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:
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.
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.
- 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.
It was a response to this comment from David Crotty (who as well as being a commenter is also the editor of the Scholarly Kitchen.) We were once more discussing David’s lamentable tendency to beg the question of Sci-Hub’s morality by abusing the term “theft” to mean copyright violation. My comment was as follows:
> Sorry no–a term everyone, at least the court system, agrees upon, is “theft”.
This is simply not true. It’s a crusade that you, for reasons which remain opaque to me, have taken on. Outside of a few lawyers (who, as we all know, routinely use language in completely different ways from civilians), the use of “theft” is widely recognised as an inflammatory misrepresentation.
It’s bad enough that the wildly inappropriate term “piracy” has been so widely adopted. Obfuscating the issue yet further helps literally no-one. Once more: why are you doing this? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s because you don’t believe you can win an actual argument about copyright infringement, and have to poison the rhetorical well instead.
> If I told you not to use the terms “paywall” or “toll access” because I don’t like them, would you?
What term to do you prefer over “paywall”?
In any case, “paywall” is a purely descriptive term, not an attempt to pre-decide an argument by applying an inapplicable analogy. If instead I referred to paywalls as “fraudwalls” or “embezzlewalls”, then you would certainly have a point in asking me to change my language.
> I think the easiest way to avoid this distracting nonsense is to simply moderate our comments a bit more strictly, and delete any “it’s not theft” response. Those who wish to debate semantics can do so elswhere.
Ah yes — the final solution for those who realise they can’t win an argument.
I suppose this would be as good a conclusion to this thread as any: following up the repeated and deliberate abuse of language with actual censorship has a pleasing narrative consistency; and would of course demonstrate how wrong you are far more effectively than any words you might say.
… or of course you could stop deliberately creating a pointless side-conflict.
I really don’t expect this from you, David.
I honestly can’t see what was so objectionable about this that David decided to censor it; but as I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s his blog, and his prerogative to moderate it how he sees fit. But I really don’t want to see the Scholarly Kitchen being presented as a meeting of minds, or some kind of melting pot, when it’s increasingly clear that it’s actually an advocacy site for legacy publishing — and, more to the point, for legacy publishers.
Again: there’s nothing wrong with advocacy sites. SV-POW! is one itself (among other things), and I am pretty happy about it. But no-one coming to SV-POW! is under any illusions that it’s meant to be meeting-place for all stakeholders in scholarly communication. It’s not that. It’s a place where we express one point of view: our own. (Despite this, no-one coming to SV-POW! has to worry about their comments being censored. The only comments that ever get blocked in moderation are spam and outright personal attacks.)
Of course, wiser heads than mine have realised some time ago what the Scholarly Kitchen is. People like PLOS’s Mike Eisen and the Royal Society’s Stuart Taylor stopped trying to participate some time ago; RLUK’s David Prosser says “I gave up on them quite a while ago. Occasionally read the odd article people point me to, but see no merit in engaging.” Copyright guru Charles Oppenheim writes “It could have been a good place for proper debates, but is now of no use for that”.
It’s a real shame. I think we do need a place where people on all sides of the debate can argue it out on an equal footing. But that simply isn’t possible in a venue where one of the debaters has the power to instantly gag anyone who says something he doesn’t like.
This is of course very far from my first run-in with the Scholarly Kitchen. In fact, nearly four years ago I drafted an SV-POW! post entitled “Why I am really, really, really done with The Scholarly Kitchen”, but concluded it wasn’t constructive and never posted it.
My problem is, like a dog returning to its own vomit, I keep going back in the hope of a constructive dialogue, because I am, as Philip Lord put it, “an incorrigable enthusiast”. It’s true that I retain a completely unrealistic level of optimism. But The Wretched Hive of Scholarly Villainy is slowly fixing that bug.
And now here I am again, like an addict saying “This time it’ll be different, this time I can give it up, for sure.” And this time, I will. Anyone finds me commenting on the Scholarly Kitchen again, do me a favour, come round here and kick my butt. Because it’s stupid of me to keep wasting my time there.
