#scholpub should be regulated

I recently asked “What’s the difference between Elsevier and British Gas?” I didn’t get many answers (it would be nice to have a greater response so I could highlight ideas other than mine). The question could also have replaced “British Gas” by “Virgin Trains”, “Scottish Power”, “East Anglian Water” or even “Lloyds Bank”.

The answer is that the others are all, to a greater or lesser extent bound by regulation. They have a legal duty to:

  • Ensure the quality of service
  • Limit prices

Scholarly publishing is in a bizarre and completely unhealthy marker where there is no effective market regulation of price, there is no quality control (the quality of #scholpub is awful compared to other e-products on the web and hasn’t changed in 20 years. ) We have NO IDEA what the true costs of publishing a paper are, or what they could be if the market operated.

Acta Crystallographica E publishes the highest quality papers in science. It’s a data-only journal and doesn’t completely scale to other journals. It charges 150 GBP for Gold Open Access and makes a margin. They have built their own authoring system which every crystallographer uses and the papers are full of checked, semantic data and there is high-quality peer review. It’s difficult to extrapolate but I think a figure of 500 GBP would be the MAXIMUM cost of an efficient scholarly publisher. I’d like to see the high price publishers challenge this.

Yesterday I was asked by a journalist (I won’t spoil their story) to comment on the UK Finch report. This hasn’t formally reported but there are some open readable minutes at http://www.researchinfonet.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Minutes-mtg-2012-04-272.docx and I was asked to comment on what I thought of the pricing , market, etc. I don’t have a strong view on Finch, but it says:

The Working Group first considered the tables in the annex, which were founded on modelling undertaken for the Heading for the Open Road report. It was noted that the ‘central case’ was a starting point under which APCs were set at a cost-neutral level for the HE sector in the UK of c£1,450 per article, with an assumed take-up rate of 23.3% for OA publications. All the tables therefore use that as a starting point, and vary the costs according to a series of different assumptions – some of which are obviously more realistic than others. The variability is determined by four factors: (i) the level of APCs, (ii) the level of take-up of the gold option, (iii) the difference between levels of take up in UK and rest of the world, and (iv) the proportion of APCs to be met by authors outside and within the UK for jointly-authored papers. The Group observed also that the £18.7m saving from subscription charges does not take account of ‘stickiness’ in a transitional shift from subscription to APCs – which is liable to take a significant amount of time. Such a transition implies additional costs.

I haven’t read the annexe and I cannot see how they can actually assess the costs since almost no publishers analyse and publish them. Some publishers have argued that costs can approach 20,000 USD because of high rejection rates. This is a typical example of an unregulated market. It’s like saying “we don’t have enough capacity on our buses so we are going to throw most passengers off and charge the others a huge amount to make our profits”. It’s a sign of a broken market.

A typical example of how inefficient the industry is and how unresponsive to costs is that most publishers send the manuscripts off to be retyped – this is an appalling admission of lack of reaction to the 21st century. It’s like having to send Amazon a snail mail to order something. It’s because Amazon broke the model that we have efficient, price-competitive market of goods. If the academic sector wished to reduce costs of Gold OA they should create a system with author-side cost reduction. If I was given the option of paying 1450 GBP for APC or 500 GBP if I created it in NLM DTD XML I’d go for the latter. The NLM (which publishes Pubmed) is a world authority on publishing and far more efficient than publishers. It has been highly innovative and the only brake on progress has been the relentless destructive legalisation against it and restrictive practices imposed by major toll-access publishers. That’s why we cannot get access to content-based search, not because they can’t do it.

Anyway I wrote the following for the journalist. It echoes what I have written here:

“What I am concerned about [and what I intend to blog about as soon as I have time] is the lack of regulation in this market.  In almost all transactions, whether author->publisher or publisher->reader there is no price-sensitive market. There is little market pressure on publishers to bring down costs, nor to produce better products. (Scholarly publishing is one of the very few sectors to be completely unaffected by the web – the product is an electronic copy of what was done 20 years ago). There is even less market force in the hybrid Gold model where publishers can charge what they like with no regulation – it is simply up to the funders or authors to pay what is demanded. Moreover the products offered are often not significantly different from Green – there are no rights of re-use and in some cases not even of copying.

In areas such as transport, energy, banks, public services and many others the government regulates the market. Providers have to work within negotiated margins and provide an agreed level of service. None of this pressure is put on publishers. The market often resembles personal vanity products where only the brand matters and cost of production is irrelevant.

My view is that any Green/Gold model will be a seriously suboptimal model until all the current cost (10 billion USD/yr) can be brought funder/author-side. This desperately needs regulation and strong leadership from bodies – probably governments and major funders. I don’t think Finch has addressed this at all – you cannot be convincing unless you demand a change of control and do the budgeting properly.

