October 20, 2015
MAYBE somewhere in the universe there is a different system of research communication. But since we still only have this one, which is widely criticized, we have to talk about how to improve it. This post collects some of the ideas from the EC Workshop on Alternative Open Access Publishing Models, which I attended last week and my comments on them. Have a look at the presentations available on-line here and feel free to disagree with me.
A Dyson Sphere is a hypothetical, artificial mega-structure aimed to absorb a huge amount of energy from the star, with an enormous number of solar cells orbiting the star. The first candidate for this kind of alien structure was recently pointed to by a group of astronomers working on data from the Kepler program. So it is probable that in the next few years it will turn out that we are not the only technical civilization in the universe. So MAYBE somewhere in the universe there is a different system of research communication. The civilization that will have created the Dyson Sphere has to be really clever, and it will probably have made a lot of good decisions to get to this point of the technical literacy. The bad news is that even if we find them it would probably be very hard to communicate, so it is hardly possible that we will be able to ask them whether or not they still use toll access journals. So for the moment we have to search for an efficient model of research communication by ourselves. And that is why I really appreciate that the European Commission organized the Alternative Open Access Publishing Models event. The discussion was really promising and it seems that a lot of interesting things will happen here on Earth.
An excellent point was made at the very beginning by the keynote speaker, Jean-Claude Guédon, who asked an alternative to what are we really searching for, while there is nothing like the “regular” mode of research communication. Publishing is constantly changing and has always been changing. The majority of speakers deeply believe that the current system is inefficient and a call for change was in fact the main purpose of the entire meeting. However, this change is actually happening all the time and academic publishing is far from being constant.
Alternative publishing for old-fashioned academia?
However, one problem that appeared several times during the meeting and that was left without a solution was the problem of the rules of academic promotion. Researchers were arguing that it’s impossible to change the academic environment without changing the career making rules in academia. The current rules do not promote openness, they promote publishing in high Impact Factor journals, and create unnecessary competition among both researchers and journals which distorts the sciences. However, Clara Eugenia Garcia, representing the Spanish government, so the policymaker and the funding body, replayed that the current rules of the game were invited by academia itself and were not enforced by funders or policymakers. Paul Ayris added later that we currently have no alternative to the IF for evaluating researchers’ careers. This problem remains unsolved.
Are humanities the key?
The optimistic thing for me was the attention paid to open access book publishing and open access for the humanities and social sciences. Apparently the community still needs monographs and wants to have them open. As one person pointed out the models that work in the humanities will also work in the natural sciences but not necessarily the other way around. The idea to think about publishing mostly in terms of good models for HSS seems to me very interesting and refreshing.
Beyond APCs? Maybe, but not far away
However, surprisingly, a lot of experimental models discussed during the event employed well known author-side publication fees to some extent.
For example, a presentation by Paul Ayris about the University College London Press was very well welcomed. However, the business model of UCL Press seems to be quite similar to what we already have. UCL aims to publish open access books charging publication fee from 5,000 to 7,000 GBP (which is about 6,800 to 10,000 euro) per book for non UCL authors, plus 1,000 GDP for colour. De Gruyter Open is currently charging a flat fee of 10,000 euro per an open access book, so as you can see the library press, headed by the librarian, presents an offer that is not radically different to the one led by a commercial publisher. Probably not price, but additional services and the prestige of the publisher’s brand will be the deciding factor for where authors choose to publish.
The power of consortia
The main alternative presented to the publishing fees model, which was in fact discussed in three different presentations, was a consortium model. In this model, a number of libraries and research institutions come together to fund an open access book or journal. The cost per institution in this case is usually the same or lower than if the same institution would pay for access to the content in the case of traditional publications. Moreover, making the content accessible to the whole world is just a nice, free bonus.
This model has already been successfully tested with the opening of books by Knowledge Unlatched and De Gruyter Open (as well as other established publishers), which proudly participates in both launched editions of the project, opening its books to the public.
This model is employed by Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics too, which deals with journals in high energy physics. The initative was presented by Salvatore Mele from CERN in his amusing and humorous talk. At the time of the launch of SCOAP3, almost 100% of all articles in the field of high energy physics were already available in open access repositories, but the research community demanded to have them also open on publishers’ websites. SCOAP3 has really good results with 13 from a total of 15 high energy physics journals on board, published by a variety of established publishers, with the cost per article on the level of 1000 euro, which is lower than the average APC. What is more, Mele claimed that the whole project is currently maintained by 2 people only. SCOAP3 seems to be then a very interesting initiative that might be good for all the stakeholders in research communication.
