Pirate Highwire Trickey
Pirate Highwire Trickey (Photo credit: frozenhaddock)

Back in the mid-1990s, when the Web heralded a new age for Internet publishing and linked communication, strategic thinkers realized these new technologies might pose a risk to the status quo. In particular, there was a concern among those who cared about the vast range of independent scientific and scholarly publishers that the new technologies would, by dint of their expense and complexity, create serious disadvantages for small professional societies, who wouldn’t be able to compete independently and would be easily gobbled up by large commercial publishers.

This kind of thinking is what led Stanford University’s libraries to launch HighWire Press. Even though HighWire stumbled once or twice, it fulfilled its mission, in large part because its success initiated a micro-environment of vendors focused on smaller publishers — companies like Silverchair, Atypon, Publishing Technologies, and others. The technological disadvantage was erased by strategically deploying technology. It was a “fight fire with fire” approach that worked.

Today, we face very different threats from large, consolidated entities who seem to be poised to take control of scientific and scholarly publishing. However, this time, we don’t have a clear way to fight fire with fire, or to resist the changes being imposed by these well-funded and well-coordinated forces.

This time, we’re facing a philosophy, an attitude, and a belief system, all of which have taken root in large, rich bodies like funding organizations and governmental agencies.

This time, the threat is an idea — and one with backers who make the Elseviers of the world look like small potatoes. The idea is “open,” and the pursuit of this idea continues to erode our ability to publish in any manner other than what fits with the agendas of funders and governmental agencies.

To restate a fundamental problem, the path this idea used to enter scientific and scholarly publishing has been paved with a faulty premise, namely that taxpayers funded research and therefore acquired pass-through rights to final published papers. Of course, the boundary that’s crossed by this argument is clear — there is a final report due to the funder, but that is not the final published paper. If agencies and funders were to make these reports freely available, as many have for years, there would be no argument. But by reaching into independent third-party organizations and claiming the next stages of refinement and professional effort, funders and agencies cross a line they no longer see. In fact, some funders believe this line is so smudged that they have become a publisher of their own, and others’, research papers.

The label “open” sounds harmless and simple, but it is a label behind which various incentives can go unexamined.

For instance, when a funder launches an “open” journal, the funder’s incentives for doing so are largely ignored, even if those incentives run counter to a robust scientific community’s primary goals by creating inherent and intractable conflicts of interest and diminishing the value of objective third-party review and evaluation.

When an alternative rights organization is founded on the basis of “open” yet is funded by large technology companies that have their own incentives for making information free — hint, it’s the same reason General Motors used to petition for cheap gas — those incentives largely go unexamined. When the search engine company that funds and seems to steer this same alternative rights group begins dictating engineering changes to publishers based on its sense of what “open” means, and also begins ranking search results based on “open” criteria, the raw power of scale becomes clear.

When a governmental agency spends millions of taxpayer dollars creating a redundant repository of published papers, one that competes with publishers and creates a win-lose-lose economic situation for US taxpayers despite professing to be benefiting taxpayers, it largely goes unexamined.

When an ideology brings into our midst a few major venture capital projects designed to quickly extract money from the scientific publishing market, it’s clear that something more than rearranging the deck chairs is going on behind the “open” label. Some smart people smell money to be made from these trends. And these venture capitalists come from the same valley as many of those funding the alternative rights group.

Meanwhile, publishers, authors, editors, and reviewers are put under pressure to produce more papers with relatively fewer controls and incentives for them.

  • Are reviewers being paid under the new regime?
  • Are editors more valued under the new regime?
  • Are authors viewed as anything more than grist in the new mill of open access?
  • Are authors spending less on publishing than before the “open” era?
  • Do researchers have more funds available than before the “open” era?
  • Are taxpayers getting more of what they really want — more reliable information, better value for their tax dollar, and an easier time finding information they can trust?

The power plays that are taking place under the banner of “open” seem disconnected from academic culture or taxpayers’ needs. More and more, “open” seems to serve the interests of funding agencies, governmental agencies, technology companies, and venture capitalists. This is not the revolution as it was intended.

