Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Public Library of Science’s Cameron Neylon on the state of Open Access: Where are we, what still needs to be done?

One of a series exploring the current state of Open Access (OA), the Q&A below is with Cameron Neylon, Advocacy Director for the non-profit OA publisher Public Library of Science (PLOS). Until last year a senior scientist at the ISIS neutron source of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, Neylon is a structural biologist and biophysicist. He also specialises in the interface of web technology with science and the application of generic and specially designed tools in the academic research environment.
Cameron Neylon

Neylon came to Open Access via an interest in Open Data and open lab notebooks, and quickly acquired a reputation as a persuasive and highly effective advocate for OA — a skill he demonstrated amply earlier this year in giving evidence to the UK House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee Inquiry into Open Access.

It was this talent that PLOS tapped last year when it invited Neylon to give up the lab and become a full-time OA advocate as a PLOS employee.

Please scroll through the introduction if you wish to go direct to the Q&A

Brief history

It might help to preface the Q&A with a brief history of PLOS, not least because OA advocates often assert that it is time for the research community to “take back ownership” of scholarly communication (from publishers). One could argue that the initial raison d'être of PLOS was precisely this. PLOS was, after all, an initiative not of a publisher, but of three scientists — Nobel Laureate and virologist Harold Varmus, biochemist Pat Brown and geneticist Michael Eisen.

The seeds of PLOS lie in an open letter circulated by Varmus, Brown and Eisen in 2001. Frustrated at the way in which publishers were (in effect) appropriating publicly-funded research and locking it behind subscription paywalls, the three scientists called on colleagues to pledge that henceforth they would only publish in, edit or review for, and personally subscribe to scholarly and scientific journals that agreed to grant unrestricted free distribution rights to any and all original research reports that they published “within 6 months of their initial publication date.”

The letter struck a chord: Nearly 34,000 scientists from 180 different countries quickly signed up. However, while a handful of publishers complied with the signatories’ demands, most blithely ignored them. Even more discouraging, most of the scientist signatories proved happy to forswear their own pledge and continued publishing in the very journals that had turned a deaf ear to their plea.

In response, a year later the three scientists reinvented PLOS as a publisher and began to launch a number of OA journals, beginning with PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. In order to cover the publication costs, authors were asked to pay an article-processing charge (APC). This allowed the papers to be placed on the Internet with no paywall to obstruct access.

With the cachet of a Nobel Prize winner attached to the venture, and aided by a high-profile launch campaign, PLOS’ journals attracted the kind of papers that enabled them to quickly acquire a reputation for high-quality.

Traditional subscription publishers, however, greeted PLOS’ entry into publishing with considerable scepticism, convinced that a non-profit organisation set up by a bunch of scientists, and which expected authors to pay to publish, would never be viable.

And for a while it seemed the sceptics might be proved right, as PLOS struggled to make ends meet — despite generous support from organisations like the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Antagonistic to what PLOS was aiming to do, legacy publishers were quick to draw attention to its difficulties, especially Nature. In June 2006, for instance, in an article entitled “Open-access journal hits rocky times” Nature reported that “The Public Library of Science (PLoS), the flagship publisher for the open-access publishing movement, faces a looming financial crisis.”

By then, however, PLOS had come up with a novel solution to its financial problems: In 2006 it launched a new journal called PLOS ONE. This was no ordinary journal; as the press release at the time put it, “[V]irtually everything about PLoS ONE is new: the peer-review strategy, the production workflow, the author experience, the user interface, and the software that provides the publishing platform.”

Most significantly, it was announced that PLOS ONE would seek submissions from all disciplines in science and medicine and publish any article that was judged to be “technically sound”. In return, authors would be expected to pay an APC of $1,250 (subsequently increased to $1,350).

Further charge

In practice, this has meant that — in contrast to a prestigious journal like Nature (which accepts only around 8% of the papers submitted to it) — PLOS ONE publishes around 70% of all submissions.

By being catholic in taste, and utilising an assessment process that Nature dubbed “light” peer review, PLOS ONE was able to grow very rapidly. According to Wikipedia, the journal published just 138 articles in 2006, but over 1,200 in 2007. In 2008 this grew to 2,800 articles, making PLOS ONE the largest open access journal in the world.

In 2009, PLOS ONE published 4,406 articles, making it the third largest scientific journal in the world; and in 2010 it published 6,749 papers — making it the largest journal in the world (by volume). And PLOS ONE continued to grow: In 2011, it published 13,798 articles, a figure that was estimated to represent approximately 1 in 60 of all articles indexed by PubMed as having been published in 2011.

