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Scholar-led Open Access Publishers Are Not "Author-Chutes"

Published onAug 03, 2020
Scholar-led Open Access Publishers Are Not "Author-Chutes"

Both Open Book Publishers (OBP) and punctum books recently shared publicly that their per-title cost for high-quality open access monographs hovers somewhere around the $6,000 mark. This number is markedly different from the findings of the the 2016 Ithaka report “The Costs of Publishing Monographs,” which found that open access monographs published by university presses cost between $30,000 and $50,000.

As both institutional libraries and funding bodies invested in a transition to a fully open access scholarly communications landscape are naturally seeking how best to spend their money in the public interest, it comes as no surprise that the disclosure of our numbers, and accompanying financial transparency, has elicited diverse responses from the scholarly publishing world.

“Cost-Effective Open-Access Author-Chutes”

The first semi-public response came by means of Richard Fisher’s “Academic publishing update—June 2020 (Part One),” circulated among members of the Independent Publishers Guild, which includes both legacy and university publishers. In this newsletter, Fisher refers to both COPIM’s recent response to the UKRI Open Access Consultation and the above-mentioned report from OBP.

In particular, Fisher picks up on an argument from the OBP report, which we share here:

In informal discussions with some traditional university presses it appears that our costs of copyediting/proofreading and typesetting are comparable to, if not a little higher than, many other presses—but that the largest difference is in expenditure on acquisitions. Other presses invest a lot of resources in “acquiring content, an area closely tied to the character and reputation of the press [...] selecting and developing the most promising authors and topics to the press.” However, we would suggest it is unfair to pass this cost onto the author (or funder) in the form of a BPC—a cost that is incurred essentially to burnish the reputation of the press and to make it stand out compared to its competitors, rather than directly to support the publication of an author’s work.

Fisher responds to this as follows:

I think fundamentally there is emerging a real disagreement about what academic publishers are for, and whether they should have an editorial identity of their own (and spend resources on establishing same), or whether they should just be the most effective and cost-effective Open Access author-chute possible. These things are not, of course, mutually exclusive, but it is one of the most striking differences between the positions of (say) many members of the Association of University Presses, for whom acquisitions costs are a major and wholly legitimate part of monographic expenditures, and some of the COPIM partners like Open Book Publishers who would deny the necessity and indeed validity of such expenditures.

First of all, we are sure that we can speak for all scholar-led publishers involved in COPIM when I say that none of us deny the “necessity” or “validity” of expenditures on acquisitions. Our argument, formulated by OBP, is that acquisition costs should not be included in the per-title production costs of an open access monograph for the purpose of setting Book Processing Charges (BPCs), because it is of no added value to the monograph as scholarly product. Spending “resources on establishing name” is something neither an institutional library nor funder willing to invest in the already costly transition to open access should have to pay for. This is simply not a responsible way of spending public money.

Furthermore, not including acquisitions costs in our per-title calculations for BPC purposes by no means implies that we have no such costs or that we are aiming to become the “most effective and cost-effective Open Access author-chute possible.” The publishers in COPIM are scholar-led publishers, which means that its directors are active scholars and researchers with intimate knowledge of their multiple respective fields as well as with the practices of acquisitions editors. It is not our problem that the leadership of university publishers has become so detached from the realities of present-day scholarship that they need to hire cohorts of expensive specialists to pick out the books they think will enhance their “brand.” In fact, many of our authors specifically choose a scholar-led publisher because they experience legacy and university publishers precisely as those “cost-effective author-chutes” that Fisher imagines us to be.

In the spirit of full transparency, at punctum books the two co-directors (ourselves), with 6 graduate degrees between us, also serve as the acquisition editors, and the processes whereby content is acquired is no less rigorous than at a “legacy” university press (all manuscripts are peer-reviewed, for example, with the assistance of an editorial advisory board), but these processes are, perhaps, more lightweight and cost-efficient. The reason for this is that we do not travel to conferences and serve as exhibitors, as many university presses do, in order to solicit and curate books, and represent their “brand” more largely, although as scholars, we do often travel to conferences to present our own work and also represent punctum books when we do so. Contacts might be made with potential authors that later prove fruitful, but the primary mode by which we solicit and curate new books, and also represent our brand, is via email, social media, and our communications hub, built on the PubPub platform. We have an open submission period from May through July of each year when we receive a deluge of manuscripts — many more than we could ever hope to publish. Potential authors also know that at any time of the year, they can bounce book ideas our way and we’ll let them know if we’re potentially interested in seeing the work when it is completed. That this method has served us well is evidenced in the distinctiveness, diversity, and high academic quality of our catalogue, which also serves our “brand” and “reputation” whereby authors are attracted to working with us. We are also well-known for our close, “hands on” working relationships with authors, from acquisitions through production and beyond, and this also attracts authors to our press.

