Jean-S├ębastien Caux

Interview with Gerard Kohler (UvA library)

Posted on 2019-06-10   Publishing

The University of Amsterdam has recently granted €60k to SciPost. As background to this, I ran a short interview with Gerard Kohler of the UvA's central library. Here is the transcript.

J-SC:
Can you briefly explain your reasons for supporting SciPost?

GK:
That goes back to the "serials crisis" in the last century. Subscriptions became increasingly expensive at the time, and some journal title prices increased by 20%. Titles were also split, so that publishers could cash in twice. There was a worldwide movement to find solutions for this. Subscriptions were cancelled en masse, and besides arXiv, other hopeful initiatives such as WoPEc and SSRN were created. This was very threatening for the publishers who then introduced the Big Deals, which ended up killing many of those hopeful initiatives. I wrote a few articles about this at the time with the warning not to fall into this alluring trap. But the offer was too tempting. In the end everything I warned against happened. Small publishers disappeared or were bought up and an oligopoly of large publishers arose. And the costs did not decrease. The open access movement that came into being at the start of this century did not in any way cause a fall in costs. On the contrary.

With SciPost I see a possibility from the community to take control again. Actually a possibility that we had left behind at the time. You also see that the publishers are now reacting again with tempting new possibilities. But in the end it is their goal to keep making the same profits. We are now much stronger than at the time because technology is better and especially because science itself is now worried. Until a few years ago, open access was primarily a library thing. The chance is there now, and we have to continue. This requires investment and courage.

J-SC:
SciPost uses a very different business model as compared to other publishers, based not on Article Processing Charges but on sponsorships from organizations benefitting from its activities. What are your impressions of how successful such a model can be at replacing current systems?

GK:
APCs are the worst possible solution. You still give publishers the opportunity to mess with this as they did in the past with the single title prices and later with the Big Deal contracts. The initiative must lie with science, and SciPost ensures that. But we must not underestimate the difficulties of achieving sustainability for successful initiatives. For example, SSRN and Bepress were both bought by a major publisher last year.

SciPost also offers open peer review, which I believe is the only way for science to keep research unbiased and pure.

J-SC:
What would you most desire to see SciPost implement or expand to in the future?

GK:
I think that SciPost will be successful within STM, but the expansion to the social sciences and especially the humanities is also very important. That will be difficult because the publication culture is different there. But we have to face it and daring means that you are now making funding available for it. Eventually that will pay off, but we have to give this time, maybe 10 years, because the big publishers are tough opponents.