(part 1 of a 2 part article)
In early November 2015, the entire editorial staff of the prestigious linguistics journal, Lingua, resigned in protest over the high cost of subscribing to the journal, and the refusal of the journal’s publisher, Elsevier, to convert the title completely to Open Access (OA). The OA model allows anyone, whether an academic or not, to easily find and freely read a journal online. Currently, most academic journals are still funded by subscription fees (mainly paid by libraries). Under the OA model however, access is freely available, allowing much greater access to the ideas, research, and findings presented, with payment covered by institutions or authors.
As Inside Higher Ed reported, the editors and the entire 31-member editorial board decided to quit their positions, telling Elsevier of the “frustrations of libraries reporting that they could not afford to subscribe to the journal and in some cases couldn’t even figure out what it would cost to subscribe.” Academic library subscription prices have been a major issue in academe for many years now. The Lingua defection is the latest volley in the battle for academic publishing.
All six editors and 31 editorial board members of this distinguished linguistics journal opted to quit to protest Elsevier’s policies on pricing. Then, when their non-compete contracts expired, the editors began work to start a new linguistics OA journal called Glossa. The editors and editorial board members stress that they made sincere efforts to explain their frustrations to the company. Journal pricing as listed on Elsevier’s website for U.S. institutions with student/faculty FTE of 10,000 would pay $2,211 for shared online access, and $1,966 for print today. “Bundled” deals are also available.
Johan Rooryck, executive editor of Lingua explained to Inside Higher Ed that he was “doing this for purely idealistic reasons. I’ve had it. I think you have to move forward and it might as well be linguistics” noting that “linguistics can be a model for other disciplines” in helping change the journal publishing ecosystem.
“The editors will still continue their work for a few more months to fulfill their contractual duties and handle the submissions currently in their care,” Rooryck explained on his Facebook page. “As soon as our contracts release us, we will announce a new journal led by the same team. It will be called ‘Glossa: a journal of general linguistics’, and be published by Ubiquity Press In Fair Open Access.”
Elsevier’s reaction was cool: “We regret that the editors of Lingua have chosen to step down from the journal. The editors will continue in their role for the remainder of this year, after which editorial responsibility will pass to a new team. We will continue our work to maintain Lingua’s high standards into the future. Lingua is widely available to the academic community. It has a range of open access options and is also included in the Research for Life initiatives, enabling access for researchers worldwide. We appreciate the editors’ work on the journal over the years and wish them well.”
As the company notes, “Elsevier has been providing open access publishing options since 2005. Today, researchers can choose to publish open access in over 1,600 established peer-reviewed journals as well as over 300 open access journals and these numbers will continue to grow rapidly. All of Elsevier’s open access publications have been peer reviewed, ensuring that the broader community not only reads the latest research but that it is factual, original and of the highest quality and ethical standards.” The issue; however, isn’t quality or quantity but the cost of journals and Elsevier has been a ready target due to its size and dominance in commercial academic publishing.
OA Emboldens Academics
Many in the academic publishing industry were willing to talk with ATG about the current climate, but needed anonymity in having their comments made public. One very well-regarded university press director noted that “Elsevier and other commercial academic publishers have figured out how to make money on OA (a lot of money as I understand it) so I have every expectation that they will continue to dominate in this area for years to come, and if anyone comes up with a way to make money on OA monographs, they’ll jump into that market too.”
Free University of Berlin linguist, Stefan Müller, reacted strongly with a blog posting obtained by Inside Higher Ed in which he cautioned fellow linguists that ‘you may be flattered by the offer” to woron Lingua in the future, “but think twice: the good reputation of the journal was built by researchers like us. This reputation is now transferred to the new journal,” he wrote. “If you work for Elsevier you are basically doing harm to your community and you will not profit from the reputation of the journal since it is gone now and Elsevier as such has a rather bad reputation because of the ways in which they act commercially and in terms of copyrights …. I would not hire anybody who did something like that and I would object in any search committee I am involved in.”
Via email, Rooryck, who is also a Linguistics professor at Leiden University, told ATG that “the problem is that commercial publishers are misusing their position. Since they own the brands and since we have to publish in these journals since our reputation is linked to prestigious publications. The problem is that we build this reputation. We are working for the publishers as reviewers (for free), we run the scientific parts of journals (often for free), we provide the content (for free) and they charge us enormous amounts for distributing the stuff.”
Fortune magazine’s recent article on the change—which they called a mutiny—believes this action is important because it “says a lot about the ongoing disruption taking place in the formerly sleepy world of academic publishing.” Disruption that seems to be gaining steam from all quarters of academe today.
