Scholarly publishing is a pretty large-scale pursuit. The results of every serious research project outside the intramural confines of industrial R&D must be interpreted and published, or the research is deemed not to have taken place. Even a lot of industrial research is published – though some, mainly in the more obscure journals, purely for the purpose of ‘prophylactic disclosure’, in case an invention is not deemed worthy of patenting, yet if patented by anyone else, could become a ransom threat (an invention that has been disclosed can never be patented anymore, a trick also used by ‘open sourcerers’ to ensure that their code cannot be appropriated). But I digress. If the estimate of 25,000 journals is in the right ballpark, and each publishes 40 articles per year on average, about a million new articles is being added to the literature every year. It’s probably even more than that. And if the average rejection rate is 50%, these 25,000 journals actually process at least 2 million articles per year. A number of these articles will ‘cascade’ through the journal pecking order and finally be published somewhere, having been processed and peer-reviewed several times (let’s hope the resulting fine-layered publication hierarchy is worth such a waste in the system).
A veritable industry, this scholarly publishing. Good that there are professional, independent organisations that take on the drudge of all that work. Perish the thought that researchers would have to organise it all by themselves.
So everybody is thankful for what the publishers do? No. There is a problem: they want to be paid for what they do, and they don’t even do what we want them to do, which is to give everybody free, open access to whatever research they publish.
Two ‘solutions’ have been proposed. One that deals with the cost of publishing only; and one that deals with open access only, ignoring any issues of cost.
The solution that deals with cost only is the one that holds that the costs are too high and it’s all the fault of ‘commercial’ publishers. Instead, all scientific publishing should be done by not-for-profit scholarly societies. On the face of it, journals published by these NfPs (NfP journals don’t exist – just NfP publishers, who still wish to see their journals turn a surplus – the non-tax-payer's equivalent of, or euphemism for, profit) do seem to have lower subscription charges. Which is sort of easy, if one makes a subscription a compulsory part of membership. And levies page charges. And pays no tax. Many society publishers can offer relatively low-priced subscriptions, and still make revenues that on a per-article basis, are similar to what is being realised by commercial – I prefer to call them independent – publishers. Or more, which is, given their NfP status, kept in reserve or spent on good causes, of course.
It certainly works. The point, however, is that such publishing is not scalable. If it would just be the NfP status of society publishers, an increase of scale would have happened long ago. Nobody has ever tried to stop NfPs from cheap journal publishing. But it isn’t the NfP status that is the cause of lower prices; it is the fact that the membership yields much of the revenues needed to support the journals. And imagine 25,000 journals each sustained by enough society members to result in low subscription prices. It just doesn’t stack up. Otherwise we should have seen strong growth in NfPs. Interestingly, the contrary took place. Independent publishers started to flourish because societies couldn’t deal with the growing volume of articles and the increased international and interdisciplinary nature of science. Many still can’t – particularly the ones with relatively low membership or relatively voluminous journals – and testimony of that is that a growing number of societies are ‘outsourcing’ their journal publishing to independent publishers.
Cheap subscriptions do work for some journals, but cannot work for all, and it has precious little to do with the NfP status of the publisher.
The ‘solution’ that deals with open access only, ignoring any issues of cost, is of course what is known as ‘self-archiving’. Self-archiving assumes that librarians paying for subscriptions that are not necessary anymore, keep journals economically viable. Self-archiving, after all, is only meant to “fulfil the access-needs of would-be users who cannot afford access to the proprietary journal.” So here you are, librarians: even though it’s all freely available, if you can afford to take a subscription, please do. Charity is a good thing, of course, but not exactly the most robust foundation for an activity that is so much part of research and without which much of the academic world would be lost: recording research results in peer-reviewed journals.
I couldn’t have said it better than Stevan Harnad himself, on 10 December 2006, on the AMSCI Open Access Forum (not yet archived there as I'm writing this): “I, for one, have never doubted that [publishers making journal articles open after a short embargo] could cause cancellations. But anarchic author self-archiving, of each author's postprints, in each author's own IR, in uncertain proportions and at uncertain rates, are [sic] another story”. Precisely.
Which means that self-archiving is also not scalable. As long as there is only a small number of authors engaged in self-archiving, and it is done anarchically and unpredictably, it will work. Publishers will have little practical problem with it and librarians will not cancel subscriptions on that basis alone. Take the anarchy and unpredictability out of it, however – for instance via self-archiving mandates – and it would all be, to borrow Stevan’s phrase, another story.
Putting it another way: if self-archiving were to succeed, it would fail. Succeeding, after all, means sufficiently increasing in scale to provide open access to a meaningful proportion of the literature. Which would, of course, lead to cancellations. No publisher, be it an independent or NfP, could afford to allow authors to self-archive in such circumstances, and ‘green’ would fade out of existence.
It is possible, of course, that the chaos of self-archiving leads to a phase transition to a stable and truly scalable method, open access publishing, a.k.a. ‘gold’, but it seems a rather circuitous and acrimonious route to take. Why not stimulate ‘gold’ straight away, especially since a rapidly increasing number of publishers offer it? Why not lobby for an open-access-mandate, instead of for a self-archiving-mandate? It can’t be the money, though it would change the relative proportion of costs, between institutions, and that’s probably where the rub is. It's understood that it needs to be done, but “you first, sir!” A sur-place as it’s known in track cycling, where whoever moves first lessens his chances of winning.
The advantages of ‘gold’ are huge. Immediate open access to the research literature; costs move – up or down – with the research activity itself; a functional market, with fair price levels as a consequence; discouragement of spurious, speculative, or ‘ultra-light’ submissions; elimination of visibility as an element in perceived quality; and I’m probably forgetting to mention a few.