Omega Alpha | Open Access

Covering the evolving open scholarship movement in religion and theology.

Best excerpts from Poynder’s “The State of Open Access” interviews, Part 2

This is Part 2 of my post, Best excerpts from Poynder’s “The State of Open Access” interviews. If you missed it, here is the link back to Part 1.

Still catching up from my summer hiatus, I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss Richard Poynder’s The State of Open Access interview series over on his Open and Shut? blog. Richard Poynder, an independent journalist hailing from the UK, began posting interviews in early July 2013 with advocates and other relevant stakeholders around these basic questions: Open Access: Where are we? What still needs to be done?

The interviews have been continuing into the fall. As of this writing, Poynder has conducted and posted 16 interviews on his blog. I commend these to your reading as they provide an illuminating picture of the growing influence of open access on the world-wide scholarly communication and publishing landscape. Below I pulled an excerpt or two from each interview that I found informative/insightful, particularly for formulating thinking and action around open access within theological and religious studies. Following each excerpted interview I offer my take-away from this perspective. For manageability, I divided this post into two parts.

Peter Suber, Director of Harvard University’s Office of Scholarly Communication and open access advocate/pioneer (July 23, 2013)

Peter Suber has been called the defacto leader of the Open Access movement. He was present (along with Harnad and Friend, previously interviewed) at the meeting in Budapest, Hungary in late 2001, and he drafted the text of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI, 2002) that gave (and still gives) definition to the movement. In 2012, Suber wrote a definitive guidebook about open access entitled Open Access (The MIT Press), which earlier this year was released under a Creative Commons license as a free downloadable e-book.

While alluding to many and significant achievements, when Poynder asked (in this eighth interview) about his main disappointments, Suber mentioned the rise of predatory open access publishers, and how that “spectacle” seems to garner more press attention than honest open access. He also mentioned continuing misunderstandings about open access:

I’m disappointed that so many hoary myths and misunderstandings about OA are still repeated by people who should know better. We still hear policy-makers, journalists, and Ph.D. academics assert or assume that all or most OA is gold OA, that all or most OA journals charge publication fees, that all or most publication fees are paid by authors out of pocket, that all or most authors who publish in conventional or non-OA journals must give up the chance to make the same articles OA, that OA journals can’t attain the quality of the best TA journals, that green OA must be embargoed, that green OA can’t be libre, that permission for OA must be granted by publishers rather than retained by authors, and that the costs of OA exceed the benefits.

In responding to the question of what yet needs to be done, and by whom, Suber said:

My list of what we still have to do is a lot like my list of our accomplishments—more university policies, more funder policies, more OA repositories, more OA journals, and more stakeholder understanding.

Most of these actions can be taken by academics themselves, and by academics I mean faculty, librarians, and administrators. … [O]ne fact of life in the internet age is that the barrier of entry to the category of publishers has disappeared. Established publishers now coexist with lean and mean OA start-ups, and with libraries redefining what it means to share research with patrons.

Stakeholder education is everyone’s responsibility. Speaking accurately is everyone’s responsibility. Challenging misrepresentations, whether innocent or cynical, is everyone’s responsibility. (emphasis added)

My take-away: Simple. Freely download but also buy if you can, read if you haven’t done so already, and then share Peter Suber’s book!

Dominique Babini, Open Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences, Argentina (July 25, 2013)

In his interviews to date, Poynder has asked what open access can offer the developing world. Many of the responses have highlighted the reciprocal opportunity open access could offer, both in providing enhanced access to research literature and in giving scholars and scientists a publishing platform for sharing their research with the rest of the world. But these interviewees to date have all been from the Global North—from the US, UK, and continental Europe. Babini is an open access advocate from the Global South, in Latin America. When asked about achievements and disappointments, and whether Gold or Green, Babini offered a unique perspective:

[M]y perception is that in the “North” the biggest achievement has been to pave the way for new generations to dream about and create open science environments based on open access scholarly communications. My biggest disappointment with the development of OA in the “North” is that it has created a “gold rush” environment in which the APC business model is held to be the way forward. Yet DOAJ shows that 70% of journals do not charge APCs. And the Northern approach has been arrived at without any awareness of the possible consequences for developing regions. Yet the promise was that OA would create a world in which researchers in these regions would be able to become more active contributors to the international research endeavour and the efforts to address issues that impact global sustainability.

