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Open access dominates discussions at London Book Fair

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Alastair Horne reports back on discussions in the scholarly information stream of this year’s London Book Fair

Inevitably, the subject of open access (OA) dominated discussion of academic publishing at this year’s London Book Fair. In the first of a series of sessions hosted in the Faculty auditorium, chair Audrey McCulloch, chief executive of the ALPSP, was joined by Sam Bruinsma of Brill, James Butcher from Nature Publishing Group (NPG), Fiona Hutton from Wiley, and Arend Küster from QScience, the open access publishing platform run by the Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation to discuss things to consider in launching OA titles

Asked whether OA might offer possibilities for widening the audience for scholarly research beyond academia, the panel was non-committal. Küster explained that QScience was currently exploring ways to make its content more accessible to a more general audience. Both he and Hutton also emphasised the role of social media in widening the circulation of research. In a later session on 'New trends in academic research' City University lecturer Ernesto Priego offered a convincing example of such practices, explaining how he used Twitter in particular to extend his teaching and research beyond the lecture theatre.

Nevertheless, the panel largely agreed with Butcher’s observation that the vast majority of the papers they published are of interest to rather a specific audience, with only a small proportion achieving wider circulation. And with neither Butcher nor Hutton able to answer whether the OA papers they published are viewed more than articles funded by subscription, the audience was left to question whether the model is increasing circulation at all.

With the gold model of OA switching the costs of publication from reader to author, one audience member asked whether the high costs of article processing charges would lead to authority being bought by those with the deepest pockets. The panel disagreed, with Küster pointing out that many OA publishers, including QScience, waive fees for research from developing economies specifically to avoid this situation.

This panel discussion was followed by a session entitled ‘Beyond Open Access: what’s next for academic publishing?’ in which Michael Cairns, CEO of Publishing Technology, was joined by representatives of both the newer and more established sides of publishing. Representing, as she self-deprecatingly acknowledged, the more traditional kind of publisher was Sam Burridge, MD of open research at NPG and Palgrave Macmillan. The newer types of approaches to scholarly communication were to be found in Euan Adie, co-founder of Altmetric, and Cameron Neylon, advocacy director at the Public Library of Science (PLOS).

Cairns kicked off the session with a discussion of the learning curve that publishers experience with OA. Customers expect more flexible content, more sophisticated aggregation, and increasing levels of personalisation. The last of these in particular requires new skills from publishers, who had until recently known little about the people who consumed their content. Although reporting and usage statistics (what Cairns termed ‘the exhaust from publication’) are already being gathered, the skills required to interpret such data are mostly still lacking.

The motivations for publishers to gain these skills are high, he explained, as new revenue opportunities open up for those possessing them. As Adie pointed out, these statistics are of particular importance in OA models, where the people who have paid for publication need detailed information on usage that goes beyond the conventional “how many people have downloaded this article”. Researchers need these metrics to get grants, and funding bodies need to know that their money has been well spent.

The panel was frank about the difficulties faced by publishers in this changing environment, as systems and processes struggle to adapt to changing circumstances. Neylon suggested that the recent cases of supposedly open-access articles being found behind paywalls might be attributed to the failure of older systems to deal with new requirements, and noted that even the systems adopted by newer publishers like PLOS are beginning to feel the strain of the sheer numbers of articles being published. New systems are urgently needed, he argued.

In demonstration that publishers are already taking steps to solve these problems, Burridge mentioned the significant restructuring undertaken by both Palgrave Macmillan and NPG in the past 12 months, bringing together two very different businesses in order to be better able to deal with a future that she regarded as being predominantly open access. Although a small segment of the industry might stay closed for reasons of prestige, she predicted that ultimately a tipping point will occur – perhaps a whole-country mandate for OA, or a major health scare – and the vast majority of publishing will be open access in future.

As in the previous session, anxiety was expressed amongst the audience that the move towards authors in effect paying for publication might lead to lower standards. Burridge, who’d earlier noted that more than a third of her correspondents had raised the same concern, insisted that publishers’ reputations depended upon their integrity and guarantees of quality.

Neylon addressed the role of peer review in avoiding such conflicts of interest. In theory, peer review plays a vital role in publishers’ quality-assurance processes, ensuring all parties are held to account. However, there was no evidence, he suggested, that it works, despite all the massive costs in time and effort involved. Regardless of his doubts, however, Neylon feels sure that the future lies not in tearing down the existing system, but rather in experimenting with possible improvements.

Combining access with sustainability

Another perspective on OA was offered by Toby Green of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in conversation with Randy Petway of Publishing Technology. Green was admirably frank about the costs of publishing, noting how much it had cost the organisation to reengineer the organisation’s content when the rise of the iPad had rendered Flash a legacy technology. He wondered who might pay for such work in future, as we move into an OA era. The OECD, he explained, has consequently adopted a freemium access model in which content is free, but services have to be paid for. Thus, he explained, no one is turned away from knowledge due to an inability to pay, but sufficient revenue is nevertheless generated to fund future development.

Data stands at the heart of the services offered by the OECD, Green explained: making the data behind graphs available added value for readers, while providing authors with granular usage data for their articles ultimately improved the experience for both author and reader. Key factors driving usage of those data were that they were both appealing and accessible: the OECD has been careful to ensure that their content not only worked on mobile but was also embeddable. Green was also keen to stress the role that end user research plays in their offerings, particularly a new digital and mobile data portal to be launched in June this year; for publishers to be successful, they need to reach over the heads of intermediaries and have direct relationships with such users.

Monographs

Over the course of the Fair, conversation turned repeatedly to the particular problems faced by monograph publishing. In a session on ‘New trends in academic research and what they mean for Publishers’, Paul Atkinson, professor of sociology at Cardiff University, made a plea to publishers not to let the form disappear. Sam Burridge of NPG and Palgrave Macmillan had earlier reminded the audience of the importance of finding a viable OA model for books, and of the funding that would be lost, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, if no such model were to be found.

Efforts to find a model are clearly underway: panellists mentioned, for instance, the OA monograph options offered by both Brill and Palgrave Macmillan. The situation is however complicated by the fact that print still plays an important role in this area. In an ALPSP session on the future for smaller academic publishers, Timothy Wright of Edinburgh University Press noted that print revenues for monographs continue to be higher than digital, and are likely to remain so for some time.

Despite this, pockets of innovation can still be found: Burridge described Palgrave Pivot’s experimentation with shorter forms as the most exciting project she’d been involved with in publishing, and although Atkinson expressed disappointment at its marketing, he shared her enthusiasm.