What if an open-access publisher goes bankrupt?

January 29, 2013

In a comment on a recent Guardian piece (not mine, but a response to it), Peter Morgan asked:

A separate concern is whether the OA business model is sustainable in the long term of decades or even centuries. By contract, OA content has almost no commercial value, unless it is re-published in a for-profit volume. How confident can we be that the content of an OA journal that goes bankrupt will be preserved in an openly accessible way?

Don’t worry — you can be very confident. Reputable open-access journals arrange for their content to be archived in well-trusted third-party archives such as PubMed Central and CLOCKSS. See for example PeerJ’s blog about the arrangements they’re making or this statement from PLOS ONE.

A much more serious problem is this: what happens to the content of a non-OA journal when it goes bankrupt? In general, copyright for the content of such journals is owned by the publisher. This not only means that informal archive arrangements such as BioTorrents and The Disks Of Millions can’t be used — worse, it means that content archived in PubMed Central or CLOCKSS may never become available. If a failing publisher sells its assets, that will include the copyrights — and since literally any unethical corporation might sniff an asset-stripping opportunity, that could be disastrous.

In short, you can be much more confident that PLOS’s content will still be around in 10, 20 and 100 years than you can that Elsevier’s will.

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12 Responses to “What if an open-access publisher goes bankrupt?”

  1. caseybergman Says:

    Elsevier made an agreement with the Dutch national library some years ago to ensure digital preservation: http://www.kb.nl/en/news/news-archive-2002/national-library-of-the-netherlands-and-elsevier-science-make-digital-preservation-history

    I’m not up to speed on the details of this agreement or if other subscription publishers have similar covenants, but at least for Elsevier content, we will always be able to get their content from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the case of their bankruptcy

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Right, Casey. But the problem isn’t if Elsevier goes bankrupt. The problem is if it gets into sufficiently dire financial straits that it sells its assets off (including copyrights).

  3. caseybergman Says:

    I guess this depends on the details of the agreement with the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. It would be good if someone from Elsevier could comment on this.

  4. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes. Or better still, if they could point us to the actual text of the agreement.


  5. There are a number of Archival Agencies engaged in the problem of ensuring continuing access to both subscription and open access journals. There is even a website http://thekeepers.org/ devoted to keeping track of who is archiving which journal. It may not yet carry the actual texts of the agreements between publishers and archiving agencies, but you can get the gist from there.

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Philip. That site is interesting, but only says where journals are archived, not what the terms are. So for example, Cretaceous Research articles are preserved by CLOCKSS, e-Depot and Portico, which is great; but that tells us nothing about the terms under which the archived material will be freed.

    For example, imagine a financially crashing Elsevier. Rather than leave the shareholders with nothing by allowing it to go into bankruptcy, the board elect to sell the remaining assets to a truly exploitative publisher that doesn’t even attempt to maintain a facade of partnership with the scholarly community, but triples subscription prices. Unless we see the actual agreements, we have no way of knowing (and I strongly doubt) whether this event would count as a “trigger event” for CLOCKSS.

    It certainly wouldn’t count under the standard CLOCKSS definition, which is “Publisher No Longer in Business”, “Title No Longer Offered”, “Back Issues No Longer Available” or “Catastrophic [technical] Failure”.

    [Side-complaint: the CLOCKSS site says many times that when a trigger event occurs, the content is made available "for free", or, slightly more specifically, "with a creative commons license", but I can't easily find out which Creative Commons licence: they are not all the same!]

  7. Mike Taylor Says:

    Hmm, this isn’t promising … I checked up some specific triggered content on CLOCKSS, the Archives of Family Medicine, only to find that is uses the most restrictive (i.e. least useful) of all Creative Commons licences: CC BY-NC-ND. This means, for example, that you can’t translate AFM articles into other languages to make them useful in developing-world countries.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    In fact, looking at all six journals whose content has been made available by CLOCKSS trigger events, I see that they all use CC BY-NC-ND. Which suggests that is general policy.

    Can anyone confirm or contradict that? You’d think the information would be freely available somewhere on the site.


  9. For some archival agencies there are trigger events and trigger decisions – made by committees days or possibly weeks afterwards. It is interesting that the digital preservation effort now has a long enough history for there to be actual examples of CLOCKSS released content, such as http://www.clockss.org/clockss/Molecular_Interventions Molecular Interventions, in this case available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

    For a preservation service with more control over access at the local level you may be interested in LOCKSS (see http://www.lockssalliance.ac.uk/ for members of the UK LOCKSS Alliance). De Montfort University, for example, makes access available to locally preserved journals through its OpenURL Resolver: http://bit.ly/VmcmQv.

    LOCKSS only works where there is a level of agreement between libraries and publishers, and some publishers elect not to participate. However, you started by asking about open access publishers, and the conditions for such agreements may be easier with open access publishers.

  10. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks, Philip, these are all useful and interesting links.

    BTW., PLOS uses LOCKSS (an open system) rather than CLOCKSS (a managed one). But PeerJ uses CLOCKSS. I don’t know what thought processes went into these contradictory decisions, but a reasonable guess would be that as PeerJ is just now launching, they wanted to shift as much work onto a managed process as possible.

    Extra credit: PeerJ articles will be published as CC BY. If PeerJ went bankrupt, what would it mean for CLOCKSS to continue to supply their content as CC BY-NC-ND?

  11. ech Says:

    Extra credit: Once released as CC-BY, it’s always CC-BY. You can release things under new licenses, but the old license is not revocable. Unless it is revocable, but CC-BY is not revocable.


  12. [...] The biggest laugh was for Jason Hoyt’s comment on the simplest way to achieve universal access to Elsevier’s content: let them go out of business, and LOCKSS will take care of it. (Sadly, I’m not sure it’s that simple.) [...]


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