Friday, November 09, 2007

JAM tomorrow

On Wednesday November 7, 2007, in an entry called ‘More JAM about the NIH policy’, Peter Suber alerts us all to the fact that Nature, The Washington Post, Slashdot, and many others, got it wrong: the NIH policy is not about mandating its grantees to publish in OA journals, it is just about mandating them to deposit their articles, that is to say an “electronic version of their final, peer-reviewed manuscripts” in PubMed Central “upon acceptance for publication to be made publicly available no later than 12 months after the official date of publication”.

Indeed, as Suber says correctly, "The policy would require deposit in an OA repository (PubMed Central), not submission to OA journals. It's about green OA, not gold OA."

Unfortunately, in the perception of many – Nature, The Washington Post, and Slashdot surely don’t have a subversive agenda, but just report what is widely perceived – this distinction is of a level usually associated with copyrightlawyerly hairsplitteralcy. Apart from the fact that perceptional closeness is literally the case for the colours gold and green (have a look at hex colour 999933, which is often used on web pages to depict gold), the simple fact is that ‘gold’ and ‘green’ roads to OA are just easily confused. The somewhat enigmatic sentence added in the Congressional Bill: “Provided, that the NIH shall implement the public access policy in a manner consistent with copyright law” doesn’t make it any better. Nor does the idea of an embargo. Why allowing an embargo on making an author’s manuscript openly available? Or, put in another way, isn’t allowing a 12 months’ delay tantamount to saying that making a final manuscript freely available (‘green’) is, in effect, publishing? If it isn’t, why not insist on the manuscript being made open immediately upon acceptance? And what does “official date of publication” mean? The date the author’s version of the article first appears on the publisher’s web site? The date the fully formatted and copy-edited version first appears on the publisher’s web site? The cover date of the print issue in which the article (eventually) appears?

Is it really just “ignorance and misunderstanding” that leads to this quite persistent confusion? Or is there perhaps something subliminal or too subtle in the distinction between ‘green’ and ‘gold’ that wrong-foots otherwise intelligent people?

Applied to OA, ‘green’ and ‘gold’ are qualifiers of a different order. ‘Gold’ is straightforward: you pay for the service of being published in a peer-reviewed journal and your article is unambiguously Open Access. ‘Green’, however, is little more than an indulgence allowed by the publisher. This, for most publishers at least, is fine, as long as it doesn’t undermine their capability to make money with the work they do. But a 'green' policy is reversible.

This is not to say that the NIH policy isn’t going to be effective in bringing OA closer. It may very well be. But quite possibly not via ‘green’ (is it not time to realise that ‘green’ isn’t the fast and sure way to open access that it is often made out to be?).

Embargoes are the policies that will bring OA closer. Why? An embargo carries the risk for a publisher that both the reader (read: librarian) and the author can just afford to wait. Especially if embargoes should get shorter than 12 months. And if they can afford to wait, there is no need or incentive on either side to pay anything to anybody. For publishers, there are only two ways out, and neither involves ‘green’: to refuse articles from NIH grantees unless they come with some form of cash payment or exclusive rights. ‘Gold’ publishers already do that; they get paid in cash when they accept and publish an article. No cash, no publication. Subscription publishers get paid in the form of rights that are transferred to them. Copyrights, mostly, or at least exclusive publication rights (if and where there is a difference between those two). And those rights will look a lot less exclusive and therefore lose a lot in value under an embargo regime. So actually, it comes down to just one way, since the exclusive rights route is a mere cul-de-sac leading nowhere, all but closed off by embargoes. Or perhaps the other is stopping journal publishing altogether.

For hitherto ‘green’ publishers, to turn to ‘gold’ and join the already existing OA publishers in only inviting submission of manuscripts by NIH grantees that, should they be accepted for publication, come with publication fees in one way or another, will be an increasingly attractive option.

Jan Velterop

Friday, July 20, 2007

Of publishing and marketing

Recently, on Peter Murray-Rust's blog, Bill Hooker's blog, and quite a few others, the definition of 'Open Access' was discussed. In the spirit of open access and clarity we are told that "Open Access is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit", "Free Advertising isn't Open Access in my book", and "Open Access cannot be used as marketing gimmick and the definition should always be clear to everyone."

