The last week has featured dueling tweetstorms about the article processing charges (APCs) assessed by leading open access publisher PLOS.
First up was population geneticist Andrew Kern, who argues that the APCs charged by PLOS ($2250 per article for him most recently) actually props up lavish executive salaries rather than furthering open access. Slash those salaries and severely reduce APCs, says Kern. In response more researchers would pay those charges so their work can be open access, even when they have to pay them out-of-pocket. In other words, "chop from the top."
Michael Eisen, biologist and one of the founders of PLOS, responded quickly. Eisen agrees that APCs are too high and wishes they were lower. But he also argues that the PLOS board has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure a healthy operating margin for the journals, to ensure that PLOS survives and can continue to build infrastructure to support open science (which is more than open access). The CEO salaries are the going rate, says Eisen. He wishes they were lower but if PLOS went below market they could not attract top talent. Publishing is a lot more expensive than people realize, notes Eisen, in perhaps the one instance in which he agrees with the claims of leading subscription-based publishers.
Eisen also points out the rich irony: when PLOS began everyone said open access was a crazy idea, with no way to make money. Now PLOS is dinged for making too much money. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
When open access entered common parlance in 2003 -- thanks in large part to PLOS -- I echoed many librarian colleagues in hoping that this development would lead to much reduced prices for accessing the scholarly literature. Obviously the costs ended completely for end users. But hopefully they were also going to drop dramatically for institutions such as academic libraries, which have the mandate to collect and preserve this literature.
This was our naive hope back then. More sagacious observers could see that open access would not necessarily be a cost saver for academic libraries -- rather, the costs would shift from paying for subscriptions and licenses to paying for article processing charges. Indeed, for very prolific research institutions costs could rise dramatically in an APC regime. Because for all the good open access achieves, it does not end the "publish or perish" mindset. And if anyone else pays APCs, the authors of scholarly works remain shielded from the actual costs of production.
So over the years I abandoned the hope that "gold" open access would save money for institutions. This was never the goal, ultimately -- the goal was much better access to the literature, with fewer restrictions on re-use and re-purposing that content. If this cost the same amount as the subscription model -- even if it cost more -- there was a salutary and undeniable public good. Not only would everyone have access to the scholarly record as it is being created. Librarians would no longer have to erect elaborate authentication systems and lock-out mechanisms to keep the unanointed away from our networks.
And yet. And yet....
In all these years of advocating for open access, I have never had a good explanation for why APC charges vary as widely as they do. Nor do I actually know what the money goes for, down at the article-by-article level.
This is similar to receiving an undifferentiated bill for services at the hospital. You see the grand total but not the line items that produce that total. As Steven Brill reminded us with Bitter Pill (2013), this lack of transparency leads to grossly distorted health care prices in which the cost of service bears little relation to the services provided.
It is hard not to believe that the same thing occurs with APC amounts.
A few authors are motivated by altruism, many others are motivated the fact that their funders insist on open access (often with embargos at the moment, but that feels like a transitional stage toward immediate open access.) Those funders generally pay very handsome APC charges, as a recent Harvard Office of Scholarly Communication report demonstrates. In the context of a funder's overall grant portfolio, even a very high APC is pocket change. Motivated authors are connected to flush funders, who pay non-itemized bills for article processing charges.
In such conditions there must be some level of APC inflation.
This does not mean PLOS is nefarious, or is not genuinely committed to open access. But as a business entity too, the perceived need to ratchet up APCS beyond what would strictly be necessary (even granting the need for healthy operating margins) must be irresistible.
Or to put it another way: If Ubiquity Press can charge $400, and many journals on the DOAJ charge nothing, why was Andrew Kern's bill $2250?
UC Berkeley is currently recruiting for a new Associate University Librarian (AUL) for Scholarly Resources. Berkeley University Librarian Jeffrey Mackie-Mason explains the vision behind the new position in a brilliant post on the wonderfully named Madlibbing blog. Mackie-Mason is relatively new in this role himself, so I read this AUL position as an effort to define the focus and thrust of his time at the helm.
