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There are industries that use the same raw materials, yet are not the same. Commercial firms that deliver purified water to companies consume water, fuel, and vehicles. Yet, not a single one is in competition with the local swimming pool company.

Guys trucking 5-gallon water jugs around to offices are doing something with the same materials that is completely different than what the other company — digging, lining, and purifying your swimming pool — is doing.

So, are open access publishers and traditional publishers really in the same business?

This question was raised recently in a comment thread, and it stuck in my mind. Luckily, I run a blog, and I can take a few minutes to write things out as I think them through.

Is it possible that each is a service disguised as publishing, but that each provides a different service for a different customer need? And that they’re not in competition?

Some basic facts seem to suggest this notion might hold water. For instance, if the thousands of OA articles published over the past few years were truly part of a zero-sum competition with traditional publishers, you’d expect to see submission rates at traditional publications fall over the same period. Yet, anecdotal and actual evidence combine to paint an entirely different picture — submission rates are up across the board. In fact, new traditional titles are launching in the midst of the OA boom.

On the supply side — papers and research reports — it seems there’s little competition. In fact, OA may have uncovered a spring of papers that has been bubbling in our backyard all along.

Further hints come when you look at who each serves, and when they prove valuable.

Traditional publishers provide a service predicated on traditional academic status. They tend to attract studies that the authors are willing and able to usher through the higher rejection rates and attendant resubmissions required by traditional publishers. Why this occurs is hard to discern, but branding and status probably play a role. The authors and papers using traditional publishing outlets seem to be qualitatively different in some meaningful ways. It’s just hard to know what these qualities are.

OA publishers provide a service to authors and funders of research, providing a way for them to get papers published which they want to get into the system more quickly or make more generally available. This might be because the authorship group has disbanded, the funder has goals about transparent publication practices, the paper proved more incremental than anticipated, or the authors believe in OA. Again, it’s hard to know, but the results seem to speak for themselves.

Look to physics, and how arXiv and physics journals haven’t exactly squared off. This seems another major hint that there are publishing practices that don’t compete with traditional publishing.

On the demand side, OA and traditional publishing don’t seem to be competing. Even funding is coming from different sources by and large, with foundations funding OA, and more traditional buyers (individuals and academic institutions) funding traditional publishing. There is only a sliver of mingling at the edges.

The important thing is that the underlying motivations don’t jibe with competition. In fact, authors can decide what kind of water-centric service they want each time. An author may choose one mode under a certain set of conditions, the other mode at another time.

Some confusion exists, in that both sets call themselves “water-services” and worry about making more distinctions than that. People on both sides seem to view this as a competition because it was framed that way at the beginning. Yet facts argue against the initial framing. Those semantics don’t matter as much as the fundamental fact that there may not be the competition between the two — even being listed in the same category can’t conflate the two.

The water delivery service isn’t going to be asked to install swimming pools, is it?

Some traditional publishers have leveraged the common raw materials into the other line of business. That may prove to be a very safe thing to do given the lack of competition between the two. They are merely ways to array roughly equivalent resources, but are not competitive. In fact, traditional publishers’ willingness to enter the OA market is another piece of evidence suggesting there isn’t any clear competition between the two modes of publication. Some authors will want water in bottles, some will want to swim. They may even get thirsty after a swim.

There’s a certain peace to be achieved by not forcing competition where it may not exist. While the analogies offered here are imperfect, they suggest that perhaps OA and traditional publishers are using the same raw materials — papers, reviewers, web sites — but in such different ways that their co-existence is actually natural and not competitive.

This perspective also suggests that OA publishing will face limitations in growth because of factors all its own, not by taking over a percentage of traditional publishing.

We’ve accepted the proposition that OA publishers compete with traditional publishers. Perhaps we need to contemplate the very real possibility that they do not. And that would represent a mindshift we might all benefit from.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


40 Thoughts on "Are Open Access and Traditional Publishers in the Same Business?"

“Open Access” does not automatically mean just one type of journal Your argument makes sense for “everything bucket” publications like PLoS ONE but holds no water for selective higher end OA journals like PLoS Biology or Nucleic Acids Research. These journals are directly competing with traditional subscription journals for the same papers. And that’s not even factoring in all the traditional journals that use a hybrid OA model.

I didn’t intend this to mean one type of journal. My observation is that you don’t see a lot of competition between the models, which suggests that they’re providing different services. And I hope I was clear that I wasn’t saying one model made swimming pools and one delivered potable water. I was trying to remain neutral. It was just an analogy.

