The ‘OA market’ – what is healthy? Part 2

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Read The ‘OA market’ – what is healthy? Part 1 (January 24, 2023) here

The debate begins with the word ‘market’

Talking about open access and a market in the same sentence ignites all kinds of passions and opinions. Of course, a market around OA publishing exists as sized and estimated by Delta Think to be worth ~US$1.6 billion in 2021 versus their $975 million estimate for 2020. Delta Think’s most recent projections are that the OA journals market could be worth over US$ 2 billion in 2024 if current trends continue. But when OASPA talks to stakeholders about an ‘OA market’, what exactly do we mean? 

The purpose of OASPA’s ‘OA market’ work is to examine the money flows needed to sustain OA publishing. Any way you look at it, the economics of funding and enabling OA publishing is something we all need to grapple with. 

Building on the ‘OA market’ work done in 2021, OASPA wished to learn more about what is felt by those in different parts of the world. Despite considerable effort, there was an overall European weighting to views that were collected in 2021, and so, the purpose of my follow-on work has been to round out and supplement the perspectives that had initially been collected. 

Last week I shared some of the perspectives from stakeholders based outside of Europe about the ongoing ‘OA market’ effort from OASPA. Considering the differing philosophies around scholarly publishing across world regions that came to light in these conversations (see my previous post), should OASPA be labelling the prevailing economic system an ‘OA market’? Or should we call it an OA system, the OA landscape, an OA exchange? Or something else altogether? 

Debate around the name ‘OA market’ is not new, and the issue was already debated at some length in the 2021 workshops. I continued to unpack this dilemma around the name ‘OA market’ with some of the 15 people from around the world acknowledged in my last post. These stakeholders were willing to provide me with their input and expertise on OASPA’s 2021 issue brief and reflections on the ‘OA market’.

In these conversations, opinion remained divided on the use of the term ‘market’ in describing the OA environment. “I would avoid [the term market]…” said one voice, since it presupposes that OA needs “an equilibrium between supply and demand driven by money, which is not the actual central reason why science is done and communicated.” Variations on this thinking were echoed by others.

What was even more interesting to me, however, were the ‘anti-market’ forces (and the other things!) that I was told OASPA was missing in its assessment of the ‘OA market’. A distillation of these thoughts are outlined below. 


‘Tis always the season for giving

In calling this the ‘OA market’ I was told how OASPA is missing the “volunteer effort”, a “gift culture”, an “in kind” culture, the “knowledge exchange”, basically a culture of unpaid contributions in scholarly publishing made by researchers themselves. Several conversations I had felt that the gift culture that is so foundational to scholarly publishing is at loggerheads with a commercial approach.  

Sustainability in OA (just like in the paywalled model) relies on a degree of volunteer labour from scholars as authors, reviewers and sometimes editors. Journal publishing is embedded in a gift culture – i.e. voluntary effort from the research community. Many felt that the publishing landscape should not be considered to be a market when researchers ‘gift’ so much. 

Building on the sentiment that the same author community is also the user community was another voice expressing the appropriateness of ‘market’ if it is used to “expose the ‘commercial-ness’ that we have allowed to creep into open access”.

However, another person with an economics background felt entirely neutral about it all. Pointing to the “all-encompassing nature” of the term ‘market’, they felt that “those who get upset about the name market are missing the point that there can be zero-sum transactions in a market.” 


Public funds and “the State”

Some felt that the public/welfare funds and charitable investments involved in (OA) publishing are not acknowledged enough as anti-market forces that diminish the ability to consider OA publishing as a ‘marketplace’. When the state is involved, a higher degree of regulation or state action exists which adds weight to this line of thinking. 

One conversation I had pointed to a high level of regulator-influence within scholarly publishing (e.g. OA publishing mandates, pricing-transparency frameworks, funding-eligibility criteria for certain publisher-deals) stating, therefore, that we are “quite far from a typical market-driven or consumer-based industry”. This view, held by someone in East Asia, also translated well to parts of the Global South considering that the SciELO collections are funded by national research agencies and that African Journals Online (AJOL) is a non-profit platform. 

