With the recent announcement by the MIT libraries and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the “read and publish” (RAP) model has come to the U.S. We have seen this model or close variants (“publish and read”) before, in Europe, where national consortia have been working toward “flipping” traditional models to fully open access (OA) models. In such models, institutions and consortia pay a fee to make all their authors’ work immediately OA. We should expect to see more deals like this. (See Roger Schonfeld’s post on some of the limitations on a full and speedy rollout.) Indeed, this would appear to be the implication of the quotation ascribed to Emma Wilson of RSC in the press release:

We are a not-for-profit publisher of high-quality chemical science content, our aim is to sustainably disseminate this research and information. As part of our commitment to sustainable open access publishing, we work with individual institutions to agree [sic] content deals specific to their needs.

My personal alarm system, which is designed to provide an early warning when idealists and utopians are in the neighborhood, was triggered by the word “sustainable,” and so I placed a call to my old friend, the God of Unintended Consequences, to see what he has in store for us.

Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta of Christopher Columbus

On the face of it, RAP seems like an ingenious idea. An institution (or consortium) has an arrangement with a publisher for journal material at the price of $x. For that price, plus any adjustments for new materials, inflation, etc., the institution will continue to pay the publisher, which now agrees as well to make all the articles by that institution’s authors OA to the world immediately upon publication. Thus the APCs of Gold OA have now become a vehicle to transform all of publishing, which is what the library wants, and the basic payment for the publisher’s materials continues to bear the same price, effectively locking in the publisher’s margin. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are many complications here. I refer the reader to the excellent post by Richard Poynder, who remarks:

One obvious problem with the OA Big Deal is that it allows large legacy publishers to lock their high prices into the new OA environment, while marginalising and excluding the new-entrants that were supposed to disrupt the market. Unless something changes, therefore, the affordability problem will only be perpetuated.

Another issue is the absence of transparency (which Richard also notes). In fact, we don’t know the details of these deals: how many articles, at what price, what provisions for growth, what happens after the contract comes to term, etc. It’s thus probably best to refer to the imminent colonization of America not by reference to MIT and RCS, but simply to note that the conquistadors have the wind at their back.

So when I put this situation to the God of Unintended Consequences, he simply smiled and said, “Asymmetry.” And that, of course, is the problem: not all universities are alike; there is an asymmetry in output between the largest and smallest. Thus RAP means one thing to the Stanfords, Yales, and Chicagos of the world, but very different things to, say, such institutions as Rutgers, Syracuse, and Montana, not to mention such distinguished colleges as Lewis & Clark, Connecticut College, and Carleton. Some institutions simply have a faculty that produces far more articles than other institutions. Were Harvard to implement an across-the-board RAP program, it would mean that the total, enormous output of the Harvard faculty would immediately be made available as OA, but at Hamilton College or Monterey State, not so much. This is not to disparage the efforts, which go far beyond research, of the smaller institutions but simply to acknowledge the fact that when it comes to research, higher ed is top heavy.

How top heavy is hard to calculate. I have been sniffing around this question for several years, but have yet to see a convincing analysis. Allowing for many valid qualifying remarks, the question comes down to this: What percentage of total article output comes from the 25 largest institutions (measured by article output)? This question can be asked the other way around: How many institutions need to be included to get to 85% of all article output? These questions can become more complex in a number of useful ways that I am choosing to ignore, but to note some examples: Why measure only articles? How does this break down by discipline? Why measure the number of articles instead of the number of end-user accesses or citations (or tweets, Facebook posts, articles summarized in mainstream media, etc.)? And the answer is: the reason to focus on the number of articles is because this is the basis of the cost structure of publishing houses and must be taken into account in negotiating a RAP contract.

I don’t know what the percentage of articles is for the top 25 institutions and will resist quoting the anecdotal figures that have been suggested to me. Of course, the largest publishers, which are now going to have to assess the implications of RAP, will be putting these figures together, upon which they will build their strategy. And the reason they will put these figures together is because they know that the important business question is not what happens at MIT and its ilk with RSC (and its ilk); the important question is what happens at Montana, Carleton College, and their ilk. Simply put, RAP at Princeton could result in cancellations at Alabama.

Now, why would this be? Publishers like RSC are placing a bet that they can flip their programs to OA and still maintain their revenue. To do this, they must maintain all the customers they currently have. But when a major institution joins RAP, the outflow of OA articles skyrockets. Librarians are very, very smart people, and the librarian at Dickinson College is watching.