Last year it published over 26,000 papers, and today the total number of papers published since launch stands at around 89,000.

With success came a further charge however: PLOS ONE, complained critics, was lowering the quality of published research. Again, Nature led the criticism. In 2007 it highlighted a PLOS ONE article of which an official at the World Health Organisation had said, “The paper is total drivel, it should have been picked up in the review process”.

(Further examples of some of the more controversial PLOS ONE papers are discussed in a piece I wrote in 2011).

A year later, Nature published another article, this time alleging that PLOS was “relying on bulk, cheap publishing of lower quality papers to subsidize its handful of high-quality flagship journals.”

Whether or not one agrees with the critics, there can be no doubt that PLOS ONE has proved beneficial to PLOS’ bottom line. Writing on The Scholarly Kitchen blog in 2011, Kent Anderson estimated that 76% of the publisher’s author fee revenue was being generated by PLOS ONE.

The result: By 2010 PLOS had reached break-even point, and it has run a surplus ever since. Gross revenue in 2011was $24.7M, with total expenses of $18.3M. (The 2012 figures will be published later this month).

Scepticism gives way to admiration

In light of PLOS ONE’s success, however, scepticism began to give way to admiration and plaudits. And by 2012 PLOS ONE was being described approvingly as the first of a new breed of “megajournal”.

Certainly, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, PLOS now has a great many admirers, most strikingly amongst legacy publishers. Over the last couple of years we have witnessed a stampede as they have rushed to clone the megajournal concept. Even Nature joined the race, announcing in June 2011 that it was launching its own megajournal — Scientific Reports.

In short, despite the early nay-saying, PLOS is now viewed as a very successful venture. Indeed, some believe that it has changed the way in which research is evaluated and communicated for ever. This is all the more notable in light of the fact that the innovation it set in train was initiated not by an entrepreneurial publisher, but by a group of frustrated scientists.

There can also be little doubt that the very considerable mindshare Open Access has gained in recent years owes a great deal to the success of PLOS.

Is PLOS’ success evidence that the research community can and should take back ownership of the scholarly communication process?

To answer that we might want to ask two further questions. First, is the publishing model pioneered by PLOS a suitable and optimal way of communicating research in the age of the Internet? More specifically, is PLOS ONE as radical and forward-thinking as PLOS’ admirers claim it to be?

Second, can the author-pays OA model inherent to the PLOS project solve the intractable affordability problem (referred to historically as the “serials crisis”) that has dogged the research community for several decades now? In other words, will author-pays Gold OA prove a less expensive way of communicating research than subscription publishing?

On the first question, Kent Anderson for one is sceptical, believing that PLOS lost its way early on. As he put it in 2010, “Fiery rhetoric, impatient academic leadership, the kind of arrogance possibly concealing a grand idea — all were present at PLoS’ inception. It was an entrance ripe with portent and peril. Traditional publishers were a bit nervous and certainly watchful.

“Then, very quickly, PLoS underwhelmed — it went old school, publishing a good traditional journal initially and then worrying about traditional publisher concerns like marketing, impact factor, author relations, and, of course, the bottom line. PLoS fell so quickly into the traditional journal traps, from getting a provisional impact factor in order to attract better papers to shipping free print copies during its introductory period to dealing with staff turmoil, it soon looked less radical than many traditional publishers did at the time.”

Anderson concluded, “Within a few years, PLoS had become just another publisher.”

Just another publisher perhaps, but a publisher that some still have concerns about; concerns, for instance, as to whether PLOS ONE has indeed triggered an undesirable downward spiral in the quality of published research. Even PLOS’ admirers occasionally worry about this — not least publishing consultant Joe Esposito (who contributed to an earlier Q&A in this series).

There are also concerns about its commitment to openness. PLOS is not always very responsive when questioned about its activities for instance. And some believe it is not sufficiently transparent. For instance, when in May PLOS announced that both its CEO and CFO were departing with very little notice (apparently leaving the company leaderless for several months), Esposito complained on The Scholarly Kitchen about the dearth of information over what had happened to trigger their departure. Even commercial organisations, he said, have to be more transparent than non-profit PLOS had shown itself to be. “Let’s be open about open access,” he suggested.

