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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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A post today at the Scholarly Kitchen has spurred me to write something that I’ve been pondering for a while. Namely: how helpful is this idea of “paying it forward” as a way of funding scholarly communications?

My take: I’m not convinced by author-controlled discretionary funds, with the emphasis of my scepticism falling on the author-controlled and discretionary parts in various degrees.

Background

The “Pay it Forward final report” gives three core findings from the model piloted at the UCPress journals. The idea of this model is that reviewers and editors are given the option to either collect a fee for themselves or to “pay it forward” by voluntarily donating back into a communal pool. The findings of this experiment were that (quoting the report):

  1. For the most research-intensive North American research institutions, the total cost to publish in a fully article processing charge-funded journal market will exceed current library journal budgets;
  2. This cost difference could be covered by grant funds, already a major source of funding for publishing fees; but
  3. Ultimately, author-controlled discretionary funds that incentivize authors to act as informed consumers of publishing services are necessary to introduce both real competition and pricing pressures into the journal publishing system. Discretionary funds for authors exist today, in the form of research grants, personal research accounts, endowed chair funds, and departmental funds, but the consistent application of these funds for this purpose would, in some cases, require new funding from the institution.

What the model tries to do

As I read it, the model of paying it forward is an attempt to introduce price sensitivity into academic publishing. Currently, the system of academic publishing does a bad job of working like any kind of market because the incentive of authors to supply to venues that are closed access massively outweighs the structural incentives for them to publish somewhere where all colleagues can read their work. The reason that the funds should be author-controlled, it is argued, is that if it is centrally administered, then authors are still unaware of the costs of open access and will continue to try to publish in expensive, often-hybrid journals. There is also an idea here to surface the degree of labour that currently goes unrewarded in the form of peer review, thereby putting pressure on those publishers who benefit disproportionately from a donation of labour.

Why I am sceptical

There are a number of reasons why I feel a sense of doubt about the “Pay it Forward” model:

  1. There is a dangerous parallelism to charity and volunteerism at work here when the underlying processes of scholarly communications should, as I always say, think about labour. It is not controversial to say that labour should be compensated fairly. There is labour in publishing. This must be paid for. Yet the idea of “pay it forward” implies that actually this payment for labour should be optional and contingent on the goodness of researchers’ hearts. At a time when many are questioning the value (and price) of publishing labour (this was me six years ago), I feel that a model that makes payment voluntary is a big risk for publishers and for those who think their labour worthwhile. Some publishers are clearly taking the piss with their mega-profits. Others are not. Making the payment of the latter camp’s labour a discretionary feature of reviewing does not seem a good plan.
  2. Lots of criticism of publishers points out that “academics work for them for free”. Some do, if they do not have positions. Others, though, actually work for institutions (universities) and are paid by them. Their contracts often stipulate that they should participate in a research ecosystem that includes reviewing. So, actually, universities are often the ones donating time – in the form of their paid labour-force – to reviewing. There is a real flaw, then, in suggesting that reviewers should be paid because often they already are. If this really is to work, I’d suggest that: a. researchers without affiliation could be paid personally; but b. in the case of researchers with a permanent university position, the funds should go back to the university’s own open-access fund. The problem with point b is that it then doesn’t give academics the price sensitivity that is desired for their own labour.
  3. Finally, by making a discretionary pot the preserve of academics, you are handing the engine of payment to a group of individuals who understand, for the most part, very little of the economics of scholarly communications and publishing. Indeed, the entire system has been geared to shield academics from having to understand how publishing is currently paid for. Library de-accessioning books? “It’s nothing to do with estates for shelf-space or publishers, it’s probably stingy library budget cuts.” Etc. Certainly, if we are willing to endure a period of turmoil, it would be fantastic to see academics confronted directly with the economic consequences of their own publishing choices by making them decide upon the use of budget. But this would be an act of radical creative destruction that few universities would endorse, particularly if they had to move to it on their own, against their “competitors”. The fact the fund is discretionary is also problematic here since it implies that the base costs are still shielded from academics.

All in all, then, I have reservations about this type of model and prefer those that transparently point out the costs and work out how to equitably distribute them. I am sympathetic, in fact, to many of the aims of the pay it forward plan. It seems important for authors to become aware of the costs that they incur for their libraries. At the moment, though, I am not convinced that paying it forward, at your own discretion, is the way to go.