A racing opponent for the publishing industry or, like the Brontosaurus, a misrepresentation of the truth? (Photo credit: carolina terp)

I was sitting in my kitchen with a tortoise, a slug, and a bowl of cold molasses and contemplating how nobody in this industry seems to feel any sense of urgency.  When the world was screaming for broader dissemination of research materials, publishers did nothing.  Creative Commons was already an established fact before publishers woke up to it.  While Heather Joseph proclaimed that open access is the norm, publishers still behaved as though their $9 billion journals business was something more than a hill of beans.  The world wants all-digital all the time, but publishers engage in bizarre technological fetishism over the printing press.  The world moves, publishers sleep.  It is so embarrassing to be associated with people and an industry that are on the wrong side of history.

Howard Ratner has been trying to persuade me that it ain’t so bad.  Howard, who was formerly associated with the Scholarly Kitchen, is now the Executive Director of CHORUS, an industry venture established to comply with new government regulations concerning public access to federally-funded research.  (David Crotty, the Kitchen’s editor and the world’s sternest taskmaster, is on the CHORUS Board.)  Howard delivered a presentation at the recent PSP conference, where publishers meet with other publishers, their faces cowled in shame. The topic was CHORUS and it seemed designed to refute the charge of sloth. Take a look at the slide deck and you will see what I mean.

In particular, take a look at slide #16, which shows the timeline of CHORUS’s development.  In February 2013 the OSTP promulgated its manifesto, which, its egregious errors to the side (e.g., the conflation of research and formal publications about research, which is like confusing a a picture of a pizza with a thin crust, mozzarella, and tomato sauce), started a process that was to lead to the creation of open access practices. Immediately afterward a group of publishers convened to come up with an efficient solution to the new challenge of regulatory compliance. A few months later a feasibility study was put together. A couple more months and the plans for the organization were established. Money was raised; Howard was appointed to run the operation. A design was developed and rapidly prototyped. One year from the OSTP announcement the project was being piloted, with more publishers signing up every week. By the summer of this year CHORUS will be fully operational.

Did I neglect to mention that the government guidelines are not yet fully in place? Yes, that’s right: CHORUS, a solution to a government policy, was fully developed before the particulars of the policy were established.

One aspect of this project is that it points to the fundamental nature of successful enterprises:  the only proven strategy is to hire the best people. I have made this point over and over to my not-for-profit clients, that commercial organizations are essentially human resource factories, but no one ever listens. It’s always easier to hire someone you know and are comfortable with, someone who won’t rock the boat. But leadership in a successful organization is all about challenging consensus and driving new practices and solutions. I can imagine someone saying that you can’t build a solution for the OSTP program before you know the details. But there it is. It’s up and running in defiance of all expectations.

So how can we explain how the dinosaur publishers, who never met an excuse they didn’t like, have moved so quickly with CHORUS? The answer is that organizations are neither fast nor slow; rather, they know their interests or they don’t, and when they see their interests at stake, they move at the speed of CHORUS.

This may serve to explain why publishers were not in the forefront of Creative Commons:  What’s in it for them? At this point CC is just another check box, a new piece of overhead.  It is not a rallying cry for utopian communications, but simply the cost of doing business.  Give up the printing presses? Publishers would love to, and in the journals world they mostly have. Book publishers, on the other hand, are faced with the market reality that people choose print over digital by 3 to 1. Is it in a publisher’s interest to tell its customers that they cannot get books in the format they prefer? (Librarians, with their all-digital agenda, may wish to consider whether they are alienating the patrons they depend on for support.) As for open access, it took a while before the economics were worked out, but thanks to the pioneers at BioMed Central, OA is now part of the overall revenue picture for many publishers. And incremental revenue is definitely in a publisher’s interest.

Speed is an irrelevant metric. The relevant metric is determining what is and is not in an organization’s interest. This is the realm of strategy. When critics pan publishers for being slow-moving, they are attempting to foist the strategy of another realm or constituency onto the operations of another.

Left unsaid is whether or not publishers know their own interests and how CHORUS fits into them. That’s a bigger question, which I will not attempt to answer. What is clear, though, is that publishers cannot stop with CHORUS. CHORUS is a piece of infrastructure (and a new cost), but it does not address the real game, how one publisher can surpass another.  For the successful publisher, CHORUS will simply be a backing band.