It's interesting that attention should be drawn to advertising and marketing. It is advertising and marketing that most of publishing in journals is about. Researchers don't need journals if it is just to 'give away' their research to the world, if they just want to 'share' their knowledge. They can just post it on some well-read web site or deposit it in an open repository and, hey, the proverbial Bob's your uncle. But no, that ain't enough. They need to advertise their scientific prowess, their priority, to officialdom, in order to get tenure, status, future funding, et cetera, and they use formal publication in peer-reviewed journals for that.

Nothing wrong with that, but let's be straight. You wouldn't consider submitting your article to a journal that doesn't market and promote itself.
"Free Advertising isn't Open Access in my book."
No, it isn't in my book, either. Free advertising of your article is publishing it in a subscription journal, so that you don't have to pay for it, but librarians do, so it's free to you.
"Open Access is not a marketing phrase and you are not free to use it as you see fit."
Open access is just as much - or as little - a marketing phrase as 'subscription' is, in all the inherent ambiguity and variation of those terms. Or is there anybody out there who believes that the definition of Open Access is (can be) completely unique, unequivocal and impervious to interpretation? Well, some work is needed on the current definition(s),then. Even if it were enshrined in some statute book as the law, it would still be open to interpretation. Don't take it from me: ask any lawyer.

Do I think that improvements in labelling open access could be made? Of course I do. And they will be, in a process of trial and error, and rich discussion, perhaps rather like scientific insights get refined and mature. To claim that "the definition should always be clear to everyone" is naive.

Perhaps it should be clear, but it ain't. How do I, for instance, interpret the phrase "the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use" in the open access definition? That's a limitation of rights, correct? So that's reflected - though not perfectly - in the Creative Commons BY-NC licence. If there were a Creative Commons licence that specifically dealt with this 'right to make small numbers of printed copies for personal use', then we could perhaps use that one rather than the BY-NC licence with its to scientific publishing irrelevant elements. But to my knowledge, at the time of writing this, there isn't one (if there is, I'd be all too happy to be enlightened). On the other hand, if you look at the 'non-commercial' restriction in the BY-NC licence, you may be forgiven to wonder what the fuss is about:
"You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You [...] in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation. The exchange of the Work for other copyrighted works by means of digital file-sharing or otherwise shall not be considered to be intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation, provided there is no payment of any monetary compensation in connection with the exchange of copyrighted works."
Jan Velterop

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fly or flounder

If one looks at scientific information from an economic point of view, and considers supply and demand, it will probably look like this: In an area mainly driven by readers who clamour to see the research (a 'read-or-rot' area), subscriptions make sense; in an area mainly driven by the need to publish (a 'publish-or-perish' area, arguably the most common in science), article processing charges for open access publishing makes sense; and in an area mainly driven by political or other overarching societal concerns ('fly-or-flounder'?), direct subsidies make sense.

The question is, can one, or should one, look at scientific information in this way. The answer is, in my view at least, 'yes'.

Science research activity, including the publishing of research results, is clearly an economic activity, with supply and demand, so that would definitely argue for the 'yes' vote. But are the three scenarios mentioned above of equal importance? Scientific information is to a very large degree a 'product' for which supply and demand are overlapping, suppliers (authors) being 'demanders' (in their role as readers) - and vice versa. With regard to formally publishing scientific findings, the demands placed on the system by 'suppliers' are, in general, much stronger than the demands placed on it by readers. What I've often heard in research circles is that as a scientist, you can mostly get away with reading only a selection of relevant literature (the rest being of a confirmatory nature, so seeing the abstract is enough, or even just knowing that an article exists), or rather, you must, because there's an information overload in most disciplines and you wouldn't be able to read it all anyway. As an author, though, there's no escape: you have to publish.

Of the three scenarios mentioned, the last two are arguably the most important. Yet the overwhelming majority of the economic activity takes place in the framework of scenario 1. That's an 'issue' (euphemism for 'problem') and our challenge is to make the transition to scenarios 2 and 3 while keeping the crucial elements of the system of formal publishing intact and economically viable, especially peer-review.

