A way publishers might make Open Access work (but probably wouldn’t)

It is an established trope of this blog that academic publishing is in trouble because of the Internet, and much like the music industry has yet to come up with a really viable alternative to a doomed defensive protectionism. This was already true before the Open Access movement started gaining velocity and a logo and so on, but that has greatly complicated things because, like so many radical movements, its ideological position seems to involve everyone doing more for free, and you can’t run large-scale quality control and distribution on no money, it needs full-time staff. About this time last year, however, some new pieces of the puzzle fell into place that seemed then to represent a possible way forward, and I stubbed a post to speculate about it. It turns out, on writing it up, that really this is two posts, one about how publication is paid for and one about how the work academics put into publishing is compensated. You’d think these were the same issue but it is, of course, the state that we’re in that it’s not. So here’s the first post, about making open access journals (and by extension other forms of open-access publication) work.

I should say straight away, by the way, that as usual with posts about Open Access this is really only a concern for a UK audience for the moment. Those interested in such issues elsewhere may still want to know what hoops the peculiar UK situation is making us jump through, however. My thinking process this time started with a blog post by Natasha White of the publishers Wiley, addressing the particular economic flaw of gold-standard open access in which a grant or an institution (hopefully) pays for an article to be published, and then has to pay again to buy the journal in which that article actually appears, because not everything else in it will be open-access. This is far from the biggest problem with gold OA, which is in any case basically irrelevant to the humanities due to its costs and our funding, but every little step towards a new model for the Academy at large could help, right? Ms White hits the kernel of the issue here:

A number of publishers, including Wiley, have introduced policies to adjust subscription prices for any shift from subscription-funded articles to pay-to-publish open access articles. Journals publishing more open access articles will see price decreases because the publication costs for those articles have already been met. Since non-UK authors don’t have the same type and level of funding to pay open access fees, the majority continue to choose to publish under the subscription model, keeping this the predominant publishing model. This means subscription prices haven’t decreased significantly and UK institutions continue to pay for journal subscriptions to obtain international research. So the UK is seeing an increase in publishing costs as they pay for both open access and subscription fees.

In short, as long as a journal is not entirely gold-standard OA (which would involve barring contributors who can’t do that, i. e. most of the world and, once again, also of the humanities), there will be a subscription price to pay for that journal, which even those publishing under gold OA must pay. Now, however, Jisc have come up with the idea of OA contributions also buying an institution credits, with which they can offset their journal subscriptions with a given publisher according to how much of its publication costs they have already paid. It seems fair as an idea, and represents a creditable willingness on the part of the publishers to make less money for a principle. Of course, an awful lot depends on the exact pricing, not least because nothing seems to require that the compensation actually equal the cost of the subscription and there’s a whole host of issues about who gets the compensation: the author’s university’s library, the grant-making body that paid for the research… So let’s have a play with some hypothetical numbers.

The publisher’s interest seems to be the crucial one here, so I did a bit of back of the envelope maths. Springer helpfully put their journal prices online, unlike most publishers, and the median price for 2014 was €715. The journal in the list charging closest to that was Pituitary, and that year they had a €2,200 open access article processing charge and published 87 articles that year. These are maybe not typical figures (especially for the humanities!), but they are at least middling ones that a real commercial publisher is or was actually using. So, simple arithmetic: if every one of those 87 articles had been published gold OA, it would have brought Springer in €191,400, which is to say, just under 268 subscriptions. I have no idea how many places do in fact subscribe to Pituitary, but there were about 22,000 universities in the world in 2013, so you’d think that Springer could certainly hope for more than 268 of them buying in.

Going full-on gold OA could thus cost Springer a substantial sum of money in that model. Article processing charges also have to be paid on articles that get rejected, however, and I don’t know what the rejection rate is. This suddenly makes a lot of difference, and if we are setting up a model in which publishers encourage us to give them money for being considered for publication, and then only the successful get compensation, it looks rather more sinister, doesn’t it? Imagine a humanities version of this, a fictional Exclusive Journal of Medieval Studies, publishing 16 articles a year fully open access, gold all the way, and charged for that at the same rate as Pituitary, but rejecting nineteen for each one it published. This is obviously not typical for the humanities, but as we’ve already said, the humanities ecosystem can probably support very few such organisms, if any, so the extreme is where we have to start. That high level of rejection would be to the journal’s advantage in terms of reputation, but it would also be greatly to the publisher’s financial benefit, because as long as they accepted their 16 articles annually the rejected submissions would be almost pure revenue. 19 times 16 is 304; 304 Pituitary-sized APCs is €668,800, which is 935 Pituitary-sized subscriptions. Suddenly it looks a lot better than capping your revenue at €191,400, doesn’t it? This might nearly make up for the shift of publishing model, and if it didn’t, prices could presumably be changed so that it would. And the more people who wanted to get into this highly exclusive journal but failed, the better those sums would look for the publisher.

So, now consider a halfway house in which this invented journal is still publishing half its articles on a conventional subscription model and the other half on gold OA. Let’s also say that Wiley’s prediction is accurate and that their subscription price remains the same in this world, but they compensate the gold OA authors or their institutions with a pay-out equivalent to the subscription. (Multiple authors obviously makes this model a lot more complex but let’s leave that for now and assume all authors are lone scholars.) Now, the publisher’s revenue comes only from subscriptions or the charges for the OA articles that it rejects. Think about what that means for its would-be authors and the open access agenda for just a moment… To me it seems that while the publisher would have every incentive to encourage open access submissions, that incentive would also pressure them to accept as few as possible.

