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Re: Journal publishing and author self-archiving: Peaceful Co-Existence and Fruitful Collaboration

Thank you for the welcome, Stevan, and for your helpful and illuminating responses to various of my comments.

I think that, while our long-range goals are similar, our ideas about how to get there differ. In particular, we are operating with different models of change. Yours is a linear model, predicting gradual change to which the various players will be able to adjust over time, thus making the transition relatively smooth for everyone involved, with minimal harm (expect, perhaps, to a few major STM publishers) and many benefits accruing especially to researchers. I have a quite different model in mind, which is nonlinear and predicts a point at which major disruption to the system could occur, with at least very harmful short-term consequences.

You are no doubt familiar with the differences in biological theory between standard evolution and what has come to be known as "punctuated equilibrium." The first is linear, the second nonlinear. I'm predicting the latter type of change, whereas you are predicting the former.

But I really draw my model from what I referred to before as the "tipping phenomenon." Probably you know that this originated in economic and sociological theory as a way of understanding the mass exodus of white urban dwellers ("white flight") once an urban neighborhood had reached the "tipping point" in numbers of blacks entering that area (between 10 and 20%, the research showed). That is a nonlinear effect, which cannot readily be predicted by looking for "evidence" of the kind you are seeking regarding the cancellation of subscriptions as OA alternatives proliferate. And it is not necessarily based on any rational assessment of potential harm. Was the white urban dwellers' belief in the harm that would come from the encroaching black population really "rational," or in fact did this not turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy-the harm ultimately coming from the effects of "white flight" rather than from any direct impact of black behavior?

So we get back to the point that Joe Esposito raised about beliefs being what is really important here, not any "hard" evidence of actual cancellations. My suggestion is that a mandated 6-month embargo through FRPAA-type legislation might turn out to be a real "tipping point," which would lead some major publishers to abandon the field of STM journal publishing in the belief (however erroneous) that they could not sustain their expected profit margins under the new regime thus legislated. Yes, there might well remain some smaller publishers willing to step in and pick up the pieces, at least for a while, but what I'm suggesting is that, with the degree of conglomerization that now exists in this field (even more so in the wake of the Wiley takeover of Blackwell), it now would take the exit of only a few major players to bring about massive change in the marketplace. Smaller publishers, especially university presses, simply do not have the capital to launch the kinds of sophisticated systems that these major players can provide, so even if there was some uptake among other publishers, I can't imagine that 10,000+ journals would somehow be able to find satisfactory homes elsewhere anytime very quickly. So, in my nightmarish scenario, this "tipping" would occur within a relatively short space of time and leave a huge vacuum in the system, which no amount of self-archiving or IRs could begin to fill adequately in the short term.

So, who is to say whether your "evolutionary" model of gradual change or mine of "punctuated equilibrium" is the better theory to apply here? You adduce the lack of "evidence" of cancellations to support your theory; but that lack does not count against my theory. On my side, I can adduce plenty of evidence that businesses in general, and publishers in particular, have acted in just this way in the past, abandoning entire areas of their business in one fell swoop. It is not as though Elsevier and others wouldn't have plenty of other opportunities they could exploit, even within publishing; they could, for example, decide to put all their investment into professional publishing (law, business, etc.) where their main markets are other corporations, not universities) or into STM book publishing or into high-end newsletters. Unlike university presses, such publishers have no inherent reason to dedicate themselves to publishing for the world of higher education. The same, by the way, could happen in college textbook publishing: if you read "Books in the Digital Age" by the astute publisher (Polity Press) and Cambridge sociologist John Thompson, you'll see that that industry is ripe for some major shakeup, too.

As I said earlier, I have no major stake in the outcome here, whichever model happens to be true of this sector-except to the extent that, if my model turns out to be true, I'm sure I'll have plenty of professors, administrators, and librarians appealing to us to expand our journals program, which I will politely but firmly decline (at least without some guarantee of vastly expanded capital resources!). But I suggest that it is prudent for university administrators not to bet everything on the accuracy of your model as opposed to mine, and to take precautions just in case my model might be the one that fits the world of publishing better.

P.S. It is revealing, I think, that in the newly released study by the MLA of tenure and promotion practices in the field of modern languages, credit for editing journals is way, way down on the list of what academics can use to position themselves better for tenure and promotion in the humanities. This also casts doubt on any scenario that would see a major rise in support for journal publishing on campuses were the prediction I am making come true. Over the last decade, what we have witnessed is a real decline in administrative support for editorial offices on campus.

Sanford G. Thatcher, Director
Penn State University Press
University Park, PA 16802-1003
e-mail: sgt3@psu.edu

"If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying."-John Ruskin (1865)