Jan Velterop

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mandate debate

Peter Suber is weighing in on the mandate debate. In one of the comments on my previous post on his blog (March 3, 2007) he says the following about his own position on mandates:
"One objection is that a mandate paternalistically coerces [authors] for their own good. If true, this would be a serious problem for me, though perhaps not for everyone who defends mandates. I cannot support paternalism over competent adults....Fortunately, the paternalism objection misses the target and is easily answered....First, I only support mandates that are conditions on voluntary contracts. They might be funding contracts: if you take our money, you'll have to provide OA to your research; if this bothers you, then don't take our money. They might be employment contracts: if you work here, you'll have to provide OA to your research; if this bothers you, then don't work here....Second, I only support mandates with reasonable exceptions....Third, an OA mandate [advances other interests beyond the author's]. The [author] interest is greater visibility and impact. The university [or funder] interest is that an OA mandate will better fulfill the university [or funder] mission to share the knowledge it produces, and better assist researchers elsewhere who could benefit from this knowledge...."
Peter is a philosopher, and thus can be expected to be more careful with choosing his words than a mere mortal like me. Yet I cannot square the idea of a mandate, given its usual definition of 'an official or authoritative command; an order', with the idea of a condition, a stipulation, in a voluntary contract. If you mean starter pistol, don't say machine gun. You might confuse some people. If you mean contract stipulation, don't say mandate. Such a heavy word is, well, too 'loaded' (no pun intended).

And how voluntary is a funding contract actually? Only in the sense that if you don't sign, you have the option of leaving science altogether. In comparison, the condition in a voluntary contract that asks authors to transfer their copyright to a publisher seems a very mild and decidedly benign one, especially if the publisher is 'green'.

Jan Velterop

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Challenge for open access

(This is a long post. If you don't want to read it all, go straight to the last two paragraphs.)

Stevan Harnad has posted his “Challenge to OA Publishers” in some form or other on a number of email lists and after I responded on two lists (I chopped my response up for clarity, and to make it possible to discuss each issue he raised separately), I became aware that he has posted a similar, maybe the same, piece on other lists as well. Perhaps a response on The Parachute is more efficient than posting to all these lists. I will still separate the issues out, and my responses here will differ in some detail from the ones I have posted on the AMSCI and SOAF lists, as I now have the benefit of having received responses to my responses, as many off-line as on the lists themselves (the latter can be found in the archives of the respective lists).

I identified at least seven issues in Stevan’s piece that I think are misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Misconception 1: The idea that publishers and the research establishment are each other’s natural adversaries.

Stevan pits the interests of science publishers against the interests of "research, researchers, universities, research institutions, research funders, the vast research and development (R&D) industry, and the tax-paying public that funds the research." This seems to assume that the researchers establishment lives in a parallel universe to the one in which science publishers live – a universe which is not 'tainted' by anything that might appear to have anything to do with economics or business.

That doesn’t appear to be particularly perspicacious or observant. The interests of the global scientific enterprise and publishing enterprises are necessarily in line with one another. Stevan himself makes the point that "...research publishing [...] is a service [...]. It will have to adapt to what is best for research, and not vice versa." Quite right. Precisely because publishing is a service, the interests of the global research enterprise are in line with the interests of publishers. No service industry can survive by rendering services that are against the interests of its clientèle. In fact, publishing is so intertwined with academia that it is part of the global research enterprise. Access to – and sustainability of – formal publication channels (a.k.a. journals) are two lattices of the same clear crystal.

Somewhat cryptically, Stevan dismisses this as ideology, and adds his ceterum censeo* that an OA publisher, by definition pro-OA, cannot at the same time withhold support for a mandate to self-archive non-OA-published material. This brings us to:

Misconception 2: OA publishers opposing OA.

Stevan Harnad calls it "disappointing, if not deplorable" if OA publishers take a stance "against Open Access itself." I couldn't agree more, if that were indeed the case. But it isn't. It's an absurd notion that they are.

'Gold' OA publishers are definitely for open access. Strongly so. And they are not against 'green' (open self-archiving of authors’ manuscript versions). After all, they endorse 'green'. They are just not necessarily so fanatically for it to support a self-archiving mandate (which is not the same as an OA mandate) for non OA-published materials. Stevan seems to adhere to the idea that says: "if you're not entirely, unquestioningly, and unequivocally for an open self-archiving mandate, you're against open access." To illustrate why this is rather absurd, imagine being strongly in favour of promoting health through physical exercise. Does it follow that if you do not support a mandate for everyone to run the half-marathon every week, your health-promoting credentials are questionable?

Needless to say, Stevan’s response to the above consists of his ceterum censeo.

Misconception 3: Publishers think protecting their risks outweighs the benefits of OA.

Stevan mentions two risks that publishers face. The risk of OA self-archiving mandates undermining subscription income and the risk of authors (or their institutions and funders) not willing to pay enough for OA publishing. Perhaps unlike some tenured scientists, publishers are used to living with risk. And there are more than the ones Stevan mentions. For instance the risk of not engaging in OA at all.

