Monday, October 01, 2012

Open Access in the UK: Reinventing the Big Deal

A Q&A with co-architect of the Big Deal Jan Velterop follows this introduction

The scholarly communication system has been in serious difficulties for several decades now, a problem generally referred to as the “serials crisis”. The nub of the issue is that the price of scholarly journals has consistently risen faster than the consumer price index. This has seen research libraries increasingly struggle to meet the costs of subscribing to all the journals their researchers need.

In the early 1990s, publishers found themselves in a situation where every time they increased the price of a journal they were confronted with a wave of cancellations. In an attempt to recover the lost revenue they would raise the price again, which simply triggered another round of cancellations.

Conscious that their livelihood was under threat, publishers cast around for a way to lock subscribers in, eventually coming up with what became known as the “Big Deal”.
Academic Press Big Deal contract

With the Big Deal, libraries are asked not to subscribe to journals on a title-by-title basis, but to a pre-determined bundle of electronic journals, which they have to commit to for several years. Usually this bundle consists of the publisher’s entire portfolio, which might include hundreds of titles.

The attraction of the Big Deal for the publisher was that it promised to end the annual cancellation cycle. For libraries it provided access to a much larger number of titles for the same price as they had been paying for a smaller set — so long as they took the entire bundle, and so long as they signed a multi-year contract. For authors it provided a larger and more stable audience for their articles.

The Big Deal was pioneered in 1996 by Academic Press (now part of Elsevier), when it signed a three-year licensing contract with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The agreement meant that anyone working in a higher education (HE) institution in the UK got free-at-the-point-of-use access to AP’s entire journal portfolio. Moreover, since it was HEFCE that paid the bill (by means of top slicing), the deal brought the additional benefit of easing the pressure on the budgets of hard-pressed UK research libraries.

The default

After some initial scepticism, other publishers began to offer their own Big Deals, and the model had soon become the default way in which research libraries acquired access to scholarly journals.

However, while AP’s basic concept was copied, most subsequent Big Deals were signed not with national funding bodies but with library consortia. And since the costs were not top sliced, it meant that libraries had to fund their Big Deals from their own budgets.

It soon became evident therefore that the Big Deal had failed to address the fundamental affordability problem that lay at the heart of the serials crisis. And as publishers’ journal portfolios got larger and larger as a result of industry consolidation, the Big Deals began to devour an ever larger portion of a library’s budget. As a consequence, the Big Deal gradually fell into disfavour, with librarians complaining that, like any journal subscription model, the Big Deal is by its very nature monopolistic, and it locks libraries into an expensive and inflexible system that they can only extricate themselves from with great difficulty.

Keen to find an alternative approach, the research community began to take an interest in Open Access (OA). If papers were made freely available on the Internet, they reasoned, not only would researchers have access to everything they needed, but self-archiving (or green OA as it later became known) might ease the affordability problem, by enabling libraries to begin to cancel some of their journal subscriptions. With this end in mind, advocates of green OA called on researchers to put their papers on the web (and later into institutional repositories).

In addition, a new breed of publishers — e.g. BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) — entered the market offering to make papers OA for researchers as a core part of the publication process, on condition that they paid an article-processing charge (APC). This later became known as gold OA.

In the belief that the pay-to-publish approach would lead to lower publishing costs, libraries began to persuade researchers to embrace gold OA. And to help them do this, they agreed to use some of their serials budget to join the various bulk purchase “membership” schemes that OA publishers like BioMed Central and Springer began to offer. These schemes bought the institution’s researchers the right to publish in OA journals without having to pay on a per-article basis.

The belief that OA publishing would be cheaper was based on two assumptions. First, that electronic publishing was inherently less expensive than traditional print publishing. Second, that it would impose price restraint on publishers. The thinking behind the latter was this: With subscription publishing it is not the researcher who pays the bill, but the librarian. Consequently, researchers do not care what journals cost, but simply demand the titles they need regardless of what the library will have to pay for them. Since their job is to service researchers’ information needs, librarians generally feel they have to pay up. In other words, there is a disconnect at the heart of the subscription model.

Moreover, since all the papers in a journal are unique, librarians are not in a position to substitute an expensive title for a cheaper one. So there is huge pressure on libraries to subscribe to every journal published in the various research fields their institution plays a role in.

By contrast, OA advocates argued, with author-pays OA the buying decision is made by researchers themselves, not by an intermediary. And since authors are able to publish in a variety of different journals, they can shop around (i.e. journals are substitutable, and authors can — and will — make informed buying decisions).

But there was a fly in the ointment. Like the Big Deal, OA membership schemes are purchased by librarian intermediaries, so the same disconnect that exists in the subscription model often continues to exist with OA publishing. Membership schemes also tend to push authors in the direction of those publishers that their library has a publishing contract with, thus limiting choice.

In addition, a growing number of universities are now setting up gold OA funds which authors can turn to for a subvention when they want to publish in an OA journal. Once again, the bill is paid by an intermediary, not by the author. Importantly, the money does not come from the author’s own research budget, so price is unlikely to be a deciding factor when an author is looking for an OA journal in which to publish.


Unsurprisingly, as self-archiving took off subscription publishers soon concluded that it posed a serious threat to their revenues. And they responded in two ways.

