Friday, May 04, 2018

North, South, and Open Access: Jeff MacKie-Mason responds from California

This is the last part of an experiment in a matched interview process. It consists of Q&As with two OA advocates, one from the global North and one from the global South, along with their responses to each other’s Q&A. 
Jeff MacKie-Mason

The first Q&A was undertaken with Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, UC Berkeley’s University Librarian and Chief Digital Scholarship Officer, and can be read here.

The second Q&A was conducted with Mahmoud Khalifa, a librarian at the Library of Congress Cairo Office and DOAJ Ambassador for the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and can be read here.

Prior to that Khalifa responded to MacKie-Mason’s Q&A. This can be read here.

Today I am publishing the final part of the experiment. This consists of four sections. First (A), MacKie-Mason responds to Khalifa’s Q&A; second (B), MacKie-Mason comments on Khalifa’s response to his Q&A; third (C), Mackie-Mason comments on the “polemical” nature of the preambles I attached to the interviews; fourth (D), I respond to MacKie-Mason’s comments about my style.

(A) MacKie-Mason comments on Khalifa’s response

Mahmoud replies to one of my statements: “I have a different point of view! Subscriptions in the global South are paid by institutions; publication fees are paid by the scholars themselves. True, some universities provide financial support for their scholars when they publish internationally, but this is far from adequate, especially in light of the large differences between currencies. It is vital to consider the local economic situation and factor in the low salaries of researchers in developing countries.”

First, let me be clear, I am *completely* sympathetic to Mahmoud’s concerns. I don’t want a world in which there is less access or less opportunity to publish for global south scholars.

But I think his reply misses a fundamental point – as do many if not most discussions about flipping. Yes, the *current* system has subscriptions paid by institutions, and the gold APC model has charges levied on authors. (That is just as true in the north as the south.) But that isn’t written in stone! Social institutions adapt to changing circumstances.

Right now, universities and research labs and government agencies and NGOs etc. think that they should spend some money (not enough, but that’s a different issue) to enable global south scholars to participate in international scholarly communications. If the way we pay for those communications changes from paying for reading to paying for publishing, why do we think that the (smart) leaders of universities, funding agencies, etc., will simply walk away from their scholars and say, “tough, it’s your problem now”?

They don’t want the research enterprise in their countries to fail! And they’re not dumb: they know how to write checks to pay APCs rather than write checks to pay subscriptions. There are many ways to do that: they could create research funds for individual researchers to tap into when they publish, or they could do institution-level payments (what you, Richard, refer to as “OA big deals”), etc., etc. 

It frankly boggles my mind that so many people in this discussion – not just Mahmoud! – assume that research funders would abandon the research enterprise’s need to participate in international communications simply because the direction the money flows needs to change. This isn’t going to happen overnight – there’s time for smart people to see this coming and to make the adjustments.

And indeed, the net effect on cost should be beneficial for the global south. A pay-to-publish system (rather than pay-to-read) shifts the burden in the direction of the relatively more publication-intensive institutions; that is, the north will typically be paying a larger share of the total cost of the scholarly publishing industry, and the south is likely to save money.

In your interview with me, Richard, you ask me about income inequality and whether flipping journals will solve that problem. I responded, essentially perhaps not: global income inequality is a huge and difficult problem and we can’t expect a solution to one problem – open access – to also solve the inequality problem. But the evidence and analysis we have so far indicates that flipping journals to gold OA won’t make the inequality problem worse; in fact, as I argued above, it probably will lead to some (small) improvement for the south by shifting more of the cost of the publishing industry onto the north.

Mahmoud states As I see it, the best solution for the Middle East is to focus on building up local journals that are then recognized internationally by citation databases and other tools of evaluation.”

I wish and hope that isn’t the best solution, but I agree with Mahmoud it probably is part of the solution, and we already see it happening. (We also see this in the north: in many fields there are regional or nation-specific journals that are reputation stepping-stones for their local authors.)

(B) MacKie-Mason comments on the Q&A with Khalifa

First, in Richard’s preamble, he wrote “I asked MacKie-Mason to take part partly because he is an enthusiastic advocate for journal flipping. In fact, he believes it to be the only practical way of achieving open access in the near term.”

I’d like to clarify my position just a bit: I think journal flipping is the only practical way of achieving *widespread* (near-universal) open access in the near term. I do think we can make some, important but limited, progress with other models, such as new overlay journals on green OA repositories, and transferring ownership of some journals from subscription-based publishers to academy (e.g., university) ownership. I’m one of the authors of the University of California Libraries “Pathways to Open Access” report in which we discuss a number of different pathways, all of which I think can help.

