Report on the Academic Publishing in Europe 2020 Conference in Berlin, 14-15 January

As the Managing Editor of BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, I travelled to Berlin to participate in the annual conference of Academic Publishing in Europe (APE), entitled ‘Driving the Change – together. Less Satellite Navigation – more Collaboration’. The APE-conference is the main event where the status of scholarly publishing is discussed. It is frequented by representatives of both commercial and non-commercial publishing houses in Europe and the United States. Next to the ‘big three’ – Elsevier, Springer-Nature and Wiley – also ‘learned societies’ and start-ups were attending and presenting.

The acceptance of Plan S?
Last year, the APE-conference could easily be summarised as a clash between the invited research funders organized in cOAlition S (in casu Robert-Jan Smits, the then EU Envoy of Open Access) and the representatives of the major commercial publishing houses such as Elsevier and Springer-Nature on the requirements of Plan S launched by cOAlition S in September 2018. By launching Plan S, cOAlition S stipulated that publicly funded research needs to be published in gold open access as of 2021, and thereby attacks the largely commercialized ‘business models’ of these publishing houses. The latter not only charge authors with high Article Processing Charges (APCs), but also require university libraries and readers substantial subscription fees to access the journals’ content. Plan S rejects these hybrid models and their practices of so-called double dipping.

The title of this year’s conference stressed the need for collaboration in order to drive the change towards open access publishing together. Indeed, the APE-conference opened in a more convivial atmosphere, where cOAlition S and the publishing industry seemed to be more or less on speaking terms again. One could say that publishers consider Plan S and its start in January 2021 more and more as a given, which forces them to adapt certain aspects of their business models. Even though Plan S does not, by far, affect all countries, and even though not all research is publicly funded, publishing houses and learned societies increasingly support green and gold open access models.

The more convivial atmosphere was especially noticeable in the lectures of the publishing houses. In her keynote Elsevier’s CEO Kumsal Bayazit eagerly demonstrated the publisher’s preparedness to ‘repair the trust between the publishing house and the research communities’, funders in the latter included. Bayazit highlighted the keywords central to this conference: next to repair and trust, it was all about value, and more specifically the value highly reputed publishing houses add to a gold open access publication. Therefore, publishers should largely invest in open access platforms and tools that ensure the quality and the integrity of research. In a panel on openness in the arts and the humanities, some speakers were even so optimistic to state that researchers in these fields were far more familiar with the idea of openness, since they are used to work with open sources and public archives. Erzsébet Tóth-Czifra of DARIAH-EU did support that idea, but stressed that the diversity and the linguistic fragmentation of the humanities make it far more difficult for publishers and learned societies to implement open access policies than in the sciences, as the output in the humanities is very divergent: from articles, to exhibitions, books, maps, to text editions. Moreover, towards the funders, Tóth-Czifra equally repeated the resource scarcity within the humanities, which makes APCs hard to handle for those who produce these forms of output.

Interventionist funders and price transparency
Funders opted for a more critical stance. In his keynote lecture, Marc Schiltz, the president of Science Europe and one of the founders of cOAlition S, did applaud the initiatives of publishing houses to enable sustainable green and gold open access. But Schiltz did not refrain from arguing that the publishing industry is still a malfunctioning sector that treats authors, reviewers ánd readers – mostly the same researchers in three different roles – badly. This observation had motivated the funders, as the ‘guardians’ of public funding, to take up an interventionist stand. On a relevant question from the audience about the rise of a EU-sponsored and -hosted publishing platform, Schiltz however answered vaguely. This attitude of abstention is in line with the funders’ rather ambiguous interpretation of that interventionist role. While funders in general refrain from actually investing in open access infrastructure, it is remarkable to see that especially in smaller European nations like the Netherlands, national funding organizations are financially contributing to new platforms in the field of the humanities. Yet, in general, Schiltz seems to rely on the private market’s ability to ‘refurbish’ itself. It is fair to say that cOAlition S still gives publishing houses a lot of freedom. To give one example, the funders’ willingness to finance APCs for instance is not yet joined by a measure to cap these often very high article processing charges. So, in a way, Plan S is only slowly – and in the end maybe only partly – changing the commercial mindset of academic publishing.

However, at the same time, it is clear that Plan S has forced publishing houses to be more transparent about their APCs. They have to make explicit which services are offered and what the real costs are. In this context of price transparency, the keynote of Alicia Wise, the director of the audit company Information Power, offered publishing houses tools in how to ‘communicate value’. She was requested to consult commercial publishing houses on Plan S’s requirement of price transparency. The central question here is: where is the publisher or the journal adding value in the process of publication and what is price of each service offered by the publisher or journal? Wise encouraged publishers to get a detailed overview of all their editorial practices, such copy editing, typesetting, image editing, archiving etc., to make sure that the ‘constitution’ of the final APC for the author or the annual contribution for a journal is clear. The rightful demand of price transparency urges publishing houses, but actually also new journal platforms, to gain a very thorough understanding of all their activities, and its costs. This transparency also helps to mend another serious problem. Authors need to become more aware of the real costs of open access articles and equally so of the fact that ‘good human editors and typesetters’, as Wise stressed, obviously add a lot of value to a scientific publication. And that comes with a price. ‘Article processing charges’ should, in this light, be better transformed into ‘author publication charges’, as editorial practices include more than simply processing. As Professor Günter Ziegler of the Free University of Berlin said during his opening statement at this APE-conference: ‘Quality publishing needs to be cherished and we all want to avoid that open access publication start to look like pirate copies’.

Open the whole ‘research cycle’
As the aspiration to publish articles in (certain levels of) open access is more and more widely shared among different stakeholders, it is time to start a new debate on academic publishing. Several speakers and sessions at this APE-conference dealt with the encompassing ambitions of open science. In this field, funders and publishers seem to be strongly on the same page.

Professor Jean-Claude Burgelman, the new EU Open Access envoy, stressed that the publication of articles is in fact only a tiny part of the whole ‘research cycle’ which needs to be opened up. Burgelman encouraged the publishing houses to provide services that really help scientists to review, edit, disseminate and interlink their work. The representatives of Elsevier, Wiley and Cambridge University Press view these relatively new tasks as solid opportunities to demonstrate their value for the research community. Bayazit presented the different tools Elsevier is currently offering authors to carefully conduct peer review, to promote inclusion and diversity in book reviews, and to measure the societal impact of their research results via the tool Credit. The Elsevier-tool Key Resources Table enables authors to be transparent about their methodologies and the crafting of their research, so studies can be replicated more easily. Chris Graf from Wiley stressed the complexity of designing tools for presenting and collecting research data, in which the new privacy laws are respected. And Mark Zadrozny, publisher at Cambridge University Press, presented their recently developed preprint platform for the output of social scientists. The plethora of these new tools should probably also inspire the practices of newly designed publishing platforms, which so far – and understandably – focus on the open access publication of articles.

With these services, publishing houses and platforms could assist researchers to increase integrity and to ensure the high quality of their work. Moreover, these tools, designed by high-quality publishers, were also presented as safe instruments for researchers in their worldwide combat against predatory journals, fraud, research espionage and fake news. They were also presented as tools against the increasing dominance of Google, Apple and Facebook in gathering publicly funded and privacy sensitive (research) data. Still, at the same time, one could wonder if that very criticism of gathering research data could not be applied to these commercial publishing houses. Maybe that debate can be conducted during the next conference in January 2021, when Plan S will finally be applied.

Tessa Lobbes

Video recordings can be found here:


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