(Part 2 of a 2 part article. Click to view Part 1.)
In the first part of this series we looked at the recent “rebellion” of the editorial board of the journal Lingua to work with a new publisher more inclined to their desire to create a more open version of the Linguistics journal. This isn’t the first or the last such action by academics to take more control over scholarly publishing; however, many see a major change brewing for academic journals.
University of North Texas Libraries’ Director for Academic Publishing Transformation Kevin Hawkins is the Immediate Past President of the Library Publishing Coalition (LPC) Board. He understands the profit motives needed in the commercial sector. “I think the major publishers see OA using article publishing charges (APCs) as an additional source of revenue, not a significant threat. Elsevier already offers hybrid OA with high APCs for Lingua and other journals, but when the editors of Lingua demanded a different model (gold OA for all articles, with low APCs), Elsevier refused, presumably because it would have led to a net loss of revenue.”
“Library publishing operations, like society publishers, are mission-driven and don’t need to turn a profit,” Hawkins explains. “In fact, Ted Bergstrom and others found that commercial publishers’ journal prices per citation are up to 10 times higher than that of nonprofit publishers. While these nonprofit publishers generally can’t yet offer a level of service comparable to a major commercial publisher, as open-source software like OJS and shared hosted solutions improve, and best practices are shared more efficiently through the LPC and similar collaborations, the gap will narrow.”
Looking Toward the Future
Will we ever see the end of commercial academic publishing? “It’s possible, just as it’s possible for the federal government to stop using military contractors to manufacture equipment or for a local government to stop using contractors to build and repair roads,” Hawkins notes. “One contractor’s road is interchangeable with another’s assuming they meet the required specifications. No two airplane models will be fully equivalent, but you can imagine choosing one over another. However, there is no substitute for a specific scholarly journal or book, and the readers of these publications (researchers) are rarely the purchasers (academic libraries). These things lead to distorted market conditions, just as we have with patented medication, so we shouldn’t simply leave things to the market.”
“What’s more realistic and promising,” Hawkins continues, “than fully absorbing everything into the academy is to absorb those components that are not interchangeable (the selection function) and which are of strategic importance (preservation of the content and aggregation of data of strategic importance) but to continue to outsource—even to other institutions—pieces that are more interchangeable, like editing, design, print fulfillment, and other back-office functions. Even here (at UNT), we can’t just leave it to contractors: when the market doesn’t provide satisfactory options, we need to be prepared to develop them ourselves in order to spur development. Compare with ILS vendors: considering how slowly they have been to improve their products, It’s amazing how quickly they developed next-generation catalogs once a few libraries built their own OPACs to replace the vendor-supplied ones.”
The Library Publishing Coalition Explores New Roles
“In terms of monographs, Open Access is certainly not seen as being a ‘revolution’ in scholarly publishing,” notes a university press director. “There is a hope that it will prove to be a solution for supporting scholarly communication in the face of reduced library budgets and a diminishing readership, especially in the humanities. But so far there isn’t a sustainable business model for this—although there are a number of experiments in the works. My guess is that monograph publishing will evolve into a hybrid print/open access model since academic publishers still have to generate revenue to survive. I haven’t seen any evidence that libraries, or universities as a whole, have an appetite for absorbing this type of publishing, and its costs into its operations. Much will depend on whether universities change their requirements for tenure and promotions since monographs play a critical role in that process. Whether or not they are available as Open Access is less of an issue than the peer review and imprimatur that a publisher provides.”
Members of the Library Publishing Coalition (LPC) might disagree. “The central aim of the LPC and its community of libraries,” LPC Program Director Sarah Kalikman Lippincott explains “is creating an enhanced, and more open, publishing environment that benefits all parties. Our vision for the future of scholarly communication does not preclude for-profit models or any one approach to sustainability. We resist the idea that this must be an ‘us versus them’ environment, where Elsevier and other for-profit publishers become adversaries. We do, however, advocate a stronger role for libraries and a publishing ecosystem that serves the needs of scholarly and global communities now and in the future. We are exploring a range of more moderately priced and sustainable models that provide compelling alternatives for scholars.”
“Libraries have actively pursued a role in which they become active partners in knowledge creation and dissemination and to ensure that open access publishing is done ethically, efficiently, and sustainably,” Lippincott continues. “The profit-driven OA initiatives being undertaken by many large commercial publishers tend to undermine some of the principles that OA is driving towards. These initiatives focus more on taking advantage of an alternative business model than advancing fundamental values or improving scholarly communications. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, libraries and their collaborators have also demonstrated the viability of OA publishing that is moderately priced, efficient, and sustainable while adhering to the goals and interests of the academy. Library publishing and university press-library collaborations are increasingly viable and attractive options for scholars, who see a value in making their work truly open and in contributing to transformative change in the publishing sector.”