First, they insisted on self-archiving embargoes. These require that researchers wait before making a copy of their paper freely available on the Web — generally 12 months or more.

Second, they began to offer hybrid OA. This allows authors to choose to have the papers they publish in subscription journals made OA — but again on payment of an APC. While in theory hybrid OA is no different to gold OA (they both make papers freely available on payment of an APC), it is generally more expensive than pure gold OA. More significantly, hybrid OA allows publishers to “double dip” — i.e. earn revenues from both APCs and subscriptions.

As OA publishing has developed, therefore, hopes that it will prove any more likely to restrain prices than subscription publishing have begun to evaporate. Moreover, to the frustration of advocates OA has grown very slowly. Today, only around 24% of research papers worldwide are OA (35% in the UK), and growth is currently running at just 1-2% a year.

We should also note that — with the exception of biomedical fields — about four times as many papers have been made OA by means of green OA as compared to gold.

The above is important because, although green and gold OA have traditionally been viewed as two components of a larger strategy, recent developments in the UK look set to fundamentally alter that balance.

Specifically, in July the UK Finch Committee published a report that contained a number of recommendations about scholarly publishing. Most notably, it recommended that all publicly funded research in the UK should be made freely available on an OA basis. However, rather than calling for all varieties of OA to be adopted, Finch concluded that the main vehicle should henceforth be author-pays OA — either in gold or hybrid journals.

As a result, rather than reducing costs, Finch estimated that its proposal would require an additional £50-60 million a year, £38m of which would be needed to pay APCs.

Unsurprisingly, many reacted to the Finch recommendations with dismay. One complaint was that the additional costs would fall disproportionately on the shoulders of research-intensive universities (notably the Russell Group).

Nevertheless, the UK government accepted nearly all the Finch recommendations, and Research Councils UK (RCUK) immediately published a new OA policy. This new policy will require that all the papers resulting from research wholly or partially funded by RCUK will have to be made OA. And, as directed by Finch, RCUK will require that authors prioritise gold over green, with institutional repositories relegated to the role of preservation and data archiving.

The additional costs of this policy will be met by means of block grants from RCUK, but the money will come out of the existing national research budget, so it will not be new money. In addition, to placate the Russell Group the UK government announced that it will provide an extra £10m. This too will not be new money, but will come “out of ‘budget flexibilities’ within the existing science budget”.

The most vocal critics of Finch/RCUK, however, have been green OA advocates like Stevan Harnad, who anticipates that subscription publishers (who still publish most peer-reviewed papers) will respond to the new policy by lengthening their self-archiving embargoes to the point where they are no longer compliant with RCUK’s policy, and tell authors that they must pay for hybrid OA.

As Harnad put it to me in July, if one were a publisher one would naturally “offer to ‘allow’ your authors to pay you for hybrid Gold OA (while continuing to collect your usual subscription revenues) and, for good measure, you would ratchet up the Green OA embargo length (up to the date your grand-children finished their university education!) to make sure your authors pay you for hybrid gold rather than picking the cost-free option that you fear might eventually pose a risk to your subscription revenues!”

The extent to which green OA will be superannuated remains to be seen. What we do know is that, confronted with growing criticism, RCUK has felt the need to make a number of clarifications (e.g. here and here). Nevertheless, it has refused to change the wording of its policy, which clearly states that researchers must prefer gold over green.

New Big Deal

What this all means, suggests Harnad, is that publishers will now be able to provide OA on their own terms, not on terms designed to protect the interests of the research community. Essentially, the way is clear for publishers to port their current revenues to the new OA environment, with no resolution of the underlying affordability problem that has had the research community in its grips for so long. In short, implicit in Finch/RCUK is a conviction that OA must have no negative impact on publishers’ profits. With Finch/RCUK, says Harnad, “publishers get their grotesquely inflated revenues, and the world gets gold OA in exchange.”

It is certainly strange that in recommending that gold be prioritised Finch argued that green had failed — despite the fact that the majority of papers that are OA today are OA as a result of self-archiving, not gold OA (see graph below), and despite there being no evidence that green OA has damaged publisher profits.

Harnad has long argued that the government should require all UK universities to mandate their researchers to self-archive, and then enforce compliance

Image courtesy of Yassine Gargouri 
RCUK itself has in fact had a mandate in place since 2006, which has doubtless played a role in the success of green OA. However, the mandate could clearly have been more effective. Its weakness is that RCUK never adequately enforced compliance. “Mandate effectiveness depends on the effectiveness of compliance-verification mechanisms,” suggests Harnad, “and RCUK's prior mandate had none.”

Consequently, he says, “RCUK would have been far better to adopt an effective compliance-verification mechanism for its existing mandate than offer to pay for gold.”

This is important, he adds, not just because doing so would provide OA more quickly, and not just because it would save money in the short-term, but because it would force publishers to downsize their operations to the task of providing peer review alone — which is all that is needed in a networked world — and so drive down the long-term costs of scholarly publishing. And this would solve the unsustainable affordability problem.

As it is, he says, the RCUK policy has simply paved the way for the reinvention of the Big Deal. If you think about it, he says, the RCUK policy is the BMC/Springer “membership” scheme, but at a national rather than an institutional level. “The next step is national or even global ‘Big Deals’.”

