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

Stevan, you seem averse to speculation, but I'd like to propose that speculation-at least, informed speculation-has an important role to play in planning. "Worst case scenario" planning is frequently used in business, in the military, etc., and for good reason, especially for those who are risk-averse. It appears that the Bush administration didn't do enough of this kind of speculating when it ordered the invasion of Iraq, confident that its assumption of controlled change to an orderly democratic society was correct. We all know what happened as a result! What I am hypothesizing for the transition to OA is more the kind of short-term chaos that has transpired in Iraq than the smooth transition to a functioning new system that you are counting on. I'm urging university administrators not to make the same mistake that the Bush administration did!

As for the conflation of costs for supporting OA journals and costs for supporting editorial offices on university campuses, I admit that I wasn't thinking so much of BMC, PLoS, etc., as being the model for the future as you evidently are. Given the steep increases in fees that those two OA publishers have recently instituted, it isn't clear to me that they are viable models for the long run, or will be around for many more years. (Foundation funding is usually short term, and PLoS has survived largely on that kind of funding so far.) I also suspect-though I do not know- that the vast majority of 2,500 OA journals listed in the directory are "mom and pop" operations run out of editorial offices based on campuses, rather than parts of larger BMC-type operations. It was these journals I was thinking about, and supposing that the migration would mainly be handled by individual editors of journals abandoned by commercial publishers, who most likely would turn to their own universities first for support before seeking out a BMC (if any still exists at that point in time).

Many of the large commercial publishers now provide substantial funding for the operation of editorial offices on campus. This is the funding that will disappear and need to be replaced. It is not just for administrative support. Editors are also paid for their work. Will all of them be willing to continue dedicating their time when they are not being paid? And what about copyediting? You nowhere mention this as a cost, and it can be significant. In my experience, very few academic editors are able to do line editing very well (nor should they spend their valuable time doing so anyway), and very little of academic writing is not in need of editing. (I understand that the British have a different attitude about copyediting, but in the U.S. it is generally valued a lot, and expected, by most authors.) I speak from experience here, as I did copyediting full-time for the first three years of my publishing career and continued it part-time for another twenty years. If you abandon copyediting, you will have a significantly degraded product. Good copyediting comes at a cost, though, at about $25 an hour.

Yes, author fees can cover this cost, too, but your model for transferring costs from libraries to on-campus editorial offices or BMC-type publishers assumes a smooth transfer. Have you had any experience in university administration? Nothing works that smoothly in universities, I assure you. A one-to-one transfer of library serials expenditures to faculty publishing fees is no simple matter, nor is there any guarantee that the funds freed up by cancelled subscriptions would migrate directly to author fees anyway. There are plenty of other uses to which such funds might be put. Libraries have multiple needs, and supporting faculty publication may not immediately be at the top of their lists. Even today, when costs might be seemingly passed on easily to faculty who avail themselves of library e-reserve operations, it doesn't happen because the administrative costs of such transfers are perceived by some libraries as steeper than the costs of paying for all e-reserve permission fees themselves.

Your model also assumes that subscription savings will balance out author fees at any given university. That is a very big assumption to make. Yes, the most active authors are probably at the most research-intensive universities, but I doubt there is any one-to-one correspondence. Some universities may find that they have to spend much more in author fees than they save in subscriptions, whereas others may find the reverse. Also, I suspect that, to the extent this correspondence exists in science, it exists much less so in the humanities and social sciences. Over time we have found in university press publishing that there has been a very significant dispersion of talent to non-ARL campuses, such that we are publishing many more authors from second- and third-tier universities and colleges than we did, say, twenty or thirty years ago. The savings from subscription cancellations on those campuses may well not come close to covering author fees for their faculty, who will thereby be disadvantaged in getting their writing published unless their universities can tap some other source of revenue for that purpose.

