Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Interview with BioOne’s Mark Kurtz

Historically, peer-reviewed journals were published by scientific societies on a non-profit basis. Today scholarly publishing is dominated by a handful of large commercial publishers focused on maximising their profits. This has left small society publishers struggling to survive and libraries unable to afford all the journals they need. Unable to compete with commercial publishers, many societies have given up and sold or outsourced their publishing activities to them—a decision that inevitably leads to a rise in the price of their journals.

Some, however, have sought survival by banding together and creating online collections of their combined journal portfolios. This is the objective of the Learned Journals Collection; and it is the aim of BioOne, which currently provides online access to 167 titles from 126 different non-profit bioscience publishers. I spoke recently with BioOne’s director of business development Mark Kurtz. The conversation was a further reminder for me that while the Open Access (OA) movement now looks set to solve the access problem, it is far from clear that it will solve the more fundamental affordability problem confronting the research community.

Writing in D-Lib magazine in 2000 Rick Johnson—then enterprise director for The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC)—pointed out that until the end of World War II scholarly publishing had operated somewhat like a gift economy. As he put it, “For nearly 300 years—since 1665, when the Royal Society of London published the first modern journal, Philosophical Transactions—societies satisfied the need for scholars to communicate among themselves and so maintained their role as the principal scholarly publishers. Research articles were ‘gifted’ to societies by authors and returned to the community in low-cost journals.”

Following the explosion in research funding after the war, however, societies increasingly struggled to cope with the ensuing flood of papers. Spotting a market opportunity, commercial companies quickly filled the vacuum. In doing so, these profit-hungry corporations quickly realised that the demand for scholarly journals is remarkably inelastic. So they did the rational thing, said Johnson, “they raised institutional prices of journals dramatically and relentlessly to exploit the elasticity curve.”

Given this inelasticity, Johnson added, the traditional “circle of gifts” between scholars and their society was replaced not with a real market economy, but a “dysfunctional hybrid.”

Unsurprisingly, the new entrants were soon engaged in an orgy of acquisitions and consolidation—aided by the alacrity with which some societies rushed to outsource their publishing activities to them when they saw how easy it is to generate large sums of money from scholarly journals if your goal is to maximise revenues rather than simply communicate research. By collaborating with commercial companies, these societies realised, they could not only ensure their own survival, but also make a healthy surplus that would allow them to subsidise their other activities.

As a result, today a few large commercial companies own thousands of journals apiece, and are generally able to set their own price.

Serials crisis

Thus was born the serials crisis, which has had the research community in its grip now for several decades. Unable to keep up with the constant increase in subscription prices, libraries began to cancel journals. Publishers responded by increasing their prices further, hoping to make up the lost revenue. This simply triggered further cancellations, and each time the price of a journal was increased a few more libraries cancelled their subscription. It was a vicious cycle that seemed likely to destroy the scholarly communication system.

Determined to staunch the bleeding, publishers came up with a new strategy: they put all their journals online and invited libraries to buy their entire journal portfolio on an all-or-nothing, multi-year basis—a business model that came to be known as the Big Deal.

Why, given their straitened circumstances, would libraries agree to buy even more journals? Why, moreover, would they agree to lock themselves into multi-year contracts? Because if they did so publishers promised them access to a much greater number of electronic journals than they had had print subscriptions to—for the same price.

At first, everyone seemed happy with the Big Deal. When the contracts came up for renewal, however, libraries were confronted with a stark choice: Pay the publisher’s new asking price (inevitably higher) and renew the contract; or go back to buying on a title-by-title basis and face the painful task of telling faculty that they were about to lose access to many of the journals they needed to keep up with developments in their discipline. In the circumstances, most librarians opted to renew the Big Deals.
Soon the Big Deals were devouring most of a library’s budget, forcing it again to start cancelling journals. This time, however, it was the journals of those publishers who did not offer their own Big Deal that were targeted—these were invariably the journals of smaller publishers, and usually those of society publishers.

