Friday, March 27, 2009

The Open Access Interviews: Hélène Bosc

Hélène Bosc

Former INRA librarian, convenor for the EuroScience Working Group on Science Publishing, and passionate champion of Open Access (OA) in France, Hélène Bosc began advocating for OA in 1995, before the term even existed and just one year after Stevan Harnad had posted his seminal Subversive Proposal on an Internet mailing list.

Like other librarians who have embraced OA, Bosc's starting point was the so-called serials crisis — the phenomenon that has seen the cost of scholarly journal subscriptions consistently rise faster than the retail price index. With their serials budgets unable to keep pace, librarians have found themselves having to cut the number of journals they subscribe to year on year, depriving their researchers of more and more of the peer-reviewed literature that they need in order to do their research.

Over time no library has been immune to these depredations, not even those in large research institutions lik INRA — the largest agricultural research institution in Europe and Bosc's employer until she retired in 2005.

Also like other librarians Bosc was hard pressed to see any obvious solution to the problem. Moreover, to her growing frustration, INRA appeared to be conspiring in the process: Although it had been publishing a number of its own journals since the 1950s, in 1989 INRA decided to outsource the task to Elsevier, the largest scholarly publisher in the world, and the for-profit company that many believe had played a major role in creating the serials crisis in the first place. Either way, after Elsevier began publishing INRA's journals the cost of subscribing to them began to rise steeply.

In 1995, however, Bosc attended a conference at which French-Canadian academic Jean-Claude Guédon presented a paper on the serials crisis. Rather than simply describe the problem, Guédon proposed a solution: If the research community used the Internet as a publishing platform it could reduce the costs of producing journals, and make the contents freely available. Intriguingly, Guédon's proposal was not just theory; it was based on practical experience. In 1991 he had founded Canada's first electronic journal — Surfaces; a journal that continues to be published today.

Inspired by Guédon, Bosc determined to try and persuade INRA that it should stop being part of the problem, and start working towards a solution. In other words, rather than restricting access to its journals, and stoking the inflationary fires, INRA should make them freely available on the Web so that any scientist in the world could access them without being confronted by a paywall.

Explains Hervé Le Crosnier, OA advocate, former librarian, and currently computer science teacher at the Université de Caen: "Hélène tried to explain to INRA why they were heading down the wrong road by selling all their in-house publications to Elsevier, and that OA is the only way to return to having their research distributed around the world."

Le Crosnier adds: "By this time it was a tough fight between librarians and Elsevier, which had become the primary monopoly provider of scientific publications, and Hélène became one of the main warriors."

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If you wish to read the interview with Hélène Bosc please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Open Access: A publisher's perspective

In an article I posted on 10th March I discussed the issue of whether the Green and Gold roads to Open Access (OA) should be viewed as complementary or competitive strategies for the OA movement.

This generated some feedback on the Web: feedback, for instance, from OA advocates like Peter Suber and from Stevan Harnad; feedback from librarians like the University of California's Ivy Anderson; and feedback from consultants like Joe Esposito.

In the belief that further discussion of these issues might be helpful, and keen to get the perspective of a publisher, I was pleased when Steven Hall, former Commercial Director at Wiley-Blackwell, agreed to let me publish his thoughts on what I had written.

Prior to Wiley's acquisition of Blackwell Publishing Hall was Journal Sales and Marketing Director at Blackwell and on the Management Committee of the business. Before Blackwell, Hall was Senior Vice-President of Publishing and Publisher Relations for ProQuest, where he ran its higher education publishing, and before that Managing Director of the electronic humanities publisher Chadwyck-Healey before its acquisition by ProQuest.

Hall left Wiley-Blackwell last April and is now running his own publishing consultancy business. He specialises in areas like pricing, product development and business development, and strategy.


Steven Hall


In his article Open Access: whom would you back? Richard Poynder makes a number of assertions about access to journals, the impact of the ‘Big Deal’ and the costs of Gold OA publishing which repeat many of the canards of the OA debate, and which are simply not supported by the data.

He writes: This affordability problem means that each year librarians are forced to cancel more and more journals, depriving their researchers of access to a growing proportion of the refereed literature.

This claim appears to be based on an article by Stevan Harnad and others in which it is stated "Spiralling price rises mean research libraries can afford to subscribe to fewer journals and, in turn, users have access to fewer articles — whereas in the online age, we might have expected the opposite."

Well, libraries might be subscribing to fewer individual titles but their users have access to far more articles: the opposite really is the case. In 1992-1993, before electronic journals publishing really got underway, the median number of paid journal subscriptions across ARL university libraries was 15,016. By 1999-2000, with electronic journals publishing well established, the median figure had increased slightly to 16,121.

By 2005-2006, that median figure had grown by 73% on the 1992-1993 figure, to 25,967. (Click here for the statistics.) The 2006-2007 statistics have been compiled on a different basis, counting unique titles rather than subscriptions, but show a university median figure for titles purchased of 40,533.

This is a huge increase in access, and this is within the ARLs, the top research libraries in North America which historically have subscribed to the largest number of journals; if you look at less research-intensive institutions, then the growth in access is even greater, from a few thousand titles to tens of thousands. The UK statistics, which used to be compiled by LISU for the whole UK HE sector, tell the same story, as do the Australian statistics.