After reading Mackie-Mason's post a few times, I find nothing to disagree with (a rarity). The new AUL is expected to bring to fruition a new, more digital-centric notion of scholarly communication -- but without abandoning print whenever it is still the best medium of communication. The new AUL should be an advocate for improving practices in scholarly communication -- namely, making them more open. Open access, open data, open workflows. And the new AUL should systematically understand the needs and expectations of users, and tailor library resources and services accordingly. The more familiar option, of designing resources and services from the librarian's point of view and then pushing that agenda, no longer holds.
Again -- nothing to disagree with. Mackie-Mason's post in its entirety is an extremely cogent statement about the dynamics at play today in major academic research libraries. And he correctly observes that "There has never been a greater time to be an information professional."
Nonetheless there is an inherent conflict in promoting openness and a new way of working, while simultaneously catering to the needs of users. After all, those users will sometimes want academic librarians to operate as though the Internet never came to be. Just add more books to the stacks, please, and hurry. To the extent that such users have power and influence at Berkeley, the more transformative agenda that Mackie-Mason seeks will be hard to produce. Librarianship for born-digital scholarly objects has no need for stacks but does need data storage. It would be a shame if the stack budget crowded out storage for those bits and bytes.
To avoid this, hopefully the incumbent AUL will frame their user research as a series of "blue sky," open-ended explorations about the future of librarianship and research. There are more urgent questions than, "How can the library help you succeed better?" That question is important, but even more important is, "What kind of library would we build if we started with a blank slate today?"
This week I've attended the "Gaming Metrics" conference at UC Davis. From the conference description: "Have we moved from 'publish or perish' to 'impact or perish'? If so, are metrics of evaluation now creating new incentives for misconduct? Are metrics also helping the evolution of forms of misconduct in specific and innovative directions? And, crucially, can we reliably draw a clear separation between gaming the metrics game and engaging in misconduct?"
Not surprisingly, we've only scratched the surface of these enormous questions. This topic ultimately hinges around the desire to advance in the academy and the incentives that drive behavior in doing so. Resisting gaming will be hard, given the human tendency to game any system that attempts to quantify progress and achievements. Nonetheless we have a continuing imperative to ensure that the results reported by researchers are as beyond reproach as possible.
Two of the speakers here, John Bohannon and Jeffrey Beall, believe they are doing this. In 2013 Bohannon wrote the infamous "sting" that exposed the lack of peer review at fly-by-night open access journals. Meanwhile Beall maintains his list of "predatory" open access publishers as another way to shed light on this same phenomenon. By their lights these are efforts to shine light on falsity, which is an unalloyed good.
The truth is more complex. Synecdocheis the literary device in which a part comes to stand for the whole (ie "Oakland" for the Oakland A's, or "No 10" for 10 Downing Street.) Bohannon and Beall are perpetuating an unfounded synecdoche, in which the actions of fringe characters in open access publishing come to stand for the entire idea.
The reason that fly-by-night open access operations have arisen is because author processing charges represent an irresistible source of cash to disreputable publishers, who are profiting on the intense need of researchers to publish. In other words -- the scholarly publication pressures that long pre-date the birth of open access are now being used as a means of discrediting open access.
This is rearguard retrenchment, which is why Bohannon's sting faced such fierce resistance from open access advocates.
Bohannon noted that when he wrote the sting he had no conception of the passions surrounding open access -- this feels very hard to believe, but there is no way to prove otherwise. (As a librarian, Beall presumably does know the passions surrounding open access and has consciously chosen to stake out a heterodox position. I am generally in favor of against-the-grain thinking, but in this case Beall's mission has assumed a worrisome evangelical fervor in its own right.) Even if we take Bohannon at his word, his article appeared in Science magazine. As a venerable subscription based publisher, Science had every interest in perpetuating the unfounded synecdoche that fly-by-night efforts represent the entirety of open access publishing.
