Four Chefs were in attendance at last week’s Academic Publishing in Europe meeting in Berlin, and at least one other Chef was following the proceedings via Twitter. What follow are brief impressions, take-aways, and notable points from the perspective of each.
In the few years that I have been attending APE it has not failed to bring together people with varying opinions and perspectives that are not afraid to share them. While that was true to some extent this year, there was also a noticeable change in tenor. In many ways commercial publishers were singing a very similar tune, all in support of Open Access.
This was certainly the case during the session on Driving Research Data. The panelists included Grace Baynes from Springer Nature, Chris Graf from Wiley, Joris van Rossum representing the STM Association, and Niamh O’Connor from PLOS, and it was chaired by Eefke Smit.
After a robust session discussing the value of having policies requiring data sharing, which included an increase in data statements, data availability, and data citation, Roger Schonfeld asked the panelists what the business case was for pursuing research data at all. The panelists offered very thoughtful responses on the value of data sharing to researchers and to research at large. Every respondent (commercial or not for profit) also spoke of mission alignment.
While mission alignment is critical, my view is that publishers cannot afford NOT to pursue research data, since it is a crucial part of the research process and scholarly communication overall. As Roger pointed out, much more precisely than I did, it’s also a matter of determining what business you’re in. And, I would add, what impact you hope to have.
There’s an infamous story about the failure of the American Locomotive Company (ALCo), one of the 200 largest companies in the US in 1945. It was so wedded to steam locomotion that it had great difficulty evolving to support the growth of diesel locomotives. It was a steam locomotive producer culturally, not a transportation provider!
The two questions this case requires us to ask ourselves are:
- What business are we in? Are we defining our business by our current product? Or do we focus on a core mission/business and create products and services to support that?
- Is our internal culture wedded to our current products? If so, how can we shift that culture?
If our objective is to advance scholarly communication, research data cannot be ignored. Of course, our investments and efforts need to be commensurate with our current and potential capabilities (and/or those whom we may partner), but it’s a rung on the ladder that we must climb.
While there were many wonderful presentations at APE, touching on everything from open science and open data to China and Projekt Deal, the presentation that will be most lasting came from EU open access envoy Jean-Claude Burgelman. He spoke in deeply competitive terms about Europe’s scientific sector. Specifically, he spoke about China and the US as competitors (also collaborators), and the need for Europe to avoid “hesitation” and transform to stay in the competition.
Burgelman’s reflections on failed nationally supported champion services and companies, such as Minitel and Nokia, provided a window into the anxiety that can be felt in understanding the success of the US and China — but not Europe – in much of the consumer internet sector. While there are smaller European players, there is nothing on the scale of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, or Facebook — not to mention tencent, Baidu, or Alibaba.
Burgelman’s proposed solution is a “pan European effort” on scientific innovation. He proposes a single platform containing free access to scientific information with funded fees for “value added services.” And he believes that the current revenues devoted to scholarly publishing are reasonable and should simply be reallocated. Whether such a solution is realistic in the market — yet alone the best way to keep Europe competitive — is far from clear to me.
But his talk was eye-opening in its combination of competitive geopolitical influence with entirely non-market thinking. While this EU perspective is hardly reflective of the European publishing sector, it is a force with which the sector surely wrestles.
[Note: Roger also wrote a more in-depth piece in response to the APE meeting in the Kitchen a few days ago.]
The most notable presentation for me at APE this year was that of Dr. Frank Sander, Managing Director of MPDL Services. MPDL is a new organization operating under the broad umbrella of the Max Planck Society for managing Projekt DEAL (The “MP” in “MPDL”is for “Max Planck”). Max Planck, via MPDL, has taken on the administration of the consortium. The amount of administration required on the consortium side (which is separate from, and additive to, the administration required on the publisher’s side) to manage such a deal is truly staggering. MPDL is responsible for tracking which institutions authors are affiliated with and then invoicing institutions accordingly. Institutions both contribute to the MPDL pot of funds at the beginning of the year and then at the end of the year there is a true-up process described by Dr. Sander.