He adds, “Ever since the '90's one of the ‘options’ publishers have been gladly offering is National or even Global ‘site licenses’: "You want everyone to have access to everything? Fine. We publishers want that too. Let's agree a price and we'll give it to you!"

However, not everyone believes that this is a bad thing — not least Jan Velterop, former AP employee and one of the architects of the first Big Deal. “I don’t mind ‘green’,” says Velterop, “What I don’t see as remotely realistic is the idea that ‘green’ should first force the publishers into submission before ‘gold’ is being built up.”

Velterop adds, “‘Gold’ is to a large degree developed by new entrants, not the traditional publishers. It should be built up alongside ‘green’. That is more likely to force the traditional publishers’ hands than ‘green’ alone.

Consequently, he says, a national Big Deal is precisely what the patient requires today.  

More accurately, he adds, what is needed is a “New Big Deal”. Unlike the old Big Deal, he explains, this would comprise both “a national licensing agreement” that gave researchers free-at-the-point-of-use access to all the papers still sitting behind subscription paywalls, plus a “national procurement service”. The latter would buy free-at-the-point-of-use OA publishing services for UK researchers, allowing them to publish in OA journals without having to foot the bill themselves.

Transposed to a national level

Is this the direction in which the UK is moving? After all, in the wake of Finch researchers are being told that they must opt for author-pays OA (unless the publisher offers neither hybrid nor pure gold), for which RCUK will provide block grants.

In addition, the UK government has promised an extra £10m to help research-intensive universities meet their higher APC costs, and Finch has recommended that funds be found to “extend and rationalise current licences to cover all institutions” — which appears to be a proposal for a national licensing agreement.

The question is whether at some point this could morph into Velterop’s New Big Deal and, if it did, whether such an approach would solve the affordability problem.

Currently the UK government is insisting that gold OA must be funded from the existing national research budget. However, if the costs were at some point provided on a top-sliced basis, the arrangement would look rather similar to the 1996 HEFCE/AP agreement (although with an added OA element). This would certainly solve the affordability problem — for universities, if not for taxpayers.

However, that seems highly unlikely in today’s financially constrained environment. The bad news for UK universities, therefore, would seem to be that the government is herding them down a similar road to that taken by the research community in 1996, and the crippling affordability problem will simply be ported to the new OA environment.

However, Velterop disagrees that this would be the inevitable consequence of the New Big Deal he envisages. If the UK were to adopt such a model, he says, the inflationary forces characteristic of the Big Deal would not be replicated.

While conceding that buying decisions would still be taken by intermediaries rather than individual authors (as assumed in the early model of author-pays OA), Velterop argues that it would nevertheless be possible to restrain prices. Market mechanisms would simply be transposed from the individual scientist level to the national level, he says.

“It’s not inflationary like the traditional subscription system, because of such a market mechanism. That is an essential difference with a subscription system for non-rivalrous journal literature: a market mechanism is what keeps unwarranted inflationary price increases at bay.”

It is not entirely clear to me how this would restrain prices more effectively than the Big Deal. However, Velterop does add that it would be essential that any New Big Deal was negotiated by professional negotiators, not by librarians.

“Individual librarians' negotiation positions are hopeless,” he says. “Not just because the skills are virtually non-existent … but also because their negotiating clout, as compared to a nation-wide purchaser, is insignificant.”

I explore these issues further with Velterop below.

The Interview begins …

Jan Velterop

RP: You were one of the architects of the so-called Big Deal. Speaking to me last year you said that the objective had been to end the cycle of journal cancellations that the serials crisis had triggered. By selling large bundles of journals rather than single subscriptions, the Big Deal offered libraries access to more journals in return for a commitment not to cancel any of them for a set number of years. In introducing the Big Deal you also hoped to persuade national funding bodies to pay the subscription costs by means of “top-slicing”. Amongst other things, you felt that this would ease the financial pressure on libraries. And this indeed is what you achieved with the first Big Deal that Academic Press signed with HEFCE — a three-year licensing contract that provided free-at-the-point-of-use access to all AP journals to anyone in an UK HE institution. Subsequently, however, the Big Deal fell into disfavour, with critics arguing that it is monopolistic and that it locks research institutions into an expensive and inflexible system that they find very hard to extract themselves from. Would you agree with that description?

JV: I’m not so sure that the Big Deal fell into disfavour. At least it didn’t for a long time. What did fall into disfavour was the idea of top-slicing, which was very unfortunate. It transpired that many librarians prefer to pay more for less than have their budgets top-sliced.

I still think a national Big Deal would have many advantages, both for the Higher Education sector as well as the publishers. The HE-sector would have a much better negotiating position, both the HE-sector and the publishers a much lower level of admin, and the publishers a higher level of financial security. On a national scale, access to scholarly literature would be an “infrastructural” provision.

RP: And this would be flexible?

JV: Indeed, not flexible, but flexibility is not a useful characteristic of an infrastructural provision on a national scale and flexibility can be very expensive.

But we have moved on, and progressive insights (though not shared by everyone yet) have pointed us in the direction of open access.