The Big Deal

This is, of course, as a result of the 'Big Deal'. It's perfectly possible to disagree with publishers' pricing policies, with the way they have sold the Big Deal, and to dislike some of its effects, but it cannot be argued that access to journal literature has been reduced. Researchers and students now have access to far more journals than at any point in the past, and this greater access is available at a much wider range of institutions.

On a related topic, Richard claims that: scholarly journals were moved to the Web publishers began to bundle them into all-you-can-eat packages popularly known as the "Big Deal", and then sold large portfolios of journals rather than single subscriptions.

This is one of the assertions made in the Study on the Economic and Technical Evolution of the Scientific Publication Markets in Europe [pdf], which was commissioned by the Directorate-General for Research of the EC and published in 2006, and which in my view would never have made it past the peer-review process of any half-decent scholarly journal.

It may be true that a few publishers have tried to push customers towards taking a single package in which individual subscriptions ceased to be recorded, but most publishers have sold their Big Deal package as an add-on, a supplement to the customer's individual journal subscriptions. And, so far as I am aware, no publisher has offered only a Big Deal; all have continued to offer individual journal subscriptions as well as packages.

The Big Deal may have helped concentrate even more influence in the hands of a fairly small number of large publishers, but it was not imposed on libraries. The great majority of libraries have warmly embraced it, principally because of the huge increase in access to journals that it has provided, at a fairly small marginal cost, and partly because of the lower annual price increases that have come with it.

Richard also claims that: Since this [the Big Deal] reinforced the market power of the big players it allowed them to ramp up their prices even further.

He presents no evidence for this. Publishers were ramping up their journal prices (for all sorts of reasons, including the growth in research output) long before the Big Deal came along. Again, the ARL Statistics and the UK data support this.

Journal prices have been increasing at a rate above inflation for years and the advent of the Big Deal has not increased them further; in fact, price increases at title level have moderated in the last few years and the Big Deal has in many cases further moderated the annual increases in total costs that any library pays for a particular publisher's journals.This is not to argue that annual increases in journal costs well beyond the increases in library budgets are sustainable; it's to present facts that are frequently conveniently ignored in this simplistic debate.

Publishing costs

Moving on to the costs of Gold OA publishing, Richard makes two more statements in his article which require comment: In an online world scholarly publishing should surely be cheaper: there are no print costs... and ... Springer has never demonstrated how or why it costs $3000 to peer review a scholarly paper.

On the first, we are not yet in an online world. We remain in a hybrid world of print and digital, partly because of a certain conservatism on the part of librarians and academics in some parts of the world and in some disciplines; and partly because of the absurd situation that VAT is payable on electronic journals but not on print journals, or at a higher rate than on print journals, within the EU.

We will get to a largely electronic environment, but we are still a good number of years away from it, and in the meantime publishers have to bear both sets of costs.

On the second, Richard is careful to say that PLoS charged an APC of roughly half of Springer's charge of $3,000 at the time Springer's service was launched. This is disingenuous. PLOS now charges $2,850 for PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine and $2,200 for all its other journals with the exception of the much more lightly reviewed PLoS ONE.

PLoS itself says openly that there are real and substantial costs to peer-review, editing and hosting of journal articles. PLoS has been increasing its APCs faster than any large commercial publisher and when I last looked at its accounts it was still a long way from breaking even on an annual basis and it may never break even on a cumulative basis if you take into account the very large grants and donations with which its launch was supported.

PLOS now charges more than some commercial publishers for its APC, has no print costs, aims to make no profit and may still be unable to balance its books. It seems that it costs at least $2,850 to peer review, edit and host an online article in a high-quality journal.

Green v. Gold

As for the whole issue of Green v. Gold OA, it's easy to see why Gold OA is acceptable to publishers (it's just another business model) and why Green OA isn't — it relies on the publisher giving away its investment in editing and peer review, and no publisher is going to do so without a fight.

When a researcher gets a grant to research — well, let's say a Mayan archaeological site in Mexico — he doesn't expect the airline to fly him there for free, nor the porters to provide their services for free, nor Dell to provide him with a free laptop. Why, then, should he expect the publisher to provide its editing and reviewing services for free? Publication is a legitimate part of the research process and it has genuine costs; why shouldn't these be recouped?

Green OA also ignores one other important element that the publisher brings to the scholarly process, and that is the brand of the journal which gives the imprimatur to the research article. This is something that academics and librarians, and even Green OA proponents, value very highly but which the latter believe should simply be given away by the publisher.

Researchers are, of course, able to make their research freely available — before it is reviewed, edited and has the journal brand attached.

The Green v. Gold debate is ultimately a dead end if the arguments are based on assumptions and assertion rather than hard facts. The EC study mentioned above and the JISC’s recent report on Economic Implications of Alternative Scholarly Publishing Models: Exploring the Costs and Benefits both lack reliable data to support their claims (they are both based on theoretical models) and neither seems to have involved publishers.

In time the PEER project may provide the data we need to assess the potential impact of Green OA. As for Gold OA, if its supporters believe that the current APC s are too high, from both commercial and not-for-profit publishers, then perhaps they should set up their own alternative peer review process and compete with the publishers.

Steven Hall