Defining success is one of the most vital tasks for the leaders of any organization or any movement. Sometimes we try to paper over differences in our definitions of success. Papering over differences can be healthy when it is done to build coalitions for larger purposes. Papering over differences can be dangerous when it leads to confused thinking about strategic objectives and impedes the wise allocation of scarce resources.

Over the years, more libraries, academics, and publishers have begun to advocate for or accommodate themselves to a new environment for scholarly communication, including open access, institutional repositories, and preprints. Thought of as a movement, one with early visionaries and later arrivals, it is a big tent, including librarians, scientists, startups, societies, university presses, and commercial publishers. In building this big tent, definitions of success have become somewhat muddled, by no means in the minds of every individual or organization, but certainly for some.

the unicorn is found
The Unicorn Is Found, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some organizations approaching open access will have a relatively straightforward and common definition of success. Commercial publishers have sought business models that are compatible with open access, market share for these new models, and over time growing revenue generation and high return on investment. Non-profit publishers, such as university presses and scholarly societies, have pursued their own form of sustainability for open access programs, bearing in mind at times complicated questions about cross-subsidization within their larger operations.

We are more likely to see a shared definition of success among universities, scientists, and librarians, when decision-making about definitions is comparatively centralized. In the United Kingdom and some European countries, open access is established policy at the level of higher education funding, and definitions of success there are comparatively straightforward. But in the United States, at least, academia faces greater complexity in establishing definitions of success, with a variety of interests operating not only within the library but more broadly across a university. To be sure, individual libraries and library systems have made some real progress in making their research output freely available. But, for them, is open access a means or is it an end in itself?

At the broadest level, universities, academics, and libraries too often conflate several rather different objectives for transforming scholarly communications. In some cases, the objective is to maximize public access to the university’s research outputs. In other cases, it is to bend the cost curve for the university’s licensed e-resources — or escape this paradigm altogether. Because these two purposes are both widely shared, it is understandable that they become to some degree conflated in the pursuit of “open access.” But, they are in fact discrete goals that merit different (not necessarily mutually incompatible) strategic directions.

This conflation is one of the factors that has resulted in some differences in the open access movement, which seeks a broadly defined outcome for a variety of differing underlying purposes. Here at the Kitchen, Rick Anderson has amply documented some real differences in specific definitions of open access, including differences not only in licensing practices but in the very real differences between open access articles and open access journals. He has also examined some of the broader differences in the goals of the movement, such as whether open access is about removing all barriers for users or simply throttling commercial publishers and whether open access is compatible with embargoed access or charging for access. In Rick’s work, we see the “big tent” approach that any movement will reasonably pursue but also some of the challenges that necessarily result.

At the broadest level, universities, academics, and libraries too often conflate several rather different objectives for why one might wish to transform scholarly communications.

Given the challenges in articulating the fundamental purpose of many scholarly communication agendas, it should be no surprise to find this uncertainty reflected in how libraries approach institutional repositories. In a recent set of discussions about the current state and future directions of institutional repositories (in one of which I participated), CNI found a bit of a jumble:

  • There was some confusion about how institutional repositories connect up to funder mandates, disciplinary preprint services, and ResearchGate and Academia.Edu.
  • There were an array of “[d]ifficulties in clearly delineating the boundaries and definition of a repository,” with programs for online access to preprints and those for research data management, digital special collections, and other purposes, using the same platform and at times shared staffing.
  • And “[t]here is an interesting school of thought surfacing that says that a CRIS [current research information system, such as Elsevier’s PURE] might serve much of the function of an IR [institutional repository],” as well as emerging models where a repository provides discovery but “the publisher controls access.”

At some libraries, if definitions of scholarly communication success have become muddled across the university community, this jumble of platforms and programs is probably one of the factors at work.

The administrative organization of scholarly communication functions in libraries also varies widely. An Ithaka S+R study examining the organization of scholarly communication activities found that in many large research libraries the function reposes in a dedicated office, but how this work is organized may tell us something about objectives and prioritization:

  • Sometimes this office is attached to a licensing and collections division, which seems to reflect a view that scholarly communication initiatives can somewhat directly transform libraries’ engagement with traditional publishing models.
  • At other times, this office is positioned in a research support or publishing division, which seems to reflect an approach of primarily trying to support scholars’ objectives and perhaps seeing a longer-term or more indirect path to influence.
  • In other cases, there is no specific office but rather the function is seen as integrated across the library organization as a shared responsibility.

These different organizational models may not directly map onto different objectives for scholarly communication, but they certainly suggest differing levels of perceived time to impact.

Looking across this landscape, we see an array of approaches informed by a variety of objectives. We should probably expect nothing else in a higher education system as decentralized and differentiated as that in the United States.

Academia has become understandably committed to the necessity of transforming scholarly communication. It is making a variety of investments well beyond institutional repositories, including article processing fees, hosting and publishing services, contributions to disciplinary preprints programs, and more. At the same time, open access, however it is defined, may not always be best seen as an underlying purpose but rather in some cases as an outcome. What is the objective, what is the definition of success, as academia and its libraries engage in issues of scholarly communication? Answering this question crisply and with a clear sense of priority may allow libraries to evaluate their investments, and to organize, staff, and run their operations, with greater focus.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is director of Ithaka S+R’s Library and Scholarly Communication program. He leads a team of methodological experts and analysts that provides strategic consulting, surveys, and other research projects, for academic libraries, scholarly publishers and intermediaries, museums, and learned societies. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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72 Thoughts on "Open Access & Scholarly Communication: Defining Success"

If the OA model requires a subsidy then it is only as successful as the subsidizers’ commitment to granting funds. I would not consider this model successful. As for not for profit, this is at best a nebulous term and one really limited to the rules of the IRS. In short, not for profits are not profitless. Just look at ACS, IEEE, and FASEB, etc.

A successful model is one that is self sustaining and is so because of the merits of what it is doing.

Mandates are at best a soup dejour and could disappear tomorrow, especially under the current political climate.

