Continuing the work to make publishing accessible and just, with updated recommendations toward the commonification (and away from the commodification) of open access
Note: Our title is inspired by a recent book written by the intellectual property scholar Roberto Caso (2019) about the institutional and political hurdles hindering the democratisation of scientific publications. We acknowledge Marcel LaFlamme’s contributions, and the Manifesto contributors.
In 2020, thirteen scholars representing scholar-led, free academic journals published a collaborative Manifesto on Open Access in the humanities and social sciences (HASS), on this platform (Pia et al. 2020). It was translated into Italian and Spanish, and circulated worldwide. The Manifesto has joined other initiatives like Libraria and the Open Library of Humanities fighting for a fairer, convivial, and less extractive publication system for academic books and journals (Herman 2021). The Manifesto signals that ‘alternatives exist’ to scholarly publishing with commercial publishers, and we should work with them, given the commercial sector’s orientation, power, and often huge margins (Murray-Rust and Kearns 2021). For example, academic-led OA journal production bypasses commercial operators and their much higher charges, often using open source software, and can solicit modest funding from universities and other institutions to support free or low cost publication.
Since we released the Manifesto, the world has experienced a global pandemic, painful regional warfare, and continued austerity measures. Throughout the pandemic of 2020-2021, the ability to publish anything at all in many countries was heavily impacted by university redundancy programs and restructuring as student fee income dropped. Open Access publishing has, however, been boosted by international initiatives and agreements over the last two years, but not always in ways that our Manifesto supported. In this short article, we ask where we are now, how have things changed, and what can we still do?
We argued that academics should question the extraordinary unequal conditions surrounding the publication of their labours in academic journals and other outlets. We should be aware of, and respond to, “how this is done, who stands to profit from it, what model of scholarship is being normalised, and who stands to be silenced by this process” (Pia et al. 2020). Open access publishing has “political implications for the defence of academic freedom, integrity, and creativity.” But its liberatory potential is squandered when the current system of scholarly communication is dominated by a few large commercial publishers because of their de facto control of the publishing sector and their incentive to maximise profits. We also sought to “repoliticise Open Access to challenge existing rapacious practices in academic publishing—namely, often invisible and unremunerated labour, toxic hierarchies of academic prestige, and a bureaucratic ethos that stifles experimentation.”
We argued further that scholars in the humanities and social sciences should fight back against the huge APCs (article processing charges) now requested by commercial publishers for OA publication where copyright is relinquished to authors, since these are rapidly replacing paywalled library subscription services (where university or institutional staff and students can read articles freely online). These were just too expensive to maintain for many libraries when individual companies negotiated ever-more expensive ‘big deals’ with this captive market. In 2022 we have seen some frightening author APCs, peaking at US$11,000 in the prestige journals of the Springer Nature group, and additional payments required to facilitate fast publication by Taylor & Francis.
Step one of a response is promoting awareness of financial injustices, as well as the drivers of performance metrics that too often lead to institutional reliance on commercial journals, forcing scholars into a quest for ‘journal prestige’ and rank, regardless of article content.
Step two is to promote and actually reward a fairer set of publication choices, including legitimating scholarly involvement in, and control of, the whole cycle of our academic work from writing (or multimedia equivalents) to publication, using alternatives to the outlets of commercial publishers and high-priced professional societies.
We argued the latter path raises issues about managing our own work and labour (and across the OA movement and among information management professionals), given the hours, often unpaid, needed to operate ‘academic-led’ journals like our own, which can benefit from innovation in funding models and labour.
We finished with a series of recommendations applicable to the actions of the different main actors in scholarly institutions, including rewarding the de-commercialisation of academic output in the global commons, recognition of diversity in the type of work and place of publication, and rewarding service and dissemination work in the university, for example academic work on alternative and academic-led journals.
The Manifesto, alongside two similar initiatives (A Collective 2020; Chan et al. 2020) was well received, particularly by scholars and Information professionals working in academic-led publishing, as we ourselves do.
Since then, however, Transformative Agreements (TAs) or read-and-publish deals have increased in reach and volume (linked in part to Plan S implementation, below). These are a relatively new type of deal reached between research and academic institutions, and commercial publishers. TAs allow researchers to publish Open Access for free, or at reduced cost in a publisher’s journals, and also to read paywalled content, in exchange for financial deals (negotiated with publishers to make up for their revenue foregone from paywalled journals and individual APCs). As Ashley Farley et al. note, they maintain the “overall business structure” where academic institutions pay the publisher for services, and in their view, “‘Transforming’ payments for licensing materials to subsidizing publication fees simply moves the paywall from reading to publishing, further stratifying researchers” (Farley et al. 2021). TAs are struck with a university or cognate institution, or a group of universities, or a national university system like JISC in the UK that can afford to pay for such commercial services. TAs “enshrine structural inequity”, A.J. Boston says, rather than solving access issues in the global commons - many scholars, institutions, and nations ae unlikely to be part of expensive read-and-publish deals.
