PLoS and the future of publishing – as framed by Nature

In einem Nature Artikel der vergangenen Woche wurde der Rivale PLoS hart angegangen. Nature behauptet, PLoS (sieben unterschiedliche Journals werden von PLoS ausschliesslich open-access verlegt) würde ihr Konzept damit finanzieren, dass sie Artikel niederer Qualität ohne ausreichenden peer-review Prozess für einige Magazine akzeptieren, um mit Hilfe der so eingesammelten Publicationfees ihre Flagship – Journals PLoS Biology und PLoS Medicine, finanzieren zu können.

Einen guten Überblick über die Blogreaktionen zu der Debatte auf der Schwesterseite bietet Bora Zivkovic, Online Community Manager des kritisierten PLoS Jounrnals, hier auf seinem Blog around the Clock.

Mein Kollege Anders Norgaard liest viel auf, und hat einen besseren Überblick über die Debatte als ich. Er findet, dass Nature mit der Debatte eigentlich aussagen möchte, dass es für profitable high-profile Journals nur ein gutes Konzept gibt, nämlich das von Nature. Er ist damit nicht einverstanden:

PLoS and the future of publishing – as framed by Nature


Recently Nature featured an unusually mean spirited piece on the finances of PLoS. The tone of the piece generated a predictable backlash in the
blogosphere. Many of which are summarized here. Many of the comments took issue with the tone of the Nature article, and with the fact that the article was presented as “News” rather than “Natures opinion about a competitor”. Some also took issue with the
fact that Nature implied that the PLoS journals were inferior to the Nature journals in general.

Nature reacted, and wrote another piece in a more friendly tone, but with mostly the same view of the situation – namely that the “author pays” model doesn’t cover the current running costs of PLoS – and in particular that the revenue from the top-tier journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine.

One perspective which has been overlooked a bit, as far as I can tell is that Nature has managed to frame the debate. Intentionally or not. The framing can be summarized as “the problem is that top tier journals can’t be profitable as open access – author pays, in competition with Toll-Access journals”. This framing is advantageous to Nature as it implies that “the author-pays principle must generate all revenue for OA journals – subsidies are not ok”. Equally advantageous is it when “top-tier journal” is defined not only as “high rejection-rates” but also “high overheads”. Nature has an interest in making the two things seem inseparable.

For society and everyone who is not Nature (or other Toll-Access, high overhead journals) the framing does not make sense. The debate is part of a broader debate of the future of scientific publishing. And it is unreasonable to assume that a future of efficient digital publishing must be hobbled to serve to needs of businesses adapted to the past of high cost of paper distribution. Or that it must be measured by the same criteria of success (high profit from monopoly privileges) as old businesses.

For society the question (obviously) is “how do we maximize society-gain from published research”. There is no question that the enormous subsidy that is corporation held monopoly privileges via copyright can make publishing of popular content profitable for some publishers. But since this arrangement maximizes monopoly profit for select organizations and not gain for society, society should look at other arrangements. Other arrangements, which secure access also for those that value the access below the monopoly pricing but above the negligible cost of digital reproduction. And in no area of publishing is the fairness of society interference with current business models larger than science, where the producers of content are mostly publicly financed and the consumers also.

Among “other arrangements”, one obvious extreme is lump subsidy and no access restrictions. This gives maximum society benefit at a fixed price. Other arrangements are “some subsidy + other revenue” which is exactly the model that PLoS explores. And which should be explored. And which does not need to be successful by the same measures as Nature was successful in the past.

And as a personal opinion on this – I think that what will (and should) happen is that the market (lead by initiatives like PLoS) will drive costs of top-tier publishing down. Future top-tier publications will simply have to have unbundle, have less costly content, and less costly procedures – and will consequently look different from today. I see an obvious analogy to newspaper-publishing which was discussed at the Becker-Posner blog recently: Posner – Becker

And as Greg Laden relates, Nature supplied somewhat opaque answers to the UK parliament on Nature finances. But from those, to me, there seems to be plenty of costs to cut.

So, if you buy my view of the “framing” aspect. Then it is worth noticing that both Nature pieces had the same framing of the problem. And that buzz around the obviously confrontational and distorting first piece helps take focus from the problem framing, and put focus on the more obvious silly points. And generating buzz – even negative buzz is the objective if “framing” is the goal.

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  1. Ich bin ein grosser Freund von Open-Access, und der Ton des Nature-Textes war wohl etwas unangemessen. Dabei sollte aber nicht uebersehen werden, dass Nature im Kern Recht hat – die PLoS-Spitzenjournals werden durch die Gebuehren aus den Massenjournals querfinanziert und letztere machen Masse, indem sie nicht allzu waehlerisch sind. Die Kernfrage ist: Ist das schlimm? Ich glaube nicht. Langfristig bekommt jedes Journal die Reputation, die es verdient, ob Open-Access oder nicht.

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