'Researchers: stop signing away your copyright'

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David Prosser was interviewed as part of Research Information's report The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle 2018

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

The fundamental problem is we’re in this period of transition from the print to the digital, and also between closed and open access. Those two axes of change are causing a huge amount of pain and uncertainty for everybody in the system, for the library community, for publishers, and for researchers and funders. 

For the library community there’s increased demands on funding, and the transition to open access is taking a long time. While the UK has been pushing ahead with moving towards open access both in green through the REF policy and through gold, we’re still paying the same very large amounts in subscriptions for big deals. Then there are issues around ensuring compliance of funder mandates, and there’s a lot of effort going into monitoring compliance. While we’re still in this mixed model you’re still having to do all the old stuff you did 10 years ago, but you also have this additional burden.

There are also problems with the ebook models, there’s a bit of a wild west out there of different business models. Letting a thousand flowers bloom is all very lovely and encourages innovation, but there comes a point where it causes a huge amount of confusion and angst. Then there’s still the whole discussion about the appetite and practicalities of open access for academic monographs – how we make that transition, who funds it.

What can the library community do to help overcome some of these challenges?

RLUK has a group that is working specifically with publishers to try to tweak some of the workflows around open access, and especially hybrid papers in hybrid journals because sometimes it’s a question of ignorance on both sides. The publisher doesn’t realise what would be useful for the library and the library doesn’t realise what would be useful for the publisher. 

On the bigger issues we know as the UK, that we’re spending a huge amount of money now on APC payments for journals, so we’re very interested in the discussions that are coming out around Plan S and the idea that hybrid is not a sustainable long-term model. We’ve noted with interest some of the activity that’s taken place in Germany and in Sweden, where some of the consortia have failed to reach agreement with the big publishers, and seeing if that is something that could occur in the UK. The fact that a number of German universities have been without Elsevier’s science direct for a few months now is giving us comfort in the UK. 

It has become a lot more tenable as a thought, and has allowed us to push back more strongly on above-inflation price rises. There’s a little bit more steel in the collective backbone of the library community.

One of the things we’re working on generally is discoverability, and really levelling the playing field between the purchased material and the open access material. There’s some great examples of how badly we’re doing it at the moment through open access monographs. Some of the larger discovery tools will tell you which libraries have the print version of the book, but you have to really dig to find out that there is also a freely available version you could read on your screen right now. 

What can publishers do to overcome some of the challenges?

Publishers have taken a long time to get to the stage where their systems are working properly to handle hybrid journals, and if they want hybrids to continue into the future they’ve really got to make sure they’re slick systems. System change takes a long time, but when you see highly profitable companies that still are not able to handle hybrids properly, you wonder if they have actually committed the time and resources to fix this problem. If they want to ensure under Plan-S scenarios that they continue to benefit from funding for hybrids, publishers have got to make sure that there are acceptable offsetting agreements in place. We want to see some reflection of that increased expenditure with that publisher reflected back in the subscription prices. Some publishers are doing that, some publishers are refusing to do that. 

For ebook publishers, we’ve been experimenting for quite a while now, so can we begin to get some sort of feeling of standardisation into the market so that it makes it easier for us to manage the whole process.  

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

The first thing a researcher could do, is stop signing away their copyright and exclusive rights to publishers, and start being a bit more savvy about the power that they hold in their rights. Having said that, my feeling is that researchers are not going to change their behaviour because they feel pressured to publish in certain places, in higher impact journals, or publishers, or book publishers that have high name recognition. It’s very difficult to really mobilise a change in behaviour of researchers unless there are policy levers and drivers.

The bizarre thing about scholarly communication is that it’s not primarily about the communication of scholarship, it’s about lots of other things around prestige, about making your mark within the community, about ensuring your grant, and your next promotion. That’s where funders and institutions come in, whether their policies are reinforcing that behaviour or encouraging and allowing researchers to move away from those sorts of traditional routes to explore more experimental, perhaps cheaper options.

David Prosser is executive director for Research Libraries UK 

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