Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lo-fun and hi-fun

I have recently been talking to some major (and minor) publishers about what they could do in regard of open access, given the increasing demand, even if converting to ‘gold’ open access models is not realistic for them, in their view. I suggested that they should make human-readable copies of articles freely accessible immediately upon publication. Access to human-readable articles would of course not satisfy everybody, but it would satisfy the ‘green’ OA crowd, if I assume Stevan Harnad is their prime spokesperson. He dismisses machine-readability and reuse as distractions from his strategy of ‘green’ open access, and he even supports embargoes, as long as articles are self-archived in institutional repositories, which is his primary goal. Human-readable final published versions directly upon publication would be an improvement on that. It would also likely satisfy the occasional reader from the general public, who wishes to be able to access a few scientific articles.

How could those publishers possibly agree to this? Well, I told them, they could reconsider their view that there is a fundamental difference between the published version of an article and the final, peer reviewed and accepted author manuscript (their justification for allowing the author-manuscript to be self-archived). There may well be, of course, and there often is, but it is not likely to be a material difference in the eyes of most readers. Instead of making much (more than there usually is) of any differences in content, they could distinguish between low-functionality versions and high-functionality ones of the final published article, the ‘lo-fun’ version just suitable for human reading (the print-on-paper analogue), and the ‘hi-fun’ version suitable for machine-reading, text- and data-mining, endowed with all the enrichment, semantic and otherwise, that the technology of today makes possible. The ‘lo-fun’ version could then be made freely available immediately upon publication, on the assumption that it would not likely undermine subscriptions, and the ‘hi-fun’ version could be had on subscription. Librarians would of course not be satisfied with such a ‘solution’.

Although initially greeted with interest, the idea soon hit a stone wall. Although no one has explicitly said that they would never do this, the subsequent radio silence made me conclude that among the publishers I talked with the fear might have emerged that a system with immediate open access to a ‘lo-fun’ version accompanied by a ‘hi-fun’ version paid for by subscriptions would expose the relatively low publisher added value in terms of people’s perceptions and in terms of what they would be prepared to pay for it. That fear is probably justified, I have to give it to them.

There is no doubt that formal publication adds value to scientific articles. The success of the ‘gold’ open access publishers, where authors or their funders are paying good money for the service of formal publication, is testament to that. There must be a difference – of perception at the very least – between formally published material and articles ‘published’ by simply depositing them in an open repository. That added value largely consists of two elements: 1) publisher-mediated pre-publication peer review and 2) technical ‘production’, i.e. standardised to a sufficient degree, correctly coded (e.g. no ß where a β is intended), ‘internet- and archive-proof’,  rendered into several user formats, such as PDF, HTML and Mobile, aesthetically pleasing where possible, interoperable, search-engine optimised, and so forth. The first element is mostly performed by the scientific community, without payment, and although the publisher organises it, that doesn’t amount to a substantial publisher-added value, in the common perception. The second element on the other hand, is true value added by the publisher, is seen as such by reasonable people, and it is entirely justifiable for a publisher to expect to be paid for that. There are some authors who could do this ‘production’ themselves, but the vast majority make a dog’s dinner out of it when they try.

There is of course a third element in the equation: marketing. Marketing is responsible for brand and quality perception. Quality mainly comes from good authors choosing to submit to a journal. Getting those good authors to do that is in large part a function of marketing. The resulting brand identity, sometimes amounting to prestige, is also an added value that a self-published article, even if peer-reviewed, lacks. But alas, it is not commonly seen to be an important value-add that needs to be paid for.

Having 'lo-fun' and 'hi-fun' versions of articles makes the publishers’ real contribution explicit. That’s the rub, of course.

Back to ‘gold’, I’m afraid. Or rather, not so afraid, as ‘gold’ OA doesn’t have any of the drawbacks of ‘lo-fun’. Fortunately ‘gold’ is more and more showing to be a healthily viable and sustainable business model for open access, at least as long as the scientific community sets so much store by publisher-mediated pre-publication peer review (see previous post for my thoughts on that).

Jan Velterop