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Is academic publishing about to change?

13 November 2020

Charles Whalley

The UK’s main research funding body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), has recently proposed a new policy for all authors who receive its funding to do their research: that they must make their research articles freely available online, for everyone to read or reuse, without any embargo or delay. In its policy, the UKRI states that "the published outputs of publicly funded research should be widely and freely accessible to all”.

Similar pronouncements have been recently made by the World Health Organisation, the European Research Council and the Wellcome Trust, amongst others, under the banner of an initiative called ‘Plan S’. Demands of this type are not new.

In 2001, a group of activists, researchers and publishers met for a conference in Budapest, and soon after published a declaration for how the “new technology [of] the internet” should be used to enable “free and unrestricted online availability” to academic articles.

What is new is the focus of this push by funders and the apparent willingness of major publishers to adapt to them. This is particularly in Western Europe, but there are varied and innovative histories of free access to academic literature in other countries, particularly in South America. The Western European advocates of so-called open access (OA) know what they want and are setting deadlines for when they want it.

Since the seventeenth century, academic journals have been sold by subscription. Now that practically every academic journal is available on the internet, these subscriptions manifest in paywalls. Universities and research institutions pay large amounts of money for online access to large bundles of journals sold by the major publishers, frequently at a hefty profit.

According to a recent estimate, almost three-quarters of the world’s scientific literature is kept behind such paywalls. Furthermore, working academics serve as peer reviewers or editors for these journals, frequently unpaid, and devote great amounts of effort to supporting them. This situation has been described, by George Monbiot for instance, as a “rip-off”, as scientists and scholars are frequently asked for money to read the research they helped produce.

Publishers have previously defended this situation as necessary for protecting the investment and work required on their part. Publishers provide the infrastructure for the handling and assessment of research articles, many of which will not get published. They commit to providing a reliable, persistent record of the articles they do publish, theoretically in perpetuity, to thousands of libraries around the world, when many articles are even then barely read. Publishers have defined, supported and encouraged whole fields of study, all through the subscription business model.

But despite their previous reliance on the subscription model, recent times have seen major publishers declaring that an open access future is inevitable (as long as it is brought about on their terms).

In May 2019, for instance, Springer Nature's Chief Publishing Officer, Stephen Inchcoombe, declared that the publisher wanted "to find the fastest and most effective route to immediate open access (OA) for all primary research". Similarly, last year Wiley announced that, to continue their mission to "empower researchers to communicate the amazing work they do every day", they are "fully supportive of the growing movement to make research more open".

The trouble with arguments made about business practices through moral terms, as much OA advocacy has done, is that it is vulnerable to having its language captured by Senior Executives and dissolved into platitudes. These grand, broad statements of assent from publishers on where academic publishing should go conceal very real disagreements of where precisely it's going and how it should get there.

As much of the highly profitable (and inevitably controversial) subscription market has been produced by fiendishly complex and carefully negotiated sales deals and packages, it seems appropriate that the publishers' apparent favoured route should be even more of them. So-called 'transformative deals' are agreements between publishers and their major clients which include a commitment to convert money spent to read the journals into money spent to publish in the journals, thereby making the journals (or at least those articles) free to read for everyone. These are also called 'read and publish' or 'publish and read' deals.

Many funders and libraries have found this approach an acceptable compromise; a significant actor in this has been almost all of the research institutions in Germany, negotiating as a single entity. A major advantage of these agreements is that authors can continue as they were, knowing their institution has sorted out their ability to publish articles (and read them) for them. It looks like transformative deals are the shape of things to come.

These deals become troublesome, however, when they are requested by (or imposed upon) those institutions that do a lot more reading, relatively speaking, than they do publishing, or vice versa. For example, if a customer wants to convert its agreement with a major publisher from paying to read to paying to publish, it will demand that it does so without an exorbitant increase in how much this costs. This will create a problem, as just as the customer won't want to pay any more, the publisher won't want to receive any less.

A major, influential research centre may account for only a small proportion of a publisher's subscription earnings, say 1 per cent, being but one amongst many others; but, its researchers will likely account for a much greater proportion of the articles published in those journals, say 10 per cent. If the publisher accepts the same amount of payment for 10 per cent of its publishing as it did for 1 per cent of its reading, it has reduced its overall potential income by a factor of 10. Such discussions tend to be long and tortuous and end up with everybody falling out with no agreement at all.

As the above summary has perhaps shown, the open access discussion has revealed how complicated and contradictory the academic publishing landscape is, particularly in a global market. Not everyone agrees that 'publish and read' agreements are necessary or fair; many other forms of OA have been proposed, tested and debated.

There has been a proliferation of funder mandates, government policies, consultations, proposals and petitions springing up all over the place, and the mood is more feverish than it has been for a while.

