Editor’s Note: On Sunday afternoon, April 7, the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) will host a pre-conference in conjunction with the 2019 meeting of the UK Serials Group (UKSG) in Telford. Moderated by Ann Michael, CEO of DeltaThink, Scholarly Kitchen Chef, and former President of SSP, the theme of the event is “We’re Not Who We Used to Be: Shifting Relationship Dynamics and Imbalances in an Open Access World.” The session will feature representatives from publishers, libraries, funders, intermediaries, policy-makers, authors, and researchers. By including case studies, the session will focus on practical strategies for adapting to changing business models. Please note that there are still some spots available and you can get full details and register here.

In advance of the pre-conference event, Nicola Poser, Managing Director at RedLink and a member of the SSP Marketing and Communications Committee interviewed Rob Johnson, Director of Research Consulting Limited, and one of the session speakers.

What kinds of constraints/opportunities do you think stakeholders (publishers in particular) will face in a gold open access (OA) world? 

I think the biggest constraint and opportunity is that we aren’t going to be in a fully gold-OA world any time soon, but rather we’ll see an increasingly mixed economy in publishing. The rapid growth of preprints, early moves towards the syndication of content and the cancellation of big deals are all pointers to what may lie ahead, but at this point it’s hard to know how any of these will play out. We can say with some confidence that it will be a golder world in future, but the next few years are likely to be characterized more by fragmentation and increased complexity than a global flip to OA.

That said, there’s no doubt that gold OA is driving significant change in the scholarly publishing market. Some years ago, for example, the expectation was that the APC (article processing charge) model would result in authors becoming more price-sensitive when deciding where to publish. It was hoped that this would address the problem of ‘intermediation’ in the subscription market, where researchers act as both producers and consumers of research, but the actual purchase of content is undertaken by academic libraries.

Sand blowing off a sand dune.

It’s now looking a lot less likely that this will happen. A recent article by Dan Pollock and Ann Michael suggests that authors don’t in fact “shop around” based on OA price, while the advent of read-and-publish and publish-and-read deals means libraries are again inserting themselves between the author and the publisher – a process that  we might call re-intermediation. This is a challenge for smaller publishers and pure gold OA publishers, who risk being squeezed out by these new ‘big deals’, but it is also giving rise to new opportunities. One example is the concept of an OA Switchboard, an intermediary service designed to reduce complexity for publishers, institutions, and funders.

We are also starting to see a rebalancing of market power between publishers and libraries, as evidenced by the spate of recent big deal cancellations, including the University of California system’s termination its license with Elsevier. As Roger Schonfeld recently observed, the value of publishers’ content is being eroded by OA, but also by reprints services and, of course, Sci-Hub. The migration of value from content to services is a key trend that looks set to shape the publishing world in the coming years.

Finally, the language of Plan S indicates a desire from some funders to see greater regulation of the publishing market, both through some form of price control, and the imposition of demanding technical requirements on publishers and repositories. Plan S’s call for price caps and cost transparency has received particularly short shrift from some US commentators, with the Association of American Publishers asserting that elements of the Plan “run counter to sound economic policy that has fostered growth, innovation, and commercialization for decades”.

I share the AAP’s skepticism as to the value of price caps, since no entity is well informed enough to be able to exactly identify the imperfection in pricing, choose the correct price to rectify the situation, and then provide ongoing adjustment and enforcement. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the US and Europe have taken increasingly divergent approaches to the enforcement of pro-competition policies in the last couple of decades. As a recent NBER working paper shows, rising gross profits and levels of industry concentration have been the norm across virtually all sectors in the US since the year 2000, with scholarly publishing no exception. However, the same trends simply haven’t occurred in the European Union, where authorities have tended to be much more willing to intervene. Put simply, the point at which US and European regulators are inclined to diagnose market failure is very different. Following concerns raised by the European University Association, among others, it’s notable that the EC’s Directorate General for Competition cited Plan S and the organization of ‘funding institutions’ into consortia as grounds for them not directly intervening in the scientific publishing market – yet.

Taken together, these trends seem likely to create a number of constraints and opportunities, but one of the most significant will be downward pressure on per article revenues. Virtually all subscription publishers are likely to see lower per article revenues under a gold OA business model, with or without price caps. The problem is particularly acute for highly-selective journals, many of which are owned by learned societies. Most publishers are already facing declining per article revenues, as article volumes are rising at 4% per annum, twice the 2% annual increase in journal revenues. But a rapid shift to gold OA would greatly accelerate this. Add in the fact that many authors don’t have access to funding, and that a growing proportion are from low and middle-income countries, and thereby likely to seek APC waivers or discounts, and it’s very hard to see how gold OA revenues will be comparable to subscriptions.

Which of these constraints/opportunities are the most impactful? (e.g., do you think these are issues of redressing global imbalances? HR issues? Technological?) 

