Philip Davis brings up the issue of whether underwriting open-access publication charges, so as to “level the playing field” (as I’ve recommended elsewhere) disadvantages “a third team”.

By focusing on the author-pays and the reader-pays teams, we ignore a third team: publishers who rely on page charges from authors. This group of mostly non-profit learned society and association publishers relies on this source of author payments to keep subscription costs down for libraries and their readers.

Cover all open-access publication charges and, all of a sudden, we put these publishers at a distinct disadvantage.

In creating a level playing field between subscription-access and open-access journals, we will create a playing field that pits commercial publishers against non-profit publishers and gives the commercial publishes a great advantage over their non-profit rivals. When the game is over, we will be left with just the commercial players standing.

Is that the future we wish to create for ourselves?

If libraries are willing to cover open-access publishing charges, they should be willing to support page charges.  Only then can we maintain a fair and level playing field.

(via Open Access on a “Level Playing Field” « The Scholarly Kitchen)

Who is this “third team” that Davis is concerned about? The first two teams are “the author-pays and the reader-pays teams”, that is publishers who use business models with charges at the author or reader sides. In the first sentence, he describes the “third team” as “publishers who rely on page charges”. But page charges are author-side charges. Why aren’t such publisher’s part of the “author-pays team”? Presumably because Davis has in mind that they also charge reader-side fees. So the “third team” is publishers who use a mixed business model charging fees at both ends, and in particular charging author-side fees “to keep subscription costs down for libraries and their readers”.

In fact, the study by the Kaufman-Wills Group concluded that well more than half of subscription-based journals charge author-side fees of one sort or another, placing them in the “third team”. In the second sentence, however, Davis seems to be concerned about “non-profit learned society and association publishers” as the “third team”. He is not clear as to why commercial publishers should be excluded from the third team. He seems to imply that there are good guys and bad guys among the publishers, that the commercial publishers are somehow the bad guys, and that a future where only the commercial publishers are left standing is somehow worse: “When the game is over, we will be left with just the commercial players standing.” He thinks this would be a bad thing, though he doesn’t explain why commercial publishers should be demonized in this way.

Davis thinks that this “third team” (non-profit publishers who use a mixed business model) would be at a disadvantage “all of a sudden” if universities started underwriting open-access processing fees but not page charges. Why? Because they rely on page charges. So do many of the commercial publishers, but Davis is not concerned about them.

In fact, the sentence “When the game is over, we will be left with just the commercial players standing” implies that he’s specifically worried about competition with commercial publishers. But if he’s referring to subscription-fee-model commercial publishers, the issue of OA processing fees is irrelevant. If the non-profits would be at a disadvantage when OA processing fees are covered because non-OA processing fees (page charges) are not, then they’re presumably at a disadvantage right now. The OA fee underwriting is a red herring. Committing to underwrite OA fees would only change that comparative disadvantage if commercial publishers were somehow more able to take advantage of the OA processing-fee business model.

All subsidizing OA processing fees does is provide a new subsidized business model that such journals are free to take advantage of if they choose (but without compulsion). Frankly, this would seem to be a boon to a “third team” publisher. If Davis is right that some non-profit publishers at least rely predominantly on page charges, then a widespread policy of underwriting OA fees would be especially attractive to them. They could switch business model to an OA processing-fee model and be guaranteed payment of their processing fees. Given that non-profits seem to be able to provide publishing services far more efficiently than commercial publishers, making the switch seems all the more likely to be successful. The more a journal relies on page charges relative to subscription charges, the easier it is to switch to an open-access processing-fee business model in a world in which such fees are subsidized.

When I talk about a “level playing field” for journal business models, I don’t necessarily mean that we commit to underwriting every possible way publishers might make money. Rather, I mean that if publishers are subsidized when using a closed-access business model (which both second and third team publishers are), there should be some kind of subsidy for some kind of open-access business model as well. We want to remove the disincentives to publish in OA journals not because we believe that all business models are equally good but because an OA model based on processing fees in particular is one we would like to see succeed, so it should not be kept at a systematic disadvantage.

Although a publisher’s business model should be a factor in these discussions, certain factors should be irrelevant. Whether a publisher is commercial or non-profit, a learned society or a multi-national corporation, a large institution or a small one, is entirely beside the point. There is no need to demonize commercial publishers who choose to respond in perfectly reasonable ways to the market systems they are confronted with, nor is it appropriate to artificially support a scientific society merely because it has a feel-good mission statement. Rather, we should make sure that the business of providing publishing services can be done in an efficient sustainable way in the best interest of the scholarly enterprise. Where that is not happening, and it certainly is not happening, we need to remake the market system to support the goals of the scholarly community.

Some might think that commercial publishers are appropriate to demonize because they charge too much for their subscriptions relative to the value they provide. (Maybe that’s why Davis is worried about only commercial publishers surviving.) To the extent that is true, the appropriate response is to examine why such inefficiency could come about, and to adjust the market mechanisms to repair the manifest dysfunctionality. Supporting page charges doesn’t provide any help with this at all. Supporting open-access processing fees may.

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One Response to “Commercial publishers aren’t the bad guys”

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