OA’s Growing Role
Rob Johnson of Research Consulting described the shift to OA in the U.K. in a 2015 report that found “two-thirds of the world’s journals now offer an OA option, with by far the largest proportion following the hybrid model. Meanwhile, subscription-only journals fell between 2012 and 2014, both in numbers and as a proportion of all journals, with the fall particularly marked among those in which U.K. authors publish. This drop can be attributed to growing pressure from research funders who want publishers to adapt their business models to meet new OA reporting requirements. Therefore, we are likely to see a situation where the vast majority of authors will have the option to make their articles immediately OA on publication.”
“Along with the great and undeniable benefits offered to the world of scholarship by the emergence of both OA and Creative Commons licensing, these programs and tools (like all programs and tools) also entail costs and unintended consequences, and have raised some uncomfortable issues,” notes University of Utah’s Rick Anderson. “One such issue has to do with academic freedom. More and more publishers, funding agencies, and academic institutions have begun not only requiring OA of their authors, but also adopting a definition of OA that requires CC BY licensing.” These provisions, Anderson notes, are “being forced into a publishing relationship not of their choosing—as well, in some cases, as an objection to the commercial reappropriation of their work in principle. In some disciplines, particularly in the humanities, authors worry about translations of their work appearing under their names (in accordance with CC BY’s attribution requirements) but without their vetting and approval. Sometimes authors who are anxious to see their work made as freely available to readers as possible balk at granting the world carte blanche to repurpose, alter, or resell their work without permission.”
The key role of publishers in the pre-digital world was clear; however today that role is being questioned given the financial constrictions being applied to research institutions. In a recent PLOS ONE assessment, the authors noted that “young researchers need to publish in prestigious journals to gain tenure, while older researchers need to do the same in order to keep their grants, and, in this environment, publishing in a high impact Elsevier or Springer journal is what ‘counts’. In this general context, the negative effect of various bibliometric indicators in the evaluation of individual researchers cannot be understated. The counting of papers indexed by large-scale bibliometric databases—which mainly cover journals published by commercial publishers, as we have seen in this paper—creates a strong incentive for researchers to publish in these journals, and thus reinforces the control of commercial publishers on the scientific community.” As the digital technology shift continues, it will be interesting to see how these roles, functions, and players change in this dynamic marketplace.
Lingua—Not the First, Not the Last
“While AAUP doesn’t really have a ‘dog in the race’,” Association of American University Presses Executive Director Peter Berkery explains, “we have been monitoring the Lingua situation. I think it’s risky to attempt a broad extrapolation from one incident, but it is an extreme example of what happens when the scholarly communication ecosystem falls out of balance. The university press community has long fostered publishing models that are intended to be mutually sustainable to all who participate in scholarly discourse, including academics, scholarly societies and associations, libraries, and publishers. AAUP and its member presses are committed to exploring a variety of models that sustain diversity in scholarship and ensure that the outsized success of one entity doesn’t impoverish the whole.”
“Commercial publishers have been tightening the screws on institutional subscribers for decades, since the serials crisis began,” notes University of North Texas Libraries’ Kevin Hawkins. “As the screws tighten, more and more institutions will be pushed to the brink of cancelling big deals, and more will end up doing so. I see the situation with Lingua simply as evidence of two things: that some practicing researchers are getting the message that librarians and others have been preaching for a while, and that we now have a viable alternative that includes both a technological solution and a funding solution. For Glossa, the technological solution is Ubiquity Press and the funding solution is LingOA and Open Library of Humanities.”
Rooryck explains that “the reason we made this move now is that we were able to put in place a model that allows for moving from subscription to Open Access without author-facing charges and with fairly priced APCs. During a transition period of 5 years, a fund subsidized by the Association of Dutch Universities will pay for the APCs. After that period, the Open Library of the Humanities (OLH) will take over the APCs. OLH is supported by a consortium of libraries worldwide who make a contribution that pays for the APCs, thus allowing these libraries to drop the subscriptions of those journals that have flipped from subscription to Open Access. We want fair, fee-free Open Access.”
“Publishers are moving too slowly because they want to protect their profits in excess of 35%,” Rooryck notes. “No other industry without R&D has such margins, which are in addition largely paid by the libraries and hence the taxpayer. In addition, publishers have been adopting all sorts of measures that affect the quality of selection. They put pressure on us to coopt editors from countries where they sell a lot of subscriptions. They are increasingly using a ‘cascading’ system of journals, asking their editors to send on articles that are not good enough for the top tier journals to journals lower in the food chain at the same publisher. In this way, information never leaves the publisher. More importantly, research results are presented as if it were a mere ‘branding’ issue. Top quality research is treated as if it were a Louis Vuitton bag: expensive and exclusive, while lower quality research is viewed as the cheap tote bag from Target. All in the same company. Research is not a product like any other, to be sold and branded according to status.”
