Recently, I was interviewed by Ben Upton from Research Europe on the subject of the recent European Commission's Call for Tenders for the future EC Open Research Publishing Platform. Here are the answers I provided by email, which were referred to in the piece Competition hots up to build open-access publishing platform for Commission which appeared in the 26 April edition of their subscription newsletter.
Why would it matter if the Commission initiative did kill off community publishing efforts?
Community-based efforts have great features: their only interest is to serve science, and they are genuine in their desire to realize universal access to the results of publicly-funded research. They are moreover untainted by dubious competing interests such as profit-making. I view community-based initiatives (like SciPost and others) as leading examples and forces for good in the quest to reform scientific publishing. Since these are run by people from “within” the field, such initiatives are also finely tuned to the true needs of science and scientists. Supporting them is the most rapid, affordable and quality-conscious way to ensure a rapid and successful transition to a better publishing system for the sciences.
Shouldn't the community's time be spent researching, not editing?
Publishing is not rocket science (believe me, it’s much simpler than research!). Anyway, since self-authoring tools have become common (e.g. LaTeX), authors of scientific papers have been producing essentially publication-ready manuscripts. Let’s be honest: there is more or less no “informed” editing currently taking place in publishing (at least in physics, where most editors are not capable of understanding, let alone correctly edit, elements like complex formulae or other advanced elements in a paper). Granted, there is grammar correction and easily automated things like references checking, but “editing” (as one would imagine being done for e.g. a novel) is not a service meaningfully performed by publishers. The most valuable “editing” occurs through refereeing by field specialists followed by author-made corrections, and this work is all done by members of the community, not the publisher. So we scientists already do the authoring, reviewing and editing, and will keep on doing it. It’s part of our job of communicating our research results.
Shouldn't the aim be to have a well-run, cost-efficient academic publishing system with acceptable profit margins? Won't this very possibly help to get us there?
Of course having a well-run, cost-efficient publishing system is crucial. The reality is that we are currently nowhere near this (profit margins being only one of the problems), and the improperly implemented transition to open access (including current “Big Deal” negotiations) are failing to correct that, for the main reason that no alternative infrastructure exists. In this sense, the EC’s call hits the bullseye. But the call’s “one-ring-to-rule-them-all”, eurocentric, big-players-favoured, profit-making friendly approach is far from ideal. Much better would be to create a support system for non-for-profit, community-centered initiatives, helping develop a thriving ecology of novel platforms. I hope big funders realize the need for this sooner rather than later.
You say the Commission initiative wouldn't deprecate for-profit publishers, but actually won't it challenge every publisher that doesn't win the contract, and peg the one that does to an agreed price system?
Whoever wins the call (and I hope it will be some well-intentioned initiative/consortium) will of course be given concrete means to challenge other publishers (ironically starting from the ones which already *have* implemented much of what the call requires, like SciPost). The winning bid will however have to live with hard requirements (e.g. the handover after 4 years) which are incompatible with the ideas of sustainability and community ownership. Publishers who don’t “win the contract” will be free from these shackles, and thus at liberty to make more opportune choices. These are some of the reasons why SciPost will not participate in the call, and focus instead on implementing its own existing (and for many reasons better) development strategy.
On the question of price, it is indeed interesting that the call aims for a point in the ballpark of 1000 euros per publication, which improves the current norm. The majority of papers by EC-funded researchers will however end up being published not in the new portal, but in other venues with higher quality/reputation (the call estimates/guesses that only about 10% of EC-funded research would be published by the new portal). My opinion is that publishers of high-quality, high-reputation journals have little to fear from the new portal as it is envisioned in the call.
Ultimately, don't we want quite a centralised publishing system, rather than a large number of partially overlapping, variable quality, hard-to-find platforms?
Centralization sometimes works superbly (look at the arXiv). But this has to be on an international level, and is only realistic for simple services (for example for preprints, the task is easy, since no refereeing takes place). It is illusory to think that there can (or should) be a centralized publishing system: there are too many different refereeing protocols, editorial workflows, quality criteria, etc for one to want to “fit everything in the same box”. A variety of publishing initiatives is healthy, provided they are community-owned and operated, and untainted by non-scientific “distractions” like profit-making.
The one centralized system which is needed is a system whereby not-for-profit, cummunity-owned and operated publishing initiatives can obtain the institutional support they need to sustain their operations. As I wrote in my previous blog post, this is what I would have preferred the EC to call for.
You say "The nontrivial part is to actually convince scientists that the newly-conceived service is actually worth using." Surely the fact that the funder is backing the platform demonstrates that the funder will consider any work published within that platform to be high-quality?
Well the funders would be free to (as you write) “consider any work published within that platform to be high-quality”, but that doesn’t mean quality will be there. Quality comes from community involvement through effective refereeing and expert-level decision-making. No company/corporate publisher is able to provide that: only the community can. The call puts no emphasis on this aspect, and focuses instead on easy measurables like breadth and volume. Ultimately, quality is judged by scientists, on the basis of publication contents. So let’s see how things develop, while giving the community the chance to decide what is good: after all community members know best, and it is a simple mark of respect to trust their judgement.