Back in the mid-1990s, when the Web heralded a new age for Internet publishing and linked communication, strategic thinkers realized these new technologies might pose a risk to the status quo. In particular, there was a concern among those who cared about the vast range of independent scientific and scholarly publishers that the new technologies would, by dint of their expense and complexity, create serious disadvantages for small professional societies, who wouldn’t be able to compete independently and would be easily gobbled up by large commercial publishers.
This kind of thinking is what led Stanford University’s libraries to launch HighWire Press. Even though HighWire stumbled once or twice, it fulfilled its mission, in large part because its success initiated a micro-environment of vendors focused on smaller publishers — companies like Silverchair, Atypon, Publishing Technologies, and others. The technological disadvantage was erased by strategically deploying technology. It was a “fight fire with fire” approach that worked.
Today, we face very different threats from large, consolidated entities who seem to be poised to take control of scientific and scholarly publishing. However, this time, we don’t have a clear way to fight fire with fire, or to resist the changes being imposed by these well-funded and well-coordinated forces.
This time, we’re facing a philosophy, an attitude, and a belief system, all of which have taken root in large, rich bodies like funding organizations and governmental agencies.
This time, the threat is an idea — and one with backers who make the Elseviers of the world look like small potatoes. The idea is “open,” and the pursuit of this idea continues to erode our ability to publish in any manner other than what fits with the agendas of funders and governmental agencies.
To restate a fundamental problem, the path this idea used to enter scientific and scholarly publishing has been paved with a faulty premise, namely that taxpayers funded research and therefore acquired pass-through rights to final published papers. Of course, the boundary that’s crossed by this argument is clear — there is a final report due to the funder, but that is not the final published paper. If agencies and funders were to make these reports freely available, as many have for years, there would be no argument. But by reaching into independent third-party organizations and claiming the next stages of refinement and professional effort, funders and agencies cross a line they no longer see. In fact, some funders believe this line is so smudged that they have become a publisher of their own, and others’, research papers.
The label “open” sounds harmless and simple, but it is a label behind which various incentives can go unexamined.
For instance, when a funder launches an “open” journal, the funder’s incentives for doing so are largely ignored, even if those incentives run counter to a robust scientific community’s primary goals by creating inherent and intractable conflicts of interest and diminishing the value of objective third-party review and evaluation.
When an alternative rights organization is founded on the basis of “open” yet is funded by large technology companies that have their own incentives for making information free — hint, it’s the same reason General Motors used to petition for cheap gas — those incentives largely go unexamined. When the search engine company that funds and seems to steer this same alternative rights group begins dictating engineering changes to publishers based on its sense of what “open” means, and also begins ranking search results based on “open” criteria, the raw power of scale becomes clear.
When a governmental agency spends millions of taxpayer dollars creating a redundant repository of published papers, one that competes with publishers and creates a win-lose-lose economic situation for US taxpayers despite professing to be benefiting taxpayers, it largely goes unexamined.
When an ideology brings into our midst a few major venture capital projects designed to quickly extract money from the scientific publishing market, it’s clear that something more than rearranging the deck chairs is going on behind the “open” label. Some smart people smell money to be made from these trends. And these venture capitalists come from the same valley as many of those funding the alternative rights group.
Meanwhile, publishers, authors, editors, and reviewers are put under pressure to produce more papers with relatively fewer controls and incentives for them.
- Are reviewers being paid under the new regime?
- Are editors more valued under the new regime?
- Are authors viewed as anything more than grist in the new mill of open access?
- Are authors spending less on publishing than before the “open” era?
- Do researchers have more funds available than before the “open” era?
- Are taxpayers getting more of what they really want — more reliable information, better value for their tax dollar, and an easier time finding information they can trust?
The power plays that are taking place under the banner of “open” seem disconnected from academic culture or taxpayers’ needs. More and more, “open” seems to serve the interests of funding agencies, governmental agencies, technology companies, and venture capitalists. This is not the revolution as it was intended.
Once again, small, non-profit publishers are in the most vulnerable position. The subscription model has allowed them to turn the efforts of a small cadre of authors into high-value journals and books, which have expanded their brands and provided reliable economic vitality, both of which have allowed them to seem bigger than they are. The new “open” model doesn’t scale in the same way — instead of payments coming to access content, payments come to create content, which scales on a 1:1 basis rather than the exponential basis of the subscription model. This turns content production into piece-work, not craft work. Unless protections are built into initiatives so that these subscription revenues don’t suffer, the end could well be nigh for many professional society publishing programs should the future play out as some envision.
The power plays are also more subtle, and remind me of a post Robert Reich recently published entitled, “The Hollowing Out of Government.” His point is that Republicans, rather than repealing laws, simply defund the agencies meant to enforce the laws, which makes it less likely that rich business owners will be caught breaking the law or evading taxes, but also makes the government look incompetent, which makes their next cuts all the easier. It also makes the government less able to collect taxes and fines, which necessitates further budget cuts, accelerating the same cynical cycle. There is an analog going on in our milieu — the relative defunding of the subscription model, through continued attrition within library budgets, and their reallocation to support “open” initiatives like Green OA and repositories. There has also been a suppression of individual purchasers through a combination of “information wants to be free” and “publishers are evil” rhetoric — even though some of those voices are now publishers themselves. The less affordable and palatable subscription products appear, the stronger the argument for “open” seems to become.
Before you object, these facts should be taken into account — a government-sponsored “open” repository (PubMed Central) competes with publisher traffic, advertising revenues, and licensing revenues; library budgets have been in relative decline (relative to total academic budgets) since the 1980s; and embargoes reduce the ability of publishers to spread their costs over multiple years of revenues, leaving them little choice but to increase prices on what they are allowed to protect. The price increases on what remains drives further complaints about price-gouging, which leads to further constraints on publishers’ abilities to spread out the costs, so they have to raise prices on what remains. It’s a vicious cycle.
What might emerge from all of these power plays based on mixed but aligned incentives? To me, the most likely scenario in the future is a bifurcated publishing industry, with a few high-power and high-profile journals owned by idiosyncratic organizations that have somehow managed to avoid the hammer, and another community of publishers who comply with funder, government, and technology company mandates. The unheard voice in this scenario is the small- or mid-sized professional society that wishes to retain the ability to publish how and what they wish. These organizations may be in the same uncomfortable position that mid-tier authors found themselves in the self-publishing and e-book revolution — that is, shut out, devalued, or delisted. Without the “Big Deal” to protect them, without the resources to work at the scale the new taskmasters seem to demand, and with a limited scope based on a legacy community or domain focus, professional societies don’t stack up well.
In 1995, the problem we faced was a clear threat of technological dominance. In 2013, the threat we face is one of ideological dominance. Large, rich, and well-coordinated groups of funders, governments, and technology companies have different incentives to see this unclear but sexy ideology of “open” implemented, and their alignment is growing. The chances become lower each year that smaller society publishers will be able to continue to practice independent and robust peer and editorial review, keep prices low by having diverse business models, use publishing surpluses to fund other activities of their organizations (research, education, and advocacy), and have anything more in the future than the running cost-plus argument of a utilities provider.
Where is the path to independence for small, professional society publishers this time?
(Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, thanks to a nice coincidence, Joe Esposito contemplates the options for society publishers.)