Once again, small, non-profit publishers are in the most vulnerable position. The subscription model has allowed them to turn the efforts of a small cadre of authors into high-value journals and books, which have expanded their brands and provided reliable economic vitality, both of which have allowed them to seem bigger than they are. The new “open” model doesn’t scale in the same way — instead of payments coming to access content, payments come to create content, which scales on a 1:1 basis rather than the exponential basis of the subscription model. This turns content production into piece-work, not craft work. Unless protections are built into initiatives so that these subscription revenues don’t suffer, the end could well be nigh for many professional society publishing programs should the future play out as some envision.

The power plays are also more subtle, and remind me of a post Robert Reich recently published entitled, “The Hollowing Out of Government.” His point is that Republicans, rather than repealing laws, simply defund the agencies meant to enforce the laws, which makes it less likely that rich business owners will be caught breaking the law or evading taxes, but also makes the government look incompetent, which makes their next cuts all the easier. It also makes the government less able to collect taxes and fines, which necessitates further budget cuts, accelerating the same cynical cycle. There is an analog going on in our milieu — the relative defunding of the subscription model, through continued attrition within library budgets, and their reallocation to support “open” initiatives like Green OA and repositories. There has also been a suppression of individual purchasers through a combination of “information wants to be free” and “publishers are evil” rhetoric — even though some of those voices are now publishers themselves. The less affordable and palatable subscription products appear, the stronger the argument for “open” seems to become.

Before you object, these facts should be taken into account — a government-sponsored “open” repository (PubMed Central) competes with publisher traffic, advertising revenues, and licensing revenues; library budgets have been in relative decline (relative to total academic budgets) since the 1980s; and embargoes reduce the ability of publishers to spread their costs over multiple years of revenues, leaving them little choice but to increase prices on what they are allowed to protect. The price increases on what remains drives further complaints about price-gouging, which leads to further constraints on publishers’ abilities to spread out the costs, so they have to raise prices on what remains. It’s a vicious cycle.

What might emerge from all of these power plays based on mixed but aligned incentives? To me, the most likely scenario in the future is a bifurcated publishing industry, with a few high-power and high-profile journals owned by idiosyncratic organizations that have somehow managed to avoid the hammer, and another community of publishers who comply with funder, government, and technology company mandates. The unheard voice in this scenario is the small- or mid-sized professional society that wishes to retain the ability to publish how and what they wish. These organizations may be in the same uncomfortable position that mid-tier authors found themselves in the self-publishing and e-book revolution — that is, shut out, devalued, or delisted. Without the “Big Deal” to protect them, without the resources to work at the scale the new taskmasters seem to demand, and with a limited scope based on a legacy community or domain focus, professional societies don’t stack up well.

In 1995, the problem we faced was a clear threat of technological dominance. In 2013, the threat we face is one of ideological dominance. Large, rich, and well-coordinated groups of funders, governments, and technology companies have different incentives to see this unclear but sexy ideology of “open” implemented, and their alignment is growing. The chances become lower each year that smaller society publishers will be able to continue to practice independent and robust peer and editorial review, keep prices low by having diverse business models, use publishing surpluses to fund other activities of their organizations (research, education, and advocacy), and have anything more in the future than the running cost-plus argument of a utilities provider.

Where is the path to independence for small, professional society publishers this time?

(Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, thanks to a nice coincidence, Joe Esposito contemplates the options for society publishers.)

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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.


10 Thoughts on "It's Not 1995 Again — Why the Threats from the New Big Players May Be Much More Significant This Time"

One incentive worth examining lies within the goverment funding agencies. Each agency already has what amounts to a publishing arm, especially the ones that publish their research reports. These shops see green OA mandates as a way to grow much bigger because they become the repository. This is a powerful incentive which has little to do with ideology. That the money will come out of the agency research budget is not their concern. It is simply empire building.

