Science should not pay for overpaid CEOs of academic publishers

Opinie | door Gerard Meijer
14 november 2018 | In 2015 Gerard Meijer closed the first open access (offsetting) deals with the major scientific publishers as chief negotiator for the Dutch Association of Universities (VSNU). As his fellow scientists now oppose the new 'Plan S' he looks on with surprise and disappointments. According to him, researchers often fail to grasp the fact that in the current system the cost of publishing is simply too high.
Bibliotheek in Leeds – Foto: Michael D. Beckwith

With surprise and disappointment I have read the open letter written by (mainly) Dutch chemists in response to Plan S. I have also read the e-mail calling to co-sign this open letter. I am sorry to say that both the open letter and the e-mail contain quite a lot of factual inaccuracies and unjustified assumptions.

Having dedicated myself to promoting open access for many years I find this development disappointing, and I can also see that some aspects op Plan S need more explanation. In the piece below I have tried to list the most important facts. After reading this I urge the signatories of the letter to reconsider their support for the open letter which, in my view, is based on incorrect information.

Consider these facts:

To start Plan S does not prohibit publishing in hybrid journals. The preamble to Plan S states explicitly:

“We acknowledge that ‘transformative’ type of agreements, where subscription fees are offset against publication fees, may contribute to accelerate the transition to full Open Access. Therefore, it is acceptable that, during a transition period that should be as short as possible, individual funders may continue to tolerate publications in ‘hybrid’ journals that are covered by such a ‘transformative’ type of agreement. There should be complete transparency in such agreements and their terms and conditions should be fully and publicly disclosed.”

As a next point, consider the cost of publishing. Publishing an article in the “old” subscription-based system amounts to about € 3,800 per article. Most researchers are not familiar with these costs because it is paid largely through university libraries in the subscription costs they pay. A White Paper by the Max Planck Digital Library details how this price is built up exactly. The facts in this paper have, at least until now, never been questioned by publishers.

Also, to publish an article in a hybrid open access journal (currently around 45% of all journals have a hybrid business model) authors are requested to pay a publication fee. This so-called Article Processing Charge (APC) typically amounts around € 3,000 per article. Researchers usually know this price quite well because they often pay this fee from their own grants or research budgets.

The problem is that many publishers refuse to reduce the subscription cost they charge with the APC payments they receive. This means publishers receive a total of € 6.800,- per open access article: first through the payment of subscriptions (by the university library) and subsequently by the publication fee (APC) paid by the researchers. A phenomenon called: double dipping.

In several countries we have seen so-called “off-setting” deals being negotiated. The preamble to Plan S refers to these kind of deals as transformative deals (see above). In these deals the subscriptions costs are being offset against publication charges. That way the aforementioned double dipping is prevented. I myself have negotiated the current contract of the Netherlands with the American Chemistry Society (ACS). From 2017 up to 2019 the Dutch universities collectively pay approximately the same price as in 2016. But for this amount of money Dutch authors not only can read these journals but also gain the possibility to publish open access without having to pay additional publication fees.

High-quality open access journals show that it is perfectly possible to have a sustainable business model based on a publication fee of € 2.000,- per article. Sustainable both for researchers and for publishers. This is what we should aim for ultimately where these publication fees will have be paid for by the universities, and no longer by the authors individually.

Highly paid CEO’s

How can it be be that in the traditional subscription system the costs of a single publication amount a total of € 3.800,- per article, while in a full open access system only € 2000 per article is sufficient? On the one hand, this is due to the high profits made by the big publishers and the top salaries they pay to their CEOs (eventually, I would like to add, paid for by publicly funded research money). On the other hand it is caused by inefficiencies of the “old” system moving journals to the digital age.

Unsurprisingly, the big publishers are quick to respond to Plan S and have ingenious solutions in the event that publishing in hybrid journals would be “banned”. Some of them have announced to split existing journals titles in a ‘Gold OA’ version which bundles all open access articles and a journal containing all remaining non-open access articles. These mirror journals have the same editorial and advisory boards and the articles go through the same review process. The full open access version of the journal is provided with a new title, for instance by adding the extension X tot the original journal title. Although formally a new journal it has an impact factor from day one because it is quite easy to calculate the citation scores of the open access articles in the original journal.

Actually this would mean that the journal “Angewandte Chemie X” will have a higher impact factor than Angewandte Chemie has now. And also that the “new” Angewandte Chemie will see its impact factor drop because articles get cited more when they are freely accessible. I hope that as a scientist you are sensitive to arguments and facts, and I therefore ask you to reconsider your backing of the open letter and withdraw your support in a manner that is as public the way in which you signed it.

Gerard Meijer :  President Fritz Haber Instituut Berlijn

Gerard Meijer was in 2015 als voorzitter van de Radboud Universiteit hoofdonderhandelaar namens de VSNU met Elsevier.

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