There are industries that use the same raw materials, yet are not the same. Commercial firms that deliver purified water to companies consume water, fuel, and vehicles. Yet, not a single one is in competition with the local swimming pool company.
Guys trucking 5-gallon water jugs around to offices are doing something with the same materials that is completely different than what the other company — digging, lining, and purifying your swimming pool — is doing.
So, are open access publishers and traditional publishers really in the same business?
This question was raised recently in a comment thread, and it stuck in my mind. Luckily, I run a blog, and I can take a few minutes to write things out as I think them through.
Is it possible that each is a service disguised as publishing, but that each provides a different service for a different customer need? And that they’re not in competition?
Some basic facts seem to suggest this notion might hold water. For instance, if the thousands of OA articles published over the past few years were truly part of a zero-sum competition with traditional publishers, you’d expect to see submission rates at traditional publications fall over the same period. Yet, anecdotal and actual evidence combine to paint an entirely different picture — submission rates are up across the board. In fact, new traditional titles are launching in the midst of the OA boom.
On the supply side — papers and research reports — it seems there’s little competition. In fact, OA may have uncovered a spring of papers that has been bubbling in our backyard all along.
Further hints come when you look at who each serves, and when they prove valuable.
Traditional publishers provide a service predicated on traditional academic status. They tend to attract studies that the authors are willing and able to usher through the higher rejection rates and attendant resubmissions required by traditional publishers. Why this occurs is hard to discern, but branding and status probably play a role. The authors and papers using traditional publishing outlets seem to be qualitatively different in some meaningful ways. It’s just hard to know what these qualities are.
OA publishers provide a service to authors and funders of research, providing a way for them to get papers published which they want to get into the system more quickly or make more generally available. This might be because the authorship group has disbanded, the funder has goals about transparent publication practices, the paper proved more incremental than anticipated, or the authors believe in OA. Again, it’s hard to know, but the results seem to speak for themselves.
Look to physics, and how arXiv and physics journals haven’t exactly squared off. This seems another major hint that there are publishing practices that don’t compete with traditional publishing.
On the demand side, OA and traditional publishing don’t seem to be competing. Even funding is coming from different sources by and large, with foundations funding OA, and more traditional buyers (individuals and academic institutions) funding traditional publishing. There is only a sliver of mingling at the edges.
The important thing is that the underlying motivations don’t jibe with competition. In fact, authors can decide what kind of water-centric service they want each time. An author may choose one mode under a certain set of conditions, the other mode at another time.
Some confusion exists, in that both sets call themselves “water-services” and worry about making more distinctions than that. People on both sides seem to view this as a competition because it was framed that way at the beginning. Yet facts argue against the initial framing. Those semantics don’t matter as much as the fundamental fact that there may not be the competition between the two — even being listed in the same category can’t conflate the two.
The water delivery service isn’t going to be asked to install swimming pools, is it?
Some traditional publishers have leveraged the common raw materials into the other line of business. That may prove to be a very safe thing to do given the lack of competition between the two. They are merely ways to array roughly equivalent resources, but are not competitive. In fact, traditional publishers’ willingness to enter the OA market is another piece of evidence suggesting there isn’t any clear competition between the two modes of publication. Some authors will want water in bottles, some will want to swim. They may even get thirsty after a swim.
There’s a certain peace to be achieved by not forcing competition where it may not exist. While the analogies offered here are imperfect, they suggest that perhaps OA and traditional publishers are using the same raw materials — papers, reviewers, web sites — but in such different ways that their co-existence is actually natural and not competitive.
This perspective also suggests that OA publishing will face limitations in growth because of factors all its own, not by taking over a percentage of traditional publishing.
We’ve accepted the proposition that OA publishers compete with traditional publishers. Perhaps we need to contemplate the very real possibility that they do not. And that would represent a mindshift we might all benefit from.