Is Open Access a Moral or a Business Issue? A Conversation with The Pennsylvania State University Press

State College, PA[Adeline Koh is an assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College, New Jersey. She currently directs two digital humanities projects: Digitizing ‘Chinese Englishmen,’ an open-source resource on 19th century ‘Asian Victorians,’ and The Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, an online magazine on postcolonial studies and the digital humanities. Find her on twitter at @adelinekoh. -GHW]

This is the third article in a series, Digital Challenges to Academic Publishing, by Adeline Koh. Each article in this series features an interview with an academic publisher, press or journal editor on how their organization is changing in response to the digital world.

Is university research being held captive by morally suspect for-profit academic publishers charging exorbitant prices for journal subscriptions? Since the start of 2012, this caricature of academic publishing has captured headlines within higher education news. In February, academics boycotted publishing giant Elsevier in protest of its support of the Research Works Act, which would have prevented federal agencies from requiring that their funded research be made publicly available. Similarly, the Harvard library published an open memo to its faculty, urging its faculty to publish in open access journals as it could no longer afford to pay for expensive journal subscriptions.

But is there any truth to this dramatic portrayal of positions between publishers, academics and libraries, where publishers are painted as capitalist drones, and libraries and academics are champions of the moral good of open access? In this interview, I discuss the issue of open access among others with Patrick Alexander (@publisher2b), director of the Pennsylvania State University Press.

AK: Thanks Patrick for speaking to me. Let’s begin by talking about the recent furor over open access. What is your take on open access coming from Penn State UP?

PA: Penn State University Press is philosophically and practically in favor of open access. We have a long history of open access at Penn State UP. The press did not endorse HR 3699 (RWA), for example, and supported FRPAA. I sit on a SPARC editorial board for campus-based publishing, and concretely, the press publishes an open access monograph series on Romance Languages and Literatures. The contents of these monographs are viewable online.

However, open access poses concrete fiscal challenges, especially to arts and humanities publishers. A central challenge to open access in the arts and humanities concerns the relative lack of available funding compared to science, medical, and technical publishing. Open Access STEM publishing is often funded with tax-payer dollars, with publication costs built into researchers’ grant request. Just a quick example: the proposed NIH budget for 2013 is $31 billion. NSF’s request for 2013 is around $7.3 billion. Compare those amounts to the NEH ($154 million) and NEA ($154 million) and you can get a feel for why researchers in the the arts and humanities face challenges in funding their publication costs. Nonetheless, for some reason, many continue to think that open access equals free. But it isn’t free—someone has to pay for that work. Open access is framed as a moral issue, but it’s actually a business one. Arguments that tax-payer funded research should be publicly accessible can seem obvious; but what if tax-payer funding is not available or is not adequate to cover the costs—as is usually the case in the arts and humanities? One size does not fit all.

AK: Why do you say that open access is a business rather than a moral issue?

PA: Because if a publisher must pay its own way by means of revenue generated from sales—like most university presses and society publishers—then it must have a business model that covers the costs of that publication. Even not-for-profit university presses and society publishers need to get close to breaking even. The funds for paying for producing a manuscript need to come from somewhere. As I mentioned above, in the STEM world that funding may be taxpayer dollars, or it could be corporate funds; in humanities publishing, outside funds for covering all publication costs are rarely available.

AK: Open access is commonly depicted as an adversarial relationship between the university press and the university library. Could you comment on the relationship of Penn State UP with the Penn State University Libraries?

PA: At Penn State, the Libraries and the press enjoy a very cordial and positive relationship. This is not always the case, as your question states, in some cases, the library and the press may find themselves with opposing goals or interests. I would avoid the word “competitors,” since we’re both not for profits and both members of the university community. At Penn State, we foster a positive relationship chiefly because we have very open channels of communication. The press reports to the Dean of Libraries, Barbara Dewey, but I also work very closely with Michael Furlough (@surlyF), the Associate Dean of Scholarly Communications at Penn State. We regularly discuss our different and common perspectives, missions, and goals. Both of us have worked to promote understanding of these different cultures, and we’ve sought ways to collaborate that respect our different strengths as well as our different objectives.

AK: You mentioned that your relationship with the Library is an uncommon one, because libraries and presses are commonly thought of as competitors. Could you elaborate on that?

PA: Libraries and presses do have different goals and objectives, but the idea that both will is a false assumption. Both of them are concerned with the dissemination of scholarly communication; both are concerned about the affordability of research. But the library and the press have very different cultures—and differences in their cultures may lead to miscommunication or misunderstanding.

Libraries, on the one hand, typically have a very ‘campus-facing’ culture; they are charged with working inwardly, with the institution’s student body and faculty. On the other hand, while university presses originally had “inward” looking cultures, they now look very much outwardly, particularly with the goal of publishing the best research available, not merely the work of their institution’s faculty. This change occurred when university presses began to view publishing the work of their own faculty as too “self-serving”; moreover, financial opportunities were usually more promising outside the home institution. Presses, pressured to cover their costs, increasingly started to shift their mandate from serving their institutions to serving more broadly and developing reputations.

