“…price rises coupled with high profits, mis-selling scandals […] and a lack of transparency over bills have destroyed consumers’ trust […], a committee of MPs has said in a report that also criticises the sector’s watchdog for failing to take effective action.
The […] committee said consumer fears that price rises were out of step with the underlying costs […] were valid, and the regulator was not doing enough to ensure companies were open and transparent.”
So ran the opening lines of Fiona Harvey’s recent piece in the Guardian about the UK’s energy suppliers and Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets), the arms-length body set up by government to regulate them. As I read her report I found myself wondering: why isn’t there an equivalent organisation — an Ofpub — to oversee the ‘market’ in scholarly publishing?
Ofgem operates completely independently of the supply companies and has a duty to represent the interests of consumers:
“Our priority is protecting and making a positive difference for all energy consumers through promotion of value for money, security of supply and sustainability, for present and future generations. We do this through the supervision and development of markets, regulation and the delivery of government schemes.
There’s a similar body — Ofwat – to regulate the water supply industry, whose job is “to make sure that your water company provides you with a good quality service at a fair price”.
And Ofcom oversees telecommunications and broadcasting services. It regulates “TV and radio sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate” and is required to “make sure that people in the UK get the best from their communications services and are protected from scams and sharp practices, while ensuring that competition can thrive.”
Together these organisations are charged by the government with ensuring that citizens in the UK have good and affordable access to services that are considered to be basic necessities in a modern society. Their existence embodies government recognition of the unusual features of the markets in the provision of water, gas, electricity and communications. The markets are effectively ‘captive’ since our society agrees that everyone should have reasonable access to these services. Moreover, several of the major providers were previously nationalised industries and part of the role of the regulators is to ensure that, following privatisation, they should be actively inhibited from monopolising the markets in which they operate.
The comparison is not perfect but arguably there are strong parallels between the markets in basic utilities and scholarly publishing, which researchers would regard as an amenity that is fundamental to their work and livelihoods. The case for regulation is strengthened by the fact that the publishing market is currently dominated by a small number of large companies and that the major consumers of academic journals —universities and research institutions — are publicly funded. There is also the unusual consideration that in this market, these same publicly funded consumers are also the primary, though largely unpaid, producers of the goods that publishers sell, as authors, reviewers and editors.
So why is there not an Ofpub? It is easy to think up duties for such a body, which of course should operate independently of publishing companies.
It could be tasked with ensuring that the UK get value for money for the millions that it spends annually on journal subscriptions, and so avoiding the serials crisis; with reining in the excessive profit margins of publishing companies (whether toll or open access)*; with fostering an innovative and efficient market in open access publishing (to promote government policy); with enforcing green open access deposition mandates; with requiring publishers to display ‘health warnings’ on adverts for their highly questionable impact factors and, better yet, links to full and appropriately statistical reports on the performance of all the articles in their journals; with applying penalties to companies that attempt to game the system by publishing fake journals or by artificially inflating citation counts.
That seems to me a reasonable wish list for such a body though I appreciate the matter is not entirely straight-forward. Academic research is very often an international affair so regulatory mechanisms based on models to govern the provision of services on a national basis may not be the most appropriate. Complications may also arise from different approaches to regulation across the globe. However, there are enough ongoing experiments in international coordination of markets and regulatory frameworks, from the EU to the World Trade Organisation, to suggest that the international dimension of the problem may be surmountable.
But to return finally and briefly to the UK, the absence of an Ofpub highlights a fundamental problem in present government policy on open access scholarly publishing, as defined in the Finch report and its subsequent interpretation by RCUK: it has failed to resolve the conflicting interests of the companies that provide publishing services and the communities they are supposed to serve, the most important ones being the academic consumer-producers and the much larger group of taxpayer-citizens.
It is not hard to see how this happened since the composition of the Finch working group included publishers’ representatives and Dame Janet Finch has acknowledged publicly that part of her working group’s remit was to not damage the publishing industry. It is clear from the report — now just over a year old — and from the very mixed reaction to it from scholars, that the publishing representatives did a very good job of protecting their interests.
The government’s approach to scholarly publishing contrasts markedly with its attitude to the regulation of other public utilities. Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom operate independently of industry interests on behalf of the nation and its citizens. Is it not time to establish a similarly robust and independent regulator for scholarly publishing?
*Earlier this year, Ofgem revealed that some suppliers were earning profit margins of 24% and above on energy generation, but some major publishers are reckoned to extract margins closer to 40% (see reports in Nature and The Economist).