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From the Scholarly Kitchen

Counting the Holes in the Swiss Cheese: “Read and Publish” Discovers America

June 20, 2018  |  By

Originally published in The Scholarly Kitchen on June 20, 2018

With the recent announcement by the MIT libraries and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), the “read and publish” (RAP) model has come to the U.S. We have seen this model or close variants (“publish and read”) before, in Europe, where national consortia have been working toward “flipping” traditional models to fully open access (OA) models. In such models, institutions and consortia pay a fee to make all their authors’ work immediately OA. We should expect to see more deals like this. (See Roger Schonfeld’s post on some of the limitations on a full and speedy rollout.) Indeed, this would appear to be the implication of the quotation ascribed to Emma Wilson of RSC in the press release:

We are a not-for-profit publisher of high-quality chemical science content, our aim is to sustainably disseminate this research and information. As part of our commitment to sustainable open access publishing, we work with individual institutions to agree [sic] content deals specific to their needs.

My personal alarm system, which is designed to provide an early warning when idealists and utopians are in the neighborhood, was triggered by the word “sustainable,” and so I placed a call to my old friend, the God of Unintended Consequences, to see what he has in store for us.

Computer generated 3D illustration with the ships Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta of Christopher Columbus

On the face of it, RAP seems like an ingenious idea. An institution (or consortium) has an arrangement with a publisher for journal material at the price of $x. For that price, plus any adjustments for new materials, inflation, etc., the institution will continue to pay the publisher, which now agrees as well to make all the articles by that institution’s authors OA to the world immediately upon publication. Thus the APCs of Gold OA have now become a vehicle to transform all of publishing, which is what the library wants, and the basic payment for the publisher’s materials continues to bear the same price, effectively locking in the publisher’s margin. What’s not to like?

Actually, there are many complications here. I refer the reader to the excellent post by Richard Poynder, who remarks:

One obvious problem with the OA Big Deal is that it allows large legacy publishers to lock their high prices into the new OA environment, while marginalising and excluding the new-entrants that were supposed to disrupt the market. Unless something changes, therefore, the affordability problem will only be perpetuated.

Another issue is the absence of transparency (which Richard also notes). In fact, we don’t know the details of these deals: how many articles, at what price, what provisions for growth, what happens after the contract comes to term, etc. It’s thus probably best to refer to the imminent colonization of America not by reference to MIT and RCS, but simply to note that the conquistadors have the wind at their back.

So when I put this situation to the God of Unintended Consequences, he simply smiled and said, “Asymmetry.” And that, of course, is the problem: not all universities are alike; there is an asymmetry in output between the largest and smallest. Thus RAP means one thing to the Stanfords, Yales, and Chicagos of the world, but very different things to, say, such institutions as Rutgers, Syracuse, and Montana, not to mention such distinguished colleges as Lewis & Clark, Connecticut College, and Carleton. Some institutions simply have a faculty that produces far more articles than other institutions. Were Harvard to implement an across-the-board RAP program, it would mean that the total, enormous output of the Harvard faculty would immediately be made available as OA, but at Hamilton College or Monterey State, not so much. This is not to disparage the efforts, which go far beyond research, of the smaller institutions but simply to acknowledge the fact that when it comes to research, higher ed is top heavy.

How top heavy is hard to calculate. I have been sniffing around this question for several years, but have yet to see a convincing analysis. Allowing for many valid qualifying remarks, the question comes down to this: What percentage of total article output comes from the 25 largest institutions (measured by article output)? This question can be asked the other way around: How many institutions need to be included to get to 85% of all article output? These questions can become more complex in a number of useful ways that I am choosing to ignore, but to note some examples: Why measure only articles? How does this break down by discipline? Why measure the number of articles instead of the number of end-user accesses or citations (or tweets, Facebook posts, articles summarized in mainstream media, etc.)? And the answer is: the reason to focus on the number of articles is because this is the basis of the cost structure of publishing houses and must be taken into account in negotiating a RAP contract.

I don’t know what the percentage of articles is for the top 25 institutions and will resist quoting the anecdotal figures that have been suggested to me. Of course, the largest publishers, which are now going to have to assess the implications of RAP, will be putting these figures together, upon which they will build their strategy. And the reason they will put these figures together is because they know that the important business question is not what happens at MIT and its ilk with RSC (and its ilk); the important question is what happens at Montana, Carleton College, and their ilk. Simply put, RAP at Princeton could result in cancellations at Alabama.

Now, why would this be? Publishers like RSC are placing a bet that they can flip their programs to OA and still maintain their revenue. To do this, they must maintain all the customers they currently have. But when a major institution joins RAP, the outflow of OA articles skyrockets. Librarians are very, very smart people, and the librarian at Dickinson College is watching.

So now we have to count the holes in the Swiss cheese. A few years ago I had a conversation with a publisher who was frantic because a full 7% of all the articles in his family of journals were now OA, either because authors had chosen hybrid OA options or funders had mandated that this be so. Won’t librarians begin to cancel our subscriptions, he worried? Well, at 7%, not so much. But this raises the question of when the line is crossed. Perhaps at 10%? 20%? How about 50%? Well, if the top 25% of institutions are now opting for immediate OA for their authors, shouldn’t we be thinking about 60% or even 85%?

This is where asymmetry comes in. A RAP program at the largest institutions increases the amount of OA articles dramatically, and smaller institutions are then in a position to respond by cancelling subscriptions because they can get most of the material they want through OA. The largest institutions, in other words, subsidize the smaller ones.

Thus a publisher may introduce a RAP program with the expectation that it will be, at worst, revenue neutral, only to find that over time the number of customers begins to drop and revenue declines. Paradoxically, in order for a publisher to be successful with a RAP program, the key thing is not to be too successful, or the market base among smaller institutions will be eroded.

So I asked the God of Unintended Consequences what could stop the slow disassembly of the piece of cheese, and he said, “Unintended consequences are not necessarily unforeseen consequences.”

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