What would a Gold-OA world look like? Three issues briefly considered

April 1, 2016

What would the world look like if, as proposed by the Max Planck Institute, the scholarly world flipped from being dominated by subscriptions to Gold open access? I think there are three things to say.

First, incentives. A concern is sometimes expressed that when publishers are paid per paper published, they will have an incentive to want more papers to be published. Would this exacerbate the existing publish-or-perish culture where we are flooded by quantity of publications, sometimes at the expense of quality?

It’s certainly true that in a Gold OA world, the publishers would like to see more papers (and monographs) published. But whether we the academic community respond to that desire by publishing more is not a decision that the publishers get to make. This — like so many issues — comes back to the problem of what incentives apply in academia. While scholars gains rewards like promotion and tenure by publishing many papers (for example because committees evaluate people based on their H-index), it is inevitable that those scholars will seek to publish many papers — and this would be true whether in a subscription-based or Gold OA-based system. Thus I think the problem of publishing quantity rather than quality is quite independent from the problem of how we pay for publications.

Second, costs. I sometimes hear a concern is that a flip to Gold OA would create an environment where funds are tied up, and resources are not sufficient of fund new and innovative journals.

I’m sure these numbers are not new to regular readers, but it seems pretty clear that a flipped world would have much lower total costs than the present system. Here are the numbers:

The STM Report for 2015, page 6, reports total publisher income in the STM field as $10 billion for 2013, and says that about 2.5 million papers were published that year. That gives an average income per paper of $4000. (We can probably assume a broadly similar figure for non-STM papers, too.) By contrast, the Wellcome Trust’s recent report on its APC spending in 2013-14 shows an average APC of £1837, currently about $2634. This is slightly less than 2/3 what the world at large is paying per paper.

In other words, even using the relatively high APCs paid by the Wellcome Trust, the world’s 2.5 million papers per year could be published for $6.6 billion — saving $3.4 billion to spent elsewhere.

Third, markets. This one is a question, and I think it’s crucial for the prospects of a Gold-OA ecosystem: will we get an efficient market in APCs? If we do, then prices will be forced down until they are very close to costs — which publishers like Hindawi, Ubiquity Press and PeerJ have shown can be in the $400-500 range, almost literally an order of magnitude less than the world presently pays for publication. But if no true market emerges, prices will not fall — indeed publishers may have the leverage to raise APCs at rates greater than inflation, as they have been doing for subscriptions.

That is why I believe that, however tempting “APC Big Deals” are to individual libraries or consortia, they should be strenuously resisted. As with subscription Big Deals, the short-term savings (while real) would be absolutely dwarfed by the long-term losses.

If I’m right about this, then we face a tragedy of the commons during this phase of transition from subscriptions to Gold OA: it will be in the short-term interests of each library to accept a Big Deal on APCs; but again the interests of the community. We will need to communicate well, and function as a global community, to avoid falling into this trap.


[I first wrote this post as an email to a list for delegates of the OSI2016 conference. Then I realised that it’s of broader interest, and edited it into the form seen here.]

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7 Responses to “What would a Gold-OA world look like? Three issues briefly considered”


  1. “We can probably assume a broadly similar figure for non-STM papers, too.” – I don’t think we can. Non-stm journals have always been significantly less expensive, but I doubt the publisher-labour involved is much different. I don’t have the figures to hand, but any librarian will tell you stm journal pricing is way above average.

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    OK, Rachel, thanks. Is there a way to estimate a figure for other fields? Is there an HSS Report analogous to the STM Report, which we can use to find numbers?

  3. Peter Suber Says:

    Hi Mike,

    I hope you can find a way to put a version of this comment at the right place(s) in the draft journal-flipping report now open for public comment. https://osc.hul.harvard.edu/programs/journal-flipping/public-consultation/

    The draft went up for public comments before the final Max Planck proposal came out, so the report doesn’t yet cover it fully. But it covers it briefly, and will say more about it in the final version. Moreover, the report covers some related large-scale conversion scenarios.

    I have two interests here. First, I want the report to lay out the different conversion methods actually tried and proposed, and I think the authors (Dave Solomon, Bo-Christer Björk, and Mikaell Laasko) have done a good job at this. Second, I want people –through their comments– to recommend scenarios they find worth recommending and advise against scenarios they find inadvisable.

    Thanks, Peter

    Peter Suber bit.ly/petersuber

    On Fri, Apr 1, 2016 at 5:17 AM, Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week wrote:

    > Mike Taylor posted: “What would the world look like if, as proposed by > the Max Planck Institute, the scholarly world flipped from being dominated > by subscriptions to Gold open access? I think there are three things to > say. First, incentives. A concern is sometimes expresse” >

  4. dale Says:

    What’s wrong with setting up some sort of subsidiary under Amazon dedicated to scientific publications? If $$$ is the current problem when publishing papers, then a contract between a company dedicated to creating journals in each science could theoretically set itself up as a subsidiary of this giant. Or is my thinking completely out of place here ?

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dale, sorry if I’m being dense but I don’t see how an Amazon subsidiary would solve the problem — or, really, help at all, given that company’s well-documented predatory tendencies. Please explain?

  6. marlened Says:

    Regarding incentives, can’t we expect an ‘academic regulation’ will occur, as no institution will be able to fund huge amounts of APC ?
    I’m not sur I understand the market issue : as the journals are not substituable to another, how can an APC market emerge ?
    Thanks for the precisions (and for the post !)
    MD

  7. dale Says:

    This is my understanding of it all. Amazon is exquisitely predatorial by whose standards? It’s as if you’re comparing this giant to the likes of Walmart [actually not a bad comparison]. Everyone but the shopping public considers Walmart predatorial. It’s the same in the publishing arena. Most publishing houses exert tremendous control both literary and financially over authors. Amazon does no such thing. It allows authors to publish anything quickly and qualitatively poorly [if they don’t care]. There is no backlog. Incentives are given to authors up to 70% royalties. Brick and Mortar pub. co.s can’t compete with this [hence the name calling]. Only 1 in 20 get published by Brick ‘n Mortar. Here the quality doesn’t matter since the bottom line is profit. That is, one can summit 5 excellent manuscripts and 15 poorly constructed ones but … only one gets published. When submitting to a [B and M] co., they also judge you by your marketability [not just your manuscript]. Amazon doesn’t give a crap about the bottom line. She will publish the other 19 rejected authors. Her goal is to assimilate every author under one co. [shades of manifest destiny writ large in the publishing world]. Many authors never make much profit because their “books” are cheaper to the readers. So what ?? It’s old fashioned Darwinism.
    Now. Take Kindle as an example. A separate co. that Amazon has bought into. If there’s a $$$ shortfall, the mother giant covers it. Here’s why Amazon truly earns the “predatory” in its image vis-a-vis the B and M co.s Amazon is big. Very big. She started out as a publishing company BUT had the “smarts” to diversify. She is not reliant exclusively on publishing for the bottom line. Unfair competition ? Perhaps. So. What should we do? Here’s a thought. I’ll let others flesh it out. Set up a co. Bring everyone in from every field of science. Transfer their journals [if even remotely possible] over to a single company. If a no go then recreate new ones. Get it all under one co. Approach Amazon with the idea that profit is not the bottom line. Amazon will make it “cheap” enough for all to afford and make a small profit back to the authors. What Amazon gains is the authorship of America’s scientific elite in all fields. Any short comings [$$$$], mother takes care of it. Amazon knows … if she doesn’t deliver … she loses her authors. Control still rests {though not exclusively], with the scientific subsidiary. But everybody has to be unified on this. This is just a simplistic outline. Perhaps it’s worth pursuing?


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