Books Digitization and Demand

Books Digitization and Demand

A new paper from Nagaraj (UC Berkeley) and Reimers (Northeastern) called “Digitization and the Demand for Physical Works: Evidence from the Google Books Project” (revised April 2019) is said to demonstrate that the unauthorized scanning or “digitization” of entire book collections results in increased demand for “physical works” (particularly specialized works) and thus demonstrates a lack of harm and positive market benefits for authors and publishers. My post here notes that the motivation of authors and publishers in the 2000’s in bringing suit against the Google Books Project was not to inhibit an e-book market, given that publishers were already actively digitizing and making e-books available, but to ensure that Google was not itself allowed to create its own e-book market without authorization from publishers and authors.

It is always important to start with semantics—Nagaraj and Reimers talk of “digitization” but they mean two things—first the initial scanning of the Library book collections and the creation of digital files of the scanned books—and secondly the creation of a search engine layer or index from that corpus. Their point would be clearer if they clarified that what their research suggests is the value of increased awareness and discovery of somewhat specialized materials through a search engine index. While books have always been indexed by professional catalogers and publishers such as Bowker”s (Books in Print), the focus of these products has usually been on actively available and actively marketed books, and BiP is something of a specialized resource. There have been resources online for more than a decade or so about rare, unique and out of print books, some of which are now commercialized through Amazon, but there is no question that more information about more scholarly works is a net positive.

E-book readers began in 1998 but took off significantly in the 2000’s.  The initial players (e.g. Sony) focused almost exclusively on current popular fiction, but Amazon and the other more specialized online resources began offering a much expanded index and catalog by the mid-2000’s.  As Amazon began to combine indexes of some of the more specialized services, it became more of a rival to Google’s project at least in terms of creating visibility for books beyond current popular trade titles. It must be said however that Google did not have to engage in its unilateral scanning program to create an index of books—this concept of a search and resource identification layer was something, I believe, of an unintended consequence (I was involved in some of the negotiations for a short period of time representing specialized publishers)—what Google was intent on creating was a proprietary online market for digitized content. In contrast, Amazon achieves much of this by negotiating and licensing rights from authors and publishers.

Authors and publishers are not for or against any one model of distribution. The e-book market has become incredibly important, and for many years helped stabilize sales decreases on the print side. Ironically print sales have been increasing in recent years, although not as much as the increase in audio book sales.  In any event it is wrong to characterize the legal concerns of authors and publishers as being about propping up print book sales—the primary concern was ensuring a level playing field for e-book distribution. Clearly, Google providing substitute free e-book products (or at prices they would set) would be both a copyright violation (as the courts made clear when they mentioned, in their factual foundation, that Google was not actually providing the full-text to users) as well as a major market disruption.

The legal complaints filed against Google by authors and publishers were about Google’s intent to create a permission-free market for e-book content in a Google online marketplace, and the negotiations and draft settlement agreement which was quashed by the courts dealt with how such a market might be organized, to permit greater engagement by authors and publishers than the Google project had permitted up to that time (the “claiming” process that occupied much of the agreement), and the creation of a Books Registry that would be run by an independent entity. When the courts made this “class action” market approach impossible, then Google narrowed its approach to the 3 areas where they have been engaged in the past 10 years or so, namely: working with Hathi Trust and others on accessible files; providing some research capabilities online for scholars; and in providing a form of discovery or awareness tool for users. It is this latter function that Nagaraj and Reimers are really addressing in their paper. The death of the Google Library project has been reported elsewhere[i], but in any event it seems clear that once Google’s marketplace ambition was stymied, then Google was far less interested in or committed to its Library project.

Nagaraj and Reimers assert that “Copyright holders are concerned about the possibility that digitized versions would serve as substitute for material in print…”  As noted above, authors and publishers were at the time the suit was initiated against Google heavily engaged in e-book production and creating an e-book market. It is possible that the Google project provided more incentive in this development, but the concern was not about print—it was about unauthorized use, print or online, without compensation. The authors go on to say that “digitization might be a win-win for consumers, publishers and authors…” but again this is in the context of awareness and discovery—which no-one would dispute. More consumers becoming more aware of more book titles is indeed a positive for authors and publishers, something that authors and publishers work hard on every day.

Nagaraj and Reimers characterize the Google books litigation as being about browsing information about books—and whether this was a fair use—but as noted the legal complaints against Google were about making the resulting book files available as a market function.