May 22, 2016
In a recent blog-post, Kevin Smith tells it like it is: legacy publishers are tightening their grip in an attempt to control scholarly communications. “The same five or six major publishers who dominate the market for scholarly journals are engaged in a race to capture the terms of and platforms for scholarly sharing”, says Smith. “This is a serious threat to academic freedom.”
People can legitimately have different ideas about precisely what it is that Elsevier intends to do with SSRN, now that it’s acquired it. But as we discuss the possible outcomes, we need to keep one principle in mind: it’s simply unrealistic to imagine that Elsevier, in controlling Mendeley and SSRN, will do anything other than what is best for Elsevier.
That’s not a criticism, or even a complaint. It’s a statement of what a for-profit corporation does. It’s in it’s nature. There’s no need for us to blame Elsevier for this, any more than we blame a fox when it eats a chicken. That’s what it does.
The appropriate response is simply to prevent any more of this kind of thing happening, by taking control of our own scholarly infrastructure.
The big problem with SSRN is the same as the big problem of Mendeley: being privately owned and for-profit, they owners were always going to be susceptible to a good enough offer. People starting private companies are looking to make money from them, and a corporation that comes along with a big offer is a difficult exit strategy to resist. When we entrusted preprints to SSRN, they were always vulnerable to being taken hostage, in a way that arXiv preprints are not.
Again: I am not blaming private companies’ owners for this. It’s in the nature of what a private company is. I recognise that and accept it. The thing is, I interpret it as damage and want to route around it.
So what is the solution?
It’s simple. We, the community, need to own our own infrastructure.
One one level, this is easy. We, the community, know how to do it. We have experience of good and bad infrastructure, we know the difference. We have excellent, clearly articulated principles for open scholarly infrastructure. We have top quality software engineers, interaction designers, UI experts and more.
What we don’t have is funding. And that is crippling.
We can’t build and maintain community-owned infrastructure; and (to a first approximation anyway) no-one is funding it. It’s truly disgraceful that even such a crucial piece of infrastructure of arXiv is constantly struggling for funding. arXiv serves about a million articles per week, and is the primary source of publications in many scientific subfields, yet every year it struggles to bring in the less then a million dollars it costs to run. It’s ridiculous the the Gates Foundation or someone hasn’t come along with a a few tens of millions dollar and set up a long-term endowment to make arXiv secure.
And when even something as proven as arXiv struggles for funding, what chance does anything else have?
The problem seems to be this: funders have a blind spot when it comes to funding infrastructure. That’s why we have no UK national repository; it’s why there is no longer an independent subject repository for social sciences; it’s why the two main preprint archives for bio-medicine (PeerJ Preprints and BioRxiv) are privately owned, and potentially vulnerable to the offer-you-can’t-refuse from Elsevier or one of the other legacy publishers in the oligopoly(*).
When you think about funders — RCUK, Wellcome, NIH, Gates, all of them — they are great at funding research; and terrible at funding the infrastructure that allows it to have actual benefit. Most funders even seem to have specific policies that they won’t fund infrastructure; those that don’t, simply lack a way to apply for infrastructure funding. It’s a horribly short-sighted approach, and we’re seeing its inevitable fruit in Elsevier’s accumulation of infrastructure.
We’ll look back at funding bodies in 10 or 20 years and say their single biggest mistake was failing to see the need to fund infrastructure.
Please, funders. Fix this. Make whatever changes you need to make, to ensure the the scholarly community owns and controls its own preprint archives, subject repositories, aggregators, text-mining tools, citation graphs, metrics tools and what have you. We’ve already seen what happens when we cede control of the scholarly record to corporations: spiralling prices, poor quality product, arbitrary barriers, and the retardation of all progress. Let’s not make the same mistake again with infrastructure.
