OPEN ACCESS

Are we being wilfully blind about the transformation that’s needed in scholarly publishing?

In this post Toby Green explores the recent fashion for “transformative” Read-and-Publish agreements and wonders if they’re really what’s needed to deliver affordable open access.

Eton Wall Game, 1936. Photograph by Stanley Devon/Times Newspapers.

Global sports such as Soccer and Rugby grew out of the games played by C19th schoolboys on the fields of Britain’s private schools.

However, one game remains rooted to its original spot: The Eton Wall Game.

The game is, reportedly:

“… exceptionally exhausting … . The skill consists in the remorseless application of pressure and leverage as one advances inch by painful inch through a seemingly impenetrable mass of opponents.”

The game’s ‘Superbowl’ occurs every St. Andrew’s Day when succeeding generations of Etonians have attempted to crab a ball along the wall and score goals from the ‘calx’ or endzones.

The kicker (and probably why the game never caught on) is that no goals have been scored on St. Andrew’s Day since 1907. You read that right — no goals have been scored in over a hundred years.

This brings to mind another esoteric wall game, “Open Access”, where it could be argued that the remorseless application of pressure over the past two decades has advanced open access inch by painful inch to the point where we are all exhausted, but the goal — no paywalls — remains out of reach.

That both games have remained goalless for so long suggests each contains a fundamental flaw that can only be fixed by some sort of transformation of the way it’s played. Whisper it quietly, but unlike tradition-loving private schools in Britain, “transformative” has emerged as a new buzzword in the Open Access lexicon.

Transformative!

Let’s start with SpringerNature’s Chief Publishing Officer, Steven Inchcoombe. He recently announced a faster path to an open access future. His secret sauce? “Transformative Publishing”.

Next, on behalf of rectors’ conferences, national library consortia, research organizations and funding bodies, OA2020 and Plan S’ cOAlitionS have issued a joint statement in which they call on research funders and institutions to “withdraw support from paywall publishing and ensure full and immediate Open Access to scholarly research publications”. A key ingredient in their solution is “Transformative Agreements”, a term that also pops up in a report Choosing Pathways to Open Access (CP2OA), just released by University of California, and the European University Association’s recent report on Big Deals.

“Transformative Agreements” even merits a primer on Scholarly Kitchen.

Transformative?

Transformative Publishing and Transformative Agreements are in fact two peas in the same pod.

The transformation? A merger of the traditional subscription (or ‘paywall’) publishing model with the comparatively novel article processing charge (APC or ‘playwall’) publishing model to create Read-and-Publish (or, depending on your point of view, Publish-and-Read) contracts between librarians and publishers . The aim is to increase gradually the ‘Publish’ part at the expense of ‘Read’ so that all content becomes open access.

Definition of ‘transformative’. Source: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/transformative

I’ve a couple of questions.

Firstly, does merging two existing models qualify as transformative? All I see is a flip, inch by painful inch, from a paywall to a playwall. Playing the game on the other side of the wall may qualify as a ‘major change’ but does erecting a barrier to being published in place of a barrier to being read ‘make it better’, as the definition demands?

Secondly, is this transformation affordable and sustainable? Because, as the EUA Big Deal Report says, scholcom faces two challenges: the shift to open access and the need for cost control.

The need for cost control

Some proponents for Transformative Agreements cite Schimmer et al’s “fact-based case” that there is enough money in the subscription system to fund a flip to open access through author-side payments. I’m not sure they are right.

Schimmer et al took a helicopter, snapshot, view of journal publishing. They estimated the 2013 global spend on subscriptions and divided it by the number of articles published that year to arrive at an average publisher-income-per-article. They then looked at the average cost of an APC and when they found the latter to be smaller than the former drew their conclusion.

Fair enough, but there are significant moving parts which were not taken into account.

Firstly, APC inflation is high. In Europe, since 2005, APC prices have risen three times faster than economic conditions would have suggested and prices seem to be driven by the prestige value of the journal and the funds available to the author (worrying signs of demand inelasticity).

Demand inelasticity: if you want prestige and can afford a Mercedes, you’ll not look at cheaper cars.

Secondly, institutions are not the same, they fall along a Publish and Reader spectrum. In a transformative, flipped, environment where all articles are freely accessible, institutions at the Reader end of the spectrum are going to save money on subscriptions and the financial burden will fall on those at the Publish end. In a recent article, I described the case of an institution at the Publish end, Hong Kong University, which would have to find US$12M annually to pay APCs for their authors. This is nearly three times what they currently pay to subscribe to the Big 5’s journals, who can capture more than half of journal budgets.

Authoring Activity across 90 OhioLINK institutions in journals with a major STEM Publisher, 2018. Source: Gwen Evans.

Within library consortia, moving funds across the spectrum might be challenging, as this chart showing the Publish-Read spectrum for OhioLink, a consortium in the USA, illustrates. Will Reader Institutions O through Z be willing and able to contribute to the Publish bill for Institutions A through N?

