(This post is coauthored by Joe Esposito and Michael Clarke. It first appeared in a slightly different form on the Clarke & Esposito newsletter, The Brief #28.)
PLOS, the inventor of the megajournal, is no stranger to innovation. With its announcement of Community Action Publishing (CAP), the company is now seeking to move its two highly selective Gold open access (OA) journals, PLOS Medicine and PLOS Biology, to a new model in which universities agree to underwrite the costs of publishing for their faculty, if they should choose to publish their work with PLOS (and if PLOS’s editors will have them). While the details of the program are interesting in themselves, of greater moment is the aim, captured in the word “community,” to create a system outside the demand-driven marketplace: like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, PLOS believes that “there is a world elsewhere.” Whether CAP will fare better in the end than Coriolanus, only time will tell.
But, first, how this works. The program is ably explained on the PLOS site (though the color choices may hurt your eyes!), reviewed dispassionately by Kent Anderson at The Geyser, summarized in full by Science, and celebrated by David Worlock, but the gist is this: rather than collect article processing charges (APCs) from the authors of accepted manuscripts, PLOS proposes that institutions become members in the two journals’ respective “communities” for three years. The cost of that membership is calculated by counting up the number of articles a particular institution’s faculty have published in the journals in previous years. A significant innovation comes into play here. Unlike most institutional payment schemes (such as transformative agreements) that associate a paper to an institution using only the corresponding author, CAP looks at the affiliation of all authors of a paper. This substantially increases the number of a institutions in the “community” and, by doing so, seeks to sidestep the greatest problem with OA payment models based on output, namely that such models result, by definition, in concentrating payments at a small number of research-intensive universities while encouraging the majority of institutions to become free riders. The CAP model is therefore, at least in theory (we’ll come back to the practical implications), an elegant solution to a vexing market problem.
The journals will be a kind of hybrid (though not in the way the term is typically applied to journals that offer traditional subscriptions alongside open access payments), which will publish both institutionally sponsored work and accepted papers whose authors pay an APC. The APC (called a “non-member fee”) for unaffiliated authors will rise quite a bit, from $3,000 today to $5,500 and $6,300 for PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine respectively by 2023. Raising the price for individual items as an incentive to purchase a collection is a time-honored practice, putting PLOS in the same camp as other publishers (Elsevier, Wiley, et al.), whom PLOS and its adherents may not see as its peers.
An interesting twist is the “margin cap” — meaning how much profit PLOS will make on these services. PLOS will limit itself to a margin (profit) of 10% after taking direct and indirect costs into account. “Indirect costs” is another term for overhead, the allocation of which is an internal prerogative. If the actual profit exceeds 10%, the members will get a refund. A critic might say that the membership fees are subscriptions by another name, but it may be more accurate to think of the fees as an assessment, not dissimilar to the property tax imposed on homeowners to support police, fire departments, schools, road maintenance, and so forth. CAP is really being conceived as a form of infrastructure.
CAP potentially solves two problems. The first is the matter of inclusiveness. By moving the cost of supporting the service from individuals to institutions, CAP addresses this problem, as no author is barred from publishing in the journals because of an inability to pay (assuming the author belongs to a participating institution — and as we note above, PLOS’s innovation to seek membership from the institutions affiliated with all authors greatly expands the potential institutional pool). We note in passing that the inclusiveness problem was solved centuries ago by the subscription model, which charges authors nothing and distributes the cost of supporting a publication across all interested parties.
The other problem CAP addresses is that of profitability. The two PLOS journals are losing money (“cross-subsidized” in the euphemism of the day), and improving profitability for a selective OA journal is no mean trick. Such a journal could attack costs — but PLOS is already doing this. Or it could publish more papers — but this would likely make the journals less selective. Or it could raise prices — or could it? But this in fact is one thing the new model accomplishes: it raises prices indirectly by setting the membership tiers at a level that will yield more dollars per paper than previously. Some will be disturbed to discover this, as it seems to fly in the face of connotations of “community,” but we say, more power to PLOS if they have come up with a way to get broader support for the (excellent) work that they do.