I did find the point about awareness leading to greater sales of more specialized books an interesting observation—although this might be related to the fact that more popular books are indexed more widely and broadly through other means—but it is a point worth celebrating if there are increased sales of presumably more scholarly works.

Role of Publishers

Role of Publishers

At the end of 2018 there was a lot of social media discussion on the “opening” of the public domain (US works published before 1923), the fact that many NIH funded recipients had published their works in questionable perhaps fraudulent journal outlets. These comments all raise the old question of the role of publishers. On the public domain issue, I thought my former colleague Michiel Kolman said it best when he said that those works wouldn’t be known now, and wouldn’t therefore be viewed as treasures, if they hadn’t been published originally under the copyright system by publishers who cared about the works, the authors, and the market for the works. This traditional role of publisher as editor, as curator, as promoter and supporter, is still as relevant today as it was in 1922, and is still relevant for STEM publishing as well. Scientific authors today can easily post their own works themselves on the Internet or in their institutions’ repositories, and yet authors continue to value the editing and publishing process.


the proposed Plan S for European research funders, and related questions about the role of publishers in STEM.  On the public domain issue, I thought my former colleague Michiel Kolman said it best when he said that those works wouldn’t be known now, and wouldn’t therefore be viewed as treasures, if they hadn’t been published originally under the copyright system by publishers who cared about the works, the authors, and the market for the works, see @michielams .

This traditional role of publisher as editor, as curator, as promoter and supporter, is still as relevant today as it was in 1922, and is still relevant for STEM publishing as well, IMO.

One thing the Internet has given authors of all kinds is the ability to post their own works themselves outside of the traditional copyright and publishing system— that can be done very easily right now.  STEM researchers can likely post on their own institutional repositories. Yet authors, of all types,  continue to value the editing and publishing process.

Brendan Butler said on the NIH controversy that it was more important for the research papers to be open and available, even if in questionable publishing outlets, than for them to have been published in a traditional journal by Elsevier (or presumably any other traditional publisher). This suggests that openness is the only value, or an overriding one.  Professor Pam Samuelson said something similar in response to Paula Browning  (NZ copyright licensing organization) about copyright assignment not being in the “long term interest of science” (she did not mention whether exclusive licenses to publish fall into the same category).

Obviously for the subscription business model, a publisher must have something to sell in order to maintain that model. Of course STEM journal publishers generally support a variety of policies around the posting of pre-final versions of journal papers, including the recent scholarly collaboration networks— see the STM association’s site for policy references… (all this applies to the traditional subscription model, OA publishing will use CC licenses or something similar to indicate user rights)

So this raises the question of whether openness is the only and overriding interest in scholarly communications—in which case the solution is simply self-publishing or institutional publishing.

If society sees value in publishing, which is after all first about distributing and making content available (even if on commercial terms), and then about doing so in a way that emphasizes quality and longevity, then we are by definition living in a world of compromise. Some degree of openness which nonetheless still permits investment in quality, clarity, consistency and commitment to ethical principles (including archiving responsibility— see the classic Scholarly Kitchen post on all the things publishers do at is likely what society needs, and what researchers and authors continue to value. Of course there will be questions about how to do this most efficiently and effectively, but the proponents of openness over all must or should admit is that quality and care matter as well.  Openness in and of itself is not a value, it is an element that must be looked at in combination with other values!


Mark Seeley

Competition Law and Scholarly Publishing

Competition Law and Scholarly Publishing

Two academics who are critical of “traditional” scholarly publishing, Jon Tennant ( and Bjorn Brembs (, transmitted a complaint to the DG Competition in November 2018 about alleged competition law abuses in the EU on the part of my former employer Elsevier (part of RELX Group) and other large publishers in the sector (Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis). This complaint seems to build on a related complaint earlier this year by Tennant over Elsevier’s participation in the EU’s Open Science Monitor, and a statement made by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading (now known as Competition & Markets Authority) in 2002 and a 2016 referral to the CMA, and is supported by the European University Association. As I describe below, these complaints are in my view unfounded given that the scholarly publishing market is by definition unconcentrated and open to significant new entrants, and due to the need by government to be neutral and professional in their bidding procedures.