Key question

But it is our second question that is surely the key one. Namely, will the author-pays Gold OA model that PLOS adopted, and for which it has tirelessly advocated, prove any more cost-effective than the traditional subscription system?

This is an important question not least because many (if not most) of those who joined the OA movement in the early days (particularly librarians) did so in the belief that it would reduce the costs of scholarly publishing, and so resolve the affordability problem that has plagued the research community for so long.

Today the sceptics tend not to be publishers, but researchers, who cannot understand why it costs so much to publish in an OA journal. Specifically, they tend to ask how PLOS ONE can justify charging $1,350 for providing a service that consists of little more than organising (not itsself undertaking) a simplified form of peer review and then hosting the paper online.

(PLOS’ flagship journals charge $2,900 per paper, and legacy publishers who offer a Hybrid OA option charge $3,000 or more per paper).

One is therefore bound to wonder whether PLOS is really an example of the research community taking back ownership of scholarly communication, or whether (as Anderson claims) it has simply become another publisher, a publisher moreover that has pioneered a new publishing model apparently so profitable that other publishers are rushing to clone it. Some might certainly question whether this is a suitable and optimal way of communicating research in the age of the Internet.

But if PLOS is now just another publisher we should not be surprised. After all, its scientist founders chose not to manage the organisation they had created themselves, but recruited staff from commercial journals like The Lancet, Cell and Nature. And they hired a chief executive from the consulting and financial services industry, whom they agreed to pay an enviable salary.

They also established PLOS’ HQ in a plush office complex in San Francisco, one of the more expensive cities in the world — a point Nature made in 2003, and which Esposito reiterated earlier this year. Likewise, they appear to have spent a lot of marketing dollars promoting the organisation, including (somewhat bizarrely) running an expensive TV commercial.

All of this would certainly seem to support Anderson’s claim that what started out as a radical researcher-led publishing venture rapidly became just another publisher, in terms of its lifestyle and cost structure at least.

But long as PLOS continues to increase the amount of research that is freely available does that really matter? If the cost of scholarly communication continues to be an insupportable burden on the research community then presumably it does matter. If, on the other hand, what Neylon says below is correct, then perhaps it does not. Because Neylon implies that who runs a publishing operation, or how they run it, is not the key factor. What is important is the nature of the market in which that publisher trades. And what is significant about the PLOS-style author-pays OA model, he suggests, is that it makes the publishing market more price sensitive.

How come? In the traditional subscription market intermediary librarians buy journal subscriptions (usually by means of the infamous “Big Deal”) on behalf of researchers. While libraries are very concerned about costs, researchers generally are not. Yet it is the researchers who tell their libraries what journals they want them to buy. In an OA market, by contrast, researchers buy a publishing service directly from a publisher. This change is significant, says Neylon, because it creates “an explicit market in substitutable goods, and this ultimately will bring the price of those services down.”

In other words, Neylon anticipates that the author-pays Gold OA model will impose market discipline in a way that the traditional subscription model does not (due to the disconnect between purchaser and user). As such, it will lower the costs of scholarly publishing, and so solve the affordability problem.

Indeed, adds Neylon, APC prices are already falling (although we could note that while PLOS’ prices have been held constant since 2009 there is no sign of a fall there yet!)

Neylon goes on to point out, however, there will only be a downward pressure on prices if the explicit market he envisages is able to emerge. Here the signs are not encouraging. As Neylon puts it, “The scary thing is that libraries seem to be jumping to create big APC deals, which will have exactly the same problems as the big subscription deals.”

If the same method of bulk buying by intermediaries were to become the norm in OA publishing, therefore, we could expect to see the Big Deal replicated, and the current affordability problem simply ported to the OA environment. And if this were to be the outcome, we might wonder whether the author-pays Gold OA model advocated by PLOS is a suitable and optimal way of communicating research in the age of the Internet.

Green vs. Gold

The issue of costs inevitably draws us into the intractable debate about Green vs. Gold OA, not least because Green OA advocates believe that only if Green is prioritised over Gold will costs be pushed down — since, they argue, self-archiving will put pressure on publishers to downsize their operations to an appropriate level for web-enabled publishing, and so lower costs. Only in this way, they say, will the affordability problem be solved.

As an employee of an OA journal publisher, Neylon understandably favours what he calls “journal-mediated Open Access supported by direct author side charge”. Costs aside, he says, the advantage of Gold OA is that it allows for immediate (rather than embargoed) access, and can also provide reuse rights. “When we buy a publication service we can and should set the requirements on immediate access and enabling re-use,” he says.