Lastly, is academia committed to the transformation of scholarly communication? I wonder just how committed it is if they had to pay out of their own pocket the piper to play!

Subsidization is certainly a sustainable model. It has been used by university presses for a century and a half. And some types of subsidy, such as endowment funding, are by definition sustainable. That is how the Amherst College Press, which Mark Edington heads, got started.

So what? Penn State Press joined the Library there administratively in 2005, but our budgets were kept separate. Our subsidy did not come from the Library.

“Given the challenges in articulating the fundamental purpose of many scholarly communication agendas…” — exactly. There will be at least as many answers to “what is success in open access?” as there are expressions of this essential question of purpose. And it is not self-evident that this is a problem. Why should there be only one definition?

So what is the purpose of scholarly communication? What, more sharply, is the purpose of scholarly publishing? Is it to move ideas most efficiently between scholars? Is it to support specific business models that have grown organically around institutional needs and convenience? Is it to provide a means of credentialing scholars, certifying which among them are qualified to be hired, to be tenured, to be promoted? Is it some blend of these, and other ideas?

If scholarly communication serves essentially the needs of scholars, if it is primarily an infrastructure for the support, encouragement, and distribution of their ideas, then it makes as much sense to speak of “success” in open access as it does to speak of “success” in other infrastructures. It’s a public good; “success” would mean that the burden of maintaining it is shared equitably. It seeks to communicate ideas; “success” would mean those who need to have access to it both as creators (authors) and users (students and scholars). It serves the needs of publicly supported institutions, whether directly (public universities) or indirectly (the significant benefit of tax exemption given to all institutions of higher education); “success” would mean it serves the public good. If these ideas of success accurately reflect what one takes to be the purpose of scholarly communication, then open access seems a means more likely to achieve the objective.

Admittedly, infrastructures lack for prestige and the aura of luxury. They aren’t private clubs. They don’t attract the interests of philanthropists. They’re gritty, inelegant, and maddeningly democratic. That’s why we have to find equitable, non-market solutions for paying for them.

Good arguments. But, unfortunately if one has to pay for something (either author or consumer) then that something is involved in the market. Thus, the equitable question is who pays?

It seems to me that the hole in your argument is that you propose that something is free and nothing is free!

Hi, Harvey. This is pretty simple to me. All the people who use highways drive cars and trucks. So they all pay to keep up the infrastructure through gas taxes. All of us benefit from the defense of the country, so we all pay for the military through our taxes. And all institutions of higher education (4,140 of them, I think is the number) benefit from, and depend on, the system of scholarly communication. So, those institutions should pay for it. Actually, they already do — because they’re the largest source of revenue (by far) making the system go. But the way we’re spending that money is wildly inefficient, and could make for tremendously greater impact for new ideas if we rearranged the way we pay for it, and what we get as a result.

Rearrangement how?

OA? This doesn’t seem to be working! Authors are beginning to grip about the costs to them. see:

Lets use the roads/highway analogy. Have you driven on our urban road system lately? What are they talking about? $1 Trillion to just get it up to snuff!
Isn’t the passing of the costs to publish from the institution to the author just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?
I realize one can give the same argument regarding taxation and the uses of tax dollars. But, the public seems willing to accept the costs relative to the public good. However, the costs of publishing academic papers have not been presented to the public. Perhaps, we should have a public debate on the topic.

Scientific research is largely subsidized. Scientific research without its publishing (i.e. making public) phase is patently incomplete. Hence, the research cycle must include the publishing phase. And if research is largely subsidized, why should not the publishing phase be equally subsidized? Who ever decreed that the publishing of research results should follow strictly commercial forms of behaviour? Furthermore, in many parts of the world, subsidies of subscription-based journals exist (e.g. in Canada). Why could not this practise be extended to open access forms of publication?

Sometimes, it is useful to think out of the commercial box.

Jean-Claude Guédon

What makes one think that a non commercial publisher only breaks even in its publishing endeavors?
I am not arguing either in favor of or against commercial publishers or society/association publishers, I am arguing for reality!
In short, there is no free lunch.

Jean-Claude, I hope you do not imagine that I am thinking inside a commercial box. My piece was intended to raise the question of whether US academia and its libraries can define their objectives with sufficient clarity so that they can apply their resources to achieve precisely the outcome you propose.


I was responding to Harvey Kane. Sorry for the mixup.


Roger — thanks for highlighting one of the most vexing aspects of the entire OA/ScholCom discussion. In his comment, Mark Edington describes some of the ways in which OA seems to be a good thing and in that sense a “success.” I don’t disagree with the points he makes. But if one is trying to evaluate, at an institutional or programmatic level, whether something is a success, we need to use a more rigorous definition. Are the resources devoted resulting in worthwhile measurable progress toward the clearly defined result without also causing an unacceptable degree of negative unintended consequences? I found the CNI discussion that you pointed to particularly illuminating in this regard, and was struck by this line: “Only a few institutions discussed assessment of repository programs and no institution present had stated goals or metrics for what constituted success.” Quite a number of institutions have invested considerable resources in their scholcom activities — until we can evaluate the degree to which these are successful in this more rigorous sense we can’t make good decisions about whether to devote more or fewer resources to existing initiatives, or whether some course corrections are needed in where we devote our substantial efforts.

Howabout we don’t think of OA as an end goal, but as a technology. Compare it to something like ‘digitisation’. We are all involved in various digitisation programs, but there is no end to digitisation: its a technology, a set of practices and ideas, that can be applied to a variety of problems – access, preservation, research. We succeed at digitising a set of material, but if not all material is not digitised, or digitised well, its not digitisation’s fault! OA is not something that wins or loses, it is a variety of licences, commercial practices and culture that is used to meet a number of problems: access, ecomomic, political.

Thinking of a final set goal where everything is OA is a bit daft as there are times and places for a subscription model to information. I can even imagine subscription services to edited OA material – that’s the reason we plump for cc-by, not cc-by-nc!

Lets stop fretting about ‘what OA means’, and think about using the variety of methods it gives us to approach some truly difficult problems.