If I follow the thread of the Tennant/Brembs and EUA arguments correctly, they assert that:

  • The scholarly publishing market sector is dysfunctional
  • University and library customers (and perhaps corporate & SME customers) have few market alternatives to the major publishers
  • Each journal article is a monopolistic market in and of itself (with limited substitutability)
  • Thus high barriers to entry
  • Publishers contribute little to the journal publishing process and literature
  • Major publishers own the high-prestige journals and use this as leverage in “big deal” negotiations
  • Library customers are forced to purchase the “big deal” because of this reputational element
  • Profits and margins are too high for the established publishers & costs should have been reduced by the transition from print to electronic
  • Transformation to OA is too slow (and slowed down by existing players)
  • Non-disclosure provisions in customer agreements work to prevent price transparency and stifle negotiation
  • The “read and publish” negotiating stances of DEAL (Germany) and Bibsam (Sweden) are intended to counteract the “double-dipping” issue in hybrid OA journals (journals that have two potential revenue streams, OA plus subscriptions)
  • New adjacent researcher-oriented service businesses, or publisher-infrastructure services, are being used by established publishers to extend monopolistic behavior to these adjacent markets (the “lock-in” idea)

Why haven’t the authorities reacted?

One can reasonably ask– if there is this much smoke, why is there not a little more fire? Apparently, the authorities at the CMA and European Commission have not accepted the view that this is a market with anti-competitive or dominant player behaviors. Perhaps that is because this market sector has seen remarkable developments over the past 10-16 years, including:

  1. Substantial increase in new entrants, both at the journal and publisher level, generally entrants with a “Gold OA” or author-funder-institution pays model (Hindawi, PLoS)
  2. General understanding that this is a far from concentrated market—even the complainants note that collectively 4 or 5 major publishers do not add up to more than 50% of the market
  3. Understanding that library customers are free to subscribe to individual journals or take bundles of journals
  4. Sense that library customers are in fact exercising significant negotiating leverage through consortia and national-level negotiations
  5. Finally, perhaps a sense that the sector is showing significant innovation in new services and increased online availability.

What scholarly publishing as a sector really looks like

Scholarly publishing is a large sector with more than 10,000 journals, depending very much on market definitions (inclusion of arts and humanities, etc). There are many publishers with large portfolios of journals including Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley and Taylor & Francis, but it is equally true that many of the most important journals across science and in individual scientific disciplines are owned and managed by scientific or medical societies who do not have large portfolios of journals (Science, BMJ, NEJM). Journals are available through a variety of means, including through distributors such as subscription agents, on an individual title basis, or as collections or bundles of journals (not all of which represent the all-in “big deal”) from publishers, and journal articles are available through a variety of means including document delivery services, authorized interlibrary loan activities, and as pre-formal documents such as author manuscripts and preprints (often made available in institutional repositories or preprint repositories).


Each journal article is a unique artifact—the article identifies the research or scholarly issue at hand, the experiment or argument around that issue, and the results or conclusions. However, journals are discipline-specific and each discipline will have a few top journals in the field that compete with each other—in that sense competition is at the discipline and journal level, and that competition is quite intense. Journal articles are not the only artifacts from scholarly research or discourse—there are pre-formal versions of papers as noted, but in addition and of increasing importance is the actual research data from experiments and projects. Formally published journal articles, the version of which is managed by the scholarly publisher, is not the only method to obtain understanding of the underlying research or scholarship—it is however a particularly convenient method to gain a thorough understanding of the issues and background and to see at least some of the data involved, and provides some comfort with respect to general soundness of the article through the peer review process.


Publishers are still producing legacy journals in print as well as in the new electronic formats—because some customers still prefer print. The management of electronic services and databases has substantial costs as well. Costs are managed by publishers through a variety of means, including automation and offshoring, but costs are certainly not substantially reducing in the electronic age. The famous Scholarly Kitchen article by Kent Anderson on “things publishers do” is relevant here in its discussion on managing databases and online platforms.


Publishers organize the refereeing and publishing system, have done so for perhaps centuries, and appear to do reasonably well in providing value and services. If publishers contributed so little to the system, then preprint services would be perfectly fine substitutes (they are not of course—readers prefer to rely on the editorial processes identified above, not to mention annotation and reference linking and the other “things publishers do”). Academics provide many services to journals as editors and peer reviewers. The tradition has been that editors are paid by publishers but not peer reviewers, and similarly, that journal article authors are not paid “royalties”—that could change of course but likely would create other and new problems. My view is that editor payments make sense in that editors provide more continuous and extensive service to their journals than do authors and reviewers—although I completely agree that the important work of reviewers should receive more recognition, and that reviewer burdens should be shared more equitably.


