Issue 40 · February/March

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Many people in publishing, academia, and public policy (including those of us at The Brief) have interacted with SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) or have been aware of their activities. Such people likely (reasonably) assumed that SPARC is an independent organization dedicated to “open” principles. It says right there on its website, for example, that “SPARC is a global advocacy organization working to make research and education open and equitable by design—for everyone.” A recent interview and subsequent reporting have, however, revealed that SPARC is neither an independent organization (it is unclear whether it is an organization at all) nor dedicated to open principles, at least where its own dealings are concerned. 

In an interview with Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, Richard Poynder surfaces the fact that SPARC is not an independent organization but rather a “project” managed via a fiscal sponsorship with a not-for-profit organization called New Venture Fund (NVF). NVF is itself managed by Arabella Advisors, a Washington DC for-profit consulting firm. The New York Times has reported that Arabella, along with NVF and other not-for-profits managed by Arabella (including the Sixteen Thirty Fund, Hopewell Fund, and Windward Fund) are part of an opaque “dark money” network associated with Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss “that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars through a daisy chain of groups supporting Democrats and progressive causes.”

While there is nothing untoward with SPARC’s structure as a fiscal sponsorship, it is unusual for well-established entities with substantial revenues ($3.25 million in 2020 according to Joseph). While it may have made sense to set up SPARC under a fiscal sponsorship model when it spun out of ARL (the Association of Research Libraries) in 2014, we struggle to think of another prominent organization that uses such a structure. Indeed, we can think of many organizations with less than $3.25 million in annual revenue that are structured as independent 501c3 not-for-profit organizations. 

The structure of SPARC is not, however, in and of itself noteworthy. The salient issue is that, as Poynder notes, the fiscal sponsorship structure results in opacity with regard to SPARC’s finances. While SPARC’s financials are aggregated together with many other projects on NVF’s Form 990, they are not broken out. As a result, it is not possible to discern where all of SPARC’s funding comes from or where it goes. A full list of grants made to SPARC is not available, nor does SPARC disclose the full list of grants that it makes to individuals and organizations. If SPARC were an independent not-for-profit organization, such information (along with other financial details) would be a matter of public record. 

Beyond the question of its finances, there are important aspects of SPARC’s control and governance that are also opaque. As SPARC has not made public its contract with NVF, it is unknown who actually controls SPARC. SPARC itself appears to have no employees. Joseph has indicated that she is an employee of NVF, and so we assume that the individuals listed as “SPARC Staff” on SPARC’s website are likewise NVF employees. SPARC has no board of directors; instead, it has a “Steering Committee.” It is unclear whether the Steering Committee has fiduciary responsibility and ultimate control of SPARC. 

For example, SPARC’s website under the “Governance” section, states:

The SPARC Executive Director, Heather Joseph, is empowered to initiate and negotiate SPARC partnerships and to implement the coalition’s plans and programs. She seeks counsel from the SPARC Steering Committee as well as individual SPARC members and ARL’s senior staff.

While the Executive Director may “seek counsel” from the SPARC Steering Committee (as well as SPARC members and others) is she obligated to follow that counsel? 

Why does all of this matter? It matters because SPARC is an entity whose mission is to promulgate open principles and practices. It is an open access (OA) advocate that has called for transparency with regard to publisher and university contracts. And yet, its own contracts, governance, and finances remain opaque. 

In software development there is a phrase called “eating your own dog food.” It means to use your own products and services, both as a form of quality assurance and a signal of confidence to the market (as an aside, IEEE Software has a good piece on the phrase’s origin). A company that makes accounting software, for example, should use its own software for its accounting. It is through this lens of “dogfooding” that we view these revelations regarding SPARC. 

The juxtaposition between the mission of SPARC as an proselytizer of open principles and practices and its own lack of transparency is striking and undermines its credibility and ultimately its mission. In order to remain a credible change agent for open, we hope SPARC will live up to its own values and release a full accounting of its financials and its contract with NVF. Will SPARC eat its own dog food?

*Note this item has been revised. We have removed a reference to an unverified statement concerning SPARC’s governance. 