RP: As you say, top-slicing fell out of favour, and subsequent Big Deals tended to be negotiated with consortia of universities rather than national bodies. The classic Big Deal, of course, is based on a journal subscription model. It is a license to access large bundles of scholarly journals. One problem with this model is that the person who uses the product is not the person who purchases it, so there is a disconnect. Essentially, this means that it creates a market without any effective mechanism to constrain prices; and it is this, critics argue, that has allowed journal prices to constantly rise above inflation rates. Would you agree?

JV: Yes, the subscription model as applied in the academic world has the drawback that it's not the user who pays. Neither in his role of reader, nor in his role of author. But that is a very widespread problem with any common resource. Think of the roads, or mail, or rail, or police, or schools, or hospitals.

The “benefit principle” (only those who actually make use of the provision pay) can only apply in a limited way, if at all, for common provisions. There is a perennial tension between common interests and the ego-system.

RP: OA advocates have long argued that Open Access will resolve the subscription market disconnect by placing the purchasing decision on the author, not the library. That is what you have argued is it not?

JV: You must know the adage “publish or perish”. It’s not “read or rot”. That’s for a reason. The benefits of publishing research in peer-reviewed journals accrues to a (much) larger degree to the authors than to the readers. Publications and their citations are the coin of the academic realm with which tenure and research grants are obtained. In a way, an article in a peer-reviewed journal is an “advertisement” of a researcher’s scientific prowess.

One solution to the problem that the users are not the payers is to introduce a “benefit principle” in the subscription model, by allocating the cost of subscriptions to the academic departments according to usage. This is unlikely to happen.

So a shift to an author-side payment for the service of arranging peer review and publication is a logical one. And it makes open access possible. Leaving the financial decision to the authors (and their paymasters) is leaving the decision to the only party with a real choice.

RP:  Can you expand on this?

JV: Readers — and the librarians who serve them — need access to everything in their discipline (and often to neighbouring disciplines as well), so they have no meaningful choice. And they certainly can’t subscribe to one journal because it’s cheaper and avoid another one because it’s more expensive. Authors, however, publish a given paper in only one journal, and more often than not they have a real choice, at least to submit. This introduces market mechanisms that are lacking in the subscription system.


RP: As you know, in the wake of the recent Finch recommendations the UK government has committed the UK to migrating its scholarly journal publishing from a subscription model to author-pays OA publishing. This has been somewhat controversial, especially amongst Russell Group universities, who complain that the cost burden of OA will fall on them disproportionately.  

JV: The real issue with the transition from the subscription model to the paid “gold” OA model is the transition to a model based on the “benefit principle”. It’s possibly not the best model, but the only one that makes OA possible and sustainable. The “green” model is often portrayed as cheaper, but that's only the case if the subscription model continues to be paid for. And those costs need to be added to the “green” model, in my view.

Any transition from subscription to OA is hampered by the fact that in one model the “research-consumption-intensive” institutions pay more; in the other the “research-production-intensive” institutions. They are rarely the same, but the difference is pretty much ironed out if looked at on a large enough scale — a national one.

RP:  You are saying that, in contrast to the subscription system, gold OA provides a model based on the benefit principle — only those (authors) who benefit pay. However, the process of transition is problematic?

JV: Indeed, I’m saying that. And what I’m saying, too, is that the benefit principle is possibly not the best for academic knowledge sharing. If we look at academic publishing as a whole, the money now used to pay for the system via subscriptions, on the readers’ side, could be used to pay for the system on the authors’ side. It comes pretty much from the same ultimate source, after all.

As said, the issue is the distribution of the burden on the scale of HE institutions. That’s why I advocate a national deal; the problem doesn’t exist — or is at least very much less — on the scale of entire countries.

The potential advantages of a system based on payment for publication, rather than on payment for access, are enormous: proportionality with the research effort, complete and full open access (inclusive of reuse rights), and functioning market mechanisms that keep prices in check.

RP: As I understand it, UCL’s David Price would like to see a kind of Big Deal approach used to help the transition to OA — what he calls a “true national licence”. I think perhaps you do too? Commenting on the interview I did with him you said, “It is very unfortunate that the UK librarians killed a national licence, which was in place for the original Big Deal between 1996 and 1999, under the auspices of HEFCE, on the grounds that it meant top-slicing of their acquisition budgets and a threat to their autonomy. They preferred to pay more for less as long as they kept their autonomy. The idea of a national licence should be resurrected.” Would I be right in thinking that you agree with Price?

JV: I definitely think an arrangement on a national scale is the preferred solution. For “gold” OA it would not be a “licence”, but essentially a contract for the procurement of publishing services.

RP: I think the Finch Report includes a limited national licensing proposal. As it puts it, “During the period of transition to open access publishing worldwide, in order to maximise access in the HE and health sectors to journals and articles produced by authors in the UK and from across the world that are not accessible on open access terms, funds should be found to extend and rationalise current licences to cover all the institutions in those sectors”. Is this a similar (although more limited) model to the licensing agreement that Academic Press had with HEFCE, or something else?

JV: In essence this certainly looks like a similar model to the one originally envisioned — and implemented — between Academic Press and HEFCE, except in those days open access wasn’t part of the equation yet. Combined with a national contract for the procurement of open access publishing services this could be a very good basis for a managed transition that wouldn’t have to have the extra transition cost the Finch report is assuming.

