One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Sven Fund, CEO of Berlin-based scholarly publisher De Gruyter. Fund is the first representative of a traditional commercial publisher to take part in this series.
By any account De Gruyter can fairly be described as a traditional publisher (or as OA advocates prefer, “legacy publisher”). Created by Walter De Gruyter in 1919 by combining five existing publishers, De Gruyter’s roots go back to 1749 when the bookstore of the Königlichen Realschule in Berlin was given the right to print books by King Frederick II of Prussia.
In 1801 Königlichen Realschule was taken over by Georg Reimer, and Georg Reimer Publishers was one of the companies merged to form Walter De Gruyter & Co in 1919.
Today De Gruyter’s publishing program includes theology and philosophy, biology and chemistry, linguistics and literature, mathematics and physics, history and archaeology, as well as law and medicine.
Please scroll through the introduction to go direct to the Q&A
Open Access to papers and books
Like other traditional publishers De Gruyter has in recent years launched a number of Open Access initiatives. In April 2009 — five years after Springer pioneered Hybrid OA when it introduced Open Choice — De Gruyter announced the De Gruyter Open Library, introducing OA options for both its journals (pure Gold and Hybrid OA), as well as books.
In 2009 De Gruyter also announced that, from 2010, it would be publishing the “Topoi. Berlin Studies of the Ancient World” series, thereby expanding its OA efforts into the humanities. A partnership with the Excellence Cluster Topoi, with funding from the German Research Foundation, the series encompasses all the disciplines of Ancient Studies, from prehistory and early history through classical archaeology to antique philosophy, epistemology and theology.
As well as being published in print book form, selected titles from the Topoi series are also available as OA eBooks on the www.degruyter.com website. The Topoi initiative was featured as an Open Access Success Story by Knowledge Exchange in 2009.
Currently De Gruyter publishes twelve pure OA journals, and all of its 364 subscription journals now offer a Hybrid OA option. And to date it has published 47 OA books under its own OA books. This includes some that will be published next year.
De Gruyter’s most daring OA move, however, came in 2010, when it acquired the Polish OA publisher Versita, which currently publishes 439 pure OA journals — an acquisition reminiscent of Springer’s decision to acquire BioMed Central in 2008.
How much does De Gruyter charge for its different OA options? The article-processing charge for both pure Gold and Hybrid OA is currently €1,750 ($2,450). The cost of publishing a book is less clear. When I asked the publisher’s PR representative she said she did not know. So I emailed a few authors who had published OA books with De Gruyter. Those that replied said they had been given special discounted deals, with one citing a figure of €5,000. By way of comparison, we could note that Palgrave Macmillan currently charges £11,000 ($17,500) to publish an OA book, and Springer charges around €15,000.
What about Green OA? According to the SHERPA/ROMEO database, De Gruyter is a “yellow” publisher rather than a green one. Specifically, it allows authors only to archive their pre-prints, and only on their own personal web site. It also imposes a 12-month embargo.
What did I find noteworthy about Fund’s replies to my questions? A couple of things.
First, I felt his answers tended to the elliptical. When I asked him about Gold vs. Green, for instance, he said of Green OA, “In my opinion, there is nothing bad about Green OA in general, it is just not something that we can “offer” … If policymakers believe they have the right tools to publish, i.e. in Green OA, that’s their right. It is certainly not something that publishers like, but I think that is obvious.”
I take this latter point to be a reference to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy, which requires that papers it funds are deposited in the PubMed Central repository no later than 12 months after publication. If so, I doubt OA advocates would agree that posting copies of papers that have already been published in journals into a repository amounts to “publication”. Moreover, it is my understanding that the majority of papers deposited in PubMed Central (and Europe PubMed Central) are placed there by publishers, rather than by authors.
Similarly, when I asked Fund whether De Gruyter had ever lobbied against OA he did not address that part of my question. While acknowledging that some publishers may be less enthusiastic about OA than others, he simply said, “I do not see any room for conspiracy theory.”