As another Manifesto says, TAs feed into what Jefferson Pooley calls “surveillance publishing” (Pooley 2022) and the development and sale of “decision tools” and metrics, also used by universities, and through these, “...publishers such as Elsevier are gaining greater access to the research cycle and to the data currently owned by universities” (A Collective 2020). Prophetic, because in 2022 the entire UK university system signed a major Transformative Agreement with that company, offering “OA publishing in eligible Elsevier subscription journals […] The agreement also allows for a discount on APCs for Elsevier’s fully gold open access titles, as well as a price cap on APC price increases.” Similar deals have already been signed in the UK with other publishers, including Taylor & Francis and Wiley.
We will return to a consideration of the implication of this new form of ‘big deal’ below. A side issue here is that the COVID-19 pandemic saw, under some public pressure, Open publication of almost all articles submitted to commercial journals related to the virus and its effects, also normalising the OA model.
A positive trend since 2020 has been more uptake of DORA Declaration university signups. DORA is a set of principles designed to reset some of the ‘toxic hierarchies’ we talked of in the Manifesto, and discussed by Peter Murray-Rust on the Commonplace, who explained “....the value of a paper should be not where it's published, but what's actually in the paper. We've got this thing that we honor the container rather than the content” (Murray-Rust and Kearns 2021). As he goes on to say, this is wrong. DORA takes this problem back to its roots. The DORA Declaration says that academic hiring and promotion decisions that control who wins and loses, and who advances in the university sector should, among other things, de-emphasise ‘place of publication’ (ie publishing in a highly ranked journal), and committees should assess the qualities an academic’s work instead by actually reading it. In addition, universities should step away from toxic rankings and hierarchical posturing exercises, fed by “surveillance publishing” and metrics more generally. In 2022, the DORA approach to academic career development is beginning to have some bite. Even in STEM disciplines, decisions on journal choice are not always about impact factor and prestige alone. Some elite institutions have, surprisingly, signed up to the Declaration, which has institutional signatories from 158 countries.
Another institutional change since 2020 that particularly affects academics in Europe and other Western countries is the huge Plan S agreement, which requires articles to be published OA if the work they contain was funded by one of a large group of major funding agencies (cOAlition S). We now turn to the impacts of Plan S on academic-led, non-commercial journals.
Plan S began operation in 2021 after our Manifesto was published, although full implementation will not occur until 2024. Articles produced from grants received from the Plan S signatories, which include many of the major funding agencies in western countries must be publicly available OA in final copy or published versions. This is changing the landscape of publishing inexorably towards funded research being Open Access for all to read. The problem is that decent financial support is absent for the small and non-commercial journals that have been ready and able to host more of this work for many years. So the ethos behind Plan S has been well received; however, as Taavi Sundell says, “the Plan is perhaps not as radical as it has been made out to be” (Sundell 2021).
Most importantly, Plan S has not set limits on APCs meaning the major commercial publishers can continue to profit from academic labour without hitting a mandated price ceiling. With average APCs having risen over 10 years — currently up to $9,900 with Elsevier — Plan S has, if anything, permitted the practice of charging heavily for OA publication in exchange for author retention of copyright. While the Plan does say that fees should be “commensurate with the publication services delivered” and calls for transparency, this is unlikely to disallow an escalation in APCs in our view. In 2021 there was already a scramble to increase APCs for prestigious journals prior to the Plan’s commencement. Universities and academics had little say on this, given their captive status as customers.
For researchers with large research grants, these changes are less important. APC costs can be factored into grants. As the collective running ephemera journal say, “fees for gold open access publication are now budgeted in grant applications. In other words, the gold open access option has become another way for corporate publishers to channel public funding into private accumulation of capital” (ephemera collective 2021). For HASS scholars grants are much scarcer and only some authors may benefit from Transformative Agreements, and probably not those in poorly funded universities, systems and disciplines. Lastly, certain technical requirements of Plan S are hard for small publishers or journals like ourselves to meet — particularly coding for machine readability, the publication of workflow statistics, and the use of commercial archiving services. Open source software developers like OJS are responding. But, in a recent survey of 641 HASS researchers, “just 1% of humanities scholars conduct experiments which involve ‘data’ and just 6% undertake quantitative research”, making the need for ‘open data’ as part of Plan S questionable for this sector (Watchcorn 2022).
