We are a bitchy business, scholarly publishing and communications. Our commentaries are darkened by the worst aspects of gossipy innuendo by librarians, publishing’s love of intrigue and tales of competitive failure, and the joys of academic backbiting. I have had fifty years in the company of many people who do not recognise innovation, have no capacity to praise achievement, and who cannot recognise progress unless it is a circular route that takes them back, to where their own careers began – when of course everything in the scholarly marketplace was rosy. 

The latest piece in The Geyser, on PLoS and the CAP funding programme, is quite typical, but not the only one. PLoS is a not for profit, and one of the first Open Access publishers. It is run by Alison Mudditt, a distinguished scholarly publisher with a proven track record of success in commercial academic publishing. In the last two years she has brought PLoS out of serious losses and back into balance again. She has created a strong management team and they have produced a new way of engaging with research institutions that moves beyond the bundling and discounting of “transformative agreements” and into an era of much longer term partnership agreements, where margins are predictable, where issues of volume and cost can be transparent and where institutional buyers can be certain that if they overspend in one year they will be compensated in another. This calls for levels of transparency in partnership that would make many commercial players expire in anguish. 

This is new. It is not complex. It is innovative in its rebalancing of the institution-publisher relationship. It is highly relevant to an industry largely created out of public money. It speaks of the sort of social capitalism that is reflected in Europe by developments like Plan S. Surely our first reactions should be to praise its authors, recognise their intelligent innovation and celebrate their attempt to provide a better solution? Criticism can then follow, and undoubtedly the scheme will change as it rolls out. Meanwhile, congratulations PLoS, welcome back to financial health and thanks for showing us that there is always something new we can do with business models. 

Then we need to reflect on what this does to the market. More and more emphasis is now being placed on institutional deals, and many publishers are becoming acutely aware that there are real limitations on numbers here. The focus is on the US market, and PLoS is launching in the medical and biological science spaces. Are we going to see a struggle for institutional adoptions – a sort of musical chairs until the deal-making music stops? Indeed, a Scramble for institutions that mirrors the nineteenth century Scramble for Africa as European nations colonised a continent. And it is worth reflecting on this because the only way of determining the value of commercial OA, apart of course from its margins, will be the value, period, and potential yield of its institutional agreements.  

And this introduces thoughts about whether it is better in OA to be specialised or generalised. If you are trying to win a Sloan Kettering or a Francis Crick institute then specialisation is essential. But many university deals cannot be closed without broad subject coverage. And it will be interesting to see the effects of all of this on reputation management. How do we sell the university managers focussed on research team promotion at a time when funding is tightening that publication in a limited range of journals helps them? Only if we can map the subsequent life of the article post-publication far more effectively by showing who read it, who commented, who passed it on, and how influential it subsequently became. While the historic measure has been the Impact Factor, the limitations of citation indexing and the gaming of citations make it at once the only common measure, and a a challenge for OA publishers to create independent ways of demonstrating that the article reached the right key people and teams, and that they reacted to it. The data is now generally available: it is now up to publishers to demonstrate how effectively they are connecting communication with recipients. 

Lastly in this context, we need to bring funders into focus. To avoid accusations of double-dipping and to ensure continuity and robustness, it will be critical in some instances to bring funders into some of these partnerships. And a three way deal between a funder, a research institute and a servicing OA publisher does make a great deal of sense, especially if it can be done as openly as the PLoS CAP model suggests. The end result may well be consolidation amongst OA players, and with at least one commercial player up for sale at present this seems to be in train already. The days when the barriers to entry in publishing were notoriously low may be coming to an end. The Scramble for institutions reminds us that OA publishing is a function of a digital services and solutions economy. Perhaps it would never have run satisfactorily if based solely on a volume-reliant APC-based model. We should thank PLoS for leading us in new directions.


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4 Comments so far

  1. Darrell W Gunter on October 8, 2020 02:26

    David, bravo on your post. Our beloved industry does tend to drag its feet on innovation and it is good to read that PLOS is now in the black and introducing a new business model that continues to provide the world community access to the best research.

  2. Stephen Rhind-Tutt on October 8, 2020 13:15


    Thanks for writing this. I wholeheartedly agree with it.

    Although it’s obviously a positive move to make more materials open via transformative agreements, there’s a danger that they simply enshrine traditional publishers and traditional publishing in a new kind of monopoly. We need new models that force commercial organizations to compete to deliver more value for less.



  3. Kenneth Mccombs on October 8, 2020 18:50


    I have over 30 years of publishing experience. I published most engineering books for McGraw-Hill and most recently Elsevier. I am now planning to start a nonprofit online, open access Journal in the area of Climate Change Science and Engineering. The Journal would not only offer the latest breakthroughs in science but also engineering solutions. The Journal would publish scholarly papers, eBooks, podcast and video documentaries. All of which would be open access. I am very interested in getting your opinion.

    Best regards,

    Kenneth P. McCombs

  4. A World Elsewhere: PLOS's Community Action Publishing Model - The Scholarly Kitchen on November 23, 2020 10:32

    […] eyes!), reviewed dispassionately by Kent Anderson at The Geyser, summarized in full by Science, and celebrated by David Worlock, but the gist is this: rather than collect article processing charges (APCs) from the authors of […]