Re: UK Select Committee Inquiry into Scientific Publication

From: Richard Poynder <>
Date: Wed, 5 May 2004 18:08:40 +0100

Stevan Harnad wrote:

> Although it was the library community and its journal budget crisis that
> first brought the research-access problem to the research community's
> attention, the journal-pricing problem and the research-access problem
> are not the same problem!

I agree that self-archiving and OA publishing are frequently and
inaccurately conflated, and that I am sometimes guilty of this myself. There
is, however, a good reason why this happens: self-archiving cannot be a
solution in itself, since it feeds (today at least) off traditional
publishers. Nor is it sustainable, since the more researchers self-archive,
and the more effective the OAIsters become at connecting researchers with
relevant research material outside the financial firewalls of commercial
publishers, the quicker the point arrives where traditional publishing stops
working. Self-archiving, therefore, can only be a preparatory phase. While
there is a distinction to be made between self-archiving and OA publishing,
conflation is inevitable since beneath that conflation lies a reality that
will not go away: self-archiving is not a solution in itself, but a catalyst
to OA publishing.

As for conflating OA with the journal price problem: the more librarians
become reluctant/unable to pay for the journals that sustain self-archiving
the quicker the day of reckoning will come. While insisting that
self-archiving and journal price inflation are separate issues may help
encourage researchers to self-archive, the two issues are nevertheless
locked together.

Steven's 'just do it' approach to OA is a positive force. If people hadn't
just got on with things in the past many positive changes may never have
happened. But to discourage speculation about possible outcomes and likely
scenarios is not helpful if we want to plan for the future. It is not
dissimilar to saying: "Let's do away with our present form of government as
it no longer suits our purposes, but let's not waste time speculating about
how society will be organised in the future until the future arrives."

One possible scenario that Stevan has raised in the past is that publishers
will gradually downsize and convert to OA publishing; but is that really
likely, and would any such transition be smooth? Companies like Reed
Elsevier do not downsize, they exit at as soon as they believe that the
margins their shareholders expect cannot be sustained into the future. While
Elsevier has always been a publisher, it is worth recalling that Reed began
life as a paper manufacturer producing, amongst other things, newsprint and
wallpaper. In pursuit of better margins it subsequently moved into the
newspaper publishing business (owning, for instance, the UK's Daily Mirror
for a while). When newspaper publishing margins were deemed unsatisfactory
it migrated to 'must have' publishing, including the legal, education, and
science and medical sectors. This was the logic behind its merger with
Elsevier in 1993.

So companies like this don't downsize, they don't wait for the ship to go
down, they get out. This, after all, is what Wolters Kluwer did in 2002,
when it sold KAP and announced it would focus on the better margins
available in other information markets. This is surely also why Bertelsmann
sold BertelsmannSpringer last year.

The difficulty next time round could be that if self-archiving has become as
successful as OA advocates hope it will be, there might be a shortage of
buyers. Certainly VC companies like Cinven and Candover (who bought KAP, and
BertelsmannSpringer) are not going to buy again if the industry is no longer
the licence to print money it was. They too will be rushing for the exit.
What other traditional publisher would want to get into the scholarly
publishing business if there was always a free version of everything it
sold? Let's face it: what self-archiving threatens to do is to destroy most
of the value that traditional commercial publishers (and VC companies)
require to breathe. Of course there are new (and certainly better and more
desirable) business models to be found, and organisations that will adopt
them (and some are already trying them out) but we should not assume that
the process of change will be gradual and smooth. Maybe it will be, but
maybe it won't.

That is the potential transition problem. Who better to puzzle over it than
the UK Select Committee?

Richard Poynder
Received on Wed May 05 2004 - 18:08:40 BST

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