It was snowing in Berlin as I arrived, late on a night in January. Not the most encouraging of weather, but the following morning the sun was shining, the air was clear, and it was warming indeed to see the Berlin Academy of Sciences, venue of the APE conference, facing a noble pair of 18th-century domed churches, with Schinkel’s Concert House (1821) between them. It seemed on entering the grand meeting hall, still with holes in the pilasters dating from the Second World War, that I had joined the ranks of the traditional publishers – classical, austere, disinterested. And of course, the speakers at the conference had a good smattering of “Dr”, “Ing” and “Prof” – sometimes even all three.
The conference itself was anything but disinterested. It was the usual mix of barely disguised product pitches and statements of vested interests from some of the larger publishers, although it is true to say the fare was leavened by a number of genuinely interesting and valuable presentations (about which more below). The main conference themes were open access, piracy, artificial intelligence, and the idea of building or using a large-scale aggregated repository of pan-industry data and/or content. I tend not to take much notice of the welcome remarks at a conference, but here the tone was set without doubt by one eminent figure who claimed that publishers were simply envelopes, with no idea of the contents that they distribute. The publishers in the audience sat through it unperturbed, but the scene was set for a lively discussion.
It didn’t take long for some of the contradictions in the conference to be revealed. On day one we were told in no uncertain terms by David Sweeney, Executive Chair Designate of Research England that the hybrid model, by which publishers charge institutions twice for the same content, first by charging the author to publish (the APC, or author processing charge) articles in a journal and then by charging the institution a subscription to access the same content, was wrong. By the second day, we were told in another presentation that the hybrid model was the most successful model for the publisher and implying that publishers should publish via the hybrid model more often – in fact, 73% of articles are published today via the hybrid model. It would be difficult to hold both views simultaneously, although some presentations attempted something like it. David Sweeney also talked more about publishers’ profits. His highly diplomatic presentation addressed the audience of librarians and publishers, in other words both the vendors and purchasers of academic content, in a country (Germany) where the academic libraries are in dispute with the largest publisher about the cost of subscriptions. He described it as a situation of “market failure”, but tried to reduce the severity of this term by saying it was a technical term in economics, which it is, although no less damning for that. In another diplomatic sleight of hand, he suggested that high profits by publishers become a problem only when there is a widespread public condemnation. This is an argument you would expect to hear more from politicians than from a research funding body.
Other presentations were economical with the truth. A presentation by Nicko Goncharoff of Digital Science described initiatives for making scholarly content more widely accessible, yet failed to mention ResearchGate, which the conference had elsewhere revealed as the most widely used (and free) tool by academics to access content. In any case, stated the Digital Science presenter, “making content free may not be the most important factor”. He preferred the phrase “free or affordable”. The answer might be, he revealed, to “create and maintain better subscriber databases”. From free, to affordable, to “better” subscriber databases in a few bullet points is quite a feat.
David Nicholas and Anthony Watkinson presented a sad but I’m sure accurate description of early career researchers, who are obsessed with publishing papers (“paper-driven”), who exhibit contradictory behaviour, for example giving a low priority to archiving in repositories, while at the same time making sure their papers are uploaded to ResearchGate. Nor are they interested in Open Science (thereby denying much of the first morning of the conference) and they dismiss altmetrics, because it isn’t accepted by the university system as a way of gaining reputation. None of this is exactly surprising, although certainly painting a very different picture of the researcher – an enormous contrast to the hymns in praise of the researcher and their noble calling, encomiums that were given by the largest publishers. But there were one or two presentations that revived your faith in academic publishing fulfilling its presumed fundamental role, which Is to disseminate academic research as widely as possible. For example, Ros Pyne of Springer Nature, looking at “the OA effect” revealed how making books open access resulted in a higher number of citations and accesses – something that would be of great interest to researchers.
Apart from that, there was a fairly incomprehensible session on Blockchain (at the end I still failed to be able to explain to my neighbour exactly how Blockchain can assist academic publishing); a delightful but irrelevant presentation about making the world a better place for all children from Annie Callanan of Taylor and Francis, which was full of phrases such as “knowledge democratization” and “collective health”, as well as the vague term “sustainability” – most of which seemed to be achievable by equipping the world’s children with smartphones. This presentation was brought down to earth by Anthony Watkinson asking the very pertinent question: how are you going to apply this to Taylor and Francis? Sadly, there are still working on that part.