#scholpub should be regulated

I recently asked “What’s the difference between Elsevier and British Gas?” I didn’t get many answers (it would be nice to have a greater response so I could highlight ideas other than mine). The question could also have replaced “British Gas” by “Virgin Trains”, “Scottish Power”, “East Anglian Water” or even “Lloyds Bank”.

The answer is that the others are all, to a greater or lesser extent bound by regulation. They have a legal duty to:

  • Ensure the quality of service
  • Limit prices

Scholarly publishing is in a bizarre and completely unhealthy marker where there is no effective market regulation of price, there is no quality control (the quality of #scholpub is awful compared to other e-products on the web and hasn’t changed in 20 years. ) We have NO IDEA what the true costs of publishing a paper are, or what they could be if the market operated.

Acta Crystallographica E publishes the highest quality papers in science. It’s a data-only journal and doesn’t completely scale to other journals. It charges 150 GBP for Gold Open Access and makes a margin. They have built their own authoring system which every crystallographer uses and the papers are full of checked, semantic data and there is high-quality peer review. It’s difficult to extrapolate but I think a figure of 500 GBP would be the MAXIMUM cost of an efficient scholarly publisher. I’d like to see the high price publishers challenge this.

Yesterday I was asked by a journalist (I won’t spoil their story) to comment on the UK Finch report. This hasn’t formally reported but there are some open readable minutes at http://www.researchinfonet.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Minutes-mtg-2012-04-272.docx and I was asked to comment on what I thought of the pricing , market, etc. I don’t have a strong view on Finch, but it says:

The Working Group first considered the tables in the annex, which were founded on modelling undertaken for the Heading for the Open Road report. It was noted that the ‘central case’ was a starting point under which APCs were set at a cost-neutral level for the HE sector in the UK of c£1,450 per article, with an assumed take-up rate of 23.3% for OA publications. All the tables therefore use that as a starting point, and vary the costs according to a series of different assumptions – some of which are obviously more realistic than others. The variability is determined by four factors: (i) the level of APCs, (ii) the level of take-up of the gold option, (iii) the difference between levels of take up in UK and rest of the world, and (iv) the proportion of APCs to be met by authors outside and within the UK for jointly-authored papers. The Group observed also that the £18.7m saving from subscription charges does not take account of ‘stickiness’ in a transitional shift from subscription to APCs – which is liable to take a significant amount of time. Such a transition implies additional costs.

I haven’t read the annexe and I cannot see how they can actually assess the costs since almost no publishers analyse and publish them. Some publishers have argued that costs can approach 20,000 USD because of high rejection rates. This is a typical example of an unregulated market. It’s like saying “we don’t have enough capacity on our buses so we are going to throw most passengers off and charge the others a huge amount to make our profits”. It’s a sign of a broken market.

A typical example of how inefficient the industry is and how unresponsive to costs is that most publishers send the manuscripts off to be retyped – this is an appalling admission of lack of reaction to the 21st century. It’s like having to send Amazon a snail mail to order something. It’s because Amazon broke the model that we have efficient, price-competitive market of goods. If the academic sector wished to reduce costs of Gold OA they should create a system with author-side cost reduction. If I was given the option of paying 1450 GBP for APC or 500 GBP if I created it in NLM DTD XML I’d go for the latter. The NLM (which publishes Pubmed) is a world authority on publishing and far more efficient than publishers. It has been highly innovative and the only brake on progress has been the relentless destructive legalisation against it and restrictive practices imposed by major toll-access publishers. That’s why we cannot get access to content-based search, not because they can’t do it.

Anyway I wrote the following for the journalist. It echoes what I have written here:

“What I am concerned about [and what I intend to blog about as soon as I have time] is the lack of regulation in this market.  In almost all transactions, whether author->publisher or publisher->reader there is no price-sensitive market. There is little market pressure on publishers to bring down costs, nor to produce better products. (Scholarly publishing is one of the very few sectors to be completely unaffected by the web – the product is an electronic copy of what was done 20 years ago). There is even less market force in the hybrid Gold model where publishers can charge what they like with no regulation – it is simply up to the funders or authors to pay what is demanded. Moreover the products offered are often not significantly different from Green – there are no rights of re-use and in some cases not even of copying.

In areas such as transport, energy, banks, public services and many others the government regulates the market. Providers have to work within negotiated margins and provide an agreed level of service. None of this pressure is put on publishers. The market often resembles personal vanity products where only the brand matters and cost of production is irrelevant.

My view is that any Green/Gold model will be a seriously suboptimal model until all the current cost (10 billion USD/yr) can be brought funder/author-side. This desperately needs regulation and strong leadership from bodies – probably governments and major funders. I don’t think Finch has addressed this at all – you cannot be convincing unless you demand a change of control and do the budgeting properly.

I believe that even at 1500 GBP per paper this represents a seriously overpriced market. I think it might be brought down by bringing in public contractors / purchasers as is done in Brazil, I believe. Nothing could be more inefficient than leaving market forces to libraries in 10,000 scattered uncoordinated universities.

So I am not getting excited about Finch unless the government (Willetts) does. AFAICS Finch says “we want a mixed Green/Gold model with the emphasis on Gold. We aren’t putting money in. We aren’t imposing regulation. We are not controlling prices related to costs.” And of costs it’s only one country.

#scholpub is now, at its worst , a vanity market such as fragrance or mineral water. The price is vastly higher than the cost. You ask what you can get, not what it costs. There is large, wasteful marketing, there is large and wasteful investment in technology and lawyers to prevent access.

So what’s the difference between Elsevier and Chanel? Not much. They are both unregulated.

Oh, and stop thinking of publishers as collaborating partners. Alicia Wise on the GOAL Open Access mailing list asks “what can publishers do to help”. She asserts publicly that I don’t trust her. Actually I trust her completely. I trust her to behave like a middle manager public relations officer in “Customer Relations” for British Gas, or Scotrail or whomever. She is there to maximize profits for the company. And part of that is preserving the current pseudo-monopolies. I trust he to continue to try to defend that. And offering help is a well-used strategy.

And she can trust me to challenge almost everything that Elsevier does, says, and more importantly doesn’t do.

Stevan Harnad is dismayed that Elsevier has introduced a catch-22 int their Green regulations. It’s convoluted (well-designed Catch-22s are) and says something like “you can deposit Green, but if your institution mandates it then you cannot”. Stevan feels this is a breach of trust and that Elsevier should change it. I say that until this is regulated by a body with teeth we shall continue to have these games played by the publishers. If I travel to somewhere via London on British trains the price is higher. The cost is not higher.

Think of Elsevier, Nature, Wiley, Springer, etc as gas, transport, telecoms, etc. They have no more reason the be loved or hated than those.

The sick part is that the trains have to pay for their fuel (and a lot else). In #scholpub we GIVE the publishing industry the content.