Most of the big issues and opportunities come back to people, one way or another, and particularly the challenge of getting people to change their behavior – whether that’s publishers, authors or librarians. One of the changes that Coalition S wants to make is to overhaul the rewards and incentives structure for science, as a means of changing the behavior of researchers. There’s no doubt this would be hugely impactful, and is an admirable goal, but it is going to be very difficult to achieve. The fact is we all use ‘heuristics’, or mental shortcuts, to save time, even when we know they are flawed. The Impact Factor is just one of those shortcuts, and if we somehow got rid of it, people would simply look for another, perhaps equally flawed, measure.

So while we can hope for positive changes in this area, let’s not hold our breath, as the more immediate challenge looks to be a commercial one. Given the volume (and tenor) of responses received to its consultation, it seems likely that some of the more demanding aspects of Plan S will be watered down, or the timeframes extended. Nevertheless, publishers are going to have to think very hard about the future shape of their journal portfolios – not to mention books, where new OA publishing routes are being established at a rapid pace. Should publishers offer read-and-publish deals or publish-and-read deals? Does it make more sense to flip existing journals to OA, launch new OA journals, or simply stick with the subscription model? These are difficult questions, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution

What do you think publishers/key stakeholders will need to do differently to overcome the constraints or embrace the opportunities that gold OA could bring?

Complexity is going to be a fact of life for everyone working in the scholarly communications ecosystem.  How publishers respond to this will depend on a range of factors, including their size, the disciplines they serve, their existing business models and their mission. That said, there are a few things that it makes sense for nearly every publisher to be thinking about.

The first of these is to be looking both East and South. At the moment, two thirds of global STM revenues come from the US, Europe and the Middle East, but these regions produce less than half of global articles – and their share is falling. With gold OA revenues being tied to volume of articles, long-term growth is going to have to come from the East, and particularly China and India. At the same time, the appetite in these two countries to fund APCs remains very unclear, while many countries in the Global South qualify for waivers. This means publishers need to be thinking carefully about what a sustainable business model might look like in the future. The industry is also going to need to tackle the fact that it risks becoming less and less reflective of the communities it serves, and that it may need to deliver significant cost savings if revenues come under pressure. All of this points to the benefits of developing a more international footprint, or of partnering with others who can offer that kind of reach.

Secondly, publishers, like other stakeholders, are going to need to be increasingly data-driven. Formulating sound strategy will mean considering a range of possible scenarios, and having the right data to understand what they mean for your business. Data will also be crucial to understanding author and reader behavior, and to meeting the growing demands for reporting from other stakeholders in the landscape, such as library consortia and funders. Publishers are going to need the right systems to collect all this data, but also reporting tools that can bring it together and, perhaps most importantly, staff with the analytics skills to make sense of it all.

The final challenge the publishing community needs to face is one of ‘hiding the wiring’, so that authors and readers aren’t brought face-to-face with all this complexity themselves. This depends on improving the infrastructure and metadata that underpins scholarly communication, and investing in efforts to improve the user experience. There are lots of valuable initiatives in this regard, from Metadata2020 to RA2021, and Scholix to Coko. Working out which of these developments to engage with, when to adopt them, and what this means for existing systems and workflows is going to be part and parcel of publishing in the coming years.

Discussion

5 Thoughts on "Guest Post — Rob Johnson on Shifting Relationship Dynamics and Imbalances in an Open Access World"

Well, yes. From the publisher’s perspective, OA is gain – more money. However I wonder, who cares about the scientist? Not about the scientist from rich country and rich institution; they will just have a benefit. I am asking, how the third world will pay for OA – we will be just eliminated from the game. That’s is the end of independent science.

I will preface my comments by saying I am a skeptic and a curmudgeon!

Third world scholars will have to compete for OA funds just like everyone else.

Regarding Plan S: It seems to me to be a response by some large funders learning that publishing is expensive and that what seemed like a lot of money really was not when it comes to satisfying the voracious scholarly appetite to publish. The need to publish is a reflection of the scholarly world because publishing is the road to promotion and job security – both of which are tied to very individual and personal goals and have nothing to do with business!

As for Publishers, the largest will simply publish more and cut costs to publish such as lowering standards, etc., while at the same develop new products that will produce new revenue streams. Thus. they will maintain and increase revenue and margins. As for the little publishers – societies and associations – they will sign deals with commercial publishers in order to assure revenue and concomitantly reduce personnel costs.

One of the challenges we encounter as we try to move forward into an increasingly Open Access future is that the route “getting to yes” is less clear than ever. Even among the advocates (libraries, scholarly communications department, funders), each as a different POV, set of desired outcomes, and levers to pull. Getting to actionable consensus, even in EU markets, is not a quick conversation.
And scholars for the most part, remain relatively blasé given that traditional publishing remains an option for most, especially when ifs comes to putting their dollars on the line. Changing well trodden paths of human behavior is also the biggest and most time consuming challenge for any new system, especially if the benefits are less than immediate for the targeted parties.

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