Source: SPARCOpen and Shut?The New York Times, SPARC (@SPARC_NA) via TwitterIEEE Software

Professional and Academic Publishing


Oh Robert-Jan Smits, how we have missed you! Since leaving your post as the OA emissary for the EU, cOAlition S has lacked a certain…flair. And so, the surprise appearance of your new book, Plan S for Shock: Science, Shock, Solution, Speed (Ubiquity Press: 2022) has brought the joy of reuniting with an old friend to our hearts.
Many people joked that the “S” in Plan S stood not for “science,” “shock,” “solution,” or “speed” but for “Smits.” We here at The Brief never believed this (we had alternate hypotheses). But it turns out the “S” really is for Smits, so the joke is on us!
Reading the book, we couldn’t help but recall the APE 2019 meeting when Smits attempted to put to rest all the rumors that the commercial publisher Frontiers had an unusual degree of input into the development of Plan S, a policy that seems particularly suited to the Swiss company. Smits stated clearly and unequivocally that, despite a trail of suggestive emails to the contrary, these were nothing more than slanderous rumors. Thus, the note in the acknowledgement section of the book that the contributions of coauthor, Rachael Pells, were paid for by Frontiers may raise eyebrows (not ours, of course, but the eyebrows of more cynical readers).
A skeptic might argue that this book is an exercise in revisionist history, particularly with regard to the voices consulted (and not consulted) in developing Plan S. To the extent that Plan S for Shock was conceived as a victory lap, a skeptic might further argue that it may be a premature victory lap, as many of the challenges of Plan S remain before it. The December 2024 Plan S deadline for publishers to flip their titles (or at least the ones that will be eligible to accept cOAlition S funds) to fully OA looms large. Even commercial publishers driving their programs to OA are hoping to see only half of their publications become OA by that time, which will either lead to a deadline extension (so much for “speed”) or the upheaval that will result from authors being shut out of their favorite journals (the reason so many of these different “transformative” schemes were added in the first place).
Our main critique of Plan S for Shock is that it ignores the unfinished work of Plan S and fails to come to grips with its impacts on, and implications for, the research and scholarly community. Plan S has already resulted in further industry consolidation, and in particular fewer independent society publishers. It is increasingly clear that the flip to OA envisioned by Plan S will shut out researchers without funding for OA fees—or who are not at institutions without transformative deals. Let’s check back in early 2025 to see how well this volume holds up.

Source: Ubiquity Press, For Better ScienceThe Scholarly KitchenNature


Eric Lander, White House Science Advisor and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director, was the subject of an investigation stemming from complaints filed by an OSTP lawyer. That investigation revealed a pattern of “disrespectful and demeaning” behavior by Lander during his time in that position, resulting in his resignation. It probably says something about the culture of science and academia that what many have found surprising here is not the toxic atmosphere but rather that there were relatively swift consequences for Lander. 
Subsequently, the White House has now split Lander’s job in half, naming Alondra Nelson, the OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society, as its interim director and Francis Collins, former National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director, as interim science advisor. These appointments have not been without controversy, as noted in a Science editorial authored by H. Holden Thorp, the publication’s editor-in-chief. Thorp argues that forcing Nelson to share the job was a missed opportunity for the Biden administration to act in a more visionary manner and give the full weight of the position to someone “who represents the future of American science.” 
As for what these new appointees mean for progress toward open science and open access to research publications, the picture is unclear. Nelson’s work to date in the White House has touched on open science, but largely from the perspective of equity and inclusion. Collins’ term at NIH suggests an overall conservatism around open access and open science practices, as evidenced by NIH’s new data-sharing policy (see item 5 below).