“Others have pointed out that previous walk-outs have not resulted in significant or sustained changes,” Lippincott reflects. “However, with libraries, university presses, and other small publishers increasingly providing alternatives and exploring solutions, I think we may be poised for meaningful change. The LPC and its members are pushing towards a better knowledge environment. That environment does not necessarily need to be owned by the academy, but it must serve needs of [the] academy. Libraries are well-positioned to take on this role, as evidenced by the significant strides they’ve made in the last decade towards developing strong partnerships and strong services to improve scholarly publishing.”
“The major commercial publishers understand that they can’t keep tightening the screws on libraries forever,” Hawkins explains to ATG, “and that they may not be able to increase revenue sufficiently through APCs (article processing charges) in hybrid OA publishing to continue to grow their profit margin. Just as other parts of the content industry have moved away from revenue models based on access to content and focused instead on other services, these publishers are interested in the same.”
Hawkins sees many roles for the commercial sector in academic publishing. “The most promising service for publishers at this point is helping institutions make data-based decisions. There’s a lot of interest in research networking tools and research profiling systems that help institutions assess the productivity of their researchers. Rather than staff members gathering the data into these systems manually (by trying to keeping up with researchers’ output), commercial services are offering these systems as hosted services for institutions, with the added bonus of feeding their own data into them directly.”
“These companies can offer to let an institution compare itself against its peers using the data they’ve collected, much as the various altmetrics services do,” Hawkins continues. “It doesn’t matter that data itself can’t be copyrighted and therefore an institution could take the data out of the system: the benefit comes
from someone else going through the trouble of continuously collecting the data on your institution and others. We may think it’s hard to break free of commercial publishers today and set up alternative publications (as the Lingua editors are doing), but it will be much harder to break out of a data aggregation, especially with its network effects. This is why the proposed Publishing Analytics Data Alliance is so important.”
The vision for academic libraries in 2033, published in August 2014 by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), offers a strong position for libraries in the coming age of higher education, taking on new roles, such as publishing: “In order to promote wide-reaching and sustainable publication of research and scholarship, ARL libraries will mobilize efforts to achieve collaborative infrastructure and financial models for publishing. These efforts will ensure that the publications produced retain and enhance rigor and quality, embed a culture of rights sympathetic to the scholarly enterprise, and use financial models that are sustainable. These publishing efforts will focus on the widespread and critical dissemination of scholarship as a permanent record of research institutions.”
“That Happened Over a Month Ago, Why Cover It Now, It Isn’t ‘News’ Anymore”
This comment from a commercial publishing executive came as a surprise. In a sense, OA and journal disruption are clearly common events today; however, the results are still mixed, so perhaps history will prove this observation to be valid. However, the Lingua case may be far more than a relatively insignificant skirmish—but a sign of a much more dramatic, broad-based seismic shift in scholarly publishing, brought on by the increasingly commercial, profit-centered business models and the ready-availability of technologies that provide viable options and easier analysis of publishing trends.
Trends in decreased funding for the academy, the explosion of available research data, and the increasing corporatization within higher education are forcing the examination and re-examination of all cost-centers and traditional practices. Rather than asking whether Lingua is really newsworthy is to miss the point; the point is that members of the academy are dealing with major financial pressures, new technological opportunities, and the need for change. Denying or attempting to minimize this movement—at this time—is perhaps the real story today.
“For any group of editors to make such a drastic decision points to a serious problem in the scholarly publishing landscape,” believes Lippincott. “We are seeing the results of decades of friction around specific issues of openness and journal pricing and a broader concern with how well publishers serve the needs of their academic stakeholders. This is one very vivid example of this friction, but it is indicative of widespread concerns held by scholars, librarians, and many smaller academic publishers. The undercurrent of the Lingua editors’ decision is misalignment between academic values and corporate practices. Large commercial publishers, mission-driven publishers, and relative newcomers like libraries all have the potential and the responsibility to address this issue.”
Other Editors Consider the Move
Portland State University linguist, and department chair, John Hellerman admits that he “had no idea that this was happening with Lingua but I am thrilled about someone making the first move. I have talked about this with colleagues for years. A little investment by a university to host the journal and for editorial assistance is all it would take for other journals to move to open access.”
As editor of Oxford’s Applied Linguistics, Hellerman he believes “publishers are moving too slow toward OA. But why should they open them up if they are making money? I don’t have any idea what publishers think about this. In my own discussions with Oxford, they were not concerned in any way with academics taking over Applied Linguistics. It will take senior scholars and editors leading the way. Junior scholars are still looking at prestige when publishing. Personally, I do not care about impact factor or name of journal at this point in my career. I just want to do my work and have it disseminated.”
