Sustainability in context: scholarly communications

24 Aug

The Blue Ribbon Task Force looked at four different sustainability contexts: Scholarly discourse, Research Data, Commercially-owned cultural content, and Collectively produced web content. We thought it worth revisiting those contexts in the light of our developing reference model. The next of these is the scholarly communications system.

It should be said at the outset that this is not an homogeneous term, with different approaches being tried. We characterise the system in four sectors: monographs (still mostly print-based); the formal, mainly commercial, mainly subscription-based (closed access) electronic journal sector, the formal, open access electronic journal sector (partly commercial and partly volunteer/charitably supported), and the informal, open access sector (mostly scholarly blogging but also working papers and grey literature). [Query ArXiv, REPEc etc.]

The analysis will address 7 important questions:

  • Who benefits from use?
  • Who selects what is kept?
  • Who owns the resource?
  • Who preserves (or manages) the resource?
  • Who pays?
  • What are key attributes specific to this context?
  • What are the key risks?

We welcome comments on this approach. Is this a sufficient set of questions to consider sustainability in particular (general) contexts? Are there major issues that have been forgotten in this scenario (bearing in mind that it is always a generalisation)?

Who benefits from the scholarly communications system?

Clearly the research community as a whole is the main beneficiary of the scholarly communications system (apart from the shareholders of the major scholarly publishing companies, of course). The system exists for, and is mostly strongly supported by researchers, who act for it in various unpaid capacities, including author, reviewer, editor and reader.

To a lesser extent, the system also supports the teaching community and students, not necessarily with the very leading edge research but with past publications.

Both business and government benefit from scholarly communications, and some members of the public also benefit. However, the most common commercial scholarly publishing sector business model tends to exclude members of the public.

Who selects what is kept?

The fundamental principle in nearly all scholarly publishing is that the community of scholars selects the content to be published through the mechanism of peer review. Almost all of the formal scholarly publishing system (whether closed or open access) is based on selection by peer review. The peer review system is not without its critics (refsxxxx?), but there is no wide-spread acceptance of alternatives. Peer review is undertaken by members of the editorial board, or nominated experts in the field; selection of peer reviewers is usually undertaken by the editors. Peer reviewers volunteer their services, as of course do most authors (at least in the electronic journals part of the system).

In a few journals the editorial staff play a large part in selection for all or part of the content. Various experiments with post-publication peer review have been made without achieving widespread success.

Open Access journals mostly use the same peer review approaches. Public Library of Science has been pioneering a light-weight version of full peer review, but most journals continue with traditional, full peer review.

I believe peer review is also used in the scholarly monograph sector, but I realise I have no real idea how that works! [Need to check!]

The informal sector is not based on peer review, and influence of any contributions in that sector depends on many different factors, including the reputation of the author, the accumulated value of their content, and the social networks (broadly meant) that they are involved in.

Beyond the publishing stage, the mechanisms for selection for preservation are much more broad-brush. Because much of this content is encumbered by Intellectual Property Rights, selection is often a negotiation between archives and publishers. Libraries do get involved in some of these initiatives as well, and will reflect the perceived needs of the communities they represent, usually as expressed in their collection development plans.

Who owns the resource?

Theoretically when a work is written by an employee of an organisation under the terms of their contract of employment, the rights to that work belong to the employer. However in the case of scholarly publishing the convention is the reverse; the author is treated as the owner of the rights and makes assignments or licenses the work as they decide. This does of course split ownership so that potentially one could be negotiating with many individuals rather than a relatively small number of institutions involved in any one work.

However, the commercial scholarly publishing sector mostly operates on the basis of requiring assignment of all rights from the author to the publisher. This places the publisher in a very strong position to control (and deny) archiving opportunities. Unfortunately, archiving can be seen as destructive of publisher business models, and publishers have proved very reluctant to agree to archiving requests.

The Open Access publishing sector tends to offer content on a different basis: free to consume, and either pay to submit for publication, or pay to publish, or (sometimes) free to publish. Some (but not all) Open Access publishers use Creative Commons licences, which generally will allow archiving of the content. Many will not take ownership of all rights, taking only enough to license them to publish the material. This will leave the rights with the authors (potentially very many authors per contribution); if the publisher has not made the publishing licence explicit then theoretically archiving would require negotiation with all the authors.

Publishers of scholarly monographs also typically take rights sufficient to publish a first edition, with some reversion to the authors for out of print works [is this still true?]

