As rumours circulate about the forthcoming UKRI open access policy announcement, fierce lobbying is underway by publishers worried that the policy may undermine their business models. Elsevier has even taken the step of directly emailing their UK-based academic editors to criticise the rumoured policy and encourage academics to relay the publisher’s views to UKRI. While these disagreements may not seem particularly new to anyone familiar with the open access movement, it also feels like things are coming to a head between academic publishers and the university sector. Ultimately, as I’ll argue here, universities need to take a view on what their future relationship with publishing should be.

In some respects, the debate over open access has always been about the antagonism between universities and publishers. Although access to research is an important and defining feature of these debates, the spectre of publishing profit margins and extractive business models loomed large from the beginning. There is no getting around the fact that publishers rely on labour and content they get for free. Instead, the editorial work of publishing is remunerated by universities as part of academic salaries, which of course does not fall evenly on individual academics (many of whom precarious, overworked and/or not employed by a university). Nevertheless, the university sector funds much of what the publishing industry relies upon for its operations and expects something in return.

To the extent that it has been marketised, the publishing industry is viewed as standing outside the university and not controlled by it. This is despite the fact that academics (for the most part) maintain editorial control of the publications they edit and peer review. Having talked to numerous editors of commercial journals, there is a very real sense that their publishers are service providers rather than part of the scholarly community. They might not provide the level of service that many editors expect, but they are service providers all the same. As scholarly communication has been ceded entirely to this market of service providers, universities have lost economic and material control of the publications they rely on (which also impacts on editorial control in various ways). This is all the more apparent given the dual functions the industry serves of both knowledge dissemination and researcher evaluation. Universities have outsourced both of these crucial functions to a separate, external industry.

As the university sector grapples with this loss of control, issues like the Rights Retention Strategy have emerged for authors to retain ownership of intellectual property and circumvent publisher contracts that claim exclusive ownership. Such is the separation between university and publisher that researchers are being advised against signing publisher contracts that transfer copyright. Instead, researchers can assert ownership of their copyright prior to transferring it to a journal, allowing them to immediately deposit and share their editorially-accepted word document into a repository. Suffice to say that publishers loathe this strategy — which has the potential to enable immediate green open access — and are coming out against it with all guns blazing.

Much of the current push for OA is thus predicated on the antagonism between publishers and universities. Access to publications is not a simple price negotiation between seller and consumer but instead reflects a struggle over the conditions that shape the negotiation. This situation is not particularly beneficial or sustainable for academic research, not least because universities do not appear to be particularly good at the hard-nosed negotiating that Elsevier is so well known for. It seems unlikely that an antagonistic approach has a long-term future and will only perpetuate the current system over which universities have ceded control. Sooner or later, universities will have to make a difficult call about the conditions of their relationship with the publishing industry, not just the price it pays to read and publish content. This means assessing the publishers they work with and considering the mechanisms that future control should take.

I have made many calls on this blog for greater governance of scholarly publishing by the research community. When I argue for the need to bring publishing back in house, I mean in the sense of university press culture, university-managed infrastructure and governance of the publishers we work with. Universities need to build and manage stuff for this (as many increasingly do) but they also need to demand better accountability from publishers such that issues like the Rights Retention Strategy become unnecessary or unproblematic. There is arguably much more effort paid within the university to building a parallel publishing ecosystem through new university presses and open access publishers, but this new ecosystem will not unsettle the dominance of a handful of large, profiteering publishers with questionable ethics. For a long-term strategy, you require the alternative ecosystem, an understanding of how you want the old guard to change and a plan to eventually cut loose those publishers that refuse increased accountability.

Such a plan would help to inform negotiations currently underway between the UK university sector and Elsevier (led by Jisc). Universities require access to Elsevier journals, although Elsevier will realistically not back down too much on price, and so the negotiators should seek formal pockets of governance over Elsevier publications as part of any deal. It remains to be seen what the priorities for governance should be and where demands might be met, but one could imagine issues relating to journal/data ownership, rights retention, diversity, metric implementation and journal policy changes as being up for grabs, in the long term at least. Introducing these issues into the negotiation now would signal to Elsevier that universities intend to be more active in their push for accountability and control over the industry.

Crucially, increased governance should be an aim across the industry — not just over the oligopoly — in order to cement best practice within the market more broadly. Governance should be an indication of partnership, trust and collaboration, not something punitive. This would also signal to academic editorial boards that publishers are not mere service providers and are part of the scholarly community, but only inasmuch as they act as members of it. This would also mean that academics would not be divorced from the important aspects of academic publishing and would instead be encouraged to use their editorial power for a more ethical and accountable market.

Although the push for governance might feel hopelessly reformist (because the true objective is getting rid of marketisation in both the university and the publishing industry), it is still necessary given the parameters of the neoliberal university and its commercial imperatives. Greater governance does not preclude the possibility of radical alternatives in publishing and merely acts as a counterweight to the worst aspects of marketisation. This is similar to Christopher Newfield’s argument in the recent issue of Radical Philosophy. He argues that we should not ‘wait for wider social change’ before seeking transformation of the neoliberal university. The work to be done is at once reformist and transformative.

But at the same time as appearing reformist, the possibility of greater governance of commercial publishing is also a task of enormous magnitude. Not only do we not know what we require and how greater governance works in practice, it is highly unlikely that the more profiteering actors in the industry will entertain the idea. This is why universities need to make difficult decisions about their future relationship with publishers: those that are willing to open themselves up to greater oversight should be prioritised in negotiations, while those unwilling will stand out for their intransigence. Prioritising governance and oversight will therefore add complexity to negotiations currently based primarily on price, thus paving the way for less antagonistic relationships between ‘good’ commercial actors and the university while leaving those publishers committed to the injustices of the free, ungovernable market out in the cold.