Perhaps everyone wonders how this developed. Rooryck answers that “this was a slow realization. I have been an editor of the journal for 17 years, and I have seen the relationship with the publisher change from a contractless gentleman’s agreement, where I was paid royalties, to an exploitative relationship with a 25 page contract and an immutable honorarium while my workload tripled. In addition, reviewers increasingly refused to review for Lingua as they joined the Elsevier boycott. Finally, fellow researchers informed me that their libraries could no longer afford the journal. When I informed Elsevier about this, they asked me to send my colleagues some company spin story. That is where I drew the line. I felt more and more like I was working for the enemy.”
Clearly not all publishers receive this reaction from their editors; however, these positive relationships rarely get much press coverage. The reaction by their linguist colleagues was very positive, Rooryck reports. “I was overwhelmed by the positive response from both inside and outside linguistics. The Facebook page for Glossa reached 15,000 people in the first few days. Many messages on the Facebook pages of Glossa and Linguistics in Open Access reach 1,500 people. Most questions directed to me concern the APCs: people cannot quite believe they will not have to pay for the APCs under our model.”
“The ambition of the big publishing companies really has been to become scientific information companies: They would own and sell the scientific information that we give them for free, they would mine this information for patterns (e.g., who is cited by whom and how many times, what are the scientific networks and your place in them), and they would even sell this information back to the universities suggesting they base tenure and promotion decisions on it,” Rooryck continues. “Big Brother of the Scientific Brave New World. This is a situation that is undesirable for many researchers: why would we continue to give the big publishers an oligopoly on scientific information? The role that I would like to see for publishers is a much diminished one: they provide journal management services and a platform for a fair price and a fair profit, say between 6 and 10%. Period.”
Is this a reasonable, reachable goal? “Totally,” Rooryck replies. “We just need some organisation and courage. And our institutions have to back up Open Access publishing by valuing academics who publish in those journals as much as those who publish in WoS ranked journals. It has been calculated by Ralph Schimmer from the Max Planck library that publishing in OA could cost the entire academic community 30% less. Not coincidentally that figure is very close to the profit margins of the big publishers today.”
Providing a SPARC to Get the Fire Going
Lingua is nowhere near the first such defection in the face of high commercial pricing. These “declarations of independence,” have actually become rather common, especially with the easy availability of web-based tools and technologies which can make anyone a publisher. One key supporter has been SPARC, the ARL-sponsored “international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication.”
Borrowing from American revolutionaries, SPARC published a guide for universities called Declaring Independence in 2001. The guide “to creating community-controlled science journals” includes this exhortation from University of Arizona biologist Michael Rosenzweig: “In recent times, purely commercial interests have gained sway over too many of the journals that we depend on for research information. Maximizing profits has become the controlling goal. A system that should serve us is at the mercy of corporate acquisitions and profit-oriented planners. Disseminating scholarly research seems to be an afterthought.”
This assertive guidebook reflected “SPARC’s hypothesis is that high-impact, low-cost scientific journals—published by societies, university presses, or independent publishers—can provide researchers with prestigious alternatives to expensive commercial journals. SPARC partners have proven that with high-quality, reasonably priced alternatives to journals that no longer serve the community of scholars well.”
As far back as June 1989, Vegetatio‘s Editor Eddy van der Maarel and the majority of the journal’s editorial board resigned and launched the Open Access Journal of Vegetation Science (originally co-published by Opulus Press and the International Association for Vegetation Science) which was later acquired and is now published by Wiley). Vegetatio continued publication under this name until 1997, when the name was changed to Plant Ecology, now published by Springer.
In 1996, it was the journal Molecules from Springer-Verlag that the editor, Shu-Kun Lin, took to a new publisher (MDPI) using the same journal name and promising to publish at a “high standard,” which it continues to do as “the leading international, peer-reviewed open access journal of synthetic organic chemistry and natural product chemistry.”
In 1998, JAI Press sold its Journal of Academic Librarianship to Pergamon-Elsevier and the majority of the editorial board resigned and many helped to create the new Portal: Libraries and the Academy through Johns Hopkins University Press. Elsevier continues to publish the JAL, and now supports an OA model. However, Portal continues to garner a higher Impact Factor due to the strong support they have engendered from many in the library community.
In 2013, the Journal of Library Administration Editor-in-Chief and editorial board resigned over licensing terms. Editorial board member, Chris Bourg noted that “I really feel that we gave [Taylor & Francis] a chance to work toward a decent model, but they wouldn’t bend.” Damon Jaggars posted to Twitter that Taylor & Francis “worked with us in good faith. They can’t yet see past their current model to address the evolving expectations of LIS authors.”