(*) Actually, I don’t believe PeerJ’s owners would sell their preprint server to Elsevier for any amount of money — and the same may be true of the BioRxiv for all I know, I’ve never spoken with the owners. But who can tell what might happen?
I did my research. Yes, I think academic publishers are greedy. (With notes on publishers’ rhetoric and creationism)
May 21, 2016
Another day, another puff-piece from academic publishers about how awesome they are. This time, the Publisher’s Association somehow suckered the Guardian into giving them a credible-looking platform for their party political broadcast, Think academic publishers are greedy? Do your research. I have to give the PA credit for coming up with about the most patronising title possible.
Yes, I did my research. Guess what? Academic publishers are greedy.
(The article doesn’t say it’s by the Publishers Association, by the way. It’s credited to Stephen Lotinga, who LinkedIn tells us is Chief Executive of The Publishers Assocation, but the article doesn’t declare that.)
Oh boy do I get tired of constantly rebutting the same old bs. from publishers. And it really is the same bs. They’re not even taking the trouble to invent new bs., just churning out the same nonsense each time — for example, equating their massive profits with investment in improvements.
Of course, what they actually can do with those massive profits is hire full-timers whose actual job is to churn out such propaganda. Whereas I have to rebut in my spare time — in between day-job and academic work. As though I didn’t have real work to do.
Here are responses to just some of the nonsense in the Guardian‘s piece.
The academic publishing market is worth £4.4bn to the UK economy.
No it’s not: it has revenue of £4.4bn, which is not at all the same thing. Meanwhile, it’s exerting an enormous drag on academic and commercial research, retarding medical progress, reducing access to the arts and humanities, and overall doing the equivalent of far more than £4.4bn damage to the economy.
Publishers invest heavily in scholarly communication, for example, including the technology-intensive digital platforms upon which authors, reviewers, editors and readers conduct their work.
In other words, they invest in their own assets. Whoop-de-doo. Name me any organisation that doesn’t do this. And remember, those massive 32%-42% profits are what’s left after this investment.
Publishers offer value to research institutions by providing data-driven metrics and analytics that inform their research management activities. This investment allows for rigorous peer review
What? What? This seems to be saying that publishers’ selling their own usage stats back to them somehow makes peer-review possible. But that can’t be what it’s saying, can it? Because that would not merely be wrong, it would be completely incoherent. It’s like claiming that publishers’ ability to format headings in Helvetica is what makes it possible for researchers to sequence DNA.
It also pays for the development of technology of that ensures articles are discoverable, shareable and able to be accessed in underserved regions.
One interpretation of this statement is that it’s simply a lie. I will adopt the other, more charitable interpretation: that it’s a typo for “Publishers pay for the development of technology that prevents articles from being shareable and able to be accessed”.
Oh, and that technology that makes articles discoverable? It’s called Google, and publishers had and have absolutely nothing to do with it. (Except, of course when they use the robots.txt standard to prevent search engines from indexing articles.)
Many small publishers partner with larger groups in order to take advantage of their scale and reach, thereby reducing costs for members and authors. Such diversity leads to competition.
No, no. Follow carefully. Consolidation of small publishers into larger groups leads to less competition. Which of course is exactly what the big publishers want.
The fact that [the individual researcher] wants to submit … is the result of the good work of publishers to maintain the system in which that can take place.
No it isn’t, it’s the result of the monopoly that the publishers hold on the brands that researchers think (rightly or wrongly) they need on their CV.
Nobody submits to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology because it’s published by Taylor and Francis; people submit to it because it’s the journal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
And so it goes on …
The Gish Gallop
Reading and responding to all this inanity had a strangely familiar feel to it. After a while, I realised what I was seeing was the technique known as the Gish Gallop, after the prominent creationist Duane Gish. The technique involves “spewing so much bs. in such a short span on that your opponent can’t address let alone counter all of it”.
It’s a very effective tactic. It’s very easy to do, and very difficult to counter. The Publishers’ Association can stand there all day and reel off idiot claims (“publishers’ metrics enable peer review”). They take a single sentence to say, but it’s terribly easy to get suckered into writing multiple paragraphs rebutting them. They waste our time and energy in exchange for very little of their own.
