Last week I posted a piece on Green Open Access (OA), in which I argued that Green OA will have an impact on the purchasing decisions of librarians, who would be more likely to cancel subscriptions, all other things being equal, if a journal were OA then if it were not. The proximate cause of my post was a mailgroup thread in which my fellow traveller, Rick Anderson, made the very same points. The discussion about this topic continues, with Rick now taking on the Herculean task of defending common sense. You can see more debate on this topic by searching the liblicense archive, which is now the focus of the conflict.
So in what ways has the conversation been extended?
1. A lost presentation has come to light through the diligence of my personal information pack rat, Terry Ehling of Project Muse. Terry keeps copies of EVERYTHING and has turned up the slides I referenced in my earlier post, which I have now uploaded to SlideShare and you can view at the bottom of this post.
Everyone should have a personal pack rat, and everyone should have a personal librarian. Like the names of good babysitters, the names of personal librarians are carefully guarded.
I wrote that presentation 8 years ago. What has changed? Well, the basic thrust of the presentation still holds today. Indeed, many of the publishers I work with are dealing with these very issues, namely, the cancellation of library subscriptions for a multitude of reasons including the availability of material from more than one source. Green OA is just one of these sources.
2. It could be argued that the very fact that the presentation is 8 years old proves the point that Green OA has not made a dent in library subscriptions. That would be incorrect. Small publishers are experiencing subscription declines and are taking steps to eliminate multiple sources for their material. Here again Green OA is but one of those sources. The form this takes is rarely tougher policies and almost never litigation, a mostly useless effort since chasing down unauthorized copies is like the game of Whac-a-Mole. One response has been the growth of hybrid journals, where the Gold OA alternative within the structure of a traditional journal preempts Green OA deposits. Another response, with bigger implications, is to partner with larger publishers, who have better resources to deal with Green OA and the current market environment. Thus a small publisher that sees subscriptions falling off cuts a deal with Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc., where all the publications are sold in aggregations at high (and higher) prices. Green OA, in other words, is a contributive factor–one of many–in the growth of the Big Deal and price increases.
3. Many participants in this conversation continue to ask, “Where’s the data?” One way to get the data would be to step into a time machine, stop 10 years in the future and assess the status of STM publishers, then turn around and report what the future looks like. To get the data you have to be a time traveller because what is at issue here are forecasts, not historical events. Publishing works that way; it’s a game of predictions, some good and some not so good. Publishers make judgments about which authors to support, which fields will grow, and what their rivals are likely to do. A publisher who does not act today on the implications of Green OA tomorrow could be in big trouble in a few years. And if Green OA proves to be a whimper in the marketplace, what has the publisher lost by acting on it today?
4. arXiv is always offered as proof that Green OA does not affect publishing economics, but it isn’t true. First, arXiv lacks the structure of most formal publications (How do I know if this is the final version of an article?) and is thus not a clear substitute for subscriptions. Second, arXiv certainly has affected the publishing economics in those fields where arXiv has achieved institutional status. Every publisher must weigh the significance of arXiv before investing in a new journal and arXiv’s very existence puts downward pressure on pricing. Beyond that, however, is the simple fact that what is under debate here is the cancellation of journals on the margin. Well-established journals that are at the center of a discipline are not at risk. What are those marginal journals that arXiv does or does not affect?
5. Since publishers must act with foresight, they are largely (if unhappily) supporting this paradigm: to protect the economics of a journal, make it available in an aggregation, which makes the journal less vulnerable to cancellation. Thus big companies acquire big companies and small entities forge publishing partnerships with larger entities. Invariably this means higher prices. Thus the core strategy is to safeguard a journal from cancellation (for any number of reasons, of which Green OA is one of them) by developing arrangements that impose a greater tax on libraries.
This situation cannot last forever, but it has several years left in it. In the meantime, Green OA will contribute to this paradigm, putting a greater and greater burden on libraries. This is the Law of Unintended Consequences at work–a law, it must be said, that prefers to haunt those that struggle to understand how the economy works. Green OA works best when it doesn’t work well. It thrives on disorganization and challenges to discovery. When it works beautifully it undermines the seed, the original publication, and goes away.