracts, and I see the funders’ and governments’ efforts to achieve OA in those terms. They provide grant money, they expect deliverables, and because they value OA, they include that in the desirable deliverables and are willing to include reasonable APC costs in the grant money. APCs don’t only make sense to publishers, as you state, but to funders, including government funding agencies, clearly as well.

    ‘Green’ OA as well as ‘gold’ OA have their problems, to be sure. But by and large, APC-supported OA is successful (unless you define ‘success’ as ‘universally implemented’). Cultural habits change slowly, on the whole, and perhaps especially in science, where publishing is an entanglement of scholarly communication and career advancement and competition. If any step should be taken first, it is to seek to convince the scientific community that ‘communication’ and ‘evaluation for career or prestige purposes’ should be disentangled and not be conflated in a single system of journal publishing. So-called ‘preprint’ platforms (for which we really need to find another name, as there is hardly anything ‘pre-print’ about them anymore) indicate a way forward, and so-called ‘mega’ journals possibly as well. The biggest gain of a disentanglement is that peer review, necessary for the stratification of scientists and the literature they produce, would not be holding scientific ‘communication’ hostage anymore, in terms of delays, comprehensiveness and financials. If the scientific community wishes to spend unnecessarily high amounts on that stratification, so be it. They’ll just have to deal with any financial constraints, but at least the free scientific discourse won’t suffer.

    I agree that the notion of ‘journal’, especially that of narrow-scope journal, has reached its sell-by date. And as for the involvement of publishers in any discussion is concerned, you are surely aware that most OA progress has actually been made by the practical efforts of entities that are commonly known as publishers, from BMC to PLOS to Hindawi to PeerJ, and many other, smaller outfits.

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