One of the most significant impacts of Plan S (the drive to initiate an open access transition in scholarly publishing) has been to accelerate interest in national level read-and-publish deals. Whilst these deals have streamlined open access provision in the Global North, Jefferson Pooley argues that they lock in and exacerbate existing inequalities in scholarly publishing, by establishing and entrenching a two-tier system of scholarly publishing based on access to funds needed to meet publishing charges.
At last month’s Academic Publishing in Europe conference, a Springer Nature executive boasted about the soaring percentage of European scholars publishing open access (OA) in its journals: over 70% of corresponding authors based in Austria and the UK, 84% in the Netherlands, all the way to 90% in Sweden. The main reason is that all four countries have deals with Springer Nature to cover the author fees that the for-profit colossus and its peers charge to publish OA.
Such “read-and-publish” deals have consumed much of the open-access oxygen over the last two years. It’s an attractive idea, to fold article processing charges (APCs) into subscription contracts. The universities and national consortia that sign these deals end the “double-dipping” from publishers—who had, in effect, been charging them twice (once for the subscription bundle and a second time for author fees). With read-and-publish, there’s a single price, and scholars get seamless OA publication in the publisher’s titles.
More fundamentally, the move to fold in author fees is an implicit endorsement of the deeply flawed APC regime—one that lowers barriers to readers only to raise them for authors.
The problem, however, is illustrated by Springer Nature’s European quartet: The read-and-publish strategy is making global inequality worse. Nearly all the deals involve wealthy northern European countries or rich North American institutions like the University of California system. The practical effect is to grant selective OA authorship rights—with all their citation and visibility benefits—to scholars from the affluent West. If you’re Dutch, your Springer Nature article will appear OA by default; if you’re not, chances are that you’ll need $3,000 to $5,000 for that privilege. The OA citation-and-visibility advantage is one of the best-established findings in the scholarly communication literature. In practice if not by intent, the read-and-publish deal-makers are buying that advantage for their constituent-scholars. Scholarly publishing is already stratified along North-South lines—making read-and-publish an insult to long-standing injury.
The deals first emerged in Europe in the mid–2010s, though it’s hard to pinpoint their precise origins since the core idea—OA publishing bundled into “big deal” contract renewals—preceded the read-and-publish label. (Terminological hair-splitting remains a problem, with so-called “publish-and-read” agreements (note the inversion) centered on the OA payments; reader access is, in effect, thrown in for free.) Of the big five commercial firms, Springer Nature has been fastest to embrace the new model—Springer has even branded its own initiative—though Wiley, Taylor & Francis, SAGE, and even Elsevier all forged their own deals too. The model is also spreading to nonprofit publishers like Oxford, Cambridge, and a handful of learned societies. North American universities are joining the party too, first at MIT and, since last spring, in a cascading series of agreements.
So the model has a lot of momentum. One reason is Plan S, the push by European funders to flip scholarly publishing to OA. It’s true that the idea of read-and-publish as transitional—as interim progress toward an OA future—was articulated years before Plan S was unveiled. But the Europeans framing of the deals as “transformative”—as permissible stepping stones to an all-OA publishing landscape—has served as an accelerant. For the Plan S architects, the deals are “transitional and temporary,” to give way to full open access by 2025. That’s if all goes well, and if the plan withstands aggressive lobbying from big publishers. There’s no surprise that Springer and SAGE find the agreements appealing in the meantime: They lock in libraries subscription spending while winning short-run Plan S compliance.
It’s this leg-up to the legacy publishers that critics find objectionable. The deals offer, in Roger Schonfeld’s phrase, “to crown the existing major publishers as the OA Royalty.” Any open future, the reasoning goes, will be underwritten by the library expenditures already in the system. By hoovering those up—by sheltering their windfall profits—the big five are, at the same time, starving would-be competitors. Elsevier and the others are, as Richard Poynder has observed, “embedding themselves and their high prices into the new OA world, while elbowing aside OA publishers like Hindawi and PLOS.” There’s the related problem that the deals’ terms, in most cases, aren’t made public. So the pricing transparency that was supposed to discipline the APC—by introducing price-dampening competition for authors—is, in practice, obscured.
More fundamentally, the move to fold in author fees is an implicit endorsement of the deeply flawed APC regime—one that lowers barriers to readers only to raise them for authors. For scholars in the Global South—and in the humanities and social sciences everywhere—the APC option is laughably beyond reach. Yes, some publishers offer fee waivers, but the system is limited, shoddy, and patronizing—a charity band-aid on a broken system. Since author fees are stitched into read-and-publish deals, the approach serves to ratify—and secure in place—a scholarly publishing system underwritten by the APC. The deals also prop up, at least temporarily, the “hybrid” journal—the thousands of titles that publish tolled- and open-access articles side-by-side. Authors covered by the deals have every incentive to publish in hybrids: These are, very often, the established journals, marinated in prestige, and—unsurprisingly—the outlets that register the largest OA advantage.
The practical effect of the agreements is to create an authorial underclass, a stratum of scholars who—thanks to geography or institutional affiliation—don’t get to publish OA.
So there are lots of problems with read-and-publish. But the biggest one—the flaw that undermines the whole project—is the model’s doubling-down on global inequality. The practical effect of the agreements is to create an authorial underclass, a stratum of scholars who—thanks to geography or institutional affiliation—don’t get to publish OA. Membership in the underclass is, crucially, an expression of income. Consider, as one illustration, the average GDP per capita of the Springer Compact signatories (all European, with a telling exception, Qatar): $47,000, over 400% the global mean. These are countries that already had—which is to say, could afford—subscription deals with Springer and the others. The ability to transition to an OA “big deal” depends on having a tolled big deal in the first place. But dozens of national systems, and thousands of institutions around the world (including in the highly stratified U.S. sector) aren’t even starting from the “read” half of the read-and-publish equation. So there’s no subscription bundle to renegotiate, no option to shoehorn “and-publish” into deals that don’t exist.
An emerging variation on the read-and-publish theme, dubbed “pure publish,” refers to agreements with born-OA publishers. California recently announced a deal like this with PLOS, agreeing to cover some or all of its faculty APCs. The allotment of library funds to nonprofit, born-open publishers is a welcome trend, but the core problem remains: It’s just UC authors who’ve won the privilege to publish in PLOS journals.
The short-run effect of read-and-publish and its variants, then, is to amplify the voices—through the OA visibility and citation advantage—of scholars from rich countries and universities. There are indeed other paths to publish open access: There’s the ramshackle APC waiver system, of course, and many natural scientists have their fees covered by funders. Nearly half of all OA articles are published in no-fee journals—so-called “diamond” titles that operate on a shoestring or through third-party subsidies. As a barrier to authorship, the APC regime has some gaps.
Still, there is for better and for worse a prestige economy, one internalized by researchers and their employers. The “leading” journals, most of them, are published by the big commercial firms, directly or by arrangement with learned societies. These are the titles unlocked by read-and-publish deals—selectively, for those who have the money. For now, the rest of us can submit our closed-access manuscripts, to be published side-by-side, in hybrid fashion, with their fortune-kissed OA counterparts. If Plan S succeeds, and the journals go full-OA by mid-decade, even that fee-free option—to submit a paywalled, second-class article—will be closed off. The scholarly communication system is already skewed northward. In a read-and-publish world—one in which wealth buys authorship—that’s going to get worse.
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