It is very unfortunate that the phrase “funds should be found” is used. It really should have been “ways should be found”. If done properly, and on a national scale, IDEAL-like arrangements might be possible, covering all institutions in the country, for no more, or even less, than is being paid now. Centralising licences on a national level would give negotiating clout that is currently sorely missing on the side of the research institutions and universities.

The original idea of IDEAL was to make it resemble as closely a nation-wide infrastructural provision for higher education as possible.

RP: So you believe that a national solution is possible for OA too — a kind of BMC/Springer “membership” scheme, but on a national rather than an institutional basis. In other words, where David Price calls for a national licensing system to help the UK transition to OA (“For an agreed amount, publishers allow access to their content by all sectors in society”, as Price puts it), you envisage a national procurement system for OA publishing. And you see this as a long-term approach, not just a transitional mechanism. Is that correct?

JV: I do see it as a possible long-term approach. I initiated the BMC membership scheme in my time at BMC. The membership fee could be negotiated by a national procurement body.

For traditional publishers with hybrid options, such a membership and a national licence could be combined. When I was at Springer we had such a combined deal with The Netherlands for a few years. I don’t think it is still in place, as, from what I understand, the librarians couldn’t reach consensus to extend it. I am in no doubt that a truly national approach could have achieved more lasting success.

Big Deal approach

RP: In order to placate the Russell Group universities, on 7th September David Willetts announced that the UK government would make a further £10 million available for research-intensive universities to help pay for APCs. Does this not smack of a Big Deal approach?

JV: Honestly, I don’t know what this smacks of. It is of course the case that not all literature will be OA if Britain decides to go OA. On a world scale the same tension exists between “research-consumption-intensive” countries and “research-production-intensive” ones as exists between institutions. I think the £10 million is a subsidy in recognition of the fact that Britain is a “research-production-intensive” country that still needs to buy subscriptions even if it is fully OA itself.

RP: Well, I think the money is intended not for subscriptions, but to pay APCs. The press release says, “The investment will enable a number of research-intensive UK institutions to kick-start the process of developing policies and setting up funds to meet the costs of article processing charges (APCs).” You will know that one of the criticisms of the RCUK OA policy is that it will encourage subscription publishers to offer hybrid OA rather than convert to gold. Hybrid OA is generally more expensive than gold OA. Moreover, argue critics, the policy will enable subscription publishers to earn revenue both from APCs and from subscriptions — in other words to “double dip”. Do you see this as a problem?

JV: If indeed the author-side paid OA model introduces a market mechanism, hybrid journals can be as expensive as they wish, but they won’t have any OA articles, since those would go to cheaper journals. Criticism of pricing I can understand, but I'm puzzled by the enmity towards the notion of a hybrid journal.

The “double-dipping” argument is a red herring. There seems to be a notion that subscription prices should be proportional to the number of articles in a journal. How would that work? There are journals with 100 subscribers (incredible as that sounds) and journals with thousands of subscribers. There are journals that publish 25 articles a year and journals that publish 25 or more articles a week.

The cost, and indeed the revenue, of an individual article can only usefully — and realistically — be expressed as an average, and then probably company-wide. What would otherwise be the situation for a loss-making hybrid journal that receives in one year 10% of its articles as gold, and the next year only 2%? Impossible to work out. A subscription system is inherently lacking in transparency.

If journals should reduce their subscription price when they get a percentage of papers paid for as gold, what should happen if they lose the same percentage (for completely different reasons) of subscriptions?

What if a journal which decided to go hybrid has published a steady amount of 50 articles a year for ages and all of a sudden attracts an extra 10 gold OA articles? By how much should it reduce its subscription price?

You see, not a problem that can be solved by simplistic approaches. If an article is worth £2,000 to have published with OA in a full-OA journal, why is it not worth the same £2,000 if published in a hybrid journal? Provided it’s with CC-BY, which should be a strict requirement for paid gold OA in any event, full-OA journal or hybrid journal. In my view, without CC-BY no article is worth the label OA.

RP: Stevan Harnad argues that publishers will respond to the RCUK policy not only by opting for hybrid OA (rather than gold OA), but also by increasing the length of their self-archiving embargoes. Since these longer embargo periods cease to be conformant with the RCUK policy, green OA will no longer be a practical option for researchers. This sidelining of green OA, Harnad says, will further allow publishers to disproportionately increase their revenues — at the expense of the research community. Is it that you do not agree with Harnad’s analysis, or is it that you do agree, but do not see it as the problem that he does? Or maybe you see no way of avoiding this?

JV: “Hybrid OA” doesn’t exist. It is just “gold” OA. OA in a hybrid journal is the same as OA in a fully OA journal for any given article. As was already made clear in the Bethesda Statement of 2003, “open access is a property of individual works, not necessarily journals or publishers.” Stevan’s scenario would equally apply if publishers would go fully OA.

Of course, publishers could price themselves out of the market. And then they would simply go under. The good thing about “gold” OA is that it introduces a market mechanism. And that will keep prices down. And transparency optimal. Stevan’s solution has characteristics of “having one’s cake and eating it”. It is saying “we want open access but we want the dysfunctional market system of subscriptions to survive, too”.

