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News from the open access movement

Monday, May 12, 2008

Passions about the future of society publishing

Jennifer Howard, Learned Societies' Gathering Delves Into Political and Publishing Challenges, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 12, 2008.  Excerpt:

Legal and political obstacles facing international scholars and the effects of the Internet revolution on scholarly communication topped the agenda at the 2008 conference of the American Council of Learned Societies here [Pittsburgh, May 8-10, 2008]....

Passions ran highest at a session on "Learned Societies and the Future of Publishing: When Will the Internet Revolution Arrive?"

The panel's moderator, James J. O'Donnell, who is provost of Georgetown University and secretary of the association, promised that the discussion would go deeper than the "tastes-great-less-filling" arguments that often hamper debate about open access and digital publishing. The three-hour session touched on just about every aspect of scholarly communication in the digital environment, including how to balance scholarly societies' need for journal revenue with scholars' desire to obtain material freely—in every sense.

Nobody had quick or easy answers, though exhortations abounded....

Lynne Withey, director of the University of California Press, stood up and pointed out that people rarely talk about what new means of disseminating information really cost. "I don't have any problem in principle with the Robin Hood model of publishing," she said, but she emphasized that "there is a whole set of costs to the university"—meaning technical support, professors' and editors' salaries, and so on—that people don't factor in.

Peter K. Bol, a professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard University, shared the news that Harvard has recently canceled a thousand journal subscriptions, many of them humanities journals from Europe. Harvard's faculty voted to adopt an open-access policy, he said, in part "to break the monopoly of journals."

But as one audience member afterward said, to applause, "These associations could be very seriously injured by making these journals freely available."

Michael A. Keller, a panelist and the university librarian at Stanford University, sparred with a philosopher who blamed libraries for playing along with commercial publishers' overpricing of journals in the science, technical, and medical fields, a practice that has cut into library budgets.

"Libraries blew it," Mr. Keller agreed, "when they started shelling out for all the crap journals" distributed by the commercial-publishing giants. But he put the blame on scholars' shoulders, too. "If you guys don't stand up and start screaming about that," he told the philosopher, "there's nothing I can do about it from my little perch at Stanford."

"I don't subscribe to bottom-feeder journals," he added.