No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research Online

From: Peter Suber <>
Date: Mon, 8 Oct 2001 21:09:51 +0100

This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education
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The following message was enclosed:
  FOS subscribers:
  I'll offer a few thoughts on Ewing's argument in the next
  issue of FOSN.
  If you have thoughts, I hope you'll post them to the forum.


  From the issue dated October 12, 2001

  No Free Lunches: We Should Resist the Push to Rush Research


   In a commentary earlier this year in the Proceedings of the
  National Academy of Sciences, Richard J. Roberts, who shared
  the 1993 Nobel Prize in medicine, called on journals in the
  life sciences to post their contents online at no charge after
  a suitable delay -- one month, or perhaps six months, after
  publication. Specifically, he urged them to deposit the
  articles they publish in PubMed Central, an online service run
  by the National Institutes of Health. Parallel to PubMed
  Central, online services exist in other scientific
  disciplines, including physics, mathematics, and computer
  science, and scholars in those fields have made similar

  In his commentary, Roberts, a member of the PubMed Central
  Advisory Board, asked why any journal would not do something
  so obviously good for science. In most areas of science,
  journals are far more important than books; they serve as the
  primary way to communicate research that is rapidly advancing.
  While Roberts gently encouraged large commercial publishers to
  join the effort, he condemned scientific societies that have
  been "seduced by the cash that their journals produce" and
  urged them "to take a hard look at their priorities and ask
  whether they support science or Mammon." He ended with a plea
  to "young scientists to think hard and carefully about this

  I am from a scientific society, and I have thought hard and
  carefully about the future of scholarly publishing. I worry
  that Roberts and the many others who issue similar calls have
  not -- or at least, that they have not thought about all
  aspects of publishing. They equate with avarice a publisher's
  desire to have its journals make a small profit, to ensure
  that the journals are self-sustaining. They are contemptuous
  of publishers who fear losing revenue by making their
  journals' contents free soon after publication. And they
  generally scoff at the experience of publishers who have
  produced journals for many years, instead urging reliance on
  projects that have operated online for only a few years -- or

  Experienced publishers understand two important truths:
  Scholarly communication costs money, and both technology and
  finances will determine its future. Roberts seems to believe
  that understanding the finances of publication is unimportant.
  It's not.

  Thus, while I admire Roberts's goal of free access to
  scientific literature, I worry that his clarion call to
  journals may ultimately lead to exactly the opposite effect.
  How could making articles freely available go wrong? Here is
  one possibility.

  In rough terms, three groups are involved in disseminating the
  results of scientific research today. First are the large
  commercial publishers, which increasingly are consolidated
  into a small number of giants, each controlling vast numbers
  of journals delivered online and in print. Next are the many
  independent publishers -- including scientific societies and
  universities -- that produce journals, often only one or two.
  Finally, there are the proponents of free access who run
  variousprojects around the world, like PubMed Central, to
  provide access to the literature -- either new or recently
  published papers -- without subscription fees of any kind.

  Notice that I do not say the free-access advocates want to
  provide access at no charge. Most of them recognize that
  putting literature online requires money,but they believe that
  financial support should come from someone other than
  subscribers -- the government, a university, volunteers, etc.
  They propose their new model as an alternative to journals,
  often citing high subscription prices as the reason for their
  views. Some openly advocate the demise of journals; others
  believe in coexistence (at least for a time) but want to
  compete nonetheless.

  What is likely to happen over time if free-access projects
  expand? Some subscribers will stop paying -- if not

  Here are the business realities of scholarly publishing. Many
  independent publishers operate on a shoestring. They pride
  themselves on their low prices and often make little or no
  money. When subscriptions suddenly drop, they have no reserves
  and few options. The commercial publishers, by contrast, have
  deep pockets. They charge high prices, which give them more
  than large profits -- the prices also give them large
  reserves. That means that they have the ability to weather
  sudden losses in subscriptions. If we have free access for a
  period of time, those realities mean that the number of
  independent publishers would decline, and thus commercial
  publishers -- facing less competition -- would grow stronger.

