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    Review of 'Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access'

    Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open accessCrossref
    A simple but flawed case for the financial viability of open access.
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    Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access

    Abstract This paper makes the strong, fact-based case for a large-scale transformation of the current corpus of scientific subscription journals to an open access business model. The existing journals, with their well-tested functionalities, should be retained and developed to meet the demands of 21st-century research, while the underlying payment streams undergo a major restructuring. There is sufficient momentum for this decisive push toward open access publishing. The diverse existing initiatives must be coordinated so as to converge on this clear goal. The international nature of research implies that this transformation will be achieved on a truly global scale only through a consensus of the world’s most eminent research organizations. All the indications are that the money already invested in the research publishing system is sufficient to enable a transformation that will be sustainable for the future. There needs to be a shared understanding that the money currently locked in the journal subscription system must be withdrawn and re-purposed for open access publishing services. The current library acquisition budgets are the ultimate reservoir for enabling the transformation without financial or other risks. The goal is to preserve the established service levels provided by publishers that are still requested by researchers, while redefining and reorganizing the necessary payment streams. By disrupting the underlying business model, the viability of journal publishing can be preserved and put on a solid footing for the scholarly developments of the future.

      Review information

      This work has been published open access under Creative Commons Attribution License CC BY 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Conditions, terms of use and publishing policy can be found at www.scienceopen.com.

      Assessment, Evaluation & Research methods,Intellectual property law,Information & Library science,Communication & Media studies
      Journal Subscriptions,Open Access,Scholarly Publishing,Article Processing Charges,Open Access Transition
      ScienceOpen disciplines:

      Review text

      This is a piece with a very clear argument. That argument is that the costs of journal publication as reflected in APCs is significantly lower than the costs of journal subscriptions. In consequence a shift from a subscription model to a (‘gold’) open access model would not bring any financial problems with it. This argument is substantiated for various European countries. The conclusion drawn is that a transition should be made from the subscription model to a (‘gold’) open access model.

      The article depends upon juggling various figures, a number of them hypothetical. So the total number of journal articles is a guess, based on the number of articles in Web of Science inflated by one third. That is not implausible, but Web of Science doubled would also not be implausible. The total cost of library subscriptions in various countries is also based on estimates. And, most importantly, the average cost of APCs is arrived at by discounting the APCs charged by hybrid journals, on the basis that there is some doubt as to whether they accurately reflect true economic costs.

      The importance of the figures APCs is clear. If we ran with the Wellcome Trust figure (effectively EUR2500 per article), reckoned that Web of Science reaches only 60% rather than 75% of published papers (i.e. that the total number of published papers is 2.5 million not 2 million), and that library journal subscriptions have been overestimated by 20% (i.e. that there is only 6.08 billion in the library subscription budget) then we would be comparing the Wellcome Trust figure of EUR 2495 average APC with a figure for the amount of money available per article from the library subscription budget of EUR 2432.

      But there is a more fundamental point here. The paper makes no distinction between papers in the hard sciences and papers in arts, humanities and social sciences. But as many have insisted since discussion of Open Access began, the situation in the sciences and in the humanities is quite different (and indeed very different in different branches of the humanities). Journal subscription costs are generally distinctly smaller in arts and humanities, but the actual cost of publishing a paper can be much larger. The British Academy Report Open Access Journals in the Humanities and Social Science published in April 2014 reckoned £2000 (= EUR 2723) an easily justifiable cost per article for an arts and humanities journal publishing 25 papers a year – suggesting that for arts and humanities the historic Wellcome Trust figure is as likely to be on the low side as on the high.

      The distinction between hard sciences and humanities and social science is important because to effect the transition that the authors of this paper desire, the business model needs to work not simply overall or for one section, but for each section separately. But as soon as the financial situation ceases to be as comfortably in favour of funding journals by way of APCs as the paper suggests, the danger that the transition would bring changes in publishing practice that militate against what is currently regarded as good practice become significant. We need to start to worry that the transition would result in a reduction in the number of referees reports sought by journals, in rejection of papers with massive potential but in need of significant editorial input, in institutions pressurizing academic staff to publish where the APCs were lower because quality control less stringent and editorial assistance less forthcoming, and so on.

      The failure to address the different shape of the journal market in arts, humanities and social sciences is one aspect of the failure of the paper to address the practical question of how the transition from the current situation to the brave new world of universal (‘gold’) open access. As the authors at various points imply, publishers are currently very happy with hybrid models and ‘green’ open access. In arts and humanities, at least, few scholars feel seriously disadvantaged by the embargo periods that green open access involves, and it is hard, in the UK at least, to see any head of steam behind a move to compel a change to ‘gold’ open access. Given this, where is the pressure to create the brave new world to come from? Is it proposed that governments should legislate? What would that legislation look like? The observation that the transition could be afforded, even if true, is a trivial one unless accompanied by serious proposals as to how practically the transition could be achieved.

      As a stimulus to further thought this paper’s simple proposition that open access could be funded easily from journal subscriptions is valuable. But the assumptions involved seriously oversimplify a much more complicated picture at every stage and papers like this risk discrediting open access.


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