As Michael Clarke recently wrote, one of the unintended consequences of Plan S, the new open access (OA) mandate from a group of European (and one US) funders, is that it is seen as an existential threat to independent, small, and research society journal publishers. The architect of the plan, Robert Jan-Smits has been quoted as saying that societies will have to, “bite the bullet and go open access.” But it’s unclear whether Plan S offers a sustainable path for societies. Is this an acceptable sacrifice or are societies, and not-for-profit publishing, worth preserving?
While Plan S has the right goal at its core – the world would be a better place with absolutely unfettered access to high quality, vetted information – it offers no new ideas for how to achieve and maintain that goal in a scalable, sustainable, and long-term manner. While the implementation plan calls for “support mechanisms for establishing Open Access journals, platforms, and infrastructures where necessary,” as well as a, “diversity of models and non APC-based outlets,” it offers nothing further as far as what those models might be or how that support might work. They are essentially passing-the-buck along to others, you figure out something new and maybe we’ll help you (“So long as you can meet these conditions the details of how you do so are not of great interest to us right now. It is for you publishers to tell us how you plan to implement the principles.”). Given that we’ve been experimenting with new OA models for nearly 20 years, and that Plan S goes into effect in a mere 13 months, it is unlikely that any new revolutionary business model will emerge, pass approval, be funded, and be in place by the time its requirements start.
Because of this, Plan S is a de facto Author-Pays, APC-based, Gold OA mandate. Publishers will largely be consumed with adapting to Plan S-related rules, rather than devoting time and funds to new experiments. And they’ll need some revenue source to keep the lights on while waiting for those new models to be uncovered, so APCs seem the most likely route.
While that creates problems for unfunded researchers (and entire fields of research), it’s also a problem for the smaller, independent publisher. APC Gold OA works best at scale because there is a direct relationship between revenue and the number of articles one publishes. Smaller publishers are already at a disadvantage – big publishers can do nearly everything cheaper than small companies because they’re buying in bulk. They can afford to run their own platforms and employ their own production and marketing services, rather than outsourcing them. A move to APC Gold OA is a move to market consolidation around the largest commercial publishers.
I don’t think this is a good thing, and before I explain why, first some full disclosure: I work for a not-for-profit publisher, where the majority of the journals we publish are owned by research societies. In my career, I have only ever worked for not-for-profit publishers associated with research institutions because I firmly believe that mission-driven publishing is the right way to drive scholarly communications in an ethical manner. I work with research societies every day, and am perhaps not an objective observer, so I wanted to be transparent about that (and to be clear, the opinions expressed here are my own, not those of my employer).
Why Do Societies Publish?
Every society I’ve worked with sees itself as a steward of their field. The society is meant to bring together and support its research community, to promote the study of the subject it represents and drive funding where available, and to guide and protect the integrity of that research. Publishing a journal is a natural extension of that mission, putting the members’ expertise to use in a high-quality peer review process to help improve and expose the latest research results. Society journals are sometimes started to foster communities of research. They are often not just “a journal” but the outlet for that community of research and its members working on advancing a particular field.
Publishing is a service business, and over time, offering that service to the broader community has become one of the main ways that research societies fund their activities. (It is perhaps worth noting that the first science journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was a private venture, funded personally by Henry Oldenburg, who was reportedly disappointed with its financial performance). Publishing involves a lot of tedious, difficult, and unglamorous work. If researchers had to spend much of their days sorting out DOI discrepancies or chasing down late peer reviewers, very little research would get done.
Why do societies need fundraising activities like journal publishing to pay for the things they do? Matt Ruen asks on Twitter, “If a society isn’t providing enough benefit for members (or other stakeholders) to support it, should it still exist?” Research societies are, like many charitable organizations, ambitious, and often their goals exceed the pocketbooks of their members. Most researchers are not particularly wealthy, and it is worth remembering that most grant funds cannot be used to pay for memberships (which caused major problems for PeerJ’s membership-based OA business model).
And so these organizations will turn to other activities and services in order to raise funds. The local high schools where I live often hold bake sales or car washes to raise money for their class trips. Patient advocacy and disease awareness groups hold marathons or other social events to bring in funds to do work on behalf of their communities. Through journals, research societies are putting their members to work, taking advantage of their expertise and authority to provide a service that can help raise funds to be put toward scholarship, training, education, advocacy and the many other positive things that societies offer.
The next question that often arises is, as asked here by Walt Crawford, why libraries should be paying to subsidize those activities. One could just as easily ask why marathon runners should be forced to support breast cancer research or those who want to eat cupcakes should be forced to support class trips. All of these organizations are offering a service or a product, and each buyer must decide for themselves whether they value that service enough to purchase it. We see libraries dropping major subscription packages when they are seen as lacking value for the price asked, so perhaps there’s no difference here.
Though to be fair, there is an important difference if one starts to dig a little deeper into the economics of society and not-for-profit journals. OA is often seen as a pathway to lowering the overall spend on research publication. cOAlition S, like all research funders, wants to maximize the return it gets on its funding spend. It makes sense to concentrate that funding on areas that offer lower prices and higher value.
Studies have repeatedly shown that journals from not-for-profit publishers are both lower priced, and offer better value to the community than their commercial counterparts. More importantly, if you want to maximize return on your research funding investment, why not spend that money in a manner where it will continue to be used within the community to drive research progress, rather than sitting idle in the bank account of a commercial company’s shareholders?
This is why so many research societies find Plan S so confounding. Because it offers no functional and implementable alternatives to APC-driven Gold OA, it effectively favors large commercial publishers over not-for-profit and research society publishers. A deliberate choice is being made to favor higher costs and to drive grant funding outside of the research community, rather than spending less and keeping it in areas where it can continue to provide value.
We know how pricing and the journals market have developed over recent decades as commercial publishers have increased their domination. Is increased consolidation with the largest of commercial publishers really the best path forward? For librarians and funders, doesn’t it make sense to favor a path where you can spend less, receive more, and keep those funds within the community where they can continue to support research?
Some societies will be able to adapt to Plan S, but I suspect most will either choose to exclude Plan S-funded authors, or give up their independence and sign on with larger publishing houses. I’m not sure that limited access for authors and greater dominance by highly profitable commercial publishers are the outcomes that cOAlition S are seeking, but this seems the most likely path ahead. As author and futurist Warren Ellis recently said, “systems are always more complex and more fragile than you think they are,” and here we see a potential extinction event being introduced into a complex ecosystem.
I can’t help but think back to a conversation I had with the head of a biomedical society recently, about the huge amount of time and effort they put into lobbying funding agencies and Congress each year to help drive research funds to their community. The loss of those efforts, not to mention the regular meeting cycle for most fields, are potential ripples, unintended consequences of deliberately disenfranchising community-led efforts in favor of commercial ones.