When Stevan talks about the 'benefits of OA' he means the benefits of having open access to the formally published, peer-reviewed and certified literature. OA to research results themselves is easy enough. Authors can just post their work on n'importe quel web server.

Outfits that are asked to arrange this formal publication process are known as 'publishers'. The benefits of OA are the benefits of access to the formal literature. Without 'publishers' (who are not necessarily the ones currently in existence, of course), there is no formal literature. The risk to publishers (or rather, the journals that they publish) is the risk to the benefits of OA.

Stevan’s response to this point? You guessed it: ceterum censeo.

Misconception 4: Articles are a 'product', presented as a 'gift' to publishers.

Though the difference between 'product' and 'service' is somewhat artificial (some speak of a 'service product'), what publishers have provided has always been a 'service'. The service consisted - and still consists - of arranging all that's necessary to make a scientifically non-recognised piece of work (pretty much 'worthless' for the scientific establishment), into a scientifically recognised addition to the knowledge pool (a valuable piece of work, identifiable as such by the fact that it is formally published in a peer-reviewed journal).

For the purpose of communicating information it may be good enough, but for the purpose of constituting the scientific record what the author delivers is only raw material, at best a semi-product, an intermediate good.

I was criticised by Andrew Adams (of the University of Reading in the UK) for the use of the word ‘worthless’ here. He has a point and I haven’t been clear enough why I used that word. Andrew thought it was an indication of my "contempt for the scientist as author and communicator." Let me categorically say that I do not harbour the least contempt for scientists as writers and communicators. Far from it. I used the word 'worthless' in inverted commas. Informal research papers are far from worthless in my opinion. But scientific culture insists on formally published research papers for things like priority, tenure, funding, recognition of researchers and recognition of the scientific record (at least in many disciplines, and there may well be exceptions, where formal journals are indeed not necessary). If they are not formally published, they simply don't count. So informal publications are not at all worthless per se; but they are seen as pretty 'worthless' in the context of career advancement in science. Most scientists are not fortunate enough not to need to have a list of formal publications to their CV in order to earn the approbation of their fellow-scientists.

The prevailing scientific culture, world-wide, is extremely conscious of, and sensitive to, 'brand identities' of journals. Isn't that at the heart of the matter?

The author doesn't 'give' anything to a publisher, but instead, asks for a service. Stevan thinks that such a service should be delivered at “vastly reduced costs” (whatever that means). He is most welcome to set up as a publisher and do just that (in fact I think he has done so a long time ago already). There are virtually no barriers to entry for would-be publishers. Even less so for the minimalist 'administrators' of the publishing process if that is what he thinks publishing entails (the word ‘administrators’ was actually Andrew’s). Why is it, then, that such an approach hasn't taken over the position of the existing publishers like a storm?

But Stevan doesn't seem to like the risk that's associated with setting up such a service to replace existing journals, so he tries to off-load any risk to the existing publishers by getting politicians to mandate subversion.

OA publishers already offer the service he seeks. Authors have by now a wide range of journals with OA to choose to submit to. What is he waiting for? Well, authors' uptake. We all do.

Stevan responds to this point with:
It is interesting how Jan's financial analysis fits, indifferently, the writings author sell to their publishers for a fee, or against royalties, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the writings in question here, where the author gives them to their publishers, the peer review is likewise done for free, and all publishers do is administer it, paying no fees, no royalties.

I note that the authors of fee/royalty-based writings are not interested in making their writings OA. Researchers, the authors of the give-away writings in question, are.
He misses the point. Sure enough, the content of their articles is ‘given’ to the world by researchers in the same way that this piece I’m penning here on this blog is my ‘gift’ to the world (magnanimous of me, isn’t it?). But the ‘gift’ of an author is only accepted by the scientific establishment if it comes with a ‘certificate’. If it comes with proof that it has undergone peer-review and that it has been formally accepted for publication in a journal.

Oh, and of course he adds his ceterum censeo.

Misconception 5: Expecting non-OA journals to suffer from self-archiving mandates is hypothetical, but expecting subscriptions to continue to be paid for by institutions when the content is openly and freely available is evidence-based.

In fact, both are hypotheses, the former just more logical than the latter.