This leads to another point -- there is no such thing as a neutral story. Or even a neutral comment posted anonymously. The online journal club PubPeer allows for anonymous comments about the validity of published studies. Anonymity has not led to a lack of civility -- the PubPeer team does an admirable job of insisting upon civility in the comment sections. After assuring this foundation, PubPeer allows the comments to rise or fall on their own merits. There is no attempt to understand the ideological or political motivations behind the comments, and obviously such a task would be Herculean. That granted, I was troubled by PubPeer founder Brandon Stell's professed view that understanding such motivations would not be a useful data point. We all bring our political commitments and personal predilections to anything we touch. Even if are not trying to "game" discourse, we can't help it.
What's to be done, then? Acknowledge that any numerically based ranking system will be gamed. Acknowledge that citation mills will continue, particularly if we maintain the antiquated idea that journal-based citation is the primary means of demonstrating impact. And advocate for the maximum of openness -- open publication, open notebooks, open data -- as the best way on offer to mitigate these ills. Gaming will run rampant whatever we do, but at least it should be out in the open.
KQED, the Bay Area's principal public radio station, also has a signal in "North Highlands - Sacramento." What I used to hear on 88.5 FM is now conveniently available at 89.3 instead.
This morning KQED ran the latest of its "Perspectives" series, in which members of the community share their insights about current affairs or cultural developments. Terence Krista, a school librarian in San Francisco, offered his views about the continuing value of print books for young readers. He bases this upon his experience observing children at a recent book fair hosted by his school.
I agree with much of Krista's commentary, both because it reflects his experience as a school librarian and because friends of ours with young children also talk about how much their kids love print books. In Krista's own words: "Children are such tactile beings, still discovering their world by touch. How pleasurable it must be to hold this container that so beautifully enfolds the stories they treasure."
Hear hear! Krista clearly loves his job as well as the children he reaches. And given the typical cognitive development of children, I believe that print books are more age and stage appropriate than electronic books.
This does not mean this is true for everyone at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately, though, Krista goes there. He pits print books against ebooks in a binary way, with zero sum observations like these: "If the [book] fair was selling books downloaded to some electronic reading device, would the longing and excitement have been the same?" "Recent reports have sales of ebooks down by 10%, while sales of paperbacks are up by 13...Maybe we are all weary of the tyranny of our electronic screens."
Ahem. Fluctuations in sales figures for what is still a very new technology are not indicative that this new technology is doomed. It may well be that ebooks never catch on, but we could also just be in a lull as the next generation of ereader technologies evolves. Print books, which now feel eternal, took decades to become commonplace after the invention of the printing press.
As an adult reader I value both print books (for the reasons Krista describes) as well as e-books. With an e-reader I can look up an unfamiliar word in context, highlight key passages in different colors that form an annotated code, take searchable notes, and insert multiple bookmarks. And, obviously, it is possible to carry around hundreds of books on a lightweight device in a way that is not possible with print. This is why public libraries now allow for the download of ebooks as well as the loaning of print.
There is no right or wrong here. These are just two different dissemination methods, each with their own strengths.
Absolutely -- let children discover the joy of print when they are young with minds wide open. But don't deny them the pleasures of an ebook as they get older and seek to sharpen those very same minds.
In November 2015 CEO J.G. Bankier of bepress interviewed Cliff Lynch about a host of topics, including the evolution of institutional repositories and the OSTP memorandum regarding increasing access to the results of federally funded research.
Bankier asked the first round of questions, followed by questions form bepress staff members.
For this post I will focus on Lynch's observations about the challenges of the transition to a fully gold open access model, in which academic libraries would pay author publishing charges (APCs) in lieu of subscription fees. This discussion occurs between minutes 10-13 of the recorded conversation.