I believe that even at 1500 GBP per paper this represents a seriously overpriced market. I think it might be brought down by bringing in public contractors / purchasers as is done in Brazil, I believe. Nothing could be more inefficient than leaving market forces to libraries in 10,000 scattered uncoordinated universities.

So I am not getting excited about Finch unless the government (Willetts) does. AFAICS Finch says “we want a mixed Green/Gold model with the emphasis on Gold. We aren’t putting money in. We aren’t imposing regulation. We are not controlling prices related to costs.” And of costs it’s only one country.

#scholpub is now, at its worst , a vanity market such as fragrance or mineral water. The price is vastly higher than the cost. You ask what you can get, not what it costs. There is large, wasteful marketing, there is large and wasteful investment in technology and lawyers to prevent access.

So what’s the difference between Elsevier and Chanel? Not much. They are both unregulated.

Oh, and stop thinking of publishers as collaborating partners. Alicia Wise on the GOAL Open Access mailing list asks “what can publishers do to help”. She asserts publicly that I don’t trust her. Actually I trust her completely. I trust her to behave like a middle manager public relations officer in “Customer Relations” for British Gas, or Scotrail or whomever. She is there to maximize profits for the company. And part of that is preserving the current pseudo-monopolies. I trust he to continue to try to defend that. And offering help is a well-used strategy.

And she can trust me to challenge almost everything that Elsevier does, says, and more importantly doesn’t do.

Stevan Harnad is dismayed that Elsevier has introduced a catch-22 int their Green regulations. It’s convoluted (well-designed Catch-22s are) and says something like “you can deposit Green, but if your institution mandates it then you cannot”. Stevan feels this is a breach of trust and that Elsevier should change it. I say that until this is regulated by a body with teeth we shall continue to have these games played by the publishers. If I travel to somewhere via London on British trains the price is higher. The cost is not higher.

Think of Elsevier, Nature, Wiley, Springer, etc as gas, transport, telecoms, etc. They have no more reason the be loved or hated than those.

The sick part is that the trains have to pay for their fuel (and a lot else). In #scholpub we GIVE the publishing industry the content.




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14 Responses to #scholpub should be regulated

  1. Anton Viesel says:

    >>A typical example of how inefficient the industry is and how unresponsive to costs is that most publishers send the manuscripts off to be retyped – this is an appalling admission of lack of reaction to the 21st century.<<
    I'm surprised to read that publishers send manuscripts off to be retyped. I've worked in journals publishing for the last six year for two different companies and have never heard of any manuscript being retyped, if by that you mean someone literally retyping a manuscript word-for-word. Of course, publishers do typeset manuscripts (i.e. set manuscripts in the format and style of the journal, code the manuscript in accordance with a DTD to produce an XML document that is optimized for the web, in which the different elements of the article are identified as such, references are linked up, etc.).

    • pm286 says:

      Of course each publisher keeps its production confidential so this is hearsay evidence. I’ll retract if untrue. Some publishers will use LaTeX (in the more physical sciences) but many use Word and as I understand it these are retyped.

  2. Anton Viesel says:

    Hi Peter, thanks for taking the time to reply. And my apologies for having responded before doing more research on my part. I work in social sciences editorial, so my experience is limited; having spoken to colleagues in production, it turns out the picture is more complicated than I thought. An estimate is that around 10% of manuscripts are in fact “retyped”.
    Various options for manuscript workflows:
    1. Electronic manuscript -> on-screen copyediting -> digital typestting: standard workflow now, with no manual retyping involved.
    2. Electronic manuscript -> paper copyediting -> digital typesetting, with manual incorporation of copyediting corrections: becoming less common as most copyeditors now work on-scren.
    3. Paper manuscript -> paper copyediting -> digital typesetting, following wholesale retyping (usually by two typists, whose versions are then collated and “debugged”): becoming less common as most journals no longer accept paper manuscripts
    Scenario 1. has to be qualified to note that where journals accept both LaTex and Word files, some typesetters are unable to process both for the same journal, requiring one format to be retyped. Additionally, selective retyping is sometimes necessary where papers are in Word and include very complex mathematics. There may be other cases as well (this sketch of workflows/caveats is the result of a 10-minute conversation), but the overall estimate I was given was 10% of papers are retyped.
    I guess no need for retraction, but perhaps qualification would be appropriate.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks – we both have some glimpses of the reality. Maybe others have harder facts. I got the impression that it was considerably greater than 10%.
      As an example of wasted effort different journals require reformatting of references/bibliography. If publishers agreed on NLM DTD then authors could author once rather than retying for each new publisher to which the work was submitted. IMO completely unnecessary – why should authors have to do the work for which publishers get paid?

      • baoilleach says:

        Regarding the references, it could be even easier. Just a matter of pasting in the DOIs. This would solve several problems and make everyone’s life easier.

        • pm286 says:

          Of course.
          Remember that not all references have DOIs so these still have to go in.
          And it’s almost absurd we don’t have a public Open published list of scholarly pubs that we can all use with confidence.

