A note of caution about SCOAP3 and the pre-emptive "flip" model for conversion to Gold OA

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Mon, 23 Jun 2008 12:16:33 -0400

      A note of caution about SCOAP3 and the pre-emptive "flip"
      model for conversion to Gold OA

      SUMMARY: Journal articles are purchased by institutions,
      or consortia of institutions, in bulk (jointly aggregated
      in journals, in publisher "big-deal" fleets of journals,
      or even in multi-publisher fleets of fleets of journals),
      whereas individual articles are published by authors
      individually, in their journal of choice (and only if and
      when they successfully pass that journal's peer review).
      Mark Rowse, former CEO of INGENTA, a journal
      subscription aggregator, has suggested that institutions
      and institutional consortia could "flip" collectively,
      from paying annual subscription licenses that buy-in
      journals in bulk, to paying annually instead for the
      publishing (Gold OA) of their own institution's outgoing
      articles, likewise in bulk, to the same fleet of
      journals. SCOAP3 is an experimental implementation of a
      pre-emptive Rowsean flip, but it is local, and in a
      unique field (particle physics) that already provides
      100% Green OA by self-archiving. SCOAP3's is hence simply
      a consortial subsidy ("sponsorship") to replace former
      subscriptions. This is unlikely to be globally scalable
      across disciplines, institutions, authors, articles and
      (competing) journals, not only because the asking price
      today is too high, but because successfully passing peer
      review is an individual author - article - journal -
      referee matter rather than something to be annually
      "bulk-subscribed" to, consortially, in advance. By way of
      an alternative, institutional Green OA self-archiving
      and mandates, unlike a Rowsean flip, can not only scale
      universally to provide 100% (Green) OA, but they can also
      prepare the ground for an eventual
      non-pre-emptive,non-Rowsean "flip" to Gold OA, by first
      offloading access-provision, archiving and their costs
      onto the network of Green OA Institutional Repositories,
      thereby helping to downsize publishing and its costs to
      just the costs of peer review. Those costs can then be
      covered on an individual paper (non-bulk, non-consortial,
      non-aggregated, non-subscription, non-annual,
      non-pre-emptive) basis out of individual institutional
      subscription cancellation savings -- if and when Green OA
      should ever make subscriptions globally unsustainable.
      (Till then, no need for any pre-emptive conversion at


What follows is a note of caution about the generalizability of Mark
Rowse's consortial "flip" model for pre-emptive conversion to Gold
Open Access publishing and its current implementation
by SCOAP3 (Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in
Particle Physics), as promoted by CERN and the other participating

First, the important and unproblematic points of agreement:

1. CERN mandates Green OA self-archiving for all of its research
output (and most particle physicists self-archive spontaneously in
any case). 

If all other research institutions and universities, in all
disciplines, worldwide, already did the same as CERN, then we would
already have universal Green OAand there would be no problem with the
SCOAP3 experiment, which would be risk-free, regardless of whether it
proved scalable or sustainable. But as it is, only 44other
institutions and funders have so far done as CERN has done and only
15% of annual research article output is being self-archived

2. CERN is very probably right that the eventual future of
peer-reviewed journals will be that publishing costs are no longer
recovered from user-institution subscription fees but from
author-institution publishing fees. 

(Note that this is not "author pays" but "author-institution pays,"
as it should be, and does not entail diverting scarce research funds
toward paying publishing fees.) 

However, if all other research institutions and universities, in all
disciplines, worldwide, were, like CERN, already mandating the
self-archiving of 100% of their research output today, hence if the
archiving and access-provision service were already being offloaded
onto the distributed network of OA Institutional Repositories instead
of having to be provided by journals, then the essential cost of
journal publishing would shrink to just the cost of providing peer
review alone, and the asking price for that service alone would be
far less than what is being charged currently for Gold OA and all the
other products and services that are being co-bundled into Gold OA
today (print edition, PDF, archiving, access-provision). Moreover,
each author-institution's annual savings from its user-institution
subscription cancellations would then be available to pay that much
reduced asking price for peer review alone, per institutional paper
published. (That would then be a natural, non-Rowsean "flip" that
worked, thanks to universal Green OA.)

But there are several problems with the SCOAP3 approach at this time,
and they arise from an incoherence at the heart of the "flip" model
(in the pre-emptive form proposed by Mark Rowse, former CEO of the
journal aggregator, INGENTA, in a proposal not unlike an even earlier
one made by Arnoud De Kemp, then at Springer, for a "click-through

3.1. The current asking price for Gold OA is vastly inflated. Because
there is nowhere near universal Green OA self-archiving yet, paying
for Gold OA at all today is not only premature and unnecessary (if
our goal is OA itself, rather than something else), but the current
Gold OA asking price is unrealistically high. 

Green OA needs to come first, before conversion to Gold OA
publishing. Then, if and when universal Green OA induces subscription
cancellations, which in turn drive cost-cutting, and downsizing to
the true essentials of OA publishing (with the print edition
terminated and OA repositories taking over the burden of
access-provision and archiving), peer review can be paid for
by author-institutions, per outgoing paper published, instead of
being paid for, as now, by user user-institutions, per incoming
journal purchased. At the present time, however, there exist (a)
neither the institutional need to pay to publish in order to provide
OA nor (b) the institutional funds to pay to publish (because those
funds are currently tied up in paying journal subscriptions, which
are in turn covering the costs of publishing indirectly); in
addition, (c) the price of publishing as it is currently done today,
with everything that is still being co-bundled into it, is still far
too high. 

