2021 has been a year of market consolidation. While the big mergers and acquisitions have garnered much attention (most recently Clarivate completing its deal for Proquest and Wiley’s ongoing spending spree), I wanted to bring to light a different area of rapid market consolidation, namely the demise of the independently publishing research society. 2021 has seen an acceleration of this trend which began in 2018 with the announcement of Plan S.
At the beginning of 2019 I declared that we had entered “The Great Acceleration“, meaning that we were embarking on a period of significant, rapid change, and in that blog post I said the following about Plan S:
Plan S is a great example of acceleration — the research world has been moving slowly toward open access, with different fields moving at different paces via different routes. This evolution has taken place at (not surprisingly) an evolutionary pace, and a small group of significant research funders have declared their impatience with this level of progress. Plan S is a deliberate attempt to accelerate change, throwing a comet into a complex ecosystem in hope that it will produce mammals, rather than mass extinction.
The comet has struck, and we’re now in a period of what one school of evolutionary biology calls a “punctuated equilibrium”, which is the idea that rather than evolution happening gradually and continually, it instead shows long periods of stability and stasis, and then sudden bursts of rapid change.
Evolution, however, is unpredictable, as one would expect for any process that is driven by random change. What we’re seeing so far is that rather than a mass extinction or the spurring of all sorts of new species of publishers, Plan S has instead resulted in an environment that has reinforced the dominance of the incumbent market players and created a drive toward increasing scale – in other words, it is evolving bigger dinosaurs.
As an aside, I want to be clear that I’m not referring to larger publishers as dinosaurs to imply that they’re obsolete or stodgy and stuck in their ways. If anything, the largest of publishers have achieved that success for a reason – they’re very good at what they do, and because publishing is a service industry, that means being able to change to meet the needs of their customers. And open access (OA) has been a great example of that willingness to adapt, as the largest publishers have all embraced OA and extended their already successful businesses around it.
But if the goal was to shake things up and displace the dominant players, then that has not happened, and the net result to date of Plan S has been a massive consolidation of the market. The biggest publishers are growing bigger, and the smaller, independent publishers are largely abandoning their independence and signing on with the biggest houses. I’ve been in kind of a unique position here as an observer over the last few years – I’ve been on both sides of the negotiating table for Publishing Service Agreements, first as a publisher looking to bring in new journals, and now as a consultant running the Request for Proposal (RFP) process on behalf of journals looking for a publisher.
I can tell you that since the announcement of Plan S, at my former employer, we saw an enormous spike in the number of formerly independent journals looking for a larger publishing partner, and that now as a consultant, there remains a continuing stream of independent journals who have realized that they can’t thrive in the new environment on their own.
I think there are three forces driving all this consolidation: Uncertainty, Transformative Agreements, and the required Technology and Reporting Burdens.
A major transition to a new business model, particularly where there’s no answer that’s obviously sustainable and equitable, is going to create a lot of market instability. The most developed and predominant model available for open access is having the author pay an article processing charge (APC). This is an imperfect solution that creates as many problems as it solves. We know it doesn’t eliminate the inequities in the system, it just moves them from readers to authors. But also, most research societies consider themselves as stewards of their fields – they exist to instill rigor and drive excellence in research. As part of this, they’ve built highly-selective journals to present the very best research results in their field. Unfortunately, these flagship journals don’t really work with an APC model. The more articles you reject, the more expenses you have that have no way of being covered.
For the moment, APCs at their current levels work for a lot of journals because they are heavily subsidized by subscription revenues. But as the subscription revenues begin to wane, the APCs alone are not going to be enough to replace them and still maintain current earnings.
You also have the major problem of the APC model concentrating costs on a small number of authors rather than the subscription model’s wide spread of readers covering costs. This means that productive institutions that publish a lot of papers are going to have to spend a lot more to replace the funds that now come in from institutions that read the literature but don’t produce a lot of it. And frankly, that money just isn’t there – the productive institutions don’t have some magical pile of money they can add to their library budgets, and many of the top research institutions I’ve spoken with are uninterested in greatly increasing their spending.