I do not believe scholarly communication should be subject to commercial interests. Like research itself, it should be funded by governments and it should be done on a non-profit basis. So in my view all roads that contribute to non-commercial OA are good for the developing regions, and Green and Gold are complementary and often overlap (my assumption here, by the way, is that Gold OA does not require researchers to pay APCs). …

I realise that many OA publishers [in the North] offer fee waivers for researchers in developing regions. But can the waiver system really provide a long term solution? I prefer co-operative movements. (emphasis added)

My take-away: I prefer co-operative movements, too. I also agree that scholarly communication should not be subject to commercial interests. Recall again, that this happened originally as a consequence of burgeoning research quantity (particularly following World War II), and the prohibitive costs of getting into publishing in the print era. It is refreshing to get a perspective from the Global South, especially to hear that scholars in this region do not only want to be recipients of the benefits of open access, but full contributors. As I mentioned earlier, this kind of two-way conversation is vitally important in a discipline like theological/religious studies.

Anthony Durniak, publishing lead at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) (August 3, 2013)

This interview reflected the perspective of a learned society or professional association that is trying to respond to requests for open access options while remaining apprehensive about the impact a full shift to open access would have on publishing revenues. This came across right away when Poynder asked about IEEE’s embrace of open access. Durniak mentioned experiments with open access begun in 2007 that needed to be consistent with their drafted Principles of Scholarly Publishing document where “all conceivable ways of knowledge dissemination must rely on a self-sustaining business model.” (emphasis added) When asked about Green (article self-archiving) open access, from the publisher’s perspective, Durniak echoed a common publisher fear, which has led many to impose embargo periods on authors:

If the waiting time for free article access is too short, readers will stop buying subscriptions and instead wait for the free articles to arrive. That will inevitably force many publishers—especially small scholarly associations—to stop publishing.

So, when Poynder asked, “What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?,” Durniak replied:

Sustainability. … IEEE is carefully monitoring its experiences in OA, in terms of objective measures of the impact of the published articles, as well speed of publication and quality of the review process. We will modify our programs as necessary going forward.

My take-away: I am not unsympathetic to the struggles societies and their publication wings are having in contemplating a transition to open access. Publishing is often an important revenue stream, which helps support other society programs and initiatives. The tone of caution and the repeated concern for sustainability that came across in Anthony Durniak’s responses was understandable from one point of view. But can this continue to work in the long-term as attitudes begin to shift, especially if those changing attitudes are surfacing from within the membership? (I’m thinking about societies in general, not IEEE in particular.) Has this become a case of the tail wagging the dog? Why did/do societies get into publishing in the first place? Was/is the goal to produce/protect a revenue stream or to fulfill a mission of knowledge dissemination?

Alexander Grossmann, Professor of Publishing Management, Leipzig University of Applied Sciences, and open access publisher (August 26, 2013)

Before becoming Professor of Publishing Management at the Leipzig University of Applied Sciences, Grossmann spent almost twenty years in commercial academic publishing. When Poynder asked him how traditional scholarly publishers have responded to open access, Grossmann replied:

I have the impression that there is no publishing house which is either able or willing to consider the rigorous change in their business models which would be required to actively pursue an open access publishing concept. However, the publishers are certainly aware of the PR value of Open Access and many are taking steps in this direction by founding new gold Open Access journals, offering hybrid models or acquiring OA companies. All attractive trimmings as long as the profit margins from subscription-based journals are not threatened. Active lobbying against OA takes place in parallel to these cosmetic offerings. …