There is an interesting ambiguity here. Does green OA mean the publisher makes the article available or does it require a separate repository? But then ideological movements are typically based on ambiguities as these make the bed bigger.

Kent you have provided a succinct and valuable analysis of the OA movement and its implications.

I was courted by one of first OA publishers and the motive I heard in the interviews was that their goal was to make a lot of money very quickly for themselves and then sell off the company to a large commercial publisher.

One person I spoke with said scientific OA journals are like sausages except instead of grinding up meat you publish everything received in order to turn out a product.

Thus, there was and still is not – at least in my mind – a great deal of altruistic motivation behind OA.

The assumption is apparently that commercial publishers are necessary to the dissemination of government-sponsored research and the Open Access movement. That is questionable at best. The Web has removed control of the means of production. The medium itself threatens 19th-century notions of copyright. Those are rooted in appropriate recompense for literary rights, but are being twisted to fly in the face of the balancing test for the public good and scientific advancement. Let us not ignore that universities, scholarly societies, and governments around the world have their own moral obligations to evolve a concept of Open Access–one that may not need to feature publishers.

This is not an “assumption” but an analysis of economic realities. This “movement” cannot avoid financial realities and economic facts. The fact that it’s an ideology does seem to make its adherents blind to economic and financial realities, however. OA’s business model is based on piece-part economics, which demand efficiencies and scale. Commercial publishers are best situated to deliver these. Being naive about these realities is exactly what allows venture capitalists and technology companies, not to mention funders and governments, to exploit the scientific publishing marketplace with very little resistance.

The public is served if there is an objective system for the assessment of research results, a system that slots these results into the appropriate outlets based on domain, importance, and quality. This objective system has to exist outside of the influence of the funders (foundations and governments) to be valid. Call these independent businesses what you will, but they are currently called “publishers.” They currently come in many shapes and sizes, but the economic trends and ideological demands are both pointing toward major consolidation, undercutting independent publishers.

If your picture of a “world without publishers” is a world without objective, third-party editorial, peer, and domain-specific review of research results, and you want instead a picture in which governments and foundations and technology companies dictate the terms of academic business and academic publishing . . . well, that’s pretty retrograde.

That is more than retrograde! That is what Stalin did in the Soviet Union to scientists!

Fred, there is nothing about commercial publishers in Kent’s analysis. It is about subscription publishers, especially small scholarly societies. Nor do I see that “The Web has removed control of the means of production.” It sounds like an interesting Marxist argument, which I have not heard before. Can you elaborate? Production of what? Not journal articles as they are still controlled by publishers. Production of expressed thought? Journals have never controlled that so it cannot be removed. What are you claiming?

Your comments remain a defense of the current status quo in the face of a communications revolution. Indeed, you seem to embrace publishers as the pure deciders of what should be published–or else “a world of without objective, third-party editorial peer…” I reject that premise as massive and scary overreach. Scholars remain the appropriate reviewers and basis for the objective system. Publishers remain capitalists in an industry that is increasingly dominated by financial agents and drives for survival. They logically and ethically stand at least on par for your worries against the dictates of “governments and foundations and technology companies. Still, I am delighted to have publishers and the others as partners. Yet, let’s not put the cart before the horse or overlook a major driving force behind Open Access in the process.In my world, the terms of academic businesss and academic publishing can only be properly dictated by Academia itself.

First, you work for a for-profit university. And you’re criticizing commercial publishers?

Second, so a venture-capital firm like PeerJ is OK in your book because it’s OA?

I think your ideology is blinding you to reality, as I suggested can happen.

Perhaps you haven’t noticed that society publishers have increasingly reached out to big commercial publishers to take over their journals, which they formerly published themselves or through other non-profit entitles like university presses? Remember what happened to AnthroSource?

Scholars are the reviewers. In fact, scholars control the entire system except of the sale of the material. Both OA and TP sell the material. Perhaps I am wrong but a Marxist interpretation of scholarly publishing is rather flawed. Everyone makes direct money off of the system except for the scholar who is an indirect recipient of money.

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