Authors, Business Models, Controversial Topics, Copyright, Open Access, Peer Review

The Illicit Love Affair between Open Access and Traditional Publishing

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Aside from the curry at Nora’s, the highlight of this year’s PSP conference for me was the panel put together by the Kitchen’s very own David Crotty. From the program notes:

This session will focus on the large number of requirements and policies being placed on researchers and their articles across the spectrum of scholarly publishing and how they are starting to impact publishers.

Kitchen readers may not be aware that when he is not cracking the whip over the wretched Kitchen contributors, David has a day job at Oxford University Press, where a growing portion of his time goes into managing compliance with various open access (OA) mandates. This was to be expected, of course: the price of a free lunch is astronomical. But as long as the people who demand a free lunch aren’t the ones who have to serve it up, free lunches will reign and costs will rise. This is the promise of OA: higher costs, more industry consolidation, and, among the advocates, an alarming growth of self-regard. Consolidation is the inevitable outcome because organizations seek scale to keep administrative costs down. OA is a marvelous feast, but don’t stick me with the check.

The panel had representatives from government (the NSF’s Amy Friedlander), the library world (Judith Russell, the Dean of the University of Florida’s library system), and publishing (Elsevier’s Alicia Wise). Until I attended this panel, I had not realized the extent to which libraries, too, incur administrative costs for OA compliance. My heart went out to Friedlander, who had the unenviable task of telling a room full of publishers that increasing their administrative costs is in the public interest. In fairness to Friedlander, whose presentation was truly excellent, the fault is not with “the bureaucracy,” which is staffed with diligent, intelligent people, but the nutty requirements they are charged with enforcing. Indeed, one of the reasons we tolerate many regulatory issues is that the bureaucracy does such a good job in managing them that the bite does not seem quite so deep. You can see some of the government’s guide to compliance here. It’s very well done.

And here are Friedlander’s slides–which, as government work products, are not protected by copyright:

For publishers the real issues become apparent when one looks at what Elsevier has to contend with. Elsevier is not an average or representative publisher in any sense, but Wise’s survey of the compliance issues makes one wonder how smaller organizations can pretend to cope with all this. Here is Wise’s slide deck:

What becomes clear as you peruse Wise’s materials is that the matter of compliance is not a single thing but a complicated collection of multiple mandates and rules. Let’s imagine, for example, a paper by three authors, who reside at three different institutions, located in three different countries, and whose research was partly funded by three different entities. The institutions may have different mandates, the funders may have different mandates, there may be local regulatory requirements, and even the individual authors may have the audacity to have some ideas as to how their work should be made public, typically expressed in a preference for one Creative Commons license over another (Solution: Don’t use CC licenses at all). The regulatory matters are completely out of sync with the global and collaborative nature of research publication today. Someone has to clean up this mess, and naturally that task falls to the publishers. And they will do a good job at it, though at considerable expense, as developing and implementing industrial systems is much of what publishers do.

I don’t challenge the right of funding agencies to stipulate how materials are to be published; after all, he who pays the piper calls the tune. It’s not a matter of right; it’s a matter of wisdom. And I would add to that a matter of hypocrisy. It’s unwise because the actual administration of the implementations has not been thought through, and it’s hypocritical because publishers are derided on one hand as parasites and, on the other, are brought into the system as necessary if unloved participants.

For those who truly want to disrupt publishing, here is how to go about it: Forget OA mandates for published material. Have funding agencies (governments, philanthropies, universities) require that every research project result in a comprehensive report. Create a rigorous template for that report, which includes carefully constructed metadata. And then post that report online at no cost to either the author or reader. Authors who fail to publish such reports are ineligible for further grants. Note that you can post materials online for free in many places; an institutional repository is not necessary (costs thus drop further). The report’s metadata will ensure that the article appear in search engine results; there is no need for a central repository. Preservation is a different matter and does require firm policies and investment.

What’s missing from this formulation? Most of the things that publishers do, and that includes, among many other things, the management of peer review. It would be interesting to see if people would be willing to pay for these things if the full text of the authors’ reports were freely available online. We do have limited tests of this proposition in the preprint services (e.g., arXiv), and some would argue that the fact that publishers still exist despite the preprint services means that OA does not represent a commercial challenge to publishers’ business interests. I don’t agree with that, and no one — not publishers, not funders — appears to be interested in testing the proposition at full scale. In my view the preprint services have already had an enormous impact on publishers’ practices. The services put downward pressure on pricing, for example, and motivate some publishers to make large-scale moves to new models (e.g., SCOAP3). The preprint services, and OA in general, also serve as a stimulus for selling journals in large packages, as that makes it harder for institutions to cancel subscriptions to single titles. And the large packages drive out the smaller publishers, which in turn leads to small publishers making service agreements with the largest publishers. Preprint services are not the only drivers of these developments, but they are a contributing factor.

Which serves to explain why we have the mandates in the first place, because of the illicit love affair between OA and traditional publishing. OA requires that publishers continue to provide the services they always have, but at greater expense.

