Flipping out

Can it really be this easy? I have written several times about the difficulty of transitions from the increasingly unworkable subscription model for academic journal access to an open access model with some alternative form of financing. Now Peter Suber has developed an idea suggested in 2003 by Mark Rowse, who was CEO of Ingenta at the time, which offers an elegant mechanism for that transition.

Rowse’s suggestion is simply that a journal “flip” its business model by declaring that, from now on, what have previously been regarded as library subscription fees will now be considered authors’ subsidies and the contents of the journal will be available without barriers on the web. Such a decision would protect the journal’s income in the short run, and it would challenge subscribing libraries to refrain from canceling there payments to the journal, now identified as author’s fees, until a sustainable model to keep the contents available in open access is developed. Such a model would presumably involve incremental steps towards correlating what an institution actually pays with the publishing habits of its faculty in the journal. Some schools would pay less, some would pay more, and some that did not pay the high subscription rate at all would be convinced, one hopes, to pay appropriate fees for publishing their own faculty’s work.

This idea obviously involves a risk on the part of both the publisher and the libraries, but it seems like an excellent way to prod libraries into putting their money where their mouths are in regard to open access. As Rowse says, this technique suggests a way to transition to open access “without fundamentally destroying the existing scholarly publishing business.”

In addition to Suber’s article linked above, more comment can be found in this blog post by Heather Morrison.

Just for some context, this article about the decision of the Max Plank Society to cancel all of its electronic access to the 1,200 scientific publications from Springer Publishing due to the failure of negotiations for an acceptable price is another reminder that the current model is failing at the fundamental goal of facilitating scholarly communications. The kind of imagination and courage that could make Rowse’s suggestion work is sorely needed.