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Martin Paul Eve

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

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A discourse of ‘fairness’ has emerged in open-access circles in recent years. It has come from a sense that big, for-profit publishers have not played ‘fairly’ with libraries over the past 30 years. It is unsurprising. These large publishers make margins of 35%+ on billions of dollars of revenue, even while library budgets stagnate. They hold much of the world’s research output to hostage, even to the extent that, during the pandemic, it was due to acts of publisher generosity, surplus to their legal requirements, that they granted a temporary lowering of the paywall.

‘Fairness’, under such circumstances, is deemed a matter of finance; an economic proposition, a customer transaction. Fairness – a term that I thought to pertain to social equality, justice, and other matters of decency – is displaced by economics. This leads to solutions for fairness that claim that increased competition is the way to go. As Leslie Chan put it, though: ‘framing scholarly communication in terms of “competition” and “market” is what got us into this situation. We need reframing’. Fairness has not come about through competition and markets; only upwards concentration of ScholComms into the ever-fewer hands of organizations that do not share our values.

I also see this on the inside track. I am doing the budget for OLH for the next year. People who have done back of the envelope calculations for how much it ‘should’ cost per article at a publisher, though, often neglect some fundamental conditions of ‘fairness’ (i.e. decency and humanity) for the people who work in publishing. It’s sometimes doubly galling because they disclaim that this work even exists and somehow believes that ScholComms will become self-organizing. Perhaps they’re right: but I’ve never seen this happen on the ground. ‘Build it, leave it, and they will come’ seems, to me, to result in deserts. OLH is certainly a great deal of work to sustain.

Some thoughts:

  1. Budgets need, effectively, to double staff costs to account for sick leave and for parental leave. If one has cash in the bank here, one is fine and you can eat into the reserves as needed. However, most organizations work on a yearly basis to produce budgets that come through in surplus, with the end of year funds wiped clean. That means that every budget put forward should account for the most arduous expenditure conditions, even if they are not met. To be fair to workers and to ensure that they have decent working conditions, include maternity and paternity costs in your budget.

  2. Many people seem to think that tech. infrastructure can run itself. They have obviously never had a server failure at 2am. Again, if you only have one member of tech staff, if this person is unwell or needs parental leave, then you have nobody to fix your site, at 2am, or any other time. It is not fair to expect infrastructure to be run by a single-person tech. team.

  3. Lots of people, when calculating the costs, make a double accounting move: a.) they discount labour subsidised by their own university for running a publisher [i.e. they say that their time or the time of a librarian is provided free]; while b.) noting that publishers don’t pay reviewers and so benefit from lots of free labour. I think it’s good and right that universities subsidise academic publishing labour. But it’s not fair to double account in this way. If you want to argue that costs should be as low as humanly possible, but also want to argue that you shouldn’t have to include the costs of the work to run it, while complaining that publishers benefit from lots of free labour, then that’s no good. I think that Open Book Publishers are a good example of being honest about what’s subsidised and what is not.

  4. How you calculate the cost per article will depend on whether you budget against income or expenditure. The external ‘price’ to the external library community is derived from organizational income. The internal anticipated ‘cost’ will be derived from yearly outgoings in the budget (which include potentially unspent funds to cover maternity/paternity, sick leave etc.) divided by anticipated article volume. Actualized ‘cost’ can only be determined at year end once true expenditure is known. At organizations that try to minimize price, anticipated cost per article can exceed price per article in any single year, if accounting fairly for working conditions internally.

  5. Getting academics to get on with things takes more work that many people realise. Yes, academics could organize peer review among themselves. Yes, academics could instigate all the typesetting procedures. There’s a million and one things that they could do, but that they routinely do not and that require a professional to supervise.