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Problems in Open Access: we need regulation in the broken market

In the last post I highlighted success of the Open Access initative and culture over the 10 years since BOAI. This post highlights a fundamental problem of scholarly publishing and the “market”. Please criticize me – lack of criticism is one of my concerns. Unfortunately there is very little constructive discussion of OA – it’s limited to isolated blog posts like mine, and the factional GOAL list. However unless the OA movement(s) recognizes and addresses¬† serious shortcomings OA will remain marginal in many areas and of no benefit to the world outside academia and its markets.

I’ll use the term legacy publishers to represent the large established closed publishers (Nature, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, T+F, etc.). OA publishers are those with effectively total OA content from inception(BMC, PLoS, eLife…) and legacy . Scholarly societies are caught in the middle. Many are struggling and some do deals with legacy. I’ll omit them – sadly – and fear that many will be crushed in the next few years or end up being appendages. Societies must re-examime their purpose and cannot assume thay have an income stream from publishing while retaining scholarly freedom.

As I write this post it becomes clear that we must look at the overall picture of the scholarly publishing market. Open access currently is about 5-10% (gigures are extremely difficult – counts by journal make it higher, counts by article or revenue lower. The global total market is about 10-15 Billion USD. That’s about the size of the rail network in UK. It’s a lot of money and most of it comes from research grants and student fees. OTOH apparently Harvard’s library bill is less than the maintenance of its campus so it’s not at the top of Vice-Chancellor’s concerns.

So who are the players in the market?

The legacy publishers. (I differentiate between OA publishers (BMC, PLoS, eLife…) and legacy (Nature, Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, T+F, etc.). Scholarly socities are caught in the middle, many consumed by or doing deals with legacy and I’ll omit them.¬† Large legacy publishers are now modern corporations, excutives can earn over a million dollars, and many middle managers have no grounding in academia or science or have lost it many years ago. Think of legacy publishers as you think of your bank, your energy supplier, the train operators – the corporate culture. Do you trust Elsevier more than you trust Barclays Bank? Do you trust the American Chemical Society more than you trust Amazon? For me it’s fairly even.

Legacy publishers have huge amounts of money to spend on lobbying – much of this is done in secret. Their argument to governments is “look what a lot of revenue we generate for you”. This is powerful – we still sell tobacco, though the helath costs exceed the revenue and few politicians can solve this problems except of decades. I suspect scholarly publishing has features in common.

The authors. Authors have little say in the market. Scholarly publishing has increasingly become a means of chasing glory defined by large brands and the academic system forces them to chase this – to conform. I have the luxury of not having to conform but I don’t expect aspiring young scientists to break ranks – I applaud them when they do and I will promise to man their barricades. But by and large they conform. And they are the producers of the goods, which they give freely and which are misappropriated downstream. In principle they have the power to change the system by mass action, and this has been tried (Tim Gower’s boycott of Elsevier briefly caused a dip in share price). I think this was the original idea of Stevan Harnad’s Subversive Proposal – authors should self-archive their manuscripts voluntary and expose them on the web. If this had been done 10 years ago it would have succeeded and the authors /academia would control the market. The #scholarlypoor would be able to read the output of scholarship in the rich North. But it hasn’t happened and it isn’t going to happen and no amount of exhortation to Green-archive will have now have any effect. Increasingly, therefore, authors do what they are told – by tenure committees, funders and by legacy publishers.

The universities. There are probably about 2000 research-publishing universities globally – it’s a long tail. They control the purchasing – the 15 Billion USD. In principle purchasers have enormous power in a market and in principle Universities could change the market dramatically. If 2000 Universities said “from next year we will [publish all our output as Green] [refuse to accept embargoes of > 6 months] [set a maximum APC of 1000 USD] etc ” the publishers would have a hard struggle not to accept. It might take a court case – and it’s symptomatic of OA that they have never tested the legal boundaries of what their actual rights are. (Is a copyright transfer actually legal – I suspect no in many domains and republishing papers open might infringe author rights but not publishers). But Universities have been universally supine. There have been a few mandates, generally of the form “you must [self-archive]- unless you don’t want to/ publisher won’t let you” and these have been worse that useless – they have demonstrated that universities have no teeth or are afraid to use them. The major reason is that universities, who are both consumers and producers are required to compete against each other and are a Holy Roman Empire of feudalism. Any other market would have seen rationalisation, but Universities (for good reasons) have been chartered to be individually independent and self-sufficient.

The readers. They have no purchasing power and are almost treated with contempt by legacy publishers and universities. Most #scholarlypoor don’t read the fruits of scholarship – teenagers like Jack Andraka are forced to beg their parents to funds to read medical papers.

Funders. Funders recognise the value of exposing their funded work and are requiring authors to make it open access – in some way. They have real power and are trying to use it. But they are constrained by having to change a 15 Billion market with very active opposition from legacy publishers. If attempts are too bold the government-based funders get shouted down on Capitol Hill or the House of Lords
Governments. Funders also face non-compliance from researchers – I think Wellcome’s mandate (which is absolute and sufficiently funded) is only 55-60% obeyed (and we must help to change this through monitoring). Funders are also very coherently aligned – the practice may differ (mainly due to national fighting from legacy publishers) but the overal goals are united.

OA advocates. A lot of effort has been put into OA by many organisations and individuals. And I applaud them for their energy and dedication. But they are not united, with little clear strategy and poor long-term goals. (Will #oaweek change the world?)¬† This has to change if they are to be taken seriously and I’ll address this in the next post.

My primary observation on the Scholarly publishing market is it’s unregulated. Banks, trains, energy all have some form of regulation in UK. There are formal constraints on what train operators can charge (though in UK they aren’t very effective). But in scholarly publishing publishers can do anything. They can charge what they like for Hybrid Gold APCs (an appalling system) and may do – 5000 USD. They can licence papers as they like. Nature have a differential charge for CC-NC vs CC-BY. They can appropriate content for their own reuse (Springer collects all the diagrams in its papers and resells them at 50 USD each). Several OA publications have ended up behind paywalls.

It’s appalling that no-one except a few activists challenge the current unregulated market practices. Universities are happy to hand over 15 Billion without anyone checking what they are getting. This has to change.

4 Responses to “Problems in Open Access: we need regulation in the broken market”

  1. Peter:
    It is quite understandable, even rational, to be pessimistic. It has indeed taken too much time for too little to show for it.

    However, there are reasons to be more hopeful than you are. Each OA initiative picks away at one aspect of legacy publishing. The fact that these initiatives are uncoordinated and even contradictory does not matter. Each is like a worm eating the elephant’s corpse. Eventually, the worms win. It would help to have a lion to make the initial kill though. (Sorry for the analogy; I really do love elephants; just not the republican kind).

    –Eric.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Eric,
      I understand – and occasionally I think we are winning. But the worms fight each other – I am not persona grata in some areas of OA. And the publishers have masses of money and have sent Aaron to jail and killed him. So that frightens worms and the few that venture out will get stomped on. The question is whether the elephant dies before the vampire takes over.

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