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Re: Study Identifies Factors That Could Lead to Cancelled Subscriptions

I am coming new to this list, so am not aware of what may have preceded this part of the discussion. But as President-Elect of the AAUP (Association of American University Presses) charged with preparing a white paper on OA for the Association (now in its third draft), I may have something useful to contribute from our perspective. I am aware of Dr. Harnad's long record of advocacy in this arena and have recently initiated a dialogue with another OA apostle, Peter Suber, whose views are certainly well thought out and serve as a good touchstone for debate on this subject. (Perhaps he is subscribed to this list also?)

Not knowing what may have been discussed previously, I begin by asking whether this list has focused any attention on the relatively new study from the Publishing Research Consortium titled "Self-Archiving and Journal Subscriptions: Co-existence or Competition? An International Survey of Librarians' Preferences" (November 2006), accessible at the PRC's web site: http://www.publishingresearch.org.uk

This is the most sophisticated study I have ever seen of this subject, and it speaks directly to the point that Mr. Esposito raises, by focusing our attention, not on what has actually happened so far, but what may be expected to happen in the future given the attitudes of librarians as revealed by this survey. If publishers look at this study, they are going to be very worried about the future if it moves in the direction of more peer-reviewed material being freely accessible through author self-archiving or institutional repositories. They should even be greatly worried if the FRPAA passes Congress and mandates a 6-month delay before posting because this study clearly shows a marked difference in librarians' willingness to cancel subscriptions if the embargo is reduced from 12 to 6 months.

Another very interesting finding for me, as the publisher of 11 journals in the humanities and social sciences (10 of them available through Project Muse, which we were the first university press to join in 2000 when it opened up beyond Johns Hopkins, which hired away our journals manager in the mid-1990s to help get this venture started), is that librarians care a lot that the material is peer-reviewed but care very little whether they have access to the final published version.

Not long ago we adopted a policy at our Press that allows contributors to our journals to post their articles, once accepted but before copyediting, to their own sites or their institutions' repositories. So as not to undermine Project Muse and to provide continued incentive to librarians to subscribe to Muse, I thought-naively, as it turns out-that librarians would value the final version highly enough not to cancel subscriptions if only the peer-reviewed but not final versions were available in OA mode. Well, how wrong this study shows that assumption to have been! Librarians seem to place little or no value on the final processing of manuscripts after acceptance, which should be an eye-opener to publishers like us who all along felt that we were adding further value to the article after acceptance. I certainly will consider changing our Press's policy soon and, one other presses get wind of this, I'm sure many of them will as well.

All of which underlines Mr. Esposito's point that it is perception that matters here, not reality. Once we publishers think something is going to happen, we will act on those beliefs if they seem to be firmly supported, by such studies as the PRC's. What this study really is all about is identifying the factors contributing to the "tipping point" i.e., when behaviors will start to change based on beliefs, however erroneous they may be. (By the way, the PRC study directly confronts the "evidence" of the physics preprint archive not affecting cancellations of physics journals, by pointing out that the archive combines peer-reviewed and not peer-reviewed materials, thus making it less than fully reliable as a source of completely authenticated work in the field.)

I think the tipping phenomenon, which we know already to have shown itself operative in this arena when e-journals came to displace print journals as the main product in the marketplace (rather more quickly than many people anticipated), is extremely important to keep in mind here. This is what I see as a real possibility: enough of the major commercial journal publishers in an ever more consolidated market (after the purchase of Blackwell by Wiley) become convinced that their subscriptions will erode seriously (if, say, the FRPAA becomes law) and therefore decide to abandon the arena of STM journal publishing because they cannot sustain the expected profit margins under the new regime (as outlined by Dr. Harnad).

This could all happen very quickly, as "tipping" phenomena generally do. Where would that scenario leave the academy? With several thousand journals suddenly left to fend for themselves! I suggest that the infrastructure of universities today is simply not prepared, in any shape or form, to deal with that "crisis" and find some way of sustaining those journals. Certainly, the existing university presses would not be able to do so. SPARC couldn't handle any such burden. Self-publishing would then proliferate, and chaos would ensure for some time to come. Are librarians prepared to deal with the consequences?

I do not depict this nightmare scenario in order to defend the existing system. I have no personal stake in the persistence of the existing system (except to the extent that I serve on the board of the CCC), and indeed I have written in favor of an OA-type system for much longer than that term existed, going back to articles I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Journal of Scholarly Publishing in the early 1990s. But I do think university faculty, administrators, and librarians need to think through these issues and possible scenarios very carefully and "worst-case" planning would probably be appropriate here.

The system as it exists even now, as Peter Suber points out to me, has many elements of the "gift economy" involved in it, with faculty donating their time to peer review, universities supporting editorial offices at no cost to the publishers, etc. But the scenario I depicted would increase the burden on universities exponentially in a way that could have very serious short-term consequences for the whole system of scholarly communication.