As elegant as the CAP model is, it has one weakness, which is scale. PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine are selective journals. They do not publish a lot of papers (under 800 papers annually in aggregate between the two titles). This raises the question as to whether it will be worth the trouble for many institutions to participate in CAP. If authors from a given institution only publish a few papers annually in these two journals (and seem to be finding the funds for APCs just fine now), is it worth the trouble for a university to participate?
It would be more compelling (for institutions) if PLOS ONE were included in the CAP program, but that would be challenging for PLOS for two reasons. The first is that while CAP limits the margins for these two journals at 10% (which represents a substantial margin increase), PLOS is able to realize a higher overall margin via its other journals, most notably PLOS ONE. So CAP is in fact artfully designed to create a margin floor for the organization but not a margin ceiling (including PLOS ONE would turn CAP into a true 10% cap). The second reason is the technical challenge of linking authors to affiliated institutional accounts. It is challenging to link merely the corresponding author of a paper to the affiliated institutional account. That is because it requires normalizing institutional names and sorting out parent-child relationships (and in some cases grandparents or consortia affiliations). If, for example, PLOS Medicine receives a paper from an author at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, which institution needs to be a CAP member? The Children’s Hospital or the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine of which it is a part? Or is it the main Northwestern University campus that might be a member? Will those linkages be articulated in PLOS’s submission systems? Publishers must keep track of these relationships with regard to subscriptions (and have had to build new systems and processes to support the complexities of transformative agreements), which are complicated by the fact that institutions choose to pay for certain subscriptions (or memberships) from certain accounts — one title or package may be paid for by the medical school and another from the main campus and a third via a consortium. The same will be true for CAP, and while it will be challenging for PLOS to manage this complex web of affiliations and institutional relationships, it is feasible given the relatively small output associated with PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. Scaling up to manage this for the approximately 20,000 papers published annually by PLOS ONE (multiplied by the number of authors on these papers) would be a technical and data management feat that would be daunting for the largest of publishers. It is for this same reason that we question whether CAP represents a model that is viable for other publishers — implementing CAP at a small scale poses market adoption challenges and implementing it at a large scale poses significant technical and logistical challenges.
Since CAP was first announced, a number of critiques have emerged. For example, can an organization really get by on a 10% margin if there were no additional subsidy from a PLOS ONE-like property? It would be tough. Organizations have to go through periodic capital investments to accommodate marketplace changes, new technology, and new demands from the communities they serve: a thin margin leaves little room for large-scale investment. This is particularly problematic for not-for-profit publishers, which have limited access to capital (can’t sell stock, constraints on borrowing money). Another question is what it means to use CAP globally, as economies vary enormously around the world. It seems probable that PLOS will have to negotiate accommodations for less developed economies, which carries the cost of taking up the time of management. (We can hear the pitter-patter of new FTEs coming to the post-pandemic office to help with these negotiations.) Another tactical question is how to deal with authors with multiple institutional affiliations: which one is used to determine eligibility? None of these questions is insurmountable (except the one concerning access to capital), but they all take time to think through and to promulgate policies, which in turn adds to administrative costs. It may be that community publishing inherently has a higher cost basis than market-based publishing.
But let’s put all these logistical matters to the side (after all, it is PLOS that must implement this — we just get to watch!), what is interesting about this model is the bigger picture it represents. Traditional publishing is based on market demand. Publishers create products that have to satisfy customers; if they did not, there would be no demand and no business. Satisfying demand in this way is the task of both for-profit and not-for-profit publishers — for Elsevier as well as the university presses of Chicago, California, and Duke. It is our constant refrain to society publishers, among many not-for-profit organizations, that despite their IRS status, they will have to learn to operate in the marketplace directly against for-profit firms whose primary mission is to benefit their shareholders. CAP is a rebuke to this perspective. While it will operate in a business-like way (the strategic analysis and business modeling that went into its creation is impressive), it is built upon a platform of community cooperation. In this it is of the same spirit as calls for the academy to “take back” publishing from commercial firms. It is thus not only a business model or a publishing service, but a social experiment. What would the world look like outside the rigors of the marketplace? Perhaps there is a revolution brewing in the PLOS offices in San Francisco and a generation from now we will look back and say, that is where it started.