In short, the Gish Gallop is a great way to conduct an argument — provided that you care only about “winning” the argument and have no regard at all for what is actually true.
In this short series on the moral dimensions of open (particularly open access), we’ve considered why this is important, the argument the zero marginal cost should result in zero price, the idea that the public has a right to read what it paid for, the very high profit margins of scholarly publishers, and the crucial observation that science advances best and fastest when we can build on each other’s work with minimal friction. I’d like to bring the series to a close by asking this question: if we want change, who is responsible for bringing it about?
Often, those most committed to open-access ideals are students and early-career researchers. But we may feel that those just starting out on their careers are the ones with most to lose (or with the least to gain) if they make pro-open stands such as only publishing their work in open-access journals, or agitating for change at their institutions.
Perhaps the responsibility lies with those who have already acquired positions in academia? There are two problems with that. One is that even an academic who has a job wants to present the best possible case for promotion — and, when it’s available, for tenure. The other is that even those who are fully secure and happy in their posts do much of their work in collaboration with Ph.D students and postdocs, and may feel that they owe it to those younger collaborators not to make their paths more difficult by insisting on open access.
Perhaps, then, the responsibility for change lies with senior academics who hold influential administrative roles, having graduated past the point of doing their own research? There are the people with the most power to bring about change, and with the least likelihood of losing out. Yet these people earned their roles by excelling under the old system of paywalled papers and journal prestige as a surrogate for evaluating quality. Is it reasonable to expect these people to turn against the very system that gave them such success?
And we can hardly expect the turkeys who work for legacy publishers to vote for Christmas.
It turns out that everyone, no matter what their career stage or what their role in the world of scholarly communication, has a legitimate reason to say “No, it shouldn’t be my responsibility”.
And that being so, there is only one possible answer to the question “Who should take responsibility?” That answer is, “I should”. Whoever I am.
From my own unique position on the fringes of academia, I take responsibility to do what little I can to bring about the changes that the world needs in how science is communicated. From his position as a postdoc, Jon Tennant does what he can. From her first academic job, Erin McKiernan does what she can. From his relatively secure academic post, Matt Wedel does what he can. From his position running a highly visible and successful lab, Mike Eisen does what he can. And in his powerful role as Rector of the University of Liège, Bernard Rentier does what he can.
It’s simply no use any one of us shrugging and saying “What can I do?” At the same time, it’s also true that, for most of us, what we can do is not very much. But the crucial truth is that by each of us doing what we can, we have done great work over the last decade in pushing towards the world we now live in: where open access is no longer seen as a fringe concern of naive idealists, but is the model used by the world’s biggest and most cited academic journal, where it’s required by 500 university policies and national policies in the USA, UK and many other countries, and where I am proud to say that my own discipline of vertebrate palaeontology now seems to happen primarily in open-access journals.
So we can give ourselves a pat on the back. Go right ahead, do it now — I’ll wait.
But there is an enormous amount still to do. Gold open access is absurdly overpriced. Green open access remains subject to delays, deliberately imposed by reprehensible embargoes. The obsession with journal rank continues. Open data policies remain rare, and are not well enforced. Barrier-based publishing continues to dominate by volume of published papers. Text and data mining initiatives are repeatedly stymied by publisher who bar access even to subscribers. Much of what is published as “open access” is under restrictive licences that pointlessly prohibit many ways of using the work. And there are myriad other related issues still to be resolved, such as the wastefulness of traditional pre-publication peer-review.
How can we fix all these problems?
The same same way we got to where we are now with open access. By each one of us doing what we can to advance sane, efficient, inexpensive, moral means of scientific communication in whatever role we find ourselves. No one of us can fix this. But every one of us can make a contribution.