Unlike many publishers, Neylon does nevertheless see a role for Green OA and institutional repositories, although perhaps only a transitional one. As he puts it, “[R]epositories are a critical means of increasing access at relatively low costs where journal-mediated access is not available or appropriate. There are transitional paths for different communities that rely to different extents on repositories and journals but neither in their current form offers a long-term solution.”

In saying this, he would seem to be implying that the traditional journal (all be it an OA version) will remain the primary vehicle for publishing research, with Green OA (and repositories) able to provide only a short-term solution. [**Please note the postscript below the Q&A, where Neylon clarifies his views on repositories].

Others believe that the very notion of a journal has become an outdated concept in a networked environment.

Partially for this reason, perhaps, ideas about what role repositories should play are evolving. This was evident in the Q&A with Argentina’s Dominique Babini earlier in this series. In Latin America and Africa, for instance, repositories are increasingly viewed not exclusively as a place for researchers to self-archive papers that they have published in traditional journals, but as publishing platforms in their own right. Importantly, the funding model inherent to this latter role is rarely author-pays, and would appear to hold out the promise of reducing costs quite significantly.

But it would be wrong to portray PLOS as entirely old school (to use Anderson’s phrase). It has, after all, also sought to experiment with new tools, and new forms of publishing — for instance, by developing PLOS Currents, and by taking a lead in the development of article-level metrics.

But the problem PLOS would appear to face is that in order to support the cost structure inherent to its decision to adopt the trappings and lifestyle of a traditional publisher it has become overly dependent on the PLOS ONE money tree — or “cash cow” as Nature characterised it in 2008.

It may be therefore, that the revolution that PLOS started will come to fruition elsewhere. Perhaps Neylon hints at this when he says below, “I would love to see a pre-Cambrian explosion of innovation that mixes the ideas of repositories and journals together. We are starting to see a new wave of efforts like Episciences and SelectedPapers.net that head in this direction.”

Both the above projects, it would appear, are bottom-up ventures run by researchers for researchers, and with no obvious interest in becoming publishers in the traditional sense. Perhaps it will fall to new services like these to demonstrate that the research community can and should take back ownership of the scholarly communication process.

So what does the future hold for PLOS? That will become clearer in a week or so, when PLOS publishes its latest update and financials. As we noted, the loss of both its CEO and CFO in one fell sweep caused some to wonder about the current state of play and PLOS’ future. In his May blog post, Esposito put it this way: “If the business is growing and is profitable, why are these two individuals leaving? If the business is not growing and is not profitable, why have we been told otherwise?”

Assuming the financials are still healthy, might we see PLOS announce plans to use the money generated by PLOS ONE to do something more radical? Possibly. However, we could note that the new CEO, Elizabeth Marincola is a professional publisher and former Chairman of the Board of eLife. While eLife is an OA journal, it is a very traditional journal.

Confused picture

All that said, how does Neylon view the current state of Open Access?

Pretty good, it seems. “[T]he scale and growth of accessible research content today is both large and growing far faster than any other segment of research publishing,” he says below. “By some estimates we already have public access to half of new literature in the biomedical sciences. This is a huge achievement, even though everyone at PLOS and in the wider OA movement would wish it to move faster.”

If half of the papers being published in biomedical science are indeed being made available on an OA basis that would certainly suggest that Open Access is in a good state.  And Neylon is right to say that some estimates support this view. Last month, for instance, Nature reported that an EC-funded survey undertaken by Eric Archambault had concluded that OA has reached a tipping point, with one-half of all papers now freely available within a year or two of publication.

However critics have challenged these findings, raising questions about how the data were collected, how they were interpreted, and what conclusions can therefore reasonably be reached from the EC survey. As Nature put it, “The finding, released on 21 August, is heartening news for advocates of open access. But some experts are raising their eyebrows at the high numbers.”

Another less upbeat voice is former publisher Alexander Grossmann. In an earlier Q&A in this series Grossmann paints a somewhat gloomier picture of the current state of OA. “Depending on the statistics used, at present only 8.5 percent of all research published in journals appears to be available as immediate open access (Gold OA),” he says.

Moreover, says Grossmann the research community will inevitably struggle to increase the number of papers made OA unless libraries cancel their big deals. With library budgets eaten up with hugely expensive subscription contracts, he says, research institutions simply do not have the wherewithal to pay for Gold OA, other than on a small scale.

