“What do we want?”  “An end to Science Publishing.” “When do we want it?”  “Now!” As I finished the account of the revolt by the editors and editorial board of Lingua against Elsevier’s pricing policies (www.insidehighered.com/news) and the interesting blog by Martin Haspelmath on diamond open access (Free Science Blog 28 Oct-5 Nov), I heard, in my mind’s eye, the sound of these junior researchers marching outside of the Amsterdam office of Elsevier in November 2020 – or sooner! Has it really come to this? And why now?

In all changes associated with digital communications networks, one profile is very marked and certain. Change happens gradually, imperceptibly, until you reach the so-called tipping point. Then it goes suddenly, violently, and way beyond the ability of its promoters to control it. So is that going to happen in science journal publishing? Or will the need for science journal publishing itself have changed before we decide that publishers are dodos? Those who are confident that the great houses will outlast us all are still using the “never” word, which terrifies me. In every digital marketplace I have worked in those who said “never” about format and business model change went out of business, and while they were very effective yellow pages or local newspaper publishers they grossly underestimated the post tipping point slide.

For a long time, almost it seems since Stevan Harnad was an apple-cheeked youth, business strategists in STM have asked people like me whether Open Access would ruin everything. And I always said “no”, reasoning that other things would happen to ruin everything if they did not try to build new businesses alongside the irresistible margins of Big Deal bundling. Those new businesses, based on the workflow of researchers, needed to address easing and simplifying of scholarly communications. If the issues were about data access then publishers could invest in data availability to provide an evidential basis for published research. If the issues were about speed to market, then publishers could build a fastrack. If the issues were about cross-searching and data-mining, then publishers would have to make it easy to search across their article databases through co-operation.

And this raises another issue about digital marketplaces. Traditional suppliers cease to be competitors – the ultimate competitor is always the ability of the customer to do things better for himself. Thus Elsevier, Wiley, Springer-Nature and their smaller peers are no longer competitors, or certainly not in terms of their big branded journals. Those titles are monopolies. At lower levels there is competition for authors, allegedly, and there can be competition for library budgets. Yet in a world where science research spending has grown through recession, and where the market expenditure has a higher share of research team and individual spending than ever before, there is no competitive pressure on price, which is why the Lingua resignations are so interesting. And note that there is not much pressure on costs either, as long as people like Johann Rooryck are prepared to accept a salary of $5500 for the prestigious role of editing the journal (it’s a source of wonderment to me that publishers do not charge academics to be editors …!).

The Lingua people will now do their own thing. LinguOA is now established as a Dutch non-profit trust or stichting, but the idea that sticks with me in this bust up is the role of the funders. The idea, implicit in “diamond OA”, that funders should acquire or become journal publishers – how many APCs do you need to pay before that becomes feasible – is very attractive in terms of some major players – Gates, Wellcome, Max Planck to name but three. Or are aware and sensible publishers already talking to them about doing deals and ensuring that publishers keep their role as a service industry that understands user needs, not the usurped role of deciding the fate of science communication under the guise of maintaining peer review standards.

And the argument does eventually come down to this: who controls the publication decision. In this new age of metrics it is clear to me that the decision about what is good science and what is not has effectively passed into the network domain, and away from editorial boards controlled and paid for by publishers. Peers decide these things by their usage and citation, and as post publication peer review gets more sophisticated we shall get ever better ways of ranking contributions and mapping the state of scientific enquiry. Publishers can help with this – look at F1000, and they can service availability – look at figshare – but they cannot control it. Getting back to the mindset of the 1660s and Henry Oldenburg might be more useful – what can we do to make sure that less worthwhile science is ignored and that the services which researchers use to bring their ideas to the market are as easy to use and offer the best chance of discovery that they can? Publishing is surely a service industry, not a Divine Right! And we need to communicate this to our investors as well!

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