Legacy publishers are not our friends. Can’t we just admit it?

June 1, 2016

I’m on a public mailing list that was initially set up for delegates of the OSI2016 conference. In a recent email to that list, I pointed out that we can never know whether or not publishers are double-dipping (accepting APCs and subscriptions for the same content) unless they are totally transparent about their finances — and nothing in their history makes it likely that that’s ever going to happen.


Glenn Hampson, who convened the conference, also informally sets the tone for the mailing list — and does it with a commendably light touch. He sent a very reasonable reply to my message, which I’ll quote in full:

Hi Mike,

I know you’re not the only one who feels this way. So speaking to you and these others, let me say this:

1. You are engaged in a new enterprise with OSI to be able to speak face-to-face on an at-will basis with a wide variety of high-level stakeholders. It’s a different dynamic than what some of you have been used to. If you’d like to see detailed information, just ask for it. If you take issue with certain points of view, ask for clarification and explanation. A big part of the problem to-date in the scholcomm reform conversation has been this dynamic of launching barrages across each other’s bows without really talking and without seeing each other as part of the same team. Please take full advantage of this forum to talk and think through solutions. Don’t assume that because it hasn’t been done before it won’t happen. And,

2. Labels aren’t helpful here. They’re just positions wrapped in semantics. There is lots of double-dipping that occurs everywhere—some could make the case that all of scholcomm is double-dipping since the university pays to play and pays again to subscribe. I don’t know if this is evidence of ill-will, but for the sake of our working partnership, let’s assume that it isn’t, and that more largely, it is evidence of a system that isn’t efficient and effective right now for anyone, and that’s what we’re all working together to fix. To paint our colleagues into a corner by accusing them of wrongdoing and then expecting them to work together with us for change is just continuing with the same dynamic we’ve tried for the past 15 years.

I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. This is an interesting digression, but it takes us down a dark and unproductive path. We’re trying to chart a new, collaborative path toward new, collaborative solutions and not rehash old arguments and approaches. So drawing from what you’re asking here, a different approach might be to ask whether it would be possible to get more transparency in the system, what kind of transparency is needed and why, what precedents we can draw on to support this request, etc.

I’ve quoted this message because it’s intelligent, humane, conciliatory and collaborative. It’s a model of how such messages should be written, positive from top to bottom, and striving to think the best of everyone involved.

Group of business people assembling jigsaw puzzle and represent team support and help concept

Unfortunately, I think it’s also completely deluded.

Glenn refers to “this dynamic of launching barrages across each other’s bows without really talking and without seeing each other as part of the same team”. But the legacy publishers are not part of the same team. They are just not. Just like Manchester United and Arsenal are not part of the same team. There is no outcome that will satisfy both Manchester United and Arsenal because their interests are antithetical. And in exactly the same way, there is no outcome that will satisfy both the community of researchers and the legacy publishers.

Why not?

  • Researchers want their community to own the infrastructure; but legacy publishers want to control it.
  • Researchers want their output to be available to everyone everywhere at zero cost; but legacy publishers want to ration access, and charge for it.
  • Researchers want to to pay low subscription fees and APCs; but legacy publishers want to be paid high subscription fees and APCs.

Now none of this is exactly a criticism of legacy publishers. It’s not necessary to think they’re evil to recognise that they are on a different team from us. I don’t think the Russian football team is evil, but I still want them to lose when they play on 11 June — because they’re playing England, and I want England to win.

So to return to Glenn’s email, he writes plaintively: “To paint our colleagues into a corner by accusing them of wrongdoing and then expecting them to work together with us for change is just continuing with the same dynamic we’ve tried for the past 15 years.” And he is quite right that this hasn’t worked for the last fifteen years. But the reason it hasn’t worked is because they won’t work together with us for change — or at least, not for the change that we want. Of course they won’t! It wouldn’t be in their interests. England and Russia won’t work together on 11 June, either. They will work against each other.

And we in the research community really need to face up to the fact that this is exactly what legacy publishers have been doing for those last fifteen years, and what they will continue doing. At every stage in every discussion and every negotiation, they will do what is best for them. And that will rarely be aligned with what is best for us, and will often be directly opposed to it.

