It is our constant refrain to society publishers, among many not-for-profit organizations, that despite their IRS status, they will have to learn to operate in the marketplace directly against for-profit firms whose primary mission is to benefit their shareholders. CAP is a rebuke to this perspective. While it will operate in a business-like way (the strategic analysis and business modeling that went into its creation is impressive), it is built upon a platform of community cooperation. In this it is of the same spirit as calls for the academy to “take back” publishing from commercial firms. It is thus not only a business model or a publishing service, but a social experiment. What would the world look like outside the rigors of the marketplace? Perhaps there is a revolution brewing in the PLOS offices in San Francisco and a generation from now we will look back and say, that is where it started.
I am less optimistic, but hope to be proven wrong.
The basic idea of the CAP scheme is to shift the cost burden from authors to institutions. Member universities pay an annual fee based on their faculty’s publishing over the previous five years. To prevent free riders, PLOS is graduating APCs for non-members at an aggressive rate, so that, in two years, the fees will jump about 50 percent.
PLOS, to its great credit, recognizes the injustice of an APC system that, ironically, the nonprofit helped to inaugurate in the early 2000s. In defense of the new plan, see the sophisticated reasoning of PLOS’s Sarah Rouhi, in a recent interview with Richard Poynder.
I am, however, wary of the scheme, which at its core is a variant on the read-and-publish deal. In 2019 the term “pure publish” was coined to designate a read-and-publish style deal that, however, featured an already-OA publisher like PLOS. In fact Lisa Hinchliffe’s overview of “pure publish” was pegged to the University of California’s early 2020 agreement with PLOS along these lines.
The problem with CAP/pure publish is the problem with read-and-publish: Most of the world’s institutions won’t be able to pay the membership charges, even with the tiered, author-count pricing. These institutions—and all unfunded scholars that work at them—certainly can’t afford the escalating APCs that, in the CAP scheme, are intended to force membership. The likely outcome, in some ways, is even worse than the read-and-publish deals with traditional tolled publishers, since at least in those scenarios tolled-access “free” submission remains an option for hybrid journals. In the PLOS model, scholars around the world are likely to be excluded from authorship altogether.
The key problem with the CAP is the membership charge calculation—based authorship counts. That metric presumes, holding authorship constant, that every institution has an equal ability to pay. But this assumption is profoundly wrong. So the CAP will have a similar (if differently patterned) effect to the APC itself: Shifting barriers to access from readers to authors.
The virtue of collective funding schemes like Open Library of Humanities‘ is that contributions are based, in large part, on ability to pay. Though there are obvious logistical challenges, it is easy to imagine a contribution scheme scaled to wealth measures like per capita national GDP and budget per student. Every institution, under an ability-to-pay formula like this, would contribute to the pot according to its means. The otherwise excluded—which is to say, most of the world’s scholars—would retain the right to authorship.