Hybrid journals are interesting, in that they allow the services to mix. Again, to me, that suggests they’re not competitive. If they were, hybrid wouldn’t be all that possible — they’d be one or the other. Hybrid allows them to co-exist, and the models seem to do that nicely.

If journals compete for papers, I’ll bet that it’s not because of their underlying business model. Why would someone pay to be in a journal that has a direct competitor that may not require them to pay? I’ll bet there’s something else — editorial sex appeal, reputation, scope — that proves a differentiator.

I read your argument to clearly compare the high-volume low-rejection style journal with the more traditional subscription journals. Regardless, I’m getting a real mixed message–the business models are not competitive but the journals that employ the business models are competitive with one another. If those journals are competing with one another, then the answer is yes, the publishers (regardless of access method chosen) are in the same business.

I do agree that for most authors, the goal is to get the paper published in the best journal possible. If that means PLoS Biology rather than PNAS, it’s more likely because of the former’s higher Impact Factor than its access policy. But make no mistake, PLoS Biology is directly competing with other traditional journals. It’s just that for most researchers, the access question is not at the heart of the competition.

I doubt that for most authors the goal is to get their paper published in the best possible journal. Remember Lotka’s law, that the majority of authors only publish one paper. I doubt journal quality counts much for them. Moreover, the low rejection journals may offer a low hassle factor, which may be the big draw. This is not a simple market.

Can’t agree. I’d be willing to be that those authors who only publish one paper are not the sole author on that paper. More than likely there’s a senior author involved (head of the laboratory) with an established history of publishing papers.

Either way, I still have no doubt that for the vast majority, journal quality is the determining factor in choosing an outlet. One always wants to maximize the returns on one’s work, and the better the journal, the better the career rewards offered. If authors are choosing the low rejection rate journals, it may be that this is their best option in terms of quality or in what is likely a minority of cases, other factors come into play (particularly speed of publication).

David C: I dislike disagreeing when I have no facts to go on, so I will merely disagree with your expressed level of certainty, not with your specific claims. I think we do not know why the “vast majority” of people publish where they do, much less where they will in future, and this is actually now a central research question, given the rise of the author pays model. When we see a growing number of people paying for something they could get for nothing, there must be something interesting going on.

David W, my certainty is based somewhat on anecdotal evidence, from being in regular contact with hundreds of researchers on a constant basis.

I think the first question can be measured fairly easily, as there has been an apparent decline in single-author papers over the years (if anything, the trend is toward 30-plus author papers these days).

The second seems self-evident given the absurd (and increasing) levels of career pressure placed on researchers. Those who succeed have to live something of a streamlined existence, where the things they do focus almost exclusively on the things that academia rewards, which primarily translates into chasing a high impact factor.

Remember also that some funding agencies require (or at least strongly encourage) authors to publish OA. That’s the other side of career pressure, securing funding, so some OA uptake is driven by wanting to keep one’s funders happy.

One piece of data I can supply is that across OUP’s journals (all hybrid-OA journals), OA uptake is around 5-6%. For the seven medical journals I manage, OA uptake has actually fallen off this year as compared with last year.

While I like the analogy, I think you have set up a straw man argument — presupposing that there was just one publishing market and then knocking that straw man over with a full 5 gallon jug of drinking water straight into the swimming pool.

Like Malcolm Gladwell’s 2006 TED talk on spaghetti sauce, there is no one market for publishing, but several markets: markets that compete for novel breakthrough articles; markets that publish incremental science; markets that provide little more than vanity services, among others.

The kind of OA publishing you refer to may indeed fit into an unexploited niche. It may also be competing with specialized archival journals.

It wasn’t my straw man argument. OA has been positioned from the beginning as competitive with traditional publishing, bent on overtaking, defeating, etc., traditional publishing. The notion that it does something else is important. There are many spaghetti sauces because there can be. The shelves of publishing may have more room for diverse approaches that are not mutually exclusive than we think. That’s the point, so I think we agree.

I agree Kent. In fact I think it was my comment originally that your refer to. Subscription journals and author pays journals are selling to two different markets, so they do not directly compete for sales. However, there may be competition in raw materials, in this case articles. An analogy is now seen in the corn market, where biofuel and food producers compete.

Do we have any data on how many articles are published via author pays, versus subscription? My impression is that the former is still so small that the impact is not yet discernible.

Yes, it was your comment, David. I’m sorry I didn’t link to it. I’ll go fix that now. I was too busy making sure my water analogies held up!