Source: CNN, Physics WorldScience


The 2017 lawsuit filed in Germany by Elsevier and the American Chemical Society (ACS) against ResearchGate has finally resulted in a verdict. If you’re not a German language speaker, you can get a sense of the decision in the conflicting statements released by both parties; Coalition for Responsible Sharing’s statement and ResearchGate’s statement. As far as we can tell, the verdict is something of a split decision, with both parties simultaneously claiming victory and filing an appeal. 
The core of the decision certainly went the publishers’ way, essentially stating that ResearchGate is responsible for the copyrighted material that can be found on its website, rather than acting as a neutral third party receiving safe harbor protections against liability for materials uploaded to ResearchGate’s website by third-party users. While the case centered around 50 sample articles, a precedent has now been set that can be applied to other publisher-owned content hosted by ResearchGate. This is the part of the decision that ResearchGate is appealing.
The other aspect of the decision stems from ResearchGate’s argument that because journal publishers only have the corresponding author sign a copyright release or license (rather than all authors), the copyright transfers (or publishing licenses) were invalid. The court upheld the legal validity of publisher-author agreements, at least as far as granting injunctive relief, but declined to uphold them for the awarding of damages, which requires a stronger level of proof of ownership. In a statement, ResearchGate claims this as a victory, although one wonders what the implications would be for all of the papers currently uploaded to ResearchGate under its agreements with Wiley, Springer Nature, Cambridge University Press, Thieme, and others, where according to ResearchGate’s argument, those publishers would not have the rights to grant ResearchGate’s reuse. Elsevier and ACS are appealing part of this decision, as they feel they have effectively proven author consent enough to warrant damages.
The case will continue to wind on through the appeals process. If upheld, it is unclear just what the eventual changes to ResearchGate might entail and how they might differ from what ResearchGate would have to change in any event to meet the requirements of the new EU Copyright Directive. 
A probable path for ResearchGate is that it will employ GetFTR, limiting access to articles to those who have the rights to view them, much like it is already doing for some of the publisher partners with whom ResearchGate has signed agreements. Given that others, including scholarly publishing behemoth Elsevier, are moving into this same space, ResearchGate will face competition, and face it without what has long been their primary advantage: unfettered access to subscription articles for non-subscribers.

Source: Editage Insights, Bavarian State Chancellery, Coalition for Responsible Sharing, ResearchGate, GetFTR


We were surprised to see a recent Nature news article arguing that NIH’s data management and sharing policy, announced October 2021, amounts to a “seismic mandate.” This seems at odds with the general criticism the policy received when it was first made public, namely that it is too conservative and does not actually require making research data publicly available at all. Essentially, the NIH Policy for Data Management and Sharing (DMS Policy) continues previous NIH requirements that grant applicants include a data management plan and adds in some vague language about those plans now including data sharing information. Under the policy, funded researchers are encouraged but not required to put their data in repositories, meaning that it is acceptable for them to keep data private and only release it upon request. This stands in contrast with stronger open science policies, such as the policy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which requires all published articles resulting from funding to include a data availability statement that “should not refer readers or reviewers to contact an author to obtain the data, but should instead include the applicable details where the underlying data can be found.” Critics have also pointed out that the NIH policy is problematic in that it asks that the data be made available “as long as it is deemed useful to the research community or the public.” Yet, once the grant ends, no funding is available to pay for ongoing storage and availability costs.
The NIH policy to the side, we agree with Nature that open data is an essential part of an open science future, and more directive policies are likely on the way from funders. Since those policies are inextricably linked with publication of research results, publishers who do not already have data-sharing policies in place will need to develop them. (For those looking for support in these efforts, C&E has extensive experience working with forward-looking publishers in building appropriate open data policies for portfolios of journals).

Source: Nature, National Institutes of Health, Science, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Book Business


The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has just made a grant to study the important question of whether the availability of OA editions of scholarly books cannibalizes sales of print versions. The co-principal investigators (co-PIs) for this study are John Sherer and Erich van Rijn of the University of North Carolina Press and the University of California Press, respectively. The occasion of the grant is the special circumstances surrounding publishing during the pandemic, as many publishers made materials freely available to help academic institutions that could not bring students and faculty onto campus. To the surprise of many publishers, sales of print books rose while the very same texts were available online at no cost. This raises interesting questions: “Should OA editions of books be viewed as a marketing tool for print books?” “Should making books OA become a standard policy, at least for academic titles?”
Unfortunately, we are not sure what we will learn from this study. Our skepticism is methodological. We have many questions, but will touch on just three here. First, are sales during the pandemic representative of anything? This is what we call the “fallacy of extrapolating from special or edge cases.” People’s behavior changed in many ways during the pandemic, and, heaven knows, we are not yet fully at the end of this nightmare. Should we single out OA editions as a cause when the witches’ cauldron boils, bubble bubble toil and trouble? Second, should we not look into some A/B testing? For example, let’s imagine a 500-page monograph. What is the impact if the entire book is made OA (the “A” case) versus making only 499 pages OA (a “B” case)? How about 400 pages? 250? 100? The first chapter? An abstract or simply the table of contents? Book marketers should want to know this. Is making books OA primarily a marketing strategy or a mission-based activity that does not seem to cost anybody anything? 
But what concerns us most about this study is the centrality of print. If you have a poor digital edition and a traditional print edition, it’s no wonder that an OA version could lead people to purchase print. But what happens as digital editions get better? Does anyone believe that the affordances of print will improve as rapidly as those for digital books over the next ten years, or even over the next three? This is the very definition of short-term thinking, and we urge NEH and university presses to think bigger and longer term. That would make for an interesting project: how to fully realize digital affordances for monographs such that readers prefer the digital editions to print.