As an editor of an OA journal with no budget, success is defined as a) knowledge is made available to all and b) the cost to authors and readers are zero or minimal. That was the ethos behind the ‘opening up’ of knowledge at institutions like the World Bank [who even publish critiques and evaluations of their own activities these days] , and doubtless many public institutions, funding agencies, and libraries in the US and beyond. A byproduct of a) and b) is that c) competition between publishing entities is minimized because there is almost no financial advantage to publishing material that remains owned by authors, rendering corporate profiteering nearly impossible. [JSTOR now want to publish OA material, which I am not sure I am happy about]. We need to get out of the constant refrain from publishers “but somebody has to pay”. DIY publishing in different forms, minimizes these costs, or meets them innovatively. They use communal effort, volunteerism, a small fraction of academic’s time, and a small fraction of a server. If subsidy is required, it is not a subsidy going to a profit-making company, increasing its profits, but to the creation of free public knowledge – the information commons. The success of the free and low cost OA movement, among the majority of the journals on the DOAJ for instance, is one in the eye for the big five commercial publishers.

Thank you, Anton, for re-centering the debate where it belongs: the point of scientific communication is communication, not publishers or even journals.
There is indeed a cost to support scientific communication. LIt turns out that libraries hold most of the financial resources needed to financing scientific communication. They already do by paying huge amounts of money for licenses, subscriptions, and monograph acquisitions. If libraries begin to reallocate their resources to supporting scientific communication rather than supporting greedy profit-making publishers, we will be on our way to setting up a communication system where competition, if any, will be between ideas, and not between journal market shares.

The reason for scholarly communication is more than just getting information out. There is the impact on the author, institution, department, funding agencies, etc…
As for libraries being flush with cash just ask your local librarian. Libraries do more than just hold stuff for others to use.

The reason for scholarly communication is … communication, not just getting information. As for the rest – impact – this is where things really go wrong. Does buying a Vuitton suitcase guarantee the quality of the Vuitton suitcase? Of course not! Likewise, does the impact factor of a journal guarantee the quality of its articles? Of course not, and the positive correlation noticed in a few studies between IF and retractions is telling in this regard.

Scientific communication does not need impact factor; it needs a good assessment of real quality of work and this can be done only at the article level, not the journal level.

Finally, I did not say that libraries were flush with cash; I was only saying that most of the money flowing to the publishers ultimately comes from library budgets. That money can be reallocated as we are beginning to witness in my university.

Interesting you bring up impact factor and I did not. What I said is that there are more reasons for publishing aside from just communication. Why try to divert from your argument? I strongly believe that your interpretation of the purpose of scientific communication is rather limited. To me, the purpose of scientific communication is multifaceted and in the process of doing it conveys new accurate information that is of some use to someone. Now if you want to discuss impact factor do address your ideas in an article about IF!

You mentioned “impact”. In scholarly publishing, this translates into a metric, the IF. Impact is generally defined by the number of citations an articles receives.

There is little need to discuss IF further. It is a totally flawed metric.

To me also, the purpose of scientific communication is multifaceted. So, you should be in agreement with me.

SP: At last there is a free lunch! Where can I go to get one? You are an editor with no budget and it is only your time. It is good to learn that your time is free. I need my house painted when can you come over?

That’s an out of date view I am afraid. We obtain ‘virtual’ finance through volunteered server space, a laptop, and our time. Rather like you working as a volunteer baseball coach for a kids team, with a bit of sponsorship here and there, and playing on a public field. Then doing well in the local league. Streets away from a commercial team paying players and charging the fans to attend games. As I said, “We need to get out of the constant refrain from publishers “but somebody has to pay”. DIY publishing in different forms, minimizes these costs, or meets them innovatively. They use communal effort, volunteerism, a small fraction of academic’s time, and a small fraction of a server.”
Commercial publishers need to pay their staff (often extremely badly) and try to make a profit as well, because they are businesses – some with shareholders too. We can do a better, or equal job in the DIY sector. I have been doing this for 15 years with a journal that the big 5 are somewhat jealous of, and which has an IF now halfway up the ranks.

SP “and our time” as I said my house needs painting when are you coming over!

It seems to me that mentioning how to grow a means for scholars to communicate is perfectly legitimate. The “labour of love”, in the first few years, helps develop a new vehicle, a new community. Many good journals in DOAJ are in that state, or started in this fashion. Once their intellectual, academic, communicational, etc. (multifaceted etc…) value is recognized, it may be the time for a library, for example, or a group of libraries, or a funder, or a group of funders, to take this communicational vehicle on and support it as part of the efforts to support the whole research cycle.

As for painting anybody’s house, this is a silly example, if you permit me.

As long as there is no free lunch the painting of the house stands as a very good argument. Additionally, as long as libraries or other funding agencies are needed then OA is simply the transferring costs one pocket to another.

Your house painting argument is not a good argument. Your “free lunch” mantra is so general as to explain nothing. At the same time, it silently rests on the notion that people are nothing but pure economic actors. Greed and selfishness are the only motives acceptable in your discourse, and thanks to the miracle of the markets and the invisible hand, all this greed translates into the optimal good for everyone. Is this not a wonderful conceit?

Thankfully, this is simply does not capture the reality of the human condition. Because you reduce the human being to a narrow, greedy, profit-seeking, market-driven arch-individual, you think that someone ready to do a “labour of love” for the sake of a greater cause ought to do the same for your “house”. However, when I spent hours developing and stewarding an electronic journal between 1991 and 2001, I was doing it because I wanted to help my community of researchers. I was doing it because I found the exploring of this new landscape fascinating. I was doing it because it helped me understand the real nature of the political economy of academic publishing, which, I must say, revealed plenty of the nasty, greedy, even perverse, reality out there, including outrageous levels of profit making. I was not doing it because I was a stupid, or naive, economic actor.

