The Rock and the Hard Place (Part 3): Being Open For Change

Two years ago the department in which I work was charged with developing a new organizational structure in response to changes in the scholarly publishing landscape.  Reflecting, presenting, and writing in various venues about this, it’s hard to avoid the ad nauseam reference to change – change is the new normal; embrace change; anticipate change; be the change you wish to see in the world.

In my previous post, the second in this three part series, I noted that the literature is growing in supporting the fact that flipping (changing) the subscription model to open access is an attainable reality, and that a will to do so is what’s needed.  My experience rethinking acquisitions and resource sharing workflows to support this changing landscape lead me to believe there is more than will at play.

One problem many libraries are aiming to solve with reorganizations, is the inadequate support of e-resource and open access workflows resulting from predominantly print based workflow and organizational structures.  This is interestingly parallel to an observation Van Noorden makes regarding the costs (that translate to high pricing) of traditional publishing and open access models. He writes:

“Whereas small [open access] starts ups can come up with fresh workflows using the latest electronic tools, some established publishers are still dealing with antiquated workflows for arranging peer review, typesetting, file-format conversation, and other chores.  Still older publishers are investing heavily in technology and should catch up eventually.”

Investing heavily is an interesting lens with which to consider the tensions at play in the subscription model and open access and is often the starting point for change. Investment connotes the shared driver of money at stake.  But investment of time, thought, and resources are also very much at play in exploring alternative workflow and organizational structures in these same spheres.   And because both involve people, solutions are not always a matter of simple arithmetic.

I had the opportunity to take notes for parts of the OA Symposium held at the University of Kansas recently, which was aimed specifically on open access funding alternatives to article and book processing charges (APC/BPC).  As I took notes for the symposium, I listened for specific connections to the subscription model that might lead to actionable solutions in my circle of influence. From almost every participant there was a common call for: concrete, actionable solutions (that do not reinvent the wheel), connections, and momentum.  Not surprisingly, these same outcomes are desired by those involved in reorganizational efforts to address and support such changes.

Breaking down any large problem — like institutional reorganizations or flipping subscription based or APC models of open access — requires both an ability to see the actors involved and the connections at play.  Both cases need a good dose of facilitation and process mapping.  In the OA Symposium participants did a fair amount of idea-generation, but also worked together in small groups to break down the processes involved in the APC model and its connections to many local and international players.  Proposing alternative models addressed the practicalities and anticipated challenges of implementation. Some of these proposals mentioned connections to subscription model in general terms; others offered more specifics.  I starting thinking more about the workflow and organizational implementation on a couple of these ideas.

Common funding models for open access initiatives, besides funding APC, are investing in open access memberships.  This is somewhat like subscription-based membership in consortia, which aim to reduce individual cost of participants and garner negotiating power in numbers. But a new (to me) twist on this model proposed that instead of modeling the price of participation on FTE or Carnegie classification (as the subscription models commonly do), perhaps differing levels of participation could be more voluntary, like endowments. Taking this a step further, I wonder if the options to invest as a silent donor would attract even more willing participation.  While contrary to the more public investment desired by open access advocacy, this recognizes a more guarded approach the subscription model workflow sometimes takes in managing messages about investment.  Take new e-resource trials, for example, which on the face of it represent no actual monetary commitment. However, a decision to even pursue trials may be carefully considered against messages that might appear to over promise the availability of resources that cannot be realistically afforded.  Such a decision might also  work at cross purposes with existing renewal workflows in negotiating better deals. To be clear, the need for budgetary accommodation in subscription renewals does not prevent libraries from considering new resources, but an awareness that the complexities of that messaging should be recognized.

Another, perhaps controversial twist on the membership models was tying participation with a commitment to reinvest subscription dollars along various timelines. (e.g. 1% – 100% over 10 years).  The incremental nature of this approach is also similar to subscription renewal workflows, which operate in annual incremental percentages increases (e.g. multi-year renewal deals often negotiate a pricing percentage cap on increases).  Again, its success with subscription workflows may come down to a question of transparency.  As with some licensing negotiation terms, a public, unified statement of commitment often helps get such clauses addressed in negotiation. Whether internal, or a transparent part of the negotiation process, finding a way to flip the negotiation of price cap percentage to a price reinvestment percentage is an interesting concept.

There are million other tiny ways to begin rethinking subscription and open access workflows in concrete ways. My next concrete step is to consider the steps recommended in the OA2020 Roadmap which is teeming with concrete practical solutions for subscription and open access budgeting and reporting, assessment, negotiation, and more. Being present at KU’s OA Symposium allowed me to pay attention and consider realities I hadn’t been aware of and take stock of how much more I can learn and potentially contribute.



Richard Van Noordern, “The True Cost of Science Publishing,” Nature 495 (2013), 426-429, doi:10.1038/495426a

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *