In April, K|N Consultants (Rebecca Kennison of Columbia University Libraries and Lisa Norberg of the Barnard College Library) released a much-anticipated white paper titled “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences.”
It was much–anticipated in part because, wisely, Kennison and Norberg had provided public access to an earlier draft and solicited open comment; this had the twin effects of strengthening the final version and generating buzz about it. The paper is long—83 pages, including appendices—its arguments and proposals are detailed, and it comes with multiple sets of supporting tabular data. It is not a quick-and-easy read, nor are its proposals simple, but if one thing should be clear about the issues facing scholarly communication, it’s that quick-and-easy solutions are unlikely to be very effective.
At the beginning of the paper, Kennison and Norberg make it clear that their proposal is limited, in the short term, explicitly to humanities and social science (HSS) journals from nonprofit society publishers, on the assumption that author-pays Gold Open Access (OA) is likely to remain the OA solution of choice for publishers of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) journals in at least the short term. (The hope is that their proposed solution will expand to cover all disciplines in the long term.) Juxtapose the narrow focus of the proposal with its complexity and you start to see how daunting a task it is to revolutionize a system that has not changed in any really fundamental way since the first scholarly journals began to emerge in the 18th century. That Kennison and Norberg were willing to take on this task, have worked through the issues so thoroughly, and have come out on the other side of their process with such a carefully-considered proposal is a tribute to their energy, endurance, and thoughftulness.
The basic structure of Kennison and Norberg’s proposal is a three-way partnership between higher-education (HE) institutions (as funding bodies), libraries (as archives and distribution nodes) and scholarly societies (as gatherers, editors, and presenters of content). The basic idea is that HE institutions themselves—drawing on centrally-administered campus funds rather than library budgets—will make an annual contribution to a central fund, which will be administered by a not-for-profit entity to be determined in the future (though K|N Consultants suggests itself as a candidate). This fund would be used to underwrite the editorial operations of partner societies, freeing them from the need to charge subscription fees for their journals. Participant libraries would reallocate staff time from tasks previously associated with traditional subscription management to tasks associated with journal hosting and archiving. In the early stages of the project, private granting agencies will be solicited for matching funds to make the resource pool deeper and to mitigate the risk of early failure, making participation more attractive to HE institutions.
The nut of the proposal is captured nicely in this sentence: “By partnering with scholarly societies, libraries fulfill their mission to capture and preserve the intellectual capital generated by our institutions.”
Some readers may be alarmed (while others may be delighted) by the tone of the “Proposed Solution” section, which represents the core of the paper and at times sounds a bit like a stern nanny explaining, cheerily, why the unpleasant task you’re being required to undertake is going to make you and everyone else happier in the long run. The proposed model includes “a campaign in a stepwise but nevertheless assertive way to persuade all tertiary academic institutions to participate.” HE institutions “must be prepared to support new models of scholarly communication.” Libraries should brace themselves as well: “Resourcing these new services may require the transformation of many traditional library departments, as well as the roles and responsibilities of current staff.” Even those who agree with such ideas in principle may raise their eyebrows at the breezy, wand-waving tone of some of these pronouncements.
However, upon closer reading it becomes clear that this proposal does not actually contemplate the kind of centralized coercion hinted at by such language. In fact, those who wish to participate in the program will have to “apply for the funds through a competitive grant process,” one which is described in some detail in the white paper. The authors have no illusions that the entire population of publishers, institutions, and libraries will jump on board immediately; instead they propose what amounts to a proof-of-concept phase which they hope will demonstrate to the more tradition-bound and risk-averse members of those populations that this project can work and will benefit them.
I suspect that there will be lots of discussion of this proposal, and there’s a far greater number of things to say about it than I have room for in this posting. But here are a few points that jump out at me. I will present them in three categories: Kudos, Caveats, and Questions.
- The project appears to be scalable: this model seems feasible at the scale of one institution with one or several society partners, and remains so at the level of hundreds of institutions with hundreds or thousands of partners. That aspect of this proposal is huge and should not be overlooked.
- It seems, broadly speaking, fiscally realistic: this model is not built on fantasy scenarios about the cheapness of digital scholarly publishing, spun by people who have never done it. Because publishers themselves would be intimately involved with its implementation, there is relatively little risk of the program proceeding without a realistic perspective on the real-world costs of journal publishing.
- It brings libraries’ host institutions into the mix. One of the problems with the current scholarly communication marketplace is the structural disconnect between supply and demand and between choice and consequence across multiple dimensions. Assessments at the campus (rather than the library) level create a closer connection between choice and consequence.
- The proposal is for phased and incremental implementation, “acknowledging the inherent conservatism of academia.” Academics hate it when you call them “conservative,” and that can make it hard for consultants to talk about the reactionary tendencies of academic culture (which are often amplified in the library realm). Kudos to Kennison and Norberg for calling it out and dealing with it explicitly in their proposal.
- The model is designed and intended to be flexible, to “support scholarly communication infrastructure, rather than specific packages… projects, or platforms.” The authors’ hope and intention is that, as new models of scholarly communication develop, this model will be flexible enough to accommodate them.
- The proposal recognizes the important point that historically, publishers have served primarily as disseminators, not as preservationists and archives. The latter functions have been more or less forced on publishers with the advent of the World Wide Web, and the fit has never been comfortable. One significant benefit of this proposal is that it could relieve publishers of the preservation and archiving role and shift it to libraries, where it is much more in harmony with historical mission.
- The authors continue to solicit discussion of the ideas and proposals contained in this white paper, and provide multiple avenues for doing so, both public (via Twitter, interestingly) and private (via email).
- The assessment model is intended to result in institutional charges that are “modest relative to the overall budget,” but the proposed charges are not indexed to institutional budget. Instead, they are based on the number of students and faculty. The formula therefore introduces anomalies that many potential participants will find hard to swallow. For example, the model proposes annual charges of $366,890 to Arizona State University, $86,430 to Bowling Green State University, and $143,930 to Utah State University. Princeton, on the other hand, would pay $39,875, Dartmouth would pay $31,385, and Duke would pay $76,930. Harvard’s payment, though at $140,735 substantially higher than Princeton’s, would be $13,000 lower than that of Colorado State University. The authors portray their assessment model as representing “the price of a cup of coffee per year per student and faculty member,” but those cups of coffee add up to an annual charge of multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars for many cash-strapped HE institutions and only tens of thousands for some of the richest ones. This seems like an odd strategy for a program that claims “fairness” as one of its core guiding principles.
- Too many of the foundational arguments in this document are rhetorically powerful but logically questionable. “Restricting access to research benefits no one,” for example, is a time-tested applause line, but it artfully obscures the more difficult fact that charging for access to research certainly does benefit many—even as it creates problems for others. Similarly, pronouncements like “it is hard to imagine how greater access would not be welcomed by a society’s membership” and “subscription-based publishing models… often (put) the society’s publishing operation in conflict with their members’ desire for unfettered information exchange” involve both question-begging and the reduction of complex realities to convenient but oversimplified bromides. (More on this below.)
- Although the proposed funding model is manifestly scalable in purely fiscal terms (since more participants means more funding support), there is a problem with it in terms of staff support. The authors suggest, for example, that library staff currently focused on”serial acquisitions and subscription maintenance… be deployed to assist with society or partner relationships,” and that “systems staff involved in maintaining authentication systems could tackle new infrastructure development.” The problem here is that even if all HSS journals were simultaneously to shift to the proposed model, most or all of the STEM journals (not to mention research databases) would remain, for at least the short- to mid-term, under the old subscription regime, meaning that the library staff in question would still be needed to manage subscriptions, maintain authentication systems, etc.
