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…good behavior…

Harvard made a big splash recently when my colleagues on the Faculty Advisory Council to the Harvard Library distributed a Memorandum on Journal Pricing. One of the main problems with the memo, however, is the relatively imprecise recommendations that it makes. It exhorts faculty to work with journals and scholarly societies on their publishing and pricing practices, but provides no concrete advice on exactly what to request. What is good behavior?

I just met with a colleague here at Harvard who raised the issue with me directly. He’s a member of the editorial board of a journal and wants to do the right thing and make sure that the journal’s policies make them a good actor. But he doesn’t want to (and shouldn’t be expected to) learn all the ins and outs of the scholarly publishing business, the legalisms of publication agreements and copyright, and the interactions of all that with the policies of the particular journal. He’s not alone; there are many others in the same boat. Maybe you are too. Is there some pithy request you can make of the journal that encapsulates good publishing practices?

(I’m assuming here that converting the journal to open access is off the table. Of course, that would be preferable, but it’s unlikely to get you very far, especially given that the most plausible revenue model for open-access journal publishing, namely, publication fees, is not well supported by the scholarly publishing ecology as of yet.)

There are two kinds of practices that the Harvard memo moots: it explicitly mentions pricing practices of journals, and implicitly brings up author rights issues in its recommendations. Scholar participants in journals (editors editorial board members, reviewers) may want to discuss both kinds of practices with their publishers. I have recommendations for both.

Rights practices

Here’s my candidate recommendation for ensuring a subscription journal has good rights practice. You (and, ideally, your fellow editorial board members) hand the publisher a copy of the Science Commons Delayed Access (SCDA) addendum. (Here’s a sample.) You request that they adjust their standard article publication agreement so as to make the addendum redundant. This request has several nice effects.

  1. It’s simple, concrete, and unambiguous.
  2. It describes the desired result in terms of functionality — what the publication agreement should achieve — not how it should be worded.
  3. It guarantees that the journal exhibits best practices for a subscription journal. Any journal that can satisfy the criterion that the SCDA addendum is redundant:
    • Let’s authors retain rights to use and reuse the article in further research and scholarly activities,
    • Allows green OA self-archiving without embargo,
    • Allows compliance with any funder policies (such as the NIH Public Access Policy),
    • Allows compliance with employer policies (such as university open-access policies) without having to get a waiver, and
    • Allows distribution of the publisher’s version of the article after a short embargo period.
  4. It applies to journals of all types. (Just because the addendum comes from Science Commons doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate for non-science journals.)
  5. It doesn’t require the journal to give up exclusivity to its published content (though it makes that content available with a moving six-month wall).

The most controversial aspect of an SCDA-compliant agreement from the publisher’s point of view is likely the ability to distribute the publisher’s version of the article after a six-month embargo. I wouldn’t be wed to that six month figure. This provision would be the first thing to negotiate, by increasing the embargo length — to one year, two years, even five years. But sticking to some finite embargo period for distributing the publisher’s version is a good idea, if only to serve as precedent for the idea. Once the journal is committed to allowing distribution of the publisher’s version after some period, the particular embargo length might be reduced over time.

Pricing practices

The previous proposal does a good job, to my mind, of encapsulating a criterion of best publication agreement practice, but it doesn’t address the important issue of pricing practice. Indeed, with respect to pricing practices, it’s tricky to define good value. Looking at the brute price of a journal is useless, since journals publish wildly different numbers of articles, from the single digits to the four digits per year, so three orders of magnitude variations in price per journal is expected. Price per article and price per page are more plausible metrics of value, but even there, because journals differ in the quality of articles they tend to publish, hence their likely utility to readers, variation in these metrics should be expected as well. For this reason, some analyses of value look to citation rate as a proxy for quality, leading to a calculation of price per citation.

Another problem is getting appropriate measures of the numerator in these metrics. When calculating price per article or per page or per citation, what price should one use? Institutional list price is a good start. List price for individual subscriptions is more or less irrelevant, given that individual subscriptions account for a small fraction of revenue. But publishers, especially major commercial publishers with large journal portfolios, practice bundling and price discrimination that make it hard to get a sense of the actual price that libraries pay. On the other hand, list price is certainly an upper bound on the actual price, so not an unreasonable proxy.

Finally, any of these metrics may vary systematically across research fields, so the metrics ought to be relativized within a field.

Ted and Carl Bergstrom have collected just this kind of data for a large range of journals at their site, calculating price per article and price per citation along with a composite index calculated as the geometric mean of the two. To handle the problem of field differences, they provide a relative price index (RPI) that compares the composite to the median for non-profit journals within the field, and propose that a journal be considered “good value” if RPI is less than 1.25, “medium value” if its RPI is less than 2, and “bad value” otherwise.

As a good first cut at a simple message to a journal publisher then, you could request that the price of a journal be reduced to bring its RPI below 1.25 (that is, good value), or at least 2 (medium value). Since lots of journals run in the black with composite price indexes below median, that is, with RPI below 1, achieving an RPI of 2 should be achievable for an efficient publisher. (My colleague’s journal, the one that precipitated this post, has an RPI of 2.85. Plenty of room for improvement.)

In summary, you ask the journal to change its publication agreement to be SCDA-compliant and its price to have RPI less than 2. That’s specific, pragmatic, and actionable. If the journal won’t comply, you at least know where they stand. If you don’t like the answers you’re getting, you can work to find a new publisher willing to play ball, or at least, don’t lend your free labor to the current one.

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