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What Future is there for Scientific Communication?

19 October 2017

prof-jean-pierre-financeBy Jean-Pierre Finance
This article was first published on 14 June 2017 on Newstank.

Since the beginning of time scientific research has been based on exchanges between peers: personal letters, books, articles in specialised journals. But the last 70 years have seen a burst in this sector, which is a consequence of the growing number of researchers, thematic and geographical diversification of high-level research, concentration of capital in the publishing world at the international level and especially of the digital revolution. While not claiming to be exhaustive, let us remind ourselves of the main developments:


  • The increase in the number of journals and the emergence of large publishing companies have led to an inflation in university library spending that is unacceptable and insurmountable, and it is from this perspective that numerous university leaders have become aware of the upheaval in the world of scientific publishing.
  • The development of bibliometrics in response to digital publishing has given a “scientific legitimacy” to quantitative evaluation methods of research projects, laboratories or researchers, leading them to aim at publishing in more prestigious journals, the prestige of which is often linked to the famous impact factor rather than the quality of the evaluation.
  • The immediacy and internationalisation in communicating research results, supplemented by the development of Text and Data Mining tools and even the emergence of added value services such as diverse statistical analyses, profoundly modify researchers’ work methods and institutional strategies.
  • The development of Open Access tools for research data may be necessary to radically modify research methods: repetition of experiments, cross-referencing of data, etc. It will also help to fight against certain forms of scientific fraud.
  • Professions such as librarians and archivists are also perturbed: lending books and journals is decreasing, cataloguing and production of metadata is developing on a wider-scale. On the other hand, new tasks in counselling, training, carrying out value-added services are developing.

Against this background of great change, promoters of Open Access to scientific publications have increased and important decisions have been made, as much at the national level as at the European level, in favour of Open Access to publications resulting from scientific work financed by public funds. Thus, the June 2016 Competitiveness Council of the European Union made a commitment in favour of global Open Access as from 2020, but also in favour of access to research data through the promotion of a global vision, Open Science. For its part, France is committed under the law “For a Digital Republic” to limit embargo periods (12 months for humanities and social sciences, 6 months for other disciplines) and has the right to freely use TDM in a research context.

The aim of Open Access to all scientific publications in 2020 will be, however, difficult to achieve as it impacts on several very interdependent aspects: legal (intellectual property rights of authors), economic (cost models), scientific (evaluation of research projects and of researchers), human (behaviour of researchers with regard to Open Access which is heavily dependent on scientific domains), political (necessary legislative modifications). The problem due to these complicated issues is approached in various ways:

  • Militants for Open Access who are appalled by the two-digit profit rates (which could go over 30%) of top international publishers, do their best to convince researchers, universities and research organisations, as well as governments, to take direct responsibility for publishing activity through public funds.
  • Certain professional associations (national or international rectors’ conferences or heads of research organisations, librarian networks, etc.) aim to put forward a global approach, modifying the behaviour of researchers, methods of evaluation, publishing models, and national regulations. The European University Association (EUA) follows this approach.
  • At the national and European levels, it may be noted that there are strong commitments through new laws as in the Netherlands, France, Italy, etc. With regard to the European Union, it applies its own instruments as with the regulation of calls for projects where it is compulsory to make publications accessible (in Horizon 2020) and now likewise for research data. It also acts through Recommendations which give strong political orientations, and Directives imposed on Member States and transposed into national rights.

    In this changing environment, with cost reducing measures in view of global access to research publications, the Gordian knot remains. Several publishing models are in competition with each other and today none of them can claim to be THE solution. In following up the classification recently proposed in a study carried out by the European project OpenAIRE, four types of publishing models can be put forward:

