Gobsmacked

Issue 29 · November 2020

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Thankful

Those of us in the US are coming off the Thanksgiving holiday break. While Thanksgiving’s grounding in historical fact is flimsy and glosses over the atrocious treatment of Native Americans by European settlers, it has nonetheless become a lovely American tradition. What is not to like about gathering with family and friends (when a pandemic is not afoot, of course) and reflecting on what one has to be thankful for? Also lots of fabulous cooking. 

We here at C&E have much to be thankful for. We are thankful for our health during this unsettling time. We are thankful for the important work entrusted to us by our clients — and we are thankful to work with organizations that create, disseminate, and curate such vital information. Never has that been more at the forefront of our thoughts than in the past year. Lastly, we are thankful to be surrounded by such sparkling intelligence, professionalism, and thoughtfulness. It is easy to take the industry we work in for granted but it remains a bastion of exceptional individuals and institutions.

Gobsmacked

1

You have to hand it to Springer Nature: they really are trying. Beset, as are all publishers with traditional business models, with challenges concerning open access (OA) from libraries, funders, and authors, SN is attempting to win the prize for Most Cooperative Publisher. This is not purely a recent development; Springer acquired OA pioneer BioMed Central way back in 2008 (it did not merge with the Nature Publishing Group until 2015). It has negotiated numerous “transformative” agreements with various national consortia and funding bodies and appears to have even come to terms with cOAlition S, a populist, authoritarian organization that is attempting to foment a worldwide revolution. (We note in passing that we are always a bit skeptical about organizations that fail to capitalize the first letter of a proper noun.) Until now, however, SN was not working to transform the models of its top-tier journals, usually holding the journals in its Nature portfolio out of comprehensive OA agreements. But that has started to change as evidenced by the announcements of both a new transformative deal with Max Planck and a new OA program whereby authors (or the funders of their work) can now pay to publish (Gold OA) in Nature and certain other journals in the Nature-branded portfolio. Whether this program proves to be successful (and whether the transformative deal with Max Planck proves extensible to other organizations) or not is a critical test of the ability of the company, and the industry at large, to accommodate the growing demands of funders and (mostly European) consortia with the prestige economy of academic research, where Nature sits at the very apex.
 
It is not only cOAlition S that SN must make happy, alas. Of primary concern to the management, not to mention the owners, is liquidity: how can some portion of the SN asset be converted into cash? SN has tried and failed, tried and failed again to go public. Part of the reason is that the OA business looks to investors like a model that is not ultimately as remunerative as the subscription model it is replacing. Convincing investors that they have figured out an OA long game is therefore essential. If investors do not believe in the strategy, SN may never fetch the price its current owners hope for (and that their creditors demand). What makes this complicated is that investors in Frankfurt and on Wall Street sit on one side of SN’s aspirations and on the other sits a community-anchored movement, many of whose members are characteristically suspicious of capitalism. 
 
So how will this work? At its simplest, the Nature Gold OA program is like any other except for the size of its APC: €9,500 or approximately $12,000, depending on exchange rates. The size of the APC has left many gobsmacked, but the math associated with running the Nature portfolio supports the price point (as does, more importantly, the value of the Nature imprimatur to many authors, institutions, and funders). Here is Inside Higher Ed’s take on this: “Nature editors assessed about 57,000 manuscripts in 2019, sending about 10,000 to peer review. Roughly 4,500 were ultimately published in Nature or a Nature-branded research journal, leading to an 8 percent acceptance rate. Hundreds of staff members work on Nature and Nature-branded journals: almost 200 editors with doctorates, plus editorial assistants and art, production and copyediting staff members.” 
 
A perhaps obvious but nonetheless notable aspect of this program is that it is a portfolio strategy. While €9,500 may sound gobsmackingly high for an APC, what we know, and what all thoughtful publishers know, is that it is nowhere near high enough to cover the cost of publishing in Nature itself. SN has shrewdly set a portfolio APC. This means that, under this model (and ignoring for the moment that the vast majority of institutions in the world continue to prefer the subscription model which will be with us for some time yet), the flagship journal will be cross-subsidized by the rest of the portfolio: the Nature “baby” journals will generate a profit per paper even while Nature itself loses money on every paper published in its pages under this model. This is only economically viable because of the extent to which Nature has developed its portfolio — and its editorial cascade. 
 
