Libraries and Learning

Beyond the Battle for Open Access

March 3, 2019

A lot is going on in the world of scholarly and scientific publishing. So much that I have had trouble keeping up, especially since I’m also trying to keep up on what’s happening in technology – big data, artificial intelligence, surveillance capitalism, things I wasn’t taught in library school because they didn’t exist yet. (We did, however, have an assignment involving punching cards to be fed into a PDP-11. Yes, I am that old.)

The news from California reminded me of the very first essay I wrote for Inside Higher Ed, back in 2008, before I became a regular here. Eleven years ago I saw a parallel between Facebook and scholarly publishing. We provide content for free, they provide the platform and somehow make loads of money in the process. In both cases, the value we gain is reputational. Facebook encourage us to display our identities, boost our brands, seek attention. Publishers remind us that we need them for tenure.

Both Big Deals and Big Tech benefit from network effects and the invisibility of their actual business model. We don’t feel the pickpocket extracting personal information while we’re online. Likewise, the cost of doing business with a multinational corporation with a profit margin that is much, much higher than that of the pharmaceutical industry seems minimal when all it involves is a checkmark on a submission form signing away copyright.

But times are changing and the imperative to reward shareholders drives these platforms to grow in new directions. As Shoshana Zuboff agues in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the old saw “if it’s free, we’re the product” is no longer true. Our lives and the data traces we leave behind are raw material for data-driven predictions about what we might do and how our behavior can be modified. Raw material for a predictive futures market.

Likewise, the Big Five publishers (Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, Wiley, and Sage) who own the rights to a majority of published scientific and social science research are adjusting to a world in which open access has finally gained traction among the authors who provide their raw material. Ironically, it’s not because librarians argued for years that the profits were too high and too few people had access. It’s because reputation metrics only work if publications can circulate as freely as possible through whatever channels enable that circulation and tally up the reputational score. The Big Five are happy to oblige. Open access has become a profitable new revenue stream for the same old companies, even as libraries still face pressure to subscribe to pricey journal packages.

Elsevier publishes a large number of journals and holds the worst reputation among the Big Five. It wants to keep revenue flowing at both ends, from subscriptions and author-side fees (payments to make works open access). Since UC couldn’t get a deal they considered fair, they took the ten million they spend annually on Elsevier journal subscriptions and walked away. As Walt Crawford noted on Twitter,

So UC won’t pay Elsevier’s price. Not that one institution that accounts for, what, 10% of American scientific research articles, matters, of course, but…10% here, 10% there, it starts to add up. (Proud of my alma mater.)

This is a courageous and necessary act of resistance. More institutions should use their leverage and press harder to avoid paying for both author fees and subscriptions to the same outfits. (Note: it’s really only in fields where there is funding for research that an open access model that relies on author-side fees makes any sense; there are lots of other models for fields where there isn’t grant money floating around.) Universities will have to muster up the courage that UC faculty are showing to avoid creating a new normal that sustains obscene profits at public expense.

But . . . open access isn’t the only place where new profits can be made. Elsevier and its parent RELX have been scooping up companies that provide services to researchers. They bought Mendeley. They bought bepress and SSRN. They bought Aries. They bought Hivebench and Plum Analytics and Sci Val. They’ve partnered with University College London to found a Big Data Institute to further refine their grasp of analytics and the lives of research communities. They want the work of researchers to be the raw material for a new kind of profitable business, one that’s woven into everything researchers do. They want to be like Google, a company that inserts itself into every aspect of the lives of its raw material subjects, and just as indispensable.

When we think of Google as a search company, we forget they are also mapping the world, collecting data through our phones and emails, recognizing our faces, partnering with intelligence and military agencies, even building smart neighborhoods full of sensors to render the public sphere a private data hoard, useful for the roll-out of their autonomous vehicle fleets. In comparison, Elsevier is small potatoes. But while it clings to pricey subscriptions so long as it can, it has big plans for new revenue streams in the form of your research workflow. Keep your eyes open and a hand on your data-wallet.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.