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- The open access movement has broken down barriers for readers only to erect them for authors. The reason for this is the Item Handling Charge (APC), which usually amounts to Rs 2-5 lakh.
- The APC model, with its paid authorship access, is the subscription model seen through a camera obscura: author paywalls instead of reading paywalls.
- The emerging APC regime also renews the anointing of commercial oligopolies – the same five corporations that defraud universities through usurious subscription fees.
- Any alternative to the current scholarly communication system must be built on a different funding model that excludes neither readers nor authors.
- Broadly, this model will center on direct support to publishing, drawn from funds currently allocated to subscription and APC expenses. Call it the crowdfunding model.
The open access movement has broken down barriers for readers only to erect them for authors. The reason for this is the Item Processing Fee (APC), which typically ranges from $3,0001 to $5,0002. The APC model, with its paid access to authorship, is the subscription model seen through a black room: author paywalls instead of read paywalls.
Most academics cannot afford the high fees, a fact masked by the privileged segment that can: scientists from the wealthy industrialized world and scholars from a handful of wealthy European countries and North American universities. Fees are often paid through so-called “read and publish” agreements, which build APCs into subscription contracts that libraries negotiate with publishers.
The emerging APC regime also renews the anointing of commercial oligopolies – the same five corporations that defraud universities through usurious subscription fees. Springer Nature, Elsevier and their peers, with every reading and publishing deal, shift their huge profit margins from toll to open – and capture the lion’s share of library expenses in the process. Librarians continue to fund the fee-based system, while bearing – in wealthier institutions – the bill for author fees from their faculty. The result is a freeze on spending by the incumbent publisher, which ratifies the APC regime.
Any alternative to the current scholarly communication system must be based on a different funding model that does not exclude readers or authors. Broadly, this model will center on direct support to publishing, drawn from funds currently allocated to subscription and APC expenses. The same funders who fund the toll and APC system—libraries but also foundations and government agencies—will, under this approach, redirect budgets to support a diverse, community-driven publishing ecosystem. Call it the crowdfunding model, based on open access for readers and authors.
Crowdfunding is an appealing idea, versions of which have been circulating since at least 2006, with significant variations on the theme published since. The challenge is to make the model work beyond a handful of successful single-resource experiments (including the arXiv preprint server, the Open Library of Humanities, and the SCOAP3 particle physics journals, among others). The two main obstacles are coordination and donor involvement. The academic communication system involves thousands of funders and hundreds of publishers, which is a nightmarish coordination challenge. A related obstacle, compounded by many actors, is the free rider problem. Free open access is a public good that benefits everyone, even non-payers; if enough libraries pull out, the crowdfunding system risks collapsing.
These challenges must be faced with frontal sobriety. One of the practical advantages of author-pays (APC) and reader-pays (subscription) alternatives is that they operate like markets for private goods. Both are plagued with failures – above all the unbalanced market power of oligopoly, built through the prestige lock-in of the established journal hierarchy. Even so, librarians and other funders buy goods for their campus constituencies, in the form of reader or author access. Elsevier can charge $20,508 for a Chromatography Log subscription – and Nature $11,390 to publish OA – but at least the benefits go to the library buyer. These costs, of course, are not bearable even for rich institutions, but the fact is that the dominant ecosystem is financed by the uncoordinated coordination of a market. Many buyers and a handful of sellers enter into access agreements on the basis of price, disciplined (in theory) by demand.
, in a strategic but very nuanced mimicry of a traditional market. Funders, with their own (preferably elaborate) value pledges, scour potential recipients who have declared their own values. Answers to standardized questions stipulated by the exchange, provided by publishers and infrastructure providers, provide libraries and other funders with a basis for allocating scarce resources across multi-year commitments.
In the MAFE model, publishers must be non-profit and community-driven. Each press or newspaper provides detailed cost and publication projections, and commits to uniform transparency and reporting requirements. Once a publisher has met its stated funding need, the library and other funders can seek other worthy recipients. Aspiring publisher-participants are selected by the exchange, according to principles and criteria approved by the community governance. This last point is crucial: any successful exchange will require a form of shared and tripartite governance, with the genuine participation of funders, publishers and academics. Each of these communities, for the legitimacy of the exchange and lasting bonds of trust, must have a say in how the rules and basic expectations are set.
To my knowledge, the idea of such an exchange was first elaborated by Jack Hyland, Alexander Kouker and Dmitry Zaitsev, in a 2019 Knowledge paper. Their system, however, emphasizes price and quality competition rather than value resonance as the key matching mechanism. Sharla Lair of LYRASIS, in collaboration with Rachael Samberg of UC Berkeley, presented the mission critical component.
In their open-access community investment program pilot proposal, Lair and Samberg placed mission alignment at the center of the discussion. Their community-driven approach, they wrote, could benefit “tailor-made OA programs, the production of small non-profit or native OA publishers, or niche science production” – various projects without easy access to other sources of funding. Journals participating in the pilot project were required to set out their commitments and plans in a structured criteria form to inform potential funders.
COPIM’s exchange, slated to launch in spring 2022, plans to operate a similar web-based platform, albeit focused on book publishers. In a recent report, COPIM researchers described the fundamental principles intended to guide the development of the exchange, including collaborative governance. One of the main innovations of the COPIM platform, as it is designed, is to encourage applicants to bundle their funding requests. The ScholarLed group of publishers, for example, could collaborate on a single call for its members. The practical benefit of such intertwining of exchange participants would be to foster a smaller, trust-based community with reduced verification burdens for librarian-funders. The risk is that these bundles become clubs and favor publishers already connected from the North. An explicit platform-wide commitment to bibliodiversity must be included in the charter of each exchange.
As historian Aileen Fyfe has shown, the current joint custody arrangement – not-for-profit universities and for-profit publishers – is a recent and reversible development. The work of reversal, of restoring custody, means bringing the funding back into the community. We can, at the same time, provide open access in its full and meaningful sense – that is, for readers and for authors. This means exclude author-exclude APC.
The alternative is crowdfunding of one type or another. In practice, this means that libraries and other funders will subscribe to a system which, at its core, is based on ability to pay. This is how it should be: Harvard and the Dutch university system should contribute far more, per capita, than the University of Ghana. A person’s ability to post anywhere should never depend on the ability of themselves or their employer to afford the fees.
There is nothing utopian about this premise: when we say that worthy authors should be able to publish regardless of their wealth, we are defending the most indisputable fundamental value of the academic tradition. How could anyone outside the Elsevier boardroom argue otherwise?
This leaves the practical question of how to operate an OA system just. We have promising crowdfunding models, especially for incumbent publishers looking to turn revenue from subscriptions and book sales into support for free and open access. But this is not an option for the emerging ecosystem, born of OA, which has nothing of “legacy” to display as collateral.
This is where the mission-aligned funding exchange comes in. This is a convenient mechanism for connecting nonprofit funders with nonprofit publishers – a community-driven coordination tool for a system with many participants.
If we are committed to restoring the custody of scholarly publishing – and providing free access to readers and authors alike – we must push for what is the only fair course: crowdfunding.
Jefferson Pooley is Professor of Media and Communication at Muhlenberg College, Allentown. He writes on the history of media research, the history of social science, scholarly communication, consumer culture, and social media.
This article was first published by Mundane and has been republished here under a CC BY 4.0 license.