Publishing ethics examined in Berlin

The Academic Publishing Europe conference considered the ethics of publishing, covering everything from Peer Review to Piracy. Marydee Ojala reports.

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Challenges of Open Access

Open access (OA) dominates discussions of scholarly publishing. With OA 2020 ( signifying a complete transition of publicly-funded scientific scholarly publishing in Europe to open access by 2020, the challenge for traditional publishers is very real. Ralf Schimmer, Deputy Head, Max Planck Institute, believes that transformation to OA means a re-allocation of library budgets to shift money from subscription journals to OA. The Institute's Roadmap towards OA2020 began with an agreement with Springer in 2016 and continues with 2017 agreements with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and Taylor & Francis. He expects further agreements to be signed every year until the Institute achieves "maximum divestment for subscriptions."

Most of the OA discussion at APE centered on STM publishing. Dagmar Meyer, Policy Advisor, European Research Council, noted diversity of publication cultures, differing financial support models, availability and sustainability of infrastructure, and APC (article processing charges) costs for other disciplines. She explained that humanists put more emphasis on publishing books and book chapters. They deposit their work in institutional repositories. Chemists, commented Emma Wilson, Director of Publishing, RSC, haven’t been as concerned about OA as other disciplines. However, author behavior is evolving due to funding mandates, librarian support, and a growing number of publication options

The Shape of the Publishing Industry 

The question about the shape of the publishing industry garnered mixed reactions. Michael Mabe, CEO, STM, wondered what “good shape” meant. He described digital transition as a Pandora’s Box with public attitudes diverging from publisher actions, particularly when it comes to copyright in the digital age.

Jo McShea, VP & Lead Analyst, Outsell, Inc., concentrating on Outsell’s research on science, technology, and healhcare publishing, stressed the importance of mobile devices and looked forward to the "third wave" of computing, where machines will sense and respond to our needs. Philip Carpenter, Senior Adviser, Research, Wiley, was less sanguine. "We’re an industry with a reputation problem," he said. "We’re not loved by government, librarians, or the academic community." Publishers make accessing articles too difficult and the existing publishing model is "colonialist."

An early morning panel on the second day, led by Richard Padley, considered the proposition that scholarly publishing is "optimising for obsolescence." Publishers' obsession with print is at odds with the speed of scientific communication and their insistence on controlling channels and insisting on individual platforms doesn’t align with today's realities. But does speed inhibit reliability? Where is the quality control?

Piracy as Competition

Several speakers mentioned pirate site Sci-Hub as an ethical challenge, but none admitted to actually using it. The Max Planck Institute’s Schimmer said that Sci-Hub "exposed the nakedness of the subscription system" and is a symptom of the deteriorating system of subscription publishing. Outsell's McShea called it a "lightening rod" for the publishing industry. Wiley's Carpenter disputed the view that people access Sci-Hub because it’s convenient. Instead, he presented data showing that when countries—his examples were Russia and Iran—cancel subscriptions, Sci-Hub's usage goes up. Carpenter invoked Steve Jobs, saying that you can't stop piracy, you have to compete with it.

The conference ended with a panel of "chefs" from the Scholarly Kitchen (, who held a lively discussion covering numerous very timely topics, such as the sudden demise of Beall's List, which seemed to come as a surprise to many in the room; the ongoing struggle with predatory publishing; the emergence of China as a publishing giant; and political actions that threaten science, freedom, and innovation. As Kent Anderson, CEO of RedLink,  said,  "The idea of a knowledge society is slipping from our grasp," citing the inability of the public to discriminate between fact and fiction. The chefs stirred up an energising end to an engaging conference.

APE revealed that STM publishing is in flux, with changing concepts about what publishers should and can be doing in light of emerging technologies, altmetrics, communication speed, and open everything. Conference talks and conversations suggest that new publishing paradigms supersede ethics in the minds of many publishers. Publishing is in shape shifting mode and scientific publishing must evolve or be left behind.

In 2018, APE will return to its Berlin venue in January and de Kemp assured us that APE will continue at least until 2020.

Marydee Ojala ( is the editor-in-chief of Online Searcher and co-chair of the Internet Librarian International conference.

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