Richard also wrote: “For those in the global South the prospect of all international subscription journals converting to pay-to-publish gold OA is particularly daunting, and would surely be discriminatory since researchers in developing countries could expect to see today’s paywalls replaced by publication walls, threatening to further exclude them from the global scientific endeavour.”

As he surely knows by now, I disagree with his conclusory statement that this approach would be discriminatory or otherwise hurtful to the global south. He is making the same mistake as others which I described in my replies to Mahmoud above.

In his answer to Richard’s question about the EKB, Mahmoud wrote: “The resources included in EKB are commercial, and the government pays the publishers to provide it. When money is paid to access information, it is not open access. True, the end user does not pay, but it does not a matter who paid.”

This is precisely the point I have been making (and why I truly think Mahmoud and I are on the same side!). In this example, the Egyptian government is providing money to commercial publishers so that Egyptians can participate in global scholarship. As Mahmoud writes “true, the end user does not pay, but it does not matter who paid.”

In a flipped world, presumably the Egyptian government would still want Egyptians to participate in global scholarship, and could use those funds no longer needed to pay for subscriptions to instead pay publication costs.

The journals get the same amount of money (or, actually, probably less from the south because they’ll get more from the north), everyone gets to read, and authors get to publish without using their salaries.

What’s not to like (and why think that the smart people in the Egyptian government currently paying so scholars can read won’t understand this, and switch to funding publication instead)?

(C) MacKie-Mason comments on Poynder polemics

Richard, you may have a polemical view point you want to promote, and that’s certainly your right. But if you are trying to understand and *report on* the discussions about OA, I’d like to strongly urge you to stop repeatedly characterizing gold APC-based OA as “If all or most international journals became OA, and started charging authors to publish their research” (to pick just one of many times you say “charging authors” in these articles).

Nothing about APCs require *authors* to pay them. A funding agency could pay them, through grant funding (many already permit this). A researcher’s institution could pay (many already do this, at least in part). Etc.

By hammering on about “charging authors” you are pre-judging the discussion (and as a result we get things like Mahmoud repeating his point about the salaries of Egyptian researchers a half dozen times).

It *could* end up that way, but there is no reason it *has* to (and straightforward logic suggests that it won’t, since the people currently paying the costs of the scholarly publishing industry will still be motivated to do so).

(D) Poynder responds to MacKie-Mason’s comments on his style

Let me respond to Jeff’s comments by discussing three related points.  

1.     Polemical style: I don’t reject Jeff’s suggestion that the preambles I wrote are somewhat polemical (indeed, many of the posts on my blog could be described thus). But my aim was not really to promote a particular view. Rather I wanted to highlight what I believe to be an important issue raised by the current calls for a global flip of subscription journals to OA. Is that the same thing? I don’t know.

Anyway, let me explain:

Historically, when reporting on a topic, or writing a news story, journalists routinely used the “he says, she says” method (and most still do). While this is a far from perfect approach, it works well enough when the different voices in a discussion are willing to debate the issues. Today, however, a growing number of corporations, organisations and even advocacy groups prefer to communicate hierarchically. Rather than engage in the to and fro of open debate they prefer to distribute static press releases and statements, and to make presentations. Sometimes they refuse even to respond to reporters’ enquiries (enquires from this reporter at least). I assume they do this in order to better control the discussion and avoid too much scrutiny and questioning.

Confronted with this unresponsiveness, journalists have two choices. They can simply publish (or take quotes from) these press releases and statements and perhaps publish them alongside quotes and/or statements distributed by those holding a different view on the topic. Or at best, they can agree to undertake interviews in which the interviewees have some (sometimes considerable) control over the questions asked (or not asked). None of these approaches is satisfactory and they rarely inform readers in a meaningful way.

Alternatively, a reporter can seek to explicate the issues for readers her/himself. It is the latter approach that I have increasingly felt driven to when reporting on open access. The downside of this approach is that it tends to lead to accusations that I am seeking to promote a polemical view and/or am editorialising inappropriately.

While I have become accustomed to scholarly publishers communicating in this unsatisfactory and controlling way, I find it striking that it is now also the preferred approach of some OA groups, as well as most of those now negotiating with publishers over open access. It certainly seems to be the modus operandi of groups advocating for a global flip (as I discuss here).

I assume the reason OA groups have begun to adopt this approach is because when they find themselves having to debate the issues, and explain their activities, they are often confronted with more pushback and sceptical questioning than they would like – as happened, for instance, at the Couperin meeting earlier this year.

That said, in agreeing to take part in the matched Q&A with Mahmoud, Jeff has proved the exception to that rule – much kudos to him for that.

However, I have also noticed that OA advocates have a tendency to try and legislate on how open access can be discussed, including the very words and terms used. And I am wondering if perhaps that is what Jeff is trying to do when he complains about me using the term “charging authors”. It is for this reason, it seems, that Jeff feels I am promoting a polemical view.