Library customers and publishers have been struggling with pricing in the new electronic environment since at least the early 2000’s, and non-disclosure provisions have helped in ensuring that negotiations around pricing and discounts can remain confidential as between the parties. List prices for print journals are of course completely transparent and are highly relevant as those prices are or have been part of the calculation of online subscription packages. Print journal price increases have been more stable over the past 20 years than they were in the 20 years prior (compare with reports from the early 2000’s re increases of over 10% per year). Further, as Gantz noted in her 2013 article in Learned Publishing, actual serials spend at ARL libraries may be increasing at a lower clip than print journal list price increases, suggesting that libraries are benefiting substantially from aggregate discounts through a variety of means along with the “big deal” licenses.


Institutional and library budgets, however, have not been stable and have failed to keep pace with the growing number of researchers and amount of research to be published. This is well understood and has been reported frequently in the STM association’s “STM Report” (see p.28). These problems, and the issue of over-reliance on journal impact factors in tenure decisions or rankings that Tennant/Brembs criticize, are not caused or exacerbated by publishers.


The DEAL negotiations demonstrate the strength of library consortia in negotiations—the push for the “read and publish” model is in my view quixotic and irrational—in that it requires that non-German (non-OA) author articles are also made available openly with no payment model—but it nonetheless shows the negotiating model is real and equitable– neither side has all the market power. A good summary of recent discussions (August) can be found here. Double-dipping is not, to my knowledge, an issue in the negotiations and in any event is a non-issue at least with respect to Elsevier journal pricing, where print journal price increases (and occasionally decreases) are based around increases or decreases in the number of subscription-model articles (thus OA articles are not counted for this purpose)—see


Elsevier and other major publishers are contributing mightily towards a migration to an OA business model and other forms of OA activity. Elsevier and Springer Nature along with PLoS are now the largest publishers of OA content. These changes however require that there be some underpinning business model—it appears that Tennant/Brembs criticize the Gold OA model chosen by the UK coming out of the Finch Report—but the only replacement for this would be a model that demands that journals and publishers continue to provide services while the journal content is made available without charge—how can this possibly work? Whether the EU succeeds in its ambitious 2020 Plan or the new Plan S is probably more dependent on the behavior of researchers, funders and research institutions than on publishers. It is unlikely, in my view, to succeed if publishers are the only stakeholders subject to persuasion or coercion.


Finally, from a competition law perspective, in theory dominant market players can exercise control in adjacent markets (such as academic infrastructure) by essentially tying the purchase of one product or service with the purchase of another product or service. That is simply not the case in scholarly publishing or research infrastructure. First, to my knowledge, there are no requirements to purchase one type of service as a condition to purchase of another. Second, this sector is rich in alternatives including cross-industry initiatives such as CrossRef. There is no evidence of any dominant tying behavior in any of these new services, rather the evidence, I would argue, is that this shows competition working as it should to support innovation in new services.

Criticism of Elsevier

You might say that of course, I would say, as former General Counsel to the Elsevier division, that many of the critical comments and observations by the EUA and Tennant/Brembs are inaccurate. For example, critics sometimes equate the whole of RELX’s profits or all of Elsevier’s revenues to scholarly journal publishing.  RELX obviously operates 4 business divisions and has healthy operating margins across those divisions. Elsevier produces publications and analytics services in several sectors including its health services business (almost entirely unrelated to the library journals market and with a very different customer base in mind), and publishes books and databases in addition to journals. It is a complex business that in my view is well managed and provides good value to its respective customers. The people that I know at Elsevier are committed to providing those services and value, and they work hard at offering solutions and alternatives for customers at many levels and in many sectors. Journal article authors are not forced to publish in any journal, let alone Elsevier journals, but in 2017 scholars submitted more than 1.6m papers to Elsevier journals for consideration, of which more than 400,000 were eventually published. Elsevier works extensively with journal editors on quality issues, and while not every Elsevier journal is a star in its field (several are, but not all), the precepts of service and quality are emphasized at all levels in the organization and with editors. A large and complex business, of course, does not always run optimally and will occasionally make mistakes— human error does occur. The hallmark of a well-run business is that it identifies and corrects those mistakes.

