Jean-S├ębastien Caux

Thoughts on the Call for Tenders for the EC's Open Research Publishing Platform

Posted on 2018-04-02   Publishing

I just spent a couple of hours reading through the European Commission's Call for Tenders for the future EC Open Research Publishing Platform. In short, this aims to find a single organization to build this portal, whose objectives are to:

  • Offer a reliable and user-friendly open access publishing venue to scientific publications stemming from Horizon 2020, with rapid publication times.
  • Offer to the beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 an open access publishing venue without cost to them for publishing in open access after their grants finish.
  • Provide to the beneficiaries of Horizon 2020 a high-quality service that meets general and discipline-specific standards of scientific publishing.
  • Reinforce the position of the Commission as a funder that leads by example in operationalising open science in its multiannual framework programmes for research and innovation by supporting practices beyond open access to publications, such as open peer-review, the early sharing of research through pre-prints and innovative ('alternative') metrics services as part of the Platform.
  • Contribute towards transparency and cost-effectiveness in scientific publishing, as well as towards the exploration of sustainable open access business models.

My first reaction was: hey, this is amazing, they are calling for precisely what SciPost is realizing! Of course there would still be work to finish off (expand to areas beyond physics, improve portal response times, ...), but the essence is already there (the call feels like a description of SciPost's publishing services, open refereeing, non-APC-based business model, innovative metrics etc), and it almost felt like a good angel at the European Commission had looked at what we do and tried to give us a way to get the EC to support our mission.

My elation however quickly faded. After reading through the document in detail, I am much less positive about it, and even see it as a threat to Open Science rather than as an accelerator. I'd like to explain why.

It disfavours community-run initiatives

Point 4.2.3 contains Criterion F1, which requires the tenderer to have had an annual turnover of over € 1 000 000 for each of the last two financial years.

Although the call can reasonably demand that tenderers have the required economic and financial capacity to implement the portal, this criterion works as a very effective block for not-for-profit organizations which are active in publishing but do not run a business based on inflated costs and extortionate profits. So despite the fact that we at SciPost have already built much of the system which is required for this call, and could easily extend it to the required scale, we cannot submit an application because we don't juggle enough money (and we never will, that's the whole point of our business model).

In the longer term, once the Platform will be implemented and released, its main effect might actually be to kill off a whole ecosystem of community-led, not-for-profit publishing initiatives which are currently emerging in a grassroots effort to clean up the academic publishing business. The Platform will not kill off corporate publishers, whose services it does not deprecate, and which can easily demonstrate that they have the required "financial capacity". Instead, it will directly compete with services like SciPost, which were quicker off the mark in implementing what the call demands. So instead of becoming a Supporting Partner, the EC now gives the impression that it is busy positioning itself as a direct competitor.

Its focus on Horizon 2020 beneficiaries is incompatible with the desire for quality

Here, I certainly don't mean that H2020 beneficiaries are not capable of producing good work (on the contrary!). What I mean is that for the platform to be successful, it is not sufficient to just build the service and release it with a particular target group in mind. Academics rely very much on reputation to choose their publishing venues; a place focused on serving H2020 only will fail to attract top-quality work (non-H2020 researchers will not publish there; H2020-funded ones will send their top papers to an international-level venue instead).

It fails to build on (and even threatens) existing preprint infrastructure

In physics, for the last three decades, we have relied on the arXiv to serve all our needs relative to preprints. The arXiv offers a superb service to the community: it is the single, universal port of call used by professional physicists (and others) throughout the world. Its non-corporate foundations mean that its credibility is untainted and unquestioned, and its value-for-money as high as can be. Other fields of science are waking up to the benefits of this system, and are actively implementing similar services.

The EC now wishes to have yet another piece of infrastructure reproducing those services. While the desire to provide preprint services to a broader community (more diverse in subject area) is laudable, it is already obvious that in physics, this will not fly, because it is simply not needed. The problem goes even further: arXiv needs minimal funds to keep operating. Up to now, it has survived by gathering small sums from beneficiaries throughout the world (ask your local librarian how much your university contributes for arXiv; if they do, and if they are overly generous, it'll be around €1000, much less than the APCs of a single paper in this mad world). The EC also contributed to arXiv, but rumours are that this will stop, perhaps because of the plans for the Platform, but also because it is structurally much more difficult to arrange donations to arXiv (or SciPost for that matter) than tower-high payments for APCs. So the EC's strategy seems to be: instead of supporting the community-run solution, try to deprecate it.

The long-term problem is not in the infrastructure

Building a successful publishing initiative is not just a question of infrastructure. To be honest, the infrastructure (getting the site ready, with all its functionalities) is in a sense the trivial part: it just requires programming skills (just look around at the existing and emerging initiatives). The nontrivial part is to actually convince scientists that the newly-conceived service is actually worth using. This can take years. It relies on countless private conversations on the reasons/benefits/imperatives for reform, and it requires scientists to trust the new service with their extremely valuable research results. A quality-driven, by-and-for-the-community, not-for-profit service then has much more convincing power, but this spirit is absent from the call, which only barely acknowledges that scientists should be involved in the running of the Platform. So: what can one expect? Scientists will submit their quality work elsewhere.

Vague implications for the long-term future

The winner of the call, who will implement the Platform, is contractually required to cover a period of 4 years, but also to prepare the handover (section 3.6 of the call). We are thus left with a complete lack of clarity as to what happens after this period of 4 years. Will the EC keep running the service? Will the EC be the owner of all journal titles and have all decisional powers on editorial board composition, publishing standards, etc, ever after? Or will these be simply sold out to the winning bidder of another future call for tenders? The worrying fact that the call has no requirement for "not-for-profit" means that we might end up with a situation in which the current for-profit corporate monsters in the publishing business will have been replaced by... differently-dressed for-profit corporate monsters. This is the sad fact about the business of publishing: not-for-profit organizations face unfair competition from for-profit ones, especially when it comes to... raising money. If a call does not demand not-for-profit, it's pretty obvious that it won't get it.

What the EC should have done instead

In my opinion, this call represents a missed opportunity, and its implementation might lead to further damage to the causes of open access and reform of the publishing business (we all agree that they are badly needed). The single-winner, one-ring-to-rule-them-all approach expressed in the present call of the EC would better be reworked into a different construction whereby multiple emerging not-for-profit, non-APC-financed publishers like SciPost and others, could obtain concrete, sustainable support in the form of operational grants (based on output level and achieved standards, or even better through cost-slashing consortial models like the one SciPost uses). In this way, we would be able to build a truly diverse, excellence-based new generation of publishing services to deprecate the current failed ones.

Let us see what the future brings. But for me, the message is clear: we must work harder to really build the healthy publishing system that we need for the sciences, and to avoid the creation of a "new" system which is still marked by the failures of the old one. Now please excuse me, but I really have to go back to work.