Jeff adds: “By hammering on about “charging authors” you are pre-judging the discussion (and as a result we get things like Mahmoud repeating his point about the salaries of Egyptian researchers a half dozen times).”

I will say more about why I “hammered on” about charging authors below but I would suggest that I was not so much pre-judging the discussion as trying to engage in it – something, as I say, that I think journalists now need to do if they want to report on OA issues effectively.

It is also worth noting that when he discovered that it is not possible to control discussions about open access in this way, erstwhile OA advocate Stevan Harnad “left the OA arena” (as he put it).  

2.     Author pays: I accept that I use the term “charging authors” a lot when discussing the global flip. But it would not be accurate to say that I see this as the only possible model. Quite the reverse in fact.

For instance, in the preamble to the Q&A with Jeff I say this of current attempts in Europe to engineer a flip to gold OA: The aim is to facilitate a transition from a subscription-based world to a pay-to-publish world, by means of agreements that combine subscription payment for paywalled content with a bulk payment to provide OA publishing rights for researchers to publish their papers OA without themselves having to find the money to pay APCs.”

However, I do believe this to be an overly risky approach, and a discriminatory one. I have written at length on this here, and say more in my third point below.

So, why did I use the term “charging authors” more often than Jeff would like? I did so because for many years OA advocates insisted that (aside from providing free access to research papers) the key benefit of gold OA (and one that makes it superior to the traditional subscription system) is that it forces authors to focus on the costs of their publishing choices. By making researchers personally responsible for paying the cost of publishing their papers, it was said, the APC model would introduce market forces into the scholarly publishing market for the first time, and that this would drive down prices.

By contrast, they argued, as the bills in the subscription system are paid by librarians on their behalf the costs of scholarly publishing are hidden to researchers. And as the person making the buying decision is not the person who pays there is no restraint on prices. In effect, this means that publishers can charge (more or less) whatever they want.

Thus, when Jeff suggests that it does not have to be authors who pay the bills under gold OA but that their institutions and funders can pay for them, he is proposing that we return to a payment system in which researchers have to take no responsibility for the cost of their decisions and remain oblivious to prices. Indeed, with OA Big Deals the costs are hidden from everyone bar the publisher and those who negotiate the price with that publisher. As such, it perpetuates a serious transparency problem over how (mainly) public money is spent.

This is important not least because many joined the OA movement in the belief that it would solve an affordability problem that the research community has long struggled with. It was in order to draw attention to this affordability issue that I insisted on talking about “charging authors”, polemical as it may have been to do so.

And it seems to me to be particularly important to highlight this affordability problem when discussing a global flip in the context of the global South, since it is far from clear that developing countries could afford a flipped scholarly publishing system. Moreover, while I may have focused on authors, this affordability problem is an issue not just for professors but for research funders and institutions in the global South too. As I noted, it raises the possibility that today’s paywalls will become tomorrow’s publication walls.

So, for instance, when Mahmoud says: “It is vital to consider the local economic situation and factor in the low salaries of researchers in developing countries” unlike Jeff, I view the “economic situation” as a larger issue than professors’ salaries alone, but one that also encompasses the ability of institutions and funders to pay in a flipped system. After all, professors’ salaries are low in Egypt because of the larger economic context.

Jeff counters this by saying that in funding the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB), the Egyptian government has demonstrated that countries in the global South do have sufficient money in the system to fund a global flip, and so would simply redirect the money they pay for subscriptions to pay APCs.

I, however, would argue that that is too easy a conclusion to reach, and that the EKB is probably an outlier. It is not typical not only because there are countries in the global South with a lower gross national income (GNI) than Egypt, but because governments don’t generally fund Big Deals directly.

Moreover, while we know that international publishers are contributing content to the EKB, we do not know (so far as I am aware) how much of their content is included (I cannot access EKB to find out as it is only available to those with an Egyptian IP address). We also do not know what it is costing the Egyptian government, and we do not know whether the EKB contracts will be offered for renewal at the same price. We do know (based on experiences with, for instance, Research4Life) that publishers are happy to offer low-cost content deals to those in the South but then ramp up the price (or remove the discounts) once local researchers have become accustomed to having access.

In short, we do not know how stable or durable the EKB is. We also do not know that it can be treated as evidence that Egypt, or any country in the global South, would be willing to channel what money they currently pay in subscriptions into a pay-to-publish system (leaving aside the question of whether they have sufficient money in the system to do so).

