Tag Archives: open access

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!

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Can Open Access be done right?

Shortly before I wrote my last post about open access, I was given a copy of a very recent British Academy publication about open-access journals, and you may even remember that I cited it there.1 I had, however, only looked at it briefly then and planned at that stage to write a sequel post using it to look at ways in which open access, which you will hopefully remember I don’t think has yet been developed as a working idea, might be. This is that post, but I can’t promise much by way of optimism…

Front cover of Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science

The front cover

The book had an explicit brief from the British Academy, which was to evaluate how far any UK government or quasi-NGO policy on open access as a requirement for funding needed to vary across disciplines and what effect it would have on the UK academy to impose it (or, in the case of Research Councils UK, continue imposing the current one). All of this was more or less intended to settle some of the questions raised by a previous British Academy volume, and this one was explicitly focused on the situation in the UK. Though occasionally it looks across the Atlantic to the place where the results of the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 told the authors UK academics mostly publish when they don’t in the UK, and indeed compares [edit: the publication system] to the old Soviet Union on one occasion (note the third author), the conclusions and the dataset it presents on which those conclusions [edit: rest] only really apply in the country where I write.2 There is an issue there which I’ll come on to but it’s an understandable restriction, and maybe it shows the way evaluations could go elsewhere.3

The other limit of the debate is that one of the main questions is taken as already settled out of court, that being the question of what type of open access we are debating. The last time I wrote about this I was cross about what has come to be called ‘gold’ open access, in which the publisher compensates for their loss of a product to sell by charging the author to publish with them, a charge (APC, article processing charge) that is usually thought will be supplied by the research’s supporting funding. At that point various voices were saying that for humanities research, often done without grants and equally often with very small ones, this was pernicious and would hit poorer institutions and younger students disproportionately. This is a position that the British Academy apparently took to be obvious and of which Research Councils UK has since come to be persuaded, and the result is that that is accepted as a model that only works for the sciences and perhaps only medicine (a position that the figures presented here justify) and that what we are actually studying here is ‘green’ open access, and exactly how to implement it.4 Obviously elsewhere that debate is not so finished, but this again may be something that this work could transmit to such fora.

The way that ‘green’ open access works, or is supposed to work, is that rather than charge the author, the publisher accepts that after a while it will put the work online for free, but it will not do this straight away, so that people who need the information as soon as possible will continue to buy the journal. They may also, when it finally goes online, only put the author’s submitted version online, which will not reflect subsequent changes or, obviously, correct page numbers, so it effectively can’t be cited. (Again, medicine has less of a problem with citing pre-prints, and I suspect that we will see more and more of this in the humanities, but for now it’s part of what gives journal publishers any hope and it has to be said (and is in this book, with figures) that basically almost no-one in the humanities actually puts up pre-print versions on the web anyway, Academia.edu or even personal web-pages not withstanding.5 Even I don’t, because how could you cite it? And so on.)

So with that accepted or assumed, the question becomes how long should the embargo period before the article is released to the world be? This is where the book is doing most of its work. In the first place, they show by an analysis of usage half-lives (a complex formula, given its own appendix, which tells you the median age of the content that made up half a journal’s downloads over a given period, and makes a reasonable index of comparison) that in general, the humanities do happily use content that’s older than medicine, but that actually, so does physics and most of the other sciences; medicine is just out by itself in its need to have the most immediate content straight away (and even there, the half-life figure was about six months on average).6 As they say several times, “the boundary does not lie between STEM (science, technology and medicine) and HSS (humanities and social sciences); rather, it lies between HSS plus Physical Sciences on one side and Medicine on the other”.7 The actual embargo periods being proposed as compulsory for humanities research funded by RCUK seem reasonable to them in the light of this, however, and so that ends there, and they go on to what is perhaps a more interesting set of questions about academic publishing more widely.

This is the point where I think there might actually be the sign of a set of answers emerging, at least for the time being, and it’s interesting. In the first place, they establish by means of a just-about-significant survey (Edit: 12% response rate! What can you do, though?) that librarians, who it is who actually buy journals, don’t pay any real attention to embargo periods when doing so and thus argue that publishers have nothing to fear from reducing them; and then they go on a two-chapter excursus about how journal publishing can and should be paid for, and this is one of my big questions about all such initiatives as you know so it made me read avidly.8 They don’t really have an answer, but what they show, by the same kind of back-of-the-envelope maths that I was using to disprove the possibility of crowdfunded higher education, is that it must be paid for, that only the smallest of journals can be run with no staff and no print costs and that as soon as one attracts any kind of following it needs an organisation that more or less amounts to a publisher. And since publishers need at the very least to pay for themselves, money has to come into the system somewhere, and whence is more or less an ethical debate depending on whom you think benefits most: the author, the academy or the world? And we might like to think it was the last, really, but the chances of any new tax revenue being put aside to fund open-access publication, as the authors here say, does seem fairly small.9 So we’re stuck in the middle with publishers and the only thing that matters, until that be solved, is how much libraries can afford to pay for journals and what publishers will charge for them. So I like this, obviously, because it more or less justifies my stance that even when the current academic labour of publication is uncosted, we can’t do this for free and have to answer the money question. What that means, in effect, is that whatever one’s ethical stance on open access may be, it is more or less irrelevant until we can come up with a better solution for academic publication than the current one, and that is a bigger problem than even three such sharp writers as these could be expected to solve in a 106-page volume, but it really needs solving.