Green OA

RP: The most frequently voiced criticism of Finch and the RCUK’s new OA policy is that they both relegate green OA to the minor role of preservation, not of providing OA. Critics complain that this was a result of lobbying by publishers. Is that your take?

JV: Perhaps it is. But I think it is more likely that the Finch group has adopted the view that “gold” is indeed the most straightforward, scalable (proportional to the research effort and funding), and particularly because of this proportionality, economically sustainable model. After all, the “green” model needs subscriptions to be maintained, and the cost of those needs to be taken into account when comparing what is financially the best option for the country.

What I genuinely don't understand is the enthusiasm of the publishers for the “gold” model (apart from the OA publishers, of course). The current per-article revenues are, in my estimate, on average well over $5,000, whereas for APCs it's well less than $3,000. This is revenues, not list-price.

Privately, some publishers have expressed concern about “gold”. The ones I've talked to recently much prefer “green” on the premise that the take-up is likely to be relatively low, in spite of mandates, and chaotic, and difficult to find, with some articles of a given journal available in OA and others not, and most only after a delay.

To be clear, I only talked to a few publishers of journals in the “hard” sciences, and the situation may well be different in the humanities and social sciences.

RP: Indeed, and a recent Bernstein Research report on Elsevier makes a similar point. If subscription publishers are forced to migrate to OA, it says, “Our analysis shows that Elsevier journal revenues would be under significant threat because the APCs it would earn for many of its publications are unlikely to prove anywhere near what the company needs to be revenue neutral, and it is difficult to envision APCs that are high enough for its leading titles (the top 5/10%) to make up the gap.” The Report goes on to ask, “So why was Elsevier supporting the Finch report? We suspect that it viewed the alternative recommendation (a strong backing of Green OA) as a much worse outcome. We are still wondering, however, whether Elsevier is miscalculating … or is hoping that the OA movement will stop at some declaration of good intentions or, in the worst case, at Dover.” Do you think the subscription publishers have miscalculated?

JV: I believe the “gold” OA model is set to grow and grow. Perhaps not as fast as many OA advocates — including myself — had expected, but steadily nonetheless.

On the other hand we know that the academic community is extraordinarily conservative. So subscriptions may survive for quite a while still. The horizons of companies are often not very distant, and miscalculations are the order of the day.

I think it is likely that the “gold” OA model is mainly progressed by new players, and that traditional publishers will see their market share eaten away.

Block grants

RP: I suggested that David Price’s proposal for a national licence might be viewed as a Big Deal, and I suggested that Willett’s additional money smacked of a Big Deal approach. I am also wondering whether RCUK’s OA policy is not a Big Deal of a kind too, particularly when viewed as a total package. As I understand it, the arrangement currently proposed for the UK is that block grants will be provided for universities to pay for APCs. Obviously, this consists of the research community paying to publish papers, rather than for reading them, but is it not reminiscent of the Big Deal model you pioneered in 1996 — a central funding body agrees to fund the costs of scholarly communication for all UK research institutions? In addition, extra funding will be found during the transition for a national licensing scheme to extend access outside higher education, and in order to placate research-intensive universities further cash is found to help them pay their APCs — and all with top-sliced money. Is this not the Big Deal by another name, although more of a patchwork Big Deal, and possibly a less effective one for that?

JV: Block grants to individual universities are not a national Big Deal. I would favour a deal that says: “We, the UK, pay you, the publisher, an amount of X pounds, for which we want for our HE-sector a) access to everything you publish; and b) Open Access for every article published in your journals that originates in our HE institutions.”

This is not as simple as it might look, of course, but with historical data about numbers of articles, subscriptions, finances, etc., and good rules and criteria for periodical review of the arrangement, skilled negotiators would be able to come to fair, comprehensive deals.

RP: You said earlier of the Big Deal that we have moved on and that progressive insights “have pointed us in the direction of open access”. Nevertheless, you say you believe that there is a good argument for a national solution that includes a “contract for the procurement of publishing services” combined with a national licensing agreement, or Big Deal. Perhaps this is not so much a Big Deal, as a New Deal. But how would this provide what you called “market mechanisms that are lacking in the subscription system”? Would it not be just as inflationary as the traditional subscription system? Why, for instance, would authors care how much it cost to publish their papers if someone else was paying the bill?

JV: Well, it would be a Big Deal, but a New Big Deal, with different characteristics. National arrangements would deal with Stevan’s problem of increasing APCs for hybrid journals. You could retort that national deals actually remove healthy market mechanisms. But that isn’t so.

The market mechanism is just transposed to a national level from an individual scientist level.

It’s not inflationary like the traditional subscription system, because of such a market mechanism. That is an essential difference with a subscription system for non-rivalrous journal literature: a market mechanism is what keeps unwarranted inflationary price increases at bay.

I would think it wise to use some of Willetts’ £10 million transition fund to hire some good negotiators and, on a national scale, progressively try to offset subscription prices against OA fees so that the overall costs for the UK don't increase.

