The third CHORUS Forum meeting, held last week, is a relatively new entrant into the scholarly communication meeting calendar. The meeting has proven to be a rare opportunity to bring together publishers, researchers, librarians, and research funders. I helped organize and moderated a session during the Forum, on the theme of “Making the Future of Open Research Work.” You can watch my session, which looked at new models for sustainable and robust open access (OA) publishing, along with the rest of the meeting in the video below.
The session focuses on the operationalization of the move to open access and the details of what it takes to experiment with a new business model. The model the community has the most experience with, the individual author paying an article-processing-charge (APC), works really well for some authors, in some subject areas, in some geographies. But it is not a universal solution to making open access work and it creates new inequities as it resolves others.
In order to build a diverse ecosystem of open access publishing models that can support the diverse needs of the many different members of the research community, other models will be needed. But developing a new model is not an easy undertaking. Launching a new business model, figuring out how to make it work, and getting buy-in from the community can be a long and arduous process with a lot of heavy lifting. Our goal in the session was to better understand how the community can come together to build shared infrastructure to make such experimentation easier.
We had four speakers: three publishers who are deeply engaged in building out new business models, and a librarian, who spoke about the “lift” from that side of the equation. Scott Delman gave an overview of the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM’s) five-year plan to move to OA through transformative agreements. Sara Rouhi from PLOS explained both their Flat Fee and Community Action Publishing (CAP) approaches. Richard Gallagher discussed the Subscribe-to-Open (S2O) model employed by Annual Reviews and a growing number of publishers. This was followed by MIT librarian Courtney Crummett, who let us know what libraries need to be able to support these experiments. If you want an excellent primer in understanding these models, then the video below will provide it.
Some of the key takeaways for me were found in the commonalities across all of the models. The biggest hurdle that each organization faced in executing its plans was gathering and analyzing author data. As Sara put it, “Data hygiene makes or breaks all of these models.” For PLOS and the ACM, what they’re asking libraries to support is authorship – the model essentially says “this many papers had authors from your institution and what you pay will largely be based on the volume of your output.” But disambiguating author identity, and especially identifying which institutions each represents, remains an enormous problem. While we do have persistent identifiers (PIDs) like ORCID, and the still-under-development ROR, their use is not universal, and we still lack a unifying mechanism to connect the various PIDs into a simple, functional tool to support this type of analysis.
One solution would be requiring authors to accurately identify their host institutions from a controlled vocabulary, but this runs up against most publishers’ desire to streamline the article submission process. There’s a balance to be struck, but probably one that’s going to ask authors to provide more accurate and detailed information.
Usage data is also a challenge. For the S2O model, institutional usage of the journals remains a key selling point in garnering support. But in an OA world, many users will directly access the articles without being on campus or signed-in to their library’s systems. This calls for better mechanisms for distributed usage logging, but also raises some major privacy concerns, as brought to light by my fellow Scholarly Kitchen Chef Lisa Hinchliffe. Librarians have long stood as guardians of patron privacy, but as Lisa notes:
Increasingly libs want ROI data on investments in OA publishing. What they are asking for is reader surveillance — who reads what we fund, how much, etc.? Librns have criticized publishers for this tracking on subscription resources. But, now it seems librns want it on OA?
— Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (@lisalibrarian) April 23, 2021
The other big common lift involves financial data. As Scott explained, in order to move to an entirely new model, you need a clear understanding of your organization’s finances. There needs to be a sufficient level of granularity and flexibility in one’s financial tracking to allow everything to be recast to the new model (or to be able to analyze multiple models for potential adoption). The financial systems of many publishers are, however, often built to support the current model and may not provide the right information for making the switch. The new business model has to be planned around being sustainable, generating enough revenue to support the services you offer, and to provide some level of surplus to both allow your organization to thrive and to continue to maintain and develop more publishing services. This means a much deeper and more detailed level of accounting and analysis as well as likely building in new practices and systems.
Another common factor was financial transparency — both from the publisher side and the library side. The publishers all suggested that being open with your costs and margins was necessary for getting buy-in from customers, and Courtney confirmed this as important for libraries to understand. I continue to struggle with why this is useful, but a recent conversation with a university librarian helped at least clarify some of the motivation for it.
There are different types of models being proposed for open access — models where the institution remains the customer purchasing a service (APCs, transformative agreements, and CAP/Flat Fee), and others where the university is asked to underwrite the publisher’s operation, as the service will be provided regardless of whether the library opts to pay (S2O, Open Library of Humanities, etc.) For the latter, there is a reasonable argument to be made that the “return” that the library receives on its investment is the knowledge that it is supporting an organization acting in a way that fits with the library’s philosophical and fiduciary goals. To ensure that the project being supported is, in fact, a good one, and not a boondoggle or blatantly inefficient, a look under the hood is justified.
This is not the case for the first type of business model where the library remains a customer. The return the institution receives for its money is the service being sold – authorship services for published papers. Here, the idea that pricing should be based on costs, rather than the value provided, is likely to create perverse incentives and distort the market. PLOS’ CAP model, for example, provides an accounting of the costs incurred by the journal and then tacks on a 10% profit margin. In this model, PLOS has no incentive to make their operations more efficient — if they can come up with new routes to reducing their costs, then their profits drop, and they end up with less money to put toward new developments and future activities.
If two publishers offer the same set of services but one runs their business poorly and overpays suppliers, under this “fixed profit percent” model, the poorly managed business will wind up with more profit than a business that has maximized efficiency and better managed its costs, even if the services supplied to the customer are equivalent. This approach rewards inefficiency — paying more for typesetting would result in higher profits — and creates no incentive to invest in more efficient technologies and processes. We want just the opposite, and a system that actively punishes well-run businesses does not bode well for the future.
The notion of “cost transparency” may be a reaction to the high profits of some commercial publishers (many of which are publicly traded companies and hence have a high degree of transparency already). But the perception of value with regard to publishing (and most other products and services) has little to do with the cost of providing those products and services. Universities and libraries don’t demand to see the full financial details of their other suppliers and don’t need to know the profit margins made by plumbers when they have a clogged drain nor the costs incurred by furniture manufacturers when they purchase a chair. When a researcher uses their grant money to buy a microscope, I know of no funder that requires the manufacturer to send along a list of the cost of each component in the microscope and the amount paid for the labor necessary to assemble it. Why are publishing services so different? It’s not clear why such data is required, nor does there seem to be a clear vision for how it is to be interpreted.
Beyond the question of principle, there seems little practical value in cost transparency, given that there are no standards for such financial reporting, something that remains a gaping hole in the Coalition S financial transparency requirements. Financial reports are complex, and every publisher I’ve encountered has a different approach to putting them together. Each organization has its own philosophy, for example, toward allocation of overheads. Beyond that, different organizations have more or less centralized functions: marketing, technology, finance, project management, and so on (and hence the financials at a journal level are highly subjective as costs can be booked in many different places). I know many presses where journals cross-subsidize other journals – many a successful hybrid journal is propping up OA journals that lose money. Any resulting “cost transparency” reports are essentially meaningless for either comparing costs between publishers or truly understanding the financials of any given publisher. Untangling this accounting would require wholesale recasting of financials. The way to resolve this would be to develop financial reporting standards, so each organization is required to report on the same things in the same manner, but it is likely that this would prove difficult, if not impossible, and also run into potential competition law problems.
Financial reporting aside, moving beyond the APC is essential to the long-term viability of open access, and there remains much experimentation to be done. Working together effectively as a community can accelerate the progress likely to come from such work, and more thought needs to continue to be put into choosing the efforts that really matter.