“As long as libraries are caught in the big deals and traditional subscription models, we all have less chance to move forward with OA,” he says.

The more one examines the state of Open Access, it seems, the more confused the picture becomes!

The Q&A begins  

Q: Why did you become an OA advocate?

A: I came to Open Access via Open Data and open lab notebooks. I’ve written about how I first became involved in open science elsewhere, and from there it was a logical process. Once you recognise the potential of the web to support research communication more generally then Open Access is a logical part of that whole worldview.

Many of my views and opinions around priorities and routes towards Open Access stem from this perspective which emphasises interoperability, connectivity, scale and reducing friction of resource transfer — a technical and functional focus which is complementary to the focus on social justice and access that many other members of the movement bring.

Around the end of 2011 I was getting more and more involved in speaking and writing on Open Access as well as other areas of research practice and scholarly communications. So it really made sense to look for an opportunity to work on that full time.

I’ve been working with PLOS for a long time on different projects as well as being an Academic Editor on PLOS ONE. In many ways my approach to issues in research communication parallel those that PLOS has taken over the years so when a position came up to pursue that full time I jumped at the opportunity.

Q: What in your view have been the major achievements of the OA movement since the BOAI in 2001, when the term OA was chosen and a definition agreed?

A: I think the biggest achievement is actual adoption: the scale and growth of accessible research content today is both large and growing far faster than any other segment of research publishing.

By some estimates we already have public access to half of new literature in the biomedical sciences. This is a huge achievement, even though everyone at PLOS and in the wider OA movement would wish it to move faster.

Successful repositories are burgeoning, pure Open Access publishers are growing at an unbelievable pace, and driven by an increasing pace of policy change from funders and governments our more traditional competitors in the legacy publishing industry are scrambling to catch up. 

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, and 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: For me the “Green vs. Gold” debate is actually missing the point and needlessly confusing new people who come to the Open Access agenda. We need to separate the discussion of publication channels, business models, and the leverage that different business models provide to authors and funders.

From my perspective there are strong advantages to journal-mediated Open Access supported by direct author side charges. When we buy a publication service we can and should set the requirements on immediate access and enabling re-use. But more importantly from my perspective it also creates an explicit market in substitutable goods, and this ultimately will bring the price of those services down — assuming that we can create an effective market.

Alongside this, repositories are a critical means of increasing access at relatively low costs where journal-mediated access is not available or appropriate. There are transitional paths for different communities that rely to different extents on repositories and journals but neither in their current form offers a long-term solution.

In the longer term we will need publication infrastructures that are efficient, enable ongoing review, and support wide-ranging re-use. These could be run by institutions, by communities, or by third party providers. They will have some characteristics of repositories and some of journals and some of publishers but will also be quite different.

I would love to see a pre-Cambrian explosion of innovation that mixes the ideas of repositories and journals together. We are starting to see a new wave of efforts like Episciences and SelectedPapers.net that head in this direction.

I expect that what we see in practice will be more conservative, for example experimentation from institutional repositories partnering with University Presses (or new University Presses being created). But there are big opportunities out there for those with the imagination to pursue them to cut through the green vs. gold debate and deliver a whole new set of capabilities.

Q: What about Hybrid OA? What role do you expect to see Hybrid OA play going forward?

A: Hybrid OA might be, or perhaps might have been, a viable transitional strategy to support a fully engaged effort of legacy publishers to move towards an Open Access footing. What we’re getting though is the use of hybrid approaches to lock in the existing inefficiencies of big deals.

The scary thing is that libraries seem to be jumping to create big APC deals, which will have exactly the same problems as the big subscription deals. Alongside the problems of double-dipping by receiving both subscription and APC revenue for the same journal, and perhaps worse some publishers charging colour and page charges on top of APCs this isn’t an effective way to deliver a properly functioning market that brings prices down. 

As Stuart Shieber has written the biggest problem with hybrid is that it doesn’t create the right incentives economically for publishers. I think there are still opportunities for imaginative approaches that can address the needs of all stakeholders but hybrid as currently implemented isn't it.

Q: How would you characterise the current state of OA, both in the UK and internationally?

A: The state of Open Access in the UK and globally is positive, and full of potential. Across the world OA is a mainstream topic and the UK and the US are leading the policy agenda. Whether or not you agree with the policies the engagement with these issues at the highest levels is an important achievement.