Plan S is, we believe, currently failing on certain social justice publishing criteria (Batterbury 2020), something that an architect of the scheme, Robert-Jan Smits, grudgingly admits for one principle, price capping of APCs (Smits and Pells 2022, p. 85). A Plan S commissioned study into Diamond Open Access Journals like ours has not as yet led to any financial support (Bosman et al. 2012). As we know, a shift in the sector from subscription journals to OA with high APCs has been happening for some time. In 2022 we saw announcements of $11,000 APCs for rapid publication of scientific results in certain highly ranked journals like Nature and NatureNeuro. In other words, the publishing model may have changed, but not the profit driver behind it. Plan S states that they support a “globally equitable pricing system for Open Access publishing services” but have yet to convince a complex institutional architecture to implement one. Smits says he wanted caps on APCs, but “when the matter was put to a vote the Coalition voted against a cap” (Smit and Pells 2022, p. 111). Similarly, in the UK, the UKRI new Open Access policy pushes for even greater integration of commercial publishers into the scholarly communication system, offering more financial support and delegating important repository and other accessibility responsibilities to university libraries and research organisations.
Meanwhile market consolidation has continued among the larger commercial publishers, with important new acquisitions by Wiley and Clarivate (who run the Web of Science) in particular. This is a drain on diversity and affects alternative outlets like ours if they cannot survive, or attract submissions, in an increasingly profit-seeking and monopolistic marketplace. But of course, as the major listing of journals in the large, non-profit DOAJ resource reveals, non-commercial journals are not disappearing anytime soon. The trick is to convince academics from across the globe that not only is it good to publish in OA form, but that socially just publishing means supporting journals in the global commons, despite Transformative Agreements making the moneymaking alternatives quite tempting (Batterbury 2017).
The humanities show more scepticism about the wholesale shift to OA that Plan S and its supporting funders (cOAlition S) have demanded, in particular because of technical OA and copyright requirements. Some authors worry about giving up their rights under certain forms of OA licensing (Plan S demands CC-BY, which permits others to share and adapt work with permission and acknowledgement, but will consider exceptions to this, for example, for artistic and creative material). In addition, small professional societies potentially lose income from journal sales if their journals have to become OA and if APCs cannot recoup subscription income, as we discuss below. The Wellcome Trust has developed a toolkit to address this problem.
As our original Manifesto noted, university academics are still largely unrewarded for the time they spend on the production, editing and curation of journals, sometimes even when working on journals owned by commercial publishers with enormous budgets. The activity also falls outside the tripartite division of ‘research’, ‘teaching’ and ‘service.’ Most commonly, we find time to participate in publishing as part of our paid or unpaid academic work, on borrowed time. While in some regions, like Latin America and Eastern Europe, journals form part of the labour of academic departments and attract some prestige, the neoliberal nature of most western university systems treats ‘knowledge production’ more narrowly, meaning journal production is done for ‘love’, while ‘grant capture’ (especially) and writing (sometimes) receive the lion's share of institutional kudos and professional recognition.
One of our recommendations in the Manifesto was to continue to publish through disciplinary associations and societies, as was traditional in the sciences in previous centuries. We said "we can reinvigorate ties with journals published by scholarly societies."
We have accumulated more experience, and we now think that the society model can’t endure in this way. Professional societies and associations, with the exception of a few large ones like the American Chemical Society, struggle because they have little to no income sources beyond membership fees, traditional journal subscription revenues, and APCs. Unless the membership fee is more than symbolic, it is probably not worth troubling authors with a requirement to join the professional society and pay a fee as a condition of publication. Unless a professional society is backed by lucrative and uncontroversial donors (if such things exist), securing even the most basic funding to run a journal without APCs will always be a Labour of Love. Indeed many, like the Royal Geographical Society, The Royal Anthropological Institute, or the Regional Studies Association, entered into profit-sharing agreements with commercial publishers for this reason several decades ago, splitting the revenue from subscriptions and now from APCs. A flagship journal, for example at the American Anthropological Association, can raise enough money this way to support other smaller journals. With a few exceptions, several of them in Eastern Europe, societies cannot afford to let authors publish OA for free.
