Comment on Poynder on "Mistaking Intent For Action" (COPE)

From: Stevan Harnad <amsciforum_at_GMAIL.COM>
Date: Sat, 26 Sep 2009 23:07:40 -0400

RICHARD POYNDER: Compact for Open-Access Publishing Equity: Mistaking
intent for action? Open and Shut, 26 September 2009

COMMENT: It would be churlish of me to criticize Richard Poynder's
friendly article, with most of which I can hardly disagree. So please
consider the following a complimentary complement rather than a cavil:

(Hyperlinked version of this comment: )

Annual institutional subscriptions for annual incoming journals do not
morph in any coherent or sensible way into annual institutional
"memberships" for individual outgoing articles.

This is true of the multi-journal "Big Deal" subscriptions with
journal-fleet publishers, and it is even more obvious with single
journals: Are 10,000 universities supposed to have annual
"memberships" in 25,000 journals on an annual pro-rated quota based on
the number of articles each institution's researchers happen to have
published in each journal last year? Or is this "membership" to be
based on one global (and oligopolistic) "mega-deal" between a
mega-consortium of publishers and a mega-consortium of institutions?
(If this makes sense, why don't we do all our shopping this way,
putting a whole new twist on globalisation?) Or is it just to save our
familiar intuitions about subscriptions? Wouldn't it make more sense
to scrap those intuitions, when they lead to absurdities like this?

Especially when they are unnecessary, as we can see if we remind
ourselves what OA is really about. Open access is about access: about
making all journal articles freely accessible online to all users. It
is not about morphing institutional-subscription-based funding of
publishing into institutional-membership-based funding of publishing.
Indeed, it isn't about funding publishing at all, since it is not
publishing that is in a crisis but institutional access.

Here's another way to look at it: The "serials crisis" is the fact
that institutions cannot afford access to all the journal articles
they need. They have to keep canceling more and more journals, thereby
making their access less and less. If all institutions had free online
access to all those journal articles then that would not make the
journals any more affordable at current prices, but it would certainly
make canceling them less of a big deal, because their content would be
free online anyway.

And that is precisely the state of affairs that universal Green OA
self-archiving mandates would deliver virtually overnight.

So why are institutions instead wasting their time and money fussing
over how to fit the round peg of institutional subscriptions into the
square hole of institutional memberships today, via pre-emptive Gold
OA funding commitments that generate a lot of extra expense for very
little extra access -- instead of providing Open Access to all of
their own journal-article output by mandating Green OA self-archiving

That "the access and affordability problems are part and parcel of the
larger serials crisis" is altogether the wrong way to look at it. The
OA problem is access, and affordability is part and parcel of that
problem today only inasmuch as alternatives to journal subscriptions
increase access today -- which is very little, and at high cost,
insofar as Gold OA is concerned (today).

So instead of waiting passively for journals to convert to the Gold
standard, and instead of throwing scarce money at them pre-emptively
to try to make it worth their while, why don't institutions simply
make their own journal article output Green OA, today? That will
generate universal (Green) OA with certainty, today.

If and when that universal Green OA should in turn eventually go on to
generate journal cancellations to the point of making subscriptions
unsustainable for covering the costs of publication, then that will be
the time for journals to cut obsolete products and services for which
there is no longer a market (such as the print edition, the PDF
edition, archiving, access-provision and digital preservation, leaving
all that to the global network of Green OA institutional
repositories), along with their associated costs, and convert to Gold
OA for covering the costs of what remains (largely just implementing
peer review).

Unlike today -- when paid Gold OA is at best a useful
proof-of-principle that publishing can be sustained without
subscriptions and at worst a waste of scarce cash based on a premature
and incoherent hope of morphing directly into universal Gold OA --
after universal Green OA each institution will have more than enough
money to pay those much reduced publication costs (on an individual
article basis, not via an institutional membership) from just a small
fraction of its annual windfall savings from having cancelled all
those subscriptions in which that money is tied up today.

Hence it is mandating Green OA that will rewire the "disconnect"
between user and purchaser that Stuart Shieber deplores, putting paid
to the inelastic need and demand of institutions for subscriptions
because of their inelastic need and demand for access. The reconnect
will not come from ("capped") Gold OA Compacts (like and SCOAP3 but
from the cancelation pressure that universal Green OA will eventually
generate -- once the demand for the obsolescent extras currently
co-bundled with peer review fades out as the planet goes Green.

In other words, even if it is the affordability problem rather than OA
that exercises you, the coherent way to morph from institutional
subscriptions to universal Gold OA is via the mediation of universal
Green OA mandates, not via a pre-emptive leap directly from the status
quo to Gold via funding commitments, regardless of the price. Along
the way, we will already have OA, solving the access problem, which is
what OA itself is all about.

Stevan Harnad
Received on Sun Sep 27 2009 - 04:53:52 BST

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