3.2. The Rowsean "flip" model is globally incoherent and
unscalable. SCOAP3 consortial sponsorship/membership is not only
based on an arbitrarily inflated asking price today, with
inessentials (like the paper edition or the publisher's PDF)
gratuitously co-bundled into it, but the consortial payment model
itself is incoherent and unscalable, for two reasons: 

(i) Why should institutions that can access all journal articles for
free (Green) pay for Gold until/unless they have to (in order to get
their own research output published)? 

And (ii) on what basis are institutions to negotiate in advance with
each individual journal (there are 25,000 in all!) how many of their
researchers' papers will beaccepted and published, per year, as if
that too were some sort of annual subscription quota! Publishing is
individual paper- and journal-based, not consortial bundled

4. Consortial institutional payment for co-bundled incoming journals
does not translate into consortial payment for the peer review of
institutions' individual outgoing articles. Consortial payment for
publication gives the illusion of making sense only if one considers
it locally, as CERN is doing, for one field (particle physics, a
field that already has Green OA), with a set of collaborating
institutions, ready and willing to "flip" to paying the same journals
jointly for publishing, much as they had been paying jointly for
subscribing. But this Rowsean "flip" model stops making sense as one
scales up globally across fields, institutions, publishers and
journals -- and particularly to that overwhelming majority of fields
that do not yet have Green OA. 

We are meant to imagine all institutions, pre-emptively paying all
journals -- co-bundled, subscription/license-style -- in advance, for
an annual "quota" (again subscription-style) of accepted
publications. This is rather like paying for all meals, for all
consumers, by all vendors, through advance annual "institutional"
meal-plans, each consumer specifying to his institution, each year,
what meals he intends to consume, from which vendor. And that still
leaves out the crucial factor, which is that each vendor needs to
"peer review" each individual meal-request to determine whether it is
worthy of fulfilling at all (by that vendor)! It also leaves out the
question of the price per meal, which today includes extras such as
styrofoam containers, mustard, relish, salad bar, home delivery and a
child's toy prize co-bundled into it, none of which the consumers may
need or want any longer, once their institutional repositories can
supply it all on their own...

5. Conclusions. In sum, the problem is not only that a Rowsean "flip"
is profligate and premature at today's asking prices in fields where
universal Green OA self-archiving has not yet downsized publishing
and its costs to their post-OA essentials. Even apart from that, the
Rowsean consortial "sponsorship/flip" model, simply does not scale
up to all journals, across all fields, researchers and institutions,
because it is based on the institutional co-bundled
license/subscription model. That in turn involves an institutional
library budget (1) pre-paying (i.e., subscribing to) a specific
yearly quota of incoming journals (consisting of articles published
by other institutions), per annual incoming journal (bundle), rather
than (2) paying for the peer-review for each institution's own
individual outgoing articles, per individual outgoing article. 

Collective, bundled annual institutional subscriptions (for that is
exactly what they would be!) are simply the wrong model for paying
for individual, per-article peer review services. Twenty-five
thousand peer-reviewed journals (publishing 2.5 million articles
annually) cannot each agree in advance to accept an annual quota of
N(i) articles from each of N (c. 10,000) institutions worldwide (and
vice versa), even if many, most or all of the journals are "bundled"
into a collective, bundled omni-publisher "Big Deal." Authors choose
journals, journals compete for articles, and referees (not consortial
subscribers) decide what gets accepted, where. (This could
conceivably all be done in bulk for bulk publishers, on an annual
pro-rated basis, based on last year's institutional publications, but
then that would hardly be different from -- and certainly not simpler
or more accurate than -- just paying each journal by the article.)

The Rowsean instant flip model has not been thought through beyond
the confines of the special case of CERN, SCOAP3 and a
long-self-archiving (hence Green) field (particle physics). As a
consequence, instead of advancing universal Green self-archiving
across all fields -- and thereby helping to set the stage for
universal OA, and possibly eventual global cancellations, publication
cost-cutting, downsizing, and conversion to per-article peer review
services, paid for out of the institutional cancellation savings, via
Gold OA (a gradual, global, leveraged, non-Rowsean "flip," driven by
Green OA) -- the SCOAP3 consortium institutions are pushing through a
(literally) pre-emptive solution for their library budget problems,
in one special subfield (particle physics): 

This would be fine (vive la liberté!), except that it also keeps
being portrayed and perceived (by some, not everyone) as a scalable
solution for achieving OA, which it most definitely is not. The
instant Rowsean "flip" is an illusion, and hence a source of
distraction and confusion for other fields and institutions
worldwide, none of which have yet even made the successful transition
to Green OA that particle physicists in general, and CERN in
particular, have already made.

6. Recommendation. What is needed is prominent caveats and
disclaimers clearly explaining the current unsuitability of the
SCOAP3 "flip" model for the rest of the research world, along with
the prominent injunction that the rest of the world's institutions
and disciplines should first go Green, as CERN did, before
contemplating any "flip-flops"...
      Harnad, S. (2007) The Green Road to Open Access: A
      Leveraged Transition. In: Anna Gacs. The Culture of
      Periodicals from the Perspective of the Electronic Age.
      L'Harmattan: pp 99-106.

Stevan Harnad
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Received on Mon Jun 23 2008 - 18:28:37 BST

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