The 'evidence' that subscriptions will continue is based on the situation that subscriptions to physics journals, on the whole, seem to be co-existing with their free availability in Arxiv. As evidence goes, it doesn't deserve that moniker. It's the equivalent of saying that driving under the influence is safe, just because you've done it for years without having an accident. Or giving a number of unsupervised toddlers a packet of matches and when none of their houses have burned down by the end of the week, infer that matches are safe in the hands of toddlers.

The hypothesis that subscriptions will suffer is based on the mainstream economic observation that if goods or services are easily available for free elsewhere, it will be very difficult to sell them.

Stevan response is this:
Fact (not Hypothesis): Research today is losing access, usage and impact daily, weekly, monthly, because not all researchers can afford access to all the research they can use.
I agree. I never questioned that. He also poses this:
Fact (not Hypothesis): Journals today are not losing subscription revenue because of OA self-archiving, not even in the fields where OA has been at or near 100% for years.
I agree, too. But Stevan makes it sound a rather more generally found fact than it is. He really speaks about physics and physics alone. OK, some maths as well. Long before the web, perhaps even before Tim Berners-Lee was born, physics already developed a culture of communicating via preprints, not journals. For decades, journals have been seen as the formal record only and if they communicated anything at all, it was primarily the fact that a certain ‘label of acceptance’ (the journal reference) could be added to a given article. Arxiv, now seen as a self-archiving repository, is really the electronic manifestation of the preprint circuit that was part of the physics culture.

This ‘fact’, however (which I accept as a fact), has no predictive value. Just like the fact that not having had an accident while driving under the influence cannot be taken as evidence that you never will. The fact that physics developed a preprint culture didn't mean that most other scientific disciplines developed it, too. So why would one now believe that something that might work in physics would necessarily work elsewhere as well?

Misconception 6: If an author 'pays' for the services of a publisher by handing over rights, that payment is in addition to subscription charges.

Stevan Harnad must not have understood what I said, and it's entirely possible that I wasn't clear enough. Mea culpa. (He subsequently assured me he did understand.)

No, Stevan, you can't just add these. When an author 'pays' by transferring rights, these rights only represent 'potential' money. This 'potential' money has to be converted into 'actual' money for the publisher to be able to pay his bills. That's what subscriptions do, they convert rights into money.

Why exclusive rights? 'Exclusive' here means that the same article may not be published in more than one journal. Virtually everybody in the scientific establishment agrees with that principle. Well, not absolutely everybody. Some articles appear in more than one journal. When this happens, it is frowned upon, even regarded as scientific fraud.

The notion of an author paying seems to be anathema for Stevan. He justifies this by saying that authors ‘give’ their articles away; they are not given royalties, and not even expect to receive them.

As for royalties to the author, of course they are given, and they make sense if the publisher really wants to publish the work because in his judgement he can sell it well. For instance text-books or good review-articles. For research articles this doesn't apply, because the judgement of sales potential isn’t there. In fact, it's not up to the publisher at all to decide which article to publish and which not. Just as well. Editors and editorial boards - scientists - decide, on the basis of scientific merit, not financial potential. This is as true for subscription-based journals as it is for OA journals and hybrid ones.

Stevan responds to that with this question:
“And because referees referee (for free) and editors decide, it follows that the author should not self-archive his article?”
Did I say that it did? He then continues:
“Or that the author's funder or employer should not mandate that the fundee/employee self-archive his article?”
Did I say that it did? Funders and employers can mandate what they like. And if they are aware of the potential consequences of what they’re doing, it’s entirely up to them. If they realise the value of formal, peer-reviewed journals, as an increasing number of funders do, following the lead of the Wellcome Trust, we are finding that they are prepared to create other ways to keep the journals going than via the traditional subscription system, as long as these journals offer open access. That's the way to go.

What Stevan asks – demands – is that the publishers of those journals lobby for a mandate that articles that do not contribute to the support of these journals are nonetheless self-archived in open repositories. I refer to what I said above about healthy exercise and the compulsory half-marathon.

Stevan also says
“The logic of "excluding" the right to self-archive, or to mandate self-archiving, continues to escape me. (Could it be because I keep thinking of access and impact, and you keep thinking of funding and revenues? But then why do you portray yourself as being for OA?)”
This is a version of his ceterum censeo, of course, but who is actually excluding the right to self-archiving? The publishers, who are virtually all ‘green’? There is a difference, though, between the right to self-archive and the compulsion to do so. Stevan equates ‘OA’ to ‘a mandate to self-archive’. ‘Healthy exercise’ to ‘a compulsion to run the half marathon every week’. He’s taken his eyes off the ball of the ‘end’ and fixed them firmly onto the ‘means’.

