The Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation – a consortium of 13 academic libraries that includes all the Ivy League universities and colleges as well as several other elite institutions, mainly on the east coast of the US – recently released a letter addressed to the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), responding to the most recent iteration of its guidance memo regarding public access to the products of federally-funded research, both research reports and data.
The letter expresses “strong support for the updated policy guidance issued by the [OSTP] that will make funded research immediately available to the public to freely access and fully use.” However, the Confederation also expresses serious concern with what it sees as the OSTP “allowing the interests of commercial publishers to dictate the paths available.”
What do they mean by this? “We refer here,” the letter explains, “to the pay-to-publish model of open access to research publications, as exemplified by individual APC (article processing charge) fees charged directly to authors, and/or institutional Read and Publish agreements where libraries pay bulk APCs on behalf of their scholars and unlock institutional access to read pay-walled content.”
Anyone who has read both the Nelson Memo and this letter from the Confederation may be left with several questions, including:
- Where do the letter’s authors get the impression that the OSTP is recommending, let alone prescribing, the dissemination of federally-funded research via APC-funded publishing channels? That funding model is nowhere mentioned in the memo, nor does it seem to be referred to in any implicit way. Does this concern arise from the fact that the OSTP guidance specifically requires public access to “peer-reviewed scholarly publications” that result from federally funded research (as distinct from preprints, which may or may not have been peer-reviewed prior to posting)?
- The letter’s signatories are obviously convinced that “commercial publishers” had an undue influence on the new guidance. But what exactly is meant by “commercial publishers”? Does this term refer specifically to for-profit publishers? Or also to non-profit publishers that sell content and/or publishing services? (If the latter, then what would be the definition of a noncommercial publisher? Perhaps one that survives entirely on donations and/or institutional subvention?)
- What action or actions would the Confederation like the OSTP to take in response to their letter?
To that final question, there is an answer in the letter, though a rather vague one:
We both applaud this policy change and are aware that it may result in significant additional costs related to publication, repositories, data management, and staffing which we anticipate will be shouldered by individual researchers and institutions. We urge you to work with the research community to identify appropriate financial support to these additional burdens in future spending bills. Investing in infrastructure and services that are directly aligned with the research mission will be critical to laying the foundation for a more open and equitable system of research that will result in better, faster answers to the problems of our time.
Is the Confederation urging OSTP to use its influence to increase funding for the creation of Diamond/Platinum open access (OA) journals? To prevail on government funders to provide specific earmarks in research grants for the subvention of APCs? To increase… library staffing?
As I read this letter, I had a growing sense that the OA movement is starting to paint itself into a corner. For a couple of decades now, advocates have regularly protested that they understand fully that publishing costs money: they (or at least most – maybe not all) recognize that good editors have to be paid, that peer review has to be managed, that the maintenance of a complex website is expensive, that reliable and well-organized archiving is not free, etc. The problem, they have said, is not with publishers getting revenue to support their work, but with publishers getting revenue by charging for access to the scholarly products of research — especially publicly-funded research.
As I read this letter, I had a growing sense that the OA movement is starting to paint itself into a corner.
But it seems as though every time a publisher tries to get the necessary money from somewhere other than readers, there’s always a problem, and often one raised by the OA community itself. Toll access is of course completely unacceptable, but APCs (as the Ivy Plus Libraries Confederation rightly points out) are just another kind of toll access; the toll gate is simply moved from its former spot between the reader and the content to a new spot between the author and the publishing service. Furthermore, when drawn from research grants, APCs divert money away from the support of new research towards the dissemination of research already performed — a worthy expenditure, perhaps, but one that entails a real and significant opportunity cost. Subscribe-to-Open, the popular model du jour, relies entirely on libraries continuing to pay subscription fees. And of course when an institution such as a scholarly society or a university underwrites a journal entirely, making it free both to read and to publish in, that money is taken away from other worthy organizational priorities as well. So from whom or from what program should the money be taken?
And make no mistake: for an actual journal, one that is run well and edited with professional care, the cost is going to be significant. The problem is, no matter how you do it, publishing – real publishing, as opposed to simply posting a document on the open web – is going to cost money, and often serious money. And no matter where that money comes from, it is going to be taken out of someone’s pocket or budget, or away from some other initiative or priority. Budget allocation is a zero-sum game – that’s the essence of a budget. If we underwrite publishing with access fees, readers suffer; if we underwrite it with APCs, authors suffer; if we underwrite it with instutional subventions, the institution becomes less able to do other worthy things; if we redefine publishing to mean something cheaper, less rigorous, and less reliable than what it has been in the past, we gain savings at the cost of rigor and reliability.
It seems odd that we keep having to say it, but apparently we do: there is no free lunch in scholarly communication. If the work is going to be done, someone is going to pay – and whoever pays will, almost inevitably, be someone whom we could argue should not have to pay. Objecting to that fact, and publicly pointing out its implications, won’t change it.