• Open Insights: An Interview with Johan Rooryck, Open Access Champion for cOAlition S

    Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2020-04-28


An Open Insights interview with Johan Rooryck, Open Access Champion for cOAlition S

Johan Rooryck is Open Access Champion for cOAlition S. He is Professor of French Linguistics at Leiden University (The Netherlands). He has over 20 years’ experience as an editor, first as the Executive Editor of Lingua (Elsevier) and since 2015 as the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Fair Open Access journal Glossa: a journal of general linguistics. He is President of the Quality Open Access Market (QOAM), founding member and President of the Fair Open Access Alliance (FOAA), founding member of Mathematics in Open Access (MathOA) and Psychology in Open Access (PsyOA), founding member and President of Linguistics in Open Access (LingOA), and Member of the Academia Europaea.


Hello Johan, you are the Open Access Champion for cOAlition S. What are your priorities for Plan S and why is outreach important in your role?

My priorities for cOAlition S are to present Plan S and its policies at various conferences and events, and to expand the membership of the cOAlition. It is imperative that cOAlition S becomes a truly global initiative, aligning the largest possible set of research organizations that are willing to implement the principles of Plan S. We now have 24 members, including philantrophies like the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but also the European Commission and various national funders from Europe, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). Outreach is important for me because there are still a fair number of misunderstandings about Plan S and Open Access that need to be dispelled. Various stakeholders have different concerns about the transition to Open Access, and these need to be carefully addressed. I see that as my main task.

Open access has become mainstream in scientific communication, accelerated not just by OA mandates such as Plan S and the upcoming US open access mandate, but by catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which have accelerated and amplified this move even further, stressing the societal importance of open access. However, as OA becomes mainstream, questions over business models are of special relevance here if we are to build an accessible scholarly comms landscape, where researchers irrespective of their institution and funding situation have the possibility to publish open access. Within this context, replacing the ‘pay to read’ model with a ‘pay to publish’ model will pose a particular challenge for researchers in the humanities or researchers in the Global South that don’t necessarily have the resources to ensure that. Plan S has already sparkled some debate about the problems with APCs and whether we should prioritise other non-APC business models. How is Plan S addressing or planning to address this dilemma?

Questions about business models are indeed of crucial importance. The biggest challenge is that there are so many different stakeholders in this transition with very different needs and priorities. The goal should indeed be that all researchers should be able to publish open access. Plan S made a commitment to that end. But the transition to open access is hampered by a large number of factors: the current evaluation and reward system that places emphasis on purely quantitative metrics and prestige subscription journals; the glacial pace at which both publishers and scholarly societies are adopting the 'pay to publish' model; the power differential between nationally fragmented library consortia and publishers that operate on a global scale. I could go on.

It is definitely true that 'pay to publish' represents a challenge for LMIC and scholars in the humanities, who have less funding resources to pay for publication fees. But that is only so if individual scholars are presented with the bill for publication fees. However, cOAlition S members have pledged that publication fees should in principle be covered by funders and research institutions, not by individual researchers (Principle 4). That is a key commitment, and it has an important consequence. It sends the signal that any eventual payment model – APC-based or not – needs to be negotiated at the institutional level by consortia, funders, and publishers of all stripes, not by individual researchers. The institutions are the publishers' customers, not the researchers (which is what the publishers like to say). We know that there is more than enough money in the system to finance scholarly publishing. The main question is how to make the transition from paywall to open access, and to make sure that the actual cost of publishing services becomes more transparent than it was before.

I am not opposed to the APC as a payment mechanism: it in fact provides a convenient price-per-unit mechanism that, if transparent, allows institutions to compare prices between publishers. I personally think that the main problem with the APC is that it is author-facing. When you remove that, as Plan S does, at least the differences between SSH and STM scholars are levelled, since neither will have to pay for publication costs. What remains is the difference between rich countries and LMIC.

That difference can be addressed by adjusting APCs to Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). This is something that we are currently exploring in cOAlition S. APCs are currently priced identically for customers globally, unlike, say, coke or aspirin. Even old-fashioned subscriptions are more or less priced as a function of local purchasing power. Why not APCs? If they were, researchers in Africa, India, and South America would be able to pay for APCs on a par with Northern Atlantic countries. Instead, they now receive waivers, but these are often and rightly perceived as very patronizing and neocolonial.

The idea of PPP adjusted APCs would be the following: imagine 5-6 global tiers that include sets of countries paying different price levels adjusted to PPP, with the USA and Europe set in a tier at 100%. A number of OA publishers are willing to discuss this idea. PPP adjusted APCs would hopefully also attract LMIC funders to cOAlition S, so we can move faster to global OA. These countries are now extremely reluctant to leave their low subscriptions behind and move to an OA world that is just too expensive for them right now.