Individual librarians’ negotiation positions are hopeless. Not just because the skills are virtually non-existent (of course I’m generalising and not doing justice here to the exceptions), but also because their negotiating clout, as compared to a nation-wide purchaser, is insignificant. If the whole country walks away from a deal with a large publisher, the publisher is in trouble; if a university librarian walks away, the librarian is in trouble.

RP: So you are saying that rather than provide money for researchers to pay APCs, RCUK would be better to hire a team of negotiators to agree new Big Deal licences with publishers at a reduced price? If so, I guess this would be similar to the recent RLUK negotiations with Wiley and Elsevier, but on a truly national basis, and with a publishing procurement component added. Other than that, you think OA should be allowed to grow at its own speed?

JV: Just providing money for APCs is not likely to progress things much beyond its current pace. And if RLUK negotiations can achieve the results they have, you can imagine what a truly national deal could do. Especially when New Big Deals include OA provisions.

National procurement service

RP:  Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing consensus that the only way an effective wholesale transition to gold OA would be possible would be if a global solution were adopted. That, of course, is simply not possible. It is for that reason, perhaps, that we are seeing growing calls for green OA which, as you pointed out, is somewhat chaotic in its action, and develops only slowly. Above all, some OA advocates argue, green OA would eventually force publishers to downsize and to innovate (Where Finch and RCUK simply sets the traditional journal system in aspic). Do you have any sympathy for this view?

JV: Yes, of course, a “wholesale” transition would by definition be adopted globally. It wouldn’t be “wholesale” otherwise. What you mean is probably “adopted worldwide simultaneously”. I don’t buy the argument that a transition to “gold” OA were possible only if done globally and simultaneously. As you say, that would render it impossible.

And I don’t mind “green”. What I don’t see as remotely realistic is the idea that “green” should first force the publishers into submission before “gold” is being built up.

“Gold” is to a large degree developed by new entrants, not the traditional publishers. It should be built up alongside “green”. That is more likely to force the traditional publishers’ hands than “green” alone.

“Green”, especially with embargoes, risks setting the subscription system in aspic, to borrow your phrase. The defence of traditional publishers is more likely to consist of an increase of subscription prices to compensate for any loss of subscribers as a result of “green”. And to refuse articles unless they come with a full copyright transfer as well as to impose long embargoes.

RP:  Assuming that its critics prove unable to persuade RCUK to change its OA policy what kind of outcome do you expect we will see? Will it be successful, and if it is, will this success end up having cost more than it need have done?

JV: Not being able to persuade RCUK to change its OA policy will be good for OA. And it will only cost more if institutions fail to come together and collectively — or via a national procurement service — negotiate what they pay for subscriptions in order to be able to compensate for the cost of APCs.

Of course there is the risk — however unlikely — that this happens only in the UK and nowhere else in the world. In that case, cuts will have to be made in subscriptions. What’s new?

RP:  Finally, do you think that if the national Big Deal model that you helped pioneer sixteen years ago had become the norm (rather than morphing into a series of consortial deals) the scholarly communication market might have developed differently than it has. If so, in what ways might things be different today? Would Open Access have become the force it has for instance?

JV: As always, it’s difficult to speculate what would have happened. Open Access as we know it might not have the urgency it now has, as access would be much wider anyway.

In any case, a transition from payment for access to payment for the service of arranging peer-review and publishing would have been a lot easier, in all likelihood. The parties involved would have been of more equal strength. That’s always a good starting point for reaching constructive consensus.

I’d like to add one more comment, if you allow me. Open access is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If scientific knowledge can be shared in other ways as well, that should be done, too.

In the natural sciences, for instance, the priorities seem to be more and more about using and reusing data and data-like assertions from the literature than about the possibilities for human reading — “ocular” access. Hence the call for CC-BY, or “libre” OA if you wish.

I foresee a situation where a price is being paid for publishing services and keeping the minutes of science”, via APCs or even via subscriptions, whereas the knowledge contained in publications is freely and openly shared. Now we see keeping the record and knowledge sharing as being the same, but that need not be the case in the future.

RP: Ok, thank you for answering my questions.


Anonymous said...

From Fred Friend:

Richard Poynder has given us a valuable insight into the current UK OA situation through his interview with Jan Velterop, for whom I have held a great respect for many years.

The 1996 "big deal" to which Jan refers was called the Pilot Site Licence Initiative, and my memory is that it involved journals from Blackwell and IOPP as well as AP, although Jan certainly took the lead.

I disagree with one point Jan makes: that the librarians killed off PSLI because it was a threat to their autonomy. I was a member of the JISC committee monitoring PSLI and I cannot remember any antagonism from librarians.

In fact as Librarian of UCL at the time I wrote an article published in "Serials" in 1996 welcoming the Initiative (available at

HEFCE commissioned a review of PSLI which must be available somewhere in the archives of HEFCE or JISC. I suspect that the Review did not say this, but my memory is that PSLI was not continued because of the very high cost, putting the funding of university institutions at risk if the Pilot was extended to a much broader group of publishers.

So far as I remember no negotiations took place, but extrapolating the cost from the relatively small number of journals into a comprehensive national deal was a frightening prospect.

So JISC went for the opt-in NESLI model instead of a true national licence – and the rest as they say is history.

Whether we really could get a national licence for a cost-effective price on subscriptions is once again open for investigation. My feeling is that where Jan’s proposal is more likely to be feasible is in a national procurement system for OA publishing.