I long ago predicted that university press journals would migrate to the electronic environment much more quickly than monographs because what university presses do for journals is much more a functional service than a full publishing support system. In the print world, presses typically provided the services of design, typesetting, printing, marketing, and subscription fulfillment. They did not, however, control the peer-review process, and many did not even offer copyediting, replying instead of what the editorial office provided by way of copyediting (sometimes by the journal editors themselves, often by grad students, only occasionally by real professional staff). Perhaps this is the reason librarians do not place much value on the copyediting that goes into journals! It was therefore much more possible, and more likely, that journals could spring up online without the support of publishers, if they went OA and did not have to bother about the complications of outsourcing orinting and handling subscription fulfillment. (And a journal only has to be designed once, and the template followed thereafter, while marketing takes care of itself if the journal is aimed at a niche community anyway.) Books, however, cannot so readily migrate to the Internet because the infrastructure of book publishing is much more controlled by publishers and other vendors in the supply chain (literary agents, wholesalers, retailers,warehousing and distribution suppliers etc.). And hence it is no surprise to us that the migration of monographs to the Net has lagged far behind that of journals, But it is a cause for increasing concern, and such groups as Ithaka are now trying to find ways of closing this new "digital divide." So, looking forward, I have an interest in how OA will affect books as well as journals. In the world of knowledge, the container should not matter as knowledge itself is seamless, but as it is now, there is very little interactivity online between book and journal content. The problem of going OA for books, though, is a lot more complicated than it is for journals. If it costs $2,500 for an author to publish in a PLOS journal today, you can bet it will cost a great deal more topublidsh a book in a full OA mode. Taking away the cost of printing, binding, and warehousing (which constitute about 30% of the overall cost of publishing a monograph), you are left with still supporting about $20,000 in costs for the average-length uncomplicated monograph. Will universities be willing to pony up subsidies on that scale, especially in the humanities? (And it is really the humanities we need to worry about. generally speaking, scientists don' need to publish books, and publishers encourage them to do so mainly when they think there is money to be made. I know because I used to be editor-in-chief at Princeton U.P. where we did a lot of science book publishing.) If the pressure to move in that direction arises-which in principle we presses do not oppose because we too believe that it is our mission to "disseminate knowledge far and wide" in the most economical way possible-it will have to be managed very carefully so that inequities that now exit in the toll-access system for journal users are not re-created for authors in a full OA system for monographs, where only faculty at the richest schools can afford the subsidies required to publish.

Sorry to go on so long, but I felt it important to lay some of these issues about OA on the table from a university press perspective. I would welcome reactions, particularly from Dr. Harnad and Mr. Esposito, and hope that everyone will take a look at the PRC study if they have not already.

Sandy Thatcher
Director, Penn State Press

P.S. We are embarked on a quasi-OA experiment in humanities monograph publishing at Penn State through our joint Press/Library Office of Digital Scholarly Publishing, but more about that later, if anyone is interested. (The Press is now, administratively, part of the Library, so I feel more comfortable now contributing to a list initiated by librarians. Ann Okerson and I go back a long way....)


Joe Esposito wrote:

I am inclined to think that Professor Harnad has "the question" wrong. It is not to seek evidence that is irrelevant; it is for the managers to pursue the interests of the ownership of their publications. The evidence is irrelevant because (a) decisions will be made (have to be made) before the evidence comes in, which is why we associate the word "risk" with investment; and (b) even if the evidence unequivocally demonstrated that OA does not result in a decline of subscriptions, the management of a publication may determine that OA is still not in the interest of their ownership. For example, the publisher may begin to market back issues separately for an incremental fee. There is in fact no situation that I can think of where a toll-access publication can ever benefit from any form of OA beyond limited product-sampling. Thus for the publisher of such a journal to have some portion of the publication become OA is a breach of fiduciary duty.

There are, however, circumstances that are wholly appropriate for OA. Examples of these are BioMedCentral and the Public Library of Science, which have established revenue models that absolutely require that their publications be OA. Whether these models will be sustainable long-term remains to be seen, but I for one am rooting for them. For these models the principal beneficiary of a publication is the author (who thus pays), not the reader (hence OA). It is my view that the long-term future of academic research publishing will be a sophisticated extension of what BMC is doing today. (BMC may or may not make it to that future point, but it is showing the way.)

The one form of OA that benefits no one and should not be supported by any responsible individual is so-called self-archiving, which I prefer to call informal publishing. The problem with informal publishing is that it cheats: it wants the infrastructure of the formal publication without the attendant costs and responsibilities. If the formal publication were to disappear, could the informal publication (that is, an editorially similar, if not identical, version of the formally published article) exist? I think not. This is parasitic publishing.

Unfortunately, this form of OA adds to costs in the form of
institutional repositories (an emerging budget item for more and
more libraries) and in evolving services whose objective is to
identify the authorized version of an article when a multitude may
be strewn across the Internet.

So, OA, yes; toll-access, yes; but self-archiving, no.

Joe Esposito