This would mean, of course, encouraging an awful lot of lower-quality submissions somehow while still only publishing good ones. It’s hard to see such a policy working for long—why would you bother submitting unless you were pretty sure your work was excellent?—but even if it did, good authors might come to prefer to publish somewhere less notoriously keen to gather in APCs without return, because they would probably justly fear what the effect of that on the editorial agenda would be, and then the journal would only have less good work to publish and its reputation would drop. So there is probably a long-term cost to taking this path. But all this is to assume a lot of awareness among authors, which surveys about open access in the UK and the reactions to Elsevier actually enforcing the agreements its authors had signed suggest we don’t have! Nonetheless, even this dally with made-up figures should show that it really does matter what the figures actually are, and so the news that Jisc has basically negotiated a separate (and presumably private) agreement with every one of the publishers who’s so far playing may not be as good as it initially sounds…

The other thing it implies, of course, is a huge pool of reviewers willing to read a lot of bad work, which is probably the real reason this scenario couldn’t arise. But then, technology is also offering ways around that problem, and that’s where the second part of this post was originally meant to go. But this is already long enough, and so that can wait for a couple of days. Meanwhile your thoughts or corrections would as ever be very welcome!

7 responses to “A way publishers might make Open Access work (but probably wouldn’t)

  1. brewerwithout

    I realise this is just complicating matters further, but the part in the middle there mainly reminds me of my experience over in materials science, where the number of authors on a paper is routinely somewhere in the high single digits, and where asking someone senior for just enough of a contribution to have their name on your paper (or, you’re hoping to the world outside, your name on theirs) is fair game. How would open access credits fare through that? I guess it wouldn’t change the politics of the requests very much, but it would be yet another layer of funding and admin nightmare for someone, somewhere to sort out.

    (Okay, I suppose the logical way to do it would be to attribute the credits only to the body associated with the main research grant. A Big Name could then have lots of papers out without earning very much back in offset subscriptions, but if they’re a Big Name they’re probably doing some useful publishing themselves, as well as being a source of actual direct grant funding, so no-one will mind.)

    • You’ll have noticed that I ducked this problem by sticking it in parentheses, seeing like you that it was a mare’s nest. Your solution is more elegant than mine, however, which was to assume that joint authors would earn their institutions fractional credits. That the offset would just go to the institution that had paid the APC probably makes more sense, since that’s where the cost would have been incurred that the offset is supposed to, well, offset…

  2. Maybe I’m hopelessly exceptional, but I’ve had papers published and written reviews with no compensation other than my regular salary. The last grant money I received was in 1986, yet this was no hindrance.

    This research was in theoretical physics, mathematics and telecommunications. True enough, I was never a big-equipment guy, which is where most of the grant money goes in science. So I’m wondering why humanities needs grants?

    (Now I’m going to be cynical, but with an evidence-base of observed changes over 34 years of academic experience.)

    Is the “need” for grants just so that the university administrators can keep all the “tuition” fees for themselves?

    Why would I say that? What I’ve seen since the 70s is that “administrations” have consumed ever larger proportions of tertiary resources, have become increasingly hungry for wealth and power, and have increasingly derided all the core functions of the institutions in their alleged care.

    Contrary to what some might imagine, physics contains important analogic lessons for understanding and predicting the evolution of systems of nature as diverse as global economics and institutional senescence.

    For the global tertiary sector, an appropriate model is a star that has accreted so much mass that it is burning its fuel so fast that the its iron core is approaching an insupportable mass. Once this point is reached, the star implodes and is destroyed.

    People speak of technological singularity, but they forget that increasingly wasteful practices mean that fates such as the bureaucratic singularity loom much closer.

    The solution? If I were the PM, I would place a strict cap on the fraction of tertiary income allowed to go to admin. Ten percent would be generous. I’d also return all institutions to the collegial model, and thus remove fatally parasitic top-down university governance.

    • One part of this is easy to answer: what does the humanities need grants for? Buy-out from teaching responsibilities, in some cases books, computers or electronic resources, all but the last on a tiny scale compared to the sciences but still necessary, and lastly and most importantly salary costs for research assistance or other members of the team (because even the humanities is slowly moving towards a model where collaborative or team research is what gets funded even though the REF rewards it very badly in the UK).

      As to the rest, you are far from the only person I have seen saying such things, and not just about the university sector either (one NHS contact of mine refers to ‘an epidemic of managers’). All I would say to present another side of the argument is that another way for the PM to try to save that money would be to cull perhaps 50% of the various reporting mechanisms and internal and external auditing processes that we are required to carry out in exchange for public money, so that that staff time (and perhaps even level of administrative staffing) could be saved. Of course there would be costs for that, as there are for any cuts from an existing resource use plan, and I do believe that recipients of public funding should be accountable… but if there’s anywhere more obvious that needs simplifying and streamlining it’s too big for me to see.

  3. Pingback: Stand back, all! Something takes shape within the swirling mist! | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  4. You normally don’t pay any OA charges if your paper gets rejected — you only have to pay an article processing charge if your paper is accepted AND you want to publish OA. Most publishers don’t (directly) get remunerated in any way for the papers they reject. Submission charges used to be A Thing but mostly don’t exist anymore.

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