It may be that De Gruyter has never lobbied against OA. If so, it would have been nice if Fund had said as much [But see postscript below **]. What we do know is that some publishers have lobbied, and do still lobby, against OA. The most notable example of this was in 2007, when Nature reported on the activities of PRISM (full text here).
This would seem to suggest that believing publishers conspire against OA is not evidence of paranoia, but of evidence-based reasoning. Indeed, when I spoke to Springer CEO Derk Haank in 2011 he confirmed that Springer lobbies against OA mandates. This despite the fact that Springer was the first traditional publisher to embrace OA, and is today the most exposed to it.
That publishers have conspired against OA was evidenced most recently at the end of 2011, when the controversial US Research Works Act was defeated as a result of energetic resistance from the OA movement (along with a boycott of Elsevier by researchers).
However, for me the most interesting part of Fund’s answers to my questions were his comments on Hybrid OA. Contrary to most of the interviewees in this series so far, Fund is very positive about this form of OA. Indeed, he says, he personally “would like to see more Hybrid OA.”
What of the dangers of double-dipping associated with Hybrid OA (where research institutions can find themselves having to pay both subscriptions and Hybrid OA charges for the same journal)? While sympathetic to funder concerns about this, Fund argues that if the research community wants to avoid seeing an unnecessary plethora of OA doppelgängers created to replicate current subscription journals, it will have to accept that some double-dipping is inevitable.
The myth of double-dipping
As Fund put it, [I]t does not make a lot of sense to duplicate every subscription-based journal with an OA one … That is the reason I would advocate Hybrid OA, keeping in mind that we need to solve the myth of double-dipping. The math seems easy: accept a low level of double-dipping versus funding parallel systems.”
When Fund talks of the myth of double-dipping I assume he is referring to his belief that any additional costs incurred as a result of Hybrid OA will be inconsequential. As he puts it, “According to a brief study I did for a German Research Foundation workshop earlier this year among four publishers, the actual occurrence of double-dipping in that sample was negligible. For our own portfolio, it is not an issue at all, even though we have offered Hybrid OA for all of our journals for years.”
What does negligible mean in this context? Presumably it means that a negligible number of Hybrid OA papers are currently being published. But what happens if, as Fund would like, the number published rises? At De Gruyter’s rate of $2,450 per paper the additional cost to the research community would surely soon become substantial?
Be that as it may, Green OA advocate Stevan Harnad argues that, whatever additional costs might or might not arise from Hybrid OA, publisher attempts to mitigate double-dipping (i.e. by reducing journal subscriptions to reflect any additional revenue earned from Hybrid OA) are inherently inadequate and unfair. “The calculation is simple,” he says. “Even if all Hybrid Gold OA revenues were given back as a subscription rebate to all subscribing institutions, those authors who paid for Hybrid Gold would simply be subsidising all other subscribing institutions, paying pounds so everyone (including themselves) gets back pennies. Hybrid Gold would be doing exactly what it was always intended to do: propping up publishers’ current revenue-streams and modus operandi.”
If publishers really wanted to avoid double-dipping, suggests Harnad, what might at first glance look like a more equitable solution would be this: Where the institution of any author paying for Hybrid OA has a subscription to the journal in question, the publisher gives that institution a full rebate.
But publishers are highly unlikely to adopt such an approach Harnad adds — since it is “tantamount to saying that authors at subscribing institutions can publish Gold OA at no extra cost — and that solution becomes increasingly unstable as more and more authors at subscribing institutions take advantage of the free Gold OA option: The journal is thereby becoming free for all, so institutions will cancel subscriptions (much more surely and quickly within a single journal than with mandated Green OA self-archiving of authors' final drafts, which grows slowly and anarchically across journals).”
If correct, this would seem to imply that introducing an equitable means of avoiding double-dipping could lead to more journals being cancelled, and more quickly, than publishers claim Green OA threatens.