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Joseph Esposito

Joseph Esposito

Joe Esposito is a management consultant for the publishing and digital services industries. Joe focuses on organizational strategy and new business development. He is active in both the for-profit and not-for-profit areas.


33 Thoughts on "Is There Anything More Slow-moving than a Publisher?"

The development of CHORUS is indeed impressive, but it is important to remember that CHORUS is just a proposal at this point, a proposal to the US Government that has yet to be accepted. It has been over a year since the OSTP memo and no Federal action has been taken, except a new law requiring several agencies to use a PMC repository approach, which seems to rule using CHORUS out for them, but even that is not clear. The Department of Energy has championed CHORUS via it’s proposed PAGES system, but it is waiting for OSTP to rule on that proposal. NSF is rumored to be going the “any repository will do” way, which might also exclude CHORUS, depending on how their rules are finally written. Last I knew the Defense Department’s plan was to study the matter further. Agriculture has been friendly to CHORUS. And so it goes, agency by agency.

So when it comes to slow, welcome to Federal limbo.

The technology behind CHORUS also had to reach a critical point, especially FundRef, which was not even on the horizon a few years ago. Without FundRef, CHORUS is not nearly as feasible. Not only did publishers see developing CHORUS as in their interests, but they saw it was now feasible, and moved quickly once all the pieces were ready. There was an aspect of serendipity to the timing, but not to the development of the infrastructure. Publishers were major participants in CrossRef’s success, in addition to the excellent people at CrossRef, another pointer to “hiring the best.”

The infrastructure publishers have funded and helped develop bears some examination. Traditional publishers and organizations they’ve backed have been responsible for a large number of amazing infrastructure projects. CHORUS is the latest of these. We tend to think these things came about organically. In fact, they came about because a group of publishers cooperated, paid for them, and drove their adoption.

CrossRef’s Carol Anne Meyer also presented at PSP on CHORUS. See http://www.slideshare.net/CrossRef/fundref-chorus. Looks like FundRef is moving slowly. After almost a year only a handful of publishers are submitting significant FundRef data, but with more coming on. If FundRef does not work then probably neither does CHORUS. Perhaps it is well that the Feds are taking so long.

For many publishers this is a chicken and egg problem. For example, we don’t have the infrastructure to adequately collect funding information as a consistently tagged piece of content until the standard DTD supports it and until the online submission systems are ready to accept it. The online submission systems have been waiting on the FundRef approved founder list and we need a tag for the content. The same is true for ORCID. I can request ORCIDs all day from the authors but right now our submission system can’t do anything meaningful with that data and the DTD used on our platform is not yet ready to accept them.

It may seem slow and I am certainly not arguing that publishers are swift but there are so many moving pieces and each one requires cooperation among publishers and the vendors that serve those publishers.

Thanks Angela and I can certainly see the problem. This may be why Carol lists a lot of publishers as signed on to FundRef but not (yet) supplying data. The thing is that if and when the agencies move forward on public access they will want CHORUS to be working before they choose to use it, so time is of the essence as far as implementing FundRef is concerned. CHORUS is basically an intermediary between FundRef and the agencies.

Another issue with FundRef is that the funder taxonomy coverage of the agencies is very limited. The agencies will probably want office specific data but in many cases the taxonomy does not provide that, or it provides it unevenly. Thus the agency data on the 50,000 or so articles logged by FundRef so far, with many more to follow, may not be adequate for agency purposes. Once this agency specific article data becomes available a lot of people will be looking at it, internally and externally because the agencies are always under the microscope.


CHORUS makes use of specific parts of CrossRef’s funder registry – those that cover federal funding agencies. We (CrossRef) have been working with federal funders to ensure their organisations are represented correctly and completely within the registry. We’ll soon update the registry to incorporate feedback from USDOE, and others will follow.

Good to know Karl. The last version I saw had a number of deficiencies. I look forward to the next version.

I should also say that I don’t understand why the publishers have to make it easier for people to determine the funding agency. Each paper comes with an acknowledgement and the authors know that they have to make funding disclosures and they will so that they don’t lose funding for the next project. The fact that the government has “no way” to track this information is not at all a publisher problem and yet it is one that the publishing community is trying to solve.

If we see ourselves as a service industry, providing services that make researchers’ lives easier and more efficient, then this is yet another area where we can offer something useful.

Angela, the purpose of CHORUS is for the publishers to provide agency public access through the publisher’s websites rather than through repositories like PMC. In order for the publishers to do this the articles have to be tagged by federal funder. FundRef is supposed to provide the tagging.