The growth of accessible content and the recognition by even the most antagonistic of organisations that Open Access is the future is a big step forward. As these new players come to the debate it can be frustrating to go over issues we thought resolved or at least defined years ago. But this is actually a positive thing because it shows wider engagement. At the same time the movement is struggling with the transition from what was essentially a protest movement to the centre of policy making.

Policy making is a political process and it does involve compromises. As we move into implementation we have to expect that some of the disagreements within the movement become more important. If we can remember that these problems arise because we’re being successful then we can continue to actually implement increased access and start to reap the benefits that it will bring.

Q: What still needs to be done, and by whom?

A: We need better designed policies, and more consistent policy. The efforts of the G8 Science Ministers, Global Research Council and Science Europe will be important here in helping coordinate policy particularly between Europe and the US. Funders also need to monitor compliance with policies and, where necessary, actually start applying penalties.

We need to better disseminate the success stories of what Open Access is enabling and to identify how we can create and support exemplars. As an example Google, Wellcome Trust, PLOS and 24 sponsors are supporting the Accelerating Science Awards Program which will be announced during OA week on October 21st.

It’s no longer enough to talk about what is possible; with public access approaching 50% of published output we need to build the tools and services that will work with the content.

Alongside this those of us with a technical bent need to look out beyond the needs of today towards the systems that will use fully open content at a large scale to provide new capabilities for researchers and the public. We have the momentum, and the scale as a movement to make this happen. It’s time to move on from talking about what will be possible and to make it possible

Q: What in your view is the single most important task that the OA movement should focus on today?

A: The single most important task today is putting in place robust and transparent mechanisms to report on policy compliance, pricing, and monitor the growth of access.

This may seem rather prosaic but we have wildly different estimates of the proportion and quantity of OA. Much of the fragmentation in today’s debate is caused by people building arguments on contradictory data. And it has been too easy for institutions and funders to announce mandates without systems to monitor their success, let alone enforce them.

We need good data models, and efforts like HowOpenIsIt from SPARC, OASPA, and PLOS are an effort in this direction, alongside good monitoring systems. These are within reach and with them we can celebrate successes to encourage funders, institutions and authors who are implementing best practice and, where appropriate, hold some feet to the fire to shift from policy talk to effective implementation.

Q: What does OA have to offer the developing world?

A: As a starting point Open Access can provide greater access to our currently published research for Low and Middle Income Countries. This is hugely important, but it’s only a partial solution to the challenges these regions face. The larger issue is engagement with the global scholarly enterprise. Scholars from LMICS are excluded from the global scholarly communication enterprise at a whole range of levels — access to published literature is only one of these — and we need to work with scholars globally to tackle these in a coordinated way.

We certainly don’t want to enable read access while blocking write access, but we must also tackle the horrendous imbalance that US-centric assessment systems focussing on so-called “international” journals that privilege first world issues over those affecting the other 80% of the world’s population.

But perhaps a better question is what does the developing world have to offer the developed world and how can OA help? With climate change affecting disease prevalence and agriculture we may well find that the expertise in these areas in LMICs becomes much more important. We may need this knowledge more than they need ours.

It is also the case that countries where research is more focussed on development goals have a much clearer notion of delivering on the social contract of publicly funded research. Those researchers in the well-funded north who are having to grapple with demonstrating the value of their research may find they have a lot to learn from less well funded researchers who have been doing this for decades.

Q: What are your expectations for OA in the next twelve months?

A: I expect a lot of heavy lifting on infrastructure and systems, largely quiet and unsung to be undertaken by OA publishers, repository developers and policy makers, while in the public sphere a lot of shouting and noise will get the headlines.

There will be fierce debate on harmonising US, EU, and UK OA policies. Much will be said about the differences in theory, but there will be a lot of quiet progress in practice alongside an increase in lobbying by some of the traditional publishers aiming to slow things down. And likely an increase in pressure from funders and institutions on publishers about greater pricing transparency.

By mid-2014 we will have an emerging picture of what the transition will look like in the sciences, with some areas of the humanities and social sciences making significant progress and some being left behind.

We will start seeing large scale re-aggregations and tools based on them emerging in the next 12 months and the advantages of liberal licensing will start to become clear as accessible but non-open content starts to get left behind in preference to that which can be effectively re-used and shared.

Q: Will OA in your view be any less expensive than subscription publishing? If so, why/how? Does cost matter anyway?

A: Yes. It already is. Whichever way you estimate average price charged per article in the subscription system you end up with figures way higher than average APCs for born digital pure Open Access publishers.

