During both the Berlin 8 conference and the Open Access Week events at Duke, the word “sustainability” was everywhere. At the conference in Beijing, for example, the question was posed to some publisher representatives about what they needed to support OA. Their answer was a sustainable income, not surprisingly. Similarly, at a panel discussion on OA here at Duke, several Duke Press employees posed pointed questions to panelists challenging the idea that open access offered a sustainable business model.
From one perspective, this emphasis on sustainability is a reflection of how tied we are to traditional economic models for publishing. In many other areas of university life we are willing to try experiments and even to invest money without any certainty of a demonstrable profit. No one asks if student counseling services or intramural sports are “sustainable;” they are simply services we know we need to provide. Yet with something as important as scholarly communications we are bound to a question that misdirects us from the fundamental values of the enterprise.
While I was in Beijing I took a break from the conference to read the latest filing in the Georgia State copyright infringement lawsuit. The plaintiff publishers, having sustained a major setback in the judge’s ruling on the motions for summary judgment, have filed a motion for reconsideration. They specifically want the judge to reconsider her rulings that the only continuing cause of action is contributory infringement and that the case should go forward only on the alleged infringements detailed in filings already before the court. Without commenting on the substance of this motion, I was struck by how tied the arguments were to the notion that publishers owned valuable property that could not be shared with others absent continuing payments to those owners. And this is where sustainability came back to the fore.
Traditional scholarly publishing is built on a model where publishers obtain the content they publish for free, then charge universities and others to get that content back. Often those costs are repeated for each new form the content takes; the GSU case is really about whether new types of course reserves will require an additional payment. This model, I suggest, is the one that is really not sustainable. The traditional model relies on the willingness of scholars to give away the fruits of their labor for free, something that made sense when scholarship was an economy based on scarcity. But in the digital environment we no longer have an economy of scarcity, and the options for disseminating scholarship are many and varied. The Georgia State lawsuit is an attempt to force scholars to conform to an outdated model; even if the plaintiffs were to win in court this is inevitably a losing gambit.
We need to reverse the question of sustainability and ask how long the traditional model of scholarly publishing can be sustained before authors simply refuse to participate any more. It seems that more and more researchers are discovering that this model is not in their best interest; soon the idea of giving away scholarship in order to buy it back will seem a foolish option in a world of online scholarship. As I listened to the talks in Beijing I came to feel that the time is shorter than I had realized. Experiments in open access should be vigorous and varied, even when profitability is not guaranteed, because that is where the sustainable alternatives will ultimately be found. It is urgent that we seek a transition to these new business models precisely because the old one cannot, and should not, be sustained.