The recent announcement by PLoS that they're increasing some of their fees has provided plenty of fodder for those on all sides of the issue. On liblicense-l, Peter Banks uses the occasion as proof that the PLoS business model is unsustainable. Jan Velterop, commenting on the Nature article, comes to quite a different conclusion, pointing out that it typically takes seven years for a new journal to break even anyway, so that the adjustments at PLoS are just part of the normal evolution of things. It's good to have some additional facts about the money, but at this point facts are obviously not going to change many minds.
Librarians are trying to figure out what their role is in this. While I've heard some urging that libraries provide more support to PLoS or BMC or to other OA initiatives, it has been somewhat depressing to hear more voices complaining that the memberships "are just another subscription fee." This stems from what I have always considered the misguided notion that OA was going to provide the solution to librarians' funding woes. I've never seen any analysis to show why this should be the case, but as I have said repeatedly, I do not consider this a reason not to support OA initiatives.
Many librarians seem happy to get on the OA bandwagon, as long as somebody else is going to pay. Take it from funding agencies, or take it from the research budget, or take it from a society's membership fees -- just don't take it from my budget! OA is a great and wonderful thing -- as long as somebody else is paying for it.
Frankly, I don't understand this. It's not my money, it's not the library's money -- it's the institution's money. My university gives me authority to spend a considerable amount of cash in order to advance its work. My particular specialty is supposed to be in helping the institution manage scholarly information -- to get access to what they need, to use it as efficiently as possible, to provide support for collaboration and the advancement of knowledge. I hire people, develop programs, manage public computer access, participate in association activities, buy some books, pay subscription & license fees for access to information. If I consider the work of PLoS to be important -- essential, even -- then why is it less reasonable for me to contribute $10,000 to its operations that it is for me to send $10,000 to one of the commercial publishers for access to a single title? The lack of enthusiasm for this notion from some librarians leads me to the suspicion that their interest in OA is really at root the hope that they'll be able to quit funding scholarly communication themselves, and that all the talk about the greater good is a bit of a smokescreen.
The argument is made from time to time that if the funding for scholarly communication shifts from the readership side (subscriptions) to the production side (author's fees, or funder's fees, or however you want to characterize it), the larger research institutions are going to bear a greater burden than they do under the current system. Peter Suber, whose work I quite admire, attempts to skewer this argument by pointing out that most of the OA journals in DOAJ don't charge any publication fees whatsoever. The implication is that if authors published in those journals, we could have OA without any increase in overall costs.
I suppose this might be so, but those making the argument are using a narrower frame, and looking just at the question of what would happen if we replaced subscription revenue with publication side revenue. The assumption here (contrary to the assumption underlying Peter's rebuttal) is that the overall cost of publishing doesn't change. If that's the case, then obviously some institutions will pay less and some will pay more. And those paying more will be those producing most of the articles.
But I don't see a problem here (theoretically -- the political problems are huge, of course). Why shouldn't the big research institutions pay the additional costs involved in disseminating high-quality, peer-reviewed, copy-edited and value-added research literature? We won't want to, of course. (Nobody actuallys wants to pay for open access). It doesn't seem like any great leap from the current situation in which research universities provide the bulk of the subscription revenue -- the purpose is still, ultimately, to fund quality publishing.
It may be, as Peter's rebuttal seems to suggest, that in an open access world we could actually do quality publishing for much less than the current system requires. The latest numbers from PLoS argue the other side, however. Their new fees are much closer to the figures that the commercial publishers were suggesting were necessary back when BMC was charging $550 per article and the OA partisans were bashing the publishers for coming up with unnecessarily inflated numbers for what publication really costs. The PLoS numbers suggest that those figures may have been on the mark after all.
If that's the case, and it turns out that OA publishing (no matter how it is funded) is not really going to be significantly cheaper overall than the subscription-based system, librarians are going to have to fairly ask the question -- if you want Open Access, are you willing to pay?