As Transformative Agreements scale and more content is published open access, it’s likely money spent by Reader institutions will flow out of the system. Unless Publish institutions find money at a rate that more than makes up for that lost from Reader institutions, the pool of funding available to pay for scholcom will get smaller.

If APC prices continue to defy gravity in the same way as subscription prices have, then there will be a double-whammy to affordable, sustainable, scholarly publishing: rising prices compounded by a smaller pool of money in the system to meet them.

The bad news isn’t over. There’s a third moving part . . . article growth.

If the recent ~5% growth in the number of journal articles published globally is maintained, the total number published will double in ~14 years. Will there be double the money in library budgets for Publish agreements in 14 years’ time?

The scholarly communications open access game is looking more like an exhausting, uphill, marathon that gets longer by the year.

Feelings and margins

When marathon runners use up their glycogen they feel extreme fatigue, known as hitting ‘the wall’.

Nike Marathon Advertising Poster, ‘Hitting The Wall — A Study’ 1984 by Ralph Steadman

Another feeling they get is negativity about being able to complete the race. So when librarians find their budgets used up before the end of an ever-lengthening race, it’s no wonder they have negative feelings towards publishers for their ever-rising bills and “staggeringly” high profit margins.

Perhaps, but why are margins so high?

If demand doesn’t fall as prices rise, a market is described as being “inelastic”. When demand is inelastic, then profits move in the same direction as revenues. It’s no surprise to find consortia complaining that Read-and-Publish deals don’t lead to cost savings, flipping the money to the other side of the wall doesn’t change the fundamental drivers that make the journal publishing market both expensive and inelastic.

“When the price is on an inelastic portion of the demand, then elasticity guides the manager to higher prices which result in higher revenues and higher profits.” Source.

So how does one inject some price elasticity into scholarly communications? Librarians saying “no” to Big Deal renewals is a start but remorseless application of pressure and leverage to reduce prices inch by painful inch is going to be both exceptionally exhausting and slow. Surely there’s a better way?

If scholarly publishing is to be affordable in the digital age, it needs to be transformed for the digital age.

The media industry has changed more in the past five years than in the previous five hundred — yet scholarly publishing still uses the model that emerged in the C17th. Yes, we now circulate journal articles in digital form rather than print, but the publishing process with its underlying cost structure and demand inelasticity is essentially unchanged. If scholarly publishing is to be affordable in the digital age, it needs to be transformed for the digital age. It needs to be re-thought and re-designed on a low cost basis with demand elasticity built-in.

Consider this. It costs just US$10 to publish a preprint on arXiv. Compare that with the US$2500 for a typical APC. Is the value to the scholarly community of an article in a journal really US$2490 greater than a preprint?

A recent preprint (what else?) reported that the quality of life science preprints on bioRxiv is within a range similar to peer-reviewed articles in journals. Readers seem to recognise this because new preprints are downloaded at almost the same rate as new journal articles. So why are two-thirds subsequently published in peer-reviewed journals in a final form that is largely indistinguishable from their preprint versions?

Scholcom seems to be paying twice to publish the same work (which sounds suspiciously like authors double-dipping).

So, preprints offer a viable, low-cost, way of publishing research in a basic form that seems acceptable to readers — now, if journals still have a place, they will have to demonstrate and justify the value they add. Let’s assume they can — how do we ensure they do so with elasticity?

Flipping submission to invitation

For demand elasticity, we need another kind of flip. Instead of having authors competing to be accepted by journals, what if journals competed to invite authors? What if researchers posted their papers onto preprint servers and journal editors looked for those that are interesting, impactful or novel enough to justify the additional cost of formal journal publishing? In competing for the most interesting articles, demand elasticity is created (because authors could compare offers and choose the best value).

Of course, this could only work if promotion, tenure and grant-giving processes assessed researchers for the quality of what they publish, not where they publish. And this change is going to be key to transformation in scholarly publishing.

Being wilfully blind

In her book Wilful Blindness, Margaret Heffernan writes that we “mostly admit the information that makes us feel great about ourselves, while conveniently filtering whatever unsettles our fragile egos and most vital beliefs”.

Will we continue to admit Journal Impact Factors as a metric to evaluate researchers when we know full well that it is useless for this and alternative measures are available? Are we conveniently filtering the fact that preprints offer a viable, effective, low-cost, alternative to publishing in journals because we find it unsettling that it’s the journal publishing process itself that’s holding back progress to affordable, sustainable, open access publishing?

On their own, Transformative Agreements won’t bring about affordable, sustainable, open access publishing. What’s needed is another process, Digital Transformation, where scholarly communications is re-designed on a low-cost, elastic, basis for the internet era. Without a transformation of this type, I fear the goal of a sustainable, affordable, open access publishing model will remain, like goals in the Eton Wall Game, out of reach for some time to come.

Further reading — this post draws on a recent article I published in Learned Publishing:
Green, T. (2019), Is open access affordable? Why current models do not work and why we need internet‐era transformation of scholarly communications. Learned Publishing, 32: 13–25.