Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Open Access - Clear Benefits, Hidden Costs

In an editorial published in Learned Publishing (April 2007), Rick Anderson, Director of Resource Acquisition at University of Nevada, Reno, argues that, while clear benefits result from Open Access, such benefits do not come without costs. While Anderson makes some interesting, and valid, points he is generally not convincing in his arguments supporting publishers. In particular, he fails to address adequately the question of the often immense disconnect between the value added by publishers to their journals and the latter's often outrageous costs.
EXCERPTS from the editorial:
OA's champions sometimes draw a distinction between OA 'publishing' (i.e. the production of formal journals on an OA basis) and OA self-archiving. While this distinction can be useful in some contexts, it can also be used as a rhetorical gambit to mask the inevitable effects of pervasive and effective OA self-archiving. To make an article available to the public (whether in a journal issue or in a free archive) is, by any meaningful definition of the term, to publish it. The danger in saying that OA self-archiving is not publishing and therefore cannot harm publishers is that, if unchallenged, it may lead the general public - including policy-makers - erroneously to believe that publishers have nothing to fear from OA. In fact, mandates that result in widespread and effective OA will inevitably drive at least some publishers out of business, whether or not such an effect is intended by those who promote OA.

All of which begs an important question: so what? It is not the business of the scholarly information community to keep publishers profitable, but to produce and provide access to information. A solution that provides universal access without supporting publishers may be perfectly acceptable. There are two problems with this stance, however:

1. It assumes that publishers add no value to the scholarly information chain, and can therefore be harmed with impunity and without concern for negative consequences to the scholarly community in general.

2 It assumes that, in fact, publishers are not a part of the scholarly community, but rather entities from outside that community that enter the scholarly information space solely for the purpose of taking profit out of it.

In fact, most STM publishers are not profit-seeking corporations from outside the scholarly community, but rather learned societies and other non-profit entities, many of which rely on income from journal subscriptions to support their conferences, member services, and scholarly endeavours - as well as the peer-review and publishing activities that will remain important in a self-archiving environment. In other words, a publishing system that undermines the ability of publishers to make money in the marketplace thereby may also undermine scholars and scientists in their ability to do their work. As for non-profit organizations, to the degree that they need to be able to sell access to content in order to survive, effective OA self-archiving mandates will tend to drive them out of business. Recent studies of demand-side attitudes and expectations suggest strongly the truthfulness of what any rational person would intuitively assume: that immediate, full OA self-archiving leads inevitably to significant cancellations.3,4
. . . .
In summary: OA offers real benefits to society. However, the net value of those benefits cannot be determined unless its costs are computed as well. The purpose of this statement is not to call on participants in the scholarly information chain to fight against OA, but only to move forward while taking full account of costs as well as benefits, and to work towards solutions that offer a net benefit to society. To the degree that society benefits more from research than from public access to research, and to the degree that it benefits from the continued viability of the publishing industry (both for-profit and nonprofit), the solutions that serve the public best may turn out to offer something less than complete and immediate free public access to all scientific information.

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