  3. Jim Downing says:

    Hi Peter,
    If regulation were imposed and had the same effect as it has on the UK utilities or rail industry, prices would stay the same and service levels would get marginally better, but in ways that mostly suited the provider rather than the consumer.
    How would regulation work better in publishing?
    A state run publisher starts to look like a viable alternative.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Jim,
      I don’t disagree with your analysis.
      I’m not an economics expert so I don’t know the best model and in any case this is a multinational problem and what might work in UK would not in US.
      At present the only effective regulation comes from funders. This works in some cases but isn’t general.
      Maybe taxpayers should require the universities to spend less money on commercial publisher subscriptions.
      The first thing is that universities should actually care about the problem which so far they show little concerted public evidence in doing.

  4. “Maybe taxpayers should require the universities to spend less money on commercial publisher subscriptions.
    The first thing is that universities should actually care about the problem which so far they show little concerted public evidence in doing.”
    Precisely. Regulate how much universities *can* pay. You have to be careful wrt autonomy of universities, but at the end of the day, if you place a reasonable cap on how much money can be spent on subscriptions, the #scholpub market will have to respond.
    This is riddled with a lot of complications, however – I suspect most academics and other members of University staff will not look kindly upon an initiative to basically limit the money they can spent on scholarly publishing, which is very basic to their work. On the other hand, if you do do it, publishers won’t have a choice but to bring prices down, as nobody will be able to pay the current ones (legally).
    Well, it’s one alternative to think about.
    Hm, do you know of any initiatives that try to estimate the cost of publishing? (Something like http://slaveryfootprint.org/ would be best in terms of impact and transmitting a clear message.)

    • pm286 says:

      There’s a very recent post to GOAL about the PEER project which estimates the cost of peer-review at $250. That seems right and an excellent milestone – I’d settle for that. I’ll try to blog it later

  5. Richard Kidd says:

    Rekeying – hasn’t happened routinely at least since I started on journals in 1997. Esp from Word. As I remember talking about, in the context of Chem4Word. Sometimes outliers like heavily macro’d LaTeX, but ‘rekeyed manuscript’ would be somewhere close to <1% for almost all major STM publishers.
    Regulation – is there for when there's a monopoly, or an effective monopoly. Of provider rather than approach. So if you're a chemistry researcher with something to publish you can choose from several publishers depending what your priorities are:
    If you don't want to sign away copyright: RSC or NPG
    Society journal? RSC or ACS, IUCr etc
    Society jnl published by commercial co? Wiley
    High impact? Several
    Commercial publisher: Elsevier, NPG etc
    Completely OA options? BMC or Wiley or PlosOne (or IJAC/IJRC if you're v trusting)
    Hybrid OA? RSC, ACS, etc
    Altmetrics: PlosOne
    This doesn't sound like a monopoly to me?

    • Mike Taylor says:

      As an author, I may not face a monopoly of publishers who I could give my work to. But as a researcher I certainly face a monopoly of who I could get a work from.
      If I want to read the important new study “MicroRNAs support a turtle + lizard clade” (doi:10.1098/rsbl.2011.0477) then the only place to get that is the Royal Society’s Biology Letters. And since the University of Bristol apparently doesn’t have a subscription, that means my only option is “Purchase Access to this Article for 30 days” for £20.40.
      That said, I am not convinced that regulation is the answer. Fixing the market would do for me.

      • pm286 says:

        I am not sure regulation is the answer either. This post was to throw up an idea and get feedback. But strong contractual concerted action is required. At the moment the universities are ultra-feeble. The funders have the main role. Good.
        But if they don’t fix it, we can expect continued friction. And people will start “occupy”ing. And with considerable right on their side.

    • pm286 says:

      Thanks Ricahrd,
      >>Rekeying – hasn’t happened routinely at least since I started on journals in 1997. Esp from Word. As I remember talking about, in the context of Chem4Word. Sometimes outliers like heavily macro’d LaTeX, but ‘rekeyed manuscript’ would be somewhere close to >Regulation – is there for when there’s a monopoly, or an effective monopoly. Of provider rather than approach. So if you’re a chemistry researcher with something to publish you can choose from several publishers.
      The author (who does not pay for toll-access and so where there is no market regulation) can choose whatever publisher they like. I accept this. This forces the market decision on the purchaser and reader. The author has no influence on the efficiency of the process, new products, innovation, etc. The very incompatibility of different publisher submission systems is reminiscent of an unjoined up transport system.
      The author has no market influence on the price of hybrid OA – the publisher can effectively set what they like.
      The institutional purchaser can decide what they purchase. They have little effect on the price because they are fragmented and the publisher is larger.
      The reader comes off worst of all. They have no choice of what to read. they have no market influence on the 40 USD for one-day’s rental of a journal. They are similar to the passenger on an disjoint network or a single customer for a utility. The supplier holds all the cards.

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