As a result, more and more societies decided that, if they wanted to survive, they had no option but to fall into the arms of a commercial publisher. This further distorted the market, putting those societies that remained independent under great pressure to partner up too.

Meanwhile, the on-going struggle to pay for journals meant that libraries faced a mounting affordability problem; and as libraries cancelled more and more titles, so researchers were confronted with a growing access problem.


Unsurprisingly, libraries began to search around for solutions to these twin problems. In 1998, for instance, a group of libraries founded SPARC—to “correct imbalances in the scholarly publishing system”. And Rick Johnson was recruited as executive director of the new organisation.

Several new initiatives were launched as a result, including SPARC Leading Edge, SPARC Alternative and SPARC Scientific Communities. It was from the latter that BioOne emerged, conceived as an “aggregation of the full-texts of high-impact bioscience research journals.”


If you wish to read the interview with Mark Kurtz 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. 

To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.


Stevan Harnad said...


      "mandating researchers to [self-archive]..,
      can solve both the access and affordability
      problems simultaneously"

Definitely not `simultaneously (but possibly, successively).

Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A Leveraged Transition. In: The Culture of Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age, pp. 99-105, L'Harmattan.

ABSTRACT: What the research community needs, urgently, is free online access (Open Access, OA) to its own peer-reviewed research output. Researchers can provide that in two ways: by publishing their articles in OA journals (Gold OA) or by continuing to publish in non-OA journals and self-archiving their final peer-reviewed drafts in their own OA Institutional Repositories (Green OA). OA self-archiving, once it is mandated by research institutions and funders, can reliably generate 100% Green OA. Gold OA requires journals to convert to OA publishing (which is not in the hands of the research community) and it also requires the funds to cover the Gold OA publication costs. With 100% Green OA, the research community's access and impact problems are already solved. If and when 100% Green OA should cause significant cancellation pressure (no one knows whether or when that will happen, because OA Green grows anarchically, article by article, not journal by journal) then the cancellation pressure will cause cost-cutting, downsizing and eventually a leveraged transition to OA (Gold) publishing on the part of journals. As subscription revenues shrink, institutional windfall savings from cancellations grow. If and when journal subscriptions become unsustainable, per-article publishing costs will be low enough, and institutional savings will be high enough to cover them, because publishing will have downsized to just peer-review service provision alone, offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories. Green OA will have leveraged a transition to Gold OA.

Richard Poynder said...

Thanks for this Stevan. You are right to question my use of the word “simultaneously”.

But here’s a thought: OA advocates like The Wellcome Trust's Robert Kiley argue that PLoS ONE has triggered a fall in the price of APCs. That seems to be factually correct, and one could argue that the current rush by commercial publishers to offer PLoS ONE clones is primarily motivated by the fear that if they do not embrace OA publishing, in one form or another, then they will see their revenues decline as Green OA self-archiving grows.

What helps, of course, is that publishers now appear to believe that the no-frills peer review approach pioneered by PLoS ONE will allow them to continue making healthy profits under an OA regime.

If that is true, then could one not argue that, so long as publishers continue to see it as a threat, Green OA can be expected to push them towards (low-cost) OA publishing, and thereby address the affordability and the access problems simultaneously?

The problem with such a scenario, of course, is that if scholarly publishing remains in the grip of profit-maximising commercial companies then any price fall will inevitably prove temporary only.

Moreover, the fall in price comes not as a result of publishers “offloading text-generation onto authors and access-provision and archiving onto the global network of OA Institutional Repositories” but by providing no-frills peer review — a development I suspect you deprecate.

Indeed, one could argue that at some point no-frills peer review could become so minimal, and so ineffectual, that the research community abandoned pre-publication peer review altogether.

That would undoubtedly solve the affordability problem, although admittedly as a result of a sequential rather than a simultaneous process.

Stevan Harnad said...