So, for example, Glenn suggests that “a different approach might be to ask whether it would be possible to get more transparency in the system”. But we won’t get any more transparency than the legacy publishers absolutely have to give us, for the simple reason that it’s not in their interests to be transparent. That’s why they impose confidentiality clauses on libraries, as Elsevier’s David Tempest helpfully explains. And that in turn is why Tim Gowers had to use Freedom Of Information legislation to prise even the most basic subscription cost information out of UK universities. The idea that the legacy publishers will start voluntarily sharing information that they have hidden by imposing contract clauses is optimism of the most unrealistic kind.


We don’t have to be jerks about this. We don’t need to demonise legacy publishers. We just need to recognise and accept the simple facts of the situation, and make our plans accordingly.

What makes this difficult for a lot of people is that the legacy publishers have a long-running tradition of depicting themselves as researchers’ partners rather than our opponents. The idea probably dates back decades, to when publishers really were partners in the research process — when they provided the best and only way for results to be disseminated. But those days are long gone, and the left-over rhetoric hasn’t reflected reality for a good long time.

And yet researchers, peer-reviewers, editors, libraries, university administrators, funders — they all want to think of publishers as their friends. It’s understandable. We have to do business with them (at least for now) and it’s always nicer to think that we’re doing business with friends. But it’s a sad state of affairs if we believe a thing just because it would be nice if it were true.

So: a crucial part of waking up and smelling the shiny digital future is going to be the uncomfortable but unavoidable recognition of the true nature of the relationship between the research community and legacy publishers. They do not amplify the scholarly signal, they attenuate it. They’re not symbiotic with research, they are parasitic. They’re not our colleagues, they’re our opponents. Pretending otherwise is a comforting but ultimately harmful illusion.



4 Responses to “Legacy publishers are not our friends. Can’t we just admit it?”

  1. Gunnar Says:

    Beautiful post Mike! Hit the nail right on the head (as SV-POW! seems to do any time you guys post on publishing issues).

  2. Mark C. Wilson Says:

    Excellently put. I am willing to admit that *maybe* some scholarly societies who publish journals have interests that are acceptably closely aligned with those of researchers and the public. But to expect for-profit commercial publishers to do this is wilfully ignoring reality.

    It is another example of how slow opinions are to change and how researchers want to spend all their time doing research, to the point where they miss major social developments. 1-2 generations ago, legacy publishers did actually help scholarship. The purchase of Academic Press titles by Elsevier must surely mark the end of that era, if it even lasted that long.

  3. @Mark – and the sale of Springer to an investment company, despite the International Mathematical Union imploring Springer to turn their mathematics publishing arm into a not-for-profit foundation: http://www.dam.brown.edu/people/mumford/images/spring~1_Page_1.jpg, http://www.dam.brown.edu/people/mumford/images/spring~1_Page_2.jpg

    More details at http://www.dam.brown.edu/people/mumford/blog/2015/WakeUp.html

  4. Nima Says:

    Not only are they not our friends, they themselves have NO friends… unless you count hedge funds, arms dealers (in Elsevier’s case anyway) and the people they bribe/cajole with occasional preprint “privileges”. But people and entities only held together by mutual self-interest and “reasoning by expansion” are no more friends than two rival gangs of baboons who may start tearing each other’s faces off the moment there is the slightest conflict of interest. Promoting and advancing science and knowledge is not their goal, exempting themselves from true competition is.

    And after all, if all your “friends” are rented or coerced for the purpose, are they really true friends? Or more like serfs and valets?

    Essentially the problem could be boiled down to the twisted symbiosis between conservative and liberal mindsets (on a philosophical plane beyond the purely political). With the paywalled publishers being the conservatives, and the “conciliatory negotiators” like Glenn here being the liberals. In practice, conservatives look at any failure of liberal policies to solve a problem as evidence that there was no problem severe enough to require a solution in the first place (never bothering to reconsider their blanket denial of any legitimate discontent with the status quo), whereas liberals blame the failures of their own policies on conservatives not playing along (but never reconsidering their naive presumption that conservatives would even be willing to play along). So the futile compromises and “collaborative gridlock” drag on…. and on….

    Essentially what is required here is a radical alternative that goes beyond the paywall publishers from whom change is just lip service, and the soft-spoken negotiators who remarkably manage to fall for the lip service perpetually and score the opposing team’s goals FOR them every single time. i.e. something that completely operates outside the very model they are wasting time negotiating over. Sort of like an automated PeerJ without a membership fee, with undergrad students doing the peer review for class credits instead of pointless busywork. Start with a few small obscure colleges and then the big ones will take notice and turn up the heat on their “tenured contractors”.

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