Consequently, says Harnad, a far better approach for the research community “is for authors to provide Green OA in parallel: that will not only provide OA itself — but also the pressure needed to force journals to adapt to the OA era by downsizing and converting to Fair Gold.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of their disagreements over the best way forward, it is hard not to conclude that publishers and OA advocates are often talking past each other. Perhaps this is unsurprising: their interests increasingly do not coincide, and the gap appears to be growing year by year.
No doubt this is partly because they tend to approach issues of funding and costs in very different ways. Publishers have perforce to focus on long-term sustainability. For them, therefore, it is important that any new initiative looks likely to become self-funding. And in many cases they will also want it to provide a sufficient surplus to help fund subsequent new initiatives.
Researchers, by contrast, tend to take a short-term view to funding, not least because much of their working life is devoted to the pursuit of funding for one-off projects that they must assume will die once funding ends.
So while, as Fund concedes, some publishers make excessive profits, it may be that researchers are too quick to assume that all publishers are exploitative. The key question raised by OA, however, is whether publishers are, as Harnad believes, seeking to lock their existing revenues in to a new publishing environment in which many of the services they currently offer are (or are set to become) redundant. If that is right, it would suggest that publisher revenues ought by rights to fall, with obvious implications for profitability.
What is hard to establish today is whether the silent majority in the research community share the increasingly belligerent views — and publisher hostility — demonstrated by many OA advocates. The OA policy introduced by Research Councils UK (RCUK) earlier this year has at least focussed researchers’ minds on OA more sharply. The result: Many humanities scholars have concluded that a policy designed for scientists is being inappropriately foisted on them. And as scientists find themselves being asked to pay several thousand dollars per paper to publish their research, their initial enthusiasm for OA could be starting to wane.
This new realism came to a head last week with the publication of a report into OA by the UK House of Commons BIS Select Committee.
The BIS Committee has called on the UK government to do a U-turn on its OA policy, and prioritise Green OA rather than Gold, while lowering the upper limit on publisher embargoes to 6 months for STEM subjects and 12 months for HASS subjects. (Currently 12 months and 24 months). It has also called for papers to be deposited immediately (although not necessarily made OA immediately), and recommended that if RCUK does continue to prefer Gold OA, then Hybrid OA should no longer be funded.
I sent my questions to Fund prior to the publication of the BIS report. So when I received his answers I emailed him back to ask what implications he thought the report would have for De Gruyter’s business, and its various OA initiatives — if the UK government followed the Committee’s recommendations.
He replied, “I have to admit that I have no opinion on this yet.”
In fact, UK Select Committees have no power to force change on governments. By convention, the government responds to select committee reports within two months, but it is not bound to accept any of the recommendations made. Indeed, it may reject every single one.
Nevertheless, given the widespread unrest surrounding the RCUK policy, OA advocates find it hard to believe that the report will have no impact on OA in the UK, if only to re-open discussion of many issues that publishers had hoped were settled.
We could also point out that in 2009-2010 a number of reforms were made to the way in which select committees operate. This, it is argued, has made them more powerful. Additionally, the UK currently has a coalition government, and coalitions tend to make the executive arm of government more susceptible to pressure from the House of Commons.
It may be, therefore, that the BIS Committee report — combined with increasing success in ensuring compliance of the NIH Public Access Policy, and the growing number of Harvard-style and Liège-style OA policies being introduced by universities around the world (e.g. here) — will lead to a sea change in the way in which OA develops.
On the other hand, the UK Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts does seem determined to stick to his Gold OA guns.
In short, we cannot yet know what impact (if any) the BIS report will have. For that reason, it is doubtless wise of Fund to withhold opinion for now.
** When I sent a copy of my introduction to Fund he commented, “Just for the record: No, De Gruyter has never lobbied against OA.”
The Q&A begins
Q: Earlier in this Q&A series publishing consultant Joe Esposito suggested that Open Access will never be more than a niche activity. As he put it, OA will be “a useful, marginal activity that opens up a new class of customers through the author-pays model … OA is marginal in the sense that most research is performed at a small number of institutions. ‘Most’ is not the same thing as ‘all.’ Those institutions subscribe to most (not all) of the relevant materials. So by definition the access granted by OA is marginal to what researchers at the major institutions already have. Nothing wrong with working on the margins, but let’s call it what it is.” Is this a view you share? If so, why (what is the evidence for and against?) If not, what are your expectations for OA?