The argument of low quality standards in open access journals is a standard one in the repertoire of traditional publishers. They know the value of a scientist’s reputation. However, the fact that a publication is considered as poor or excellent is not associated at all with the way in which the paper has been published. …

[W]hy should a different business model causally result in lower quality? That statement makes no sense but it has been continuously used in discussion about OA. (emphasis added)

My take-away: Alexander Grossmann repeats, though perhaps with a higher degree of cynicism than others previously interviewed, questions of publisher motives for being involved in open access. How can a publisher simultaneously found/acquire open access journals while actively lobbying to undermine or bring discredit upon the same? Is it just a PR stunt, or a way to control the agenda so as to wrest whatever profits they can from an emerging market sector?

Cameron Neylon, structural biologist and biophysicist and Advocacy Director for the non-profit open access publisher Public Library of Science (September 3, 2013)

Cameron Neylon is a strong voice in open access advocacy. Yet curiously, although his answers to Poynder’s questions were all well-reasoned, I didn’t find any particular response to latch onto from the point of view of my interests. I was, however, intrigued by Poynder’s engagement with Neylon’s thinking in the interview introduction around PLOS’s author-pays OA model.

Neylon implies that who runs a publishing operation, or how they run it, is not the key factor. What is important is the nature of the market in which that publisher trades. And what is significant about the PLOS-style author-pays OA model, he suggests, is that it makes the publishing market more price sensitive.

How come? In the traditional subscription market intermediary librarians buy journal subscriptions (usually by means of the infamous “Big Deal”) on behalf of researchers. While libraries are very concerned about costs, researchers generally are not. Yet it is the researchers who tell their libraries what journals they want them to buy. In an OA market, by contrast, researchers buy a publishing service directly from a publisher. This change is significant, says Neylon, because it creates “an explicit market in substitutable goods, and this ultimately will bring the price of those services down.”

In other words, Neylon anticipates that the author-pays Gold OA model will impose market discipline in a way that the traditional subscription model does not (due to the disconnect between purchaser and user). As such, it will lower the costs of scholarly publishing, and so solve the affordability problem. (emphasis added)

My take-away: Cameron Neylon again highlights the frequently observed disconnect between those who pay for scholarly communication products (libraries) and those who utilize them (scholars). Interestingly, his solution appears to be that by imposing APCs (article processing charges), scholars and researchers will become sensitized to the costs associated. And because scholars and researchers would be directly engaging open access publishers to deliver a service, this will spark competition among publishers and drive down the costs overall, thus solving the affordability problem.

Sven Fund, CEO of the scholarly publisher De Gruyter (September 17, 2013)

De Gruyter is a long-established German scholarly publisher which has become involved in various open access activities of both journals and books in recent years, including the acquisition of the Polish open access publisher Versita in early 2012. Despite this significant investment, Fund seemed to agree with the point of view raised by Joseph Esposito in an earlier interview that open access will remain marginal and won’t unseat the dominance of traditional publishing models:

I agree with that statement. And I would add to Joe Esposito’s argument that there have been very few technical innovations in the media industry that managed to completely eradicate the technology they initially protested against.

For me, open access is an important corrective and an alternative business model that will be around and will also become more important in the future, but subscription or purchase-based business models will not go away completely.

It is also clear that Fund believes publishers are still essential to the research community. When Poynder asked him about rising expectations among researchers, librarians, and research funders, Fund replied:

I see publishers as an integral part of the scholarly ecosystem. So far, both partners—and, in fact, many more—could not do without the other. I don’t see what should have changed here compared to 20 or 100 years ago.

Regarding rising demand: It is true that librarians, researchers and funders are more demanding than they seem to have been in the past, and it is not easy to live up to their expectations. However, they are the ones who must foot the bill in one way or the other, and if publishers want to survive, they have to make serious steps to increase their level of service orientation. If they don’t, they will disappear.