While transitional costs for a move to journal-mediated OA funded (largely) through APCs are likely to be higher it is also the case that this will liberate subscription costs more rapidly. While we can generate wider access with relatively little transitional costs through repository-mediated OA this won’t help to bring down subscriptions costs.

The major risk to reducing prices is that legacy publishers manage to recreate big deals for APCs while retaining subscription income for hybrid journals. It has to be a concern that many research institutions seem intent on pursuing the same agenda. Volume discounts look appealing on the surface but there is no such thing as a real discount — only a hidden price increase. PLOS would prefer to work in concert with institutions to bring prices down in a transparent fashion rather than engaging in opaque bilateral deals.

Price always matters. As a publicly funded research community we have to deliver a return on investment to funders and taxpayers. That doesn’t mean trying to pick winners or focus on applied research, but it does mean looking for places where the community can collectively be more efficient.

OA delivers this on a range of levels, increased access means less time spent tracking down copies of papers we don’t have access to, it can mean reduced costs for subscriptions if we get the system right, and it means research flowing more effectively to innovators, community organisations, and enterprise. But more importantly it offers the opportunity to build new ways of collecting, critiquing and discovering knowledge making every step of the research process more effective. 

Even if it weren’t cheaper OA it would still be the right thing to do. But in fact it is cheaper, more efficient, and creates new opportunities along the chain of the research process. 


** Neylon emailed me the following response to my introduction:

A point where I'd disagree with your characterisation of my text is the point where you state: “In saying this, he would seem to be implying that the traditional journal (all be it an OA version) will remain the primary vehicle for publishing research...”   

I've argued for a long time that traditional journals and traditional articles have serious deficiencies that we can in principle tackle with web based systems. What I was trying to say in the text you quote is that neither journals in their current form nor repositories provide the long term solution we are looking for. They both have complementary strengths and weaknesses and I expect to see systems that combine the best of both emerging in the future. I fear that the natural conservatism of the system will mean that some of the most interesting of these will struggle to get traction but that's hardly a new problem.

As a minor point I'd note that it’s not just my position that repositories are valuable. PLOS has a clear position, which I believe is in common with most born-digital pure OA publishers, in support of repositories as major contributors to widening access. This was noted in our initial response to the Finch Report as well as our evidence to the House of Commons and House of Lords enquiries.


Cameron Neylon is Advocacy Director for the Public Library of Science, a research biophysicist and well known agitator for opening up the process of research. He speaks regularly on issues of Open Science including Open Access publication, Open Data, and Open Source as well as the wider technical and social issues of applying the opportunities the internet brings to the practice of science.

He was named as a SPARC Innovator in July 2010 for work on the Panton Principles and is a proud recipient of the Blue Obelisk for contributions to open data. He writes regularly at his blog, Science in the Open.


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, and Open Access Advocacy leader at the Latin American Council on Social Sciences (CLACSO) Dominique Babini.

The full list of those taking part in the series is here.


Richard Poynder said...

Comment on the postscript:

On looking back through the text I agree that I may have slightly misrepresented Cameron Neylon’s views on repositories. He does, after all, say:

In the longer term we will need publication infrastructures that are efficient, enable ongoing review, and support wide-ranging re-use. These could be run by institutions, by communities, or by third party providers. They will have some characteristics of repositories and some of journals and some of publishers but will also be quite different.

However, my point was that I find it hard to believe that PLOS, certainly as it is currently conceived, would be likely to become a third-party provider of such a publishing infrastructure (which I assume would be far less profitable, than the current journal-based system) -- not just because PLOS is deeply wedded to the concept of “journal-mediated Open Access supported by direct author side charges”, but because, as a result of having adopted this business model so successfully (notably with PLOS ONE), PLOS has become (In Kent Anderson’s words) “just another publisher” – a publisher now heavily dependent on what many view as an overpriced service. Joe Esposito has put it this way:

PLoS ONE is terribly overpriced. It is a hosting service; it makes not qualitative judgments. It is thus what is known as a “commodity business,” which means that competition takes place on price alone. The cost of Gold OA (better described as “author-pays”) services will continue to come down. This means that the services these organizations provide will be challenged in terms of their cost structure.

Joe assumes, of course, that prices will come down. If they do, then PLOS will surely find itself in the same situation as legacy publishers – burdened with a high cost structure that can no longer be supported by the revenue it is able to earn.