A: I agree with that statement. And I would add to Joe Esposito’s argument that there have been very few technical innovations in the media industry that managed to completely eradicate the technology they initially protested against.
For me, open access is an important corrective and an alternative business model that will be around and will also become more important in the future, but subscription or purchase-based business models will not go away completely.
Q: In another earlier Q&A in this series a former Vice President of De Gruyter Alexander Grossmann said, “I have the impression that there is no publishing house which is either able or willing to consider the rigorous change in their business models which would be required to actively pursue an open access publishing concept. However, the publishers are certainly aware of the PR value of Open Access and many are taking steps in this direction by founding new gold Open Access journals, offering hybrid models or acquiring OA companies. All attractive trimmings as long as the profit margins from subscription-based journals are not threatened. Active lobbying against OA takes place in parallel to these cosmetic offerings.” Would you agree with that assessment? Why? Why not? Has De Gruyter ever lobbied against OA?
A: I cannot imagine Alexander had De Gruyter in mind with this statement because he knows that, on the contrary, we have invested significantly in OA, not only with the acquisition of Versita in 2012, but also by launching new business models like open access for books as early as 2009.
After the debates of the last decade, I do not know of any publisher that is not genuinely interested in OA. It is true that this is to varying degrees, but I do not see any room for conspiracy theory.
Q: There has always been a great deal of discussion (and disagreement) about Green and Gold OA. In light of recent developments (e.g. the OSTP Memorandum, the RCUK OA policy, the European Research Council Guidelines on OA and the new OA policy at the University of California) what are the respective roles that you expect Green and Gold OA to play going forward?
A: I think it is obvious that publishers — much like anybody who has to cover costs associated with a certain activity from revenues of that activity and not from general funds — have to focus on Gold OA. In my opinion, there is nothing bad about Green OA in general, it is just not something that we can “offer”. If institutions want to go ahead here and fund this activity, it is not up to publishers to complain how others spend their money.
Regarding public policies, I do not see much of a difference. If policymakers believe they have the right tools to publish, i.e. in Green OA, that’s their right. It is certainly not something that publishers like, but I think that is obvious.
Q: What about Hybrid OA, which most of those in this Q&A series have expressed some concern about? What role do you expect to see this play going forward, and why is it invariably more expensive than pure Gold OA (after all, it allows a journal to increase the revenue it earns though “double-dipping”)?
A: Hybrid OA is an attractive model for researchers — with serious concerns for funders. It is compelling to publish OA articles in very established journals with high reputation and impact.
However, I do understand the concern about double-dipping. According to a brief study I did for a German Research Foundation workshop earlier this year among four publishers, the actual occurrence of double-dipping in that sample was negligible.
For our own portfolio, it is not an issue at all, even though we have offered Hybrid OA for all of our journals for years. Since we consider ourselves a service institution for both researchers and librarians, I personally would like to see more Hybrid OA.
Q: How would you characterise the current state of OA, both locally and internationally?
A: There has been no discussion on academic publishing that I have participated in over the past several years where OA was not a central issue. Just recently, we held an OA seminar in China with a group of librarians, researchers, and publishers. It seems that local developments are becoming less significant in comparison to global ones.
Not only awareness, but also practices are being adjusted at a rather fast pace, presumably driven not only by conferences of funders around the globe, but also by publishers that are active in this field.
The “globalization” of the OA discourse is a good sign that the existing ecosystem of academic publishing is intact — and that it is able to innovate.
Q: What still needs to be done, and by whom?
A: In my opinion, there are three elements that need to be looked at:
First of all, I do not see any reason why every publisher should not have an OA policy in place. It would not only increase competition, but also the competitiveness of the model as a whole. Particularly smaller publishers could be a credible alternative to those who are already trying to consolidate the young and dynamic market.
