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

On Thu, 14 Dec 2006, Sandy Thatcher wrote:

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

A very fruitful exchange, I think, Sandy. You are quite right 
that there are (at least) three possible hypotheses about how 
change could take place after self-archiving is mandated: (H1) No 
change (we both doubt that); (H2) gradual change; (H3) rapid 

If I were a journal publisher, and I held the third hypothesis 
(rapid change), I would prepare for it not only by adopting the 
Springer/Cambridge "open option" of letting the 
author-institution pay for publication up-front, per article, 
right now (because until/unless there is rapid cancellation 
pressure and resultant cost-cutting there is likely to be little 
uptake of this option by authors and their institutions and 
funders): In addition, I would "modularize" my operations, in 
preparation for a possible rapid jettisoning of some of the 

The three principal separable modules would be:

     (a) All essential components of generating a paper edition
     other than (b) or (c).

     (b) All essential components of generating an online edition
     other than (a) or (c)

     (c) All essential of implementing peer review
     other than (a) or (b).

(Based on the PRC study's outcome, for example, I would not 
include copy-editing among the essentials for (c).)

Then some realistic independent pricing of all three modules 
would need to be done, both for doing them together, as now, and 
for doing them *and selling them* as unbundled separates. Even if 
the change is sudden (H3), it does not follow that (a) and (b) 
will not still retain a market as separates for years to come. It 
all depends on supply, demand and costs, as usual.

But the critical module is (c), because that is the bottom line: 
It has to be costed out how much (c) alone would require to make 
ends meet along with a fair return. There might be economies of 
scale there, if peer review is implemented for many journals at 
once; or there might not. (I am not a publisher, so I cannot 
guess in advance; it may well depend on journal sizes and 
submission rates, or other factors. Consortial arrangements with 
other publishers for pooling resources are possible: Most 
journals' author niches are non-competing, so there is no risk in 
pooling resources.)

Unless this modularizing and pricing is done in advance, today, a 
sudden change (H3) *would* cause problems for publishers. The 
likely outcome would be that titles migrate separately, rather 
than jointly in the same cluster that they had formed with their 
former host publisher. I am certain that today's actual and 
would-be OA publishers, large and small, will be doing 
complementary costing and analysis, to see how many titles they 
could absorb, and how they could do it smoothly.

If your sudden-change hypothesis (H3) proved incorrect, however, 
then gradual change (H2) would sort these things out with less 
urgent need of advance planning: If subscriptions decline, costs 
will be cut gradually; inessentials, or products and services 
that have lost their market will be phased out, and the 
downsizing will be like Darwinian gradualism, as you rightly 
state, below.

Out of prudence, though, I would say that planning on the 
possibility of sudden change (H3) would be the least risky 
strategy for today's established non-OA publishers: And of course 
new and aspiring OA publishers, planning to host the migrated 
titles, should be doing similar preparations of their own.

     "The Urgent Need to Plan a Stable Transition" (began Sep 1998!)

Now I reply to your thoughtful points below:

> 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.

I actually have no model at all, and am quite ready to agree that 
there are roughly three possible outcomes: no change (H1), 
gradual change (H2), or sudden change (H3), and that it is best 
to plan for all possible contingencies.

> 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.

I am indeed familiar with punctuated equilibria! I am especially 
interested in the explosive change that occurred at the advent of 
language for our species. That was a punctuated equilibrium 
rather than a gradual change. In fact, that was the topic of the 
third of three talks I just gave at Indiana University. (The 
first was on OA Self-Archiving Mandates and the second was on OA 
Scientometrics.) I actually think the reciprocity among 
researchers in sharing and building upon one another's research 
findings replicates many of the adaptive conditions that led to 
the evolution of language in the first place, in the form of a 
powerful new way to acquire and share categories.)



> 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?

Although there is no way to know in advance that it is true, if 
it is true, the sudden-change hypothesis (H3) could turn out to 
be the true hypothesis (whether for empirical reasons, or as a 
self-fulfilling prophecy, as you describe).