Now, you might say, OA journals will take these inequities into account and charge lower fees to such authors, or waive them altogether. But then you introduce a whole new level of administrative cost into the system because there has to be some way to verify "hardship" cases, especially if you are dealing with authors in this country and not from some very poor developing countries. If all this is done on the "honor" system, you open the system to a significant level of corruption and free-riding. Moreover, the costs still have to be paid, and this scenario would mean that the wealthier universities would again be supporting the cost of the whole system that benefits everyone, as they do now for university presses.

You're also assuming that library fees would be readily transferred outside the university to publishers like BMC or society OA publishers through author fees. That would introduce yet another level of complexity into the system, as I do not share your assumption that universities would as readily allow transfer of funds to such an entity as they would to another university-based publisher. Procedures would no doubt be instituted for evaluating such "external" publishers, similar to procedures that already exist to vet bids from faculty who need publication subventions for their monographs. I should also point out that the subvention system for monograph publishing, despite a clearly understood and documented need, is very fragmented and scattershot. Many large and wealthy universities will not provide such subventions at all, whereas some small colleges do. And at some universities that have no centralized funds, some individual departments will subsidize their faculty whereas others will not. There is no rhyme or reason to the "system" as it exists today, and I wouldn't expect it to be any different with respect to supporting faculty who need to pay for journal articles to be published. If you want "evidence" of what exists today in order to predict the future, here it is, and it doesn't lend any credence to your scenario!

So, my message boils down to this: assumptions matter, and they need to be examined carefully, and planning done accordingly to avoid the worst possibilities that could ensue. My observation of efforts by universities to change the tenure-and-promotion system over four decades in the face of obvious dysfunction doesn't make me optimistic that universities can bring about even gradual change very easily, let alone swift and comprehensive change!

--Sandy Thatcher
Penn State Press

On Mon, 18 Dec 2006, Sandy Thatcher wrote:

 I'm afraid I don't share your "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 publishing."
That's fine. It's all speculation anyway, on both of our sides:
speculation that self-archiving will or won't lead to
cancellations, and if so, speculation about when, and how much;
and speculation that, if much and sudden, current publishers will
or won't jettison their titles rather than downsize; and
speculation that, if jettisoned, there will or won't be OA
publishers happy to take over the titles.

What's sure, because already tested and demonstrated, is that
self-archiving is highly beneficial to research and readily
feasible, right now, through mandated self-archiving. Hence
self-archiving can and should and will be mandated at this time.
The data-free speculation and counterspeculation about its
possible eventual effects on publishing has been going on for
over 10 years now, so the data-based practical step is already
well overdue.

One point, though, is a point of logic rather than of
hypothetical conjecture: In your reasoning about your
hypothetical scenario that you consider the most probable one
(catastrophic cancellations, abandonment of journals by their
non-OA publishers, and failure of the abandoned journals to
migrate to OA publishers because OA costs could not be met and
there were not enough would-be OA publishers able or willing to
meet the demand) you have inadvertently conflated two very
different factors: One is the current cost to universities of
hosting their journals' editors' offices, and the other is the OA
publication cost to universities for their own research article

These are two entirely different things. Journal hosting costs
have nothing to do with OA, or OA publishing. Whatever journal
hosting universities are doing today, in the non-OA era, for
non-OA journals, while paying journal subscriptions for whatever
journals they subscribe to, the only change in the OA era, if
subscriptions were indeed all cancelled suddenly, as you
hypothesize, would be (1) sudden, substantial windfall savings
for universities, and (2) sudden, substantially lower publishing
costs for journals (because, ex hypothesi, they no longer sell
texts, paper or online, but only perform peer review).

Those lower publishing costs would (again, ex hypothesi) be paid
in the form of OA publishing charges, for each university's
article output, out of each university's subscription savings.
This has nothing at all to do with a university's journal hosting

(Perhaps what you were doing was conflating the university as a
journal subscriber, the university as a research article-provider
[with its associated OA publishing costs] and the university as a
potential OA publisher itself!  None of this, except possibly the
last, has anything to do with the free resources many
universities currently provide for hosting the journals -- OA or
[mostly] non-OA -- of publishers other than themselves!)