Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Friday, March 30, 2007

Moving beyond the WMD business model

Alex Golub, With a Business Model Like This, Who Needs Enemies? Anthropology News, April 2007.  An op-ed.  (Thanks to Savage Minds.)  Excerpt:

Enthusiasm for the ideal of open access is widespread in anthropology. But perhaps even more widespread is skepticism about the practicality of these new publishing models. Those who pride themselves on practicality and tough-mindedness ask: “How are we supposed to find the money to publish our journals if we don’t make our readers pay for access to our articles?” ...

Now, there are many things wrong with phrasing things in this way....[F]raming the dilemma in this way misrepresents the success and workability of the reader-pays business model. If you think that making money by giving away content is a bad idea, you should see what happens when the AAA [American Anthropological Association] tries to make money selling it. To put it kindly, our reader-pays model has never worked very well. Getting over our misconceptions about open access requires getting over misconceptions of the success of our existing publishing program. The choice we are facing is not that of an unworkable ideal versus a working system. It is the choice between a future system which may work and an existing system which we know does not....

The AAA’s solution to digital publishing, AnthroSource, has thus far been no more successful at turning a profit than our pre-digital publication program....

The result is a “weapons of mass destruction” business model: continuing faith that the profits are out there somewhere, even though there is no evidence for their existence, combined with “stay the course” mentality that insists we will find them. . . someday....

The AAA can develop a publishing program that can run in the black, but in order to do so it must take on board the central insight of the open access movement—that journals become more affordable (and open access becomes a more realistic option) when you lower production costs. Recognizing this should not in itself be a difficult task—we know how to work smarter and not harder and how to make do with limited resources but lots of resourcefulness. After all we write our articles, edit them, and peer review them for free. And of course our “product” is very ”competitive”: our members produce the finest anthropology in the world.

In order for us to develop less costly and more open publishing, we need to question some of our assumptions about how our publishing program works and how
successful it has been. This means talking with each other about the effect that AnthroSource and the outsourcing of our production processes has had on our membership. It means demanding accountability and transparency from our staff. It means asking our leaders to lead. It means rolling up our sleeves and having a public discussion about the economics of publishing in the AAA which asks hard questions and is not satisfied with easy answers. And above all, it means moving beyond the idea that our current reader-pays model is somehow more “realistic” than open access alternatives.

The same issue contains a counterpoint piece by Stacy Lathrop, "Friends, Why Are We Sinking?"  Unfortunately I only have access to the first page, which appears on the self-archived copy of Golub's piece.  Excerpt:

[I]n my own cautious explorations of open access possibilities, I have encountered some unanticipated challenges. First, the idea of a transition from print to digital suggests that the digital will ultimately replace the print. Yet, should we necessarily assume this? Respondents to the last AAA member survey rated AnthroSource almost equally to the print copies of Anthropology News and American Anthropologist as member benefits....Many anthropologists on a publish-or-perish tenure track still believe that the gold standard is publishing a print, peer-reviewed monograph....As many readers say of AN, they like discovering articles while skimming its bound pages on the subway or in the dentist’s office....

[O]pen access advocates’ argument that electronic publishing leads to a costs savings of up to two orders of magnitude differs from publishing electronic versions of printed journals. Such advocates usually only account for peer review and editing production costs, which some have pointed out is faulty for a large publishing program. An electronic publishing program must also budget for the development and maintenance of its electronic infrastructure....

Many who have adopted open-access alternatives, such as those published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), use an author-pays model to finance their publishing programs....So one question we must ask: Is there enough funding for support author-pays models?

Comments.  Here are a few quick comments to Stacy Lathrop's counterpoint. 

  • People who want to read print can make print-outs.  People who want to publish print monographs will not be affected in the slightest by a move to OA for journal literature.  People who want to publish in high-prestige print journals are already being upended by the trend, from non-OA publishers, to move from print or dual-edition journals to online-only journals.  On the other side, one of the first OA publishers to show a profit is MedKnow, which has retained its print editions alongside the OA editions.
  • Of course the full costs of OA and TA journal publishing programs should be taken into account.  But Lathrop's list doesn't take into account any of the savings that OA makes possible, beyond the (optional) elimination of the print edition, such as the elimination of subscription management, DRM, lawyer fees for licenses and enforcement, and marketing.  Nor does it take into account the savings made possible by open-source journal management software --savings which are also available to TA journals.
  • Whether anthropology can support OA journals through author-side publication fees is a good question, and the AAA should explore it.  But regardless of how that turns out, the AAA should realize that only a minority of OA journals charge publication fees and explore the no-fee business models as well.

Update. Anthropologists are discussing Golub's article in the comments to his post on Savage Minds.