Some of us, whether you understand this or not, balance individualism with a sense of commitment to greater human structures. Pushing for OA is exactly about this kind of concern: the research communities, to work optimally, need the freest possible access to the research results of their colleagues. Moreover, the knowledge generated by researchers is also of interest to wider categories of people and, as a result, society itself, to work better, needs the freest possible access to the best forms of knowledge we have.

Now, as for the cost of supporting a communication system, it is real. OA, however, is not about these costs because OA supporters know that there is enough money in the system to support an open communication system. Remove the 35-40% profit level of the oligopolistic bunch, or bring it down to 5% for honest business, and many of the problems we face disappear.

In conclusion, yes, I am willing freely to give time and efforts to support a greater cause such as OA, but this is not commensurate to painting your house about which I do not give a fart. Your house is your responsibility, not mine; access to validated knowledge is our responsibility, all of us.

Finally, if OA is about transferring costs from one pocket to another, it is simply transferring the costs of making research results public in a satisfactory way back to the general budget of research costs. The SciELO model which rests on the research councils of Latin American countries (plus South Africa) has it right.They support research, and they support the publication of research. Furthermore, they do it while letting the editorial management of content in the hands of the research communities.

And if your house needs painting, go for it, rather than spending time on idle discussions like this one!

Harvey, let me remind you that commercial publishers are enjoying a partial “free lunch” since they do not pay faculty for the time they spend reviewing manuscripts. If they had to bear the true costs of that service, their profit margins would be far smaller. Is there another industry that benefits in this way from free labor?

Unlike Jean-Claude, however, I would not use the word “greedy” in describing commercial publishers. They are simply doing what is expected of anyt for-profit business, viz., maximizing profits on behalf of their owners or shareholders. It seems churlish to accuse people who work for these companies of being greedy.

I think the real question here is whether the business of publishing journals can be more efficiently and cheaply done by the non-profit sector (libraries, university presses, society publishers) than by commercial publishers. The latter benefit from economies of scale, greater capital resources to invest in technology, and a variety of other advantages, but they also tend to be located in high-rent areas and have higher-paid staff. There is probably no easy answer to this question because no doubt some commercial publishers can do the job better than non-profits while some non-profits can do the job better than commercial publishers.

Sandy that is true. Publishers do enjoy free hordervers.
I think you have summed up this post!

Agreed, silly. We are about building an academic community, not supporting commercial publishers and their supporters. Those guys can pay to have their own house painted.

Ah, so you are saying that your position is a morally superior one. Now I understand that you agree that there is no free lunch. But you indicate that the moral crusade in which you are engaged is one with a limited commitment and once it ends then you hold that the public should subjourn the effort. But, you have failed to ask the public if they want to support journals especially since the journals in the end will line your pockets with prestige, grants, promotion and a job for life!
Additionally, you say that commercial publishers are greedy blood suckers on the body of academia. However, I do not see you rail against commercial business interests that support academic research, or buy booth space at annual meetings that do a great deal to support your community, etc. For some reason it is only journals by commercial publishers and not those say by learned societies or associations – whom I might add have some very healthy balance sheets.
Silly or not, my argument stands and my house still needs painting – after all your time is free for a limited time frame and now all we are arguing about is money!

Interesting to see Mr. Kane refer to moral supriority. At least, it shows that he is aware that he may not have taken the high road in this discussion.
As for the issue of public support, the public has been supporting scientific research for centuries. Publishing is part of the research life cycle. So why could not the public support scientific publishing. And if the public does not want to support research (including the publishing of research results), then it becomes a political matter, not a decision for Mr. Kane to take.

Reducing the publishing function to lining pockets “with prestige, grants, promotion and a job for life” is agood example of Mr. Kane’s inability to imagine that people can do things for other reasons than their private advantage. There is a dark streak in this mean-spirited remark.

The business support for research is real, but it represents only a minority fraction of the cost of research, and it is heavily focused on development, rather than research. Fundamental research, despite its ultimate benefits to society, does not attract much business support. In short, without public support, fundamental research would quickly shrivel up.

The large, oligopolistic, publishers (Elsevier, Nature-Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis) maintain profit rates between 30 and 40%. These go to their investors. Association and societies do generate surpluses, but, by law in most countries, they use them to support a number of activities benefiting the related professions, students, research, etc. I still think the ACS, for example, could try not to imitate the oligopolisitic publishers so faithfully, but I still distinguish them from the commercial publishers. This said, it is a curious argument to state that what I do is OK since the others do it already. The moral high road requires a little more than that!

Finally, my free time will not easily focus on serving your proprietary and, might I say, greedy, desire to have your own house repainted. I will use that time to fulfill myself and try to serve my community better. I am not just a consumer and an economic actor responding to market pressures, I am also a citizen with a sense of solidarity to my society and its members. Can Mr. Kane understand this simple language?

Let us look at the Elsevier balance sheet
To summarize: in 2016 Elsevier earned $9.34 Billion. That’s a lot of money. They earned $1.5 Billion from publishing also a lot of money but, not all of it comes from journals, and their pre tax income after costs was $1,2 Billion and they set aside some $412 Million for taxes. I wonder where the 30-40% profit comes from?
As to my argument that I only look at the economic side of things. That dark side!
I know many scientists having been in academic publishing for some 40 years and indeed most perform tasks for altruistic reasons. But, I never met one who said I love what I do so much that I would do this without taking a salary. So I prefer to live in the real world.
Yes primary research is carried out under public grants. And society as a whole endorses this action. Money is dedicated in the public budget. But, as I said, lets bring it to the people to learn if they want to support publishing scientific articles. Ask your librarian how many journals they would like to take on without an increase in their budget. In the debate let’s explain just why a person has to publish and the gains or losses one incurs by not doing so.
Publishers both commercial and not spend lots of money publishing articles. I believe there are some very good scholarly kitchen articles on just what publishers do. I do not think nor believe there are enough volunteers to perform the tasks listed. Nor do I believe that one can maintain list servers, archiving, marketing, copy editing, etc. with an all volunteer labor force. After all there are some 1.8 million articles published on a yearly basis. Perhaps you do.
BTW I too volunteer and serve my community and society in so doing, but I do it with my eyes open.