For informal scholarly publishing (blogging etc), ownership will rest with the author. There is very often no explicit licence, and so it is difficult to know whether archiving is permitted.

Who preserves (or manages) the resource?

In both the closed and open access cases, the publisher manages the content and makes it available. The content is rarely if ever down-loaded to an institution; content is consumed from central servers on an as-needed basis. Effectively content is leased rather than owned. Subscription-based commercial publishers employ mechanisms to detect systematic downloading of “their” content, and do not hesitate to cut off entire institutions if their algorithms detect suspect unauthorised mass downloading.

This situation is in complete contrast to the situation in the print version of scholarly publishing, where a library owns the content of the material on its shelves. Preservation in the print world happens effectively by diaspora; successful content is so widely spread that neither disaster, nor publisher failure, nor government censorship, nor malicious attack can destroy all copies. For electronic publishing, theoretically there is one copy on the publisher’s computer system, served up to the community on an as-needed basis. The risks in this case are different and potentially much higher. If the publisher is not well-managed, then a single disaster might wipe out all their content, as could a catastrophic business failure. Government (or other) censorship could cause the version of record to be changed, and malicious attack could destroy or subtly change all or parts of the content.

Libraries (as the primary purchasers of this content) have as a result been in a bind. The content is popular, and it is efficient for readers and for the libraries, but many have been reluctant to give up a simultaneous print subscription because of the risks.

In the past few years, various preservation approaches have come to the fore. A small number of national libraries have either negotiated deals or used their legal deposit powers to capture their own versions of published content. Portico has been established in America as a venture supported by some publishers and some libraries on a subscription basis; Portico collects the content and makes it available to its subscribers when some trigger event occurs.

The LOCKSS system (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) works on a different system. LOCKSS is highly devolved, with many member libraries, each of whom operates a low cost “LOCKSS box”. Once the LOCKSS collective has struck a deal with the relevant publishers, and the publisher has installed some enabling code in their systems, then the LOCKSS box in member libraries will collect content (slowly) from the publisher web sites. The LOCKSS boxes also check up on each other, and will detect and correct content that is damaged. The member libraries continue to access this content from the publisher web site as normal, again unless a trigger event occurs. Unfortunately some of the bigger publishers are suspicious of this system, as libraries are acquiring copies of the content outwith publisher control, so some have not signed up.

There is a smaller, closed version of LOCKSS called CLOCKSS that the larger publishers are more willing to deal with, that again releases content when some trigger event occurs.

Informal publishing may in part be preserved through activities such as the Internet Archive, but in any event is similar to other community-contributed content.

Who pays?

Primarily, institutional libraries pay subscriptions to support the commercial closed-access scholarly publishing system. Some journals (particularly those sponsored by scholarly societies) also have individual subscriptions, but these make up a smaller part of revenue streams. Most journals also have a system for buying access to individual articles. Often the title and abstract will be freely accessible, but the full text (sight unseen) will require a fee of between $15 to $40, and may be time-limited to one or two days. (These prices seem set sufficiently high as to discourage rather than encourage access by this means, leading users more towards the subscription model). These publishers may also require publication fees for some kinds of content, although this may be less common than it was in the print world.

It is worth remarking (again) that authors and reviewers make their contributions to the system completely unpaid. For the larger publishers, business has been highly profitable, although there are signs of a slowing of the previously relentless growth in their profits.

Subscriptions from outside the community of authors do help sustain (and grow) this sector.

The Open Access sector operates in two ways. What is sometimes called Gold Open Access operates on the basis of paying to publish but free to consume. There is a relatively small number of commercial Open Access publishers (eg BioMedCentral). Several large commercial publishers make portions of their content available on an Open Access basis, sometimes at the choice of (and additional fee from) their authors, and sometimes as a matter of course after an embargo period.

Some research funders will allow publication fees as valid expenses in research proposals, and some research institutions and libraries establish pools for publication fees, but it is not known how widely either of these is taken up.

A criticism of this part of the Open Access sector has been that it takes resources from the authors rather than the consumers. To the extent that business or government contribute less as authors and more as consumers, they pay less under this model, and the academic sector as a whole pays more.

The second part of this sector is supported in other ways, and does not charge publication fees or access fees. Some of these publishers are volunteer efforts, some are house publications supported by institutions or organisations. Some might be supported by advertising (although this is rare).

The informal sector operates as describes in the community-contributed content scenario [to come].

What are key attributes specific to this context?

