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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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Here’s an interesting one for me. The article processing charge (APC) model for open access is attracting a lot of flack. It’s being called the “scourge” of the scholarly communications world and is criticized for perpetuating global epistemic inequality. I think this is right in many ways. It’s why I co-founded the Open Library of Humanities, to show that other models are possible and more equitable. After all, the subscription system did one thing well: it distributed costs to where money was available, whereas APCs concentrate costs to areas where, often, it is not. In other words, APCs are an anti-distributional economic system. This is bad.

But here’s the thing: supporting arXiv, Subscribe to Open, OLH (please do) or any other system founded on a consortial model is, in some ways, in tension with the spirit of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). This is because such infrastructural support asks libraries to evaluate the expenditure of their resources by appraising containers, rather than the work itself. In other words, when you support OLH, you are giving money to a not-for-profit, charitable organisation so that we can run our operation. You might appraise previous work that we have published in that decision making process (i.e. do we publish reputable, good material?) However, you know that you are not paying at the article level. It is abstracted up to a competition between: should we expend our resources at this organisation, funding them, or buying subscription access to “Journal X” (again, a container-level evaluation in the subscription world)? So, while DORA is about academic hiring and promotion, in the library world economic resources still become abstracted upwards and away from appraisal of the work itself.

So proponents of the APC model say that, instead, resources in their setup are allocated at the article level and that this is better. Except that, it isn’t. The allocation in this instance is not based on a community judgement about the worth of individual work. It’s based on the author’s decision to publish in an APC journal (assuming the work could have passed peer review behind the scenes with two anonymous readers, for instance). It’s a supply-side judgement of how economics should distribute resources. And I do not think that this is better than allowing libraries to support organisations that are mission driven rather than appraising at the article level. But it does create a kindof disjunct between what we want to fix in our hiring processes, and how we allocate funding at the publisher level.

There seem to be two components to this: 1. that publishers are organisations; 2. that outlay in OA modes is not retrospective.

On the first point, organisations need some stability. They need a surplus in the case of charities, for instance, because if we have, say, 5 libraries cancel, we still need to pay our staff. It would be ridiculous for an organisation like OLH to go under because it had cut costs to a bare minimum and was just short of meeting the revenue we need to pay our bills in one year. We have to pay people’s salaries at OLH. Making it into a precarious situation for our employees, where we don’t know whether we can offer secure employment, year on year, through a model that is based on unit sales rather than supporting our broader publishing programme, also seems far from ideal.

Providing stability through unit costs appeals to many people, though. They see it like a shop, where you need to sell units – single items – in order to continue to be a shop. The same goes for many services. But, in scholarly communications, how much do you trust the motivations of those who would select, under an APC model, where the unit costs were spent? They follow a prestige economy, not really rooted in any true appraisal of quality, but rather of scarcity. So what is better? Letting authors choose where to spend APC funds based on prestige that is of advantage to their own careers, or funding not-for-profit organisations with good track records to continue to exist and not to charge authors as a result? I would prefer the latter, even though it is less in line with DORA-like principles.

On the second point, there is a weird purchasing economy in the scholarly journal environment that you do not see in the monograph world. Namely: that in both subscriptions and OA expenditure, the outlay occurs before you have the item to appraise. You subscribe for the next year, you pay an APC before the article is published. So how do we expect this mode to accommodate a synthesis of DORA-like article-level appraisal, when the material is not there to be pre-appraised?

Finally before I wrap up, I realise that much of the thinking herein comes from the discussion I have been observing on Twitter this week around Projekt DEAL’s negotiations with Springer/Nature. The outcry against this seems to have been: “you are giving loads of money to a big, for-profit actor, with inflated prices, in order to achieve OA”. My thinking was: well, is this different to funding OLH or other consortial models? Sure, we’re not for profit charities. Sure, we’re much, much cheaper (although we still struggle to get our per-unit costs down to the level the most staunch commentators claim it is possible to achieve). But the fundamental question is: on what basis do you select for infrastructural support, such as read-and-publish deals? Who do you choose to support and why? Is it on any principle that is DORA compatible? And if not, is it a problem that the financial flows do not map onto the changes in evaluation that we seek?

I do not have answers to these conundrums. But it seems to me that we should seek to sustain good infrastructural actors (for me, this means: not for profit and OA), to reduce expenditure on the basis of prestige economies (whether that’s through APCs or otherwise), and all while aiming to adjust academic hiring and promotion criteria to appraise at the unit level (DORA). That is, using article-level appraisal for financial decisions about which organisations we sustain is not necessarily the right way to go.