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Open Access and Who Pays What

I find myself in partial agreement with both Jan & Phil in their recent
exchange on paying for open access.  Open access does improve the
dissemination of scholarly publications.  But there are still costs
involved, and one way or another, those costs will have to be borne by the
institutions that have the most at stake.

Phil asks if the shift to "memberships" is "good for the institution". I
think that's going to have to be answered on an institution-by-institution
basis, and it's going to depend on how you define "good."  We do not have
enough data yet to accurately predict what the overall economic impact on
different types of institutions will be.  But since I think that open
access journals may have an overall societal benefit, I'm very supportive
of the current experiments. Whether they will live up to their promise
remains to be seen.

That being said, I don't have any problem, in principle, with the library
being the agent of the university for paying on an institutional basis.  
It seems to me that it is still beneficial to have someone taking an
institutional view to decide which publishing outfits are a close enough
fit to your institutions' authors to warrant paying the fee.  Given UAB's
biomedical research focus, I'm happy to pay the BMC fee.  But in the long
run, I wouldn't pay a membership fee to cover publishing in a set of open
access journals in law or geology, for example, because we don't have big
research programs in those areas.  If the occasional faculty member wanted
to publish there, they'll have to figure out how to pay the fee, the same
way they may have to get their own subscription now to a scholarly journal
that I choose not to subscribe to because I don't think it's a close
enough fit for the institution.  But the fact that those same faculty
members would be able to read the material in those open access journals
whether we have a membership/subscription or not, strikes me as an overall
plus.  In a world in which virtually all scholarly publishing was open
access, I would end up paying heavily in those core areas where UAB plays
a major role in the production of scholarly information, but our students
and faculty would have access to everything.  Whether I would end up
paying more or less than I'm currently paying in subscription fees I have
no way of telling at this point.

However, Phil is quite correct that there is nothing inherent in open
access models to contain costs overall.  To the degree that they are
successful, the inelasticity that Phil alludes to will be at play, and the
profit motive will drive those institutional membership fees up.  My
objection to commerical publishing in the scholarly arena is that a
portion of the available funding is siphoned out of the scholarly
production cycle to the benefit of shareholders and company owners, and
since it is clear that not-for-profits can do every bit as good a job of
publishing as for-profits, I would rather see that money reinvested in the
scholarly production cycle.  The market pressures on for-profit open
access publishers will be exactly the same as the market pressures on
for-profit traditional publishers and they will respond accordingly.
Smaller publishers and those trying to break into a market will keep their
fees relatively low in order to maximize their customer base; publishers
that become dominant in particular areas will raise their fees in order to
maximize profits.  That's what for-profit companies are supposed to do.

T. Scott Plutchak
Director, Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences
University of Alabama at Birmingham