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Opportunities-in-waiting

The recently-published OA Diamond Journals Study is something I have been looking forward to reading for a long time. Looking at the results, it’s patently clear that authors should be highly commended for the remarkable efforts they made to reach out to the community, gather such valuable input and synthesize it in such a pleasantly digestible manner. Even for somebody swimming in the world of Diamond on a daily basis, this resource contains much to learn from.

My greatest regret is that this study was not commissioned years earlier, at the very beginning of the implementation of Plan S, whose long-neglected Principle 3 explicitly called for support for Open Access infrastructures where necessary. The need for support for Diamond initiatives, which is a prominent conclusion of the study, has actually been manifestly clear for a very long time, so it’s good to finally see at least some formalized statement of that fact.

The first part of the study is an impressive document covering the crucial themes of: journals Landscape, Compliance with accepted standards, Dynamics, and Sustainability. The main findings reflect the wide variety of journals, their relative success at achieving compliance, their “mix of scientific strengths and operational challenges”, and their (over-)reliance on the goodwill of academics to provide volunteer work in the face of sustainability challenges. The study is and will remain a very informative read and provides an accurate and lasting snapshot of the current situation.

The second part of the study is a separate document in which specific recommendations are made. Their list contains 20 items split in 5 categories: Technical support, Compliance, Capacity building, Effectiveness and Sustainability.

The first two categories (Technical support (R1.1-3) and Compliance (R2.1-5)) very concretely identify effective actions which can be directly initiated. I find their conclusions and recommendations very valuable, and certainly, hope that they can be rapidly implemented.

The third category (Capacity building (R3.1-3)) starts by proposing the formation of an OA Diamond Capacity Centre, which would form a kind of hub to “help grow, strengthen, innovate and save costs” for the sector. I admire the concreteness of the suggestions and would certainly be keen to share my own expertise and experiences (and benefit from that of others) within such a setup. Recommendation R3.3 (which perhaps should have been ordered as R3.2) calls for an “international symposium” and “workshops” to prepare the creation of this Centre, explicit mention being made of numerous key players. Little to mention here except: why wait so long? Once again, I think that this should have been done years ago, and find it unfortunate that such things seem to be condemned to moving so slowly.

Going back to Recommendation R3.2, this calls for an “organized marketplace” for OA Diamond. When I first read this headline, I thought “Bingo!” because I was hoping that this would call for a “marketplace” (unfortunate word in a community-driven, not-for-profit context) where OA Diamond providers could “market” their services and gather “clients”. Instead, the recommendation only calls for helping “OA Diamond journals find fair, reliable and high-quality service providers” for sub-services in need of outsourcing. Fine, the recommendation does not have the ambition of the one I was really looking for, but its clear focus and sharp definition make it a “no-brainer”: straight on the to-do list, please.

We now move to the fourth categoryIncrease effectiveness“. Here, my reaction to the document took a tangent.

Without wanting to be negative, I’m not sure what to make of the recommendations R4.1 to 4.6. I find them simply too vague to offer much hope of seeing them lead to concrete action. In my heart, I of course agree with much of what they say and call for, but in the same way, I agree that we should cure cancer and clean up the environment. The question is not whether we want to do all of this, but rather how we should set about doing so, and these recommendations do not provide a clear enough roadmap, nor offer concrete steps forward.

I would here like to expand on this theme, because I think it is a reflection of a significant vulnerability permeating the OA movement.

The OA movement has been active for two solid decades now, and the very fact that we are still at the stage we are at with publishing naturally brings forth questions on the (lack of) effectiveness of the measures which have been taken up to now. Putting on the hat of a neutral observer (as far as I am able to do so in this context, which can be contested), it seems to me that the corporate publishing sector has been systematically and consistently outmanoeuvring and outsmarting the academic sector (yearly financial reports of big corporate players, including future predicted income, provide much evidence for this). The recent acceleration of the pace of signing huge (gargantuan!) agreements with legacy publishers shows that hyperinflated APCs are winning the race. Current top players have it all lined up: they will milk APCs as far and long as they can (as it looks now: perpetually), and to safeguard their future are simply reorienting towards data management and internal information/evaluation systems to perpetuate their highly effective customer lock-in strategies. To watch literally hundreds of millions being committed to reinforcing established players via various forms of Agreements, while a mere 30k euros is used to perform a study on non-APC models (which as the study shows represent a very substantial fraction of the scholarly output), is really not where we need to be right now.

Putting on the hat of a neutral observer, it seems to me that the corporate publishing sector has been systematically and consistently outmanoeuvring and outsmarting the academic sector (yearly financial reports of big corporate players, including future predicted income, provide much evidence for this). The recent acceleration of the pace of signing huge (gargantuan!) agreements with legacy publishers shows that hyperinflated APCs are winning the race.

The lack of available money for all things Diamond indeed transpires throughout the study. So why is there so little money available for that? My answer might just surprise you by its simplicity. There is little money available for Diamond, simply because little money is being made available for Diamond. Said otherwise: there is no properly functioning, large-scale, established funding stream for Diamond. Current funding structures, policies, habits and reflexes at institutional level are mostly fine-tuned, tailored and optimized to serve (disappearing) subscription models and (fast-growing, though financially hemorrhagic) APC-based models from legacy publishers. Except for isolated (some would say marginal) initiatives, no proper alternative has been developed to *concretely* and *sustainably* support Diamond OA on a sufficiently broad scale to have a large impact on the industry.

Why is that?