If, on the other hand, libraries allow publishers to recreate the Big Deal in the OA market, then APC prices will not fall, the author-side charging model will remain overpriced, and PLOS would presumably be able to carry on as it is. This would also make it less likely that the new publication infrastructures Cameron anticipates would develop – unless publishers managed to offer these services in such a way that the costs of the current journal-based system were locked into the new services.

The future remains uncertain, but what I think everyone agrees on is that if prices are indeed to come down then it is vital that an efficient market is created. Is that going to happen?

Stevan Harnad said...

Green OA and its Repository Infrastructure are Permanent, not "Transitional"

In his interview with Richard Poynder, Cameron Neylon, as always, makes many valid and astute points. But there is one thing about which I think he is quite profoundly mistaken:

CN: "While we can generate wider access with relatively little transitional costs through repository-mediated OA this won’t help to bring down subscriptions costs."

Apart from the fact that lowering subscription (or publication) costs and providing open access to publisher research are not the same thing at all (and that the urgent and overwhelming priority of Open Access is Access), I think Cameron underestimates the profound causal connection between them:

No, the primary purpose of repository-mediated OA (Green OA) is not to serve as a transition to Gold OA publishing: it is to provide OA.

But in providing the infrastructure for providing OA, the global network of Green OA repositories also provides the means of downsizing publishing to just the cost of managing peer review (which peers provide for free). All the rest of the costs of pre-Green-OA publishing (access-provision, archiving) are -- post-Green -- offloaded and distributed across the global network of Green OA repositories (while the print and online editions and their costs can be jettisoned completely).

That is why the small residual cost of post-Green Gold OA will be affordable, sustainable "Fair Gold" OA whereas the current cost of pre-Green Gold OA is arbitrarily inflated "Fools Gold" OA. And that's not just because the global Green OA infrastructure is not yet in place and absorbing all the costs of access-provision and archiving, but because subscriptions are still in place and have to keep being paid until those articles are made Green OA!

Hence pre-Green Gold means not only inflated prices but double-payment (for (1) subscriptions to all the must-have journals that are non-OA plus (2) Fools-Gold fees for pre-Green Gold OA journals) -- not to mention the further possibility of (3) publisher double-dipping in the case of hybrid Fools Gold.

So is it not at all the case that there is "a role for Green OA and institutional repositories, although perhaps only a transitional one": Green OA repositories can and will provide not only 100% OA, permanently, but they will thereby also make it possible (indeed necessary) for journal publishing to downsize and convert to Fair Gold -- and at the same time release the institutonal subscription funds, of which a fraction can then be used to pay (rather than double-pay) for Fair Gold.

Cameron is completely right, however, that "[t]he single most important task today is putting in place robust and transparent mechanisms to report on [Green OA mandatory] policy compliance… and monitor the growth of access." That done, effectively, the transition to Fair Gold OA will then take care of itself.

(I would close by emphasizing that just as providing OA itself is incomparably more important and urgent than publishing reform, so OA's provision of access to all users, rather than just to subscribers, is incomparably more important and urgent than providing further re-use rights, over and above online access free for all: Fair Gold and all the re-use rights that users need and authors want to provide will come, as surely as day follows night -- but Green OA must come first.)

leo waaijers said...

Cameron and Richard seem to be afraid that the current system of Big Deals will be copied to the OA world. I don't think so.
Imagine that one day Elsevier would say to the academic world, "OK, as long as the libraries garantee our revenues we will make all articles open access. It's a win-win. We win because our profit margin will increase further as the distribution process in OA is cheaper than the same in the subscription world. You win, becaue you will have the OA you yearned for."
Then, an author who wants to publish her article in OA has two options. Either for free (from her point of view) in an Elsevier journal or for a price in say a BioMedCentral journal. Not so difficult to guess what her choice will be. But this situation is not sustainable. It would mean that an institute has two publication regimes, one for Elsevier and one for BioMedCentral. Authors wan't buy that. BioMedCentral might complain about a distortion of the market.
At that point, the institute has two options. (1) Pay the OA publication fees for all publishers from a central (library) budget. Indeed, that would mean an extension of the current Big Deals to all publishers as Cameron and Richard seem to fear. But that is totally unaffordable! So, my speculation is that (2) libraries will tell authors that they have negotiated a prepaid option with Elsevier resulting in a discounted publication fee. But that lower price must still be defrayed by the author. Obviously, BioMedCentral might also offer a cheaper prepaid solution. And so on. There you have your market.

Leo Waaijers.