The big advantage of the APC is that it is easily scalable. For Funders, APCs are easy to manage: their cost can be allocated as a line item in each specific research project they fund. Efforts are underway to automate APC payments, as in the plans of the OA Switchboard to plug publishers, funders and libraries into a shared payment system.

That being said, I do think we should also explore non-APC based models. In a way, we do this already by supporting transformational agreements like those pursued by various library consortia around the world. I personally think the OLH consortial model is the best model for academic-owned publishing. But as you, Martin and Caroline have noted in a recent article, it's been a hard slog to convince 300 libraries to join OLH. Part of the problem here is that the burden of building the consortium is on the OLH itself. Nevertheless, the consortial model pioneered by OLH has been quite a success, since it has also been adopted in slightly different ways elsewhere: PLOS is exploring similar ideas, and Subscribe to Open can be seen as a variant of OLH. But as I see it, the challenge here is making institutions adopt it on a larger scale. The fragmented way in which institutions operate with respect to academic publishing obstructs the transition to an open access model in the case of OLH as it does elsewhere.

What sometimes prevents libraries and particularly funders from supporting the Open Library of Humanities is the correlation of their budgets for open access with the payment for services via APCs or per unit costs. The consequences of this is that in many cases institutions will pay for an APC but not for a membership. An annual membership to the OLH, where authors can publish as many articles as they wish, costs what many publishers will charge for a single article. Within the context of Plan S, which mechanisms will funders have for funding non-APCs initiatives?

I believe the competition in library budgets for open Access via APCs vs. via the OLH is a false dichotomy. You could also say that there is competition in the library budget between OLH and the computers for library visitors: both provide access to online material. That being said, I think OLH membership is incredibly inexpensive if you look at the value it provides for a university library and its researchers: the right to publish for free in any of the OLH journals, and the privilege to have contributed to making research freely accessible.

I know that for Glossa, the OLH-supported journal that I am the editor-in-chief of, there are many universities whose linguists have published enough papers in Glossa to easily recoup the membership fees in terms of the service costs provided by OLH. It is odd that these libraries do not become full members of OLH. One of the issues here, I believe, is that there is not a strong enough link between librarians and authors. Authors publishing open access in OLH journals should be incentivised to talk to their librarians and convince them of the necessity of supporting OLH. That does not happen enough, I'm afraid, also because the scholars simply don't know their librarians, they move in different circles.

Turning to Plan S, I do note that many of the participating funders already do support non-APC initiatives. The Wellcome Trust and the Austrian FWF for instance support OLH. However, it is not at all clear to me that a funder and a library should support OLH with the same membership fee, given the different missions and scales of both types of organizations. But cOAlition S funders clearly need to coordinate support for non-APC activities better. In that context, we have launched a tender for a study on Diamond publishing, financed by Science Europe, that explicitly asks for recommendations on principles and funding mechanisms that would provide equitable and transparent ways for a range of stakeholders to co-finance non-APC journals and platforms.

The implementation guidelines for Plan S call for a cost and price transparency for publishing services. With Plan S, publishers must provide greater financial transparency about how they are spending public money. The way this is being implemented is on per-article basis, but as Martin Eve argues here, the coupling of transparency with unit-cost per article is problematic. Particularly for scholar-led publishing initiatives run by consortial funding models like OLH, as it encourages the idea that universities are paying for their own authors and not pooling their resources so that everyone can benefit from OA. Do you think that this focus on per article costs might have the effect of disincentivising (collective) investments in platform infrastructure or scholar-led non-APC business models for OA? 

Let me first stress here that the notion of cost and price transparency in general is more important than cost and price transparency on a per unit basis. cOAlition S's transparency policy is primarily intended for traditional publishers and open access publishers that work with APCs or publish-and-read/ read-and-publish deals. That probably covers a large number of academic publishers today. We formulated the price transparency policy to re-establish trust in academic publishing and to make prices and services comparable across academic publishers. But it may not be quite as appropriate for Diamond publishing in general and the OLH in particular. I believe that consortial models such as OLH are not comparable in any easy way to traditional and Gold OA publishers, so we could imagine other rules for transparency applying here. It should be possible to find ways to make costs and prices more transparent in Diamond publishing as well, if only to show that in many cases it is a lot less expensive than traditional publishing. We just need to be imaginative about what transparency would look like in this case, without formulating requirements that are too onerous on relatively small outfits that Diamond initiatives often represent.