Nature pioneered the cascade model, whereby some papers submitted to the primary journal are directed to other, more specialized journals that also bear the Nature name. The editorial cascade currently includes both traditional and OA journals, all contributing to the management’s happiness.The economic benefits of this model are threefold: first, it allows the Nature Group to spread its considerable editorial overhead over more publications and more articles; second, it generates revenue from the “baby” publications; and third, it removes a great number of articles from the pool that Nature’s rivals fish in, making their job harder. It does this by adding to their costs to bring in articles and puts downward pressure on the quality of submitted articles, which in turn serves as a disincentive for other authors to submit to these journals — a reverse “flywheel” effect. This has important implications for other publishers that may try to copy Nature — namely, without a powerful driver of manuscript submissions and a sizable portfolio of supporting titles, this model will not work. 
 
SN has already used the strong gravitational attraction of its brand to bring papers into its portfolio and monetize them under a Gold OA model in Nature Communications and Scientific Reports (the world’s largest journal). The new model extends this strategy to the entire portfolio. And another new pilot program, also announced by SN this month, has the potential to accelerate it. This pilot invites authors to submit papers not for publication in a specific Nature journal, but for editorial evaluation and to pay an accompanying “editorial assessment charge” (EAC). The cost of this is €2,190, or about $2,600 at current exchange rates. For this EAC, authors will receive a report that includes feedback from a Nature editor as well as external peer reviewers. The report will suggest which Nature journal (there are six participating in the pilot: Nature Genetics, Nature Methods, Nature Physics, Nature Communications, Communications Biology, and Communications Physics) is most suitable for the paper being reviewed. As Insider Higher Ed reports:

An author submitting to one of the six journals may be told that his or her work is more suitable for another one of the six. Papers with flaws will be rejected. Authors can at that point choose to make revisions and submit their work to the recommended journal. Or they can take the manuscript and submit it elsewhere.

If the author does go on to publish in one of the Nature journals, a “top up” charge (which varies by journal) will be assessed that amounts to a (potentially substantive) discount on the regular APC. 
 
If widely adopted, this editorial evaluation program accomplishes three things for SN. First, it has the potential to attract more papers to the portfolio by offering a route to an APC discount as well as a streamlined cascade process. Second, it helps the Nature portfolio retain more papers: once authors go through the editorial evaluation process and pay an EAC, they are unlikely to take their paper elsewhere if it is found suitable for publication in a Nature title, even if not their first-choice Nature title. And third — and most importantly — this opens up an entirely new revenue stream for SN and a way to monetize the papers they reject (which is the vast majority). SN will still receive €2,190 for papers they review but don’t publish. In monetizing peer review, SN is pursuing a strategy that we call “unbundling the platform,” taking the full suite of activities it performs and selling them à la carte.
 
Here we must pause to correct a widely held view in the scholarly publishing community. OA advocates often object to publishers’ new OA strategies because it is believed that publishers are simply looking for ways to hold on to the revenue that they enjoyed under the subscription model. This is not true. What publishers are trying to do is to increase the revenue they currently have. The game is growth and what has always attracted publishers to Gold OA models is the possibility of tapping funds beyond the strained budgets of the library to fuel that growth.
 
If SN is successful with this strategy, they will bring in an increasing number of papers, which will then be monetized across the entire portfolio and at the same time open up a new revenue stream consisting of EACs. SN gets bigger, makes more money, and increases market share; and that increase comes at the expense of other publishers, since there is little prospect that the overall market is growing beyond a couple of percent a year (paper output is growing faster; revenues are growing slower). Society publishers should be on guard here because what SN is attempting is definitely a threat to any journals they compete with that are not part of a larger portfolio with an editorial cascade. 
 
But what if SN is not successful? SN’s rivals, big and small, can’t take much solace in a failure  as SN’s failure could signal the very real possibility that there can be no accommodation with forces emanating from funding agencies, who are trying to overturn the entire market-based economy that gave rise to SN in the first place. There is a reasonable chance that funders will object to Nature’s high APCs and refuse to pay them. This would signal a more limited ability for high-impact titles to command premium pricing. If $5,000 and not $12,000 is the high end of the range, this will prompt the management of SN (and other publishers of high-impact titles) to look for cost reductions. Downward pressure on APCs will naturally lead to downward pressure on editorial spending. And that in turn will begin to thin out the editorial practices and expertise that made Nature into the megabrand that it is, as SN and others race, if not to the bottom, at least to the middle. 
 
