'An ongoing shift in the library's role'

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Brett Rubinstein was interviewed as part of Research Information's report The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018

What do you see as the biggest challenge in scholarly publishing today?

The biggest challenge is the question of how we fund the system, and the conflicting demands from different funders, countries, disciplines and researchers when it comes to business models. Europe is at the centre of most of these conversations, but even within Europe there remains some real differences in approach. Some countries are ardently pushing for gold OA, others green, and there’s still even some who are somewhat indifferent to either. When you look past Europe to the Americas and Asia-Pacific regions, then the differences are much larger. 

The question of what we want to pay to fund the publishing system is a really important one – and if that’s the question that’s sparking a lot of the debate around Plan S and open access more generally, then that’s a good thing. At the same time we also have to bear in mind how difficult a question it is to answer, not only because of the complexity of the system, but also because the number of researchers and amount of papers published continues to annually grow. The real question we need to ask ourselves is, if we want to reduce the cost of what we spend to publish, what services are we willing to leave behind to do so?

What can publishers do to help overcome the challenges in scholarly publishing? 

One of the things that the publishers need to do is experiment more and be much more flexible in responding to demands. IOP was one of the first to offer off-setting agreements in Europe to help institutions transition to gold open access.  In Austria we are now publishing 90 per cent of the articles funded by the Austrian Academic Consortium (Kooperation E-Medien Österreich, KEMÖ) and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) on an open access basis. This is after five years of working with KEMO, the libraries and the FWF to ensure that researchers don’t have to change how or where they want to publish. It’s through working together that we’ve accomplished this.  It’s also critically important to remember that the collaboration isn’t just about funding: it’s about establishing the workflows to make it easy for the researchers to continue to publish in their preferred journals, and making it as easy for them to publish open access as it is for them to publish under a subscription model.

Publishers also have to realise that we have done a pretty terrible job of explaining these issues, explaining how much we invest in the quality we deliver, how much progress we are making in open access. Hopefully explaining this will allow us to have much more nuanced conversations about the type of publishing we want to support and what that costs. There’s an assumption that because in general we don’t pay our authors and we don’t pay reviewers that peer review is effectively free, and that’s just not true. When you look at the staff and the systems that we use at IOP to manage peer review, and everything we do to invest in the development of our journals and their brands, that accounts for about half of our total costs, and all of those costs are coming before we even publish an article. If publishers were doing a better job at helping funders, libraries and other parties understand this, then I have to think the tone of the conversations we are having across the stakeholders would be much more open, and the conversations themselves would be much more constructive. 

What can libraries do to help overcome some of the challenges? 

Librarians are in a really difficult position because they are effectively stuck between mandates from funders, their institutions and also having to deal with the demands of their researchers and the policies of publishers. There’s an ongoing shift in the role of the library, with libraries now funding the publication of their authors’ papers, and we have made a lot of progress in working with libraries on things like off-setting agreements. There’s more work for libraries and publishers to do together in helping librarians with the changes in their role and the workflow challenges they face when supporting their researchers in new ways. 

What can researchers do to help overcome some of the challenges?

To me, this is the most difficult question. If you look at author surveys you’ll find that on the whole researchers overwhelmingly prioritise publication speed and impact in their publication decisions, and often business models or open access is further down the list. When people say that authors need to take a more active role on these discussions, we’re saying they should spend more time on things that are to some extent in contrast to the incentives that exist for progressing their career; we’re asking them to spend more time on publishing and less time on their research. I just don’t think this makes sense. 

The solution is to remove the need for the researcher to get involved in the business models of publishing. If publishers, funders and institutions can put the mechanisms in place to make open access publication in the journals researchers want to publish in the default, then I’m sure that the vast majority of researchers will be really happy with that, and really happy to spend their time on the research itself.

Brett Rubinstein is head of business development and EMEA sales at IOP Publishing

Download the free report, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018, here.