Professional societies also rotate their leadership, making it almost impossible to achieve multi-year consistency of support. In the case of a journal edited by one of the authors, within the space of three years, the association veered from a commitment to publishing fully OA with no APCs, to the expectation that it would turn a profit. This is not the direction that academic publishing is travelling in, with the radical shift to OA occasioned by Plan S and other initiatives. It also undermines the journal’s integrity, and greatly adds to the stress of editors who lose the non-tangible benefits of their Labour of Love. In short, unless an association or society is unanimously committed to supporting the basic principles of socially just OA and makes this non-negotiable for a decent period of time (e.g. ten years), we cannot see them as reliable and vanguard institutions in the struggle for Open Access and for academic-led journals in particular. Self-publishing by forming a small collective that relies on crowdfunding or institutional/national funds to cover costs (mainly, technical support and copy editing) is probably a more equitable, more sustainable and more inspiring form of OA publishing.
Publishing reform in humanities and social sciences is like steering an ocean liner — to initiate slow changes requires huge effort, and the commercial tradewinds force us backwards to exploiting our own time and labour while still trying to build a movement that has always held a strong, but largely unfunded, moral position. Two years on from the original Manifesto, things feel less optimistic in the neoliberal environment of Western universities.
In the global South, there is still resistance to, or bypassing of, commercial publishing, and the development of alternatives. Latin America has a long tradition of low cost or free OA publishing. In 2019, AmeliCA, a “communication infrastructure for scholarly publishing and open science” in the “non-profit publishing model” joined with Redalyc (which hosts 1,480 journals) and with support from UNESCO, to sustain no-fee OA publication initiatives. Bernard Rentier notes that they challenge the “tempting opportunity to charge excessively high publication fees” under Plan S, but in Latin America, most universities could not support these fees anyway, and yet the region still has the “highest percentage of open access scientific articles in the world, almost two-thirds.” It is perhaps unsurprising that in a less capitalised publication model, academics have found ways to sustain fair Open Access publishing. Of course they would welcome more support.
The relationship between the scholarly community and commercial academic publishers continues to evolve. While Plan S and other policy requirements for OA looked like they might have a transformative impact on the vital relationship academics have with the five large publishers (and smaller ones) that publish the majority of articles but report to shareholders, not authors, the present picture shows these commercial publishers have been able to move successfully into the OA space. They have successfully perpetuated the myth that expensive commercial platforms and other publishing services are needed to ensure scholarly impact and personal academic success.
We challenge this myth, materially through our independent editorial work, and ideally, by prefiguring a system of scholarly communication that responds to a non-commercial logic. Yet this is becoming an ever more difficult task. The burden of what we described as “Labour of Love” feels harder to bear in the face of diminishing support resulting from further squeezes on available funding, as well as the generalised crisis in the university sector. The Pandemic has decimated some universities, while some really interesting independent OA journals have stalled in recent years (an example is Decolonization: Indigeneity Education and Society, which has paused or ended, despite publishing one of the most read articles on decolonisation cited over 5,500 times [Tuck and Yang 2012]). There is as yet, an absence of direct financial support for our journals from Plan S (even for those of us who are located in subject areas and countries that it reaches), but there are nonetheless great initiatives in some disciplines, like Libraria that supports a number of Anthropology journals, and across some global regions (AmeliCA, CAIRN info). Most importantly, there remains, in our disciplinary areas, a disappointing dearth of established academics who embrace social justice publishing and take on what we consider to be a major responsibility: to take a leading role in breaking new ground and making possible alternative futures for the next generation of researchers.
As we describe above, responding to the growing commercialisation of the academic publishing sector requires us to take several steps. First, raising awareness about the implications for freedom, integrity and creativity in HASS that such a process entails; and second promoting and actually rewarding a fairer set of publication choices. Our screening of the academic publishing landscape tells us that academics are, perhaps unconsciously, digging their heels in firmly at step one. Be that as it may, our tactical recommendations for authors and senior scholars, slightly altered and revised from the Manifesto, for the current impasse are as follows.
Educate yourself about Plan S, with documents like the UKRI OA policy if it applies to you, and about any other area of relevant publishing policy which may affect the ecology in which you publish;
If you are a teacher, promote greater awareness of how science and academic work gets “done.” In particular, educate your students about the systemic inequalities that are entrenched by the current way of making, publishing and rewarding science;
Ask difficult questions about the future of OA publishing, Transformative Agreements, and who stand to profit from them. Ask them where it counts: in editorial boardrooms, in departmental and collegial meetings, in conversations with fellow Librarians;
Train yourself to see the commercialisation of the scholarly communication system as only one part of a broader process of managerial and commercial capture of higher education and of the university as a public institution;
Publish in just outlets. Try to publish in outlets whose values align with your own.
Follow DORA principles when reviewing the work of others, and when publishing your own. Encourage your employers to sign the initiative.
Our recommendations for librarians and editors remain the same.