University of Manchester Linguistics professor Kersti Börjars is editor of the Journal of Linguistics (published by Cambridge University Press). “I think it had been on the cards for Lingua, partly because of finance available in the Netherlands, where one of the editors [lives] who has been the driving forces behind the change. The group he has formed has contacted other journal editors, including us, to ask us to join the initiative. A small number of other journals have joined the initiative, but others have used it to put pressure on the publishers to lower authors’ charges for instance.”
Börjars sees a variety of motivations for OA and the effort to bring publishing back into academe. “I think motivations vary. At one end I think there are people who feel that any tax-payer funded research should be available for free to everyone who pays tax. On this view, there is presumably a very reduced role for publishers since they would need to make some money. Others would be happy with the options offered by some publishers, but mind the ‘double dipping’, that is both authors’ fees and subscriptions and feel that authors’ fees are too high. There are also differences between true commercial publishers like Elsevier and the university presses which are charitable organisations (at least here in the UK, though they do have to deliver a contribution to the University). The publisher of Journal of Linguistics, CUP, has an ‘anti-double-dipping’ policy, whereby if enough fees for gold open access have been paid, subscriptions are lowered.”
“From a personal point of view,” Börjars explains, “I think publishers do make a valuable contribution to journal publishing, and the one we are with, CUP, is very keen to talk about these issues and to make a contribution. They will have to be prepared to change the way they do things though. Journals need to be resourced and I don’t think this can be absorbed by the academy full-scale.”
Perhaps ten or fifteen years ago one could forgive publishers for not realizing the degree to which academic funding was in crisis and that journal pricing was a major issue, but this is 2016 and ignorance is not bliss. Or is there more to this?
Academe’s Swift Response
Since the Lingua defection, what may have started as a dispute between a journal and its publisher has grown into a wide-ranging debate about the sustainability of publishing, open access , and ownership of intellectual property. Support was quick and strong.
The ARL noted within days that it supported the Lingua editors. In a formal statement, the organization said the departing editors’ new journal, Glossa, will make it easier for researchers to fund and share their work. “As organizations committed to the principle that access to information advances discovery, accelerates innovation and improves education, we share the significant concerns raised by the Lingua editors and we support sustainable open-access models,” the statement reads. “Furthermore, research is becoming increasingly international and we must develop a system that fosters global participation, regardless of geographical location or size of institution. To that end, we strongly support the Lingua editors’ decision to pursue an alternative solution, which will better serve the needs and values of higher education and the public that sustains it.”
Joining the ARL in this statement of support are the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Council on Education, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, the Confederation of Open Access Repositories, EDUCAUSE, and SPARC. While many library groups have long pushed for OA as a solution to rising subscription costs, organizations that represent college officials have not always been as vocal or involved.
The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities issued a statement soon after the Lingua defection in which they stressed that “as publishers have merged and become more powerful, universities are often paying more for publishers’ mark-ups. The federal government makes massive investments in researchers, staff, and facilities to advance knowledge; publishers do not. Universities similarly make big investments in research. University faculty generally are the authors, editors, and reviewers of the articles coming out of that research. To get their articles published, faculty usually must transfer significant copyrights to the publishers. Then the publishers sell back to the universities the very content they as a group produced, and at steadily higher subscription prices. The system is fundamentally broken.”
Elsevier’s Response and More Controversy
Brad Fenwick, Elsevier Senior Vice president for Global Strategic Alliances explained to Inside Higher Ed that the company realizes “we need to figure out how to work together to address some of our common challenges” instead of attacking one another through press releases and the media. Publishers, whether for profit or not for profit, aren’t the enemy here.” Fenwick says the issue is really the decreasing funding for libraries and academe and that this uproar is actually creating ‘misplaced aggression’ to their company. To date, Elsevier officials report to ATG that there haven’t been any cancelling of Lingua or other academic journals due to this change.
Recent criticism doesn’t stop with Lingua. Elsevier recently donated 45 free ScienceDirect accounts to “top Wikipedia editors” as they work on Wikipedia entries. After this September donation, Michael Eisen, an OA pioneer tweeted that he was “shocked to see @wikipedia working hand-in-hand with Elsevier to populate encyclopedia w/links people cannot access,” and called this “WikiGate.” The desirability for OA supporters to work with corporate entities became the key issue in the debate. Would these accounts lead to better entries, or will readers find themselves hitting paywalls as they try to do their research?