As I have zero responsibility to comply with any of these regulations, I’m all for them. They create new business opportunities, which is my stock in trade. Every new mandate creates a new level of complexity, requiring organizations to rethink their strategy. Please, SPARC, bring it on! And when publishers get overwhelmed with the complexity, who you gonna call?

About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.


13 thoughts on “The Illicit Love Affair between Open Access and Traditional Publishing

  1. Well Joe, you have just hit the nail on the head. I’ve long said that the agencies just need to require reports and make them available. Done. In fact, this is basically what DOT does. The report is the deliverable. Any resulting publications are gravy. In fact, DOT’s original plan allowed for a 24 month embargo on published papers as they already have a report. OSTP rejected that part of the plan and required they go with a 12 month embargo.

    The only real problem with the mandates is this insistence that the peer reviewed paper be the public access deliverable. Every paper submitted to our journals costs us money, whether we accept it or reject it. Whether we conduct full peer review or we turn it away with a quick check.

    There also seems to be the need to acknowledge that for many, the manuscript version (whether reviewed or not) is not desirable. Pre-print servers have not toppled journals. We posted accepted manuscripts ahead of print for years and everyone hated it. Authors didn’t like having their un-copyedited papers online and readers totally ignored them. Maybe that will change over time but for now, while the content should fit the need, the format does not.

    Maybe the government should sink a billion bucks into launching the Journal of the United States. Call me Mr. President if you would like my resume.

    Posted by Angela Cochran | Feb 24, 2016, 6:59 am
  2. You forget to mention the rise of companies whose sole purpose is to facilitate the transaction of micropayment according to these myriad policies, pricing plans, and negotiated discounts. It would be a shame to see scholarly publishing resembling the US medical system, which is so burdened by high administrative costs. I agree that the total costs to the system would decline if funders adopted your reports proposal, but funders’ costs would rise (marginally), so its in their own self-interest to pass the ancillary costs to publishers and libraries and repositories. Can you see a solution where every institution’s interests are aligned, or are we doomed to function in an even more dysfunctional (aka “broken”) system?

    Posted by Phil Davis | Feb 24, 2016, 9:30 am
    • The situation–the “system,” as some would have it–will continue to get more complicated and expensive in the foreseeable future. The academy loves administration.

      Posted by Joseph Esposito | Feb 24, 2016, 9:35 am
      • Through the lens of the cynic, those librarians who spent their hours cataloging or in collection development would transition to the role of scholarly communication, where they would spend their hours depositing manuscripts in their own IR, negotiating ownership and access rights, and
        advocating for a model that moves them back toward a more central role in their institutions. But cynicism aside, if access to science is really a desired goal, I would hope we can try to find a solution that reduces costs and complexity, not compounds them.

        Posted by Phil Davis | Feb 24, 2016, 9:48 am
        • OA inherently increases total costs by removing publication from the discipline of the marketplace. The question is who shoulders those costs. There is no right or wrong here; it all depends on where you sit.

          Posted by Joseph Esposito | Feb 24, 2016, 9:52 am
  3. End of grant reports already exist, as Angela notes, and can be made available. These are not the same as the published outputs (gravy?) and need not be supported in the same way.

    Posted by Chris Fell | Feb 24, 2016, 9:39 am
  4. It would be great if someone would go through Ms. Friedlander’s slides and explain what all of the abbreviations mean for those of us not intimately involved in this issue. What is a PI, a PD, etc.?

    Posted by David Ball | Feb 24, 2016, 9:53 am
    • Let’s see:
      DMP = Data Management Plan (grant applicants are required to submit one)
      PI = Principle Investigator, basically the person running the lab
      PD = can’t find a definition for this abbreviation, anyone?
      DOE/OSTI = Department of Energy / Office of Scientific and Technological Information
      COPDESS = Coalition on Publishing Data in the Earth and Space Sciences

      Any others?

      Posted by David Crotty | Feb 24, 2016, 10:04 am
      • PD is probably either the Project Director or Program Director, or both. In DOE they are called Program Officers. They oversee the grant process. In other agencies they may be called the COTR (pronounced coater) for Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative or the TRCO (pronounced terco) for Technical Rep for the Contracting Officer. Acronyms are us. (I come from DOE/OSTI, pronounced ostee.) NSF is actually using the PAGES software system operated by OSTI. On an historical note, NSF pioneered the DMP procedure, which the other Public Access agencies have now adopted.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 24, 2016, 10:40 am
  5. Joe’s proposal is exactly what the Association of American Publishers supported as the America COMPETES Act as an alternative to the FRPPA legislation some years ago. It is a simple and elegant solution that leaves OA as a government responsibility and keeps the traditional subscription model alive for journal publishers.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Feb 24, 2016, 1:54 pm
    • Ironically, COMPETES required NSF to make their research reports publicly available, but the agency ducked it. The typical report is perhaps 60 pages long, with much more information than a journal article. Instead NSF created an additional reporting requirement, for a 750 or so word summary. These brief reports are publicly available via (if you can find them) and NSF says they satisfy the COMPETES requirement. So now we have Public Access instead.

      Posted by David Wojick | Feb 24, 2016, 2:11 pm


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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