open access, publishing

Another Golden Age…but for who?

Paul Harwood,
Associate Director of Learning Resources, Oxford Brookes University ~


Next year will mark my 30th year working in the scholarly publishing world, spent mostly  in the middle ground between publishers and libraries. It has been something of a privileged position, following the powerplay that has been a feature of their relationship over this time and getting to know many of the key figures who have helped define and deliver the business models and technologies that have been both fought over and widely embraced.

I want to use this post to look back at two periods initially: that of the so-called ‘serials crisis’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s, and that period I am calling ‘the age of plenty’ (the 90’s and 00’s), which marked the arrival and take-up of the ‘Big Deal’. Despite giving them different epithets and segmenting them by period, I will suggest that both were golden ages for publishers, where golden has a distinct financial connotation.

I’ll conclude by considering some of the characteristics of a third era (00’s to present) and trying to establish whether this will turn out to be another golden age, for who, and if that original definition can be broadened to reflect something that is more than just about money.

Golden Age #1: The serials crisis (70’s and 80’s)

The serials crisis came as a result of two developments: publishers, especially commercial publishers, fully recognising the extent of the profit to be made from this ‘business’ and, in libraries, the end of a period when money was not really a problem  and budgets were tightened. Libraries began cancelling journal titles to fit reduced budgets and, in response, publishers began increasing the prices of their journals to reflect not just inflationary and other costs but also the income lost from cancelled titles in their portfolio. This vicious circle was compounded in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by volatility in the world’s money markets creating exchange rate fluctuations which, if they went against your invoicing currency, compounded the problem and led to double digit price increases for libraries.

At the same time as this crisis began to take root and become the battleground that defined publisher/librarian relationships for the next 25 years, publishers began cultivating the practice of ‘twigging’ – the branching of a discipline into sub-disciplines giving rise to new journals, or the equivalent division of a journal into separate, more specialised sub-journals. As they began ramping-up their marketing efforts and finding greater precision, libraries began receiving growing numbers of requests from faculty for the latest journal in their field.

And if this wasn’t enough for an increasingly embattled librarian community, the more aggressive or commercially-minded publishers began the process of acquiring competitors or one or more of their key titles. Very quickly, ambitious publishers were both increasing the number of their own titles via twigging, and bagging high profile titles with correspondingly high subscription renewal rates from their competitors.

For many publishers, despite falling library budgets and an increasingly angry and vocal customer base, this period was indeed a golden age for them:

  • Their profit margins continued to grow
  • Their cost of sales was low (no direct sales force)
  • Most customer service was borne by a third party (subscription agents)
  • A proven model (twigging) for increasing the number of journals published that mirrored the way science was moving
  • All wrapped-up in a subscription model where the income is all received in advance,  and at a time when interest rates were significantly higher than they are today!

Golden Age #2: The age of plenty (late 1990’s to 2010)

Online journals arrived on the scene in the late 1990’s. They generated a lot of interest and excitement even though there wasn’t that much to be excited about initially, being exactly the same as the print counterpart but delivered electronically rather than in the post.  Technological development did follow and so did the arrival of usage statistics and other whizzy things, but all of this was secondary to the emergence of a new business and access model that quickly became the talk of the town: The Big Deal.

Apparently devised by Jan Velterop (then of Academic Press, subsequently acquired by Elsevier, with Velterop himself moving over time to be one of the leading lights of the emerging Open Access movement) the Big Deal was hailed as a genuine win-win for publishers and libraries. As Christine Fyfe, formerly Pro-vice-chancellor and Librarian at the University of Leicester observed, it was the first time in years that librarians could sit down with faculty and not talk about the cancellations that would have to be made because of journal price inflation, but instead about the many thousands of additional journals that could now be made available if they could all club together and find a small amount of additional money (typically 3-5% of existing spend) to open-up far more comprehensive access.  Academic libraries around the world bought into this new way of doing business massively and publishers began the process of hiring sales people to promote and sell their offering.

