2019 was a watershed year for progress in the transition of research publishing to open access (OA). The shakeup caused by Plan S had some time to sink in, cancellations of big subscription deals ramped up, and as I noted last October, the conversation had shifted from “eventually things will move to OA,” to instead a sense of urgency, “we’re on the clock for a move to OA.” The value of open science (increased transparency, open data, open access to research results) has become increasingly obvious during the current global health crisis. Both the positives (rapid reporting and sharing of information) and the negatives (the glut of bad science being issued as preprints and promoted via mainstream media without proper curation) are now evident, with the good generally outweighing the bad. Despite the daily evidence of the importance of shifting to an open science environment for research, the economic fallout from the pandemic is going to make necessary progress difficult and slow.
The academic community is likely to be financially devastated by the pandemic. Roger Schonfeld’s grim overview of the funding relied upon by educational institutions makes it clear that universities are in for hard times. Tuition revenues are expected to plummet at universities (such as those in the US and UK) that rely on enrollment by international students, who often carry a significant portion of a university’s tuition load. Many domestic students are also expected to take a “gap year,” further depressing enrollments. It’s unclear what will happen at universities outside of these regions, but given recent new waves of infection globally, the likelihood of business-as-usual is pretty low.
Major universities have announced that they will continue with distance learning in the fall, which means no on-campus revenue from housing, meals, activities, and various fees, not to mention the likelihood that the students who do enroll will refuse to pay full price, given that they are not receiving the full college experience. Sharp budget cuts at universities are anticipated, and given that libraries are already undervalued and underfunded, they will be a prime candidate for such cuts.
Jisc and UK universities are trying to weather the storm by asking publishers for significant discounts on all agreements, and I’ve heard from colleagues that other major library consortia are also seeking to change the rates agreed to in existing multi-year deals. I suspect that publishers will make efforts to meet these requests as best they can, but it’s unlikely that the concessions offered will be enough to offset the expected reductions.
Research societies are also going to have a tough time. Many rely on their annual meetings to provide a large portion of their operating income. As Michael Clarke wrote, we shouldn’t expect any large meetings to happen until late 2021 at the earliest. For most, that means a two-year gap in meeting revenue. Society memberships, largely purchased by individuals, may decline as discretionary spending becomes difficult to justify during hard times. This puts additional pressure on society journals to bring in revenue to keep organizations afloat.
This creates a seemingly unresolvable dilemma – the COVID pandemic has given us a clear view of the value of open science, yet has also created conditions where implementing open science may not be feasible. We know that the transition to OA was likely to be financially disruptive, even under good market conditions, but now in a global recession (if not depression), it’s increasingly difficult to see rapid progress happening.
It has become widely acknowledged that the main model for OA publishing, author-pays APC (Article Processing Charge) Gold OA is, at best, limited in its value. It works very well in some fields, for some authors, in some geographies. We know that APCs create great inequities for unfunded authors, for poorly-funded fields of research, and for researchers in countries outside of wealthier nations. On top of this, it has also become abundantly clear that for many existing journals, a shift to an APC model at current market rates would result in reduced levels of revenue. This is going to be hard to accept for commercial publishers in a time of cost-cutting and layoffs, and impossible for research societies that have lost their other earning channels. It’s hard to justify investing heavily in new technologies and workflows when you’re struggling to keep the lights on.
One result that I expect to see accelerating is the further consolidation of the market. Last year saw an unprecedented number of independent research societies reaching out to larger publishers to discuss partnerships. A shift to APC-based OA, which benefits enormously from economies of scale, was a significant driver behind these partnerships. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) for example, noted in the announcement of their plans to move to OA that:
Ultimately, we determined that the ASBMB cannot achieve its goal of full open access alone, so we made the strategic decision to enter into an agreement with the commercial publisher Elsevier, which has experience transitioning subscription journals to full open access and the requisite technical expertise and infrastructure.
The IET similarly moved from independent status to publishing with Wiley in order to support an open access transition.
Another potential problem arises from the APC model depending on productive universities (“Publish” institutions) taking on a higher financial burden, while those universities that use the literature but don’t produce a lot of it (“Read” institutions) seeing a cost savings. The American Chemical Society notes that, “Of the 6000 institutions subscribing to ACS’s journal packages, between 300 and 500 produce 85% of published papers.” That same article quotes a SPARC report that suggests, “It remains to be seen whether ‘publish’ institutions will be able and willing to accept the radical reallocation of costs logically implied by transformative agreements.”
Add in the expected library budget cuts and it becomes increasingly doubtful that many Publish institutions will be able to increase their serial spend to cover author fees. Martin Paul Eve argues that the increases required for transformational agreements are “simply not going to be possible for many institutions, particularly at this time.” Expect the rapid pace of growth of transformational agreements, at least those forward-looking enough to actually compensate for the corresponding loss in “Read” revenue, to decrease.
Relying on authors to pay APCs out of their grant funds may seem like a good alternative to further taxing the library, but this may also be problematic as the global economic downturn is already impacting research budgets, as has been announced for Horizon Europe. This also bodes poorly for investment in communications infrastructure, data repositories, or funds to cover compliance and enforcement of open science policies.
Business models beyond the APC may have an even bigger struggle ahead. Because of the many shortcomings of the APC model, a variety of OA business models that can be applied in different contexts and that are appropriate for each community and research field are needed for long-term sustainability. Right now, most of the non-APC models in-play rely upon voluntary spend from someone. Will the cost paid for publication of a Diamond-OA journal out of a library make the cut when budgets are being slashed? Collective action strategies that rely upon libraries voluntarily paying for memberships or subscribe-to-open models are going to be similarly hard to justify, given that you receive all the same benefits of the model whether or not you choose to pay.
And so we are left stuck between a growing consensus by the research community that open science is the superior way to drive progress and an inability to invest what may be needed to make it happen.
All is not without hope, however. Though we are already seeing significant decreases in the GDP of most countries, recognition of the need to fund scientific research has never been stronger. Along with that realization, the value of open science practices is increasingly understood by governments and funding agencies. This creates the potential for continuing progress through the creation of incentives and eventually, after normality resumes, the dedication of increased funding to both support existing OA models and to drive the creation of new models. Clear requirements on researchers and grant programs for building open science infrastructure and experimenting with new models will be imperative in maintaining the forward momentum.
There are also business opportunities here, and in this case fortune will favor the bold, those willing (or able) to invest during hard times. Unfortunately, the number of players in the market with deep enough pockets to make these sorts of moves is limited, and likely to lead to further consolidation.
Open access relies on the concept that knowledge is a public good, but acknowledges that there are costs and efforts necessary to produce and maintain that public good. The global health crisis has the potential to bring stakeholders together in support of improving the way we communicate research results, but the accompanying economic downturn may create significant roadblocks to those efforts.