In February, a thought piece was issued jointly by Jisc, RLUK, SCONUL and ARMA which aimed to start a conversation about academic journal markets and progress in the UK towards Open Access. This blog post represents the combined thoughts of two leaders in Open Access publishing at the University of Manchester Library. The post does not represent an official position at Manchester, but illustrates some of the thinking that informs the development of our policies and services.
The thought piece makes a number of statements, and we have chosen to respond to a selection of them:
Academic journals play an important role in the work of universities
In our view, one might argue instead that academic research papers play an important role, and that the correlation is between availability of that research and university research performance. The journals just happen to be the containers for the research. The same is true of student satisfaction and access to journals. Students want access to the ‘stuff’; whether it’s in journals is largely immaterial, and may not even be noticeable via modern library discovery systems, or Google. The question is whether the journal remains the best container in a networked digital environment.
Two issues in particular occur to us in the context of this part of the thought piece:
i) We wonder how true it is that journals ‘allow researchers the freedom to choose appropriate channels to publish their work’. It could be argued that they are, in fact, constrained by a system in which they are expected to publish in certain titles if they are to develop their careers;
ii) It’s true that journal articles are measurable, insofar as citations are a reliable indicator, but there’s growing support for a campaign to eliminate journal title-based metrics, with over 600 organisations now signed up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment.
The markets are changing
The thought piece describes a market that has been split in two, where the options now are Hybrid Gold and Pure Gold. We would suggest there are other ways to think about the way the journal market is evolving. Although many of the ‘wholly Open Access journals’ levy APCs, we should keep in mind – and OA advocates often remind us – that many Gold OA journals do not require them. Nobody is suggesting that publishing is free, but charging the author at time of acceptance is not the only approach. It’s interesting to see the Open Library of the Humanities adopt a Library-funded model, something which Knowledge Unlatched has shown can succeed, at least at the pilot stage, for OA monographs.
Our second point would be that another way of splitting the market would be into a) commercial publishers and b) university presses. Open Access has stimulated renewed interest in the concept of the University Press, as universities begin to consider how they could bring their publishing operations back in house. UCL Press is a significant example of a new and wholly Open Access press, and more recently we have also seen a consortial approach emerge in the form of White Rose University Press. Bringing scholarly publishing back into the academy allows us to present an alternative OA model in which prices do not need to be determined by shareholders and their demand for profits. The recent University Press Redux conference at Liverpool identified this as a key theme. We are also seeing innovation with repositories, such as the arXiv overlay journal Discrete Analysis, launched in February.
Performance of the legacy/hybrid journals market
The anticipated transition to OA, post-Finch, still seems depressingly distant. Instead, we continue to pay above-inflation subscription prices while simultaneously paying the same publishers APCs. Despite the average cost of hybrid APCs being higher than those for Pure Gold, the power of the journal brand means that most of the funds we have available for Gold OA are going to hybrid publishers. We are seeing some offsetting models emerge, but we are aware that some institutions find these complicated to manage and while publishers have a global market which is not, on the whole, moving to Gold OA, there is little prospect of the transition we hoped for. Pure Gold journals offer lower prices and no scope for ‘double-dipping’ but are yet to be well-established beyond a few disciplines.
On the point in the thought paper about the service we might expect for our APC payments, much certainly needs to be done. We are both members of the RLUK Open Access Publisher Processes Group which focuses on this, and we welcome feedback from colleagues who are dissatisfied with publisher systems and procedures that authors struggle to navigate or the level of service and support received in return for their APC payments.
Shortcomings in the legacy journal market
Given that we have limited funds available to pay publishing costs, it is attractive to consider using them only to support publishers who are not also taking subscription payments from us. It is increasingly so when we see that Pure Gold APCs tend to be lower than those charged by hybrid journals. The issue we face is the power of the brand, as our researchers know they need their papers to be in the ‘right’ journals in order to gain the esteem they require to progress in their careers. It is depressing that this remains the case in a digital world in which the concept of the journal is so outdated. In a print environment, bundling the latest research papers up in this way was a sensible approach to their dissemination. Today, new models like PeerJ can work quite differently, and the only barrier to their adoption is an academic culture which holds fast to the power of the journal title, even at a time when so many organisations are turning away from the notion that the impact of a journal says anything about the individual article. Hybrid, despite the arguments of the Publishers Association, is not providing what we need. As the Wellcome Trust reports, “hybrid open access continues to be significantly more expensive than fully open access journals and that as a whole the level of service provided by hybrid publishers is poor and is not delivering what we are paying for”.
Given the complexity of offsetting, the profit margins of the commercial publishers and the lack of a substantial transition from subscription to OA, it is time to consider using the available funding for Pure Gold rather than for Hybrid, and to invest in those initiatives that are emerging from academia, and which focus on providing the widest access to our research rather than the returns expected by company shareholders.
Image: Patrick Hochstenbach, CC-BY. Open Access Belgium