‘Why is access to the scholarly journal literature so expensive?’

Bo-Christer Björk, in his sharp if studiously neutral account of high journal costs, based on Michael Porter’s five forces framework, concludes on an upbeat:

A promising new strategy is the signing of transformative license deals between national library consortia and individual publishers. […]. If such deals become commonplace, this approach would enable publishers to gradually transform their journals to full OA at around the same income level as before. For libraries, it would secure a more predictable transition period. Also, the need to invest time and money in the green alternative of institutional repositories would decrease. And lastly, authors could continue publishing in exactly the same journals as before.

The critical flaw in Björk’s reasoning comes in the last sentence. Most of the world’s scholars could not, in fact, publish in exactly the same journals as before. Only from the perspective of Björk’s Finland and other rich nations does read-and-publish look like “open” access. It’s closed-authorship for the rest of us.

‘Open monograph insights from a library and ‘old’ university press partnership’

A pair of revealing anecdotes from this Insights piece on a two-book OA collaboration between the University of Liverpool’s press and library. One of the authors (protected from shame as “Author B”) turned in a final manuscript 50,000 words over the contracted limit:

When questioned, Author B stated that they had assumed that, because the book was being published electronically, the word count would not matter. Despite having published open access material previously, Author B was not aware that electronic publications incurred the usual publishing costs, and specifically those relating to copyediting and typesetting.

The second anecdote: The Liverpool partners were alarmed to see that (unnamed) third-partly sellers of the books’ print editions often stripped out the OA notice:

Interestingly, even book suppliers to academic libraries are failing to include this important piece of metadata. Of the suppliers looked at as part of the project, only one included the information regarding the open status of the book.

A final tidbit: The piece reveals that Liverpool University Press estimates book production costs of £8,500, inclusive of an “operational cost” of £6,000.

The Sociological Review’s New Platform

I missed this when it launched back in June:

The Sociological Review, the home for critical sociological thinking and research in the UK and internationally for the past 113 years, has today (8 June 2021) launched an ambitious open-access publishing platform aimed at a broad and diverse global readership.

The new platform includes a new, open access Magazine—the latest is on Film and Television.. As a longstanding journal, The Sociological Review remains locked behind a paywall. But the journal is, without saying so, plainly laying the foundation for a transition to OA.

Small is Beautiful

COPIM’s Samuel Moore, in a new blog post that makes a substantive (as opposed to market-power) case for small-scale publishing:

Consider […] that publishing is a situated activity. It benefits from editorial care, community involvement and scholarly experimentation. Revenue-maximising economies of scale, upon which ‘bigger’ publishing are based, homogenise these elements, water down careful human expertise and standardise publishing through cookie-cutter production processes. This has led to the development of platformised publishing infrastructures that seek to remove human expertise where possible and automate all that goes into publishing an article. In contrast to this, small, community-led publishing is something to be valued primarily because it is embedded within the communities that produce scholarship, not abstracted from them. […] Bigness is not bad simply for market reasons, it also works against good — which is to say situated — publishing.

Also recommended: The “Scaling Small” journal article Moore recently published with fellow COPIM-inister Janneke Adema.

‘Author Fees – American Journal of Health Behavior’

This is a novelty: APCs for paywalled articles, here in the case of the now-notorious American Journal of Health Behavior:

There are NO submission fees; however, should your manuscript be accepted for publication, there will be a one-time fee of $895 per article. This fee includes orchestrating the vetting, editing and archiving of manuscripts. Fee also includes EOA (early online access) and typesetting of tables, figures, and/or appendices. The fee is non-negotiable. If you are not willing to address the fee, please do not submit a manuscript for it will not be published without it.

The journal sold its entire May/June issue to vaper Juul for $51,000.

‘OA.Works receives $1.9 million to bolster OA policies’

Genuinely exciting news:

We’re thrilled to announce that OA Works (formerly Open Access Button) has received a grant of $1.9M USD over the next three years from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The investment expands OA.Work’s efforts to streamline self-archiving through ShareYourPaper, and forges a new partnership with the foundation to develop tools that help put OA policies into practice.