And that may be the point. Gatekeeping silently appraises the work of the funding bodies that inject money into the system at its source. Publishers, in other words, evaluate not only a paper but also all the upstream activity that culminates in that paper. It must be galling to underwrite what appears to be promising research only to find that the editors of the most esteemed journals do not agree, and it violates the universal principle that he who pays the piper calls the tune. From this vantage, taking down the apex journals a peg, or altogether, serves to reduce the accountability of the funding agencies. And who ever wanted to be held accountable?


Source: Nature, Springer Nature, Inside Higher Ed, ZME Science, Feedvisor, The Scholarly Kitchen

Professional and Academic Publishing

2

cOAlition S has released a new Plan S Journal Checker Tool designed as a resource for authors to know if a specific journal is compliant with the open access (OA) policies of cOAlition funders (an announcement can be found here). We checked on one of the journals (American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene) that is listed on the Plan S website as a Plan S Compliant Transformative Journal. Selecting the title of the journal and any funder returned … no information. We also checked a number of titles that are not Plan S compliant (hybrid journals that do not offer CC BY licensing) and found that they are listed as Plan S compliant via the “Rights Retention Strategy.” The Rights Retention Strategy (RRS) proposes that authors might release an accepted manuscript under a CC BY license regardless of the policies of a publisher by “inform[ing] the publisher that the AAM [author accepted manuscript] resulting from their submission carries a CC BY public copyright licence in either the submission letter or the acknowledgements section, or both.” In other words, the RRS seeks to place an ultimatum in the submission letter (or buried in the acknowledgments) that accompanies a manuscript — an ultimatum that a journal publisher may or may not accept. Compliance via the RRS route appears next to every journal title we searched for, but it is doubtful that many of these journals have explicit policies regarding acceptance of RRS statements. Which raises the question, why bother with a journal compliance tool if the primary mode of compliance has nothing to do with journal policy? 

That said, we acknowledge this is a beta release and presume the data on journal policies will improve over time. What is more vexing is that the Journal Checker Tool indicates it will let authors know whether or not a journal is compliant because it is part of a transformative agreement. To accurately track which journals are included in which transformative agreements requires access to contracts or data sets indicating which journals are included in which agreements. It also requires understanding what institutions are involved in what agreements, which again requires parsing of contracts (as not all consortia agreements necessarily include all consortia member institutions and their affiliates). The Journal Checker Tool relies on the ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry for this information. And while the ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry is a wonderful resource, we do not see how the database provides a sufficient level of granularity for this purpose. It often reports agreements at the publisher and consortia level and does not provide lists of included journals or institutions. See for example, this record related to an agreement between the publisher SAGE and KEMOE, the Austrian consortium. Under “Overall Assessment and Comments” there is a note that reads “We would like to see the inclusion of the total publishing portfolio.” Based on this information (the record tells us that not all SAGE journals are included but lists no titles), how is the Journal Checker Tool to inform an author at a KEMOE-affiliated institution whether a particular SAGE journal is part of a relevant transformative deal? 

The Journal Checker Tool has the potential to be a useful resource for researchers, who otherwise are left to parse the policy requirements of funders and the often hard to find policy statements of journals. The interface is simple and straightforward. However, the tool will ultimately provide value only if it provides accurate information — and that may require more than parsing third-party data feeds.


Source: cOAlition S, ESAC Transformative Agreement Registry

3

Using the Dimensions database, Christos Petrou has investigated the output of scientific papers during the pandemic. Petrou documents a huge growth in the number of papers outside the areas of humanities research (acknowledging that he is not confident of the figures there). This naturally raises the question of what is driving this. One possibility is simply that, denied the opportunity to return to their labs because of social distancing requirements, researchers have been working off their backlog. If that is true, we may see a falloff in output next year and into 2022. Diminished laboratory activity may also slow down the growth of papers after the high point during the pandemic. Petrou’s article triggered a response from Michael Mabe, which we heartily recommend. Mabe argues that after normalizing the numbers, one finds that each active researcher typically publishes one article per year, and that this figure has not changed materially over time. Mabe’s analysis takes into account multi-authored papers (the average number of authors per paper is 4–8). Whatever the cause, the rise in papers is stunning: 11% at Springer Nature, 13% at Wiley, and an amazing 25% at Elsevier. One study we would like to see is where the faculty of the University of California is now submitting their papers, now that UC has famously canceled its subscription with Elsevier.