I was informed recently, for instance, that in Russia (which the World Bank classifies as an upper-middle income economy) probably only at St Petersburg State University and Moscow State University (which have much more financial freedom than other Russian research institutions), and a few Moscow and St Petersburg-based institutions, is money available to pay APCs. Education and science are funded primarily by the Russian government and the money can only be used in very defined ways. And as things stand, any hope that state funds in Russia would be used to support a pay-to-publish system would appear to be forlorn.

My informant (who did not wish to be named) added: “In talking about OA at various conferences over the last three years we have constantly heard people from regional universities and institutes complaining that they have no money to publish in OA journals. So, the pay-to-publish route is impossible for them”.

The World Bank estimates that the Russian Federation is the 10th largest producer of scientific papers.

Jeff nevertheless argues that those in the global South will come to see that the “smart” thing to do in a flipped world is to simply pay up. In fact, he implies that they would have no choice but to do so. His thinking appears to be based on the assumption that if a powerful group of OA advocates and university consortia in the North engineered a flip, the rest of the world (including the global South) would just have to pony up (if they are smart).

To sweeten the pill, Jeff says that a flipped system would be less expensive than the subscription system for those in the global South, since they publish fewer papers. As he puts it: “A pay-to-publish system (rather than pay-to-read) shifts the burden in the direction of the relatively more publication-intensive institutions; that is, the north will typically be paying a larger share of the total cost of the scholarly publishing industry, and the south is likely to save money.”

This still assumes that those in the South would be able to afford whatever the new system costs. It also assumes a static world. It is worth noting that the World Bank estimates Egyptian output (in terms of published papers) grew by 227% between 2003 and 2016. The US comparand is 27%. In terms of the costs of scholarly publishing, this growth in Egyptian papers would (mutatis mutandis) be financially neutral under the current subscription system. Under a pay-to-publish gold OA system, it would presumably mean a 227% growth in costs over such a time period (plus the inevitable increase in APC costs that would occur).

It is hard not to conclude that those advocating for a global flip view the situation entirely through the optics of the North. I suspect this view also contains a degree of hypocrisy: while expressing sympathy for the plight of less-wealthy countries and arguing that the South would benefit more than the North from a global flip, in reality, they seem entirely focused on how any change might impact them. After all, the aim is to force a new system on the world whose effects are essentially unknown and one that would seem highly likely to substantially worsen the situation for researchers in the global South.

Here I will quote from an open letter published by Ginny Steel, one of Jeff’s colleagues at the University of California. In her letter, Ginny says: “The [global flip] model is currently supported by very few organizations in the ‘global south’; paying article processing charges is difficult in those regions, where institutional budgets are extremely low. Thus, the model would further skew a scholarly publishing system that is already geographically unbalanced.”

3.     OA Big Deals:

Let me conclude by returning to Jeff’s point that authors will not necessarily have to personally pay APCs if a global flip to pay-to-publish gold OA were to become a reality.

As it happens, I agree with this. Indeed, current efforts in Europe to force publishers to agree to OA Big Deals demonstrates as much. It is this model that is currently being pursued, for instance, in the Netherlands, in Germany, and in Switzerland. It was also recommended as a model to copy by Jeff’s colleagues in a  recent Nature article. Meanwhile, the UK has been pursuing a similar, but much more expensive, strategy.

However, while Jeff is correct to say that a global flip does not have to mean charging authors, it is far from evident that OA Big Deals would be a great improvement for those in the North (as I note here), let alone for those in the South. For this reason, I am inclined to think that many will end up rejecting the model. Time will tell, but if most countries choose not to go down that road, it is hard to see how a global flip could succeed.

In any case, it seems likely that the strategy will eventually be rejected by those who are currently pursuing it too – as they come to realise that it replicates a model (the subscription Big Deal) that is now thoroughly discredited.

We are also seeing considerable concern emerging that the OA Big Deal will lock legacy publishers (and their unwarranted profits) into the OA environment. Not only will these publishers robustly resist any attempt to lower prices (as advocates of the OA Big Deal claim it will force them to do), but since researchers will once again be making buying decisions without having to take any financial responsibility for them, there will be no effective way of restraining prices.

Equally worryingly, OA Big Deals will devour money that could otherwise be used to fund the development of alternative, less-costly and more appropriate models for sharing research in the networked world – the kind of models that Jeff mentions, plus some he does not.

The OA Big Deal will likely be rejected by those in the global South for the same reasons. In addition, they will surely resist any new system that allows the North to continue setting the agenda for scholarly communication without giving due thought to the needs of the developing world.

In short, it is hard not to conclude that a global flip would be risky, unwise, and very costly, and in any case, will likely struggle to get sufficient traction to prevail. But I could be wrong.

If it does prevail, I believe it will be bad news for those in the global North, but that the real losers will be those in the South. If to say this is to promote a polemical view, then so be it. I put my hand up to that!

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