All was rosy in the garden for a while. Librarians had interesting new things to promote (online journals and lots of them!), and they began collaborating with publishers in establishing industry standards for e-journal usage data, and archiving and preservation methodologies and tools (LOCKSS, CLOCKSS and Portico). More than anything else, they assumed a new responsibility as negotiators. In the world of print journals, the price was the price was the price, but in the online world the price for the Big Deal was a negotiation (albeit a very one-sided one), and librarians and publishers could be found at conferences, in hotel lobbies and coffee shops, discussing price caps for multi-year agreements, post-termination access and definitions of Authorised Users. On a personal note, this new business model and negotiated approach to pricing was the opportunity to create a small company, Content Complete Ltd, which between 2003-09 (when it was sold to Jisc Collections) undertook the national NESLI negotiations for UK academic libraries, as well as doing work for Irish and Italian universities and a number of global pharma companies, including GSK and AstraZeneca.

Encouraged by the success of their digital offering, publishers began digitising their journal backfiles and achieved huge success in mopping-up end of financial year money in libraries by selling these in significant quantities and all the way back to volume 1 issue 1, if you had the funds. Still active in publishing brand new titles and looking to acquire titles from other publishers, some of the bigger publishers also started to publish prestigious titles owned by the learned societies, having sold them the line that having titles inside a Big Deal was better than being outside and potentially more vulnerable to being cancelled.

If the previous era was a golden age for publishers, then this one was no less so!

  • The proliferation of Big Deals and the locked-in and additional revenue that it created
  • The sale of backfile content
  • The removal of the middleman (subscription agents) and their commission
  • Greater insights into how libraries (and universities) work, and are funded,  via the introduction of a direct sales force

Another golden age…but for who? (00’s to today)

There was never a publisher-librarian love-in over the Big Deal but it suited both sides very well for a number of years (and continues to do so for some…). However, it didn’t take long for tensions to resurface: the relentless price increases, now mostly attributed by publishers to an equally relentless growth in research and research outputs,  and the feeling by librarians of being trapped and with limited options for cancelling journals and retaining control of their budgets.

Just as online journals enabled the Big Deal,  so to did they facilitate the age of Open Access (OA),  and if we thought the latter years of the previous age were fraught,  as publishers and librarians clashed over prices and profit margins, then we had clearly seen nothing.

To try and capture everything that has happened in terms of the twists and turns of OA is one for Wikipedia or someone who has far more words to play with than I do here. To be honest, I sometimes think I’ve lost the plot anyway as I try and get my head around the many flavours of OA that have emerged since that initial binary distinction was made between subscription, or toll journals and Open Access, or toll free journals. Maybe I’m not alone in feeling that way! To stay informed it is necessary to stay close to the movers and shakers,  who nowadays extend beyond publishers and librarians, and have the ability to cultivate a way to shut out the noise from the meaningful debate and concrete action.

It was in February 2002 that the Budapest Open Access Initiative was launched and it remains one of the defining moments of a journey that, nearly 17 years on, is still not over.  To extend the journey metaphor, we can talk about so many diversions, road blocks, jams, by-passes and new routes along the way that might have destroyed lesser initiatives, but the vehicle is still on the road and, in the eyes of many, nearing its destination, wherever that might be.

I’m loathe to add to the noise around OA and lack the intellectual credentials to add something profound or meaningful that can help shape the direction of travel. Instead, this is what I’ve observed over this period:

