Richard Poynder, British independent journalist and open access (OA) activist of many years, has reported on December 17th 2015 about the recent Berlin12 meeting. This conference took place in its namesake location on December 8-9th 2015 and was the eleventh successor of the seminal Berlin conference in 2003, where the famous OA declaration was drafted, known as the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities. Poynder’s key worry was that there was actually not much to report about, since the meeting was by invitation only, while its list of participants and even its specific agenda and minutes were not released to the public by its organisers.
Poynder unsuccessfully tried to obtain these details from the (predominantly German) conference organisers and named his blog post therefore: “The open access movement slips into closed mode”. He also contacted the conference Chair Ulrich Pöschl, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz as well as chief executive editor at the OA post-publication peer review journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. This is how Poynder quotes Pöschl on the matter of the Berlin12 meeting’s purpose:
“As specified in the official news release from the conference, the advice and statements of the participants will be incorporated in the formulation of an ‘Expression of Interest’ that outlines the goal of transforming subscription journals to open access publishing and shall be released in early 2016”.
Poynder explained what this “Expression of Interest” might be about:
“Essentially, the proposal is to “flip” all scholarly journals from a subscription model to an open access one — an approach that some have described as “magical thinking” and/or impractical (see, for instance,here, here and here)”.
While the German organisers kept the details of Berlin12 under wraps, some of these were publicly shared on December 18th by Kathleen Shearer, who participated on behalf of the Association of Research Libraries, a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in the US and Canada. In true OA spirit, Shearer provided not only the summaries of the talks, but also even the names and affiliations of all North American participants of Berlin 12. Shearer informs:
” representatives from several regions (Asia, Europe, and North America) met in Berlin, Germany, to discuss a proposal to flip subscription-based journals to open access models. The initiative is being led by the Max Planck Society, the organizer and host of the invitation-only Berlin 12 Open Access Conference. The rationale for the initiative is based on an analysis undertaken by Max Planck Digital Library (MPDL), which found that a flip to open access would be possible at no financial risk, “maybe even at lower overall costs”1 to the system. […]
The objective of the conference was to build a consensus for an internationally coordinated effort to shift libraries’ journal budgets away from subscriptions and towards article processing costs (APCs).
The Flip (Flop) model
Flipping academic publishing from subscription to OA model without actually opening and changing the way science is performed, published and evaluated is according to Poynder an utterly wrong strategy, and I for my part fully agree with him there. Personally, I could not care less if the arch-enemy of the OA movement, the Dutch publishing behemoth Elsevier, were to go full and unconditional (gold) open access tomorrow, as long as the way it publishes its papers stayed otherwise the same. What is the point of a journal flipping to gold OA, if its editorial process remains secretive and its peer review corrupt (or at best intransparent) and completely impossible once the paper is published? In particular, I would be far from celebrating if, thanks to public subsidies, papers of the Elsevier life science flagship journal Cell should become available in OA worldwide, as long as this journal, represented by its chief editor Emilie Marcus, retains its peculiar views on data integrity and research misconduct.
Other critics of the flip model place their concerns on the issue of its costs. It is absolutely clear that Elsevier, as well as other major commercial publishers like SpringerNature, will not abandon established subscription models with their tremendous profit margins of around 40% and flip to OA out of sheer idealism and philanthropy. They certainly will want to be financially compensated by the universities and academic research institutions for the loss of subscription income, or even try to make an even bigger profit out of flipping to OA.
Money not an issue
There is a peculiar sentence in the Shearer report from Berlin12: “US delegates played a key role in ensuring some important issues were articulated in the EOI [Expression of Interest, -LS], including the need for cost reductions and situating the initiative within the broader context”. Instead, the intent is “to lower costs over time and convert resources currently spent on journal subscriptions into funds to support sustainable open access business models”.
This might suggest that German and other European research organisations such as the Max Planck Society do not really care about how much the flip to OA publishing would cost them financially. In Europe at least, cost reduction in academic publishing and curtailing of the obscene profits commercial publishers like Elsevier and Springer make from the taxpayer-funded research seem to be among the less pressing issues.