Secondly, I feel that academic institutions have to decide who will administer their OA funds. Is it the library? Is it an office of communication or another office? Our preference is clear: It should be the library, since it is in many cases the only institution on campus that can shift budgets from subscriptions or purchases to OA funds. More importantly, it is the only one that can do so without disrupting information supply to its research community.
Thirdly, policymakers should be aware that they are posing a tough challenge to the academic community by migrating from one business model to another without granting additional resources.
Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?
A: Clearly, this would be professionalization on all sides. We need to make OA-at-large less of an experiment and more of a standard practice that also embraces more stakeholders. By now, many of our authors have heard about the concept, but much still needs to be done to make it a part of their daily publishing “routine”.
Q: Do you think that OA inevitably leads to conflict and disagreement between publishers and the research community? Certainly in the wake of the failed attempt to get the Research Works Act passed in the US there appears to be growing disenchantment amongst researchers with commercial publishers. In the first Q&A in this series, for instance, palaeontologist Mike Taylor argued that legacy publishers “are not our partners, they're our exploiters”. Is it that researchers, librarians and research funders expect more of publishers than they can reasonably deliver? Is it that the profits of scholarly publishers are, as critics argue, excessively high? Or is there some other reason for this disenchantment?
A: I see publishers as an integral part of the scholarly ecosystem. So far, both partners — and, in fact, many more — could not do without the other. I don’t see what should have changed here compared to 20 or 100 years ago.
Regarding rising demand: It is true that librarians, researchers and funders are more demanding than they seem to have been in the past, and it is not easy to live up to their expectations. However, they are the ones who must foot the bill in one way or the other, and if publishers want to survive, they have to make serious steps to increase their level of service orientation. If they don’t, they will disappear.
Are publishers’ profits excessively high? Well, some are. But as we do not judge any academic by the fraudulent behaviour some show, we should not judge all publishers by the profits a few make. I feel that De Gruyter’s moderate profit secures it sustainability; it is not excessive, and it is information which is completely transparent and available to everyone.
Q: The seeds of the OA movement (certainly for librarians) lie in the so-called “serials crisis”, which is an affordability problem. It was this affordability problem that created the accessibility problem that OA was intended to solve. Yet Esposito believes that OA will be “additive, not substitutive”, suggesting that OA will see the costs of disseminating research increase rather than decrease. OA advocates, meanwhile, argue that OA will be less expensive than subscription publishing. What are your views on the question of costs? Does cost really matter anyway?
A: Of course costs matter. It would be staircase wit if OA costs would suddenly become a minor issue. That is why funders and researchers need competition: it will bring costs down on a per-article level, as we have already observed over the past years.
What’s more difficult is the overall cost of an additional model like OA to the existing system. I agree that it does not make a lot of sense to duplicate every subscription-based journal with an OA one, and if Joe Esposito has this in mind, I agree.
That is the reason I would advocate Hybrid OA, keeping in mind that we need to solve the myth of double-dipping. The math seems easy: accept a low level of double-dipping versus funding parallel systems.
Q: What are your expectations for OA over the next 12 months?
A: I assume that Gold OA will continue to grow and potentially expand more into books and also start to be a topic for databases.
And with the increasing activity of more “traditional” publishers, I expect that it will be much more difficult for new players entering the arena.
Finally, I hope that we will make even more progress in getting beyond the political dimension towards a debate that creates value for the academic ecosystem.
Born in 1973, between 1993 and 2000 Sven Fund studied International Relations, History, and Communications in Münster, Berlin, and St Louis, receiving a Master of Arts at Washington University in 1996, and a PhD in International Relations 2000.
Earlier contributors to this series include palaeontologist Mike Taylor, cognitive scientist Stevan Harnad, former librarian Fred Friend, SPARC director Heather Joseph, publishing consultant Joseph Esposito, de facto leader of the Open Access movement Peter Suber,Open Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences (CLACSO) Dominique Babini, and Cameron Neylon, advocacy director for the non-profit OA publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS).
The full list of those taking part in the series is here.