This blog is nine years old. Since Matt and I are both still enjoying it, there’s no reason think it won’t still be going in another nine years. Strange as it is to imagine SV-POW! in 2025, I hope I can look forward to writing then in an environment where scholarly paywalls are seen as anachronistic and laughable, where publication is faster and more transparent, where data is routinely re-used, and where researchers are evaluated according to the quality of their work, not according to the brand-name they attach to it.
 By the way, I might note that the OA advocates I’ve known as students all seem to have gone on to good postdocs, and the OA advocates I’ve known as postdocs all seem to have gone on to find jobs in academia. I’m not sure what to make of that observation, but I’ll just leave it here.
 It’s certainly true that the most useful descriptive papers are now always in OA journals, where there are no arbitrary limits on length or number of illustrations, or colour fees.
What I want to look at this time is the efficiency of sharing: as Glyn Moody pointed out on Twitter, the more people share, the more others can build on it, then share, then build — and so on. The work each of us does becomes easier, and better, and more productive, because of the work others have already done. We become partners in the great enterprise of research.
This is hardly a novel observation, of course. Isaac Newton famously said it best, in a letter to Robert Hooke on 15 February 1676. Although he was not by nature a modest man, he made the rather brilliant observation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”.
But the great thing about this is that the quote itself stands on the shoulders of a giant — it’s a modified version of an earlier observation by John of Salisbury (1120 – October 25 1180), who wrote:
Bernard of Chartres used to say that we were like dwarfs seated on the shoulders of giants. If we see more and further than they, it is not due to our own clear eyes or tall bodies, but because we are raised on high and upborne by their gigantic bigness.
And as Johnny-boy makes clear, he was also not the originator of this profound observation — it was due to Bernard of Chartres, who died shortly after John of Salisbury was born.
What’s happened here? Newton has not merely lifted John-of-S.’s quote: he has substantially improved on it. Newton’s version is pithier and more striking: there’s good reason why it’s the version everyone quotes. He built on the earlier work of J.-of-Salisbury, and the yet earlier work of B.-of-C., to make something new and valuable.
And this of course is the whole purpose of scholarly communication. It’s why we have academic publishers: to make it possible for us to progress our fields by standing on each other’s shoulders.
Unfortunately, the publishers are mostly standing on our toes.
No-one intended this. No-one started an academic publisher for the money (at least, not until recently), but out of genuine desire to advance scholarship. In the pre-Internet era, journals were simply the state of the art for disseminating information. And since each printed copy of a journal cost money to make and distribute, a fee was quite properly charged for each copy. There was no alternative.
All that changed with the advent of the Internet in general, and the World Wide Web in particular. Now that the Web is used for so many things — commerce, media streaming, blogging, auctions, cat photos — it’s easy to forget what it was invented for. But we needn’t forget, because we have archived copies of the very first email ever sent by Tim Berners-Lee about this new “World Wide Web” thingy that he had come up with:
Yes, folks, you read it right. The whole purpose of the Web was to enable the free sharing of scholarly publications. It was a technology given to the world for the betterment of information sharing.
Viewed in this light, it’s clear that open access is nothing more than the Web working right. And the continuation of printed-on-paper journal limitations by other means (i.e. paywalls) constitutes a deliberate impediment to all the advances we could be making now that the technology has improved.
By happy coincidence, Peter Murray-Rust has blogged just today about some of those possible advances — in this case, based on content mining:
We have already shown that mining detects errors in the literature which can be put right – indeed our technology could be valuable in the reviewing and editing of material for publication. Another is the sheer scale – we could mine the whole literature for – say – breeding grounds and create systematic maps. That brings benefits. But there are also dangers – it may pinpoint endangered areas or species. But this is the inevitable challenge of the Digital Century – we have to learn how to live with and manage massive new knowledge.
(The bolding of the last part is mine, not Peter’s.)
We’re facing the possibility of such an enormous amount of new knowledge that one of the challenges we will be presenting with is how to live with it. We have the technology to stand on the shoulders of millions of giants simultaneously. What a great problem to have! And how tragic when 20th-Century technology actively prevents us from reaching this state.