So now we have to count the holes in the Swiss cheese. A few years ago I had a conversation with a publisher who was frantic because a full 7% of all the articles in his family of journals were now OA, either because authors had chosen hybrid OA options or funders had mandated that this be so. Won’t librarians begin to cancel our subscriptions, he worried? Well, at 7%, not so much. But this raises the question of when the line is crossed. Perhaps at 10%? 20%? How about 50%? Well, if the top 25% of institutions are now opting for immediate OA for their authors, shouldn’t we be thinking about 60% or even 85%?

This is where asymmetry comes in. A RAP program at the largest institutions increases the amount of OA articles dramatically, and smaller institutions are then in a position to respond by cancelling subscriptions because they can get most of the material they want through OA. The largest institutions, in other words, subsidize the smaller ones.

Thus a publisher may introduce a RAP program with the expectation that it will be, at worst, revenue neutral, only to find that over time the number of customers begins to drop and revenue declines. Paradoxically, in order for a publisher to be successful with a RAP program, the key thing is not to be too successful, or the market base among smaller institutions will be eroded.

So I asked the God of Unintended Consequences what could stop the slow disassembly of the piece of cheese, and he said, “Unintended consequences are not necessarily unforeseen consequences.”

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.

View All Posts by Joseph Esposito


23 Thoughts on "Counting the Holes in the Swiss Cheese: “Read and Publish” Discovers America"

Hi Joe. Thanks for another interesting article. One thing that has always bothered me about RAP is that it seeks to simulate the conditions of 100% global OA by only paying for an institution’s publications, with nothing being paid for the reading and the tab for this picked up by other institutions that do not do RAP. As a publisher, I’d be happy to make deals for institutional OA, based on converting subscription fees to get the OA ball further down the field with appropriate anti-double dipping measures, but I can’t see why free reading access should be included. If it is the goal of an institution to publish more of their work OA that is fine, but there is no natural linkage to being able to read the whole of a publisher’s corpus.

Calculating what percentage of articles come from the top 25 institutions producing research or calculating how many institutions incorporate 85% of research produced is especially complicated because in many fields, co-authorship across institutions is common and growing. Does an article get to be open access if only one of the institutions involved is a member of the Read and Publish plan? Do all the institutions need to be members?

This is such a great question – I would be really curious to hear how other publishers are handling this, and what their justification is. At my organization we only require that one of the authors be affiliated with the Read & Publish institution, but there are so many options here. All of the authors? The corresponding author? The first author?

Interesting article. How does RAP work as most articles are joint authorship often by researchers from multiple institutions? Do the other institutions get access as well when their authors are included? What happens when the author is no longer at a RAP institution? Does the institution get access even if the author is no longer at the RAP institution? Does the author’s body of work move with them? How does the publisher make up the lost revenue as only a very few institutions can come close to their previous subscription revenue? I can’t see how a publisher that is now getting $80,000 a year moves to RAP model and now is collecting $25,000 a year will survive.

Apparently, for the Royal Society of Chemistry, the corresponding author’s institution determines whether the journal will waive your APC under the RAP plan. Which means it shouldn’t matter when the author leaves an institution, because their APC has already been waived. And since it works like normal gold open access after the fee is waived, all the other author’s institutions get access just like everyone else.

Why wouldn’t you continue the story after the third from last paragraph with: “And that is the point were the publisher can flip the journals to become OA journals. Period.” ?

I suspect it’s because the productive institutions are not willing to take on the massive increase in costs that this would mean. Right now these deals work because they’re still subsidized by subscriber institutions. Take those away and the price tag for producers goes up significantly.

Well, the story included “A RAP program at the largest institutions increases the amount of OA articles dramatically, and smaller institutions are then in a position to respond by cancelling subscriptions because they can get most of the material they want through OA”. Don’t you think that these largest institutions are the most productive ones and therefore already in the PAR model. Speaking for Germany, the most productive institutons are in fact the ones that commit themselves to such models.” (We call them PAR, because we want to pay for publishing in the first palce)

I’m afraid you are not grasping the implications of the asymmetry of research. In the U.S. only one premier research institution, MIT, has signed a RAP agreement, and that is with but one publisher, RCS, which is far from the largest. I am sure there are more such announcements on the way, but the fact is that widespread RAP is nowhere evident in the U.S., which has between one-third and one-half of the world’s major research institutions, depending on how the institutions are measured. Widespread RAP is not a “flip” to OA but, in the words of Roger Schonfeld on this blog, a contagion.

