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Monopolies and competition

In the recent discussion on the NEJM and their licence offerings, the
suggestion was made to complain to publishers in order to get them to
change and improve their practices. Of course this is a useful approach
and it may bring success in some cases. But it is hardly the stuff of
wholesale solution to the problems faced by libraries.

The problem is not the publishers. They are only doing what's sensible and
comes naturally to any business. They exploit whatever opportunity comes
their way, especially if it is a near monopoly that is handed to them on a
silver platter -- with the best of intentions and most probably unaware of
the problems it causes -- by the structure of scientific assessment.

Why scientific assessment? Well, the real problem is lack of competition.
No library has the realistic choice of cancelling a more expensive journal
and taking a cheaper one instead. Because the cheaper one simply doesn't
publish the same papers as the more expensive one. Chances are that the
library is under pressure to take both. So competition on price doesn't
really exist. If libraries cancel at all, it's more likely to be on
perceived quality and relevance, and perhaps the 'dust index', but not on
price. Of course, new cheap journals can be started that compete with
older established titles (and SPARC has shown that this sometimes works).
But these new journals struggle to get good authors to submit heir papers,
since they are being assessed on the impact factors associated with their
papers. And those they only get by submitting to established journals. So
the problem continues. Yet the only true competition exists 'upstream':
the competition for authors. This is where the assessment practice (at
least as it is perceived by authors) intrinsically favours the entrenched
power of established journals.

Only true competition holds out any hope of prices coming down and
licences becoming more library-friendly. So assessment bodies could make
all the difference, if they were prepared to judge papers on their own
merits and not just on the impact factors of the journals they are
published in, as many authors seem to suspect is largely the case. (I'm
sure that many of them already assess on merit alone, of course, but the
perception amongst authors hasn't quite caught up with reality yet). Only
then can authors be released from having little room to manoeuvre and
having tacitly to support monopoloid journals, in order to support new
initiatives that have it in them to cut the cost of science publishing
dramatically while increasing the dissemination of knowledge.

Is it an idea that instead of focussing on the publishers, librarians join
those who focus their attention on helping to remove the impediments to
real competition with all its benefits?

Jan Velterop

Group Publisher
BioMed Central Group
Middlesex House
34-42 Cleveland Street
London W1T 4LB

+44 (0)20 7323 0323