Misconception 7: The notion that OA publishing takes away from scarce research funds.

I'm tempted to start believing in one of the religions of the physics domain, parallel universes. Stevan seems to live in the universe where OA publishing - 'gold' - costs money and subscriptions don't.

In the universe where I live, formal publishing in peer-reviewed journals costs money. Luckily, Stevan agrees. In that universe, research budget allocations and research grants typically include earmarked overhead charges. These overhead charges are taken by the research institution to pay for all manner of infrastructural costs, including the library budget. From which subscriptions are paid.

Formal publication is part and parcel of research, and thus the cost of publication is part and parcel of the cost of research. Any kind of formal publishing 'eats away' a portion of scarce research funds. But unpublished research is pretty much regarded as research not done, so money on publication is generally well-spent.

-OA publishing, with an aggregate cost to the scientific establishment of X per article published (total per article: X);
-OA via self-archiving of non-OA articles, with an aggregate cost to the scientific establishment of all the subscriptions taken (necessary in a self-archiving model), amounting to X per article published, plus the aggregate cost of thousands of institutional repositories and the staffing to keep them going, amounting to Y per article (total per article: X+Y).
Which is the greatest drain on scarce research funds?

Stevan doesn’t really respond to this, but he says:
“… until and unless subscription money is no longer paying for non-OA publishing (as it is now), and can be redirected to paying for OA publishing (Gold OA), there is no payment issue in connection with OA self-archiving mandates (Green OA): The publications that are being self-archived today have been paid for. This remains true until and unless OA self-archiving ever actually does cause cancellations and makes subscriptions unsustainable. Till then, it's Green OA and nothing more to pay.”
Sounds a bit like if your parachute fails, don’t worry about it until you hit the ground. Till then, you’re alive and well. Exquisitely logical. Yet some of us would rather like to try and pull a couple of cords here and there to see if we can manage to make a soft landing after all.

Now, a challenge to Stevan Harnad cum suis. Would he be campaigning for a mandate imposed by funders, that institutions, when paying for published research literature out of any budgets that benefit from overheads taken from research grants, pay only for article charges for OA and not for subscriptions anymore?

Mandates are of course last-resort measures and my liberal inclinations would prefer persuasion over mandates any time. But should mandates really be the only possibility, the advantages of this mandate would be clear, and these are just some of them: structural open access, no 'double' payment, only e few tens of thousands of institutions to deal with instead of millions of researchers, no need for self-archiving mandates, no multiple-version publishing.

Jan Velterop

* ‘Furthermore I am of the opinion’, from Cato the Elder, who famously ended every speech with “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” – “Furthermore I am of the opinion that Carthage must be destroyed.”

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Failing business models

Dana Roth writes that "The primary problem with the current system is the failing business model followed by many commercial publishers."

I presume she means the subscription model. Which, incidentally, is not just used by commercial publishers but also by not-for-profit ones.

I agree with her. But it's not the use of the subscription model by commercial publishers that is the 'primary problem'. It is the fact that the subscription system cannot cope with the unrelenting growth of scientific articles that is being produced worldwide.

Before the internet, the subscription model had increasing problems, but it was probably the least worst solution, by no means ideal. Now, with the internet working and pretty mature, we can have better systems. There definitely are publishers, for-profit as well as not-for-profit (just look at the recent press release of the DC Principles Coalition), who seem to be wedded to the subscription model, but not only publishers. Libraries, too, do not seem to be too keen on replacing the dysfunctional system with a better one. And even a school of thought in the OA advocate camp, the self-archiving champions, argue that the subscription system will continue to sustain journals.

Of course there are difficulties to overcome if one wants to make the transition from one system to the next, and let's concentrate on overcoming those difficulties.

The subscription system has the following problems (and quite possibly more):
The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to quality. This needs no further explanation, I guess.

The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to the amount per article that's taken out of the academic market. A 'cheap' journal can, on a per-article basis, take more money out of Academia than an 'expensive' journal. This is more common than is perhaps realised. A substantial number of not-for-profits have seemingly low subscription prices, but take more money per article out of the academic market than even the most expensive commercial publishers (where it hovers in the $5000 range). I know of several cases where it is twice or even three times as much, and if someone would care to analyse this information (it often is available, for not-for-profits), one might find even higher multiples.

