The Canadian Open Access Publishing Cooperative Revisited

Since joining this “Canadian cooperative weblog,” as Simon Fodden identified SLAW some years ago, in 2008, I have returned to this theme of cooperation in scholarly publishing a number of times (I discovered doing a search of this well-indexed site).

In 2010, for example, I wrote about an idea that Rowly Lorimer, then director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, had for a Canadian scholarly publishing cooperative. This country’s academic journals would be supported by the libraries and funding councils enabling them to share their content openly and freely, without having to restrict access to subscribers. I described it, in passing, as something of a dream (“don’t wake me until I’m finished please”).

Well, the results in this small N experiment are in: A blog-dream can take six to eight years of patient persistence and some forgetfulness to come true. Everything points to a piloting of a Canadian open access publishing cooperative in the coming year. The Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CRKN), which is a purchasing agent on behalf of Canadian research libraries, is currently negotiating a new contract with Érudit, a journal publishing platform for 150 titles based in Quebec, that will initiate this open access cooperative for French- and English-language journals in Canada.

In this pilot, the number of subscription journals that will be entering into the contract as part of a cooperative venture will be modest to start with, but will demonstrate how subscription journals can flip to open access.

The cooperative flip to open access is based on the simple two-part principle of financial equivalence. The first part holds that the amount of money that it had taken to publish the subscription version of a journal in electronic form is roughly what it will take to publish the open access edition. The second part holds that if given the choice between continuing to pay a journal’s subscription fee, or paying the same amount to make that journal open access, the libraries will opt for open access (given their record of support for open access).

This principle also assumes that that the cooperative should begin with a set of journals and the libraries that subscribe to them. And while the financial starting point for the cooperative should be “subscription-equivalent” for the libraries and journals, once the cooperative forms and is underway, the goal will be to establish its own cooperative, sustainable budget. Its members will begin to share data, explore in-kind contributions, look for grants, seek additional members, and explore other options to provide an improved level of publishing services, compared to their subscription model. This will include support for innovation and incubating new titles, as well as bringing in existing open access journals, which will have their own sources of support to contribute to the cooperative.

We are referring to the co-op’s initial period as a “subscription-equivalent transition” (SET). At the end of the SET period, which we think should be three years in duration, the journals and libraries should be in a position to decide whether to move forward or to revert to subscription model. Whether it will look exactly like this with the CRKN-Érudit contract remains an open question at this point. But we want to encourage this sort of transparency, in discussing what we hope can be achieved before everything is negotiated and settled (sans non-disclosure agreements).

To assist in this process, I have prepared a financial model for the co-op in a brief paper covering Canadian subscription and existing open access journals, based on recent Canadian journal expense and revenue data. This principled model for an open access publishing cooperative draws inspiration from the SCOAP3 cooperative that has enabled particle physics journals to go open access, as well as from the many libraries hosting open access journals and supporting open source initiatives such as LOCKSS, DSpace and the Public Knowledge Project.

Rowly Lorimer’s dream of a scholarly publishing cooperative is, as I write, not yet a reality. It is in the process, however, of being realized, thanks to the vision of CRKN and Érudit. This seems a good time, then, to commend and encourage dreamers and realizers of such visions. The result will very likely serve as a model to the world of another way in which open access to research and scholarship can stand as one of the public goods of the digital era.

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