My take-away: Scholars and librarians involved in theological and religious studies will be very familiar with the name De Gruyter. For me, the one silver lining is that when these scholars and librarians hear that De Gruyter is now involved in open access, they may at last stand up an take some notice. “Hey, maybe this open access thing isn’t so crazy if De Gruyter is getting involved.” Beyond this, as the publisher moves into producing open access journals for theology and religious studies (more about this coming in a later post) I am yet to be convinced that they can price APCs to make it an attractive option for cash-strapped theologians.

Björn Brembs, neurobiologist and open access advocate (September 29, 2013)

Poynder characterizes Björn Brembs as a “second-generation open access advocate,” by which he means younger scholars and scientists who have embraced open access through their impatience with the pace of change in the scholarly communication system and their frustration with what Brembs calls the “scientific meritocracy.” His perspective came out strongly when Poynder asked him about the roles of Gold (journals) and Green (archives) open access:

Both schemes can only serve as complementary, transitional strategies towards a scholarly communication system that maximizes the utility of each tax-dollar spent on it.

Not being an economist, I’d assume that unregulated Gold OA will be a market like any other with pricing ranging from economy to luxury. In this market, what would keep publishers from raising prices like they did with subscriptions? What would keep publishers from brokering ‘big deals’? In fact, it is already happening: my institution pays all our APCs via various funds and memberships. Cameron Neylon also points to this spreading practice in his interview: “The scary thing is that libraries seem to be jumping to create big APC deals, which will have exactly the same problems as the big subscription deals.” …

[A]ll else being equal, unregulated Gold OA looks like an even worse situation than what we have now and that is saying something. Clearly, it’s unlikely that all else will remain equal, but I’m a scientist, not a prophet.

Clearly, a stable system is one where the interests of the individual scientist are aligned with that of the public who pays them. In the absence of any evidence that publishers are even remotely interested in collaborating to achieve this goal, I’m now trying to convince libraries and computing centers to step up and provide the required functionalities. To my delight, it seems like wherever I go, I’m preaching to the converted: libraries are getting ready to take over and provide the much needed infrastructure.

My take-away: The assumption that publishers will utilize APCs to shift the costs of scholarly communication from the reader/subscriber to the author/researcher has been said before. The new wrinkle that Björn Brembs surfaces is the suspicion that publishers will also create a tiered line of “economy to luxury” open access journals, much as they do now with subscription-based journals. This will segment the market and capture as much profit as possible. Those who want high-quality and the prestige that goes along with it can get it at a higher price. Those who can’t afford as much prestige can still buy-in to a lower-quality journal at a lower price point. It occurred to me, however, that if scholars and institutional administrators were to finally rise to the realization that quality resides with the article not the journal, this plan might backfire on publishers.

Sami Kassab, media research analyst (October 6, 2013)

Kassab monitors major professional publishers on behalf of investors. In the interview introduction, Poynder notes “Kassab is positive about the sector, arguing that scientific publishing offers ‘best in class defensive growth in a very resilient industry.'” Further, Kassab doesn’t see open access as a threat to the industry in either the near- or long-term, although they will be able to use Gold open access journals to monetize more articles than they have in the past. Responding to Poynder’s question about whether open access presented a threat to commercial publishers, Kassab replied:

When it comes to valuing publishers’ shares, we have to make an assumption about a so-called terminal world (i.e. how we see the world in 10 or 20 years). Our working assumption is that the growth in Green OA will ultimately force the scholarly publishing system to revert to the dominant model of the [19]50s and 60s, i.e. article processing [page] charges, or as we call it today Gold OA.