Re: “To summarize: in 2016 Elsevier earned $9.34 Billion. That’s a lot of money. They earned $1.5 Billion from publishing also a lot of money but, not all of it comes from journals, and their pre tax income after costs was $1,2 Billion and they set aside some $412 Million for taxes. I wonder where the 30-40% profit comes from?”

I attract the attention of the readers to the graph found here and whose source are the MIT libraries:

I believe the discrepancy comes from the fact that the source used by Mr. Kane aggregates academic publishing with all the other activities of RELX. aka Elsevier. Let us stick with the profit margins in academic publishing and not mix this up with whatever.

Interesting but that is 10 year old data. The balance sheet reflects something different.

But, I am not here to defend anyone.

I have had to replace more than one editor in chief of various journals which have had the leading IF number and even with a healthy stipend have been turned down. The primary reason being too busy!

My question is how many of your colleagues are prepared to volunteer running and working on a journal and carrying out the various tasks involved in publishing the some 1.2 million papers published each year? Of course, the total number of papers submitted is probably at least three times as many

Why not ask your colleagues in various STEM departments if they would volunteer to be an editor or on an editorial board, review papers, follow up on the reviews with authors, check production, review for grammar style and content, and/or do one of the other 96 tasks, etc. (See:

In short, I would be curious to learn if – to carry out my metaphor – they would we willing to paint the house for free?

Scholarly publishing is not an efficient undertaking. This has been set out very well in the recently published report “Untangling Academic Publishing” by Aileen Fyfe et al. It is this intertwining of publishing with evaluation which J-C Guédon wrote about in 2001 “In Oldenburg’s Long Shadow” that seems very resilient to change. Scientific knowledge is a global public good, but cannot be truly open because publishing is dysfunctional. Of course communicating scientific knowledge costs money, and if we regard it as society’s or the state’s job to fund academic research then this must include the communication of the results, but in the best and most efficient way. The currency of academia, namely authorship, has become been devalued through the “publish or perish” paradigm. Publishers through the academic scientists giving their time as editors and referees have been doing a good job as gatekeepers. But the system is straining, and we need academics, societies, universities and funders to take the lead in changing publishing and evaluation practices to provide a modern communication system that works in the best interests of the global scientific community.

Strong argument and very relevant to the discussion. Although reviewers are not paid and associate editors, editors of a journal are often paid handsomely. I too would like to see everyone volunteer their time and skill but considering the rewards to authors should the public pick up the tab not once but twice if one considers that most who publish teach and are rewarded with promotion, etc.? If we go to an all volunteer system then the entire bill must be paid. As we have witnessed in this forum there are some 100 plus tasks involved in bringing an article to light along with after publishing tasks such as coding for archiving. Additionally there are some 1.5 million articles published each year. Will we find the number of volunteers needed? Should only the US pick up the tab or should there be a central pool created comprising all or just some countries?

The question is how much is the tab? Is the public getting good value for money? Are profit margins too high? At the moment the academic publishing system is suffering from overflow (we cannot process all new information adequately) and scientists are under pressure to make the numbers (remember Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.). Publishing is skewed to novelty rather than reproducibility. To utilize all the advantages of the internet, electronic publishing and data handling for the maximizing of ROI on research funding we need open access and open data. But more than that we need open science, so that researchers collaborate more and thereby increase the efficiency of research, and make available all (meaningful) results – including negative ones. Without the full set of information giving the boundaries of experiments (e.g. in chemistry the scope of reactions) we will not be able to effectively use machine learning and other AI techniques, which are needed to cope with the ever increasing flood of information. If the haves make information freely available to those that have less, the playing field gets more level, allowing more global collaboration, which would result in the tab being spread more evenly.

Re: Although reviewers are not paid and associate editors, editors of a journal are often paid handsomely.

If anyone has solid information about this, it would be useful to publish it.

Otherwise, the issue is not between a volunteer system and a not-volunteer system. At th same time, the volunteer contribution should be analyzed for what it does, and not dismissed out of hand.

In my experience with over a dozen journals published by two university presses, not a single editor or associate editor was paid anything for their services. These are journals in the HSS fields, however, and practices in the STEM fields may well be different.

Interesting. At APhA JPharmSci’s editor in chief was given a stipend and all my journals at CRC had paid EIC and those at ACS had stipends. Maybe I should have used the word stipend.

No stipends either, but they did qualify for discounts on purchases of books.

I guess that is the advantage of a Univ Press. As stated everywhere I worked, CRC, Macmillan, Academic, Humana, and Springer journal EICs were supported.

Thank you, Sandy. This is what I have also heard, but hard facts are hard to come by. There is very little transparency here, and one could wonder why. However, I too have heard that editors-in-chief receive substantial “stipends”.

Regarding Elsevier’s profit, I can use slightly more recent figures (2010): “Elsevier, the biggest publisher of journals with almost 2,000 titles, cruised through the recession. Last year it made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion—an operating-profit margin of 36%.” See

For figures from 2002 until 2011, see The profit rate hovers between 30.57% (2006) to 35.74% (2012).

These profits, just like Mr. Kane house painting job, goes into private hands for private gain (investors). Yet, a lot of this money is public money and the rest is largely non-profit money.

Get rid of this profit rate, or bring it down to a decent level, and tax payers save about 25% of their contribution to this business. This is why I use the word “greedy”. As for Elsevier employees, most eke an existence while a few fly high…

Without this waste of money, it would be possible to support the editorial task at least as well as what the oligopolistic firms offer, and yet save a lot of money. The “volunteer” issue is an interesting one, but it is a second order one in the face of these incredible rates of profits.

Nothing indicates that Elsevier is doing any worse nowadays…

It should read, Editors In Chief are often handsomely paid. Often the pay comes in the form of a stipend.