  With fewer independents, only two main players would be left
  to compete -- the commercial publishers and the free-access
  projects. Which would survive? I don't know; there is simply
  not enough information to make a prediction. But I do know
  that the free-access projects are not based on any sound
  business model. Government funds? Surely we cannot rely on the
  whims of changing government priorities to support long-term
  scholarly publishing. (People in the life sciences have been
  lulled into a false sense of security in recent years by
  increasing largess; they should take a look at government
  funds over many decades.) Universities? Scientific societies?
  Individuals? Perhaps. But any business that has only expenses
  and no visible revenue is not one that many people would
  invest in for long.

  Surprisingly, people forget that one competes on quality as
  well as price, and that is perhaps the crucial point in
  predicting the outcome. Today, most free-access models offer
  little more than document delivery -- that is, a convenient
  way to deliver something equivalent to a printed copy of the
  paper to the reader. The free-access systems have few frills
  -- no external links to references, limited searching
  capabilities, few sophisticated navigational tools. Frills are
  expensive, especially with large volumes of material.

  Those frills, however, are precisely what the commercial
  publishers emphasize. They add links and the capability of
  navigating and searching through large collections of
  material; they promise to add even more frills in the future.
  And the commercial publishers have the deep pockets to pay for
  the enhancements, justifying their prices by those same

  Do people care about frills? Not much, not yet. But users are
  complacent about external links to references because so
  little of the literature is online at present. It's hard to be
  enthusiastic about a web of material that consists of only a
  few strands. In a few years, most of the recent literature
  will be available online, and external links will become not
  only useful but essential. And those navigational tools,
  sophisticated searches, and useful enhancements will become
  normal expectations rather than cute surprises. The past 20
  years of computer innovation make it plain that users will
  expect more and more from online literature.

  Commercial publishers have the resources to compete as we move
  to the next generation of scholarly communication. What about
  the free-access projects? No one knows. They may have the
  right idea for moving into the future, and they may find a way
  to sustain themselves and to compete as well. But they may
  serve only to clear the way for a few monopolistic commercial
  publishers to gain control over most of the scientific

  Those are not predictions; they are observations about
  possible outcomes. They are meant to show that the certitude
  expressed by Roberts is unwarranted, and that his condemnation
  of scientific societies that do not endorse his free-access
  project is unfounded. He believes that those organizations are
  not serving the interests of their members. But that is
  exactly what they are doing -- serving the interests of
  members, both present and future.

  In many cases, those same scientificsocieties have developed
  online delivery tools, wrestled with archiving, learned how to
  prepare for future format changes, and experimented with new
  business models that provide sustained financial support. In
  short, the societies have accumulated experience, which makes
  them cautious: They understand the fragility of scholarly

  Should we, therefore, support only the status quo? Surely not.
  But our actions need to be guided by three principles: to
  promote pluralism, avoid dogmatism, and cultivate discourse.
  Many good new ideas exist for expanding scholarly
  communication, but prematurely tossing away the good old ideas
  is foolhardy. We need to encourage experimentation and protect
  journals at the same time. No one knows the future, and those
  most certain about their predictions often have the least
  experience -- at least with large-scale publication.

  The real world is far more complicated than any dogmatic call
  to action. As scientists, we surely must realize that the best
  way to understand a complex problem is to examine it from many
  perspectives. Some people bring fresh ideas to the discussion,
  while others bring experience; we need to listen to them all.
  Calling people names and questioning their motives are not
  good ways to listen.

  Two thousand years ago, Augustus offered some good advice:
  Festina lente (make haste slowly). No one doubts that in the
  coming years, technology will change the basic mechanisms by
  which we communicate as scholars. We ought to heed Augustus's
  advice as we revise those mechanisms.

  John H. Ewing is the executive director of the American
  Mathematical Society. The society publishes nine journals, all
  of which are online.


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Received on Mon Oct 08 2001 - 21:23:54 BST

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