My personal interest in being possibly one of the founding members of this organization (which also may include BioMed Central, Copernicus, Co‐Action Publishing, Hindawi, Medical Education Online, Journal of Medical Internet Research, PLoS, and presumably others) is the recognition that some sort of organization is needed to set, promote and enforce professional and ethical standards and OA publishing practices (see also the post and responses to my post "Black sheep among Open Access Journals and Publishers").
But it is important that such an organization is set up and run not to primarily defend the commercial interests of large commercial publishers, but to act as much as possible in the interest of scholarly communication (these are not mutually exclusive goals - but they are not always aligned - if there is a conflict, then responsible publishing practices should always take precedence over commercial goals. For example, pricing or marketing policies of OA publishers should not primarily be designed to maximize revenue, but also keep the long-term interests of scholarly communication in mind).
In this context I am surprised and concerned about some of the language in the bylaws, which seem to have resulted from lobbying activities of (at least one) larger commercial open access publisher who apparently wishes to get more "votes" than other publishers.
As a result of these lobbying efforts, the bylaws contain the following odd regulation ("odd" because I do not know any other professional organization or trade association where certain members get more votes based on their size, revenue, or other criteria):
Organizations who publish large numbers of OA articles will be allowed to designate additional representatives per table 2.01 below. Each representative will be allowed to vote in OASPA elections and be allowed to hold office.
More specifically, Dave Solomon and Caroline Sutton are contemplating the following rules:
Each publisher gets one voting member and an additional voting member for every additional 250 OA manuscripts published in the previous calendar year up to a maximum of 10.
In other words, this will ensure that large publishers have 10 times more votes than small publishers. One possible scenario is that the 3 largest publishers together can comfortably vote themselves into key positions and vote for policy decisions against up to 30 smaller publishers.
In my view, setting up a Open Access Publisher Association which provides voting rights based on the number of open access articles published is a bad idea. I am not aware of any other publishing association / organization where voting rights are weighted by the number of articles published. In my view, quality is more important than quantity.
I am surprised to hear that one of the larger OA publishers is pushing for this - apparently one large OA publisher is so concerned about being "overwhelmed by single journal publishers" (whatever that means in the context of creating an association of OA publishers) that they have indicated that they may not join the organization unless they have more votes than other members.
But there are opposing views to this. In fact, everybody who I have spoken to agrees on the simple fact that we must (at least initially) have a straightforward, simple, transparent, unbiased membership scheme (1 publisher = 1 vote), as is the case in
ALL other publisher organization I am aware off (can anybody give me an example of a publisher organization where this is not the case?. I am not aware of a single publisher organization out there where larger publishers get multiple votes based on their size, manuscripts, revenue etc).
The reason why I am (and others are) so opposed to this are twofold:
1) definitional problems: which articles do you count? When setting the threshold of 1 vote per 250 articles, would one count news articles, tutorials, viewpoints, reviews, original papers? Who is determining what counts and what doesn't? Or do we mean only peer-reviewed papers? If so, how do we verify if an article has indeed been peer-reviewed (not all publishers are transparent on that)? And does the level/rigor of peer-review matter? For example, PLoS One published over 2000 articles which are (to my knowledge) not "peer-reviewed" according to the peer-review definition in the "professional conduct" section of the proposed bylaws. In addition, innovative models of peer-reviews are emerging (esp post-publication peer-review with no peer-review
upfront), so how do you treat these articles? JMIR will shortly make submitted papers available for open peer-review. Given that "publication" is a continuum (Richard Smith), I would argue that it is naive and fraught with problems to introduce "published papers" as a metric which determines the number of votes a publisher will have. One only has to look at the problems and discussions Thomoson/Reuters has each year in determining the denominator for their journal impact factor... - what should be counted as a peer-reviewed original article is not such a clear-cut decision as one might think.
2) making the quantity of published manuscripts a factor in determining the number of votes a publisher has might encourage "quick & dirty" publishing with high acceptance rates and sloppy/superficial peer-review. I am not saying that all publishers publishing a large number of OA articles are low-quality publishers violating the professional codes of conduct. I am just saying that it makes little sense to penalize a publisher who perhaps handles far more than 250 submissions per year, but decides to be selective and only "publish" are fraction of it (e.g. 40), compared to another publisher who might be less selective and publishes nearly all submissions they get. Why should the latter publisher be "rewarded" by having more votes and influence in a publishers' association for being less selective?
Quality is more important than quantity, so if anything, than a measure determining voting power should be based on "quality" and impact, but as there are no easy and transparent measures for quality (the acceptance rate would be a good measure but can not be independently verified by a third party) or impact (the number of citations is discipline specific and also not a good metric to determine voting power), I would strongly suggest to keep the original bylaws simple: 1 publisher = 1 member = 1 vote. Once the organization is created, the members in the association can debate the issue further and decide whether adjustments should be made in the future.
Frankly, I also cannot see any rationale for why larger publishers should have up to 10 times more votes than smaller publishers. Larger publishers have (by their
sheer media presence and/or marketing budget) already more channels to influence policy than smaller publishers. The association should, in my opinion, strive to develop and defend best practices on a level playing field. The voices of large publishers will always be louder than other members' voices, and this phenomenon is independent from any formal weighting of their votes.
In addition, I am also concerned about the optics of these bylaws - in fact, it looks VERY bad to create an organization which primarily serves the interests of the large publishers.
Please leave a comment to let me and Dave know what you think about the idea of giving larger publishers more voting power.
Another (unrelated) second critique I have about the current draft bylaws is the code of conduct:
# Direct marketing to individuals shall be relevant;
# Recipients of direct marketing materials shall be provided with an opt-out option;
This is a much too weak statement which (rather than combating spam) actually seems to endorse spamming activities ("Direct marketing to individuals shall be relevant").
What the bylaws must say here is very simple and straightforward:
"Spamming (mass emailing) individual researchers is not an acceptable way to solicit submissions."
There is a clear definition on what "spamming" means (in most jurisdictions), and if there is any uncertainty, one may adopt the definition of Spamhaus.
"Opt-out options" are not a solution. In all three high-profile spam
cases (Bentham, Dove Medical Press, Libertas Academica) the spam emails contained a unsubscribe option ("email us to opt out"), but these requests were never honored. It is simply too easy to use "human error" as an excuse and to refer to the fact that an unsubscribe option was provided.
Spamming (mass emailing) individual researchers is not an acceptable way to solicit submissions - I think this is a rule we could (and must) all agree upon. If publishers are endorsing spamming as a marketing strategy then researchers will all find daily messages from open access publishers in the inbox asking for their manuscripts, which will completely damage the reputation of open access journals and put them on par with internet pharmacies selling viagra.
I do hope that publishers can agree on fixing these major flaws in the draft bylaws, which otherwise would steer the ship into the wrong direction.
Update added 02/08/2008. The bylaws are currently being revised and apparently none of the founding publishers has raised objections to get rid of the controversial clause on giving large publishers more votes.
Update added 20/08/2008.
Update: One of the founding publishers has raised objections and insists on having more votes.
Update added 19/09/2008.
Update: We finally seem ready to go ahead with a one-publisher-one-vote system. Hurray! OASPA is scheduled to launch on OA day.