OA.Works (née Open Access Button) is doing the best on-the-ground work in open access right now.

‘MIT and Harvard Have Sold Higher Education’s Future’

My reaction to the sell-off of edX, published today in The Chronicle:

Harvard and MIT have, in effect, auctioned off the lecture halls of the future. It’s a short-sighted move reminiscent of another infrastructure transfer, in scholarly publishing. As early as the 1950s, academic societies began to mimic the new sales-based commercial model of for-profit publishers. By the turn of the millennium, most societies had handed over their journals to be published by the big commercial players, in exchange for a share of profit. Now most scholarship is published by an oligopolist quintet of information conglomerates that, in turn, charge their college customers usurious fees.

That industry is among the most profitable in the world, in part because academics write and review for free. As the historian Aileen Fyfe has shown, there was nothing inevitable about the joint custody — nonprofit colleges and for-profit publishers — we’ve ended up with. We owe our current predicament, in part, to the decisions of learned societies who chose short-term cash over their scholar-members’ long-term interests. Harvard and MIT have just made the same disastrous miscalculation.

‘Universities Are Slashing Faculties and Blaming Covid’

Arvind Dilawar, writing for The Nation:

Both the University of Vermont’s president and the dean of its College of Arts and Sciences explicitly cited the pandemic when discussing the need for cuts in 2020, but school administrators now deny that the proposed termination of majors, minors, and master’s programs were in any way connected to Covid.

There were no pandemic-related staff or faculty cuts,” says Enrique Corredera, director of news and information at the University of Vermont. “We did announce a hiring freeze, and we redistributed work performed by temporary employees to permanent employees in order to protect their jobs. The proposed plan to phase out low-enrollment majors and minors in the College of Arts and Sciences is part of a university-wide initiative that is not connected to the pandemic, is not limited to the College of Arts and Sciences, and has not resulted in faculty reductions.”

Never let a post-pandemic non-crisis go to waste.

‘MOOCs Failed, Short Courses Won’

From the detailed March Inside Higher Ed story on Coursera’s planned IPO:

Although it is still possible to audit many Coursera courses for free, the company has evolved significantly since its early days as a provider of massive open online courses, or MOOCS. The platform’s combination of paid nondegree certificates, stackable degrees and professional credentials has forged a company with an estimated value of between $2.4 billion and $5 billion.

“Wall Street is desperately seeking high-growth, consumer-based businesses like what Coursera has become,” [Daniel] Pianko said. “Massive eyeballs with a repeatable, freemium model drives the types of lofty valuations that the Coursera IPO achieves.”

The IPO has since come and gone, with the Coursera market value hovering just above the larger number. The Inside Higher Ed piece helps explain why the many-pivoted, money-losing firm has won investor faith:

Coursera reported that its average acquisition cost per student for online degree programs was under $2,000 for the two years ending in December. That figure is impressively low, said [Sean] Gallagher, [a Northwestern higher ed prof].

“Based on the financial details in the [IPO] filing, it looks like there are some real efficiencies in their ability to acquire customers,” he said.

Expect more desparate Wall Street seeking to come.

‘The Other Side of Data Analytics: Risks to Privacy, Equity, and Control’

SPARC North America’s Claudio Aspesi, in an April piece in the Commonplace:

The core activities of senior academic administrators are threatened by algorithms that could effectively dictate how to increase research productivity, climb rankings, or raise graduation rates. If they aspire to shape the agenda of their institutions, rather than just manage them, academic leaders should take (or retake) control.

It’s an interesting argument: senior administrators, don’t automate yourself out of existence.

‘To rediscover their public value universities can learn from the free culture movement’

Missed this great short piece by Dafne Calvo when it ran last May:

At present, knowledge runs the risk of being capitalised by investing in proprietary software for analysis; by imposing fees for downloading scientific articles; by making methodological and theoretical decisions depending on the most cited trends. The production, consumption, and distribution of scientific outputs inspired by free culture offers practical solutions and alternatives to these problems.