I think this is a brilliant point of view and really interesting from an ‘outsider’s point of view’. There remain a lot of unknowns, as you say: more understanding is needed of the individual motivations for using one or other of the channels – surely this would not be too hard to research? what does seem clear os that there is a huge demand for publishing services that the traditional model can’t – or doesn’t want – to cope with. I suppose I have two main questions:

Are OA published papers seen in the academic community as in any way inferior? Are they more or less likely to be referenced?

Where is the OA model for academic books?

It seems to me that this issue is complicated by the fact that the whole concept of “competition” is made weird by the nature of the journal marketplace. Since each journal offers unique content, two biology journals don’t compete for buyers in the same way that two auto makers do — they’re not offering products that are functionally the same, using differences around the edges of the basic value proposition in order to set their products apart from each other. Each journal makes its potential readers a unique value proposition: you either buy this content from us, or you forego the content.

However, two different biology journals do compete with each other for authors, and that competition is very real. This is where I think the true competition between traditional and OA journals lies, but I don’t think the competition is between OA and traditional journals as such — it’s between any two journals that occupy the same discplinary space. The competition between a biology journal from Wiley and a biology journal from Springer isn’t functionally different from that between a biology journal from Wiley and an OA journal. (This isn’t to say that the difference between an OA publishing model and a traditional one doesn’t play a role in the competition; as you point out, authors will care in varying degrees about that. It’s only to say that the OA status of one journal doesn’t change the fundamental fact that it has to attract authors whom other journals are also trying to attract.)

But maybe I’m just making your point for you — that there’s nothing specific about either the OA or the traditional model that necessarily sets one against the other, except to the degree that they “compete” with each other at an abstract level, as publishing philosophies.

Yep, we agree. The models don’t predict competition; domains drive competition. And when you look at it that way, then it comes down to speed, price, and reputation/quality, with perhaps a smidge of other motivations around the edges.

As the theme of the Charleston conference put it, “something’s gotta give!” And as Rick Anderson has persuasively argued on liblicense, it is the academic library market that is the primary market for STM journal publishing and that market can no longer sustain the business model that STM publishers have used. Whether that means a migration to PLoS One-type OA journals, where the costs are not the burden of libraries to pay, or a conversion from content delivery to service delivery, as Joe Esposito has predicted, we don’t yet know; both are ways that commercial publishers can manage to stay in the business and reap high profits. But the driving force here is the lack of financial resources in libraries, rather than the direct competition between OA and TA journals.

While I appreciate your even-handed approach to this topic, I’m a little worried by the idea of setting up OA publishing as something that is somehow profoundly different from the “traditional” model. While this may be nearer to reality if you’re looking at it purely in terms of cost (about which I will gladly admit to being somewhat naive), the fact is that an OA journal doesn’t need to be dramatically different from a pay journal other than being free to read. As David noted, the high-volume, (relatively) high-fee model that PLoS has used to inspire so many competitors is not nearly as representative as it is emblematic.

Put another way, if you were to replace every mention of “OA” in this essay with “PLoS ONE,” I’d have very little to complain about; PLoS has clearly hit upon a wellspring of work that probably would not have been published as straightforwardly in non-OA journals, or for that matter, non-PLoS journals. It is, of course, difficult to make this statement without implying something negative about the quality of the papers — I’ll add PLoS ONE’s casual interdisciplinarity to your list of reasons why authors may choose to pursue this route — but it is very, very important to PLoS’ (and its authors’) success that it still look and behave for all purposes like a “traditional” journal. I think you’ll find that this is the case for nearly all other OA journals, who are only as directly “competitive” as senior academics in their respective fields can keep a clear hierarchy in mind.

I would offer that others have gone before me “setting up OA publishing as something . . . profoundly different from the ‘traditional’ model.” As the comment thread is confirming, the business model seems to matter less than the domain when it comes to competition. Yet OA was founded to compete against the subscription model. You can still find rhetoric outlining the battlefront quite easily.

OA was also supposed to solve the financial problems of libraries. Well, in the form of PLoS One-like clones from commercial publishers, it may take the heat off of libraries’ budgets, but will only shift the burden elsewhere in universities.

Sandy, the point is that this may not be true. That is, author pays journals may just increase communication, not replace subscription journals, at least in the short run.

But in any case somebody has to pay the billions of dollars that scholarly communication costs.

