In this article I suggest that some society journal publishers may wish to consider moving their journal program to a Diamond open access (OA) model. Nice idea, right, but easier said than done.
Let’s first take a brief look at the OA landscape. There are many varieties of OA journal. There is no question that Gold OA has taken root as the primary model, but is less than a perfect model, and sits alongside Green OA emerging as a flawed alternative to Gold. And then there is Diamond OA. What is Diamond OA? Essentially, Diamond OA is a form of Gold OA that does not include a requirement for authors to pay article processing charges (APCs).
I am not going to delve too much into the gold versus Green debate here, as there are many fine advocates of both, able to floridly create arguments that sometimes border on fake news to promote their worth. I will turn to one recent, excellent, and balanced post in the Scholarly Kitchen from Rick Anderson, (The Forbidden Forecast: Thinking About Open Access and Library Subscriptions) who at a recent conference in London (Researcher to Reader Conference, February 2017) posed the question:
“The question at hand is this: is there good reason to expect that open access (OA), and particularly OA of the Green variety, is likely to lead libraries and other customers to cancel their paid journal subscriptions?”
The context for this question is in Rick’s observation that, “…Big Deals themselves may be losing their iron grip on library budgets.”
This is something that society publishers are keeping a close eye on, especially those that remain independent and are not included in commercial publisher big deals. In fact, many of us would love to see the back of the big deal. Rick goes on to suggest that Gold OA publishing is not a threat to library subscriptions:
“The emergence of, for example, a new Gold OA journal that competes with The Lancet does not lead our faculty and students to give us permission to cancel our Lancet subscription. What they will want us to do instead is add the new Gold OA journal to our online journal list, while continuing to support the Lancet subscription as well.”
Of course Gold OA is fine as a low risk means of starting new journals – just look at Springer’s blossoming program of Gold OA journals for evidence that this is a major money spinner for publishers. For a society publisher, especially one in a field where there is little funding and negligible author appetite to pay APCs, Gold OA represents a problem. Another flaw for a society considering how OA may affect its journal publishing is in the pervasive rhetoric that somehow OA is synonymous with free access. There are real costs to managing a strong journal, and real revenues received that fund the many programs that such societies provide to their academic community. I recognize that at this point the reader may think I am veering off into an anti-OA rant, but actually I am not.
In Diamond OA I am not including freely available alternative hosting arrangements, such as preprint overlay journals from Episciences, or Discrete Analysis. These are low cost operations for new journals that in my view are not definable as Diamond OA journals. The question for many societies, especially those whose profile is resolutely independent, is how to publish their journals effectively, given market pressures, and given that there is a complex and intriguing blend of business and mission that propels a society’s future. Societies are mission driven. For example my society, the American Mathematical Society’s mission is:
To further the interests of mathematical research, scholarship and education, serving the national and international community through publications, meetings, advocacy and other programs.
Society journals in many cases are important journals for the field, perhaps subject specific, or generalist journals, offering a wide range of sub-fields in the discipline. In face of the big deal, independent societies with this profile are experiencing significant subscription attrition. Societies are looking to innovate their business models, and yet do not necessarily want to burden their communities with APCs. One way to reimagine journal publishing at a society is to accept that journal publishing is in fact a program of the society, provided to the community as part of its mission. Moving journals to a Diamond OA model removes these journals from the journal subscription market, and fulfills the mission. The journals remain strong as established, branded, quality journals.
Revisiting the statement “easier said than done”, this approach requires significant funding. There is a big barrier to entry for a Diamond OA journal program in that it requires a large investment, perhaps greater than investments needed for starting a journal program from scratch. This is because annual funding needs to come from spendable income from investment earnings, and the 10-year outlook from many investment analysts is that 10-year earnings will be much lower than historical earnings, so spending rates are relatively low, requiring a hefty corpus of endowment funds.
A society may choose to use society funds, combined with donor funds to endow an operating fund for their journals, with the understanding that you would need to replace current revenues from subscriptions, recognizing that the surplus from publishing supports other programs. What you would hope for in endowment management is to earn the spending rate plus inflation through investment earnings. You do this by applying the spending rate to a four year average of invested fund balances so that ups and downs in the market don’t affect the spending too much. However, it does not allow for growth, it only allows for costs keeping pace with inflation. Growth in the program can only occur if more funds are added to the endowment through donations or other additions, such as earnings from operations. In summary then, with good financial management of endowment funds and appropriate spending policies, societies might expect to maintain a steady flow of income, keeping pace with inflation.
In a sense the Diamond route is a nod to future-proofing, recognizing that if you can act now, do so and look for growth rather than accept slow decline.
Diamond OA may represent a way for societies to mark out a unique path to success in a way that a commercial enterprise that needs to satisfy shareholder value would be unable to match. Perhaps this is part of the future for society publishers.
What do you think?