Recent changes have seen wealthy research funding organisations, like Wellcome, attempting to use their influence not only over their funded researchers (who are accustomed to their demands) but over the journals their researchers publish in. Their influence is considerable. And all of academic publishing has been affected by the astronomic growth in articles, primarily from China, whose academics are beset by the same rising pressures to publish as elsewhere around the world.

In all the competing visions in what a fair and sustainable publishing industry should look like, the voice that is rarely heard is of those actually doing the publishing. The organisations speaking on behalf of the industry are trade bodies, not trade unions. 'Plan S' has of late generated an interminable proliferation of panel discussions and conference symposia, always with representatives of publishing organisations rather than of publishing staff.

Journalists writing on the latest academic publishing issue typically seek a balanced view by interviewing a researcher on one side and a spokesperson from a major publisher on the other. Many advocates for change in publishing must, I'm sure, feel themselves to be up against faceless corporate entities and their bland pronouncements. This is partly true. But there are many areas of common grievance between academics calling for open access and publishing staff, who are often caught on both sides. It is this cleft stick that is perhaps partly responsible for their silence (as well as a fear of being taken to speak for their employer, whose communications on a complex issue will be carefully managed).

On the one hand, the high profits made by the major publishers are generated on the backs of publishing workers’ labour, too, particularly in the under-payment of women employees in the UK or employees and contractors overseas. In the same year that Elsevier, the largest publisher, reported a 37 per cent profit margin, it also reported that the median salary for a female employee was 39.4 per cent lower than for men.

One frequent demand of open access transitions - that it should be done with transparent and reduced costs - incentivises publishers to spend as little as they can on each article. They do this, in part, by removing human intervention, by increasing work expected per person, by moving work to countries with lower pay and conditions, or some combination of all three. Meanwhile, open access journals incentivise both increased quantity and increased quality of service to authors. The same pressures felt in higher education and academia, such as the infamous ‘publish or perish’ culture, are driving higher workloads and greater levels of stress amongst editorial and production staff. With the pursuit of profit we are all, fundamentally, victims of the same thing.

On the other hand, however, open access advocacy, although informed by a firm grasp of what publishing entails, gains much of its wider currency by the oft-expressed view that online publishing makes things easier, that not printing reduces costs. The internet fosters the impression that things should be free. The opposite is true.

Alongside the complex sales arrangements, publishers are increasingly expected to handle research data, vet research ethics, record peer reviewer contributions, link author and funder records, deposit or transfer manuscripts elsewhere, and offer a wide range of copyright or licensing options. A cynic might say that some enhancements to articles, such as 3d models or even embedded computer code, are bells and whistles added merely to visibly distinguish the end product from the manuscript originally submitted. It’s easy to think that publishers do little when all they produce is a PDF not dissimilar from the one submitted by the authors. But increasingly publishers are doing more to help academics meet the needs of their employers or funders, and to allow everyone to draw more information from the infrastructure and output they produce.

The skills required of those working to produce academic journals are considerable and ever-changing. Some of the arguments commonly heard against the publishing business - that publishers add little or no value, that it is ‘just putting a PDF online’ - denigrate the work and expertise of publishing professionals. A higher profit margin means work is less well paid for, not that less work is being done.

This is, of course, not to argue that all must be forgiven because 'publishers are people too'. Rather, it's to highlight the position of publishing professionals, who are and must be an unavoidable factor in establishing the future of the industry. It's also to emphasise that the demand for a fairer deal, whether in publishing or in the broader social and economic system in which it sits, is a shared one.

So where do publishing workers have a voice? And how can researchers, funders, taxpayers and publishing staff work together to change how knowledge is shared?

It's worth noting, first of all, that scholarly and professional associations often have publishing programmes. Such associations and societies are often, like my employer, democratic member organisations where the individuals who primarily read or publish in their journals also own and control them. Although not perfect (or at least benefiting from an imperfect system), these organisations offer a direct, democratic connection between scholars and publishing, and in many cases are at the forefront of creating innovative and equitable new ways to fund their publishing. More academics should support their relevant associations, and bring about changes in publishing, if desired, through their democratic processes. But, more properly, the voice of publishing workers should be amplified through their union, and particularly through my union: the NUJ.

The NUJ has been campaigning on open access and its effects on publishing work for nearly a decade. With many members in academic publishing, particularly in Springer Nature and Taylor and Francis, the NUJ has also been working for equal pay, action on workload-related stress and greater diversity in the industry, all as part of a fundamental emphasis on the value of the work that publishing professionals do.

Any change in academic publishing mustn’t be drawn up solely between funders, libraries and publishing CEOs. Publishing workers, collectively, must participate too.

Charles Whalley is an NUJ representative for the magazine and books sector.

Tags: , open access, open access business models, publishing, academic journals, academic publishing, springer nature, elsevier, taylor and francis