Perhaps the implications of the asymmetry are not clear. Smaller institutions have little reason to cooperate except out of the goodness of their hearts.

Sure, but they would have to sign perpetual contracts. Yes, perpetual. This speaks to Richard Poynder’s point that these new kinds of Big Deals (Big RAP Deals) lock in the largest publishers.

One of the problems with a transition from the subscription model to a full OA model is that, at least for some publishers, many large research institutions pay significantly less in subscription fees than they would for APCs for their own output. One can think about transitions in which these institutions enter a deal in which they continue to pay their current subscription fees and then ramp up to the level required for paying full APC fees over some specified period of time (many don’t seem to want to even put in that extra money it would seem). But this means they are getting a substantial discount on these fees while other subscribing institutions are subsidizing them. At the same time these other institutions are expecting discounts on their subscriptions because of the increasing percentage of OA articles. If a large institution does get to the point where it paying full OA APCs, but won’t pay for the remaining subscription price, then the subsidies continue. So there is a deeper philosophical question about how the transition to OA (if there is to be one) should operate. Should the largest research institutions who are early adopters of Gold OA receive these savings during the transition (say as a reward for being an early adopter or driver of the transition) at the cost of being subsidized by the smaller institutions are being asked to continue paying subscriptions that aren’t offset by the increasing fractions of OA? Or should the revenue from OA fees be used to proportionally lower subscription costs for all so that the smaller institutions see a smoother path to zero subscription fees? Both paths lead to the same end result of zero subscription fees and full Gold OA, but the risks for the two different paths aren’t the same. The latter course carries much less risk in my view.

Would another consequence perhaps result in faculty at smaller institutions without a venue for publishing their research? Or their articles restricted to a smaller pool of subscription-based journals and a much smaller pool of readers?

Or, do researchers at institutions that have paid for an RAP deal start getting added as authors (despite not having done any work) to papers from authors who haven’t paid as a way to get around the fees?

An obvious question to ask, which hasn’t been asked yet, is that since almost all of these top research universities operate their own university presses, why not do full OA publishing through them, which would presumably be much cheaper than paying APCs to the big commercial publishers with their big overheads to cover (expensive real estate in Manhattan, for instance)? Back when university presses got started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, STEM journal publishing was their domain. Why could they not take over this function again and save their parent universities a lot of money?

P.S. The asymmetry that Joe notes in article production also holds true for publishing: smaller colleges have long benefited from having the larger universities operate presses through which their faculty can publish too.

When OA first started taking off and libraries were setting aside funds to pay APCs, I seriously questioned whether several large institutions would be willing to foot the bill for all the other institutions. Likewise, I wondered whether US institutions would agree to pay for all the content so that China could read the best content for free. Apparently the answer is yes. In the case of China, it gives them a huge competitive advantage if they can stop paying subscriptions and instead put that money into research.

My other concern is that RAP deals will add pressure to faculty on where to publish. I would assume that MIT would prefer that their authors publish in RSC over other publishers in order to make this deal work.

I agree with the comment about pressure to publish in certain venues, though I hasten to add that we have not yet seen this in practice. The hidden story of RAP is the contempt for academic freedom.

Until now, the RSC (and their ilk) have had to think about servicing the needs of both authors, librarians and readers because income from the librarian/reader side can only be earned if they can persuade authors to publish with them. With the pay-to-publish model this symmetry is unbalanced because the librarian and readers at Dickinson College (and their ilk) lose their voice in the future of scholcomm, as publishers effectively become author-service companies. You might think the symmetry is retained because authors will consider readership when selecting where to publish, but, in my experience, it is rare to come across an author who cares about meeting the needs of readers outside their peer group and if price becomes a significant factor in winning deals with knowledge-exporting institutions, you can see where publishers will trim costs. When the cheese is 100% hole, might some mouses starve?

Thanks Joe for a thought provoking analysis and thanks to others who have contributed via the comments thread. On behalf of the Royal Society of Chemistry I would be happy to discuss our approach in more detail- perhaps in a guest post?

Leave a Comment