Add in the pandemic, and things are even more uncertain. For an independent not-for-profit society with limited scale, this is a frightening place in which to be. But if you’re part of a much bigger organization, there’s more buffer there to weather the short-term storm, and a Publishing Services Agreement (PSA) often offers guaranteed revenues which allow you to ensure your future existence.
Transformative Agreements (TAs) are probably the number one reason we hear from smaller societies as to why they want to partner up with a bigger publishing house. Just as the Big Deal became the dominant way that journals are sold, making it difficult to get into a library’s budget unless you were part of a larger package, so too has the ascendance of the “Bigger Deal”, including subscription access and APCs. Most existing journals and their author communities aren’t yet ready for a full flip to OA and being part of a TA offers a route to buy a few years’ time in order to plan and potentially make that transition. The problem is that TAs generally need to be individually negotiated with each institution and are so complex and time-consuming to put together that librarians only have time to negotiate a small number of them with the largest of publishers. There’s simply no way for a society with one or two journals to get a seat at the table.
Technology and Reporting Demands
Plan S asks a lot from a journal in order to qualify as compliant. Let’s start with the technology requirements, which include the use of persistent identifiers like DOIs, participation in a long-term digital preservation or archiving program like CLOCKSS or Portico, what’s described as “high quality article level metadata” that must be in a standard non-proprietary and interoperable format licensed under CC0 terms, and that metadata must include complete and reliable information on funding of the research, including the name of the funder and their grant number. Further, the article must have machine readable information on its OA status and license embedded in the article in a standard, non-proprietary format. That’s a lot to ask for from a small, low-budget journal owned and run on a shoestring by the community, and many would have to invest significantly to meet these demands. A 2019 study showed that the large majority of OA journals listed in the DOAJ were not compliant with Plan S’s technology demands.
Beyond the technological requirements, the Plan S reporting demands also make it impossible for the small players to be in compliance. First, there’s the price transparency details, which in my opinion are vague and meaningless enough that I’m not sure they create too much of a burden for most journals. However, if you’re a fully-OA journal or a hybrid journal in a transformative agreement, you need to have a detailed description of all of your editorial policies and decision-making processes publicly available on your journal website. You have to have a detailed description of your peer review process posted as well. It is required that at least once a year you publish statistics showing the journal’s number of submissions, numbers of reviews requested, numbers of reviews received, the acceptance rate, and the average times between submission and publication. Much of this is data that has largely been seen as proprietary and confidential, so I suspect many are not comfortable sharing it with their competitors.
If you want to take the “transformative journal” approach, things get even more demanding. On top of those previous things, you have to publish an annual report showing downloads, citations and Altmetric scores for all papers published, and you have to present that data sorted by OA papers versus non-OA papers. It remains unclear why Plan S needs this data, nor why they can’t source it themselves. If you’re a big publisher or you partner with one, this is no big deal – you ask your team of analysts to use your expensive Web of Science and Altmetrics subscriptions to generate automated reports. If you’re a small, independent journal, you probably don’t have a team of data analysts and probably can’t afford Web of Science or Altmetrics access.
So the only option that makes sense for you if you want to continue to exist in this rapidly shifting OA world is to sign on with a big publisher, further reinforcing the fact that scale is the most essential component to OA success.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. The APC model and many of the other models in use today may turn out to be evolutionary dead ends, and the mammals that we’re looking for may still yet emerge. One of the biggest issues for societies in recent years has been lock-in – once you’re in a big publisher’s Big Deal package, it’s really hard to get out because libraries subscribe to the package, not to your journal, which means if you leave, you’re basically starting over from scratch. In a fully-OA world, this lock-in may go away, because subscribers will no longer matter.
So eventually, societies may have more mobility and freedom of choice. The big question is, by the time we reach that point, whether the market will have consolidated down so much that there aren’t any choices left.