Lynch begins by noting his preference for gold open access instead of the author self-archiving/"green" model, arguing that such an approach is more streamlined than off-loading archival responsibilities onto authors. With all due respect to Stevan Harnad, I agree.
Presuming a gold model, the current principal means of payment is via APCs. Lynch correctly observes that fully gold OA could cost research-intensive institutions more than the current subscription systems. He is also correct that "marquee names" such as Science and Nature would be able to charge above-market-price APCs, in the same way as housing costs more in highly-sought neighborhoods.
I concur entirely with Lynch's analysis, but embedded within it are some implicit assumptions worth unpacking. While I am not certain whether Lynch personally shares these assumptions, they are very much part of the ether in this domain:
That open access is about saving money for libraries. While this has been the predominant public posture of academic librarians (myself included), framing the conversation economically has been a mistake. No matter how many times we show the ARL's monograph and serial pricing chart, these statistics are non-impactful to end users who do not pay the bills. Open access is about increasing the reach of valuable scholarship rather than locking it behind a paywall, and this is a worthy end even if the costs are substantial.
That the subscription journal system includes only monetary costs. Paying the bill for a licensed package is only the beginning. Large libraries also contain an entire licensing apparatus, and are responsible for copyright enforcement when users appear to breach the terms of a license. This aspect of the current system requires librarians to be police officers on their campuses, which is both an unpleasant and uncompensated role. In a fully open access world all such concerns end, and staff time now devoted to such considerations could be re-deployed more effectively toward curating the university's own intellectual output.
That established modes of scholarly discourse are still all that is needed in the digital age. The notion of curating the university's own intellectual output -- very broadly defined to include working papers, dance performances, and symposia videos among others -- is what animated Lynch's 2003 vision for institutional repositories. To some extent this has been achieved; institutional repository platforms now include the capability to host many kinds of content. But what is valued for promotion and tenure, for the most part, remains a monograph publication or a collection of journal articles. In other words -- the coin of the realm for scholarly advancement remain tools of communication developed long before the Internet existed. This systemic inertia is why "marquee names" can charge artificially inflated APC prices. While I believe a fully gold open access world would be better than our current subscription-based arrangement, such a transition only moves the needle so far.
With respect to point # 3, it could very fairly be argued that the onus for change in how to depict and credit scholarship rests with scholars -- not librarians, not publishers, not institutional repository platform developers. Indeed, I have made this argument myself. That said, anyone can advocate this change even without being in the position to implement it. This is what leadership workshops would describe as "leading from any position," despite the obvious hurdles and impediments appertaining thereto. It is worth remaining in the fray, and re-framing the terms of debate.
For example, one journal's articles could be free to read but require permissions to re-use. Another journal could be open both for reading and re-use. This latter journal is further along the openness spectrum. And most journals could provide greater facility for text and data mining via API, even if they are open in all other respects. Machine readability is the next frontier in open publication.
This entire effort is an attempt to broaden the definition of openness. I am pleased that I played a small part in the cause, by ranking some of the journals within the larger set (which contains 502 journals in all). Please take a look. Onward, upward, and open.
As I noted in my most recent post, the first Improving Biomedical Research conference occurred last week at Stanford. This was a meta-research initiative, aimed at improving the process of conducting biomedical research in order to stimulate more reliable and actionable results.
During the second day of the conference ideas emerged for an agenda that would bring this reality to pass. These are still in an inchoate stage, although given the passion of the attendees I do believe real progress will occur (which is certainly not a given at meetings like this). For a flavor of the discussion and proposals, peruse the hashtag #METRICSConf15.
One more fleshed out idea, that actually emerged in the opening session, is to conduct a comprehensive and authoritative study of the value and effects of peer review. This idea arose from Drummond Rennie, perhaps the world's foremost authority on peer review. For years concerns about how objective and reliable peer review is have been bubbling along, from Richard Smith among others. Given this I think that Rennie's proposal -- of course, the devil will be in the details -- is excellent and apropos.