Open access publishing and not-for-profit publishing

Is the UK government’s new requirement of (slightly delayed) free access to publications based on government-funded research a blow to the extortionate power of commercial academic publishers, or will it just entrench them further?

My first impression was that the the letters from Reed and Wilson in today’s Guardian were correct: requiring author funded open access to research publications doesn’t touch the power or profits of the commercial publishers, which are currently ripping off university libraries and at the same time locking most of the world out of access to research results. On second thought, I’m not sure. If this model spreads, and the per-article payments by the authors (for “authors”, read “funding body or employer”) become the major funding stream for journals, then the scale economies of an established subscription base become less important, and it becomes much easier to launch a new non-for-profit on-line open access venture on the PLoS model.

Not-for-profit open access may be the future, but what is strangely missing from this discussion is the role now played by not-for-profit restricted access publishing, in the form of journals published by scholarly societies. The most persuasive argument I’ve seen for the contention that the commercial publishers are overcharging, is that the prices of for-profit journals have gone up so much faster than those published by scholarly societies. For economics journals, this case was made by Ted Bergstrom back in 2001, in his great paper “Free Labor for Costly Journals”; I think others had done it earlier is some other fields. In this light, the worst news for commercial publishers in economics has come not from open access, but from the European Economic Association, which fell out with Elsevier ten years ago, and more recently the American Economic Association, which added four new journals in 2009. Open access journals such as the Econometric Society’s Theoretical Economics, and the Economics E-Journal from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, may grow to have such an impact, but they haven’t yet.

A switch to open access & author fees could make both sides of the not-for-profit sector grow even more rapidly, but that growth would be much greater if government somewhere in the US or Europe were willing to take on the bundling of journal subscriptions by commercial publishers. Many of the lesser journals of commercial publishers are propped up by this anti-competitive practice; in the current climate, the abolition of bundling – a requirement of pure a la carte journal pricing – would see many of these journals fold, quickly replaced by non-profit open access journals.

One indication of the importance of scholarly societies in confronting the big publishers is that journals which cross disciplinary boundaries typically aren’t connected to societies with the financial resources or membership numbers to back journals, and must fall back on commercial publishers: Research Policy may publish articles on open innovation, but its readers are tied to Elsevier (a worthy punching bag, is Elsevier).

Finally, back, for a moment, to those Guardian letters, specifically the third one, from Professor Stephen Caddick, Vice-provost (enterprise), of University College London. He seems to be saying that putting the burden of publishing costs on UK universities will put them (I should say us) at a competitive disadvantage – others in the world will free ride, and investment in research in the UK will decline. In qualitative terms this is a logical argument – costs to UK universities will rise, and others will be able to read these research results for free without reciprocating – but publication fees are so small compared with the other costs of producing the research, that I don’t see how Caddick’s argument is worth making.

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