Sunday, April 02, 2006

Of profits and surpluses

The same review by Kate Corby that I referred to in my previous post, reports that "Willinsky makes a strong case for the contention that the aggressively competitive role commercial publishers play in academic publishing has had a negative impact on access for everyone."

What is interesting is that Willinsky (or is it Corby?) inserts the word 'commercial' here, as if not-for-profit publishers, mainly societies, generally support open access and are not 'aggressively competitive'. He doesn't seem aware of the fact that they generally don't and are. He also doesn't seem aware of the fact that a great many society journals are published on their behalf by commercial publishers. And he clearly has never sat in on negotiations between societies and the publishers who publish their journals.

If he had, he would realise that not-for-profit journals do not exist in any numbers. Most so-called not-for-profit journals are expected, by their not-for-profit owners, to make a handsome return (often called ‘surplus’, which is distinct from ‘profit’ only in that it is not taxable), an expectation which is passionately pursued (let's not call it 'aggressively'). Sure, this surplus is mostly being used for good purposes of the society's choosing, but these good purposes seldom have anything to do with the journals themselves or with open access.

There is nothing wrong with surpluses. Or with profits, for that matter. It's the way the free world works. And even the not-so-free world. It would, however, behove scholarly societies to support economically sustainable open access business models for the publication of their journals and make their surpluses that way. For the benefit of science. For the sake of enabling academic researchers to be "in the business of growing the world’s knowledge base", and yet thrive in the cut-throat environment of the 'ego-system' that the global scientific enterprise is, with its relentless 'publish-or-perish' culture. 'Aggressive competitiveness' is all around us, I'm afraid. Or is it 'passionate competitiveness'?

Jan Velterop

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