Thanks to Björn Brembs for serving as a contributor to “Democratizing Academic Journals: Technology, Services, and Open Access!” This blog post features the transcript of his interview for that paper on the state of academic journal publishing and solutions to make open access sustainable. You can access the paper here.

In most academic institutions and organizations when departments have to make a large purchase they are required to get quotes from multiple vendors in order to ensure they’re getting the best value option available. Yet, when it comes to paying for academic journals there is little to no room for discretionary spending. University libraries must supply scholars with access to key literature and, since most articles are generally only published in a single journal, that means institutions must either pay for titles or forgo access to the research in them. In this environment publishers, especially of high impact journals that scholars seek to publish in and cite due to perceived prestige, have been able to essentially maintain a monopoly over the journal market and rapidly raise prices in response to high demand and minimal competition.

Björn Brembs, Professor of Neurogenetics at the University of Regensburg and OA advocate, argues the current journal publishing model perpetuates false research quality indicators and gives publishers disproportionate control over journals and consequently uninhibited price gouging liberties. He believes journal-based impact indicators should be abandoned and journal publishing should be upended from the current model, in which institutions pay publishers for access to content, to one in which the academic community pays for services to publish content and retains ownership of research. In the interview below Brembs details how bidding could lower costs of access to academic research as well as his thoughts on the future of OA.

Q&A with Björn Brembs

Do you think journal impact indicators are necessary for academic institutions and scholars to gauge the quality and/or relevance of new research?

BB: No, not at all. On the contrary, current journal rank is indicative of scientific unreliability, so, in fact, journal rank is counterproductive and detrimental to science. Evaluations may require some metrics due to the number of evaluations being too large, but only the scientific method can identify suitable metrics.

Further, ‘relevance,’ ‘importance,’ ‘interest’ are all subjective terms which differ between every individual. Research that is important, relevant, and interesting for you may be unimportant, irrelevant, and boring to me. Hence, such categorization of new research is quite useless.

What do you think are the necessary criteria for a new and sustainable research publishing model?

BB: The necessary criteria as I see it are:

  • Institutions should own their content (narrative, data, code) and provide it with default open licenses
  • Content should not be allowed to be given away
  • There must be competition ensuring the lowest publishing costs, together with rules and regulations requiring institutions to select the lowest bidder for their publishing services (as is custom for all spending)
  • Journals should be replaced by modern technology: tags, categories, etc.

You say bidding would allow for more affordable journal publishing. Can you give an example of a university expenditure where bidding would be involved and how that would work? How does this translate to academic journals?

BB: At my institution, any acquisition above a certain threshold needs a bidding process, or our purchasing department won’t release the funds. Microscopes, PCR machines, you name it: anything above around 150 euros needs quotes from at least three different vendors and we have to go for the cheapest one (or write an application for why it absolutely has to be a less cheap option).

Computers, for instance, have to be acquired via central computing, as they have done the bidding on behalf of the entire university. This is typical for many universities on both sides of the pond.

In academic journal publishing such a situation would create a truly competitive service market. Whereas now, every single subscription to scholarly journals can be seen as an anti-competitive act that keeps a new business model that allows for competitive bidding from emerging. Shouldn’t there be some legal pushback against this perpetuation of tax-waste?

Do you think in the future we will see a mix of both Green and Gold OA publishing, or do you think one model will take over for all research disciplines? Is there any existing publishing model that you think is the ideal, and if so why?

BB: As I outlined in 2012, both Green and Gold OA can only be transitional:

  • Gold OA publishing without abolishment of journal rank (or heavy regulation) will lead to a luxury segment in the market, as evidenced not only of suggested author processing charges nearing 40,000 euros for the highest-ranking journals, but also by the correlation of existing author processing charges with journal rank. Such a luxury segment would entail that only the most affluent institutions or authors would be able to afford publishing their work in high-ranking journals, anathema to the meritocracy science ought to be. Hence, universal, unregulated Gold OA is one of the few situations I can imagine that would potentially be even worse than the status quo.
  • Green OA publishing entails twice the work on the part of the authors and needs to be mandated and enforced to be effective, thus necessitating an additional layer of bureaucracy, on top of the already unsustainable status quo.
  • Hybrid OA publishing inflates pricing and allows publishers to not only double-dip into the public purse, but to triple-dip. Thus, Hybrid OA publishing is probably the most expensive version overall for the public purse.

Thus, what we have now is a status quo that is a potential threat to the entire scientific endeavor, both from an access perspective and from a content perspective, and the three models being pushed as potential solutions are not sustainable, either. The need for drastic reform has never been so pressing.

Only the existing model of Scholastica, Ubiquity, etc. is sustainable, as it allows for switching publication services, without interruption of service or access to content. Publishing in the future will be a service, not a content-hoarding-and-extortion business.

If you had to pick one thing you could change to improve the future of research publishing what would it be?

BB: All content-hoarding publishers become service providers.