Source: The Scholarly Kitchen

4

The sheer number of published papers makes it impossible for researchers to keep up with their field, so any useful innovation in automating the reading process would be highly welcome. Now the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), using artificial intelligence, has developed a robotic summarizer that has been integrated with its flagship product, Semantic Scholar. Search for a paper and a summary appears, which AI2 cleverly calls “tl;dr,” the Internet slang term for “too long, didn’t read.” Summarizing software is itself nothing new, but the field has advanced. There are two basic techniques, the extractive and the abstractive. In an extractive model a few key words or sentences are sought to represent the larger text. In abstractive summaries, new sentences are created. The abstractive technique is becoming increasingly robust, and that is what AI2 is using here, with reported success many times greater than previous efforts. But The Brief is nervous: is AI2’s new robot going to put The Brief out of a job? The (full) paper on the research was posted on arXiv.


Source: MIT Technology ReviewarXiv

5

Writing in Publishers Weekly, Niko Pfund and Ola Ogunsanya of Oxford University Press describe a process for improving diverse representation in the university press world, and OUP in particular, based on the principle of peer review. Noting that peer review inarguably improves the quality of books by testing them against the comments of a community of scholars, Pfund and Ogunsanya argue that a similar process can be brought to organizations. “Like many institutions of knowledge, university presses are subjecting ourselves, as Princeton University Press director Christie Henry describes it, to a form of organizational peer review. We are changing how we hire, whom we hire, how we publish, whom we publish, and compelling ourselves to ask hard questions about the best ways to do our work and about our responsibilities to our constituents.”


Source: Publishers Weekly

Dealmaking

6

The venerable trade imprint Houghton Mifflin is going on the block. The parent company plans to focus on education technology and “announced its intent to explore the potential sale of HMH Books & Media, its Consumer Publishing business. The potential sale would reduce debt and build on the Company’s October 1 restructuring to align its cost structure to its digital-first, connected strategy, and create a pure-play learning technology company.” In plain English, while seen from the corporate HMH side as a story about education markets, this divestiture is one more instance of the consolidation of the book industry, as the likely buyer of the trade division will be one of the remaining large trade houses.


Source: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

7

Speaking of consolidation in the book business, we have had trouble keeping up with developments in the auction for Simon & Schuster and have now rewritten this article three times this month. It was reported that Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins was bidding for the property against Penguin Random House (owned by Bertelsmann), with bids estimated to be over $1.7 billion. But with the auction now completed, PRH has emerged as the winner, with an offer over $2 billion. We grow weak thinking about all the back-office cuts that will be necessary to support such a rich price. The so-called Big Five American book publishers will now be a Big Four, with PRH controlling perhaps a third of the US market. But not to worry, says Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House: the deal shouldn’t raise competition concerns because ‘“The book publishing industry is very unconcentrated and fragmented compared to other industries.” Taking the opposite side, “Robert Thomson, chief executive of News Corp, which owns HarperCollins Publishers, said the deal would harm distributors, retailers, authors and readers. ‘There is clearly no market logic to a bid of that size — only anti-market logic…. Bertelsmann is not just buying a book publisher, but buying market dominance as a book behemoth.’” Oh, did we remember to note that News Corp also owns The Wall Street Journal, where Thomson’s comment appeared? Joe summed up our view in a blog post. We repeat: Consolidation remains an unstoppable trend in all publishing segments: academic and professional, K-12, college, and trade. This is the landscape that all publishers — big, small, and humongous — must learn to navigate.


Source: Publishing PerspectivesThe New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe Scholarly Kitchen

8

The world of standards publishing is sometimes viewed as on the periphery of professional publishing, but we have worked extensively in this area and know it to be vibrant (and profitable). We were therefore intrigued to see that Clarivate has divested Techstreet, one of the leading aggregators of standards. We don’t know what internal considerations at Clarivate drove the sale, though we would speculate that standards, and Techstreet in particular, are not on Clarivate’s strategic roadmap. The interesting part of the arrangement, however, is that Techstreet is being picked up by one of the major players in the standards world, American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), which is placing the property in a newly created for-profit subsidiary. ASME may be looking to compete directly with industry leader IHS and other aggregators such as ANSI for market share even as it improves its own margins by eliminating a middleman. Watch this space.


