There is no question that when discussing the charged debate around open access, it is more or less impossible to tread a line of moderation. To discuss open access at all lands you on one side of an argument. There are times when I laugh and wonder what Lysistrata would have made of this. Perhaps we can only broker peace through withholding something, and in that way show how ridiculous this situation is.
Thinking of Lysistrata makes me grin, thinking about how academics can be heard amidst all the posturing of the rest of the stakeholders, be they funders, SPARC, Libraries, Institutions, Publishers, or Societies. The analogy clearly has its limitations, and withholding sexual favors is not likely to be the most effective strategy for ensuring that academics’ voices are recognized.
I must admit to being rather tired of the fundamentalism that pervades discussions around open access policies and business models. On the one hand there are the advocates, and through the laws of conservation of energy, the equal and opposite reaction of anti-open access advocacy. There seems little room for rational debate about open access in the midst of such an antagonistic atmosphere.
We really need to take a step back from the debate and collaborate to innovate, understanding what open access business models really represent in the marketplace, with special reference to the researcher, who after all is the author of a published article.
What is it that we actually know?
We know that the market for research information (depending on your discipline) is set up through a web of funding agencies and institutional funds. In mathematics, for example, there is NSF funding, but you would be surprised at the number of top-flight mathematicians who work at the top of their field and do so from community colleges without significant funding.
We know that at least in the USA, funding for research is flat if not reducing, leaving academics feeling unloved and discouraged as they are forced to fight among themselves for available resources.
We know that libraries sit in the middle, squeezed on all sides. They see increases in the volume of academic literature. They see demand for literature from the academic communities they serve. They see budget declines and are set up in natural opposition to an economics version of the no-carb diet.
We know that institutions are operating under enormous pressures to maintain their fiscal integrity, while at the same time supporting the information needs of students, researchers, and the institutional brand.
We know that commercial publishers, in their 1980’s feeding frenzy of easy profits, have left a taste of mistrust in almost everyone, yet there is a tacit realization that despite everything, their innovations and their sheer scale and power have actually enabled research to thrive, and made content more available.
Although societies are arguably perhaps best placed to hold the academic’s agenda closest to heart, there are natural conflicts of interest built into a society’s mission. On the on hand a society must serve the needs of their membership. But to do this resources are needed, and for many this means being a publisher. Many societies are being squeezed, perhaps even more so than libraries, by the might and sheer scale (e.g., the ‘Big Deal’) of the commercial publishers.
We do know that a researcher cares about quality – of peer review, copy-editing, publishing alongside respected peers, and perhaps most of all citation.
There are now a range of options for delivering papers to the reading public and there is not space here to list them all, so here is a sample. An author may publish their article in a journal that is owned and operated by a publisher or academic society, which requires transfer of copyright to the publisher, or — as is often the case — an exclusive license to publish. These journals may be delivered by subscription to institutions, which then make the content available to all their stakeholders within their institution. Some journals will offer the journal as a subscription, but also accept fees from the author to make the article freely available, while still sitting within a library subscription holding. This is the hybrid option, and quite understandably runs the risk of being seen as double dipping by the paying customer – the library. Another option is for authors to have their paper made available through a journal that has a subscription business model, but then after a period of time (and in some cases the payment of a fee by the author), the article is made freely available. A further business model is for an author to pay a fee and have their work made freely available in a journal that purely relies on the author fees as a business model.
In addition, governments, funding agencies, and institutions all influence what their researchers may or may not do; thus, the landscape for any researcher in any discipline is, to say the least, confusing. Am I required by my funder to make my work freely available? When does this need to happen? Should I pay the significant fees I am being asked for to publish my paper open access, and if so where do I find those funds? From my funder? From my institution? Or, from my own pocket? Does my institution require me to post my article in their freely available repository? If so, which version of my paper should I put there?
As a researcher, these aspects of the publishing process are confusing. Institutions, funders, publishers, societies and government agencies are crossing swords. Then there are commercial organizations such as ResearchGate with their constant and ethically dubious entreaties to researchers to share their work. All the while, the researcher is left wondering how they can best and affordably publish their work for maximum recognition.
The real debate here is to understand more about the motivations and needs of a researcher, who may or may not be funded directly. What is the best business model that will allow a researcher to publish work effectively and allow readers access to that work?
At present we are focused almost entirely on one model that essentially requires an author to find funding for their article through one means or another. Open access in itself is not really something we should be arguing about. Of course we want open access. What we also want is to find a business model that is sustainable. If one assumes that there is value added to the article by all the stakeholders that surround a researcher, be it in the publication process or providing access, then how do we allow for maximum access at a reasonable cost that reflects the reality of the publication process?
Let’s spend our time thinking through a range of open access models, experimenting and refining, rather than forcing ourselves down the road of policy mandates that potentially discourage innovation.
The real story here is that the rights and desires of academics are being represented by organizations that do not reflect their needs, and that perhaps do not even understanding them. There is a form of fundamentalism that dictates to academics that this is what you need; just let us lead the way and we will make things right for you.
So, where is the middle ground in all this? I would suggest that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a subscription model. In fact, look throughout media and you find successful business models based on subscription. In fact, a subscription to, say, Spotify is the new way to listen to music rather than individual purchases through iTunes.
So this is not about whether open access is a good or bad, or whether the subscription model hinders availability. There is no need to destroy what we have, and force stakeholders such as publishers and societies into a place where there backs are up against a wall, or squeeze libraries into a role where they are unable to act without sufficient funds.
This is a time to innovate and be flexible.
Libraries have an advocacy role to play. Libraries could look at subscriptions to content outside of the big deal first and foremost. Let it be advantageous to the market to break up the big deals and receive competitive pricing from society publishers, whether they are independent or tied to a commercial publisher. We know there is money in the pool, but rather than having sales be driven by scale, let’s reach a more market led approach of real need, nuanced by the variance in academic communities from anthropologists, to mathematicians to cardiology.
Publishers need to fully embrace the notion that while their content is in demand, both in terms of an author base and reader base, we need an effective business model that does not over tax the system.
On the one hand this is not about open access; on the other we should accept open access as a part of the fabric of publishing. Let’s move on to developing sustainable business models that promote the communication of science more effectively across all stakeholders.