I have to contrast with Sandy’s experience. When I worked at Cambridge, we often paid academic journal editors (whether working in HSS or STM) significant 4- or on occasion 5-figure sums annually, and I know that to be true for other major journals published by major university presses, whether based in the UK or US. In cases where journals were or are published by university presses on behalf of learned societies, the same payments would apply (although of course financed through the overall commission paid by the publisher to the learned society, and thus paid formally by the latter).

Jean-Claude’s comments above do suggest that this is one of the less widely articulated aspects of the finances of journals publishing, but amidst recurrent discussions within the journals domain of ‘entirely voluntary academic labour’ it is perhaps a point worth emphasising.

Thank you, Richard. And you are quite right: so far as I know, very little information transpires on this issue. This said, I am not one to defend an “all volunteer” solution to academic publishing. I only asked not to demean and dismiss the volunteer efforts that do exist and do play an important role in some phases of journal publishing. Editors-in-chief could also be rewarded in an OA context, and do so without feeling so dependent upon a publisher as to privilege the publishers’ request rather than the true needs of the community served by the journal (and, by extensions, the needs of the journal itself).

But thank you again for providing the trace of a ballpark estimation of such stipends 9or whatever name they may carry).

without feeling so dependent upon a publisher as to privilege the publishers’ request rather than the true needs of the community served by the journal (and, by extensions, the needs of the journal itself.

In what way is an EIC coerced into doing something by a publisher. I would be curious as to whom this happened.

For starters, ask the members of the former Lingua Board and why they resigned en masse to create Glossa. The list of journals transferring out of Elsevier (see would also offer a good starting point for a systematic check into this issue.

Gouing back to the profit rate, I found the figures in the Relex annual report (p. 17)

For 2016,

Revenues of 2,320 £m
Adjusted operating profits: 853£m
Percentage: 34.3% – right in line with the figures I gave earlier.

The reasons for Lingua leaving Elsevier are:
The editors of Lingua wanted for Elsevier to transfer ownership of the journal to the collective of editors at no cost. Elsevier cannot agree to this as we have invested considerable amount of time, money and other resources into making it a respected journal in its field. We founded Lingua 66 years ago.
Lingua is a hybrid open access journal which means that every author who wants to publish open access (i.e., free-of-charge for the reader), can do so. However, we have observed little uptake of the open access option in Lingua or elsewhere in linguistics at price points that would be economically viable.
The article publishing charge at Lingua for open access articles is $1,800 USD. The editors had requested a price of 400 euros, an APC that is not sustainable. Had we made the journal open access only and at the suggested price point, it would have rendered the journal no longer viable – something that would serve nobody, least of which the linguistics community.
Of course that is Elsevier’s side of the story.
I hope the new OA journal formed is doing well.
Regarding profit. I really do not care what their profit is. BTW the profit you give I believe is for the entire corporation not for just the journal publishing arm.

My question to you is: What should it be and who should determine it?

Would you consider Princeton University Press a major publisher? Not a major journals publisher, it is true, but no money was paid to editors of leading journals like World Politics, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Annals of Mathematics, etc. Penn State Press may not qualify as major, but its journals included leading ones in their fields like Philosophy and Rhetoric, The Chaucer Review, etc.

Jean what is a decent level of profit?

What is a decent salary for a college professor who teaches some 6 hours per semester?

I would bet if that rate were brought down to a decent level tuition would go down.


Queestion 1: Amusing question that was given an interesting answer by Mark Ware a recent report commissioned by RCUK in 2015, “Evolution or revolution Publishers’ perceptions of future directions in research communications and the publisher role”: “Publishers of all stripes defend the need to generate surpluses or profits: to make the organisation properly sustainable (organisations that simply recover costs are “brittle and stagnant”):…”. Then Ware goes on to say: “to allow reinvestment; to attract talent and investment; and to create incentives for greater efficiency and for innovation.” I love the part that profits are needed to attract investments: the whole point is not to publish, but to make a business grow. Publishing happens almost as an afterthought. Of course, Mark Ware is also known for co-authoring the International Association of STM publishers in 2015, along with Michael Mabe. Nothing surprising in any of this. I also love the concept of “brittleness” brought up in this context, if a concept it is… 🙂 It reads more like bad poetry to me.

And, by the way, my first name is Jean-Claude, not Jean.

Question 2. I assume you mean 6 hours of teaching per week in each semester. With 3-4 hours of preparation for each hour of teaching, this brings the task to 24-30 hours. Add the administrative functions a professor takes on, plus the time spent helping and guiding masters and Ph. D. students. And you are getting well into a 40-hour week. Then begins the research work which, in truth, is totally open ended.

But rather than respond how a person with a doctorate should earn for a week’s work that goes into the 60 hours at least, I would rather respond to the link with tuition: in many countries where professors are paid decent wages, tuition is free or nearly free. In Quebec, where I teach, undergraduate students pay a tuition of less than US$1,500 per year. So this link is, again, the result of political choices, not forms of ontological reality.

Enough thoughts?

You are right! There should be no innovation in publishing. In fact, everything in your world is free! Even your lunch.

Jean Claude I seriously doubt you spend 3-4 hours preparing for each class. You see I have spent some 40 years on campus both in the US and abroad and after the notes are prepared they seem to be used over and over again. Occasionally revised but not often. I can recall attempting to get profs to change a textbook, but the excuse was my notes are tied to the book I use….

You bemoan profits but then again in Canada the Corporate Tax Rate | 1981-2017 | Data | Chart | Calendar …
The Corporate Tax Rate in Canada stands at 26.50 percent. Corporate Tax Rate in Canada averaged 38.79 percent from 1981 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 50.90 percent in 1981 and a record low of 26.10 percent in 2012.
Takes a lot of profits to cover those free tuitions and faculty salaries.

When I hear your argument against profit I am reminded of the success of the USSR. I was there before the fall and after and then for the imposition of the oligarchy. I will take the profit motive and the innovation and creativity it sparks over that dismal world.

Again I ask what is a reasonable profit and who should determine it!

So I am back to my deep dark economic argument: There is no free lunch and when can you paint my house? Because as awful as capitalism is it sure does seem to work.