We believe this is likely to drive down the average revenue per article published for journal publishers. However, as the whole industry switches to Gold OA, we believe that large publishers’ rejection rates are likely to come down. In other words, for large publishers such as Elsevier and Springer, we expect an increase in published output to compensate for lower price points. Overall, as things stand, we do not agree that OA poses a significant threat to publishers, in particular not to their share price developments. (emphasis added)

Poynder then noted that in many ways the open access movement grew out of the affordability problem created in the “serials crisis.” Wouldn’t open access mean lower costs for purchasers of research literature? Kassab said:

We do believe that the cost of publishing research is likely to come down in an OA world. The price points in a subscription model reflect the economics of the model. On the supply side, journals are monopolistic in nature as articles only get published once. On the demand side, users are not the payers. Librarians are caught between a rock (publishers’ price demand) and a hard place (patron’s subscription request). A captive demand and a monopolistic supply most likely lead to high price points.

In a Gold OA environment, the model becomes more of an administrative service (managing the peer review, formatting and archiving the content). Such an administrative service is likely to attract more competition and hence result in lower price points. (emphasis added)

My take-away: Sami Kassab, from a different point of view (he is representing the interests of investors of commercial publishers), seems to take points from both Cameron Neylon and Björn Brembs above. Namely, price sensitivity on the scholar/researcher side will force publishers to negotiate lower prices with authors for the opportunity to publish their articles. This will create competition on the producer side, resulting in less revenue per article. However, publishers will make up the difference by reducing rejection rates and publishing more articles. This doesn’t mean that the quality of a given journal will decline (on the assumption that rejection rates is a reliable indicator of journal quality). Publishers will simply push the article down the chain to a lower-tiered journal.

Philippe TerheggenManaging Director, STM Journals, Elsevier (October 16, 2013)

As Poynder puts it in his introduction, “[I]t is undoubtedly to Terheggen’s credit that he agreed to answer a bunch of what he may at times have felt to be impertinent questions posed by a truculent blogger.” Whether it was simple condescention or a nod to public relations expediency, here is a collage of Terheggen’s answers pulled from several of Ponyder’s questions:

What’s particularly rewarding about my position is that I oversee a rather large journal system [Elsevier publishes around 2,500 journals] that has been in place for hundreds of years, one that we hope will remain the predominant choice for the global science community for some time. Yet at the same time, there’s a great deal of innovation in the marketplace that we get to participate in. It’s an incredibly vibrant time for publishers now, all of which is of benefit to the research community, and by extension, the public. …

In my opinion, we’re past the notion of OA as a threat to publishers as there are many examples of OA publishers who run a perfectly healthy business. OA actually presents new business opportunities and brings us closer to authors, which is always good. But beyond that, I believe that our business isn’t about OA or not, it’s about serving science and responding to the needs of our customers. If we do that well, we will prosper. If we do it badly, we deserve to fail. Science grows daily and it needs to communicate through new and existing channels. The companies who can support that have a bright future, and Elsevier will be one of those.

OA doesn’t change much of the costs of research dissemination. The biggest driver of costs will be the increasing amount of scientific research and the resulting publishing activity, so we think it’s important for the entire community to work together to ensure that both private and public sector funders keep pace with that rise. (emphasis added)

My take-away: As a huge commercial academic publisher, Elsevier is the “go to” love-to-hate publisher of many open access advocates. For theological and religious studies, however, Elsevier is not a big player. In fact, they sold-off their sole religious studies journal, Religion to Taylor and Francis in 2011. So I perhaps don’t feel the same threat from Elsevier as other discipline advocates might. That being said, it is instructive to listen to the tone of self-confidence that exudes from Philippe Terheggen in his answers. I absolutely do not doubt his sincerity. Here is a publisher that feels no threat; who will at his leisure profitably consolidate open access into Elsevier’s universe; and from the heights of an assured bright future will even dare to risk a measure of self-deprecation.

If/as Richard Poynder publishes new interviews in this series, I will look forward to collecting further best excerpts in a subsequent post. If you missed it, please return to Best excerpts from Poynder’s “The State of Open Access” interviews, Part 1.

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One response to “Best excerpts from Poynder’s “The State of Open Access” interviews, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Best excerpts from Poynder’s “The State of Open Access” interviews, Part 1 | Omega Alpha | Open Access

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