These two different cultures—of the “inward” and the “outward”—lead to very different ideas of marketing, dissemination, and access. Libraries and presses are both champions of “access,” but understandably, whereas “access” doesn’t affect negatively a library’s bottom line, if access is “free” for a press, there can be direct, negative financial consequences. This reflects more a difference of operating strategies than a difference in values. Both may value the same thing—access—but other realities—staying in business, may mean that access takes a backseat to sustainability—income.

AK: Could you talk more about that?

PA: Another of the sharpest differences is how libraries and presses work financially. While many presses have to generate 80%– 90% of their own operating costs through sales, libraries work on a nearly 100% subsidy and have an “expenditure-based” budget. It may seem like the difference isn’t very much, but it actually is. At the same time, presses don’t appreciated how libraries get—and spend—their funding. Libraries don’t have to generate operating expenses through unpredictable sales income, but they must carefully manage their allocation.

AK: How would you analyze how the publishing environment for university presses has changed over the years?

PA: The turn towards the “outward” I mentioned earlier has also resulted in an incredible commercialization of scholarship. This turn began in the 1950s and the 1960s, where journals, principally in the sciences, started to explore working with commercial parties—a move which just about gave away the bowl of pottage, if you will. This started really with the sciences (including medicine, technology, and engineering), since information in STM potentially has enormous commercial value. As for the humanities the commercial value is less … well… let’s just say “measurable.”

So back to the shift. Once (mostly STEM) journals started working with commercial parties, universities began to recognize that there was additional revenue to be had from the products of their presses. So they started to hold their presses financially accountable for their ventures. So part of the problem is that university presses now have to sustain financially their own existence; they fundamentally work on a commercial business model that requires them to cover costs, instead of a model like the library which can be typically supported by institutional funding and outside donors.

And as we know, with a commitment to affordability, university presses typically don’t make a lot of money. This is a challenge because presses are held accountable and they have to invest in their future as publishing shifts towards digital dissemination. But because presses operate on a very thin margin, they often don’t have the resources to respond quickly or effectively to industry changes. For example, a lot of presses lack the resources to digitize their backlists—not to mention funding required to secure the rights and permissions for images and other data used within the book.

AK: You mentioned that libraries generally do a lot of fundraising for their projects. Why can’t presses do that, too?

PA: First of all, it’s a lot of work, and for a press—which unlike a library, has to cover the cost of salaries from revenue it generates itself—-a lot of money. Just ask my colleagues at the Libraries. Second, raising funds for something that already generates revenue can be a challenge for fund-raisers. Plus, most presses don’t have expertise in fundraising. Deciding whether to undertake a venture you don’t have expertise in—well, that’s a questionable business decision. Which is not to say that no university presses do any fundraising. Quite a few university presses have a vigorous and successful fund-raising strategy; most that I am familiar with do not.

AK: Well, if the majority of university presses don’t want to go into fundraising, how are they then going to secure enough funds to upgrade their infrastructure?

PA: Well, it’s not all darkness I believe. Most university presses will find ways to get their backlist digitized. And in many cases, this could be with help from their libraries. At Penn State, for instance, our Libraries are exploring ways to help the press digitize its backlist; we, in turn, helped our Libraries publish a couple of library-sponsored books. A bigger issue is not so much that the business model in and of itself is bad, but that university presses keep trying to produce books priced below the costs they need to recover. University presses were designed to offer good value and high quality, and to be affordable, all at the same time. One historian called this ‘madness’!

AK: Wait, what? You said that university presses are trying to offer “good value”? I don’t see how $50-$100 or more for a monograph is “good value.”

PA: If you look at the economics of publishing, it actually can be. The average cost of producing the first copy of a monograph—after all the editorial, production, design, and marketing work that goes into it, administrative work for peer review, typesetting, graphics etc.—can be $11,000–$15,000; for art history, it could be twice that much. Keep in mind, sales are not predictable and they usually number in the hundreds not thousands. So then a press must guess: how many of these copies am I going to be able to sell, and at what price, just to recover costs? You have to understand, too, that if the list price of a monograph is $50, it’s not as though a publisher actually gets $50 from each copy of the monograph. Most are sold at a discount. A significant number of copies are sent off as free review, desk, and exam copies; presses must give discounts to our library wholesalers and to retailers like Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

AK: Still, I wouldn’t call $50-$100 for a monograph “good value.”

