Open for business

The Open Access movement is accelerating, and with it, the challenges for academic publishers, who must think more creatively than ever about how their businesses should work in the future, while the goalposts before them move. This is well demonstrated by the dynamic change afoot at Emerald Publishing, whose c.e.o. Vicky Williams we interview this week; prepared to rethink her business fundamentals, Williams frankly admits the mental stretch of guiding strategy in the current climate. No doubt her peers will say the same.

The ecosystem of scholarly communication is complex— researchers, institutions, libraries, funders, publishers, policymakers, suppliers—with change to any one segment affecting all the others. Meanwhile, the publisher land- scape is divided between the big STEM publishers, with often sizeable profit margins, and humanities and social sciences houses, with their more modest finances and different researcher priorities. All must operate, as the academy does, globally, including in territories where the rules are quite different to those being framed in Europe or the US.

That these nuances are ill-served by a blunt mandate like Plan S—all funded research must be OA, immediately, from 2021 (publishers have been given a year’s grace)—is clear from the responses to the recent consultation. In response, cOAlition S, the consortium behind the plan, has made concessions on the speed of change it is demanding, and acknowledged the need for transitional deals. But on hybrid journals, it is adamant: it won’t support them. Publishers say more discussions are needed; at the PA, Stephen Lotinga warns that Plan S still raises “very significant” concerns.

The OA ideal remains a fine one; the greatest possible impact for scholarly work, the widest spread of knowledge, the most informed public and policy, at speed. Who in the academic community could argue with that, so long as it is handled sustainably? Certainly not Springer Nature, which has stressed its place at the forefront of OA, and proposed a role for publishers as transformative facilitators of an OA future. (Other publishers may grumble that the motor first propelling the introduction of Plan S was the high subscription charges levelled by the major STEM publishers.) But, as the Goldsmiths OA conference heard last week, the idea of OA as source of unmitigated good is problematic; theory and practice don’t always marry. What is technically “Open”, e.g. has no paywall, is not necessarily that accessible or searchable, and the article processing charges involved in OA can prevent some research from being published, particularly research from the Global South.

Joined-up action is needed. Williams told me: “There’s a lot of complexity here that needs all actors working together to iron out the wrinkles. Because no institution, no single funder, is going to make this happen on their own.” For OA to have the greatest impact, it needs to change the model without risking the broader ecosystem, including the health of publishers.