Enough thoughts?

1. Contesting the time I spend on preparing my class is totally gratuitous and unfounded. There are slothful professors as there are slothful and careless publishers (like IOS Press that transformed my use of the Latin phrase “annus mirabilis” to “anus mirabilis” in one of my texts – a clear example of editorial competence and care… I would, therefore, appreciate your getting off the ad hominem style. it is not becoming to anyone, and certainly not to you.

2. That money is needed to support innovation is obvious; that profits are needed to attract investors (as per Mark Ware’s report) sounds to me like the initiation of a Ponzi scheme. Madoff anyone?

3. I do not understand your looking at the tax rate of Canada. Of course, corporations pay taxes on their profit, and compared to what salaried people pay, this is relatively little. As for paying taxes to support low or no tuition in universities, it is a political choice that countries like many European nations, and Canada, have broadly decided to follow. It used to be similar in the States when even some university systems were free. But the US has embarked on a path of ever growing inequality and that is the political choice of that country. Not everybody agrees on this.

3. Invoking the USSR as a counter-example is ludicrous. Asking for regulated, socially-minded, capitalism is not asking for a system like the USSR. Amusingly, at least in the military area, even the USSR demonstrated its innovative capacity (Sputnik anyone?), so even this example is not a very good one. Innovation can emerge within a wide variety of economic frameworks. The pyramids in Egypt, in Aztec country, in Maya country, etc. were pretty innovative.

4. For profit levels, I have already mentioned what I would consider reasonable. Read back in this thread if you missed it. On the other hand, the publishers’ attitude appears quite funny in this regard, if we follow the results published by Mark Ware in his 2015 report to RCUK. Indeed, you will read the following: “None of the publishers consulted, however, was either willing or perhaps able to give a definition of “excessive” profit, or even in many cases to concede that the notion was meaningful in a market economy.” My conclusion is that, if you are competing for investor money to enhance your stock value. no profit level is ever high enough. This is a highly reassuring attitude, isn’t it, for institutions like libraries having to pay for the materials? That is why many OA supporters argue that the present system is completely unsustainable from the users’ perspective.

5. As for what you describe as “capitalism”, it is a particularly raw, brutal, anti-social form of capitalism that you advocate. So, go paint your house yourself while I will volunteer my efforts for projects that I find far more valuable than your house. You do not seem to realize, Mr. Kane, that, from the perspective of the OA advocates, in particular those who volunteer, they too examine how your house-painting job competes with other tasks that they find far more important and valuable. Why should anyone help Harvey Kane when the whole scientific communication system urgently needs help? Perhaps Mr. Kane needs to become more of a Citizen Kane (pun intended)!

6. Regarding Elsevier’s profits, you have it backwards. Your (much earlier) quotation of nearly 10 billion doallars is for the entire Relxgroup. The figure I quoted on p. 17 of the 2016 Relxgroup annual report concerns the STM publishing activities.

7. Regarding Lingua, my point was that the editorial board disagreed with Elsevier. Now, in a journal, what is more crucial: the publisher or the editors and editorial board? Alas, Lingua, as a title, was owned by Elsevier – a grievous mistake that more and more editorial boards are trying to avoid nowadays. This led to the painful divorce we know. But, whatever the nature of the divorce, the point remains that, from my perspective, those owning the stewardship of the scientific (i.e. knowledge creation) content – i.e. the editors – are far more central and important than the publishers. I would not extend this argument to commercial journals with no relation with knowledge creation, but in the case of knowledge creation and validation, and criticism, etc., this autonomy and liberty of action are essential. Elsevier saw in Lingua only one extra example of a money-making device that feeds into the 30-40% profit rate needed to satisfy investors.

Jean-Claude now I am confused. On the one hand you believe OA is needed to make information freely available but on the other the purpose is to provide relief to strained library budgets. Of course it can do both but can it or will it?
Yes investors want return on investment and want it as soon as possible and want lots of return. However, the question in my mind is what does society want. I think society would be better served by a progressive tax rate instead of a limit on profit. I am for the public good, but not for some governmental entity saying this is what you should earn on your investment. Let the market decide.

I would add that the USSR though launched Sputnik never could make it to the moon and in fact their space program is dependent on supplying the international space station.
Having just read Rick’s recent blog, I fear that OA is being corrupted and its goals subverted. But, worse it is contributing to the spread and legitimization of pseudoscience.
I guess that is one unintended consequence of removing the paywall.
For the rest, lets agree to disagree.

This will be my last intervention on this thread.

1. Re: “Jean-Claude now I am confused. On the one hand you believe OA is needed to make information freely available but on the other the purpose is to provide relief to strained library budgets. Of course it can do both but can it or will it?”

Answer: not knowing the outcome of a move is not the same as being confused.

2. Re: ” I am for the public good, but not for some governmental entity saying this is what you should earn on your investment. Let the market decide.”

Answer: the mantra-like reliance on the market is about as convincing as the phlogiston theory of combustion in 18th-century chemistry.

Roger and out!

A very small amount of journal editor pay is here. . $2k-$25k pa is mentioned.
There are clearly some journals that are big enough for the chief ed. to need an assistant, and that can be paid, making the sum going to the chief editor or her employer seem bigger than it really is.
As an associate editor of a T&F journal, I get nothing.
On the free journal I run, I do it to build the community and give scholars chances – thankyou emails from authors an readers is the only reward.
Walt Crawford surveys all the journals in the DOAJ and counts around 10,000, the vast majority of which do not charge authors while being OA. (links from here

And, the best social science ones are here -with only a handful making any profits at all and prestige indicators given. Many have scholarly society affiliation or are run out of Departments, but still OA. . Hence my point that eventually we won’t need to reply on the big 5, or they can offer more specialist services in future.

HK, whose Linkedin entry suggests worked for one of the big five and therefore could divulge exactly how much some journal editors are paid, perhaps regards the free, DIY OA movement as competition.