PA: This concept of “good value” is something that is somewhat field-dependent. A scholarly research monograph purchased by a library which has potentially thousands of readers can be a “good value” for a library and for users. Plus, some fields are more “book-buying” fields, where people do buy a lot of books—and ones which have higher list prices too. These include fields such as Religious Studies. At conferences such as the American Academy for Religion, for example, European press book exhibitors typically showcase books that are going for $100 to $200 a copy, not to mention an STEM serial subscription that can cost thousands of dollars. Plus, doesn’t a monograph that gets someone tenure or promotion have a “value”? Also, keep in mind that it’s the STEM serials crisis that’s really behind the rising prices and drop in monograph sales, because libraries have had to redirect so much of their budgets on digital resources and STEM serials. With license fees committed for 3-5 years, libraries have discovered they have little money left for scholarly monographs.

AK: From what you’re saying, it doesn’t seem as though this commercial model is really working for academic publishing. Do you think that academic publishers should switch to more of a library-style model, where their work is funded 100% and they don’t need to “make back” their expenditure?

PA: Actually, isn’t the problem for libraries and universities precisely the opposite? Don’t commercial models actually work exceedingly well? We all think of Elsevier’s staggering profits. Elsevier is profitable because the model works as a business model. What doesn’t work is that libraries, in particular, cannot afford to keep purchasing or licensing huge STM digital products that siphon funds that could have been used for content in the arts and humanities. And by the way, we should remind ourselves that besides the billions in profits Elsevier realizes, they also have even more billions in costs. Are universities willing or able to absorb even one-half of those costs? The budgetary and financial challenges facing libraries originate not with humanities publishers, but with publishers of the science, technology and medical fields. As I said earlier, just compare the budgets of the NEH, NEA, or IMLS with the NSF and NIH. That contrasts millions with billions of dollars. The point is that even if we fix things in the humanities, this will not fix the issues libraries face in general, since the power players are STEM publishers.

AK: Let’s return to our initial discussion about open access. If open access is an business rather than a moral issue, who should bear the responsibility for paying for the work?

PA: What I was trying to get at earlier is that “who” should pay oversimplifies the problem since the gap between humanities publishing and STEM publishing is so expansive. Most university presses or scholarly society publishers in the humanities are not in it “for the money.” And they couldn’t be, if they tried. Financial resources are simply inadequate and less available than they are in STEM publishing. Most use revenue to survive; most don’t receive funding—tax-payer or otherwise—to underwrite or offset the costs of publication.

One issue that continues to be unaddressed, however, is an issue called the “free rider problem.” Right now we have more than 130 AAUP presses (including Society publishers reflected in ACLS) supporting the publications of faculty from 3000+ institutions of higher education within the United States alone. A small liberal arts college in West Virginia may not have the resources to publish the work of its own faculty; this responsibility has settled on the shoulders of the big research institutions with presses. This is a commitment that the large, especially R-1 institutions have made to the publishing ecosystem.

But these 130 AAUP presses are charged with publishing a significant portion of the promotion and tenure monographs or journal articles (around 12,000 monographs and 895 journals in 2011). This puts a significant amount of pressure on the system.

AK: Pre-publication peer review is a new concept that is gaining in popularity—where a journal or a book draft is first published online, and public comments are solicited before the work is revised and finally published in print form. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence is one important example. How do you view pre-publication peer review?

PA: Kathleen Fitzpatrick should be applauded. Prepublication peer review takes place all the time, but Kathleen is formalizing it. My thoughts: if this represents savings in terms of the time and cost of bringing a manuscript to print, publishers would be delighted. But publishers may be more wary of trusting the scholarly validity of these public comments. After all, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence also went through a more formal peer review process, where reviewers were solicited to give extensive comments to the author.

Ultimately, publishers are obligated to the system as are faculty. Universities have tied the procedures for tenure and promotion to the peer review system. So for this to work, universities, as well as publishers, have to buy into this system..

AK: Would Penn State Press be open to hosting experiments such as Planned Obsolescence—where a book is published online for public commentary before finally published in print?

PA: We’ve tried a lot of experiments with open publication, and would be open to more. We’ve also tried different pricing models for publication. We’re open, but we need to see the benefit in terms of time and cost-savings.

AK: Would you encourage scholars to blog parts of their book projects online? Do you think this would hurt or help their chances of getting a manuscript accepted?

PA: I don’t know—is there any verifiable evidence out there that blogging a book will help or hurt? I would generally, however, favor author’s blogging about their work. Any exposure is beneficial. When publishers look at a manuscript’s potential, they consider questions such as: how much copyediting would the manuscript require? How much work would that entail? I’m not sure that the medium/genre of blogging seeks to (or should seek to) address the same kinds of questions that a formal publication does.

AK: What do you think is the future of the university press?

PA: I consciously avoid using the language of scholarly crisis to characterize this future. Publishing is surely changing, but things are always changing. As we move towards the digital, more and more universities may be able to support the work of their own scholars, and smaller institutions may develop their own digital presses. This is an exciting moment, and we’re going to see an increasing number of opportunities for small organizations to come together and help faculty publish their work in a way which was not open to us before.

Photo “State College, PA” by Flickr user jmd41280 / Creative Commons licensed BY-ND-2.0″

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