The Commercialisation of Borderless Knowledge and the Role of Professional Associations (March 26, 2014)

by John Holmwood, University of Nottingham, UK and President of the British Sociological Association.

Open Access is changing the landscape of academic publishing with potentially serious consequences for professional associations like the ISA and its linked national associations. The changes are not uniform across all ‘jurisdictions’ and are, perhaps, happening most quickly in English-language area, especially the UK and USA. However, given the role of English as a global academic language, the ‘knock-on’ effects are potentially considerable. This has come to a head by the announcement that Sage, together with the ASA, will launch a new OA journal, Sociology Open.

A number of contradictory factors are involved in the development of OA publishing.
First, is the role of digital media in reducing the cost of publishing and providing a new print-free platform.
Second, is a concern – especially by Governments in the UK and EU – about the high cost of subscription journals and their paywalls, restricting access to academic publications.
Finally, there is the activity of commercial, for-profit publishers (and other higher education providers) seeking to maintain or discover new sources of profit.

Let me begin by explaining the situation in the UK, which has been at the forefront of the neo-liberalisation of higher education and is driving these developments (for a broader discussion of commercial enclosure, see here). Research Councils that directly fund research grants, and HEFCE, the body that audits research in the Research Excellence Framework, have announced that all publications must be OA. They allow three possible modes: the author (ie the employing institution) pays an upfront author processing charge (APC) for free access (‘Gold OA’); reduced embargos on paywalls with free open access after (preferably) 12 months of publication (‘Green OA’); immediate deposit of pre-publication copy of article in an institutional repository (also described as ‘Green OA’).
This is not the place to discuss the different categories of academic who might be disadvantaged by these arrangements (eg early career, newly retired, employed at an institution without resources to pay APCs, etc), issues that concern us greatly in the UK. Rather, I want to explain how these have destabilised academic publishing from the point of view of professional associations, and, in particular, destabilised their revenues.

Our dilemma, in part, arises from commercial moves about a decade ago when the nature of the commercial threat posed by the internet became evident to some publishers. Sage, in particular, moved to aggregate as many titles as possible and offered significant revenue recovery to the professional associations that ran the titles. For the BSA, this now amounts to an income from publications of approximately £500,000 per year (of which a little more than half goes to support the other activities of the association) and other associations will also have benefited in a similar fashion. However, it has been derived from a four-fold increase in subscriptions over the period, thereby contributing to the increased criticism of the unsupportable nature of the subscription paywalls to university libraries, especially in economically less advantaged universities and regions. Indeed, UK Research Councils declare strongly that publicly-funded research should not be a source of revenue and that the only viable model for academic publishing is a ‘cost-recovery’ model.

Enter APCs. In order, to comply with public policy requirements, nearly all Sage journals run by professional associations, now offer a ‘hybrid’ solution of ‘Gold OA’ publication in a subscription journal on payment of an APC charge of £800 ($1500) per article for social sciences, with the other articles available under ‘Green OA’ and a (current) embargo of 12 months before they become OA (the ‘embargo’ varies, with some journals trying to keep it at 24 months and the UK Research Councils seeking to bring it down to 6 months). Authors can also lodge their ‘pre-publication’ version so f their articles into an institutional repository and this will count as open access, although some publishers (not Sage) are moving to block this.

Currently, the wider community of sociologists provides all reviewing and editorial service free as part of their collegial relation to the association and wider profession and it is not costed into APCs. With APCs already seen as too high by many, including the British Government, there is pressure to reduce them, rather than increase them to include currently unpaid services, and to stop ‘double-dipping’ (that is, journals charging both a subscription and APCs for some articles). Clearly, the situation is unstable and disruptive of academic publishing in the UK and already influencing other geographical areas.

Re-enter commercial publishers, seeking to retain revenue and profits, by offering OA journals with lower APCs than are standardly found with the existing stable of professional journals, including those for which they are also responsible. They are also potentially in competition with not-for-profit, cost recovery models of OA. For an indication of a schedule of fees (excluding typesetting) by a not-for-profit publisher, see those for Sociological Science here, but note that fee structure can always be broken by loss-leaders from a large commercial publisher (see, discussion here) – for example, as in a promise to waive fees for those without funding for the first 12 months of operation.

Sage has been in discussions with a number of national associations, including BSA and ASA. By charging lower APCs – and offering a peer-review lite service – they are in competition with existing subscription-based journals that they also publish. This is competition for articles (and, therefore, the status that sustains the peer-review older subscription journals) and for revenue. From a publisher’s perspective, this is ‘revenue-swapping’ from one kind of publication to a new kind of publication. From the perspective of the partner associations, however, it is potentially very different, since there may be no new revenue source from open access. The associations potentially confront a loss of revenue and ‘hegemony’ over subject content. The latter, of course, may be applauded from some perspectives, but it should be noted that this undercutting of professional hegemony has the effect of ceding it to the market, not more democratic and participatory forms of organisation and publishing.

The nature of the subscription journal and its revenue-generating possibilities are dictated by the underlying print version – for example, that there should be a set number of issues per annum, with a set number articles of a fixed length. Full OA publishing dictates a stream of author pre-paid articles available free to read. This means that maximising the number of articles being streamed and maintaining low costs of production – for example, no print version, etc – will determine revenue. However, with no underlying form, all ‘differentiation’ can take place within the ‘stream’ and not by a differentiation of journal titles offered by a variety of ‘editorial curators’, as is the case with print publication. In this context, there are no borders and no need for journals by national associations.
However, a commercial publisher will continue to benefit from a ‘warrant’, or ‘academic branding’, in order to differentiate from cheaper, (more) ‘predatory’ versions. Enter ASA. The revenue-sharing model of the new OA journal is precisely such a branding exercise and it delivers revenue to ASA, but does so while potentially undermining the revenues of other associations.

As already mentioned, Sage has been in discussion with a number of national associations, but has not shared these negotiations across associations. So far, BSA has held back, because of fears about self-competition with our subscription-based journals and loss of revenue. But there is also an issue of principle – namely that ‘borderless’ publication might be a form of neo-colonialism of knowledge production and its dissemination.
It is early days, and the nature of the threat won’t be immediately evident in other national domains. Language difference provides a protection, as does national policy. The threat within the UK is great, simply because of the combination of a high degree of commercial publisher penetration, English language and public policy mandates for OA publication. However, to the extent that English language publication becomes a criterion for academic success and promotion, and the extent to which OA publication becomes mandated elsewhere (as is occurring across the EU) the threat is extended. It subordinates global sociology along US lines and weakens national professional associations that might promote other sociologies.

Global Express, United Kingdom

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