(Of course, we cannot assume, willy-nilly, that sudden-changes 
will happen simply because we cannot have advance information 
that they will happen! No change (H1) and gradualism (H2) remain 
possibilities too. At a spontaneous self-archiving baseline of 
about 15%, it is still early days. And it is not only whether 
there will be cancellations, and if so, whether they will grow 
gradually or suddenly that is not known: It is not even known how 
fast self-archiving mandates will grow, nor how fast 
self-archiving will grow once it is mandated!)

> 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.

Oh, I quite agree that beliefs are more decisive than empirical 
evidence! If that had not been the case, researchers would all 
have been self-archiving well over a decade ago, at least!

> 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.

But Sandy, in the OA world, 10,000 journals are just virtual 
entities: Each journal is an autonomous entity, with a a title, a 
track-record, an editorial board, a stable of referees, an 
established authorship and an established readership. Hosting 
them is not such a big deal at all, in the online age. And the 
challenge is not finding a "marketplace" (established titles have 
their titles, track-records, editorial boards and authorships 
already). I think you will find that there are many takers for 
this scaled down new niche, in the distributed online world. It 
is not at all part of the "sudden-change" hypothesis that these 
autonomous, distributed migrants would have no place to go if 
their publishers did not want to retain their titles.

(But we are certainly piling speculation upon speculation here! 
Whereas the only tried, tested certainty is that OA 
self-archiving itself is highly beneficial for research and 

> 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.

It is not self-archiving that fills the vacuum: It is the 
migration of titles released by the big established publishers to 
new OA publishers. On your preferred hypothesis (H3), the release 
and migration would happen quickly if self-archiving were 
mandated, but it is not part of that hypothesis, I think, that 
the titles would have no place to go.

The causal role of self-archiving in this, of course, is that a 
journal that has down-sized to peer-review service-provision-only 
(c) can abandon the paper as well as the online editions (a) and 
(b), offloading all text-generation, distribution, 
access-provision and storage onto the worldwide network of IRs 
instead of the present paper and online mechanisms (and their 


> 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.

(It's always useful to have a theory against which evidence does 
not count! But seriously, your hypothesis (H3) is a possibility, 
just as gradualism (H2) or no change at all (H1) are 
possibilities. And actually gradualism (H2) is a whole spectrum 
of possibilities, corresponding to the spectrum of possible 
linear or even curvilinear time-functions.)

> 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.

That's fine. I am confident that there is a motivated new 
generation of lean and motivated OA publishers ready to take on 
the migrant titles!

> 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.

Quite. Though I think the situation is very different there, 
because the text of a journal article has always been an author 
give-away, written solely for research usage and impact, never 
for fees or royalty revenues, whereas books and textbooks are 
often written at least with the *hope* of royalty revenue... 
Moreover, article citations are counted and rewarded in academia, 
whereas textbook and book citations are not (so far -- although 
there is no reason why they could not be, and I think they 
eventually will be).

> 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.

But I have no model. Just a rather serene confidence that there 
are plenty of available OA hosts, big and small, ready to take on 
the implementation of peer review for migrating 
established-journal titles and ed-boards, scaled down to OA 

> 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.

I am not sure how that relates to the question of migrating 
titles: If anything, it should mean trouble for existing non-OA 
publishers too, if academics are indeed less willing to serve as 
editors. (But I suspect the online medium just might breathe some 
new life into that thankless task -- which I myself performed for 
a quarter century -- after all; and into refereeing too.)

> 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.

No one is talking about more support: If journals scale down to 
become peer-review service providers only, their costs will go 
way down, and they will need *less* support, not more. We're not 
talking about HighWire Press here but about OA journals that no 
longer provide a product, only a service: peer review. Their 
institutional hosts' online infrastructure, together with 
whatever scaled-down publication fees they turn out to charge 
(c), should cover all of that quite nicely, with access-provision 
offloaded onto the worldwide network of OA IRs. (And let us not 
forget that -- on your own sudden-change (i.e., sudden, 
widespread cancellation) hypothesis (H3) -- institutions will all 
have some hefty annual windfall saving on their serials budgets 
out of which to pay their own authors' OA publication charges: A 
punctuated equilibrium indeed!

Best wishes,

Stevan Harnad