Thursday, May 30, 2019

PlanS, the cost of publishing, diversity in publishing and unbundling of services

 A few days ago I had another conversation about PlanS with someone involved in a non-profit scientific publisher. I am still sometimes surprised that these publishers have been very much reacting to the changes in the landscape. In hindsight I can understand that the flipping of the revenue model to author fees has been threatened for a long time but always seemed to be moving along slowly. Without going into PlanS at all, the issue for many of the smaller publishers is that they simply cannot survive under an author fee model because their revenue from the subscription would translate to an unacceptable cost per article (given that they reject most articles). These smaller publishers typically use their profit to then fund community activities (e.g. EMBO press). The big publishers will do just fine because they have a structure that captures most articles in *some* journal so their average cost per article would end up being acceptable in a world without subscriptions.

I don’t want to go into the specifics of PlanS at all but I see clearly the perspective of the founders and wider society of wanting to have open access and even reducing the costs of publishing. The publishers have been given quite a lot of time to adapt and maybe some amount of disruption is now needed. One potential outcome of fully flipping the paying model might be that we simply lose the smaller publishers and consequently lose also their community activities if they can’t find alternative ways to fund them. There are enough journals in scientific publishing that, to be honest, I think the disruption will not be large.

Less publishers means less innovation in publishing

What I fear we will lose with the reduction in the number of publishers is the potential to generate new ideas in scientific publishing. Publishers like EMBO press, eLife and others have been a great engine for positive change. Examples include more transparent peer review, protection from scooping, cross-commenting among peer-reviewers, checks on image manipulation, and surfacing the data underlying the figures (see SourceData). While this innovation tends to spread across all publishers it is not rewarded by the market. Scientific publishing does not work within a well-functioning economic market. We submit to the journals that have the highest perceived “impact” and such perceived impact is then self-sustaining. It would take an extraordinary amount of innovation to disrupt leaders in the market. For me, this is a core problem of publishing, the fact that the market is not sensitive to innovation.

To resolve this problem we would have to continue the work to reduce the evaluation of scientists by the journals they publish in. Ideas around alt-metrics have not really moved the needle much. Without any data to support this, my intuition is that the culture has changed somewhat due to people discussing the issue but the change is very slow. I still feel that working on article recommendation engines would be a key part of reducing the “power” of journal brands (see previous post). Surprisingly, preprints and twitter are already working for me in terms of getting reasonable recommendations but peer-review is still a critically important aspect of science.

Potential solutions for small publishers

Going back to the small publishers, one thing that has been on my mind is how they can survive the coming change in revenue model. Several years ago I think the recommendation could have been to just grow and find a way to capture more articles across a scale of perceived impact (previous post). However, there might not be space for other PLOS One clones. An alternative to growing in scale would be to merge with other like-minded publishers. This is probably not achievable in practice but some cooperation is being tested, as for example in the Life Science Alliance journal. Another thought I had was then to try to get the market to appreciate the costs around some of the added value of publishing. This is essentially the often discussed idea of unbundling the services provided by publishers (the Ryanair model?). 

Maybe the most concrete example of unbundling of a valuable service could be the checks on non-ethical behavior such as image manipulation or plagiarism. These checks are extremely valuable but right now their costs are not really considered as part of the cost of publishing. Publishers could consider developing a package of such checks, that they use internally, as a service that could be sold to institutions that would like to have their outgoing publications checked. Going forward, some journals could start demanding some certification of ethical checks or funding agencies could also demand such checks to be made on articles resulting from their funded research. Other services could be considered for unbundling in the same way (e.g. peer review) but these checks on non-ethical practices seem the most promising. 

(disclosures: I currently serve on the editorial board of Life Science Alliance the Publications Advisory Board for EMBO Press)