(1st of 2)

Richard, your reasoning is correct. But what you have actually done is to list some of the many reasons why Gold OA is premature, and why paying for it pre-emptively now, without first having mandated self-archiving to ensure that Green OA becomes universal, is not only a waste of money, but it is slowing the progress of OA itself (slowing it to the tempo of the growth-rate of Gold OA). And lowering quality standards to boot.

(As you suspect, the "no-frills" Gold OA journals are catering for authors' publish-or-perish needs -- by offering them a quick, easy way to pay-to-publish -- rather than for their open access needs, which could be fulfilled for free, by publishing in high-standard journals and also self-archiving [Green OA]. No-frills gold is hence just a trendy pretext on the author's side, for publishing in a "no-frills" pay-to-publish journal instead of a high-standard journal; whereas on the publisher's side it's a marketing point. And it's not saving institutional libraries any money. Green OA does not save them any money either, as you note, but it will eventually make cancelations possible, which would indeed save libraries money, while also driving down publishing costs by taking over most of its functions. But to do that, Green OA has to come first!)

It would be a sad historic footnote indeed, if, because of its pre-emptive gold fever, the price the research community chose to pay for open access to peer reviewed research was to dumb down peer review. And it would just be a matter of time before peer review had to be re-invented.

There's no need! Just mandate Green OA and all the rest will happen as a natural matter of course. But if we just keep dithering, we're in for at least another decade of (needless) access-denial and research impact loss...

Stevan Harnad said...

(2nd of 2)

Harnad, S. (2010) No-Fault Peer Review Charges: The Price of Selectivity Need Not Be Access Denied or Delayed. D-Lib Magazine 16 (7/8).
ABSTRACT: Plans by universities and research funders to pay the costs of Open Access Publishing ("Gold OA") are premature. Funds are short; 80% of journals (including virtually all the top journals) are still subscription-based, tying up the potential funds to pay for Gold OA; the asking price for Gold OA is still high; and there is concern that paying to publish may inflate acceptance rates and lower quality standards. What is needed now is for universities and funders to mandate OA self-archiving (of authors' final peer-reviewed drafts, immediately upon acceptance for publication) ("Green OA"). That will provide immediate OA; and if and when universal Green OA should go on to make subscriptions unsustainable (because users are satisfied with just the Green OA versions) that will in turn induce journals to cut costs (print edition, online edition, access-provision, archiving), downsize to just providing the service of peer review, and convert to the Gold OA cost-recovery model; meanwhile, the subscription cancellations will have released the funds to pay these residual service costs. The natural way to charge for the service of peer review then will be on a "no-fault basis," with the author's institution or funder paying for each round of refereeing, regardless of outcome (acceptance, revision/re-refereeing, or rejection). This will minimize cost while protecting against inflated acceptance rates and decline in quality standards.

Harnad, S. (2010) Gold Open Access Publishing Must Not Be Allowed to Retard the Progress of Green Open Access Self-Archiving. Logos: The Journal of the World Book Community 21 (3-4). pp. 86-93.
Universal Open Access (OA) is fully within the reach of the global research community: Research institutions and funders need merely mandate (green) OA self-archiving of the final, refereed drafts of all journal articles immediately upon acceptance for publication. The money to pay for gold OA publishing will only become available if universal green OA eventually makes subscriptions unsustainable. Paying for gold OA pre-emptively today, without first having mandated green OA not only squanders scarce money, but it delays the attainment of universal OA.

Sandy Thatcher said...

Project Muse is mentioned several times in the interview, and it strikes me, as a former member of Muse’s advisory board, that the parallels between BioOne and Muse are extensive. Muse also arose from a library initiative, at Johns Hopkins, though the partner was a university press (after 2000, many university presses) rather than society publishers, which are mostly represented indirectly as owners of some of the journals that university presses publish. The business models are very similar, and Muse too soon found itself challenged by needing to provide not just supplemental but replacement income as print subscriptions were increasingly cancelled by libraries. Muse is in the same position as BioOne with respect to OA: it hosts a few OA journals but has not yet figured out a way to transform its overall business model to a sustainable OA model. I wish both of these fine organizations good luck in that endeavor. (Now that Muse is adding e-books, that challenge becomes even greater.)