Two things struck me about this arrangement, neither of which was actually part of Dr. Sander’s presentation. The first is that Projekt DEAL may not as yet have solved the “buckets of money” problem (which is my term for money for a deal being in the wrong places). The true-up process described by Dr. Sander has not yet happened (the first such true-up will take place at the end of 2020) and the research-intensive universities in the consortium have already voiced concerns. This press release from the German U15, for example, notes that (translation):
…we are concerned that the change in the cost calculation from subscription to publications can result in considerable additional financial burdens for universities with a high level of research and publication. We therefore need a new and fair financing solution in the future that will allow scientists at universities with strong research to continue to publish at the highest, internationally competitive level.
The second thing that struck me is that MPDL must be staffed with professional accountants and other administrators. While Dr. Sander did not discuss the number of staff being hired, I have heard it is several dozen. These staff must, of course, be funded. In addition to paychecks and benefits, they require office space, computers, coffee machines, and so forth. The costs for staff and overheads associated with MPDL are not trivial. Whether these costs (which cannot yet be fully known as it is early days for the consortium and Publish and Read) are paid via levying an additional administrative fee on to each published paper or some other mechanism, they add substantively to the overall costs of the program – above and beyond any fees paid to publishers.
Institutions rushing to Publish and Read deals may wish to pause to study Projekt DEAL (among other consortia) in the fullness of time as the full costs become better known and the challenge of allocating funds between research intensive universities and other institutions with less research intensity plays out via several “true-up” cycles.
During a conference that was unusually dense in its offerings — and I mean that in an entirely positive sense, in that good and complex ideas flowed in unusual profusion — I found myself writing ideas, responses, and private follow-up questions furiously. Questions I wrote to myself, for possible follow-up later, included:
- How will we reconcile the need to account for regional economic variation with our general antipathy towards price discrimination?
- Given the vanishingly small number of business innovations that succeed, isn’t the “H factor” (hesitation, much derided by one of the APE presenters) more of a feature than a bug?
- Does everyone (especially scientists) agree that “integrity, reproducibility, openness, and public engagement” constitute “the fundamental values of science”?
But among all of the stimulating and fascinating ideas that were mooted during the APE meeting, two in particular really struck me. One was a bit of statistical data that came during the talk by Lin Peng, in which he shared some basic data about publishing in China that took me by surprise (probably because I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to that sector up until now). He showed us a slide that gave a rough breakdown of some Chinese publishing data, including the facts that there are now over 5,000 Chinese STM journals, 31% of which publish in basic science, 45% in applied technology, and 24% in medicine and healthcare. How many of them are published in English? 330. That’s worth thinking about for any number of reasons — one of them being our tendency, in the global West, to talk and think as if English-language STM publishing is all that matters.
Also striking, to me, was an assertion made by Richard Horton, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Lancet. In the course of a bracing and inspiring talk, he said the following: “The debate about Plan S is actually a debate about the very future of scientific publication, and we should be much clearer about that.” I couldn’t agree more.
The last word goes to a Chef who wasn’t able to attend in person, but who was carefully following the discussion on Twitter — thus giving her a somewhat different perspective on the proceedings:
With limited travel funds but expansive interests, I’m always grateful when there is a robust hashtag feed for a conference that I was unable to attend though it was of great interest. Following along on Twitter, of course, has the potential to skew one’s sense of an event as what gets Tweeted is necessarily filtered through the attention of those who are Tweeting and missing out on the nonverbal communication that happens onsite is also a limitation. Nonetheless, with these caveats, I can say that the APE 2020 meeting covered fascinating and timely topics, presented by exactly the leaders one would want to hear from. Given my own essays posted here on The Scholarly Kitchen, no one will be surprised to hear I was particularly interested in those sessions on transformative agreements and Plan S.
Transformative agreements have definitely come into their own in the past year after a many-year lead up of work by those associated with the OA2020 initiative among others. I believe those agreements were given a boost by the opportunity for publishers to rehabilitate hybrid journals into compliance with Plan S, in spite of its “no hybrid” dictate, by signing such deals.
Alicia Wise’s talk on the pricing transparency project also caught my attention, though Plan S leadership has not endorsed the frameworks.
What I did not hear is any interest in Europe in wresting away control of the scholarly publishing system from the existing commercial leaders and there is relatively little attention to containing prices, given Plan S is no longer seeking to cap APCs. This comment from Ralf Schimmer is particularly striking: “we want to destroy the subscription system, but I’ve never said we want to destroy the publishers.” This perspective seems to me significantly different than the dialogue I hear in the United States where open access is often hoped to be a mechanism for weakening the hold that large publishing houses have on the market.