  • Outraged young academics castigating publishers as though the latter’s exploitation of the scholarly publishing market was something new and not been going on for 30 years
  • Some of those same individuals setting up rival ‘publishing’ services and selling them to publishers, or going to work for seemingly more ‘acceptable’ or ‘righteous’ publishers
  • The world’s largest scholarly publisher no longer calling itself a publisher and becoming a ‘multinational information and analytics company’
  • SpringerNature pulling back from a stock market flotation because of weak investor demand
  • Librarians egging themselves on to walk away from a negotiation with a leading publisher (something that’s now happened and clearly catching on…)
  • Some librarians wondering why we continue to subscribe to journals when most academics use ResearchGate or Sci-Hub and share the content between themselves
  • Some librarians secretly hope that Sci-Hub brings publishers down from their high profit margins and share prices, even if what the site is doing is illegal and should go against their professional instincts
  • Dishonest individuals and organisations seeking to exploit authors through what has become known as predatory publishing
  • Significant investments by publishers,  libraries, and bodies like Jisc to manage OA workflows and payments
  • The dark art of  ‘double dipping’
  • The concept of the megajournal
  • Publishers biting the hand that feeds them by publicly challenging the value that librarians bring to the scholarly communications process
  • The success of UCL Press and other fledgling University Press publishing ventures around the world
  • People like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg getting involved in scholarly publishing via the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

I could go on would memory and recall allow. Dare I say it, but there are parallels in this journey to OA with the journey a certain country is trying to make right now (the ‘B’ word…). That one started out  with what appeared to be a straight binary choice: ‘In’ or ‘Out’, rather like the OA or subscription future for journals, but has become progressively more complex and embittered as natural inclinations and predispositions mingle with vested interest and create stagnation, misinformation, confusion and mistrust.

Librarians still don’t seem to have carried academics with them in this debate, just as they failed to get them on board and fighting their corner in the early days of double-digit price increases from publishers. There also remains this fundamental difference between what is being asked of academics to achieve career advancement (publish in the best journals in the field) and what is being asked of them in terms of embracing OA. Now perhaps, will be the time for the academic community to become more engaged with the debate and perhaps we will start to witness a period when the two main protagonists of the last 30 years – librarians and publishers – exit stage left (or at least take on a more supporting role) and funders and academics move centre stage.

Holding on to their Big Deal agreements whilst subtly holding back the move to OA to buy time for formulating new strategies, suggests that this age hasn’t been without its gold for publishers. A number of them, despite their double dipping formulae will also have done pretty well from Article Processing Charges (APC’s) just in the UK,  let alone anywhere else. But, my word, they’ve had to work harder than they’ve ever done before and the amount of money spent on legal fees and lobbying must be eye-watering in some cases! As we approach the end of 2018, Plan S looks set to reignite the smouldering fire,  and with a target implementation date of January 2020, we can expect conferences and email discussion lists to be packed full of Plan S debate, with all kinds of things going on behind the scenes that will eventually surface when the landscape becomes clearer.

Scholarly communication/publishing is about sharing and it needs a common infrastructure to work at its best. A more satisfying golden age, one where the literature is freed from monetary and technological barriers needs funders and countries to work together to help provide this, and the current geopolitical environment doesn’t look so helpful in this regard. Ironically, publishers have done some great things, collaboratively, over the years, and something like CrossRef, which enables readers to hop from article to article, is a great example of what can be achieved for the greater good.

I’ve been lucky to get up close to some of the leading scholarly publishers and we write them off at our peril. However, I can’t see them sustaining or recreating those earlier golden ages and the associated high profit margins, and that will be a challenge for them, especially those with institutional shareholders. With a couple of countries/consortia having now walked away from the negotiation table and seemingly finding life not unbearable, others will be emboldened, including our colleagues at Jisc, who still go out to bat on our behalf in negotiating agreements with the leading journal publishers and are reaching crunch point right about now with a couple of them.

Equally, I cannot see that more satisfying and all encompassing golden age of OA just around the corner or even achieved in the final few years I have left working in this arena. Maybe it’s because there are just too many really big challenges for the world out there right now, and this one is always going to struggle to get due attention. Of course, what those early OA pioneers, and those who still push daily to advance the cause, would say at this point is that a fully functioning and comprehensive OA landscape can only help the world tackle many of these challenges, and who could disagree with that?


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