Mark Seeley

EU Open Science Platform

EU Open Science Platform

The EC published their tender specifications for the Open Research Publishing Platform at the end of March , and as I suggested in an earlier blog on 20 March, it is completely open to “all natural and legal persons” at least within the EU (due to Brexit, UK organizations appear to be excluded). I think the Commission is showing a commendable lack of prejudice, and I think good common sense as well, in being open to participants with publishing expertise (whether university or library-organized, funder-led, NFP society, or commercial entity (publisher or other vendor). The Commission’s tender document is ambitious and demanding (more on this later), so it will require a competent organization or consortia of entities to fulfill. Some of the ambition is about technical performance (the 99.9% up-time requirement), some of it is about networking capabilities, but some is also about combining publishing requirements (open peer review) with the technical issues. There is a further area of ambition of requiring a preprint server capability, with linking and automatic repository posting features, while providing no funding.

It had been suggested on Twitter and in some media (see my prior post and Twitter  comments back and forth) that commercial publishers such as my former employer Elsevier should be automatically disqualified because they do not support Open Access enough (odd because two of the three largest OA publishers are commercial publishers)—and because existing publishers and trade associations have the temerity to advocate for sound OA policies (i.e. publishing Green OA with embargo periods given that Green means, in contrast to Gold OA, that no funds have been provided for the formal publishing activities).  Helpfully the Commission was quite universal in its approach, while quite prescriptive in requirements.

Richard Poynder retweeted Martin Eve’s analysis of the tender document (see the analysis here and below—which was quite a good analysis of the ambition of the project).  I assume Poynder is suggesting that Elsevier would regard it as too much work for too little reward—which I do think many organizations would agree with!  Bianca Kramer did an excellent job in doing a 17 point Twitter analysis on 2 April, which I describe below.

Three key themes of the tender document

Running throughout the tender document are these three themes: ambition/demand (particularly on the technical side); control/authority (on the part of the EC) re publication processes (open peer review process; preprints and repositories; standards such as CC BY); and the design of a “scientific utility” which can be later taken over directly by the EC or transferred to a new party (building a platform that is highly portable).  While there is nothing wrong with ambition, and government or other funders should always ensure they are getting value for money, I agree with some of the early critics that it is hard to see how existing scholarly communications participants including established publishers will be eager to bid, other than for the joy of the sheer challenge!

The EC might want to consider whether it might need to make more trade-offs to get the platform that it wants, with all of the technical and portability requirements, by being less prescriptive over the publishing process, for example by being flexible on staffing vs automation, or by not insisting on open peer review, which is uncertain in effect and might well impact the timeliness of formal publication.  It might be that incorporating the possibility of open reviews and post-publication comments, without requiring that peer reviewers openly post their comments and identities, would be more practical.  Even among strong supporters of open review, there’s some disagreement over the exact meaning of open peer review (see the 2017 review by Tony Ross-Hellauer ).

Technical ambition/demand

As others have noted, the technical demands of the system are considerable.  First, building a reliable publishing services platform, with author submissions, peer review, external linking especially to non-publication resources (publication resources would no doubt link through CrossRef), are non-trivial.  There are many vendors in the scholarly communications space now who have worked hard to provide scaleable and reliable services, generally on a proprietary and highly customized basis.  Online submission and review processes challenge most publishers, and the larger the scope of activity the larger the challenge.  The contents must be made available in multiple formats, with significant download activity expected (especially for text and data mining purposes).  Responsiveness at the level of 99.999% might be difficult to obtain if the content is being constantly accessed and mined.  Registration through the use of ORCID and other EU systems are required (though common sign-in protocols will no doubt become more pervasive in any event).  In addition to the identifiers, DOIs must be assigned for all article versions, and logs must be made available of all interactions.  Somehow the system must be able to populate institutional and other repositories on an “automatic transfer” basis (at the request of the author).  Preprints must be annotated with appropriate, CrossRef style links.  Quite a few standards have to be met, including Dublin Core for metadata, LOCKKS for archiving, graphics requirements, although established publishers are already navigating these.