Open Library of Humanities, which was presented by Caroline Edwards in a really engaging way, is a new try at bringing this model to books and journals in the humanities and social sciences. However, in contrast to the SCOAP3 and Knowledge Unlatched projects OLH does not cooperate with groups of established publishers. Instead, it provides all the publishing services itself, becoming a publishing organization funded and managed by about 100 different institutions.
The consortium model seems to be a very promising alternative to the model based on publication fees, but may have some weak points in its economics. Will one library be able to and want to become a member of 5, 10 or 15 different consortia? Or will it be too time-consuming for librarians? Or is this model calculated to create a monopoly in the long term? If so, will this monopoly be controlled in an efficient enough way to prevent it from becoming a huge, expensive and ineffective organization? We are far from this point, but I am very curious about the future of this model.
How much would your cat have paid for food?
Other alternative models presented in my opinion have little chance to work in more than a few cases, and I will not discuss them in detail here since this is a long post anyway. Please have a look at the presentations to see if you agree with me or not. I want to mention only one problem about the ‘pay what you want’ model discussed by Martin Spann. He described an experimental journal which charges a publication fee, where the amount is chosen by the author. He or she may pay 0 or any other amount that (s)he wants to pay. The journal to date operates well and did get some revenue, which is quite interesting.
I wanted to approach Martin Spann to ask him whether he had heard about the cat-food problem, but I could not find him during the coffee break, and there were not many occasions to freely have a discussion during the event. I regret this since I believe that the main challenge for this model has to be solved by funders, and not by publishers. Researchers, especially in well funded fields such as biomedicine do not pay publication fees out of their own pockets. And some of them have really big budgets, or simply do not know what budget they have, since they do not deal with money directly. So who and how will make a rational decision about how much should be paid to a journal for publication? And how will funders behave when some researchers start paying too much to publishers? And who will decide how much is too much? This is the cat-food problem. Your cat has no idea how much work his or her food costs, he or she simply wants to eat it and does not care about the money too much.
After several presentations of different publishing models the meeting was dominated by a more general discussion.
How to end up with toll access?
Ralf Schimmer from Max Planck Digital Library called “to end subscriptions now” and to shift all money that libraries spend on toll access journals to open access publishing. I personally enjoy this idea very much, I think that whole open access movement is about it, but in my opinion Schimmer did not get any closer to the idea of HOW to do it. Are all researchers around the world, or at least in Europe, ready to work without high-impact journals operating in their fields, which are in the vast majority still conventional venues, e.g. for a year? It would be great to hear that all journals will be immediately flipped to open access. But how to make it happen? It might be true that there is enough money in the current publishing system to make everything open access, but is there enough will to do it? Schimmer called for an elaborate strategy to make this change at the Berlin 12 conference this December.
What is fair?
There was also a call by Saskia de Vries, Natalia Grygierczyk and Johan Rooryck for “fair open access”, which they defined as the model where:
– copyright rests with the authors (so employing a Creative Commons license),
– journal title rests with the editors,
– there are low APCs.
Point 1 and 3 are quite easy to meet, and there is a lot of open access journals that already do this (I guess that e.g. 500 euro which is charged by some journals published by De Gruyter Open is low). The second point might be more problematic from the publishers’ point of view. Again, there are thousands of journals published this way, De Gruyter Open itself is a publisher of several hundreds of journals which are owned by research societies and the company provides them with some services (hosting, help with application to indexing services, text production, DOI acquisition, etc.). This is already happening and I am happy to hear that somebody call it ‘fair’.
But when a company starts its own journal, and for example pays editors for 2 years, publishing all content in open access and does not charge a single euro in publication fees, is it ‘unfair’ that this journal brand stays with the company? (This is the case of a 100 or more journals at De Gruyter Open). After this initial period the company wants to introduce the fees and get some money back. In this case, editors cannot just simply go to another publisher with an established journal brand. If it were not done this way the company would have no reason to invest a penny in a new journal.
Anyway I really enjoyed the event and hope I will be able to attend it next year. The discussion about alternative publishing models is still going on under the #alterOA hashtag on Twitter and on the European Commision website. Feel free to disagree with me there or in the comments section below.