Does 'commercial' have to be a dirty word?

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Meeting author and reader needs is more important than business-model choice, writes David Armstrong

The year 2011 was an important one for open access (OA), with significant growth in both the number of OA journals being published, and the number of articles made available via OA channels. As authors move to make more of their work freely available, publishers have adapted to offer the level of service expected by the community.

However, against this backdrop, a number of criticisms have been laid against publishers who are not seen to have the community’s best interests at heart. Can there be common ground between the principles of OA and the commercial models that enable publishers to safeguard long-term access to research?

The OA gold rush

The ‘academic spring’ that’s captured the attention of the research community and mainstream press has its roots in a sense of dissatisfaction with the norms of scholarly publishing that lock research behind expensive subscription fees, particularly where that research has been funded publicly. The growth of OA means that researchers now have alternative ways to make their research available to the public, with the potential to broaden access to their work greatly. In addition, researchers are increasingly mandated to do so by their institutions and funding organisations.

This move by authors to explore OA has stimulated traditional academic publishers to develop new business models that replace or augment revenue from subscriptions with up-front article processing charges (APCs), funding the publication process while enabling the research itself to be freely accessible.

The cost structures of these ‘gold OA’ models have significantly lower barriers to entry than subscription-based models, enabling new commercial organisations to enter the scholarly-publishing market. Some have compared this trend to a ‘gold rush’ and describe such publishers as ‘predatory’. As in any industry, there is always a minority element that are out to exploit a market, but in many cases the word ‘predatory’ has been used simply because the new publisher is commercial. So, the question is, is it wrong to have organisations offering OA under a commercial model? For some, this seems to go against the very heart of the movement.

There is no doubt that there are some bad practices being utilised, and perhaps these are more obvious with an OA model than with a subscription model. For example, nobody would deny that publishers who mislead authors about APCs (typically by not disclosing their charges until the copyright to a paper has been signed away), widely solicit papers from researchers outside of their areas of expertise, and falsely claim association with prominent academics in order to generate submissions, might be termed ‘predatory’.

And if some publishers operate to lower standards in offering gold OA, this risks the future of the model itself, with researchers potentially then wary of any publisher offering publication under an ‘author pays’ arrangement. So it is no surprise that advocates of gold OA want to protect the integrity of the model. However, at the same time, it’s important to remain open to authors deciding for themselves the level of service that they want to receive and what they want to pay for that service.

To that end, variety and choice is important. It is dangerous for publishers to assume that we know what is best for authors, or that the same service levels and processes are applicable to all. What is important is that authors understand the choices that they are making and that readers understand the quality level of the information they are reading. At the moment, there are many grey areas here, but they cross over both commercial and non-commercial publishers.

Being indispensible and sustainable

In a ‘publish or perish’ academic landscape, where advancement hinges on the circulation and citation of results, journals play an indispensible role in highlighting and ensuring the discoverability (and preservation) of important research. Conducted appropriately, gold OA is a way of both ensuring that research is freely available to anyone who needs to access it – attracting the citation advantage inherent with OA – and a sustainable method of providing the same level of service that authors have come to expect from eminent journals.

Gold OA is increasingly being employed by all types of publishers, including university and society presses, as an alternative to subscription fees. With this distinction in mind, publishers cannot truly be divided up into "commercial" and "non-commercial". Regardless of their underlying business model, each needs to provide a sustainable business environment for their journals in order to operate effectively.

The not-for-profit Public Library of Science (PLoS) is an example of this process in action. Founded in 2001 following an academic backlash against closed-access publication, PLoS was initially supported by grants but now covers its overheads entirely with revenue from APCs. This is thanks in no small part to the launch of PLoS ONE, which deemphasises traditional pre-publication peer review (beyond assessing whether research is technically sound) in favour of post-publication commenting from the scientific community, and employs an article-level metrics system to provide greater insight into how individual papers are being used.

This approach has positioned PLoS ONE as the world’s largest journal by volume, and its continued success has led other publishers to explore and develop the concept further.

Not commercialism, but professionalism

All publishers need to employ commercial tactics in order to succeed. Rather than dividing publishers based on their business model, the focus should be placed be on the quality of the service they deliver to the research community.

It’s here that the value of publishers lies: providing authors with the best possible experience in making their research public; meeting the requirements for accessibility and discoverability to ensure their work is widely cited; and doing so at an appropriate speed to assist the progress of research in general.

To this end, publishers also invest in developing standards and discoverability frameworks such as ORCID and CrossRef to help widen and simplify access to the scholarly record – an increasingly important role as the volume of research output continues to increase.

This level of service and investment is more accurately assessed by how professional a publisher’s approach is to their role in the research process. A truly professional publisher places value on the author and their research, and invests in ways to make sure that it can be discovered and used by the world – whether commercial or not. Conversely, an unprofessional approach shows no interest in developing the progress of research or enhancing the experience of authors, and in some cases actively deceives their customers. It’s this approach that so rightly deserves to be vilified.

Survival of the fittest

As the gold OA market matures, only those publishers who are best able to meet the needs of the research community will thrive. Authors themselves will be the judges. Those publishers who fail to meet the standards of access, speed, quality and investment that researchers demand – and who provide a less professional service to their market – will find themselves with no market at all.

By definition, innovation is based on experimentation. The continued progress of OA is dependent on authors and publishers alike exploring the myriad possibilities it presents, from publication through to archiving and discoverability. How this exploration is funded is the means, rather than the ends – and shouldn’t it be the ends that we assess?

David Armstrong is marketing manager at TBI Communications