One benefit of applying free culture principles to academic life—as Calvo notes—is what it means for core software and infrastructure: This stuff should be open source rather than propriety and locked down. The Invest in Open Infrastructure project is crucial in this respect, but I think we need a software ownership map too—a charting of the octopus-like conglomeration in scholar-oriented software. (Atypon, for example, is owned by Wiley—but masks this fact.) Maps and databases of this kind for mass media ownership have been a staple of media criticism for decades—like this new one.

OASPA’s Green OA Showdown

I only just read the dueling December posts on the OASPA blog—the first an alarm-puller on the “growing emphasis” on green OA, which the signatories—a diverse lot, indeed—blamed Plan S for fanning (in part owing to its recently announced Rights Retention Strategy):

[G]reen has never been an ideal route to Open Access. It is wholly reliant upon precisely the model that the OA movement was trying to overturn – namely subscriptions. Driving green OA essentially drives subscription publishing, which we believe is not what Plan S funders are aiming to achieve. Green has been the workaround, not the desired end point.

Most of the commercial oligopolists signed—Wiley, Taylor & Francis, SAGE, and Springer-Nature—as did the two “nonprofit” university press bohemoths, Cambridge and Oxford. There were, too, a handful of British scholarly associations, including the Biochemical Society, IOP Publishing, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Hindawi, the born-OA for-profit, signed too—but has since been swallowed whole by Wiley. The biggest surprise among the signers is Stuart Taylor, the Royal Society publishing director and force behind the praiseworthy Society Publishers’ Coalition.

For all its green-shaming indignation, the post is silent on the glaring problem with most gold OA: the APC. So noted Open Book Publishers’ Lucy Barnes in a comment off the post:

It’s remarkable that this post fails to mention APCs, instead falling back on vague references to ‘transformational agreements’ or ‘various models’. Any serious critique of Green OA (and imo there are particular issues with Green OA for books) has to reckon with how authors without access to funding can afford to cover 9,500-euro APCs (to use a pertinent example, given one of the signatories to this post) or how those who don’t have membership of an institution that has signed a ‘transformative agreement’ can otherwise afford to publish OA. It is disappoining to say the least that this post has swerved that problem.

Indeed. However, the post‘s APC avoidance—to return to the odd cast of signatories—could be due to the very real differences on the APC question among the endorsers. The Royal Society’s Stuart Taylor is a vocal APC skeptic, and has trumpeted altervatives like subscribe-to-open. The big commercial players and the two university presses, by contrast, are all in with APC/read-and-publish.

The inevitable riposte followed fast, authored by the head of COAR, Kathleen Shearer. She took issue, and rightly so, at the first post’s characterization of green as a shoddy workaround; publish-review-curate (PRC) models like COAR’s Pubfair framework, after all, are meant to replace, not work around, the existing VOR publishing paradigm. Shearer jumped on the APC omission too:

OA repositories (referred to as green OA in the blog) are central for achieving equitable open access to research outputs world wide. Many researchers around the world do not have the means to pay OA publishing fees (APCs), nor do their governments or institutions have money for transformational agreements. Justice, equity, and fairness are fundamental principles that need to be respected in the transition to full Open Access.

Bold in the original. My sympathies are with Shearer and team green, at least insofar as APCs are tethered to gold. But I share the preference of most scholars for a stable, formatted VOR in my daily practice—even if versioning, in my view, should be more widely supported, and even though I find the PRC model attractive too.

This split personality is reflected in the two OA initiatives I give my time to: mediastudies.press, a diamond publisher, and MediArXiv, a green, subject-specific repository.

So I watch the color wars with great and ambiguous interest. APC-free gold, which is to say diamond, is a desirable destination—to be joined, with luck and labor, to a thriving PRC movement down the road.

Stuart Taylor and Kathleen Shearer, in short, are both right. Between green and gold, who are the reds?

