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