I remember some discussions about such a model within JISC a few years ago, and the idea is similar to that behind SCOAP3, the difference being negotiating with publishers nationally instead of by subject group.

Publishers are very reluctant to negotiate collectively about any pricing mechanism, but if they were willing RCUK and JISC Collections could represent the academic side of the negotiations.

Fred Friend
Honorary Director Scholarly Communication UCL

Stevan Harnad said...

Publisher Wheeling and Dealing: Open Access Via National and Global McNopoly?
[part 1 of 2]

Excerpted from more extensive comments on the Poynder/Velterop Interview here and here.

JV: “a shift to an author-side payment for the service of arranging peer review and publication is a logical one”

The service of arranging peer review I understand.

But what’s the rest? What’s “Arranging publication”? Once a paper has been peer-reviewed, revised and accepted, what’s left for publishers to do (for a fee) that authors can’t do for free (by depositing the peer-reviewed, revised, accepted paper in their institutional repository)?

And how to get there, from here -- and at a fair price for just peer review alone? Publishers won’t unbundle, downsize and renounce revenue until there’s no more market for the extras and their costs – and Green OA is what will put paid to that market. Pre-emptive Gold payment, while subscriptions are still being paid, will not – and especially not hybrid Gold.

JV: “‘Hybrid OA’ doesn’t exist. It is just “gold” OA. OA in a hybrid journal is the same as OA in a fully OA journal for any given article.”

Gold OA is indeed Gold OA whether the journal is hybrid or pure (and whether the Gold is Gratis or CC-BY)

But “hybrid” does not refer to a kind of OA, it refers to a kind of journal: the kind that charges both subscriptions and (optionally) Gold OA fees.

That kind of journal certainly exists; and they certainly can and do double-dip. And that’s certainly an expensive way to get (Gratis) Gold OA.

And the Finch/RCUK policy will certainly encourage many if not all journals to go hybrid Gold, and publishers, to maximize their chances of making an extra 6% revenue from the UK, will in turn jack up their Green embargoes past RCUK’s permissible limits.

JV: “The “double-dipping” argument is a red herring. There's… a notion that subscription prices should be proportional to the number of articles in a journal. How would that work? There are journals with 100 subscribers… and… with thousands of subscribers [and] & 25 articles a year & 25 or more articles a week.”

Double-dipping is not about the number articles or subscribers a journal has, but about charging subscriptions and, in addition, charging, per article, for Gold OA. That has nothing to do with number of articles, journals or subscribers: It’s simply double-charging.

[part 1 of 2: continued below]

Stevan Harnad said...

Publisher Wheeling and Dealing: Open Access Via National and Global McNopoly?
[part 2 of 2]

Jan Velterop: “The cost, and… revenue, of an individual article can only usefully… be expressed as an average, and then probably company-wide. What would otherwise be the situation for a loss-making hybrid journal that receives in one year 10% of its articles as gold, and the next year only 2%? Impossible to work out. A subscription system is inherently lacking in transparency”

Nothing of the sort, and extremely simple, for a publisher who really does not want to double-dip, but to give all excess back as a rebate:

Count the total number of articles, N, and the total subscription revenue, S.

From that you get the revenue per article: S/N.

Hybrid Gold OA income is than added to that total revenue (say, at a fee of S/N per article).

That means that for k Gold OA articles, total hybrid journal revenue is S + kS/N.

And if the journal really wants to reduce subscriptions proportionately, at the end of the year, it simply sends a rebate to each subscribing institution:

Suppose there are U subscribing institutions. Each one gets a year-end rebate of kS/UN (regardless of the yearly value of k, S, U or N).

(Alternatively, if the journal wants to give back all of the rebate only to the institutions that actually paid for the extra Gold, don’t charge subscribing institutions for Gold OA at all: But that approach shows most clearly why and how this pre-emptive morphing scheme for a transition from subscriptions to hybrid Gold to pure Gold is unscaleable and unsustainable, hence incoherent. It is an Escher impossible figure, either way, because collective subscriptions/“memberships” – including McNopolies -- only make sense for co-bundled incoming content; for individual pieces of outgoing content the peer-review service costs must be paid by the individual piece. There are at least 20,000 research-active institutions on the planet and at least 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, publishing several million individual articles per year. No basis – or need --for a pre-emptive cartel/consortium McNopoly.)

JV: “If journals should reduce their subscription price when they get a percentage of papers paid for as gold, what should happen if they lose the same percentage (for completely different reasons) of subscriptions?”

Less Gold – the value of the year-end institutional rebate -- kS/UN – is less that year.

JV: “What if a journal which decided to go hybrid has published a steady amount of 50 articles a year for ages and all of a sudden attracts an extra 10 gold OA articles? By how much should it reduce its subscription price?”

By exactly10S/50U per subscribing institution U.

JV: “If an article is worth £2,000 to have published with OA in a full-OA journal, why is it not worth the same £2,000 if published in a hybrid journal?”

Simple answer: it’s not worth the price either way. Both prices are grotesquely inflated. No-fault peer review should cost about $100-200 per round…

Excerpted from more extensive comments on the Poynder/Velterop Interview here and here.