Ready for Plan X?

Bomb throwing still works in the STM policy setting, so expect more grenades

Ready for Plan X?

Plan S triggered one of the fastest over-reactions in memory. It was treated as if the UN, World Bank, US government, EU, and China had all simultaneously agreed on a single policy, changing the foundations of scholarly publishing worldwide forever. More people than I expected treated it like a dictum from a powerful ruling body.

When it came to light how sloppily Plan S had been executed, that the funders initially involved represented 3-5% of all published research, and later that the members of cOAlition S were far less committed than initially portrayed — well, the overreaction began to abate. When it became apparent that Plan S proponents themselves had operated somewhat in bad faith, and somewhat in bad form, the overreaction slowed even more. At last week’s SSP meeting, there was open speculation that Plan S is effectively dead now. Another leadership change — the second this year, by my count — seems to reinforce this view.

So while this particular grenade may have proven to be pretty much a dud, it caused everyone to scatter, and those who like to toss grenades probably took note of that.

One of the best defenses has been data, notably DeltaThink’s OA Data & Analytics Tool (OADAT), which was able to calculate the percentage of papers susceptible to Plan S. Without this, the puffery of the cOAlition S leadership might have taken us further down a road to nowhere.

Yet, the inability to articulate the problems with funders serving as patrons of authors through publication brings to mind the thought that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Plan U, announced in January and with a paper* published in PLOS  Biology this week, relies on funding from patrons, just as arXiv has for years. There is no mention of the problems with Plan U, or with preprints in general.

Some authors, researchers, and publishers have become convinced that business models are interchangeable — money is money, whether it’s APCs, advertising, sponsorship, or subscriptions. Beyond the label, the thinking goes, there’s no practical difference.

That’s pretty far from the truth, of course. How you make your money usually changes the type of content you publish. Subscription publications don’t generally talk about the Kardashians all the livelong day, but advertising-based sites will. Traffic is their bread and butter, after all. The advertising model commoditizes content and attention, while the subscription model encourages differentiation and focus. As John Ridding of the Financial Times put it in a recent interview on the “Digiday” podcast:

As long as you have a differentiating factor, something that a reader values, the subscription model is viable. It could be a particular brand feature, a columnist, or a subject. If you don’t, there’s a fundamental problem that goes beyond the inability of a subscription model.

Specialty journals have built-in differentiation, but we sometimes lose track of that or take it for granted. We shouldn’t. It’s a major strategic advantage, especially for attracting subscribers and members.

Recurring revenues are a gravitational force in business. They are more attractive for many reasons — stability, predictability, loyalty. They also give customers leverage over their providers, as customers can threaten to cancel (note how ineffective the #deleteFacebook movement was because there was no money at stake).

Technology companies have discovered the virtues of recurring revenues, as have newspapers and services companies. UberEats is now considering subscriptions. Recurring revenues in the form of memberships, subscriptions, and auto-withdrawal donations are resurgent, and customers and providers both like them. Even purchasers like them, because they’re easier to track and evaluate than a trickle of one-off payments like APCs.

Subscriptions also encourage audacity and independence. Because the relationship is with the reader and recipient of information, things have to be trustworthy and untainted by bias as much as possible, in order to appeal to a large potential subscribership. The way the money is earned also contributes to independence. The quid pro quo isn’t one-time and immediate. The risk is mitigated by the model, and publishers and editors can be stricter, take more risks, and be more selective. In fact, they’re incentivized to be.

But because we aren’t devoted to recurring revenue models and the way they help to ensure the independence of our third-party evaluation role, things like Plan S can emerge and cause a prolonged reaction. If we were clearer on the benefits (to publishers, to readers, and to purchasers) of recurring revenue approaches, proposals to shift away from them — whether done in good faith or bad faith — wouldn’t go far, and would jump out as off-track.

So the question of Plan S’ particular fate at this point isn’t really the issue to me. The issue seems more about what we’re about and devoted to upholding as far as business model ethics and preferences go.

These questions seem difficult to answer, but I think that’s an illusion — something we’ve talked ourselves into. Innovation has often been associated with “innovative business models,” but that may be a misconception. The “innovations” of Google and Facebook could have been supported by subscriptions. Facebook may have made more money via subscriptions, and not been incentivized to abuse privacy and sell our information — in fact, quite the opposite. Subscriptions incentivize protecting user information.

Without a strong subscription model, Google and Facebook have created “surveillance capitalism,” and it may be unprecedented. It’s been very damaging on multiple levels, affecting mental, physical, and societal health negatively for a decade or more.

Subscriptions and innovation aren’t strangers. Bespoke clothing subscriptions are innovative, as are streaming subscriptions, subscription services like Amazon Prime, and subscription phone services. The subscription model seems able to support many innovations. In fact, it may be necessary to support an innovation many wish to see, Open Science.

The problem is that without a clear line of reasoning leading us to strongly prefer recurring revenues over one-time revenues — reasoning that can include service to readers, stability for societies and mid-size and smaller publishers, fewer conflicts of interest, more independence for editors, and increasing preference for customer’s exerting control over their information providers — we’re just as susceptible to Plan X as we’ve been to Plan S.

* PLOS Biology, BioRxiv, and eLife have to my knowledge served to publish what amount to press releases like this. Other examples? Please contribute in the comments. This kind of  precedent is not a great endorsement of OA journals as gatekeepers and research entities.

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