Source: The Scholarly Kitchen



Pearson has agreed to buy the certification company CredlyCredly offers workforce training and brings a significant number of enterprise clients to Pearson’s Workforce Skills division.
Academia, perhaps looking to diversify given the legal turbulence of its peer, ResearchGate, appears to be branching out from scholarly networking to a new venture, raising $22 million in funding to launch 10 open access journals. They are promising, “to build the world’s fastest academic peer reviewed open access publishing” with the whole submission and review process taking a total of 10 days (a claim that can only be made with a straight face by someone that has never actually run a peer-reviewed journal). Investors include Chinese technology and entertainment giant Tencent (who previously invested in Academia in 2019) and primary Academia investor Khosla Ventures.



Erin Landis was named Managing Director for Origin Editorial.
Simon Holt has a new role as Elsevier’s Disability Confidence Manager.
Michael Cairns recently became the Head of Partner & Channel Development at the American Psychological Association.
Robert Miller, the Chief Executive Officer of LYRASIS, will be leaving the organization as of June 30, 2022.
Jason Wilde is now the Global Head of Plant, Animal, Food, and Agriculture Journals for Taylor and Francis.

Briefly Noted


Maryland’s Library eBook Law (covered in last month’s issue of The Briefhas been blocked by a federal court, with the judge granting the Association of American Publishers’ motion for a preliminary injunction, preventing the law from being enforced. The judge said the law creates “a forced transaction” that “effectively strips publishers of their exclusive right to distribute.”
The always-impressive crew at OurResearch have released OpenAlex, an index of more than 200 million scientific documents that catalogs publication sources, author information, and research topics. Named after the ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt, OpenAlex is meant to serve as a replacement for the soon-to-be defunct Microsoft Academic Graph.
Nature provided a study in apparent contrasts as it offered a news story noting that high APC journals shut out authors from the global south, while at the same time facing a not-so little outcry regarding its new APC rates for Nature Neuroscience ($11,390 per paper). An important point missed by many of the Twitter critics is that this fee is (largely if not entirely) designed for a particular European market segment: researchers who have funders or institutions mandating OA publication. The fee is meant to be paid through transformative agreements and not from the pocketbooks or grants of researchers. Those without funds (or with other priorities) can continue to publish in the journal with no charge (though researchers are perhaps right to be concerned about the direction of travel—if Plan S were to succeed in flipping titles to fully OA with no subscription option, then researchers without transformative agreements will indeed presumably be asked to pay). Despite the Twitterstorm, who thinks there will be a decline in submissions to Nature Neuroscience?
Three major mainstream media sources wrote about the topic of preprints within the same week, as articles on their positives and negatives appeared in The New York TimesThe Economist, and The Washington Post. While little new information was offered, at least to those well-versed in the issues around preprints, the confluence of articles in such a short time from general interest news outlets is notable and speaks to the traction preprints have gained in the life sciences in a relatively short time.
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) announced the 2022 winners of their annual PROSE Awards. We here at The Brief miss the PROSE Awards lunch ceremony, which always provided a nice opportunity to see university press editors and staff receive public praise for the tremendous work they do.
The Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Publishing program at The George Washington University has announced the inaugural issue of its new online journal, GW Journal of Ethics in Publishing. The journal is managed by students in the MPS in Publishing program and is led by Editor-in-Chief Randy Townsend.
Elsevier and Wolters-Kluwer released their annual financial reports for 2021.
India’s Delhi High Court has handed a setback to Sci-Hub, rejecting an impleadment application from three Indian academic researchers in the lawsuit filed by Elsevier and ACS against Sci-Hub, ruling that beneficiaries of potentially infringing material should not be allowed to intervene in the court proceedings meant to determine the validity of those infringements.
For those who have already solved today’s Wordle, may we suggest this thrilling new board game about the perils of being a bookshop owner?

We are drowning in a sea of data and starving for knowledge. ―Sydney Brenner