Not Open Access logo graphic

I will permit myself just one of the various logos the open access movement has scattered across the Internet because I like the double signification of this one, it goes well with the post…

There are also some other important qualifications about coverage and inclusion here. Firstly and most obviously, this whole argument can only apply where publication is online. For the sciences that’s a no-brainer but looking over my own CV, of twenty-six outputs and seven reviews I could count over my career thus far, although six are virtual exhibitions and thus not only basically unimportant for research evaluations but self-evidently online, five of the reviews but only ten of the remaining twenty outputs are online automatically, seven of them behind paywalls, and three more are online because I put them there myself, not having signed any copyright away. My book is partly visible in Google Preview. The rest, ironically including quite a lot of the work about putting things on the Internet, is only available in hard copy, so remains very definitely closed. This is an issue the authors are aware of, substantially expressed as an awareness that electronic publication of actual books has a long way to go before it’s anywhere near general and that for most parts of the humanities, and especially the creative arts, that’s where most or much work goes.10 On the one hand this means that the figures and answers the authors come up with here are truer for psychology than any other HSS subject and affect, say, history, relatively little, but on the other hand means that if the less affected disciplines were suddenly required to make most or all of their research open access their publication plans would have to radically alter and would probably become partly impossible.

The other problem, and one to which the authors are alive in some ways, is that this really is an Anglophone and indeed UK problem. They emphasise that whatever the successes of the open access movement in the USA in creating impressive logos and impassioned stances (I editorialise somewhat), very few US publishers are paying any attention to it. They see this as a sign that what RCUK was proposing could seriously hurt UK academics’ ability to publish abroad.11 I have tended to see it the other way, however, because of naturally looking at Europe. When I started my doctoral work basically no Catalan journal was online; now, almost all of them are, for free, open access. A goodly part of the French academic journal scene is also online via the Persée portal and there are German and Spanish equivalents too. Now it is certainly true that these are sometimes funded by the major state research organisations, because they publish most of the relevant journals; the fact still exists that the relevant state thought it worthwhile to fund that. In Catalonia, in fact, it isn’t even the state, but eighty-nine separate academic or learned institutions from museums and universities through to the Generalitat, which is funding it, but with the Generalitat one among many institutions contributing to it actually getting done. In these countries, someone did put aside tax revenue to present, organise and preserve academic research. Why we can’t, or won’t, do that, and why the justification of it is so much less obvious in the Anglophone world, not just to funders but to practitioners with our platitudinous explanations of the inherent worth of our subjects of study, is also quite an important research question, I’d say, even if not one I expect to see the British Academy funding however the results were published.


1. Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science: a British Academy research project (London 2014), and it is of course, as you’d expect, online free and open-access, here.

2. The previous volume was Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013); comparison to the USSR Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals, p. 85.

3. It should be remembered, though, that a great deal of the starter data here came from the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise 2008, without which the book probably couldn’t have been written, and certainly, without that or an equivalent, any country trying this will need to do much much more data collection. Of course, even that data was six years out of date by the time this book was published, and this is a fast-moving field, but since the Research Excellence Framework was only then being completed and has only just been counted, what could they do?

4. Darley, Reynolds & Wickham, Open Access Journals, pp. 16-20.

5. Ibid., pp. 71-74.

6. Ibid., pp. 49-66.

7. Ibid., pp. 8, 61 & 92.

8. Ibid., pp. 67-87.

9. Ibid., p. 84: “a frankly unlikely scenario”.

10. Ibid., pp. 24-32.

11. Ibid., pp. 33-35 & 36-48.

Open Access done wrong

Some of the posts I have queued up from last year are now looking sort of irrelevant. I’m not sure this isn’t one of them, because as I will conclude the debate is now moving on, and because it represents a reply I wrote in May 2013 to a blog post written in February 2013 responding to various other documents and reports from earlier that year, but still, the debate is active, and I hope to catch up on it soon, and meanwhile my starting position might as well go on record, I guess? The basic position to which I seem to be developing is, the Anglophone world doesn’t know how to do open access, and until it does pursuing that agenda may serve some ugly outcomes.

Open Access seal

It’s a good graphic, but does it really tell us that this debate is going to be pursued solely by rational evaluation of outcomes?