- Another weakness in the funding model is that it is “based on an annual or multi-year payment made by every institution of higher education… and by any institution that benefits from the research that is generated by those within the academy” (emphasis mine). To the degree that universal adoption is truly fundamental to the model, the model is in trouble. It’s hard to imagine a voluntary program of any kind, no matter how broadly the HE community may agree with its goals, being universally accepted by HE institutions—let alone a program that requires what are often significant annual payments and redirection of staff time. That said, however, I’m not sure that universal adoption truly is fundamental to the model; it looks to me like it could function and have at least some of its intended impact even with only limited uptake.
- In support of their proposal the authors assert a general desire on the part of scholars for “unfettered information exchange,” but provide little or no support for the assertion despite the fact that the existence of that desire is central to the value proposition of their program. Notably, their characterization of the findings of Ithaka S&R’s 2012 Faculty Survey makes it sound as if scholars chiefly value their societies for the role they play in facilitating “exchange of information with their peers,” but that is a misleadingly oversimplified gloss on what the survey actually found. As demonstrated in the figure at right (click to enlarge), the survey found that faculty members place by far the greatest value on their societies’ roles as conference organizers and as publishers of formal, peer-reviewed journals. “Unfettered information exchange” is already available to any scholar who wishes it; what is not available on a free and unfettered basis is the exchange of information that has been peer-reviewed, edited, formatted, permanently archived, etc., for the simple reason that these services cost money and someone has to pay for them. What the survey findings indicate is that formal publication programs (and the conferences that are typically underwritten by the selling of access to those publications) are of great value to the scholars surveyed, and they want their societies to play a major role in providing it.
- Is academia’s appetite for immediate free access to HSS content strong enough to generate a willingness to pay the annual fees proposed? In particular, where the institution’s annual fee would be relatively high and its mission is relatively focused on the STEM disciplines, it seems as if participation would be a hard sell. This suggests that instead of indexing the institutional charge either to student/faculty populations or to overall institutional budget, an even better approach might be to index it to the number of students and faculty working in HSS disciplines.
- The model explicitly considers “university presses to be similar entities to societies,” arguing that they, “like societies… struggle with the tension between their mission to make information widely available and the very real requirement that they be financially viable.” Furthermore, the authors assert that “university presses are quite often thought as peripheral to the core activities of most faculty.” But I have to wonder whether most UP directors would agree that “(making) information widely available” is itself a core part of their mission and whether faculty (who, especially in HSS disciplines, are generally required to publish scholarly monographs) would agree that UPs are “peripheral to (their) core activities.” These questions are worth exploring.
- The model is built on the assumption that libraries will be willing to substantially reorganize their technical operations and that universities will be willing to “redefine the roles that (libraries) play within their organizations” in order to accommodate this new system. Will colleges and universities agree that universal free access to HSS articles is worth this cost?
- If Gold OA does not, in fact, take hold as the universal solution to access in the STEM realm, will HE institutions then be left with libraries that have been substantially reorganized to make HSS content freely available, but are no longer in a strong position (organizationally or fiscally) to enable access to STEM content? At liberal arts colleges this may not be a big deal; at comprehensive and research universities, it certainly would be.
- The white paper acknowledges but never seriously addresses the “free rider” problem—one that is intensified by a funding model that asks much of meagerly-funded institutions and relatively little of wealthy ones. The likelihood that richly-funded institutions like Harvard and Princeton will opt for the free ride is relatively low, whereas the likelihood that Arizona State and Colorado State (with their much larger student populations) will do so is quite a bit higher. Unfortunately for the tenability of the model, there are very few Harvards in our HE community and many, many Colorado States. The urgent question, then, is whether this model can provide concrete, structural incentives (as well as moral ones) to the Colorado State Universities sufficient to keep them in the system.
This has been a long (and probably tedious) posting and it has only scratched the surface of the questions and issues that are likely to be raised about this white paper. I hope that I haven’t misunderstood or inadvertently misrepresented any of it; if I did, I invite correction. I’ll close by repeating my praise of Kennison and Norberg for the industry and courage they’ve shown in producing it, and by expressing my hope that the discussion will be broad-based, constructive, and productive of real and beneficial change—which is, of course, the only kind of change any of us should be hoping for.