Speaking from personal experience, if there is one miscalculation which I made when getting involved in building publishing infrastructure, it was to underestimate the resistance to moving away from the transaction-style “sending an invoice for every publication” (an accountant-friendly approach entirely appropriate for sandwiches or soft drinks), towards one of “publishing as part of the international academic infrastructure” (this being much closer in spirit to the way research is actually performed, but so difficult to implement, because goodwill is required). I was under the illusion that funding a consortial system at the community level, if it demonstrably realized order-of-magnitude scale economies, would become the self-obvious thing to do for otherwise money-smart institutions. Little did I understand the power of targeting and depleting. An invoice (even for an eye-watering amount adjusted to what the client can pay, not what the production costs are) with a clear account number and a looming deadline triggers automatic payment. A plea for sponsorship with non-obligatory contribution of a fraction of the actual costs, in contrast, most often leads to polite dismissal (why pay if you don’t have to? you’d be stupid to do that!). It really doesn’t have to be that way. As the saying goes, (individual) penny wise, (community) pound foolish.

And this finally brings me to the fifth category of the recommendations, “Sustain and invest in the future“.

Lots of valuable stuff in there (even traces of the “funding by authorship ratio” which an initiative close to my heart is attempting to implement). Mention is made of greatly promising initiatives like my own university’s recently-initiated Diamond OA Fund which I wholeheartedly applaud. One other initiative, any mention of which is somewhat surprisingly omitted from the study, is the French Fonds National pour la Science Ouverte (FNSO) which is a larger national-scale, project-based funding scheme. Surely, generalizing the deployment of such schemes is something which should urgently happen?

If you are going to read only one section of the study’s recommendations, let it be this fifth section. A path to a better future is outlined there. Still, I think the recommendations could have been bolder and more concrete. First of all, I wish section 5 had been entitled “Growth and sustainability” instead of just “Sustainability”.

Going further, what I would have loved to see would have been something like: Establish, with immediate effect, an operations granting scheme for Diamond journals.

With the words “with immediate effect”, I mean *now*; not after more deliberations and studies. Better to get started with a construction which aims in the right direction and which you can tweak, than to remain frozen into inaction because you fear not getting things right at the first attempt. By “operations granting scheme”, I mean a simple setup (with hassle-free rather than overly bureaucratic calls, evaluation and reporting protocols) which offers concrete guaranteed minimal support (money!) for the coming years based on current levels of activity, ideally with a growth margin factored in. This would address one of the crippling features inherent to anything Diamond OA, which is the nigh impossibility of funding (and thus implementing) any growth strategy. As experience shows, any business idea with a promise can go to a bank and get a loan, or float and suddenly be worth dozens of billions while having not yet realized anything. Not so for Diamond: even after years of operation and recognition by academic peers, there is still no way to finance perfectly implementable growth strategies, because there is no guarantee that concrete accomplishments will be recognized and rewarded by continued funding. Currently, the only growth model for Diamond is a suicidal one, in which one must take steps which carry the risk of short-term bankruptcy at the first hurdle, all the while witnessing multiple-orders-of-magnitude higher money streams propping up competing (and arguably much less efficient) legacy systems. Establishing such a Diamond operational granting scheme would provide critically-needed confidence to Diamond initiatives, which would then empower them to truly scale up and have an impact, instead of letting the potential continue to go to waste through mere hesitation.

Currently, the only growth model for Diamond is a suicidal one, in which one must take steps which carry the risk of short-term bankruptcy at the first hurdle, all the while witnessing multiple-orders-of-magnitude higher money streams propping up competing (and arguably much less efficient) legacy systems.

The chance to change the publishing business is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. At this time, funders and academic institutions face the choice of perpetuating overpaying for a service which is very much *not* rocket science for the mere benefit of administrative simplicity (invoice → pay, next invoice → pay), or of pro-actively supporting (as paying clients) an infrastructure-level Diamond solution to the academic publishing problem. When (rather: if ever) non-APC models finally get the attention they deserve, as thing are currently going, the ship will already have sailed, money pumps will have been rebuilt into money pipelines (flowing to the same old havens), the infrastructure will be congealed again for 20 years and the opportunity for a better, cheaper alternative will have passed.

♦ ♦ ♦

I thus urge the higher powers to carefully read between the lines of the study’s recommendations, put their boldness goggles on and view full implementation of the measures in this study as a starting point only. It is high time to take concrete, immediate steps to make the most out of the current opportunities-in-waiting.

 


Related reading:

Reflections on the OA Diamond Journals Study

Diamond Mining




JEAN-SEBASTIEN CAUX

Jean-Sébastien Caux

Jean-Sébastien Caux is Professor of Low-Dimensional Quantum Condensed Matter at the University of Amsterdam. His work focuses on applying advanced, nonperturbative theoretical methods to translate state-of-the-art mathematical concepts into concrete physical predictions for strongly-correlated systems in the fields of magnetism, cold atoms and quantum nanostructures. After undergraduate studies in Montréal, he moved to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and obtained his doctorate in 1998. Following a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, he returned to Oxford as Postdoctoral Fellow in All Souls College, finally landing in Amsterdam in 2003. He is the recipient of (among others) the NWO Vici and ERC Advanced grants. Prof. Caux is a strong believer in openness in scientific publishing. He is the founder of SciPost, a non-profit foundation whose mission is to provide publishing solutions serving the best interests of science and scientists, and which runs the SciPost.org two-way open access publication portal. He also acts as Plan S ambassador.