Springer has work to do to keep its open-access leadership
June 2, 2012
I just sent this letter to Matthew Cockerill, the co-founder of the open-access publisher BioMed Central, which was acquired by Springer a few years ago. It arose from a mistake on Springer’s part that was discussed on Twitter initially. As I wrote this I didn’t particularly intend it to be an open letter. But having written and sent it, it occurred to me that it would be more broader interest, so here it is
Hi, Matt, hope you don’t mind my chipping in here. It was me that initially pointed out Peter’s hijacked-image issue to you on Twitter — I now realise it would have been wiser to have stayed quiet and left it for Peter to report, saving a bit of confusion!
Since I’m on this thread, I just wanted to take this opportunity to say a few words about strategy to you and your Springer colleagues.
I’m sure it’s apparent to everyone involved in academic publishing that we stand at an important tipping point right now. The exponential growth of PLoS, the proliferation of other publishing experiments such as F1000 Research and PeerJ, the crushing defeat of the RWA, the progress of the FRPAA, the Cost of Knowledge boycott, the White House petition that is currently 95% of the way to its goal and the very broad coverage of these issues in mainstream media as well as the blogs of scholars and librarians, all add up to a time of massive change. Some publishers will emerge from this stronger, and some much weaker — if they emerge at all.
In that context, there’s no doubt that a sequence of bone-headed manoeuvres by Elsevier (some recent, some going back a few years) have cast them as the Bad Guys — an effect so strong that independent financial analysts such as Bernstein Research’s Claudio Aspesi and The Street’s Jared Woodward are predicting significant revenue loss.
In contrast, Springer has so far done an excellent job of positioning itself as the Good Guys, at least among the Big Four. (Wiley and Informa have not so far attracted much attention either way, but they will.) Crucial here has been the adoption of the CC BY licence for Open Choice articles — a true open access option that stands in stark contrast to Elsevier’s abjectly ill-defined and restrictive “Sponsored Article”. And it helps having a visible presence like Springer Open on Twitter: even though it doesn’t have many direct followers, those followers include a lot of influential people.
BUT Springer’s emerging good-guy status is fragile. The way I read developing opinions, there’s no set-in-stone notion that there has to be a Goodie and a Baddie among the big four. If Springer screw things up, it could very easily flip to a situation where all of the big four are seen as net losses, and the goal becomes to abandon all of them. There are good reasons for not wanting that to happen. And to avoid it, you’re going to need to get all of Springer — not just BMC — serious about open access. Not treating it just as a marketing word, a term that by throwing around liberally you hope to appease those irritating academics; but engaging wholeheartedly with what it means.
I’m not saying that the whole of Springer needs to convert to open access overnight — I am not a sufficiently foolish idealist to suggest that! What I’m saying is that whenever Springer says it’s doing something open access, it needs to be damned sure that it really is. I don’t know whether oversights like claiming copyright on others’ work, or republishing CC BY work as CC BY-NC, seem like little things to Springer; but I have to warn you they are not. There is a substantial and influential group out there that cares deeply and passionately about such things. This isn’t something that can be spun; it has to be actually done.
So please do expedite sorting out Peter’s specific problem; but beyond that put resources into ensuring that similar things don’t happen. Make sure that all of Springer carefully tracks who owns copyright to what — nothing irritates a scholar more than hearing someone else claim credit for his work — and be clear and correct about what licence covers various materials. (The simplest way to do the last part, by the way, is just to use CC BY for all your open material.)
That’s all, thanks for listening. Hope it was helpful, and taken in the spirit it was written. Please feel free pass this around within Springer as much as you wish, especially to people with the influence to set policy.