  • Access to scientific publications via an open archive that is institutional, national or thematic (corresponding to Green Open Access). This approach supposes that such archives are created, and French establishments can only be encouraged, whether independently or within COMUE, to make them available. This approach also presumes that authors’ property rights can only be handed over to publishers for a limited duration (that is to say confined to the duration of the embargo). This approach is favoured in the United States and in China, but it does not change much regarding cost reducing measures as subscriptions still have to be paid for access to recent publications.
  • Acknowledgement of publishing rights: it is no longer the readers who pay, but the authors, and this is a trend of the Gold Open Access with an Article Processing Charge (APC). The cost of a publication varies considerably according to the different journals (from under 1000 € to more than 6000 €). This model, which allows immediate Open Access to publications, has been promoted and financed by the British government since 2013, but the cost control turned out to be difficult. It is also the model proposed by the Max-Planck Society which, it claims, is the only organisation capable of reaching the objective of 100 publications in Open Access as from 2020. Meanwhile, the Gold-APC does not avoid the question of “exorbitant” profits of the top publishers. Indeed, the decision to pay APCs is more often than not unknown to the management of higher education and/or research institutions and it is only the researchers or laboratories (founded on the existence of European, national or industrial contracts, to which the publication expenses are eligible) who are aware of this. Under these circumstances, it is clear that publishers can impose their financial conditions since they are not faced with anyone who is capable of negotiating them, contrary to that which exists for subscriptions.
  • The Gold-hybrid model:  it is sometimes known as a library economic horror story since, via this model, the same journal can publish articles accessible only through subscribing to the journal, but can also publish articles in Open Access where the authors have paid in advance to be published. In the end, it is apparent that the researcher (or his/her institution) has been led to pay twice! Clearly publishers do not see their profits diminishing.  The hybrid model is denounced by many of the actors (researchers, librarians, heads of institutions) but it continues to exist.
  • The Gold non-APC model:  it is the dream of researchers to be able to publish at no cost and to be able to gain access just as freely to the publications of others. It goes without saying that nothing is free and this approach supposes a financing of the publication activity (evaluation and editing of articles, management of platforms, etc.) The intention is to find a commitment from financiers such as public authorities, patrons, organisations networks, etc. But if the question of financing is a major one, the other difficulty stems from the attraction for researchers to publish in prestigious journals that will allow them to uphold their reputation and progress in their careers. The major challenge is to well assure the reputation of journals that are published via Open Access platforms. This would suppose revisiting the mechanisms of evaluation of scientific articles, redefining researchers’ and research projects’ methods of evaluation, but in parallel, also inviting the major journals owned by learned societies to leave their commercial publishers so as to join the dissemination platforms driven by principles that conform more to scientific ideologies.

Other types of publishing models exist, the exhaustive presentation of which goes beyond the confines of this article. Let us nevertheless cite the Fremium model proposed by which consists in proposing an Open Access publication (of the Gold type) free of charge in HTML but which builds up its financial balance through the sale of publications in PDF format or EPUB and associated services for libraries, such as statistics on the number of users.

Apart from the Gold non-APC model, the other types of publications need a commercial relationship with the publishers. This type of negotiation is well known, and whereas it is in part managed for subscriptions, it is more difficult in other areas. The issue of negotiations regarding the cost of APCs emerges, most often regarding the cost of subscriptions: should the two aspects be linked or not?[1] This is the case, for example, of negotiations conducted in the Netherlands that have led to subscription contracts of the “Big Deals” type that include publication rights in Open Access for researchers of that country (for all or part of these publications). In France, the negotiations conducted by Couperin in the name of the national scientific community must face this issue. Should negotiations on subscriptions be linked or not to the possibility of publishing in Open Access (hybrid journals or not) for all or part of the publications of the publishers concerned, or decrease even more the cost of subscriptions depending on the APCs that were paid the previous year? Opinions are divided but it is urgent to adopt a position in view of important negotiations that will arise in the future.

In this fast-moving context, particularly in regard to the position of large multinational companies, different types of negotiations are being tried out. An example is the very recent approach by German universities and research organisations, until then strongly balkanized and brought together in an alliance led by Horst Hippler, President of the HRK (German CPU). The alliance proposed to top publishers to only pay for publications in Gold for all German public researchers without going through individual APCs, but by paying a global lump-sum and no longer paying for subscriptions, as access to the content of the subscriptions is included in the lump-sum. This termination of subscriptions is based on two ideas; on the one hand if a large part of these countries followed this example, the only publications in existence would be in Open Access and the circulation of journals by subscription would rapidly disappear, and, on the other hand, several international social media sites dedicated to researchers, such as Researchgate, already provide access to a large number of published articles. For the sake of good measure, several German universities have already stopped their subscriptions. The results of these negotiations (tug of war?) should be followed carefully but, in any case, the objective of 100% of publications in Open Access in 2020 seems improbable, and getting nearer to this objective will not be through a big changeover from Green to Gold.

[1] Stephen Pinfield/Jennifer Salter/Peter A. Bath, The ‘total cost of publication’ in a hybrid open-access environment: Institutional approaches to funding journal article-processing charges in combination with subscriptions, in: Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 67.7 (2016), 1751-1766. DOI: 10.1002/asi.23446.

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