The distinction between cost-recovery and profit-maximization should not be drawn too sharply. What is really important is not whether there are significant surpluses generated from the publication of scholarly journals but rather what those surpluses are used to support. I see nothing wrong with scholarly societies trying to generate some funds from journal publishing to support their other activities, which are aimed at enhancing scholarly communication in a variety of ways. Similarly, university presses with journals operations often use surpluses from those programs to help subsidize the money-losing publication of scholarly monographs, which itself contributes further to the public good that scholarship provides. I would be worried, however, if surpluses from PLoS One were to be used to provide excessive salaries to PLoS’s top executives and perks like private jets, country club memberships, etc. The belief I share with Mark Kurtz is that surpluses are benign so long as they stay within the system of scholarly communication and are used to further its aims, but that they become a real cost to the system when they are siphoned off to provide dividends to shareholders (for commercial publishers) or lavish lifestyle benefits to the executives on non-profit organizations.

Richard Poynder said...

On surpluses: There has been much debate in the UK in recent years about the cross-subsidisation of products in the banking industry.

Banks have long argued that cross-subsidisation is good for customers because it allows them (the banks) to provide, for instance, free banking services (so long as the customer stays in credit).

Critics respond, a) that cross-subsidisation invariably ends up favouring one set of customers over another and, b) it is particularly undesirable when it is not transparent.

This is how a UK House of Commons Select Committee put it earlier this year:

So-called free banking is not free. The term free-in-credit banking is a misnomer, given that consumers with positive balances pay through interest foregone. It misleads the consumer. It is also clear that so-called free banking has important distributional consequences. A minority of consumers, often those on lower incomes, pay explicit charges associated with overdrafts.

This results in high prices and poor outcomes for a sub-set of consumers. Meanwhile, other consumers, often on higher-incomes do not pay explicitly for their current account provision, in spite of the fact that their PCA [personal current account] provision clearly does incur a cost to the provider. Whilst it is undesirable from the perspective of 'fairness', cross-subsidy is not always wrong. For example, cross-subsidy exists in the airline industry where customers who book early are cross-subsidised by those who book later.

However, pricing is far more transparent and customers can easily switch airline provider. These conditions are not currently present in the personal current account where cross-subsidy is opaque and switching costs are high.

I am not suggesting that there is a direct comparison between scholarly publishing and banking, but I am wondering whether the points raised above have any relevance to the scholarly publishing market. Certainly many (including I think Sandy Thatcher) maintain that there is too little price transparency in scholarly publishing. Is this issue only relevant to for-profit publishing, or is there a need for great transparency in non-profit scholarly publishing too?

And I wonder whether the use of surpluses by, say, university presses, even where those surpluses stay within the system of scholarly communication, might not unfairly prejudice some customers at the expense of others? If so, does it matter?

Dorothea said...

Hi, Richard,

I enjoyed this interview; thanks! I do want to push at an assumption made therein, though:

"After all, if a learned society is struggling to make ends meet, or determined to maximise its revenues, the lure of money will inevitably drive it into the arms of a commercial suitor."

That assumes that commercial suitors will continue to woo learned-society journals. This assumption has held up well for a long time, admittedly, and some aggregators (EBSCO particularly) are still buying industriously.

If the Big Deal continues to go south, though, small sui generis journals would seem to me to be the first place to start "streamlining," or whatever it'll be called when journals that exist only on Big Deal sufferance are destroyed by big publishers looking to cut costs.

I'm not wedded to this outcome, but it does seem to me to be a possible and even likely one.

Richard Poynder said...

Thanks for this Dorothea. If I understand you correctly, then presumably the need for services like BioOne will become that much greater?