The price to readers/libraries bears no relation to the cost of publishing, but rather, to the numbers of subscribers. This is the origin of the price spiral. Journals were cancelled, and for some reason commercial journals suffered more than not-for-profit journals, on the whole (with exceptions), as a result of which subscription prices went up. This caused further cancellations and thus the vicious cycle was created. One of the reasons why some not-for-profits have been able to maintain lower prices is the existence of cancellation-resistant compulsory member subscriptions.

The cost to libraries of subscriptions that are needed bears little relation to the size of the actual research or teaching efforts at the institute in question, but instead, reflects the width of the range of disciplines researched or taught. A specialised institute (take CERN as an example) needs no more than a handful of journals. On the other hand, a university where the name 'university' still relates to 'universal' knowledge, and where a wide range of subjects are taught and researched, needs vastly larger numbers of journals to satisfy the needs of its constituents.

Subscription price stability can only exist in an environment of stability of the number of subscriptions, and of articles published. But that environment doesn't exist. Library budgets have been under pressure for the longest time, which is especially apparent if they are expressed as a percentage of the research budgets. And the number of articles keep on growing.
Most of these problems are solved in a system in which the 'publish or perish' culture (which is definitely not of the publishers' making) is reflected more transparently. A system in which research articles are seen for what they are: a kind of 'advertisement' in which the author 'advertises' his scientific prowess, in order to get acknowledgment, citations, leading to tenure, future funding, for a few the Nobel Prize, et cetera. That doesn't mean that articles aren't full of information useful to readers. But so are conventional advertisements.

The advertising analogy is not perfect, but I'm using it to illustrate the point that there is logic in the system that levies charges for the processing and formal publication of research articles and subsequently makes them universally available with open access. Open access publishing.

Jan Velterop

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It's about copyright, right?

Wrong. Copyright is widely misunderstood. Particularly the role of copyright in science publishing. First of all, there is this idea that some journals and publishers don't require copyright transfer, but 'just' the exclusive dissemination and exploitation rights. To all practical intents and purposes, that is exactly the same, and 'copyright' is just shorthand for 'exclusive dissemination and exploitation rights'! So if it helps to drop the word 'copyright' then that should, and easily can, be done.

Secondly, transfer of exclusive rights to a publisher is a form of 'payment'. Payment for the services of a publisher. The publisher subsequently uses these exclusive rights to sell subscriptions and licences in order to recoup his costs, in a rather roundabout way. This form of payment – as opposed to cash – has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is seemingly for the author, who (mistakenly) has the feeling that he doesn't have to pay for the services of formal publication of his article, but who seldom realises why he is asked to transfer exclusive rights. The disadvantage is that payment in the form of exclusive rights limits access, because it needs a subscription/licence model to convert this form of 'payment' into money. And subscriptions/licences are by definition restrictive in terms of dissemination. Article fee supported open access publishing, where the transfer of exclusive rights is replaced by the transfer of money, consequently doesn't have the need for subscriptions and can therefore abolish all restrictions on dissemination.

Stevan Harnad c.s. will argue that none of this matters, because there is 'green', meaning that whatever 'exclusive' rights have been transferred, authors can still disseminate their articles via self-archiving in open repositories. In that model, having transferred 'exclusive' rights is meaningless, and that implies that the 'payment' that exclusive rights transfer actually is, has become worthless. In mandates with embargos, the 'payment' may not be completely worthless (depending on the length of the embargo) but is at least severely devalued.

I am a great fan of open access, but not a great fan of 'green'. 'Green' is a kind of appeasement by publishers (some of who, it must be said, themselves didn't – sometimes still don't – realise the 'payment' nature of exclusive rights transfer). Appeasement is often regretted with hindsight. Instead of allowing the nature of exclusive rights transfer to be compromised, publishers should much earlier have offered authors the choice of payment – either transfer of exclusive rights, or cash. The appeasement, the 'green', now acts as a hurdle to structural open access, perhaps even an impediment.

Harnadian orthodoxy will dismiss this. It holds that subscription journals will survive, that they will be paid for by librarians even if the content is freely disseminated in parallel via open repositories, and that it doesn't matter anyway (the guru is tentatively beginning to admit that large scale uptake of self-archiving, for instance as the result of mandates, may indeed destroy journals) because a new order will only come about after the complete destruction of the old order. After all, morphing the old order into the new, without complete destruction, entails a cost in terms of money, which "isn't there", and anyway, the cost that comes with complete destruction of the old order is preferred to spending money on any transition, in that school of thought.