I did a random click on 5 journals and two required a password and one is a subscription based journal. Err…. I am not too sure the lunch is free for all listed. Also, I am not too sure the DOAJ is nothing more than a listing of OA journals some of which do call for APCs.

The Platinum model at least at Emerald calls for:

Emerald currently offers three routes for Open Access: Green Open Access (Green OA); Gold
Open Access (Gold OA); and the less common Platinum Open Access (or EPS), where the costs of
scholarly publishing are met by donations and freely supplied editorial work.

Also, there is no statement that the EIC does not receive some kind of remuneration.

That’s funny. I just randomly clicked on 3 and found them all to be legitimate platinum open access

If there are exceptions I’m sure DOAJ would like to hear about them. Which did you find? I’ve not found any so far that were falsely listed, but I also don’t have time to proof the entire list. I, and others, find the database a useful and accurate source of information about OA journals. Would be nice to hear from Walt Crawford who has extensive knowledge of the database.

The Problem is that things often start out free and then the reality of costs hit and they are no longer free. Take ELife as an example.

I did random clicks and probably could not find them again.

Choosing titles by random clicks is one thing, but making assertions about DOAJ content, based on non-verifiable results might be a way of doing things that is currently en vogue but is not good scholarly practice. Since DOAJ has no paywall and is OA, I hope this will not be used to try to support the tenuous conjecture that “it [OA] is contributing to the spread and legitimization of pseudoscience.”

I suggest you see:

I have been retired for about 7 years and have no competition nor compensation from any publishing house. What I view as ridiculous is the claim that something is free because someone volunteers. Time is just as valuable a currency as the coin of the realm.

It seems to me that OA, at least in the sciences, is expensive for the author and is viewed by really very few. Additionally, OA is lining the very pockets of those the OA advocates rail against! Biomed Central was not purchased by Springer to be a money loser. I do not see anyone losing money or just breaking even by being an OA publisher. If they are doing the former then their doors close.

Harvey Kane’s latest statement shows how little he really understands the situation.

1. No one is claiming that something is free because someone volunteers. Volunteering has a cost that is born by the volunteer. The volunteer acts in this fashion for a variety of reasons. And OA is not based on volunteerism, even though a good of volunteerism is involved in a good deal of OA publishing, at least in the early phases of a particular publication.

2. As for OA being expensive to the authors: this demonstrates that Mr. Kane is confusing open access with open access publishing with a particular business plan – that of article processing charges (APC). Open Access is agnostic as to business plans, although many OA supporters favour some business plans over others. Personally, I do not support APCs.

3. APC-based OA-publishing (APC-Gold, for short) is indeed a huge money maker for publishers and allows them to diversify and multiply their revenue streams. It was invented by V. Tracz and Jan Velterop (who also invented the Big Deal, by the way). You might say that APC-Gold was the expression of intelligent publishing people intent on finding a way to reposition the publishing industry within the digital environment without losing their economic, institutional and social power positions. It is not yet clear whether they will succeed or not and that is precisely where the OA battles lie nowadays: how will OA be ultimately shaped, and to whose advantage.

I go back to the days of page charges. Author’s paid a fee for each page published and journal subscription costs were minimal. BTW authors complained so bitterly about the charges they were dropped and subscription costs went up. Authors at that time felt the reader should pay. Thus, Jean Claude the APC really predates you.

So you do concede that volunteering comes with a cost. Now the question is how many are willing to volunteer in order to publish some 1.2 million papers out of say 3 million. After all someone has to separate the wheat from the chaff. Also, someone has to carry out those 96 tasks. I did a quick check and many societies with OA models have APC charges.

1. Page charges. They originated with societies. Commercial publishers, such as Robert Maxwell, removed most or all of page charges to compete against society journals, pushing the cost to the subscription level. Societies maintained page charges to a much larger extent.
2. APC do not predate me. I am in my 75th year (and not retired).

3. I have never – repeat *never* – argued that volunteering was an essential part of OA (see above, but you do not seem to read what I write very carefully). I have only argued that volunteering could sometimes play a useful role. I would not base a scientific communications system purely on volunteers, but neither would I defend the thesis that scientific communication must avoid volunteers. My own thesis is that scientific research is largely supported by public funds and that publishing research results. As a consequence, publishing the research results should also be supported by public funds (and they are often supported in this fashion, directly or indirectly).

So, do not be mistaken. I do not concede anything of the sort you claim. But, once again, you do not read very carefully, it seems to me.

Yes, indeed, many societies use APCs for their OA publications. What is the surprise here? And it is all the easier for them to do so that it harks back to a situation that was common until at least the ’70’s.

I am 76 and still do some consulting to publishers.
Many commercial publishers had page charges for color. CRC dropped their charges in 1990 and they were a Times Mirror Property.
I would note that even the Welcome Trust which endowed ELife with 46M Pounds now charges $2500 per article.
Journals that publish say 3-4 articles per quarter can get along with volunteers and spread the word that they exist to a small group of like minded folks. If memory serves physics has been most successful in this manner.
However, I doubt the ability of other than very small market journals to survive in the non fee based OA marketplace.
So you say volunteers are not needed then I ask you who will pay those who are employees and from what source will the money come?

I think that the current discussion is concentrating too much on the editors and not enough on the reviewers. In particular when discussing the volunteers (which reviewers are) and costs involved in publishing articles. In general, during the peer-review phase, it is most likely that the reviewers spend more time on a manuscript than the editor. Except for trivial cases, a good reviewer will need between 0.5 and 1 day – sometimes more for each manuscript. This work is done for “free”, but as they say: time is money. It is therefore ironic that the reviewers often work on manuscripts for journals that their libraries cannot afford, or where, they as authors, could not afford the APCs.

Open Access is problematic in terms of gold OA and APCs, and needs to become more transparent. In particular the APCs – publishers should send authors an itemized bill, showing how much they charge for each task, and how much for branding. Are there any convincing arguments against making the agreements between publicly funded universities etc. and publishers, publicly available (FOI)? Why don’t we store the APC, paid for a particular article to be published, in the meta-data of said article?

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