Monday, November 18, 2019

Open access: Could defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory?

(A print version of this eBook is available here

When news broke early in 2019 that the University of California had walked away from licensing negotiations with the world’s largest scholarly publisher (Elsevier), a wave of triumphalism spread through the OA Twittersphere. 

The talks had collapsed because of Elseviers failure to offer UC what it demanded: a new-style Big Deal in which the university got access to all of Elsevier’s paywalled content plus OA publishing rights for all UC authors – what UC refers to as a “Read and Publish” agreement. In addition, UC wanted Elsevier to provide this at a reduced cost. Given its size and influence, UC’s decision was hailed as “a shot heard around the academic world”. 

The news had added piquancy coming as it did in the wake of a radical new European OA initiative called Plan S. Proposed in 2018 by a group of European funders calling themselves cOAlition S, the aim of Plan S is to make all publicly funded research open access by 2021. 

Buoyed up by these two developments open access advocates concluded that – 17 years after the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) – the goal of universal (or near-universal) open access is finally within reach. Or as the Berkeley librarian who led the UC negotiations put it, “a tipping point” has been reached. But could defeat be snatched from the jaws of success?

For my take on this topic please download the attached pdf

Please note that this document is more eBook than essay. It is very long. I know, I know, people will complain, but that is what I do. 

Any brave soul willing to give it a go but who (like me) does not like to read long documents on the screen may like to print it out as a folded book. I have long used the Blue Squirrel software ClickBook to do this. Alternatively, you can print booklets directly from word processing software like Word, and I am happy to send over a Word file to anyone who would like to do that

Meanwhile, the eBook is available as a pdf file here.

Rick Anderson has published a summary of and commentary on this eBook on The Scholarly Kitchen here

A second post on The Scholarly Kitchen referencing this eBook was posted 10 days later here


Sylvain Ribault said...

I am puzzled by your formulation of the "affordability problem". We know how to distribute articles at negligible cost, cf arXiv or Sci-Hub. Adding peer review would not cost much more: StackExchange does harder things than peer review, and it costs millions, not billions. If we really want all the bells and whistles of traditional journals, this can be done for 500$ per article (SciPost), much less than the 5000$ per article revenue of traditional publishers (Elsevier). And Open Access is intrinsically cheaper than closed access, as it is costly to build paywalls (you need programmers) and to defend them (you need lawyers and lobbyists).

The real problem is to escape the entrenched players who abuse their dominant positions, and who make the publishing process more expensive than it need be by at least an order of magnitude. This is not an easy problem, but to call it the "affordability problem" is misleading.

Richard Poynder said...

Thank you for commenting Sylvain. The "affordability problem" is that most (if not all) libraries in the world say they can no longer afford to buy access to all the research their faculty need.

The issue seems (to my mind) to be whether open access can and/or will solve the affordability problem. As things stand, it seems more likely that OA will simply change the nature of the problem. Most obviously, it might simply swap paywalls for publication walls. The problem then will not be one of gaining access to research but being able to afford to pay to publish it.

As always, of course, the devil is in the details. On that, I think we can probably agree.

Sylvain Ribault said...

Open access is in principle good for affordability for several reasons:
- Paywalls are expensive to build and maintain.
- In an author-pays model, the authors (who decide where to publish) can be sensitive to costs.
- In an author-pays big deal scenario (read and publish), failing to reach an agreement is more painful to the publisher, who loses not just money, but also content.
However, most of the affordability benefits of open access may only appear when open access is widespread enough that subscriptions are no longer needed.