No, I get that. CHORUS does not provide the tagging, but a handshake. The publishers have to tag their own content.

The participating agencies in CHORUS have missions in the physical sciences. These agencies have a long history of cooperation for distributing information, most notably the Science.gov website.

I served on the founding committee for Science.gov. One of the main objectives was to make agency reports more readily available. CHORUS seems like a natural extension of that process. OMB certainly is a driver. But I’m sure the agencies feel it is better to present OMB with a de facto working system rather than let OMB dream up some fanciful and impractical scheme of its own.

Ken, I am not sure what you mean by the participating agencies in CHORUS. No agency has committed to using CHORUS that I know of, or even participated in its development. Energy has designed PAGES to take input from CHORUS but no decision has been made to actually do that. PAGES is also designed to get accepted manuscripts from the authors; in fact it is already doing so.

I agree that Science.gov, which I too have worked on, is a good model for a CHORUS based multi-agency system. But it is far from clear that anything like that will happen.

If anyone is interested the entire PSP CHORUS panel session can be viewed here: http://chorusaccess.org/2014/02/27/chorus-plenary-session-video-posted/.

Of particular interest is the presentation by the Department of Energy’s Mark Martin, beginning around the 40 minute mark. Mark is the designer of PAGES, the only Federal public access system to date that is specifically designed to use CHORUS, which has been an important pilot effort all its own. There are also some good questions at the end of the video. However I had some difficulty moving around in the video, but maybe it is just me not having a pig pipe.

“Book publishers, on the other hand, are faced with the market reality that people choose print over digital by 3 to 1. Is it in a publisher’s interest to tell its customers that they cannot get books in the format they prefer? (Librarians, with their all-digital agenda, may wish to consider whether they are alienating the patrons they depend on for support.)” Sing it loud, sing it proud! The ebook platforms are so cumbersome, the note taking functions so intrusive, the ability to flip back and forth so difficult and the inability to effectively use multiple books at a time so completely absent that ebooks are all but useless for many scholarly purposes. Reading a cozy mystery? I love my ereader. Working with history or theology? Painful. In our efforts to be included in the digital age we’ve forgotten Ranganathan’s rule #1 “books are for use.”

I just tried CHORUS. The very first article I clicked on sent me to an Elsevier paywall page demanding $41.95 for the article.

Hi David,

When was the article you selected published? Funding agency requirements have yet to be announced, but the general gist of the OSTP memo was that it is expected that for most fields, papers will be publicly available 12 months after publication. CHORUS is meant to track all papers stemming from funded research, both before and after they become publicly available. Did you, perhaps, click on a paper that is less than 12 months old?

Good thoughts, will forward along to our working group.

Also, for what it’s worth, the US government strictly avoids using the phrase “open access” in their requirement document, only “public access”, likely to avoid arguments over the specific definition of OA.

Thanks David. I just clicked on article records from 2012 and 2011, and found that both were paywalled. I did a little Googling and found that: “The directive [of Feb 2013] does not apply retroactively”. So I guess I need to come back to CHORUS (or its equivalent) in Feb 2015-ish, when the first of the one-year paywalls (Feb 2013-Feb 2014?) has fully rolled over and been unlocked?

I think the issue here is that the funding agency can’t retroactively put conditions on funding they’ve already awarded and that has already been spent. That’s the motivator here–if you accept this funding, you have to publish your papers under the following terms. You can’t go back to someone whose grant ended 20 years ago and expect them to change their old papers.

What you find via CHORUS is probably going to depend on the publisher. We (OUP) make most of our science journal articles free after 1 year, but that’s just our practice, not due to any mandate. Note that CHORUS is completely compatible with Gold OA papers and journals as well, so that material will immediately be freely available.

The Feb 2013 OSTP directive does not start any access clocks. It merely directs the agencies to begin developing access plans, with no deadline for their implementation. Some agencies estimate that their first public access will occur in 2017, which may be optimistic. Other agencies are already collecting accepted manuscripts, which might be available in less than a year, but no official access periods have yet been established. Today’s CHORUS is primarily a pilot project awaiting Federal action, although it is able to make publisher’s open access articles available in the meantime. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this. CHORUS is intended to be part of a Federal access program which does not yet exist.

I’m not sure this depiction is accurate, and CHORUS is not sitting around waiting for federal action. As per slide 16, CHORUS plans to go into production later this year. Given the slow pace of government, it serves CHORUS and the research community more to be proactive and create something really useful that can help guide agency policy rather than waiting around for policy to be set and then trying to catch up.