In 1986, University of Arizona’s Michael Rosenzweig launched the key journal Evolutionary Ecology (first published by Chapman & Hall, and now by Springer). Concerned over pricing issues, Rosenzweig and everyone on his editorial board resigned in November 1998. At the time, Rosenzweig noted that “the publishing profiteers have chosen to ignore their duty to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible. They have turned renegade, exiling themselves from the academic enterprise, and focusing entirely on making the most money for their stockholders.” Working with SPARC, the group established a new, self-published, alternative peer-review journal Evolutionary Ecology Research which was available at a lesser cost to libraries (last reported annual price was $489 for print/online access); however, the journal hasn’t published any articles on its website since December 2014.
In 1999, the editorial board of the Journal of Logic Programming (now Journal of Logic and Algebraic Programming) resigned their positions from this Elsevier publication citing similar issues. Members of the board worked to form a new journal, Theory and Practice of Logic Programming, supported by initial funding from SPARC. The alternative journal continues to be published through Cambridge Open.
And the list of editorial revolts against publisher terms an pricing goes on and on. As OA has taken off, most journals have moved to some form of limited OA or other pricing models over the years as well to address libraries’ journal crises.
Berlin 12: Moving OA From Open to Private?
On Dec. 8 and 9, 2015, “96 participants from 19 countries, with several U.S. and Canadian representatives” met in Berlin for a invitation-only meeting “to discuss a proposal to flip subscription-based journals to open access models.” According to a conference report by Kathleen Shearer, ARL Partnership Consultant, the “major point of discussion was an expression of interest (EOI) that would form the basis for gaining support and moving forward with the initiative. Once published, organizations will be invited to sign the EOI and it will be used to galvanize interest in the initiative around the world.”
The EOI was summarized in three statements:
- “Transform the majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to open access publishing and, at the same time, continue to support new and improved forms of open access publishing.
- Pursue this transformation process through which we intend to lower costs over time and convert resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable open access business models.
- Invite all parties involved in scholarly publishing to collaborate on a swift and efficient transition for the benefit of the research enterprise and the society at large.”
Shearer ended her report with this comment: “From the U.S. perspective, there are also real pragmatic challenges in terms of the feasibility of the approach. Unlike other countries there is no national licensing body that could broker such a transition at the national level. However, a large flip in journal publishing models cannot be accomplished without international participation of the major players, including the U.S. Canadian and U.S.-based authors represent about 30% of all the research papers published in Web of Science 3 so North American support will be critical for the success of this initiative.”
Ann Okerson sees a potential difference in how Europe and the Americas see OA developing in a recent LIBLICENSE posting, noting that “at least some U.S. representatives seek a transition in which there are real reductions in the costs of the scholarly publications system and assert that a key to success is greater competition in that system. The Max Planck proposal appears to be more straightforward—a swap (flip) of subscription payments for models that assure open access.”
OA proponent Richard Poynder noted on his blog that “strangely, Berlin 12 was ‘by invitation only.’ This seems odd because holding OA meetings behind closed doors might seem to go against the principles of openness and transparency that were outlined in the 2003 Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Or is it wrong and/or naïve to think that open access implies openness and transparency in the decision making and processes involved in making open access a reality, as well as of research outputs?” Either way, if the strategy of flipping journals becomes the primary means of achieving open access can we not expect to see non-transparent and secret processes become the norm, with the costs and details of the transition taking place outside the purview of the wider OA movement? If that is right, would it matter?”
Multiple Paths or a Revolution in the Making
“The strategy of flipping journals is one way to achieve open access, as is self-archiving in suitable depositories,” University of Montreal’s Jean-Claude Guédon recently noted in a LIBLICENSE posting. “Open access is proceeding along a number of parallel and complementary tactics and strategies, as can be expected of a ‘movement’ that is a movement only in the loosest of all meanings and without any institutionalized governance system. So, let us forget about statements such as ‘the primary means of achieving open access.’ Attempts in the past to privilege Green over Gold, or Gold over Green, equally based on the faulty assumption of a homogeneous ‘movement’ have crippled progress toward OA way too much.”
Today academe—led by academic research libraries’ efforts—believe they have a solution to the pricing issues and the larger issue of the future of scholarly publishing: Bring it back into the academe and out of the hands of the commercial sector. In the second part of this series we will look at how leaders in this movement seek a very different future for academic publishing and how academe is working to move scholarly publishing back into the academy.
Nancy K. Herther is librarian for American Studies, Anthropology & Sociology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.