Plan S has committed to revision of the incentive and reward system of science, using the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), and therefore is pushing for a culture change in scholarly and research culture. How is Plan S planning to implement / enable this move? Most leading high impact factor journals are published by the big publishing companies and are part of to read-and-publish agreements between universities and publishers. Would this mean a move on the part of funders towards the endorsement of scholar-led non-for-profit OA journals/initiatives as alternatives por publication? This would surely help, as Arianna Becerril and Aileen Fyfe recently put, “make those venues into respected places for researchers to publish”, and therefore shift the current prestige economy based in the impact factor.

Plan S indeed endorses DORA, where 'endorsing DORA' should be seen as shorthand for all kinds of initiatives – including the Hong Kong principles, or the initiatives taken by CLACSO in South America – that aim at changing the assessment and evaluation system of research from quantitative metrics to more comprehensive qualitative criteria. 

cOAlition S funders commit to implementing such principles in their assessments of researchers who apply for grant funding. In addition, some of them, like the Wellcome Trust, already require from the institutions hosting the grant holders that they do the same. When cOAlition S Funders state that they will not consider the publication channel, its impact factor (or other journal metrics), or the publisher, that indeed means that they aim for a radical change in scholarly and research culture. The Funders believe that this will lead to a gradual levelling of the ranking of journals, as the very notion of 'high impact factor' will become meaningless, as it should. 

However, the Funders will not explicitly endorse scholar-led non-for-profit OA journals/initiatives as alternatives for publication. That is because of the neutrality that cOAlition S funders have adopted in Principle 5 of Plan S with respect to the diversity of business models for Open Access journals and platforms. So cOAlition S Funders want to level the playing field, but they will not express a preference for specific publishing venues. 

I personally believe that what will make scholar-led non-for-profit OA venues into respected places for researchers to publish is not the seal of approval by cOAlition S funders, but the quality of service in terms of reviewing quality and speed, publication quality, and visibility. Once the prestige of the JIF collapses, journals will have to compete on more than excessive selectivity or perceived prestige. Prestige will be entirely redefined as a function of the quality of services rendered.

You are one of the founders and Editor in Chief of Glossa: a journal of general linguistics, founded in 2016 after the editors of Elsevier’s hybrid journal Lingua resigned and created Glossa following the principles and model of Fair Open Access. What are your reflections now, four years after this move, and particularly from your position within cOAlition S? 

I am very satisfied with the transition from Lingua to Glossa, which I think it has been a complete success. We proved that the entire journal community of readers, reviewers, authors and editors can be easily and quickly moved to a different title and publisher. You could compare it to buying a new car for the family. The old Elsevier title Lingua still exists, but it has become a very different journal content-wise and quality-wise. By contrast, Glossa is simply just the continuation of pre-2016 Lingua. 

Flipping a journal of course requires some work, but funding for the transition and a long-term plan are essential. We were lucky to have the support for 5 years from the Dutch NWO and the Association of Dutch Universities, plus the long-term sustainability solution provided by OLH. 

At the same time, it is also clear that flipping a journal is not for everyone. In those 4 years I have talked to dozens of editors, and only a few have made the move, like Algebraic Combinatorics and Quantitative Science Studies. It also proved extremely hard to get so-called quality indicators like the Journal Impact Factor: after five years, and despite impressive figures in terms of citations, intellectual impact and downloads, Clarivate still hasn't provided us with an Impact Factor.

At the same time, the old Lingua still benefits today in terms of impact numbers from our pre-2016 work. Only now are those numbers beginning to collapse for Lingua. Not that I care much, because the JIF doesn't measure anything meaningful. But it shows how extremely conservative the entire publishing ecosystem really is, and how completely unprepared it is for a journal changing its title and publisher while remaining the same in terms of intrinsic quality and community. The entire system is geared towards finding title and publisher more important than quality and community. To again use my car metaphor: the car and its brand are more important than the family driving it. That makes no sense.

However, the slow pace of journal flipping showed me that something more radical and systemic was necessary. When Plan S was launched, I was very much in favor of it. Many of the ideas expressed there were in line with the principles of Fair Open Access that we had formulated in 2015 as the guidelines behind the transition of the LingOA journals. So when the position of Open Access Champion was advertised, I immediately applied for it. The perspective is of course very different for me now. As an editor and a member of LingOA and FOAA, I was a grassroots activist trying to effect open access from below. In cOAlition S, my role is more a top-down one, promoting the broad set of policies formulated in the Guidance of Plan S to move towards full and immediate Open Access.



Our thanks to Johan Rooryck (@JohanRooryck), and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon! 


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