Many of the key attributes are similar to those for commercial cultural content [to come]. The system is sustained in part because it is entwined with the reputation system for researchers, being linked to prospects for promotion (“publish or perish”), and in some countries (such as the UK) to substantial financial reward to institutions. Much of this is done not on the basis of the value of individual articles, but on “impact factors” established by a commercial concern (Thomson ISI) of journals; so publishing in a high impact journal gains more kudos than a better article published in a lower impact journal.

There are strong claims that the current system is broken in various ways, being subject to gaming, being selective, being influenced by a single commercial player, etc. We note but do not comment on this controversy.

As noted above, there are also claims that peer review is broken in various ways, but no alternative has yet been widely adopted (other perhaps than the light touch PLoS review approach).

[Big Deal?]

The Open Access sector suffers from these same issues, but also tends to be on a more fragile financial footing. The Pay Once Consume Indefinitely approach is certainly a risk, requiring a constant stream of new content. The volunteer/charitable approach requires sponsors to continue to carry the (not inconsiderable) costs of the editorial process in particular, as well as hosting the content.

The informal sector suffers from all the issues of the collectively contributed content scenario [to come]. It is also generally not widely valued by many peers, and is fraught with uncertainty in various ways.

What are the key risks?

The commercial, closed access subscription sector remains highly profitable, but is subject to increasing criticism and potential threats from the Open Access movement. For the foreseeable future there is no likelihood of decline toward unprofitability of the larger players, but reducing growth and margins are likely and they may be subject to more severe commercial decisions, such as the closure of less profitable titles, and further market consolidation.

Smaller closed access publishers are perhaps most at risk in a time of severe financial cuts to universities, where the Big Deal arrangements reduce flexibility for libraries looking to cut their costs.

The Open Access sector, by contrast, is mostly on a much more precarious financial basis. This particularly applies to the volunteer/charitable part of the sector that does not charge publication fees. The latter is very dependent on the enthusiasm, will and persuasive ability of a relatively small number of individuals, and fortunes can war o wane at any time.

Open Access publishers and smaller commercial publishers should be getting involved in initiatives such as LOCKSS, as low-cost ways to provide a safe exit should their ventures fail.

Risks for informal scholarly publishing are similar to those for community contributed content [to come link added].

[Update to add links


Up to Table of contents

Revised by?]


One Response to “Sustainability in context: scholarly communications”

  1. Simon Fenton- Jones 27 August, 2011 at 02:46 #

    Hi Chris,

    I should have started here. Context is always the hardest place to start.
    You might be interested in two diagrams on this doc.
    “Contemporary” and “Cyberinfrastructure” (yuk. “old”and “new” will do)
    They’re messy. But they do contain the elements of the change in scholarly comms, and give your “economic lifecycle for archives” a box to sit in. = ‘Archiving and preservation’ box

    Sorry i can’t point at it’s context. It comes from this domain which has been reorganized. Do a google on ‘scholar publish aggregation’ if you’re interested.

    Re: the economic lifecycle. I’m sure, if you take this ‘scholarly comms’ perspective, we can come up with a reference model. Most of the real change in the way communities are re-allocating value have to do with what these new comms offer. They don’t appear to have permeated the curators community. E.g. The blue ribbon team has a conference/workshop and a cone of silence descends, until a report pops up months later. This is while every large org in the US seems to have a conference call to talk about their latest financials. But this media is rarely archived in a context for research or/and education. i.e. It’s institutional or tool centric, not disciplinary-group centric.

    Scholarly communications DOESN’T exist in isolation. That said, it’s not just entertainment, so there are additional rules which it must conform to while modernizing. E.g. Institutional Log On to a (shared/cloud) service. As i look on that diagram on Page 13 it’s not too hard to see how the ‘publisher’ circle fades/disappears and is incorporated into the ‘librarian’ circle, if they broaden their horizon. Some things are obvious.

    One thing I don’t get. You mention twice that “It is worth remarking (again) that authors and reviewers make their contributions to the system completely unpaid”. Surely, they are paid by the public purse, which then pays again to buy their aggregations back from publishers, primarily because librarians/curators are not builders or marketers of (easy to use) self-archiving systems. (Last sentence)

    There’s an aweful lot of fat in the scholastic communications/publishing system (which, after recently disposing of some publishing shares, bought in the 90’s, I’d like to thank curators for). I really can’t see any risks for incorporating “informal scholarly publishing” into the more formal methods, except for large publishing groups. All it takes is a little imagination.

    Even the EC has an agenda into which the scholastic model fits.

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