Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Fund flipping threatens publishers

The following is adapted from the April 13 issue of my newsletter: "Inside Public Access"

By David Wojick, Ph.D.

Synopsis: A new movement has emerged in the OA community which has the potential to seriously threaten subscription publishing and therefore publishers. Institutions flip their funds from subscriptions to OA.

This movement seems to have no name as such but it flows from an international effort that is called simply OA2020. I call it "fund flipping" in analogy to journal flipping. In fact journal flipping to OA is an aspect of fund flipping.

The basic idea is very simple, as all potentially viable social movements are. In this case it is also breathtaking. Universities and other journal subscribers simply stop paying for subscriptions and instead direct these funds into OA. I am not making this up.

In the US this movement is centered in California, where several universities have signed the OA2020 effort's Expression of Interest. The Expression of Interest says this:
  • We aim to transform a majority of today’s scholarly journals from subscription to OA publishing in accordance with community-specific publication preferences. At the same time, we continue to support new and improved forms of OA publishing.
  • We will pursue this transformation process by converting resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable OA business models. Accordingly, we intend to re-organize the underlying cash flows, to establish transparency with regard to costs and potential savings, and to adopt mechanisms to avoid undue publication barriers.
  • We invite all parties involved in scholarly publishing, in particular universities, research institutions, funders, libraries, and publishers to collaborate on a swift and efficient transition for the benefit of scholarship and society at large.
The fund flipping movement is explained in some detail in this recent article:

"What’s behind OA2020? Accelerating the transition to open access with introspection and repurposing funds" by Rachael Samberg et al, C&RL News.

At this stage it is all just preliminary talk, or "introspection," but there is a worst case scenario here that could devastate publishers. If even a significant fraction of their subscribers suddenly stopped paying, many would likely go under. This includes both society and commercial publishers. This is what is meant by "repurposing funds."

Of course there are less draconian scenarios. For example if this movement actually became a serious threat, then the threatened publishers could choose to flip their journals to OA. They might even cut deals to do this, at least the big ones could.

At this point it looks like every university or other major subscriber is supposed to independently "introspect" about how they would like to repurpose their subscription funding. The University of California schools are apparently already doing this. They will be worth watching.

The biggest problem seems to be that there is no formal organization here. Thus there is no one to coordinate these myriad introspections, or for the publishers to deal with.

It seems very unlikely that this sort of uncoordinated grassroots effort could actually succeed. For example, how many university faculties will go along with ending most of their library's subscriptions in the name of OA? This looks like one of those schemes where everyone has to act before it makes sense for anyone to act.

But if it did succeed the result could be pure chaos, up to and including the collapse of the journal system. Uncontrolled revolutions have a way of getting out of hand. There is simply no reason why the independent OA funding actions of myriad institutions should add up to a coherent system of journals. But then some OA advocates claim that a coherent system of journals is unnecessary.

It is far too soon for doomsday predictions, but all major publishers should be aware that this fund flipping movement is growing in Europe and California.

Inside Public Access is published bi-weekly. For subscription information:  http://insidepublicaccess.com/

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