Adriano Aguzzi proposes in Nature that journals (and publishers) should “compete not for libraries’ or authors’ money, but for funds allocated by public research agencies”. I agree, with an important caveat. Here are my very quick first thougths.

I strongly agree with Aguzzi that the shift from a subscription model to an Author Processing Charge (APC) model is not the solution. He calls it Broken Access. I call it no access at all. Subscriptions reduce the number and diversity of people who have access to scholarship, and APCs reduce the number and diversity of people who can contribute to it. Despite the most strenuous efforts of big commercial publishers, neither model can be called OA by any stretch of the imagination.

For Aguzzi, the main problem of the APC model is that encourages journals to publish low quality scholarship for the sake of increasing revenue, leading to growth in predatory journals, and the debasing of legitimate ones through perverse incentives.

Instead Aguzzi sees journals competing for public agency funding. In his proposal, they are evaluated on a series of criteria (including number of papers published), but also, to arrest the slide to the lowest common denominator, for “Other assessable factors”. He includes “turnaround times, quality of searchable databases, durability of archiving, procedures to deal with fraud and retractions, innovations in cooperative peer review, and the option of post-publication peer review”. These are indeed all things I would try to assess if I was evaluating a grant application to support a journal.

I would, however, add a crucial criterion: I would want to make sure that the journal and publisher are non-profit. I would want to make sure that the publishing costs are transparent and reported regularly and publicly. Disseminating papers and archiving them is hard work, and people should certainly be properly compensated for doing it. That doesn’t mean it should transform public funds into private profits.

I would keep in mind that non-profit is not the same as non-revenue. I would want to know where the revenue goes, even it isn’t profit. In short, I would want to know that the public funds invested in the journal and publisher primarily serve the public, and that the public funds don’t primarily serve the publisher. It isn’t that much to ask.

I significantly part company with Aguzzi when he says that “A mechanism must be restored to align the financial interests of publishers with the research enterprise’s need for high-quality (rather than high-quantity) publications”. There is no must about it.

Publishers who can find a way to be financially viable while serving the public good should, of course, be welcome to participate in the rapidly evolving academic publishing landscape. But we can do very well without commercial publishers if need be. There are currently plenty of alternatives, such as the ArXiv family of repositories, that provide true OA at comparatively small cost to the public. If we decided to spend our current public dissemination outlay on these, there would be no access problem to solve.

This is probably for another post, but I must also challenge the focus on “high-quality (rather than high-quantity) publications. Faith in aggressive pre-publication peer review, to weed out the low quality contributions, seems to be one of the main drivers of the journal protection movement.

Like any evolutionary system, human knowledge has mechanisms for diversity production, diversity maintenance, and diversity selection. We provide the diversity production by having eccentric ideas and pursuing them regardless of what the general public and our academic colleagues think of us. Our dissemination and archiving channels, including journals, provide the diversity maintenance. Peer-review, whether pre- peri- or post-publication, does the selection. It is in our long-term interest to distribute this selective function as widely as possible, and therefore to let post-publication processes do the bulk of the work. Pre-publication peer review by a few editors and reviewers throttles diversity at the source, and diversity is the fuel on which the whole system runs. It also produces significant inequity because of its tendency to perpetuate exiting structures of power.

This is another reason to let contributions freely travel through the literature, without the many hindrances caused by the current journal model. In that sense, I don’t see the incentive of commercial publishers to publish more papers as a problem. I do see it as a problem that they are using public funds to do it, and to generate profits for their shareholders.

In summary, I definitely agree with Aguzzi that a true OA system is one that serves the public. I don’t agree that it needs to be centered on the current journal model. I do think it is a good idea for public institutions such as funding councils and universities to fund dissemination and archiving, and even to fund some journals if people want them. I don’t, however, agree that commercial publishers need to be a part of the solution or that we need to align the needs of the academy with theirs.

2 thoughts on “Aguzzi’s Public Service Open Access proposal: yes, but with an important caveat (emptor)

  1. This is Adriano Aguzzi. I think that we agree much more than we disagree. I only had 900 words to my avail in Nature, hence I could not go into much detail. But yes, the panels evaluating PSOA proposals would have to make sure that budgets are realistic and commensurate to the service provided. That’s common practice for all research grants, hence I would think that funding agencies would have no trouble with that. Whether the provider is for-profit or non-profit is in my opinion immaterial (keep in mind that CEOs of some so-called nonprofits makes 7-digit salaries) – as long as the funding agencies retain control over the budgets.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Adriano,

      Thanks very much for commenting. Yes, that is why I put the paragraph about non-profit =/= to non-revenue. It is a very important consideration. I should have noted that the model of your journal is exactly what I would advocate. But of course, I think journals should only be part of the landscape.


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