Why “Fair Open Access” may not be good enough

The recent Ling-OA initiative, supported by the Dutch organizations NWO and VSNU, aims for “Fair Open Access”, which is defined in the following way:

* The editorial board owns the title of the journals.

* The author owns the copyright of his/her articles, and a CC-BY license applies.

* All articles are published in Full Open Access (no subscriptions, no “double dipping”).

* Article processing charges (APCs) are low (around 400 euros),
transparent, and in proportion to the work carried out by the publisher.

These are very laudable goals which I support fully. In particular the ownership of the journal title is important, because it is primarily the ownership of the labels that allows commercial publishers to charge prices that increasingly seem outrageous.

But the word “fair” appears to say that commercial publishers have in the past acted “unfairly”. But this is perhaps the wrong category for a commercial company, whose reason for existence is to make a profit. The publishers are simply using their resources (in particular, ownership of prestigious titles) to maximize their profits, which is what one expects of them in the system.

The problem (as with other trade relationships that are perceived as “unfair”) is not the behaviour of some of the actors, but the way the relationships are set up. In the 20th century, journal and book publishing primarily served the purpose of dissemination, and outsourcing this to commercial companies seemed like a good idea. Libraries would buy mostly the best journals and books, so these had high print runs and were relatively cheap to produce. So cheaper books were also better, and vice versa.

In the 21st century, electronic dissemination means that selling more copies does not reduce the production costs, so the price is primarily related to the prestige of the publication: While journals (and books) published in poorer countries are often freely available, even though they are read by few people, journals and books published in the richer countries are often very expensive, even though there is a high demand for them.

Thus what is “unfair” is the ownership of the titles by the commercial actors, and once this is addressed (as required by the Ling-OA initiative), the market should lead to a drastic reduction of the costs.

So I do not think it makes much sense to specify what level of costs per article (400 euros?) would be “fair”. In the Brazilian ScieLO journals, the APCs seem to be closer to 80 euros (see http://bjoern.brembs.net/2015/09/many-symptoms-one-disease/). And in view of the fact that many of us now upload our articles to Academia.edu and ResearchGate within a few seconds, one wonders whether the costs could not be reduced even further – also depending on what is meant by “publishing costs”. If market forces can apply, it does not make much sense to require that the costs be “in proportion to the work carried out by the publisher”. Costs are generally not in proportion to “work”, but in proportion to efficiency. If the rules are set up in the right way, the profit goes to those who do the work in the most efficient way.

(In my experience, a significant cost factor is ensuring compliance with text-structure style; if the entire discipline agreed on a common style, such as the Generic Style Rules for Linguistics, this could be reduced drastically, and thus efficiency could be increased for everyone.)

In the Ling-OA model, the service provider Ubiquity Press takes care of technical aspects and gets APCs (not more than 400 euros per article), which are covered by the science funders NWO and VSNU (association of Dutch universities) for the first five years. After that, the idea is that the Open Library for the Humanities (OLH) will take over, which is funded by its Library Partnership Subsidy model.

For a transitional period, one can understand that libraries will be happy to support initiatives such as the OLH, because there is the hope that subscription costs will go down. But in the longer run, science publication needs a more secure source of funding. First of all, there is no guarantee that libraries will continue to pay. If the OLH works well and the publications are freely available, the temptation will be great to leave the responsibility to others. But second and more importantly, there is no guarantee that libraries will even exist in 20 years’ time. As scholars and students increasingly use online resources, and as the subscription model is replaced by the open access model, university administrators will increasingly ask why the university still needs a library. Library buildings will continue to occupy a prominent place on campuses, but the people inside them will no longer buy and store books and journals. So will they have budgets to subsidize initiatives like OLH?

What would a truly sustainable model look like? In my view, payment for journals (and book imprints) will have to come from funders with a stake in the labels.