COPIM report on Knowledge Unlatched

Speaking of the recent COPIM report on collective funding, here’s an excerpt on stealth for-profit Knowledge Unlatched:

In 2016, key parts of Knowledge Unlatched were bought by Sven Fund, and the organisation was turned into a for-profit company registered in Germany (Knöchelmann, 2018; Poynder, 2018; ScholarLed, 2019). This generated some controversy in the OA community (see, for instance, Joy’s [2018a] comments), in part as there seemed to be a lack of transparency around the process. Controversies have also arisen over some of Knowledge Unlatched’s other projects—the KU Open Funding Open Research Library — namely some have argued that these represent attempts to monopolise and commercialise the infrastructures of open knowledge dissemination (Barnes & Gatti, 2019; Ernst, 2019; Gatti, 2018; ScholarLed, 2019). […]

In our workshops, surveys and interviews, KU received both positive and negative reviews. On the positive side, KU is perceived as an ambitious central hub providing a large amount of varied content from reputable presses. […] On the negative side, some participants echoed the aforementioned critiques about what was seen as efforts by KU to ‘monetise OA movement’.

Translated from report-ese, this is a damning indictment. Even so, I am continually surprised by the company’s defenders in the OA community, in the face of past and present shadiness.

‘Requiem for impact factors and high publication charges’

Chris Triggle and co-authors, in the closing paragraph of their excellent article on research metrics:

Considering the wider publishing landscape, Brembs (2019) has argued for replacing the legacy journals completely, with peer-review and publishing infrastructure governed by scholars themselves. While some will argue that such a scenario is still a long way off, however, as a first step it should be possible to build on the success of pre-print servers and provide a new model where more OA journals emerge that operate under the same principles of preprint servers with an open review process conducted on-line and at minimal cost. Via this route there would be no reason to publish in traditional journals. […] Such an initiative certainly has its attractions; however, many questions remain such as how a new publishing model would be managed and by whom, and how it would be sustained. Also, how rapidly and how universally would such changes be accepted and granting agencies, universities and industry adjust their practices and their methods of assessment? As noted by Niles et al. (2020) resistance from some authors can also be expected. Nevertheless, it is definitely time for a change and, hopefully in 2021, 57 years after the release of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin’”, there will be changes that facilitate a fully OA and online affordable publication platform as suggested above.

It’s an endorsement, of the it-will-be-hard-but-what’s-the-alternative variety, of a publish, review, and curate (PRC) model. Read the full article: it includes a lucid overview of the JIF’s flaws and the limitations of various article or researcher-specific alterantives like the h-index. There’s some good APC-bashing too. From their introduction:

The value of OA is unquestionable and we have previously argued very strongly for the removal of paywalls. Unfortunately, however, OA can come with a high price tag that is usually paid from the public purse (Triggle and Triggle 2017). These paywalls discriminate against those researchers and institutions that lack the financial resources to cover the cost of OA […] “Publish or perish” has become “Pay to Publish or Perish”, but does it have to be this way?

‘Clarivate, ProQuest, and our Resistance to Commercializing Knowledge’

An important commentary from the Knowledge Futures Group leads responsible for PubPub and the Underlay, reacting to Clarivate’s ProQuest acquisition:

These days, Elsevier and other major publishing companies operate more like Clarivate, an analytics company that not only mines data from their own products and services, like Web of Science, but also privatizes open data sets to their advantage. Soon enough, most research will be “open,” but it won’t be without cost. If the academy becomes evermore intertwined with the business of selling analytics for profit, our decisions as researchers, archivists, and publishers will become even less aligned with the needs of knowledge production and more aligned with the needs of appeasing commercial algorithms that have different definitions of “success.” The impacts of the corporatization of information and the prioritization of data over people have already been felt by the news, retail, and entertainment industries. Moves driven by data analytics are good for business but potentially devastating for the health of ecosystems and the people who comprise them. And academic publishing is next (indeed, if it hasn’t already been happening for years).