The starting point for me here was a post at Historian on the Edge, here, itself expanding on a comment on a post at Modern Medieval where I also commented, so you can see where I was starting from there if you like. At that point Historian on the Edge had lately been locked down to allow comments only from Google accounts, and I didn’t want to get one just to chime in there, so I stubbed my draft comment here as a post and expected it to be up rather soon than this! The Historian on the Edge post had done a sharp job pointing out the damage that author-pays models of open access publishing might do to the careers of new or less established scholars, and pointed everybody to a then-recent open letter by the President of the Royal Historical Society on the issue which made some of the same points. (And that in turn links to many other documents including one from the American Historical Association also reckoning that the model looks bad for history, and which also seems canny to me.) Anyway, to his points I then wanted to add this:

“I’m glad to see this issue getting a higher profile, and even gladder to see the RHS actually doing something, even if it is essentially to look out for its own activities. All the same, I find it exasperating that what they call for is a ‘debate’, and a debate to be conducted almost entirely between ourselves. Surely the correct response is a stand against the idea, given that many of its qualities as proposed are so pernicious? Is there much to debate? (I think that in this respect the Open Access agenda is the cloth over the conjuror’s hand.) This has so far happened with almost all the government’s proposed reforms, but the appropriate response to this kind of thing is surely not, ‘Let’s all talk amongst ourselves about how we can compromise with the government,’ it’s ‘This is awful and it should not stand‘. The issue that should be making us all jump, as you correctly say, is: ‘Where’s the money going to come from for us to do this?’ The answer appears to be: ‘Why, from you yourselves! We will not be giving any extra money for this.’ Indeed, I can’t see any reply to that question that would make more sense than, ‘Since you will be buying far fewer expensive journals you can all cut your library’s subscription budgets and use it to fund self-publication!’ Firstly, and weakest, that’s unlikely to happen: the library budgets may be cut but the savings won’t make it to academics. Secondly, of course, what you also touch on, this assumes that we never need to read anything by people from countries who still publish with publishers, which is not how research works; perhaps Willetts & co. still think that all work worth reading on any academic field comes from the Empire? And, thirdly, peer review doesn’t like self-publication and I can’t see how it ever will. But is there any other way in which going to an APR model is actually going to be cheaper for institutions and, more especially, for those without institutional support for their work?

Open Access debate graphic

It’s great that there’s an international movement to make top-quality knowledge fully accessible, don’t get me wrong, but it will have to be answered nationally, not internationally

“I’m still not sure that this government actually has a higher education policy, and it gets clearer and clearer that the coalition aspect of it is preventing them actually forming policy, but if there is one, I think it might best be seen as privatisation by strangulation, by raising the costs of public funding so high that eventually universities decide to do without. Since the managerial class of most universities see size, turnover and income as more important than viability, however, that particular decision will be very far off for most of them. None of it looks as if they think it might be important to have expertise on things somewhere in the country.”

There are a lot of things there that I think I would now put differently, especially in the last paragraph and not least because of a lot of time spent debating such issues with the authors of a new and recent publication on these issues done for the British Academy (who have got involved at last) that I have yet to read fully.* When I have I hope to write more on this, but that delay means there’s time for exactly the kind of debate I was disparaging a year ago! I suppose the key issues I still see as worth pursuing in that comment are not so much about open access as about publishing and the academy, and they are these:

  1. Peer review costs a lot in terms of time but is terribly remunerated; we cannot easily make it more expensive but neither can we do without it. It seems to me that since the only part of the mechanism into which money systematically goes is the publishing industry, it is them we should be looking at to bear those costs.
  2. Academic research is an international operation, as are most of the biggest publishers interested in it, but its components are nationally funded and vulnerable to political concerns of an entirely uninterested kind, as we see here; the main agenda here is that the Tories would like to be paying a lot less government money for the university system they want, as far as I can see, rather than any clear ideas of what that system should be or how to achieve that.
  3. This is the issue it is not least because the UK academy has no adequate means of resistance or debate to such policies, since its representative bodies like Universities UK are too entrenched in competition for the increasingly limited public money there is to be able to band together to find alternative ways to support academic research, giving them neither interest nor ability to lobby the government with better ways to build excellence in intellectual endeavours.
  4. Given all these factors, I think that the current shift towards open access, while laudable in motivation and intent, is one of the forces that’s going to break the current model of the academy, academic careers and academic publication and I really think therefore that we should have some kind of alternatives ready before we give in to it!

On that last, I have more old thoughts to be updated which will follow in a couple of posts’ time. On the others though, I am very much open to debate. What are your thoughts?


* Rebecca Darley, Daniel Reynolds & Chris Wickham, Open Access Journals in Humanities and Social Science (London 2014), following up on Nigel Vincent & Chris Wickham (edd.), Debating Open Access (London 2013).