This is indeed the great uncertainty, David C. CHORUS might become something useful independent of the Federal program, such as a portal for accessible articles. In a sense CHORUS has to find something to do while the Feds dither. For that matter the OSTP program may never happen. Or the agencies may decline to use CHORUS. Rumor has it that NSF is simply going to require that their grantees deposit their accepted manuscripts in a repository of their own choosing, which costs NSF nothing. SHARE is developing a notification system to facilitate such an approach. The point is that at this point what CHORUS is, or will be, is far from clear. The PSP presentations tend to obscure this important fact, hence the confusion.

Thanks for the clarification, David. I’m in the UK and admit I have not been closely following the last 12 months of U.S. national policy developments very closely. Given what you say, it seems to me that the commercial publishers involved with CHORUS will obtain four years of very useful SEO for their paywall articles, via Google’s indexing of CHORUS. As a consequence might I suggest CHORUS’s directors consider siphoning off a small percentage of the income specifically generated via CHORUS’s Google traffic, perhaps into an independent foundation? There is, for instance, a pressing need for a campaign / tool-set to help raise the indexing savvy and general discoverability of open access ejournals in the arts and humanities.

If you are interesting in discovering OA content for edited lists of journals – what about looking at the DOAJ? CrossRef have done some work to integrate DOAJ listings into our search and discoverability tool at http://search.crossref.org (incidentally – this is the same service that powers CHORUS search.) There you’ll find the ability to discover ‘OA’ journals.

Further, CrossRef’s open API (that also powers CHORUS) provides the ability to look up article metadata for articles found in journals listed in the DOAJ: http://api.crossref.org/help .

Note though that a listing in DOAJ, in fact OA in general does not imply ‘free to read’ (though perhaps in practice it does), just as ‘free to read’ does not imply OA. Picking out material based on your own criteria of acceptability for licenses may be the best way to go – and is something CrossRef is supporting by including license links in our metadata. These are also discoverable through our open API.

Note that all of this work CrossRef has done to enable the collection of metadata, and to make metadata available is paid for by publishers – they pay our membership fees.

Librarians, with their all-digital agenda, may wish to consider whether they are alienating the patrons they depend on for support.

Joe, while I agree that we librarians need to be very careful about moving reflexively in directions that we think our patrons want (or ought to want, or would surely want if only they were better informed), I should probably point out that our general move in the digital direction is heavily informed not only by patrons’ expressed wishes, but by their behavior. When asked, very few patrons in research libraries express any desire for print journal subscriptions — most want ejournals, and our students are clamoring for the space that has been by bound journal volumes. As for books, what our patrons say is more mixed — but when they vote with their feet (particularly in large research libraries), the tide is consistently and dramatically away from print. Every individual library’s mileage will vary, of course, and every library needs to be paying careful attention to the particular needs and desires of its own patron base. But it’s also true that hardly any library really has an “all-digital agenda.” Virtually all of us are still buying lots of books in print even as we increase our ebook offerings, and I think we all expect to keep doing so for the foreseeable future.

For journals I agree with you, electronic journals are preferred by nearly everyone and applications like Browzine are compensating for the down sides. Ebooks are another matter and a very very different matter by discipline and resource type. An e reference book is arguably more useful than most print versions. A doctoral candidate in history who may have 50 books open in a half circle on his desk, however, will likely prefer print. The advantage of ebooks is that it makes demand-driven acquisition far easier and, of course, we don’t have to warehouse them but making our back-end processes easier at the expense of usability for the user is a questionable, if common, practice.

A doctoral candidate in history who may have 50 books open in a half circle on his desk, however, will likely prefer print.

That’s certainly the conventional wisdom, but it’s not borne out by the evidence of circulation data (in large North American research libraries, anyway).

Do you have to check out a book and physically take it out of the library before it counts towards circulation data? I’m sure I cited print books in papers that I never actually checked out.

Yes, that’s correct. But the downward trend is so marked that even if in-house use has remained relatively stable, the reduction in actual collection use as represented by circulations is still dramatic. (In my own library, the number of reshelvings has fallen drastically over the same period.) Of course, each library’s individual trends will be unique, and those trends are what should shape each library’s strategies.

Well, Slide 3 makes it clear they’re not interested in catering to the old and ugly, so I guess that rules me out.

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