It’s an astute read on the datafied surveillance capitalism coming for scholarly communication. The authors endorse the Publish, Review, Curate (PRC) model that’s gaining some promising traction, admitting the cultural and tenure-review challenges:

Little will change unless researchers believe that they can secure a future for themselves by participating in PRC publishing models. For that change to happen, tenure and promotion committees must be willing to value PRC-produced research as highly as papers published in traditionally elite journals. But few people submit PRC-produced research to those committees, so why would they consider valuing it? Simply put, the dam won’t break until researchers demand that their institutions value PRC-produced research.

‘Open access ‘excludes’ developing world scientists’

From a sobering new post on SciDev.Net:

[F]or many researchers in the developing world, who do not have a grant or an institution to cover the fees, the open access system can lock them out of top tier academic journals.
Bonaventure Tetanye Ekoe, honorary dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University of Yaoundé I in Cameroon, says the open access model means African researchers are penalised twice.

“The first time they are penalised because there is no money to fund their research. A second time because even when they manage to do their research, they are asked to pay to publish a paper. “So that means that, since they don’t publish, they will perish,” he tells SciDev.Net.

The cost of submitting a paper can be many times a researcher’s salary. For example, the monthly salary of a PhD assistant researcher in Cameroon is estimated at just over US$350.

It’s telling that the piece equates OA with APC/read-and-publish OA, given the recent read-and-publish momentum. The ramshackle waiver system also comes in for some deserved bashing.

It’s a reminder that the APC/read-and-publish future we’re hurtling towards is likely to worsen global inequalities in scholarly communication.

The Read-and-Publish Funding Lockdown

From the superb, just-released COPIM report on collective funding models, which interviewed academic librarians:

According to some of our respondents, the funds potentially available to support library membership programmes were also being squeezed by the rise of transformative [i.e., read-and-publish] agreements. These are agreements between libraries and publishers to turn subscription expenditures into funds to support open access publishing. As one of our respondents noted […] in some cases major commercial publishers are using transformative agreements as a way of increasing the total amount charged to libraries, by adding open access publishing costs on top of normal subscription costs. The effect, our respondent suggested, was to drain the pool of money available for supporting forms of open access outside of these agreements, including library membership programmes.

This read-and-publish funding lockdown is happening right now—in dozens of mid-negotiation deals slated (it’s safe to assume) to be announced over the next six months. We’re running out of time.

‘Scaffolding a Shift to a Values-driven Open Books Ecosystem’

Emily Farrell, in a Scholarly Kitchen post:

Monographs, by their nature as specialized texts, often see low usage. Scholarly publishers are aware that in order to support a diverse program of scholarship, it can be necessary to subsidize, in part, long-form works that have a narrow audience. Other, more equitable models are emerging to support open book publishing. There are fully open access presses, like University College London Press and Athabasca Press, that are thriving using an institutionally supported model to support mission-driven monographs publishing. There are increasing numbers of scholar-led and university owned publishers, many of which are open access. There are new cooperative models for books that, like [MIT’s] D2O, forge a more cooperative pathway for monographs. Opening the Future, currently in implementation with Central European University Press, is another example of an approach that builds a community around scholarly books publishing. All of these models are looking towards more collaborative, equitable, and accessible ways to open books for authors and readers while maintaining financial sustainability.

It’s a good piece, but weirdly silent on the 800-pound rival to the surveyed models: the book processing charge (BPC). It’s hard to argue for an alternative to the author-excluding BPC without confronting its existing foothold.

Richard Poynder’s New Ebook

The indisensable OA observer Richard Poynder dropped another hefty ebook (163 pages!), Information Wants To Be Free, in December. From Poynder’s post introducing the book:

While what I say might be slightly overweight in European developments, it may not matter if (as I believe is possible) events in Europe end up determining how open access develops globally. 

I say this because it seems possible that European OA initiatives will reconfigure the international scholarly communication system, and in ways that OA advocates will not be comfortable with. 

I’ve just begun reading the tome, but Poynder’s top-level point—that European initiatives (chiefly Plan S) may be ushering in a closed-authorship OA regime—is undeniable.