The “Big Flip” is Coming
In previous posts, I have discussed the topic of the open access (OA) model of scientific publishing, and have noted its many advantages for authors and the scientific community. Indeed, article processing fees (APCs) are OA's main disadvantage for authors, and there are avenues of support for authors to avoid paying them out of pocket.
Scientific publishing is largely a for-profit industry that exists in a symbiotic, but not completely egalitarian, relationship with academia.
The dependence of academics on scientific publishers for their career advancement is well-known, and epitomized in the notorious phrase “publish-or-perish”. The multifaceted dependence of the publishing industry on academia is less widely-acknowledged. For the most part, content published in scientific journals is created and managed by academics. The authors, reviewers and editors are all academics who perform these roles as volunteers. The clientele of the industry is also academia, which pays for subscriptions and for APCs. In March 2017, the president of the Max-Planck institute in Germany has estimated that libraries around the world spend 7.6 billion Euros on annual subscription costs.
These costs keep rising and amount to a very large proportion of libraries' budgets. As noted in an August 2017 article in Science News, the main recipients of these subscription payments are the 3 largest publishing houses: Wiley, SpringerNature and Elsevier (the latter of which has reported a 37% profit margin in 2016).
A consortium of libraries in Germany has been re-negotiating terms with the 3 big publishers (Projekt DEAL) for over a year. The terms they are pushing for are that all publications by German first-authors be published under the open-access model. Further, they want the APCs to be paid as a lump-sum by the consortium, and not per-article by each library. Finally, the APCs are to also cover DEAL-members’ subscription fees for pay-walled publications. The Science News article has quoted an anonymous source saying that while SpringerNature and Wiley were open to the model (which is similar to a deal achieved with Dutch academic institutions), the world’s largest publisher, Elsevier, was more reluctant to agree.
In October 2017, it was reported that as part of an attempt to pressure Elsevier, prominent German scientists resigned from their positions in Elsevier editorial boards. In December 2017, 200 German universities have not renewed their subscriptions to Elsevier journals, and contrary to the worry that this would cause their scientists to lose access to the journals, a few days ago, Elsevier has announced that access will remain in place until an agreement has been reached.
In the meantime, as reported by Dr. Yaffa Aharoni, the Association of European Research libraries (LIBER) has devised 5 principles for negotiations with publishers: 1. Deals with publishers must cover both the subscriptions and the APCs; 2. No price increases will be accepted without open-access; 3. Deals with publishers must be transparent, so that libraries in negotiations will have relevant information about deals reached with their counterparts; 4. Access gained must be sustained, and cannot be revoked at later stages; 5. Usage of OA materials must be analyzed and reported to libraries.
Thus, it seems that regardless of whether the German consortium achieves its stated goals, the process of making all scientific journals OA has been set in motion, and the big flip is coming. This will bring the publishing industry closer to fulfilling its original raison d’être: to disseminate scientific information far and wide for the purpose of advancing science.