The NWO’s interest is in furthering the excellence of Dutch science, for the benefit of Dutch taxpayers. Clearly, Dutch taxpayers benefit if Dutch universities and other science institutions are seen to perform well. Thus, it would be in the interest of the NWO to fund journals that have “NWO” or “Dutch/Netherlands” or some other Dutch label such as “Leiden” or “Amsterdam” in them. Thus a solution would be to guarantee indefinite funding but to require that, for instance, the “Journal for Modern Linguistics” be renamed to “Dutch Journal for Modern Linguistics”. This would then compete with the “Stanford Journal for Modern Linguistics”, the “Shanghai Journal for Modern Linguistics”, the “Max Planck Journal for Modern Linguistics”, and so on. Each would be funded by its institution, and free for authors and readers. The funders would profit because the journals associated with their names would be widely cited by the scholars, so they would have an incentive to continue the funding. Basically, they would fund journals for the same reason they are funding labs and other scientific activities.

Thus, we would no longer have to hope that the actors would be fair. Everyone would act in their own selfish interest, but we would have a very good system of dissemination and selection of the best research results.

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2 Responses to Why “Fair Open Access” may not be good enough

  1. Johan Rooryck says:

    Martin’s blog post ‘ Why “Fair Open Access” may not be good enough’ makes a number of points that I will react to as one of the people behind the Ling-OA initiative.

    Martin says that the word ‘fair’ suggests that publishers have in the past acted unfairly. Our reference to the word ‘fair’ is actually inspired by ‘fair trade’. One could of course say that ‘fair’ in ‘fair trade’ is also a misnomer, because companies will always want to make a profit, but I believe that is beside the point. ‘Fair’ in our use means: a fair trade between publishers, content providers, and libraries.

    I agree with Martin that the main issue with publication is prestige. But he does not elaborate on how we maintain or develop prestige of publications in an OA world. Right now, full OA publications are not held in high esteem. Our initiative aims at changing that by transferring existing journals with high prestige to full Open Access. But of course Martin has the right to think that such a practical solution is not good enough in the best of all possible worlds.

    Ling-OA’s concern is not with the ‘right’ price for publishing cost. We believe 400 euros is the right price today, because that is what Ubiquity Press has convinced us is a reasonable price for work carried out in the West today. I note here that Ubiquity Press has completely transparent pricing, so Martin can ask the people at Ubiquity Press how they get to that price. It is out in the open, for all to see. Some fact-checking might have been nice.

    I will not address the suggestions to ‘publish’ on Academia.edu, whose practices are not as transparent as they could be. Academia.edu is a “venture capital-backed software company that seeks to derive revenue by selling analytics about the activities of its installed user base”. Sounds familiar? That is because it is: this is what publishers do these days. They repackage the information we give them for free and sell it.

    The rest of the blog reads like a dystopic future. No libraries in 20 years time? Who cares? If there are no libraries, the resources will most likely still be around to disseminate research. The concrete problem before us is this: how do we transition from a subscription-based publication model to a full and affordable Open Access model? The proposal Ling-OA tries to put in practice is simple: help existing journals with a reputation move to Open Access by paying for the Article Processing Charges. Once that is done, we can worry about exact price levels, which will be what the market can bear.

    The blog ends with the proposal that every country, indeed every university, should have their own set of journals. All very fine and well, but that would mean thousands of Working Papers-like journals: interesting enough, but inevitably in thrall to local interests. In short, such a proposal completely fails to take into account that scholars want to publish in prestigious journals (see above). Perhaps the Max Planck Journal for Modern Linguistics might ultimately have more prestige than the others, but this will again be only due to the fact that the MPJML has more money than, say, the Leiden Journal of Linguistics. Supralocal organisations such as big, prestigious journals will still be needed to play a role in quality control of scientific publications.

  2. Martin Haspelmath says:

    I think we agree on most points, e.g. that prestige is very important, and indeed “flipping” a journal from commercial to scholar-owned open access is a good strategy. But in most cases, it won’t work smoothly, and we’ll have to let many old brands wither away (such as “Lingua”). – As for Ubiquity’s 400 euros, whether this is a reasonable price can only be determined if there is a market, and if none of their potential competitors can offer a lower price. I trust that the publishers of Glossa will constantly survey the market to see whether alternative options exist, and I am optimistic that eventually, the cost can be brought down substantially. – I sure hope that the OLH funding model will turn out to be sustainable, but I would put even more trust in the journal if it were called “Dutch Journal of Linguistics” and if the Dutch government or the Dutch University Association guaranteed its funding for 20 years. I think journals should basically be funded like people.

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