Open access (OA) is undergoing yet another metamorphosis. So far, the space has been dominated by author-pays (via Article Processing Charges – APCs) models, both hybrid and “pure”. And while funders like Wellcome and the German Research Foundation are reviewing their policies – many of them a decade old by now – it is becoming ever clearer that APCs will not be the future of OA, at least not uniquely. With their normative approach of flipping traditional acquisition budgets, Ralf Schimmer, Kai Geschuhn and Andreas Vogler have been advocating in principle that which is now becoming reality: i.e. that in order to really shake up the academic publishing market, other transactional models are necessary.
Why is open access contained the way it is?
There are, realistically speaking, very few publishers left without a serious OA policy. Many offer OA in different colors in their journal portfolios — green, gold, bronze, diamond, hybrid. And even book publishing is no longer unaffected by OA, as the discussion regarding REF 2027 in the UK demonstrates. But the whole ecosystem is still struggling with many operational barriers. The major vendors do not yet have a credible and effective approach to OA, thus holding up the proliferation of the model, particularly for smaller and medium-sized publishers. In a situation where the market really requires more intermediaries to increase transparency and thus help with the transition from one transaction model to another, this key component of the traditional scholarly value chain is failing to keep up, thereby opening up new opportunities for less traditional partners.
The other key element, at least in some parts of the world, is the internal structure of the library. It not only follows the interests of faculty and students, but (at least in Europe) it also quite often has its internal professional rules. The slow dissemination of OA is a vivid example of how stability in the academy comes with a lot of disadvantages. Libraries find it hard to shift budgets more radically, in part caused by the fact that they became addicted to easy solutions like the Big Deal, that in turn tie up a large part of their budgets. APC funds fit the scheme: They are easy to decide upon, and their existence appeases those advocates on campus that would like to see more alternatives.
APC means piecemeal
But APC funds do not solve the problem of sustainable OA publishing, they just reinforce patterns that have brought us to where we are today. Offsetting deals in particular, like the one advocated by Project DEAL in Germany and similar cases in other countries, just make the Big Deal bigger – not better. To find the land of milk and honey that fulfills the promises made by OA advocates in the early 2000s, libraries have to massively shift their budgets. And that will, for different reasons, not work through APC funds alone.
To make OA really work, libraries have to cooperate and co-spend in order to shift the market-shaping from publishers to themselves. Publishers are structured like supermarkets: They operate as global consortia around their own products, generating demand, shouldering financial risk and investments and in the process generating profit. As long as libraries or other agents are not prepared to supersede this role with a better structure, the underlying problem will remain.
Libraries will have to work together and make decisions together, and in that respect, Project DEAL, uniting all German libraries in a super-consortium, is a good example of stakeholder alignment. But that is one country, negotiating with three publishers. It is quite surprising that for the first time in a long time the libraries really seem to be united. And publishers? No wonder they find it difficult to adjust their market behavior – they never really had to listen to their customers to survive economically. What puts extra pressure on them is the awareness that academics, now more than ever before, find ways around “proprietary” content on publishers’ sites. These channels are infringing copyright, but we all know by now that researchers do not really seem to care. Without this disruptive element, the bargaining position of Project DEAL would be much weaker – and publishers would most likely not be inclined to grant free access to content on their own sites without an agreement in place.
Small is beautiful – and difficult
Looking at the OA space, it is immediately apparent that innovation has mainly been driven by startups, both academic and commercial. While major funders have fueled the space with the resources necessary to convince also big publishers that OA is here to stay, startups oftentimes make the business innovation happen. Their critical phase is the time between the good idea’s launch and sustainability – or being bought by a larger entity. This may be a truism but it becomes particularly challenging in an environment as unamenable to change as the library market is. And not only the initiatives themselves are struggling with slow motion – a look back at funders’ activities demonstrates how much financial ventilation has been given to the space.
Against this background, we at Knowledge Unlatched (full disclosure, I am the Managing Director for KU) have expanded the approach from offering a single “product” (an OA books collection curated by librarians) to providing a marketplace for all those initiatives that are directed towards libraries. In our latest funding round, launched just a few days ago, eight different models are part of the unified outreach to libraries, some with quite different transaction models, like Luminos’ membership, some only related by the fact that they deal with OA, like Delta Think’s Data & Analytics Tool. This novel approach has three main goals: First, we want to create as much transparency as possible to libraries for their funding decisions; secondly working efficiently to avoid unnecessary costs to supporters in a developing market segment. And thirdly – perhaps first and foremost – creating critical mass around OA books, journals and services. Without better organization, there will be no breakthrough in OA, and policymakers in the European Union and beyond are starting to understand this.
The big flip
Probably the biggest weakness of the OA “movement” is its eclecticism. New ideas around open science are being picked up and discussed easily, but they are only rarely being executed in a way that they become really meaningful. In order to achieve the goal of opening up published research results and thus creating relevance, they need scale, much more than they have today. Researchers must be able to trust that they have access to large corpora of content for their work.
While collaboration will help a great deal, especially for small and medium-sized libraries as well as publishers, that might not be quick enough to unlatch thousands of books and journals. What would really make a difference though would be a few publishers flipping their whole portfolio of journals and/or books. Even though on a relatively small scale volume-wise, HAU Books in Anthropology and transcript publishers with their Political Science list are already experimenting with this through the Knowledge Unlatched marketplace. It is up to libraries to decide whether they are willing to support these moves to not only make more content OA, but also to reduce administrative efforts – a significant effect oftentimes not included into the overall bill of free access. And while many academics at the beginning of their research careers accept OA as a given, it remains a task for libraries and publishers alike to provide information and training to existing and future academic authors and users of research material. Faculty and students, for good reasons, have rarely been exposed to concrete funding implications of content, and that should probably change.
No change in access without shifts of budgets
OA is maturing, and its transaction models are differentiating. For libraries, retaining transparency is paramount in order to make sensible financial decisions. But they also need to be prepared to shift budgets significantly to advance the idea of OA and not hope that others will pay for the party. That approach might work once, but it will not work forever. Agents of change can help to safeguard the process of transitioning from traditional acquisition to funding OA, and experience shows that publishers will follow.