This shoulders-of-giants argument regarding Open is a very positive one. I like that. Some pro-open arguments can be rather negative: “publishers make too much profit”, “the public shouldn’t be prevented from reading what it paid for” and so on. But this one is wholly positive: open access, and open scholarship in general, enables us to do much more!
I’ve leave the last word to Cameron Neylon, and a blog-post that I have often cited as a vision of our possible future: Network Enabled Research: Maximise scale and connectivity, minimise friction:
We need to get as much material online as fast as we can. We need to connect it up, to make it discoverable, to make sure that people can find and understand and use it. And we need to ensure that once found those resources can be easily transferred, shared, and used. And used in any way – at network scale the system is designed to ensure that resources get used in unexpected ways. At scale you can have serendipity by design, not by blind luck.
Let’s not accept systems and conventions that prevent this happening.
It’s widely recognised that the established scholarly publishers skim an awful lot of money off the top of research budgets. The Big Four (Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Informa) all have profit margins in the range 32–42%. For Elsevier alone, a 38.9% profit on revenue of £2126M (page 17 of their own 2013 annual report) represents £826M diverted away from research each year – a figure more than sixteen times the £50M that the Finch Report estimated as the annual cost of transition to an all-open-access ecosystem.
Elsevier representatives will point out in their defence that some open-access publishers have even higher profit-margins: for example Hindawi’s founder claimed in a 2012 interview a net profit of $3.3M on revenue of $6.3M for the first half of 2012 – a profit margin of 52.4%. Even PLOS, an avowedly non-profit organisation, runs at an operating surplus of 27% in 2013 and 16% in 2014. (Expenses of $37M against revenue of $50.8M in 2013; expenses of $40.7 million against revenue of $48.5 million according to their 2014 report).
Can this be justified? I have three thoughts.
First, the emphasis on profit margins – that is, profit as a percentage of revenue – is misleading. Hindawi’s median APC is $600 (calculated from their listing). So a 52.4% profit on a typical paper represents $314 leaving academia and going into shareholders’ pockets; whereas 38.9% of a typical Elsevier paper, with an APC of $3000, is $1167. So when the Wellcome Trust funds publication in a hybrid OA Elsevier journal, it diverts nearly four times as much cash out of academia than when its authors use Hindawi.
Second, much depends on the destination of the profits. When Elsevier or Hindawi profit from publishing, that money is lost to academia. By contrast, PLOS’s operating surplus – $240 of the $1495 APC on a PLOS ONE paper – is ploughed back into their mission “to accelerate progress in science and medicine by leading a transformation in research communication”. The same obviously applies to society publishers such as the Royal Society.
Third, when it comes to Gold OA, what really matters is not how much profit a publisher makes, but simply how much they charge to publish. To funding agencies, the price of an APC is money that can’t be spent elsewhere, whether it goes to publisher profits or merely covers publisher costs. It’s better to pay a $400 APC of which $200 is profit than a $500 APC of which $100 is profit. APC funds can be more effectively used when the price of publishing goes down, and it really doesn’t matter much whether that is achieved by publishers cutting profits or cutting costs.
And this in the end is the conclusive argument against legacy publishers such as Elsevier: irrespective of what the profit margins are, the prices are simply too expensive. There is no legitimate need for the Wellcome Trust to continue spending an average of £1837 ($2595) on APCs, mostly with legacy publishers, when newer born-digital publishers such as PeerJ and Ubiquity Press can do an objectively better job for much less money.
So I am not really convinced that profit margins are a big issue, or even that they are very morally significant at all. In the end, Gold-OA publishing is a service provided in exchange for a fee. A company that can do that very efficiently at a given price is surely no more immoral than one that does the same job less efficiently at the same price, and so has lower profits.
This post is recycled, almost word-for-word, from one that I wrote for the Royal Society in May last year. I’ve updated some of the figures, and added a brief prologue and epilogue, but that’s all. My views have not changed.