Last night the We the People petition to encourage public access to the results of taxpayer-funded research reached and exceeded its goal of 25,000 signatures, so we should expect a response from the White House. Thank you all who signed the petition! It is impressive to reach the goal in only half the allotted time.
If you have not signed, please do so anyway. The more signatures on the petition the clearer it will be that this is an issue the White House should embrace during this election year. And an ever-growing list of signatures will also help shape the response; we want substantive action here, not simply assurances of further study.
It is probably simply coincidence that on Friday the UK Publishers Association released a report purporting to show that public access to research articles after a six-month embargo, which is a move being considered by the seven Research Councils UK would result in large-scale subscription cancellations, A press release linking to the report is here. The timing of the report is clearly intended to influence the RCUK; indeed, a short comment on the Publisher’s Association website takes an extremely Chicken Little approach to the report, assuring policy makers that a six-month embargo from the RCUK would “cause publisher collapse.”
Public access advocates have been asserting for a while that the harm predicted by publishers if taxpayers could read the results of research they funded was overblown. So now the Publishers Association has offered us evidence of a sort. But there are a couple of problems with the report that should prevent policy makers and the public from accepting its assertions too readily. And even after acknowledging that the report probably claims to prove too much, we might still ask, “so what.”
One problem with the report is that it is based on an excessively simple survey. A single question was sent to 950 librarians, with 210 replies. The question was just this: “If the (majority of) content of research journals was freely available within 6 months of publication, would you continue to subscribe?” The problem, of course, is that there is insufficient context for librarians to make a reasoned response to this broad question. What is a “majority?” How available, and searchable, would these articles be? And continue to subscribe to what?
This last question is particularly important, because the Publishers Association lumped together those responses that said they would cancel everything, which is a very small number, with those who said they would cancel some journals. The two percentages are simple combined in the press release that announces impending disaster. But surely the publishers realize that some cancellations are going to happen regardless of public access, due to their own pricing policies. Libraries simply cannot continue to subscribe to everything when the prices of packages continue to rise at around 6% while library budgets shrink or remain flat. Whether those cancellations are selective or devastating really has more to do with how publishers manage their bundling. But public access is not the primary driver of cancellations, it is excessive price increases.
It is instructive that the report acknowledges that “more than one” librarian objected to the simplicity of the question and tried to provide a more nuanced reply. In those cases we are told that the responses were “carefully assessed” in order to decide which broad category to put them in. In other words, attempts to introduce nuance, and no doubt especially to discuss bundling and price increases, were dismissed in order to jam the replies into predetermined categories constructed to point to impending doom.
So it appears that the question was too broad, attempts by respondents to be more specific were brushed aside, and then different answers (some, inevitable, cancellations v. sweeping cancellations) were combined to create a picture of disaster with which to frighten policy makers. But even if we acknowledge the flaws in this study, it is also useful to ask whether the result it predicts would really be a disaster.
The place to begin is with the recognition that neither libraries nor policy makers have an obligation to preserve a particular business model just because it has existed for a while, if it is not able to support itself in the face of rapid technological change. To say that scholarship will dry up if some publishers go out of business is simply not true; scholarship will continue and it will find new ways, and likely more efficient ones, to reach those who want or need to read and use it. This is already happening, which is why the publishers are so frightened in the first place. Transformational change is coming, and if publishers cannot find a way to adapt, we should not worry over much, at least not to the point of failing to experiment with new options. Certainly we should not let the prospect of traditional publishing becoming a smaller segment of the overall picture of scholarly communications dissuade us from adopting policies that will ultimately benefit researchers, students and the public.
The Publishers Association links this study to an argument that the only form of open access that should be encouraged is “Gold” OA, in which (sometimes) a fee is paid by the author in order for the work to be free for access for all readers. Certainly fully open access journals, which is the real meaning of gold OA, have an important role to play in the future. But note that only some of them are supported by author-side fees. The new journal eLife, which hopes to rival Science and Nature, is supported by research funders and will not change publication fees. And these kinds of fully OA journals are quite different, one suspects, from what the Publishers Association means by Gold OA. They are most likely referring to open access to individual articles for which a special fee has been paid, while the other contents of the journal as a whole remain behind a subscription barrier.
In short, in their “embrace” of gold open access the Publishers Association is asking the public to pour more money into the inefficient system they have created, not less. Gold OA will be part of the short term future, I believe, which is the only future we can dare to predict. Green OA, including the kind of public access that both the White House and the RCUK are considering, will also be a part of the future, and is likely to prove the more sustainable option. But the hybrid OA model on which the publishers want to pin their futures must be only a transitional step toward full gold OA; it is not a sustainable approach for even the short-term long haul.