Yes, I agree, there are more ways than one to skin a cat, and commercial publishers are nothing if not savvy about finding new ways to do so.

Surely the only reason that swimming pool water and drinking water are not in competition with each other is that there is plenty of water – a de facto “free good”. If water was so scarce that people hesitated to drink because of the price, they wouldn’t be filling their swimming pools at all.

In your concrete case, presumably the two models will be in competition with each other if there is not enough papers for them both to prosper.

Out of curiosity, what do you think would happen if every paper was published OA, and some were also published in journals, and therefore getting whatever the value add is of those journals?

Dave P: It depends on what you mean by published OA. Some journals use open on-line posting as the start of their publishing process. But if you mean publishing in an author pays journal as well as in a subscription journal, well that can’t happen as things presently stand. It does raise the usual question as to what services subscription journals provide to subscribers, besides simple access to articles, and what these services are worth?. I think we do not know at this point.

But you are correct that if author pays grows large, at some point some subscription journals will not be able to fill their volumes. We really need hard data here. Is author pays taking off or just bubbling up, as it were? Is it a convenient niche industry or the new way?

Whenever I encounter speculation, I look at the uncertainties.

“But if you mean publishing in an author pays journal as well as in a subscription journal, well that can’t happen as things presently stand.” Au contraire, Project Muse, e.g., includes some OA journals like Postmodern Culture in its collection that is sold by license to libraries.

But do the very same articles appear in an OA journal and a subscription journal? That was the concept I doubted, not that an OA journal might be packaged in a subscription pile.

I see no reason why not, especially if an OA journal is not asking the author for copyright transfer and the author is asked to have the article included in a print journal later. I have had articles published in more than one venue, albeit both print, because they reach different audiences.

I don’t know of any journals willing to re-publish articles already published elsewhere. Do you know of any that thrive by offering retreads? If anything, journals are cracking down on self-plagiarism and double-dipping more now than ever.

Also, OA does not automatically forbid the presence of print, as exemplified by the fully OA journal “Nucleic Acids Research”. Many hybrid journals with strong levels of OA content are also available in print.

The question is nonsensical as posed. If something is already published in an OA journal, no other journal is going to re-publish it. Double-dipping is frowned upon in academia. Also, Most if not all OA journals offer the same sorts of “whatever” values as traditional journals.

Many arXiv manuscripts are “re-published” in traditional journals.
That’s because many traditional journals add value though author “credentialing” – something that has very little to do with access to content.

True, though I suppose one can pick nits about what is meant by “published OA” as to whether it means published in an OA journal or made available in an archive. As for arXiv, from what I understand (and I don’t live in the physics world), the ability to re-publish a paper after it has been in arXiv varies quite a bit from journal to journal. I’m told that authors who feel they have a good chance of publishing their paper in a top journal do not generally put it in arXiv.

But I agree completely as to the value-add of the peer review and editorial processes and the many things they supply. Ask most scientists how much time they’d be willing to commit each week to digging through a completely unfiltered literature. There are some things it’s worth paying other people to do, particularly if it means you can then devote more time to things like actual research.

Some physics journals actually use arXiv deposition as their submission point. But that is because arXiv is not regarded as a journal, just a repository. This thread is supposed to be about journals. Bringing in repositories and other forms of self publication only muddies the dark waters.

Hey, talk to us in Texas about how much of a “free good” water is and about competition for uses of water. With water restrictions in just about every part of this state, competing uses are a hot topic of discussion (no pun intended).

can you tell me some data and evidence showing that ” new TRADITIONAL titles are launching in the midst of the OA boom”? Thank you.

Pathogens and Global Health. Studies in Conversation. International Journal of Developmental Disabilities. International Journal of Healthcare Management. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology. Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Health. Palliative Care. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology.

And this from just a couple of minutes of searching. I’m sure you can find more yourself quite easily if you care to do the work.

Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Biology, Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives In Medicine, Cardiovascular Engineering & Technology…

Others in the equation, in addition to authors, are libraries and readers…Per Kimberly Douglas, California Institute of Technology (Hyde Park session, 2011 Charleston Conference), in a healthy market of “healthy substitutes”, a shift to the authoring side (services) by libraries would subsidize the readers’ side, and “it’s all about serving scholarship”. Katina Strauch (tongue in cheek) proposed during that session that the 2012 Charleston Conference theme be “Stuck in the Middle With You”…Derek Law said in the Fri conference summary (via SKYPE from Scotland), “There is no such thing as free, but free at the point of use is critical”.

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