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“Flipping” to (more) open when you’re already open

By Sara Rouhi, Director of Strategic Partnerships, PLOS

As Open Access Week draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on my brief time so far at PLOS — how six months fly by! — and what I understand “open” to mean now compared to when I started.

PLOS’ position as an early adopter of the APC business model, and the pioneer of the “megajournal,” proved to a generation of publishers that there was a real need for new means and avenues to publish and read — a demand that accounts for the astronomical growth of PLOS ONE 2006-2014 (all predictions of megajournal decline aside). Along with others, we helped set the stage for the mainstream conversation we are having about OA in the scholarly communication sector.

But with most of the OA conversation now dominated by the notion of a transition to OA, what does this mean for those native OA publishers, like us, who are already OA, and have been for years? If our focus as an organization is to “ensure that research is discoverable, accessible, and useful…to create a more equitable system of scientific knowledge and understanding…” (emphasis mine), are we done?

My six months at PLOS has shown me that the answer is definitively NO. Being “open” has to evolve beyond Open Access in order to stay aligned with the PLOS mission. As Dr. Katie Corker commented in her closing remarks at the SIPS conference in 2018,

I want us to think hard about classifying Open Science as a behavior. Not as an identity. Not as a value. It is a set of practices that you do in order to make your work transparent to others, checkable and scrutinizable by others in the community.

Dr. Katie Corker

Critical to this set of practices is making publishing itself accessible and maximally inclusive and, as we have been noting for some time, APCs are not that.

The next stage of Open Access has to include models and research objectives that remove barriers to both access AND being published. If authors, or their research budgets, have to pay APCs we are always leaving critical communities out in the cold:

  1. Early-career researchers (or their budgets) can’t always afford APCs.
  2. Many fields don’t receive grant funding that can cover APCs. (Hello, humanities/social sciences!)
  3. Funding and publishing practices in other parts of the world don’t align with Open Access as modeled by the Global North, meaning many researchers globally do not have the funds to participate in author-funded models.

“Open for whom?”

Equity in Open Access is exactly what publishers should be examining as we continue to evolve our ideas around open. As I said at the SSP New Directions Seminar in October, “If APCs are the end point [of this current transitional period fueled by Plan S], we’ve made reading open and publishing closed.” This is not the end point we hoped for and not the end point we should settle for.

As PLOS asks “What next?” regarding open, we are going back to our roots and re-examining the business models and vehicles that can make it all happen and keep it sustainable. Open for whom? and open how? These are the questions at the core of our considerations, and we are examining a mixed economy as part of our future.

Some of the challenges we (and most other native OA publishers) face are:

  1. In this time of transition, we don’t have anything to “flip.” Our content is already open and closing it is obviously not an option.
  2. We have no existing subscription legacy pricing (and hence no immediate base from which to derive new kinds of pricing that are not APC-based).
  3. APCs cannot cover the cost of higher selectivity. Bigger publishers can afford to have journals that lose money because their larger stable of offerings can simply balance things out. But PLOS only has seven journals (even if ONE happens to be among the biggest in the world…).

Models that we are already exploring are:

  1. Bundled APCs — lump sums for annual recurring spend
    1. While, yes, this is still fundamentally an APC model, it is in high demand by institutions like the California Digital Library and European consortia, helps free authors from feeling it is their responsibility to manage payments, and may finally free us all from the phrase “author pays”!
  2. Journal supporter-based models
    1. A collective action model where group of institutions share the cost for supporting a subset of journals — this is particularly suitable for our more selective journals PLOS Biology and PLOS Medicine. The challenges around this model are not small — it has to have the right combination of incentives and “consequences” to make it compelling to participants (especially as many organizations cannot pay for something that’s already free). We’re working on identifying that combination of carrots and sticks and have great library partners helping us on this (so thank you!).
  3. Transitional models — bridge funds to give us time to pilot
    1. We are exploring partnerships with other funders and publishers to maintain near-term revenue while piloting. While not a particular model in itself, it underscores the importance of trialing and piloting things to get it right and understanding that maybe the next model is one we haven’t thought of yet.

In short, these are exciting times for me, PLOS, and all those who are still committed to evolving Open Access. I hope this is enough to pique your interest in what PLOS is exploring to address equity in open knowledge. Please continue to watch this space, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at the email below if you are at an institutional library, or other organization, and feel you can help us move towards the new business models that will keep open access evolving.

When the theme of OA week itself can imply OA is not yet for everyone, we know we are not done.

Sara Rouhi
Director of Strategic Partnerships

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