I doubt that a complete wipe-out will come. But there are quite a large number of vulnerable journals and a partial wipe-out as a result of mandated self-archiving is entirely plausible. Although there seems to be a myth that journals are very, even extremely, profitable, the fact is that a great many journals are not profitable or 'surplus-able' (in not-for-profit parlance). In my estimate it is the majority. Within the portfolio of larger publishers these journals are often absorbed and cross-subsidised by the journals that are profitable. Smaller (e.g. society-) publishers cannot do that. Marginal journals do not have to suffer a lot of subscription loss before they go under. Some of these, especially society ones, will be 'salvaged' by being given the opportunity to shelter under the umbrella of the portfolio of one of the larger independent publishers. Others will just perish if they lose subscriptions. They could of course convert to open access journals with article processing fees, but setting those up is no sinecure, and requires a substantial financial commitment, as the experience of PLoS and BMC has shown. Journals that are run for the love of it, by the commendable voluntary efforts of academics, are mostly very small, and are the first to be affected, unless, of course, they do not need any income because they are crypto-subsidised by the institutions with which their editors are affiliated. Such journals have always been there and there are probably more now than ever (and some are very good indeed, or so I'm told), but to imagine scaling them up to deal with the million plus articles per year published as a result of global research efforts seems far-fetched, indeed.

Open access is the inevitable future, and it is worth working on a truly robust and sustainable way to achieve it.

Jan Velterop

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Value perception

This is not so much about open access per se, but about the perceived value of journals, or, more precisely, the perceived value of articles published in journals.

From comments I come across on email lists and blogs, I detect two – conflicting – trends. One is the growing tendency to put a value on a journal according to the number of article downloads; the other a desire to base journal pricing on the actual production cost, i.e. the actual cost to the publisher of publishing an article.

Why are these trends conflicting? If it’s not immediately clear, let’s look at the logical consequences of these trends. If the value of a journal depends on the download figures (often, but in my view erroneously, called usage figures), it seems to come with the expectation that if downloads are low or decreasing, the value, i.e. the price, should be low or go down. This would be fine, were it to mean that a high or increasing number of downloads makes a high or increasing price the logical and acceptable consequence. I’m afraid I don’t see comments in this vein in the email lists and blogs I follow.

But this is not really the conflict I had in mind. That lies in the fact that production costs and downloads have no relation whatsoever. If they seem to have one, it’s not unlike the relation between the human birth rate and the stork population (currently declining in both cases, in any case in Western Europe). The cost of coaching an article through the peer-review process and of publishing it is independent of the number of downloads or other usage metrics it clocks up once published. It can be argued that one of the woes of the current subscription model is that it already has some characteristics of a cost-based model. Those characteristics are largely responsible for the price spiral of the last decade. There hasn’t been a concomitant income spiral for publishers. Due to unremitting annual cancellation rounds, if publishers wanted or needed to maintain the same income to keep a journal going, they had to secure that income from fewer subscriptions. Year on year. Voilà, the serials crisis. Not to be repeated or exacerbated, I would have thought.

The problem with value based on downloads or usage is different. The beauty of journals is that the decision to publish any given article is purely a scientific one, taken by the editors. Commerce doesn’t come into it. Should value be defined by downloads, then it is inevitable that decisions to publish will be influenced by the perceived ‘download potential’ of articles. Which is not the same as scientific significance. A glimpse of what could happen can already be seen from the effect of impact factors. Only the rather long timeline and slow effect of impact factors keeps unwanted developments in check, but there have been several cases of editors insisting that in their submitted articles, authors must cite other articles from the same journal as a condition of getting accepted for publication. The current journals system is rightly criticised for its built-in conservatism and the fact that unconventional science is difficult to publish. Imagine the consequences of difficult or esoteric concepts and theories experiencing such difficulties, too, just because they may only be understood by a limited number of scientists and are thus expected to have less than average downloads. Not a prospect to relish.

Open access publishing offers solutions. The process of peer-reviewing and formal publishing is valued, rather than usage. Costs are proportional to research activity. Esoteric and difficult to understand science has no problem being published. And, most important of all, anybody, anywhere, who wants or needs the material, has unimpeded access to it.

Jan Velterop