The current phase of transition shows that gold Open Access (OA) is likely to be a disruptive force for the establishment. Libraries and institutions aim to cut costs by pushing for more Open Access; publishers seek to raise profits, or at least stay in business. New ventures are growing in between those needs: they’re cheaper than established offerings, but can survive on lower profit margins. Those ventures gradually build the infrastructure for future scholarly communication. But at what cost?
Open Access Book Publishing: Policy-Driven Disruption?
Open Access books make a striking example. The long form is still the most relevant form of research output in the humanities and social sciences, but it is past its economic peak. Publishers state that they tend to receive ever more proposals for new books, while overall sales per title fell by 40% between 2005 and 2014. This drives the price per title up to cover costs, which in return makes the books again harder to sell. A predicament for which Open Access may seem a reasonable response. In the end, Open Access helps to advance the reach of content, while cutting costs, for instance, by avoiding authentication tools or allowing for effective zero inventory.
Nevertheless, book processing charges (BPC) for most Open Access titles range at £10,000 to £15,000, and this amount has a reason. Editorial work for books is complex and expensive. Saving on editorial processes mostly leads to poorer quality. To make Open Access possible, affiliated libraries or funders often subsidise the BPCs. But as library budgets are tight, this solution forces researchers of the same institution to compete for very limited funds.
For instance, some institutions explain to their researchers that they are eligible for funding—but only in case their research is highly rated in the REF. Yet, to be considered in the REF (in the future), a researcher’s output already needs to be Open Access. Furthermore, those who conduct basic research tend to be overshadowed by those who do applied research, and universities themselves are competing for budget. Large research institutions are financially better equipped than smaller ones. All in all, while Open Access becomes the policy-driven standard, this situation of oversupply and competition provides the optimal environment for disruption.
Open Access: An Idea to Break Monopolistic Power
New ventures undermine the competition by showing altogether different solutions. These new ventures range from non-profits like Language Science Press or PLoS, to companies like Knowledge Unlatched or Faculty of 1000, and subsidiaries of the establishment like BioMed Central. They may offer collaborative processes which move the key value creation from publishers to researchers. Or they facilitate services which are welcomed to solve Open Access problems of established publishers, for instance, discoverability or crowdfunding solutions.
Backed by powerful Open Access policies especially in the US, the UK, and Europe, libraries and funders flock to these new ventures. But proof of reliability is scarce, and the infrastructure that they build may eventually create an unprecedented dependency for researchers and smaller publishers. With steep growth rates, this new infrastructure is poised to be a disruption in disguise, ultimately becoming the future publishing landscape.
Yet, Open Access was an idea to break monopolistic power (or monopolistic competition, more precisely), not create new power. All stakeholders involved should therefore scrutinise this emerging infrastructure to not make the same mistake like in journal publishing decades ago: Are these ventures benefitting research in the long run? Is this publishing process likely to be viable in large scale publishing? And in the end, are we again feeding a future cash cow?