Quite a lot of reporting, not only to the EC but also at the author and funding agency level is required, with citation information.  Much of this is being done now—and in fact F1000 (based in the UK, so probably disqualified) does much of this kind of reporting for users now (seen in the screen shot above).  Finally and fundamentally, the software to be used shall be commercial off-the-shelf or open source, and specifically any “proprietary/exclusive technologies that are not available to other solution providers are not acceptable.”

So plenty of challenges.

Publishing process controls

The tender gives a nice diagram of the publishing process in context of platform requirements as shown below…

The general work-flow diagrammed here is very recognizable and common, although it is important to note that there is both a preprint server aspect (unclear what the relationship is between Horizon 2020 funding and the preprint requirement) and a general publication process.  The diagram also over-simplifies the “first level check” requirements (which are not explored in the tender document in any detail), though perhaps this is like eLife or PLoS initial screening.  One might assume that a plagiarism check through CrossRef is contemplated, but again this is not clear (the tender document itself refers to “editors” performing these checks, so it sounds more manual than automated).  The ALLEA code of conduct is referenced , but this is a general set of principles rather than a process-oriented document.

Some of the criteria sections point to proven experience in developing and managing scientific publishing services, and note the requirement to establish a strong editing and project management team, in addition to the technology staff.  Importantly there are requirements for establishing a scientific advisory board (a fundamental step in establishing any new journal), also important in helping to recruit qualified peer reviewers.  Interestingly the tender document says that the contractor “will be required to gather broad institutional support and the involvement of the research community in many fields across Europe and beyond… [helping to establish the] Platform as a successful and innovative publishing paradigm for research funded by Horizon 2020” without any indication of how the Research directorate or the Commission itself might help in this mission.  Perhaps this is why the document is so heavy in requirements for communications initiatives and staff.

There are very specific requirements of editing, proofreading, layout and production, familiar to established publishers, in addition to communication and networking.  It is interesting to review the staffing requirements—one might wonder whether with the use of more online resources some of this work could be done more efficiently.

Finally, notwithstanding the notion of respecting authors and their copyright (or that of their institutions or funders), there appears to be a straight-forward requirement for CC BY Creative Commons licenses, which of course many OA advocates equate with OA publishing, so the broadest possible re-use rights.  Journal authors, however, when asked whether they might have concerns re CC BY and commercial use, or derivative use, do not seem as wholeheartedly enthusiastic (see the Taylor & Francis surveys).

Building the scholarly communications utility (portability)

The framework contract itself has a duration of 4 years, after which the EC expects the system to be operating well, according to technical functionality, and with a minimum of 5,600 OA articles posted using the strict CC BY licensing approach, and some number of preprints.  Perhaps more importantly, the Commission appears to contemplate transferring the operation of the platform to either itself or some other party or parties at some point.  The successful bidder will thus be responsible for ensuring that they can be eased out of the picture, and with an appropriate depth of knowledge transfer.  Though this might be helpful in ensuring transparency, it likely will be a de-motivating factor in the bidding process.

The price schedule (Annex 8)

While only a form, the EC has made clear that while there may be some “building” costs that would be contemplated in the early phase of the process, the Platform is supposed to operate financially on the basis of a price per peer-reviewed article (assuming there will be 5,600 of those).  I do remember at some point NIH in the US indicated they were building and operating the PubMedCentral database for around $4.4m a year (see the 2013 Scholarly Kitchen post ).  PMC is hosting many 100’s of thousands of manuscripts, so presumably the EC will be looking for a cost significantly below that.  It is important to remember however that in addition to the technical requirements, staffing requirements (editorial and technical), there will also be costs involved on the preprint side.  Of interest is the comment that the bidder “will not charge the Commission for the process leading to the posting of pre-prints or for articles that have been rejected during the initial checks.”

Other summaries/analysis

 As noted, I thought the analysis by Bianca Kramer on 2 April was very good—hard to do on Twitter to capture 17 salient points— noting that certain Open Science protocols and requirements were not incorporated.  The post was also critical that O/S software was not required in all functionalities (though the requirement is either publicly available “off-the-shelf” technology or O/S, so in any event nothing proprietary/private), finding perhaps that the tender was not ambitious enough!