Eisen tweeted that “@Wikipedia is providing free advertising for Elsevier and getting nothing in return,” and asked Wikipedia’s co-founder, Jimmy Wales, to “reconsider accommodating Elsevier’s cynical use of @Wikipedia to advertise paywalled journals.” Eisen considers Elsevier “open access’ biggest enemy.”
In 1995, Forbes famously predicted that Elsevier, even then the largest publisher of scientific journals, would be “the internet’s first victim.” Revisiting this prediction in November 2015, the Financial Times noted that “the web had been created to bring academics together; now it offered them a way of sharing their research online for free. What need would anyone have for fusty, expensive journals? It was a powerful idea, and as digital disruption swept through the publishing industry, it gained support. Many academics expected that before long, they would be liberated from Elsevier and other, highly profitable, commercial publishers that acted as gatekeepers to scientific research. They were wrong.”
“Over the past two decades,” the article continues, “Elsevier has demonstrated the ability to grow even as the internet transforms publishers’ business models. Last year the company achieved revenues of £2bn and an operating profit margin of 34 per cent—almost four times the average profit margin of groups in the FTSE 100. That makes Elsevier the biggest and most profitable division of RELX, the London-listed Anglo-Dutch information group that has a market value of £25bn.”
Critics and friends alike may wonder why the company chose the name RELX (‘relics’) as their new moniker replacing Reed Elsevier. A defiant statement? An unfortunate marketing decision? At best, an odd choice. Name aside, “Elsevier is not a stodgy, stuck-in-the-mud publisher,” Outsell’s Deni Auclair explains, “they are out there experimenting because they have the resources to do that.”
Industry Pundits See Little Real Chance for a Revolution
In their recent book, The Fabulous Future? America and the World in 2040 (Northwestern University Press, 2015), academics Gary Morson and Morton Schapiro note that “the future just won’t stay still. We imagine we can predict it, that we can diminish or erase its uncertainty, and that we can mitigate the power of the radically unknown. Almost always, events prove us wrong. Then we forget these mistakes and go on making predictions with undiminished confidence.” Perhaps the same can be said of some of the futures being plotted for the future of academic publishing.
As we have seen, mass resignations have happened frequently in the past 30 years. “This is yet another tempest in a teapot,” former publisher and consultant Joseph Esposito said about the Lingua case. “The upshot is this is not the last one of these we’re going to see.” A recent blog post on The Scholarly Kitchen, re-posted a 2013 post from NISO’s Todd Carpenter in which he noted that, at least until now, mass resignations rarely cause long-term damage to the boycotted journal, or have led to further actions.
“While the library community continues to beat OA drum, the traditional subscription model is alive and well and continues to grow,” Content Strategies‘ consultant Dan Tonkery explains to ATG. “Article submissions are at an all time high, subscriptions continue to remain solid and publishers continue to receive 95% of their subscription revenue from paid subscription titles. Sales of both journals and ebooks remain strong. While a number of publishers have endorsed OA models, it is more of a play thing than a revenue issue.”
“From a PR standpoint it is nice to say we have some OA titles mean while the subscription titles are growing and manuscripts continue to roll in at a growing rate. The far east alone is flooding the system as China and other countries try to prove they are serious researchers and desperately need recognition. Elsevier continues to sell their content around the world and the paid subscription model is not under any real pressure. Renewal rates are above 99% and continue to grow.”
“Lingua is a low margin title that has a very small following,” Tonkery continues. “Elsevier is defending their ownership and the principal of the thing rather than protecting any revenue. For some reason academics always pick a fight with a title that has almost no revenue value. In the end it seems that most libraries continue to subscribe to the subscription title and take the OA title as well. Take a good look at the top 15 STM publishers and it is not OA that is driving any one of them, including Springer. The traditional subscription model is alive and well. Profit margins remain high, manuscripts submissions continue to grow and so do the rejection rates.”
“The OA image continues to grow in the research library and many believe that they have finally reached the tipping point and broken the back of traditional STM publishing,” Tonkery concludes. “however from my perspective, the STM publishers have not even begun to sweat.”
“Can We All Get Along?”
During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, police violence victim Rodney King asked the nation if we couldn’t find some way to co-exist. Perhaps publishers and the academy need to consider this as well. In a time of often extreme financial constraint are universities really ready to take on the roles required of publishers? Can libraries that are ill-prepared to finance the purchase of journals be able to develop the infrastructure and resources to take on high-quality journal publication themselves? Are we really ready to drop the traditional roles of libraries in information discovery and provision (in favor of publishing) just as the information age becomes a global reality? Are publishers and other key stakeholders willing to cede this profitable sector? Time will tell.
Nancy K. Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.