This brings us to Fisher’s insinuation that scholar-led open access publishers like those involved in COPIM and ScholarLed, would have no “editorial identity of their own.” Even the briefest glance at our respective catalogs gives quite the opposite impression. punctum books is a proudly queer-led and scholar-led press, with an Editoral Advisory Board whose diversity is reflected in our publications, and our catalog showcases the experimental and transdisciplinary scholarship for which we are well known. And none of this is possible without taking acquisitions seriously as a vital part of our workflow. We actively spend time and resources as well on collaborations with fellow open access publishers who are jointly invested in developing open publishing infrastructures for monographs that we hope are the future of scholarly communications. This is also part of our “identity.”

Obfuscating the Discussion, but Also a Revelation

The second, albeit more indirect, response comes from an interview between Sara Grimme and Charles Watkinson with Lara Speicher and Erich van Rijn on “The Economics of Open Access Monographs,” which also cites the OBP report.

Rather than adopting Fisher’s straw man rhetoric, Speicher and Van Rijn try to diffuse the debate on open access monograph costs by pointing to the enormous variability in costs. Speicher points to the “huge range within what we describe as the ‘monograph’,” while Van Rijn suggests that “costs can be highly variable between presses and book types.” However, like Fisher, he appears to suggest that “deep involvement in manuscript acquisition” is one of the driving factors behind high costs:

There is a large amount of staff time and overhead that goes into fully developing monographs. […] In general I will say that, as university presses, we tend to be heavily focused on the humanities and social sciences and there’s a tradition of deep involvement in manuscript acquisition, development, and coordination of peer review which is expensive.”

Although Van Rijn doesn’t substantiate this position with actual numbers, he does make an interesting observation as regards the internal problems caused by, for example, University of California Press being a hybrid open access + print publisher:

The challenge for most university presses is that the infrastructure that’s needed to support open access publication is different to what’s needed to support a sales-driven publication approach. So you have to support those two different kinds of infrastructure in the same organization. On the OA side you want to be able to have somebody who can report nicely on usage and develop dashboards to demonstrate the efficacy of the publishing program. And on the unit sales-driven side, you need a sales manager and people who are constantly trying to get books into the sales channels. You also need different kinds of infrastructure in the back office where you’re processing things like book processing charges rather than doing royalties accounting. It adds up to a complicated set of operations to support under one roof. I’m rather envious of a publisher who can support one or the other, rather than both. We’re in that kind of messy transition period.

Could it be that the underlying reality of the claims about “brand,” “prestige,” “deep involvement,” and “name establishment” is that university publishers simply suffer from the inefficiencies caused by their slow adoption of fully open access business models?

Behold the vicious circle of prestige: university and legacy publishers claim that scholar-led open access presses have no “prestige,” hence open access is by association without “prestige,” therefore they cannot fully embrace open access because it would damage their “prestige,” as a result of which they have to accommodate enormous inefficiencies at every level of their book production process, making them much more expensive than scholar-led open access presses, which they claim is actually caused by their investment in “reputation” and “identity” via acquisition costs – which scholar-led presses would not have. And repeat.

So let’s have another look then at those acquisition costs of university publishers.

Another Look at Those Acquisition Numbers

The 2016 Ithaka report “The Costs of Publishing Monographs,” which investigated the per-title costs for open access monographs published by a cross-section of publishers that are members of the American Association of University Publishers, found that

Regardless of group type, the largest cost item for university presses is staff time, specifically the time related to activities of acquisitions, the area most closely tied to the character and reputation of the press. This activity is least likely to be outsourced, and considered to be closely tied to its financial success: acquisitions editors being the ones with the skill, subject expertise, and relationships needed to attract the most promising authors and topics to the press.

Indeed, upon analysis of the numbers it appears that university presses of all sizes assign a substantial part of their per-title costs to “acquisitions.”

Figure 1. Average Staff Costs per Monograph, by Activities and by Group. Data from Nancy L. Maron et al., “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology,” Table 5.

As can be seen in Figure 1, acquisitions take up between 40–55% of the total staff expenses per monograph, with the highest percentage found in university publishers with an annual revenue <$1.5M.

We can also compare these acquisitions costs with the total price of open access monographs published by university presses1:

Figure 2. Average Costs per Monograph, by Activities and by Group. Data from Nancy L. Maron et al., “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology,” Tables 4 & 5.

If we are looking at percentages, we find that acquisitions takes up between 18% and 25% of the entire production costs of a single open access monograph, whose cost varies between $30,000 and $50,000:

Figure 3. Average Costs per Monograph (%), by Activities and by Group. Data from Nancy L. Maron et al., “The Costs of Publishing Monographs: Toward a Transparent Methodology,” Tables 4 & 5.

Now, even if scholar-led open access presses spent absolutely nothing on acquisitions, the average per-title production costs reported by both punctum books and Open Book Publishers of respectively $5,500 and £5,000 (~$6,500) are still substantially lower than the per-title costs reported by university publishers minus acquisitions costs. In other words, acquisition costs can never be the sole reason why university presses are less cost efficient compared to scholar-led open access publishers.

Rather, we invite university publishers to transparently disclose their financial records, so that we can level the playing field and have a discussion on what is really important: how we can help the entire scholarly communications landscape to transition to a sustainably open and cost-efficient access model, with the freedom to read, write, edit, and publish, and where public knowledge is truly accessible to the public.

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