The association of Dutch universities VSNU (Vereniging van Samenwerkende Nederlandse Universiteiten) had recently made an OA deal with Elsevier, after having threatened the publisher with the cancellation of its overpriced subscriptions and even withdrawal of all Dutch researchers from Elsevier journals’ editorial boards, after Elsevier refused to lower the subscription costs. With the newly made agreement, 30% of Dutch research papers with Elsevier are to be OA by 2018. However, the details of the deal or even who has actually “won”, are not at all clear.
“We don’t know how much the Dutch universities must now pay for the Elsevier big deal. Clearly Elsevier raised its price so that a certain number of APCs from Dutch researchers could be considered built-in or pre-paid. But we don’t know the size of the price increase. The VSNU apparently signed a non-disclosure agreement. It says in its FAQ that it cannot disclose the price because that is “of course, sensitive competitive information.” Price is only sensitive competitive information for Elsevier, not the universities”.
In regard of this very recent secretive deal with Elsevier, Poynder’s concerns about the exclusivity and perceived secrecy of the Berlin 12 conference are fully understandable. Poynder summarizes :
“All in all, we must wonder why there was a need for all the secrecy that appears to have surrounded Berlin 12. And given this secrecy, perhaps we should be concerned that there is a danger the open access movement could become some kind of secret society in which a small self-selected group of unknown people make decisions and proposals intended to impact the entire global scholarly communication system?”
Berlin12 Chair dismisses secrecy concerns
I therefore contacted Ulrich Pöschl as well and spoke to him on the phone. Pöschl insisted repeatedly that there was no secrecy at all about Berlin 12 and that non-disclosure of participants’s list is rather common with scientists’ workshops. He also mentioned that the Max Planck Society has recently signed an OA agreement with the Heidelberg-based publisher giant Springer.
Pöschl has readily agreed to answer my specific questions by email and coordinated his official statements with two other Berlin12 participants, Ralf Schimmer from the Max Planck Digital Library, and Georg Botz, Open Access Policy coordinator at the Max Planck Society. The interview can be read below, my questions are marked LS, Pöschl’s replies UP.
LS: Why was the Berlin 12 meeting participation “by invitation only”?
UP: To promote focused discussions and consensus building among leading representatives of scholarly organisations.
LS: Which scholarly organisations were attending?
UP: A wide range of scholarly organisations that are actively engaged in the promotion of open access, had already been involved in earlier Berlin conferences or related activities, and followed the invitation to participate and contribute.
LS: Were publisher representatives present at Berlin12 or otherwise involved?
UP: No, because this meeting was dedicated to promoting focused discussions and consensus building among representatives of scholarly organisations.
LS: What was the main topic of the meeting and the background discussions?
UP: An international initiative for transforming journals from subscription to open access publishing. This has been announced on the conference web page, explained in a white paper referenced on the conference web page, and outlined in a news release right after the conference (see below). Further information will become available through the conference presentation materials and as the preparations for the international initiative progress.
LS: When will the Berlin12 speaker presentations be made available to public?
UP: In the course of the next days to weeks, depending on the availability of presentation materials.
LS: Will a participants’ or registants’ list be released? (since Berlin12 was a meeting on research and publishing policies, not a science workshop)
UP: In analogy to other scholarly conferences and workshops, we are not planning a public release of the registrants’ list. As usual, the participants of the meeting received a list of the pre-registered participants’ names and affiliations, and there is nothing secret about it. However, I see no basis for releasing the conference registrants’ list to non-participants, as we have not asked the registrants if they would agree to a wider distribution or public listing of their names.
LS: What kind of OA deal did the Max Planck Digital Library (MPDL) make with the publisher Springer?
UP: Please see the related news releases of the MPDL and Springer. Characteristic features and future perspectives of this and other offsetting models aimed at converting research articles and journals from subscription to open access will be among the many aspects to be discussed in the proposed international initiative.