Open Access platform in the EU

Open Access platform in the EU

Open Access platform in the EU

I’ve seen a few retweets about a 17 March article in University World News called “Open science in the EU—Will the astroturfers take over?”, and my first thought was that it must be a mistake because pro-copyright organizations in the EU have recently been using the term “astroturf” to talk about organizations that are funded by US technology companies to oppose copyright.  However, the UWN article, which appears to operate without any sense of irony at all, decries publisher trade associations’ pro-copyright advocacy (with a quote from Jon Tennant on “corrupt” policy processes) while commending an “open letter” from a number of organizations in the library and research agency space, which also include several of those anti-copyright organizations that deem themselves to be protectors of the “public domain”— such as Communia and C4C—which explicitly note that their primary mission is public policy advocacy.

Advocacy in the EU is somewhat different from advocacy in the US—in the EU, advocacy by individual companies (publishers or technologists) is frowned on, but comment and perspective is certainly welcomed from trade associations, industry groups, and organizations of all kinds.  I don’t see corruption in any of this. What I have observed in the DSM process so far is a robust exchange of differing proposals and ideas, from the Commission itself, from Parliamentary committees, from Member States, and from industry and advocacy organizations.  I have seen proposals that I think are idiotic (gratis commercial TDM rights, as mentioned in my last post), and others that I think are positive (more responsibility on the part of web sites and platforms for unauthorized postings).  I commend the Commission in its work of trying to strengthen a European online market, which in my view has suffered from a huge “value gap” (see the October 2017 statement from the European Authors’ Societies) between technology platforms that build commercial services using the work of others, and authors and publishers.  I was on a panel on this topic in 2016 at the University of Amsterdam.

It is also ironic that we are talking about some of these issues with recent events such as commercial exploitation of Facebook data (which as Anne Bergman of the FEP noted sounded an awful lot like commercial TDM…

The recently released report from the Campaign for Accountability about Google influencing the European debate through massive funding of research organizations is also highly relevant in this discussion about advocacy—this is advocacy and policy influencing at a mass scale, something that probably only well-funded technical organizations can do.

Putting irony aside, let’s look at the primary topic of the article, the request for proposals for an Open Access platform for data and publications, which will start up at the end of March 2018.  The article adds to the old lie about publishers intending to “undermine science” and engaging in a “blocking role”, with specific references to my former company Elsevier and the DEAL negotiations in Germany.  The facts are quite clear that commercial publishers are publishing a huge amount under the OA model now, and that the uptake in the model is increasing enormously— as shown in a recent PeerJ article (“The State of OA: A large-scale analysis of the prevalence and impact of Open Access articles” by Piowar, Priem et al.) posted as a pre-print in February 2018.

The PeerJ preprint shows very significant OA growth by commercial publishers Elsevier and Springer Nature.  I’m not sure how the views of Green OA impact the overall article, but the graphic rather nicely demonstrates the fallacy of saying that commercial publishers, and Elsevier specifically, are against OA publishing (important to remember that the EU 2020 OA discussion document has a broad definition of OA which includes publishing in “hybrid” OA journals).

The University World News article goes on to discuss how odd it would be if an established journal publisher would submit a bid for the 2020 platform project, and how strange it would be if such a publisher were to be accepted for the project.  This is described by the LERU secretary general Kurt Deketelaere as being a “quite crazy” idea.  In fact I think it would make a huge amount of sense if an established publisher were selected to develop and operate the platform, which is described in the December 2017 Information Note as requiring high quality scientific publishing, technical implementation, professional publication process management, plus communication, take-up and sustainability.  Existing publishers, commercial and non-commercial, should be the clear front-runners in such a bidding process.  I’m reminded of Kent Anderson’s Scholarly Kitchen post on the value that journal publishers bring to scholarly communication (the February 2018 update of “102 things that Journal publishers do”)—existing publishers of all stripes are uniquely qualified to make such a platform work.

There is a separate policy question as to whether the 2020 platform project is a sensible use of EU taxpayer funds.  It appears to intend to compete with existing journals and existing journal platforms, as if the existing journals and platforms are not doing enough on the OA path—or need to be instructed about how to engage users and research communities (again see the SK “102 things” post).  It is not clear to me why another platform, essentially another mega-journal, will push EU OA towards its 2020 goal more effectively than simply using the methods outlined already by the Commission in funding research grants, as outlined by the STM association in its 2017 update on the framework issue.  But putting that aside, if the Research & Innovation directorate want professional competent publishing for the new platform, choosing an existing successful publisher would be smart policy.


 Mark Seeley