Two interesting developments occurred recently in the world of open access (OA) publishing, a topic I’ve become far too involved with for my own tastes over this past year. However, since both involve money and business and editorial material and consistency, I found myself unable to resist poking around.
The first is the news from Hindawi that, as part of launching ISRN Oceanography, they will begin paying authors to produce review articles. The articles are being positioned as solo-author reviews called “Spotlight Articles,” and may only be submitted upon invitation.
I was wondering when this day would come — not for Hindawi in particular, but for an OA publisher in general. Review articles are the best way to attract readers, and ultimately readers legitimize a publication — otherwise, it’s just a broadcast, not a show. Therefore, it made complete logical sense to me that someday an OA publisher seeking readers would find itself commissioning review articles.
The invitation circulated thanks to Colin D. MacLeod, a Scottish research fellow, who received an email invitation from Hindawi. MacLeod offered this straightforward assessment of the likely rationale for offering to pay for review articles — namely, to catalyze a new journal:
By inviting, and indeed paying for, review articles from people who are well known (and possibly even respected – whether I am respected in my field or not is up to others to judge!), they can quickly gain a level of acceptability, something that I presume is becoming ever more difficult as more and more people become aware of how much of a scam these journals can be.
It’s undeniable that OA journals need an audience to survive, and they are more financially viable if that audience has some researchers seeking to publish some papers. As competition for audience and authors increases, it’s natural for the stakes to rise. There are at least two ways to compete for authors and their fees — lower prices to authors or create enhanced venues for authors. In this case, it seems Hindawi sees paying for review articles as a way to carve out a new title and start the audience-submission engine, taking the “superior venue” route. It’s a pretty good idea, and at $1,000, each single-author review article only needs to attract one research article to justify the expense.
The second interesting twist involving OA, money, editorial material, and publishing is the news that Peter Suber, a long-time advocate of OA publishing, is releasing a book with MIT Press — a book with a list price of US$12.95 (US$9.99 for the e-book). It’s clear from the description that the book is basically a repackaging of some of the material Suber has published via blog posts over the past decade, but I’m sure it’s much more polished, thanks to editing and so forth.
While Suber is publishing a book we’ll all have to pay for, his first sentence on his blog remains:
I work for the free circulation of science and scholarship in every field and language.
In addition to working for OA, Suber also works for money, as he received an advance from MIT Press to write the book, one he described to me in an email as being somewhat less than adequate:
The advance didn’t cover the time I needed for writing, but it was something.
That’s a good indication that MIT Press didn’t overpay for the book, and knows its true market value, something every publisher has to determine, whichever side of the road of the toll-gate they’re walking.
Luckily, Suber has many other funders to cover his time, as the acknowledgements section at the beginning of the book makes clear. These include the Open Society Foundation, Wellcome Trust, and Arcadia. Other acknowledged supporters include SPARC and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication, both trenchant OA organizations.
In a move that may placate the OA purists, Suber negotiated to have an OA version of the book made available after 12 months — but the irony of having a book called “Open Access” for which even the e-version costs $10 is pretty striking. And as Suber pointed out in an email, nearly everything in the book comes from his blog, which is freely available online:
If you can’t wait [one year for the OA edition], everything I’ve said in the book I’ve said in some form or another in an OA article over the years, probably more than once.
So, here is free information being sold on behalf of an advocate of OA for a price because of the . . . value-add of editing, branding, and distribution leverage? Hmmm, where have we heard that argument before? There wasn’t even any peer-review management involved. And why does the e-book cost money if digital goods have no marginal costs? Maybe value-based pricing makes some sense after all?
Suber’s main point in writing the book was apparently to make more people aware of the alleged benefits of OA publishing (how a model that burdens research funds with publication fees accelerates research is beyond me, but that’s why belief systems are so pleasant).
Yet, the irony of a person who believes so strongly that access increases readership and utility, who then puts a price on a book for a year in order to pay out an advance, shouldn’t be lost. Both the enhanced prestige of MIT Press and the distribution channels it commands demand a compromise, something Suber proudly notes is reasonable by his standards. My question then, is, Who determines when a compromise is appropriate? And if it’s reasonable for publishers to charge for content, then why is OA such a zone of moral zealotry? Shouldn’t it co-exist peacefully as merely an option? Or, is zealotry part of its business model?
Someone recently said that OA is usually predicated on one of two tenets — morality or sustainability. To me, these two developments show that, ultimately, when cash is on the table, morality fades and sustainability wins — in one case, the sustainability of a publishing program and, in the other, the sustainability of an advance against royalties.