Others, however, held the view that ‘market’ is a representation of current fact and accurately portrays how and where things stand. As the market is an existing circumstance that cannot be denied, they felt it was a reasonable term. 

One voice cautioned that stakeholders should stay unemotional about the use of the word ‘market’ and “not get lost in worrying about profits”. “There is no such thing as a non-profit [organization], they continued, “sustainable growth is needed by any enterprise, whether for-profit or not-for-profit.” In the quest for universal OA every organization needs to be sustainable and needs funds to run.

Another viewpoint was similarly supportive of the term ‘market’ emphasizing that there are many factors and actors behind open access, and the needs of different stakeholders are different. 

Counting up the numbers, across 15 participants, there was an even split with 5 agreeing with the term ‘OA market’, 5 neutral about what to call it, and 5 against calling it a ‘market’. 

While debate about the suitability of ‘market’ in the context of OA publishing lives on, a theme that came up in several of the conversations was that the market (or ecosystem, if you will) is not applicable only to journals.


Beyond the journal

Preprints, review articles, data and paywalled-backfile content all came up as integral parts of scholarly communication that were missing in the OASPA work on the ‘OA market’ to date.

Some conversations challenged OASPA to forget about money flows and think about digital flows instead. The transition that we need is to move from journals to a ‘digital flow of content’. Greater focus on workflows and technology is needed because “technology is the game changer.” As one example, I was told how block chain technology defines interactions between data and people, and this could have a significant role in scholarly publishing and research assessment. “The potential of open scholarship goes way beyond the journal system…” said another. “You are missing open data; this is huge.” said yet another.

On the other side of these arguments there was a worry that a dominant shift towards any non-journal model (even a relatively well-understood one such as preprinting) would disrupt and bulldoze lots of independent small scholar-led journals running on voluntary effort. 

Others feel this disruption is needed, whilst acknowledging that there are inherent tensions.

A related theme reaching beyond the concept of a journal was around repositories. I was told by some that we had missed full and proper inclusion of green-OA and repositories, and that the licensing for green-OA content remained “messy” and needed sorting out. I was also told that a healthy and diverse OA market could only be co-created by establishing a healthy relationship between the community and the market, and so, a healthy relationship between advocates of green and gold OA.

I have since reflected that a fresh way of looking at the whole ‘market’ debate is to pay attention to how the community of users and payers (i.e., scholars, librarians and funders) is taking action to influence behaviours. Over the last year we have seen this happen across regulatory action (e.g., launch of the Plan S journal comparison service and the Nelson Memo) as well as innovations in institution-based publishing (e.g., Next Generation Library Publishing / NGLP and its pilots that provide infrastructural solutions across journals and repositories). 


Equity in OA to support health and diversity

This blog, across both parts 1 and 2, asks the overarching question: ‘what is healthy’ (in the context of OA publishing). There is no single way to be healthy and no single norm that works for all publishers and all peoples in all regions. However, headline feedback from engaging with voices from all around the world is that open access is about: (1) sharing knowledge, (2) providing access to that knowledge, and (3) allowing for everyone to participate in the open scholarly communication process, in an equitable way.

Whatever we wish to call this effort, in order to increase health and diversity we need “to balance the interests of all parties so that one or several parties cannot benefit at the expense of others”. OASPA was thus challenged to focus on making things equitable in (OA) publishing. 

OASPA is clear that a transition to full OA should accelerate equity rather than compounding issues of cumulative advantage. A key priority is arriving at greater equity in open access, and OASPA is keen to explore with its members and library stakeholders ways to increase equity in OA publishing. 

A workshop series is therefore being planned to:

(1) bring the publishing and librarian communities together to better understand and to develop pragmatic ideas to fix current issues; and,

(2) build on existing knowledge and experience, develop thinking and build stronger leadership towards equitable routes to OA.

OASPA will soon be releasing further details about these workshops that will focus on increasing equity in OA no matter what open business model (or models) a publisher is using. 

Stay tuned for more news on our ‘Equity in OA’ work in the coming weeks.

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