Source: Clarivate via Cision/PR Newswire

Higher Education

9

It is hard not to feel sympathetic with college administrators who are wrestling with the question of whether or not to require in-person teaching this winter and spring. The health risks are significant and the path to a decision strewn with obstacles. At some institutions mandated in-person teaching has resulted in the filing of grievances by faculty who oppose the decision. Any policy must also carve out exceptions, but articulating such exceptions is guaranteed not to please everyone. If COVID-19 is most dangerous to older people, should anyone over 65 be exempt from having to show up in a classroom? Or should that be set at 70? Can you get an exemption even if you are younger but have specific health risks (e.g., asthma)? What about people who have to care for others — children, for example — who are now stuck at home because of the pandemic? Or someone with a spouse at high risk? The list of problems and exceptions is endless, but one obvious solution (only have remote teaching) runs into the problem of resistance from students and a decline of critical revenue. In some instances administrators face political pressure. As Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, puts it, his institution’s “best shared opportunity to retain full funding for our university, and thereby protect the jobs of our employees, is to provide more of our students with the full educational experience and opportunities they had before COVID.” This looks like standing between a rock and a hard place to us. No resolution to this problem is likely until the pandemic is behind us, and many will fall ill and die before then.


Source: Inside Higher Ed

10

“A US appeals court … upheld Harvard University’s use of race in undergraduate admissions, rejecting a challenge by affirmative action opponents who said the elite Ivy League college’s policy discriminates against Asian Americans.” This is an important ruling. “The appeals court rejected claims by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a nonprofit founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, which drew support from the Trump’s administration.” SFFA has said it will appeal to the Supreme Court, which now includes three Trump appointees.


Source: The Guardian

The Book Business

11

If you are searching for the perfect holiday gift for that special someone, look no further than Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon. This year Powell’s has released a fragrance, called Powell’s, that smells like a bookstore. “Like the crimson rhododendrons in Rebecca, the heady fragrance of old paper creates an atmosphere ripe with mood and possibility. Invoking a labyrinth of books; secret libraries; ancient scrolls; and cognac swilled by philosopher-kings, Powell’s by Powell’s delivers the wearer to a place of wonder, discovery, and magic heretofore only known in literature.” The scent is unisex. Alternatively, consider Paperback from Demeter Fragrance or In the Library (#306) from CB I Hate Perfume. And then curl up with a good book.


Source: Powell’s, Demeter Fragrance, CB I Hate Perfume

People

12

Ivy Anderson to retire from the University of California in June.

Christine Fruin named President-Elect of the Library Publishing Coalition.

Joy Harjo has been appointed to her third term as U.S. Poet Laureate.

David Sampson has been named Vice President at NEJM Group.

Dean Sanderson joins AIP Publishing as Chief Strategy Officer.

Briefly Noted

13

The chairman of Elsevier recognizes the electoral victory of Joe Biden, writes a congratulatory note, and asserts the company’s commitment to socially responsible science.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, library measures did well at the polls this year. “Despite the rancor around the presidential and congressional elections, voters in towns, cities, and counties — in both red states and blue states — support smart taxes for their local libraries,” said EveryLibrary Executive Director John Chrastka.

The virtue of virtual editorial meetings.

The Onion has Jeff Bezos’s number. 

Paris’s famous “bouquinistes,” book stalls that line the Seine, are struggling with the pandemic.

Former president Barack Obama’s memoir is a lifeline for suffering independent booksellers.

Noodle acquires selected assets of HotChalk. Both companies serve the online program management market.

A study of content strategy on the LibGuides platform.

More than 200 copies of Newton’s “Principia” found in Europe after extensive sleuthing.

Proposal to install spyware on computers shocks academics but it turns out no publisher actually proposed any such thing.

University staff in the UK sign letter asking for government inquiry into ebook pricing.

A 12-foot metal monolith was found (and subsequently disappeared) in the desert in Utah. Stop, Dave. I’m afraid.

From Our Own Pens

14

We were very pleased that the Scholarly Kitchen reprinted, in slightly enlarged form, our lead article in last month’s issue of The Brief. We reviewed the new Community Action Publishing (CAP) model recently announced by PLOS and discussed how it works and its strengths and limitations. Of note is that there is a genuine attempt at PLOS to develop community-based, as opposed to market-based, solutions for scholarly publishing, making CAP as much a social experiment as it is a business model.


Source: The Scholarly Kitchen

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Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.— Henri Matisse